FROM METAPHYSICS TO INVECTIVE: Art Criticism as if it Still Matters*

My title comes from Paul Valéry, in a wonderful little essay he wrote about Corot in 1932, where he said:

‘Art criticism’ is that form of literature which condenses or amplifies, emphasizes or arranges, or attempts to bring into harmony all the ideas that come to the mind when it is confronted by artistic phenomena. Its domain extends from metaphysics to invective.

As you can tell from the titles of my books (Between Dog & Wolf, Between the Eyes, From Head to Hand) I have a weakness for prepositions, and I especially appreciate the order here, “from metaphysics to invective,” rather than the other way around. I’ve found that students who are beginning to write criticism usually start with the vehement denunciation and vituperation first, and it might be a very long time before they get around to the metaphysics. That Valéry began with metaphysics is probably a key to why we still read his criticism. And that of Baudelaire, who said, “There is never a moment when criticism is not in contact with metaphysics.”

I love Valéry. He once called fashion “a ridiculous thing in the arts, since it is a sort of collective or contagious originality always to be suspected of money motives.” For Valéry, the stakes in art were too high to waste time on whatever happened to be currently fashionable.

Valéry’s piece on Corot is part of an ongoing argument that he was having with Degas, who, as Valéry says, “rejects literary judgment, or thinks he has a right to.” Valéry says that Degas is himself “fundamentally an ‘ideal man of letters,’” but nevertheless would “always profess some unspeakable, sacred horror of our craft whenever it dared to meddle with his.” Degas would say “that the Muses do their work on their own, each apart from the others, and that they never talk shop. The day’s work over, there are no discussions, no comparisons of their respective labors.” But Valéry refused to be cowed by Degas’s reluctance to acknowledge the value of criticism. In his writing on art, Valéry possessed that “obstinate rigor of attention” that he once ascribed to Leonardo.

There is a great deal of confusion these days about criticism, but I think the world (not least the art world) needs criticism right now, more than ever.

My relation to the place of criticism has gotten considerably more complicated over the last four and a half years, after I was put in charge of a graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York. It’s basically a writing program, but that, to me, means it has to be about constructing an intellectual base on which writers can build for the rest of their lives, and giving them sources that they can draw on forever.

Some people that I run into think the whole idea of a graduate program in art criticism is absurd, since art criticism is not a discipline. I agree that it’s not a discipline. It’s a form of writing. We’re basically a writing program, in an art school. And something else.

My only real model for this has been something called the Poetics Program that happened in San Francisco from 1980 to 1985. It was a visionary pedagogical project built around the teaching of the poet Robert Duncan, and of the poets that he gathered around him: Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, Duncan McNaughton, Michael Palmer, and others. It was taught entirely by poets, but it was pointedly not a creative writing program. Rather, it was a program in poetics, conceived in its largest sense, in its root sense, as the study of how things are made. So what we learned could be applied to anything that is made.

The set-up was based on the model of Black Mountain College (1933–1957), where Duncan had taught. The program in San Francisco was part of the Black Mountain diaspora, as was the Poetics Program in Buffalo that Robert Creeley ran. The San Francisco version was the most rigorous and generative education I ever received, and I have continued to draw on it in everything I have written since.

The program at SVA is not taught entirely by poets, but it is taught by working writers, and there is a lot of concentration on sources. It’s old school: we do a lot of reading and writing, and a lot of looking at art.

Before accepting the job at SVA, I taught for five years at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. I had some great students there, and I learned a lot. But I also had a surprising number of students who could not look at a work of art and then account for their experience of it. They kept asking me for a “methodology,” and at first I didn’t know what they were talking about. “Just look at the work in front of you,” I’d say. “It will tell you how to look at it. You don’t need a methodology.” But for too many of them, this was a frightening proposition. It was as if I was asking them to go into battle unarmed. After awhile I realized that a methodology (usually cadged together from bits and pieces of half-digested quotes and specialized language from other fields) was a form of protection—from the art.

Experiencing art in an unprotected way is dangerous. It can change you into something else. It can upend long-held assumptions and habits of thinking and seeing. It is a threat to established orders, including metaphysical ones.

Which brings me to the so-called “Crisis in Criticism” that some people would have us believe we’ve been suffering under for the past three decades, or the entire span of my life as a working critic.

In the beginning, the Crisis in Criticism was noted and promoted by art historians and other academics that were trying to figure out how to bring art criticism into the fold—to turn it into an academic discipline. These attempts to discipline criticism became more and more insistent, until the most intellectually honest of the disciplinarians realized that in order to turn art criticism into a proper discipline, they would have to turn it into something it was not, like art history, or curatorial rhetoric. They had already seen what happened when critical theory was turned into an academic discipline.

I came to art criticism, as a poet, 30 years ago, precisely because it was not an academic subject. I had decided by then that academia was not for me, and the academy had conveniently come to the same conclusion. I wanted to write in the world, to engage. Criticism was another way of writing—one that could engage the world through works of art. There was always an object to go back to: a thing in the world. For me, this clarified my writing and paradoxically gave it discipline. I could do anything I wanted to do in this form, as long as I was grounded in the object.

This was a revelation to me. Once grounded in the art object, I could do anything else I wanted to do. In my case, this meant political and social analysis, history, theory, and storytelling. The relation between aesthetics and politics became my principal subject.

The “crisis in criticism” is inherent in the word itself. The Greek word krisis means discrimination and dispute, but also decision, in the sense of judgment or appraisal. If you could solve the crisis in criticism, you wouldn’t have criticism anymore, but something else.

In the roundtable discussion held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005 that James Elkins and Michael Newman included in their book The State of Art Criticism: The Art Seminar (Routledge, 2007), Dave Hickey said, “Criticism, at its most serious, tries to channel change, and when nothing is changing, when no one is dissenting, who needs criticism?”

Who needs it indeed? There is a parallel investigation of the “end of critique” and an attempt to “criticize the critical” in theory. Derrida was always very clear about the difference between deconstruction and criticism. “Deconstruction is not a critical operation,” he said. “The critical is its object; the deconstruction always bears, at one moment or another, on the confidence invested in the critical or critico-theoretical process, that is to say, in the act of decision, in the ultimate possibility of the decidable.” Criticism is about making decisions as if they still matter.

One way to avoid the crisis in criticism is by not using that term to describe what you do anymore—it’s now “art writing”—which is fine, I don’t have any problem with that. It’s writing about art. If it’s not good writing, no one’s going to read it. But I also think the time is rapidly approaching for us to reclaim “criticism” as well.

Rather than a “crisis in criticism,” we are currently suffering a crisis of relative values that could be treated with criticism. Without criticism, the only measure of value in art is money, and that measure has proven to be both fickle and stultifying. As a subject of inquiry, it’s a bore. I know why investment bankers and hedge fund managers prefer it, but why have artists put up with it for so long?

In a recent New Yorker piece on Diego Rivera, Peter Schjeldahl asked, “For how long will artists accommodate themselves to being rated only by price?” And Dore Ashton wrote in these pages a few years ago that “if art criticism is hostage to the marketplace, and if the destiny of an artist’s work is to be evaluated on an eternal abacus, something vital has been lost—that is, good conversation among artists and their viewers.”

Among other things, criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.

Up until now, few have suggested that we hold artists responsible for the anti-critical turn, but perhaps we should. Good things have always happened when artists and writers get together. When they are estranged, art suffers.

Why does art need criticism? Because it needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.

I used to think that the plight of criticism was to be always the lover, never the beloved. Criticism needs the art object, but the art object doesn’t need criticism. Now I agree with Baudelaire: “It is from the womb of art that criticism was born.” Artists who disparage criticism are attacking their own progeny, and future.

*An earlier version of this text was presented as a keynote speech at the Arts Writers Convening held at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in August 2011. I would like to thank Pradeep Dalal at the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program for inviting me to speak, and Elizabeth Finch for introducing me.


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is a scholar and writer living in New York. He is the chair of the graduate program in Art and Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts. The author of several books on photography and politics, his recent collection Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow was published last year by Aperture.