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.

The notion of critique was central to Enlightenment thinkers, as in the writings of French polymath Denis Diderot (1713-1784), who is said to embody the birth of art criticism in his Salon writings, and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose conception of critique motivated three major works: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of Judgment (1790).

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Portrait of Denis Diderot (1767)

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Portrait of Denis Diderot (1767)

Diderot’s Salons, produced between 1759 and 1781, were written for the Correspondance littéraire, manuscript newsletters edited by Melchior Grimm and circulated to individuals who did not attend the Paris Salon that had opened to the public in 1737. Since illustrations were not included, Diderot’s Salons are largely dedicated to embroidering the artwork with a story. His descriptions are often theatrical: Diderot speaks of his experience in the space, of walking through the galleries and even the people he encountered. One of the most significant aspects of Diderot’s Salons is how he integrates dialogue with an interlocutor and establishes both a relationship with the (absent) reader and a sense of a public. The intimate and conversational mode of address also fosters such a relationship between the reader and the text. Writing in his Salons as a visitor who is neither an artist nor an organizer of the exhibition itself, Diderot begins to formulate the point of view of the critic, and thus presents himself (and his reader) as part of a public. His work marks the birth of art criticism to the extent that it anticipates the emergence of “the bourgeois public sphere” by seeking to bridge a surrogate point of view of the “general public” and the individual, subjective, “private” response of the art critic.

Diderot’s writing strove to foster a public space for once-private critical conversation, but it is Kant, rather than Diderot, who theorized the full critical significance of criticism. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant elaborates the relationship between the particular and universal in judgment, which allows him to hypothesize the possibility of the universality of reflective aesthetic judgments — a theory that lays the foundations for modern aesthetics and 19th century art criticism. In the “First Introduction” Kant explains that judgment was a faculty “for thinking the particular under the universal.” Judgment was described as having two roles, “determining” and “reflecting.” In its determining role, judgment subsumes particulars under concepts of universals, which are already given. In the reflecting role, judgment is concerned with “finding the universal for the given particular.”[3] Aesthetic judgments, in their reflective role, were about a communicable, shareable, i.e. potentially universal, idea about a particular experience of art.

Later in the mid-19th century, the critic, as beholder, not only represented the standpoint of the public that Diderot anticipated, but also represented something for the public and artists as well. In this author’s view, they provided reflective aesthetic judgments of artworks — a role remarkably embodied by French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whose prowess as satirist, wordsmith, and committed critic are all evidence of his irrevocable influence over the art criticism that followed him. What is less obvious, perhaps, is how Baudelaire’s criticism builds upon the critics that preceded him. His influences are so often exposed throughout his writings that, under present criteria, they would border on plagiarism. The casual and conversational tone of the writing demonstrates the influence of Diderot. Additionally, much like Diderot, Baudelaire is unapologetically dismissive of paintings and artists he does not like. An equal determination to validate the greatness of artists they liked is seen in both as well. Others who have closely studied Baudelaire have pointed out how he would reproduce whole paragraphs, “idea for idea,” of what Stendhal had written. Baudelaire, however, was not without clarity of purpose. In one of his essays on Constantine Guys, Baudelaire lucidly lays out his purpose: to discuss the painting of his contemporary social scene. But he specified what this meant and why it mattered. For him, “the pleasure we derive from the representation of the present is due, not only to the reality it can be clothed in, but also to its essential quality of being the present.”[4]

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire (circa 1862)

Baudelaire regarded what surrounded the art of his day as a significant factor to properly define and comprehend it. He even gave us the definition for that historical context: Modernity — it is, on the one hand, the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; but on the other, it is the eternal, the immovable. He also upheld this principle to the recognition of beauty in the art of his contemporaries. It was precisely in the recognition of and the insistence on the value of recognizing what was Modern, the essential quality of his own moment, that is of most value for contemporary critics. Although several of Baudelaire’s criteria for judgment are not applicable today, what matters was his insistence on engaging the criteria of his day. He identified whether some criteria of good art had become antiquarian, whether they were entrenched in traditions or at a standstill, and whether some criteria were failing to recognize the advances in the art of the time.

The fruitfulness of the instrument of judgment in art is perceptible in Baudelaire. His rigid positions strengthened his critique, and made it useful for subsequent generations to gauge and judge back upon him the eternal qualities of his transient and subjective positions. Baudelaire outlined his own criteria for a truly modern artist in his passages praising Eugene Delacroix;[5] likewise, his ideal critic needed to be unapologetically “partiale, passionnée, politique.” By following the standards of the former he could fufill the latter’s aims. The most significant contributions Baudelaire left subsequent generations of critics are to be found in “What is the Good of Criticism?” where he declares: “To be just, that is to say, to justify its existence, criticism should be partial, passionate, and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens the widest horizons.”[6] As will be elaborated later in this essay, it is the kind of critical relationship to art endorsed by Baudelaire that has fallen into crisis, thus posing the question: what sort of relationship between art and criticism is warranted today?


[1] Buchloh, “Round Table,” October, 200-228. The participants of the October “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism” included art historians, artists, critics, and curators, most of whom wore more than one of these hats: George Baker, Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Andrea Fraser, David Joselit, James Meyer, Robert Storr, Hal Foster, John Miller, and Helen Molesworth.
[2] Paul de Man, “Crisis of Contemporary Criticism,” 8.
[3] Kant, Critique of Judgment, 179.
[4] Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 1.
[5] Baudelaire, Art in Paris 1845-1862, 52-68.
[6] Baudelaire, Art in Paris 1845-1862, 44.

5 thoughts on “Confronting the “death” of art criticism

  1. Pingback: Confronting the “death” of art criticism | Research Material

  2. well, I was really enjoying this article, essay, whatever it is, and then it ended and it felt like it was only getting started. Did I miss something? Is there a second page? It only went up to Baudelaire, right? I thought it was going to come all the way into the present with its discussion of art criticism. I think there was a pretty thriving reality of criticism up until the 60s or 70s. I have read a lot of essays by Herbert Read from the 30s and 40s and they are very interesting.
    I think this article would be better titled the birth of art criticism. Please write more about the present state. This article seems like a great into for an act that hasn’t come yet.

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