Confronting the “death” of art criticism


The crisis of art criticism is undeniable. Rigor, commitment, narrative, and judgment have become dirty, antiquarian, even authoritarian words. Art criticism has almost disappeared from newspaper columns. Historical awareness of the discipline fades further with every new online journal or blog. Art criticism with a persuasive voice, poetic aspirations, dedicated to new evaluative criteria for quality, and that attempts to critique an artwork is a rare, endangered species. With the proliferation of Ph.D. studio art programs and the expansion of the art world and global art market, it is neglected. For some, art criticism’s crisis has turned into a terminal disease with no cure in sight.

The turn of the 21st century has seen a plethora of articles, conferences, and publications devoted to the crisis in criticism. Publications include Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice (ed. Raphael Rubenstein, 2006), and James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003). The most recent and comprehensive accounts of the dilemmas confronting art critics today are included in The State of Art Criticism (eds. James Elkins and Michael Newman, 2008) and Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism (eds. J. Khonsary and M. O’Brian, 2010). The latter endeavors to build upon the problems posed by Elkins’ and Newman’s book. In seeking to understand the crisis, both are driven to reexamine the relationship of art criticism to other disciplines (like curating, art history, and philosophy), the role of judgment in art criticism, and the challenges to art criticism posed by the emergence of certain critical art practices (or Conceptual art).

Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle (1872)

Arnold Böcklin, Self-portrait with death playing the fiddle (1872)

This thesis is motivated to approach the problem of the lack of historical self-awareness and continuity of the discipline of art criticism. The aim is to present the historical conditions of the crisis of art criticism as it was understood in the last decade, with priority given to questions raised by a rejection of judgment in art criticism. The other task for this thesis is to determine the deeper historical causes of the crisis. First, I will situate this crisis within the early history of art criticism and, especially, with respect to the interrelationship between critique and crisis. Following this, I will flesh out what this crisis looks like in the art world today, and review how this crisis has been registered by those currently writing about art, particularly with respect to large-scale transformations in the art market. The objective, here, is to specify what kind of criticism has become practically obsolete, grasp how this process of obsolescence unfolded, and reflect on the broader implications of the implausibility and apparent anachronism of art criticism in the present. In so doing, I hope to clarify the significance of what art critic and historian Benjamin Buchloh called “death of art criticism.”[1]

On earlier modes of art criticism

To better understand the explanations of the current crisis, let us briefly revisit the emergence of criticism itself. Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1988) elaborates on the significance of criticism and crisis in the 18th century. For Koselleck, criticism is an 18th century catchword; he describes countless volumes published during this period with the term “criticism” or “critical” in their titles. On the other hand, the term crisis was rarely used in the 18th century and cannot be considered a central concept in this period. The etymology of the words “criticism” and “critique” are at the root of his investigations. He points out that the word “critique” is derived from the Greek “krinein,” which means “to judge,” while the Greek “krisis” means “discrimination and dispute” to “select, judge, decide.” Thus “crisis” also meant decision, in the sense of final judgment or appraisal, which today extends into the category of criticism. In Greek, a single word encompassed concepts that today would usually be seen as separate: “subjective” criticism and “objective” crisis.

Later in the 20th century, this notion of the affinity between crisis and critique is recognized and elaborated in the discourse around the crisis of literary criticism. In Paul de Man’s 1964 essay the “Crisis of Contemporary Criticism,” crisis and criticism are very closely linked; much like the ideas presented by Koselleck, although he was moving beyond the issue of a shared etymology. De Man addresses the moment in which literary criticism is said to have entered a crisis because of the influence of French structuralist theory. In response he argues, “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis.” Furthermore, “in periods that are not periods of crisis, or in individuals bent on avoiding crisis at all cost, there can be all kinds of approaches to literature: historical, philological, psychological, etc., but there can be no criticism.”[2] If we agree with Koselleck and de Man, and consider crisis a constant element of art criticism, then claims about the death of art criticism imply an abandonment of the problems posed by crisis. Continue reading