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.

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.

Clement Greenberg speaking in New Delhi  at a presentation of the MoMA exhibition Two Decades of American Painting, 1967

Clement Greenberg speaking in New Delhi at a presentation of the
MoMA exhibition Two Decades of American Painting, 1967

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.

6 thoughts on “Criticism after utopian politics

  1. I am curious what the author and editor think of former Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, and World Socialist Web Site contributor David Walsh.

    Thank you

  2. Pingback: Criticism after utopian politics | Research Material

  3. I don’t think that art is itself left unscathed by what Adorno, in the sphere of music, called the regression of listening, and what is here referred to as a contemporary audience’s inability to adequately receive works. The object is transformed by this regression, too, which is why all art today is ‘kitsch,’ from Picasso to Banksy, from Morton Feldman to Britney Spears.

    I would argue, as Adorno does in Philosophie der neuen Musik, that modern art, in renouncing its own aesthetic character, *coincides with knowledge,* whose disclosure it is the task of criticism to achieve. “The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art escaped; it is accidental and less essential to art than the happiness in its knowledge; the concept of aesthetic pleasure as constitutive of art is to be superseded” (Aesthetic Theory 15).

    I think it’s also important here to keep in mind the distinction made by Benjamin between Kommentar and Kritik. Commentary assumes the canonical status of the work at hand; implicit in every commentary is an evaluation, which in all cases presupposes the artwork’s value. Kritik, on the other hand, seeks to demonstrate how, going against their own grain, works criticize themselves, as well as the reality that produces them. This is what Adorno meant by a work’s “truth content.” Aesthetic experience today is perhaps limited to criticism, which has the capacity to make works strange again, to alienate them and to demonstrate their Aktualität: the degree to which they resonate today, and the degree to which such resonance is amplified into a clarion call, for the transformation of social reality.

  4. “Stasis” well describes the malaise many in the art-milieu feel “trapped in” today, but I wonder if it isn’t a similar stasis as was experienced by our predecessors at the turn of last century? – a stasis, which then, saw the founding of the modern movement. Snippets of hearsay remain but the discussions between Braque, Picasso and their dealer Daniel Kahnweiler, over the future status of art, prior to WW1 were nothing if not political. A fact scarcely discussed – is that anonymity was programmed into it. This early-cubist ideal which discarded signatures, which Picasso called a “collective adventure” and “the labour of thousands”, one can easily imagine, came in response to a similar malaise as Ross Wolfe describes exists now. Though later abandoned the project stands as an unprecedented example of “Utopian politics”. Try to imagine an art without its stars – in which art appears and is distributed unencumbered by issues of authorship – an art with the same status as birdsong. We might liken the century or so, since then, to a long temporal elastic band – What in society (and so in art) has actually altered? The persistence of Imperialist war-mongering in the middle-east is proof enough that very little has! What has changed though, is the character of the stasis, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall (etc). Even in its deformed form the very existence of a society avowedly opposed to capitalism, provided a ‘semblance of communism’, which acted as a tangible intellectual and moral counterweight to the neo-liberalism which followed. For most of the 20th century the ‘optimism’ that that semblance afforded pervaded state institutions, and academia, worldwide. The stasis is become interregnum. The “practical answer” Ross seeks Jay points to: It is The World Socialist Web Site and its author The Socialist Equality Party. Its campaign to prevent the sell-off at the Detroit Institute of Art is heroic.

  5. Pingback: The tasks of criticism | The Charnel-House

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