Criticism After Utopian Politics

There has been no lack of talk, for the past 10 or so years, of some kind of "crisis" in art criticism. James Elkins, Arthur Danto, Katy Siegel, Hal Foster, et al.; everyone seems to have some stake in the failure or ineptitude or impossibility of critical thought. Elkins says that judgment should return, Danto says it's unnecessary. Siegel says critics have little, if any, real power, and Foster, when pressed, seems to conclude that contemporary criticism is too confused to pin down, which of course is true. Yet all the hand wringing has little to do with criticism per se. The deeper problem, no doubt, is political, and all the anxiety about whether or not we understand contemporary art and culture is misplaced from a deeper distress: do we even understand the world we live in? What's unclear is not only how we got to our present historical condition, but also, by default, what progress beyond it would look like.

Jacques-Louis David, "Death of Marat," 1793. Oil on canvas, 63 3/4 × 50 3/8". Royaux des Beaux-Arts/Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels.

Nor does culture seem to offer any directive past the impasse, although the problem isn't the lack of excellent contemporary art. There is good art today, as there always has been. The deeper problem is that no one seems to be able to recognize it. Art, of course, relies on a receptive audience, and the fundamental question is whether or not one exists today. If even art, like politics, does not seem to be on the verge of a major breakthrough, that may simply be because we cannot imagine what that breakthrough might be.

Our historical moment is a peculiar one. We exist in a quite different universe from the political environments that produced Diderot, writing about the Salon on the eve of the French Revolution; or Baudelaire on Courbet in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848; or even Greenberg, writing about Abstract Expressionism at a time when Trotskyism was still a serious, if increasingly untenable, political position. Our climate is more pessimistic, and progress is more elusive. Revolutionary change is nowhere on the horizon today, as it was for the best critics of the past.

What we lack today are the political conditions and imagination that allowed for great criticism. All the talk of "crisis" betrays a deeper longing: for the political foundations on which great thought rests. We can't recognize profound art because the political subjectivity that allows for rigorous critical thinking is no longer present. It collapsed along with the utopian foundations of modernism.

Of course, it would be easy to treat the achievements of Diderot, Baudelaire, or Greenberg as models to be emulated today. But history—and certainly modernism—is no longer useful in a direct way. It can't be mined for practical advice in a way that was possible for thinkers of the past. The profound upheavals in which Diderot, Baudelaire, and Greenberg developed their thought bespoke the possibility of utopia, and that possibility no longer appears on the agenda. Criticism is no longer able to grasp its object because the heritage of revolutionary politics is no longer present.

Certainly there are those still soldiering on, in both art and politics. Social practice has become a popular alternative for anyone looking to use art for purposes beyond itself. Community gardens are now artworks as well as political tools. And there is no shortage of Trotskyite groups pushing on and propping up Popular Front organizations in an attempt to rally the discontented. But our situation cannot be addressed simply by sheer force of will. It's not a matter of merely trying harder. Art and politics can't be put back on to a path of clarity only through better organizing. The collapse is deeper than that, which is exactly why there is so much self-reflexive talk of "crisis."


Lenin's perennially relevant question—what is to be done?—no longer has a practical answer. In the wake of such a deep failure, art—even the best of it—can do no more than embody our predicament in form. But it doesn't follow that criticism, art, or politics are necessarily in "crisis," at least not in the strict definition of the term. "Crisis" would imply that we are on the edge of some great precipice, some dramatic point of departure from which there is no return. The feeling today is quite the opposite: we're trapped in stasis, unable to imagine our future. Criticism, of course, is still possible, but only in the most general sense. It may be able to approximate art, but it can only dream of establishing art's longer narrative in the history of thought. Understanding culture's larger meaning will only come with the recognition that as of today, its entirety eludes us.

Contributor

Pac Pobric

PAC POBRIC is an art critic and assistant editor for the Platypus Review.

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