Criticism after utopian politics

Zoltan “Pac” Pobric
The Brooklyn Rail
May 3rd, 2013

Following up on yesterday’s “advice to critics,” I thought it would be appropriate to include a reflection on the state of criticism today. This short article was written by my friend Zoltan “Pac” Pobric, an editor of the Platypus Review. A few other pieces on the subject have been written lately that I’d recommend, such as Ben Davis’ “Crisis and criticism” and Laurie Rojas’ “Confronting the ‘death’ of art criticism.” Pac’s piece is posted here for its exceptional clarity and concision, qualities lacking in much of what passes for “criticism” in the present.

Originally published on The Brooklyn Rail‘s website. The image is Charles Baudelaire photographed in 1855.

There has been no lack of talk, for the past ten 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.

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793. Oil on canvas,
63 3/4 × 50 3/8″. Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 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. Continue reading

Advice for critics

Walter Benjamin, Virginia
Woolf, & Roland Barthes

Image: Raoul Hausmann,
The Art Critic (1919-1920),

Walter Benjamin

“The critic’s technique in thirteen theses” (1928)


I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.
V. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.
VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Hölder­lin and Kleist, Beethoven, and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault. [One can hear echoes of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in this passage].
VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.
VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.
IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studied the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.
X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.
XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the artwork is the shining sword in the battle of minds.
XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.
XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

Man Ray, photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Man Ray, Photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Virginia Woolf

“The decay of essay-writing” (1905)

The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum — how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger — come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them. Continue reading