Criticism and Self-Criticism

A work of criticism, to paraphrase Donald Judd, need only be interesting. That’s easier said than done, needless to say, and all the more so insofar as it cannot be defined in advance what would make such a work interesting. But one thing that might help make art criticism more interesting in general would be this: If the people who write it, publish it, and read it would make a greater effort to remember that criticism is something different from, on the one hand, either publicity or journalism, and on the other, either theory or history. That doesn’t mean that, insofar as criticism encompasses facts, the critic shouldn’t see to it that they are correct; and insofar as it encompasses thinking, this should be as deep and searching as possible. But beyond certain determinable facts on which criticism depends but that are not the matter of criticism itself, criticism possesses no criteria for objectivity or even for any predeterminable agreement; if you are not risking meaning—that is, both putting accepted meanings at risk and taking the risk of producing new, controvertible meanings—then in my view you are not practicing criticism. And furthermore: It’s not criticism unless it’s also (at least implicitly) self-criticism. You must be putting to the test, not just the artwork, but yourself in your response to it.

So much for general principles. Admittedly I am placing the burden on the individual writer rather than addressing the technical, social, economic, and institutional factors that condition the individual and limit or encourage his or her desires and abilities. In general, art critics feel that their efforts are met with indifference. Boris Groys, profound ironist that he is, once pointed to this as the guarantee of the art critic’s freedom: Since no one reads art criticism, there’s no reason not to write whatever you want. That is, I would add, there’s no reason not to write what you really think. What amazes me, though, is how hard it is to grasp this freedom. It’s much easier, it turns out, to write what you think you should think. And that’s the case whether you’re writing for a magazine, an exhibition catalogue, or a blog. In fact, it’s hard to know what one thinks, and for anyone who’s paying attention to the world around us, it’s getting harder. What’s called the globalization of the art world is one of the reasons for that: The scope of one’s ignorance gets larger and larger by the day. When I notice that elsewhere works of art seem to be valued according to different standards than I’ve learned to apply, I ought to examine my own preconceptions as well as those I observe, with fascination and skepticism, among others. Is anyone providing a model for how to do that? Just when we need criticism more urgently than ever, we’re less likely to find it—or perhaps just less likely to recognize it.

Contributor

Barry Schwabsky

BARRY SCHWABSKY is a poet as well as the art critic for the Nation and coeditor of international reviews for Artforum.