A Fork in the Linguistic Road

Post-religious art counts among those human activities whose practitioners are unable to explain how or why it does any good. So, probably for that reason art criticism came along, a professional form of loose talk.

Actually, such talk has a long history since even the ancients fell into the habit of discussing aesthetic pleasures kindled by works of art, apart from their institutional backing. Only with the rise of a secular European middle class in the 18th century did that discussion become self-conscious, that is, a so-called discipline. Diderot, a founder of liberal art criticism, wrote his salons in a special newsletter for royals. From then, the loose talk, which gradually came to serve commercial interests in the critic-dealer system, was also allied with art history speak, which is located in the professoriate, that is, in guardian culture. I say this, not to denigrate intellectual activities insofar as they’re constrained and slanted by worldly sponsors, but merely to indicate a fork in the linguistic road. Nowadays, in discourse about art, as the parlance of freelancers has waned, academic language has flourished.

The above is the sketchiest account of dynamics in my profession—its social dynamics. They affect attitudes distributed in a non-cumulative, hyper subjective field, that has now developed global outlets, and therefore, attractive markets. For artists, this has meant more sit downs in their international game of musical chairs (but also, more competitors for seats). For collectors, there are more opportunities to buy improbable objects, ennobled by art historians turned curators. As for critics, they look like people wandering around, asking how it happened that they lost their former positions of influence. It was not necessarily a better thing that their decisions once counted more heavily in the scene than they do now. We have a more diffuse environment when compared with yesterday’s intensive arena of argument.

Who reads critical commentary is another matter entirely. The more opulent the illustrations in an art book, the less seriously it is taken by colleagues imbued with still fashionable prejudices against the “retinal.” As a working writer, I used to think that fashionable topics were good things to avoid, as they had been overly digested in the literature. And now it frequently happens that chic and fashionable artists appear that one has never heard of. Our horizons are not neighborly any more, even if the art idioms in question are familiar.

Criticism, I still imagine, is a craft, properly trained for and cultivated by writers who care about the preservation of their individual voice. Like many cultural workers, they must make adjustments in their prose that satisfy both their editors and their consciences. But there is a professional hazard, stemming from the art itself, for which they must watch out. Much current work, following its ironic tradition, declares itself to be trivial, withholding, or vacuous, thus challenging critics to disagree. The challenge is facetious; it should be resisted in the name of imaginative empathy.

Speaking of empathy, I ought to mention that I write mainly on photography, a medium that instigates a different kind of imaginative response than art does. To take on this subject is to treat of ideas about the industrial folklore of images, once based on film, now generated by digital codes. Photographic culture proliferates at rates of development no art can keep up with, unless art incorporates them physically. How photography gets used is generally a way of how people see themselves and others, against the passage of time. That artists have traipsed into this territory and shaded it in is an undeniable phenomenon, interesting as it may be or not. But, in addition to questions of an artist’s style, a critic may appropriately enough be engaged with broader issues of photographic output: the relation of photographs to narrative, to history, social class, politics, and to truth, as interpreted through the “mirror with a memory.” The legibility and impact of photographs in media have in fact drawn the attention of many writers known for other interests. We seem to be gaining more blurred—and enlarged—notions of photography’s boundaries, a state of affairs to which their work happily contributes. What remains will still be loose talk, but with increasing grip on the goodness of its topic.

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Max Kozloff

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