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Response to Grant Kester’s “The Device Laid Bare”


In response to Grant Kester’s “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,” I have some concerns about the characterization of my work, but more importantly, it seems there is perhaps another “device” to be laid bare here, at the risk of being stale. As Anselm Frank writes in issue #8 of this journal, “critique, itself a modern practice, has entered into the often lamented crisis we currently face, foregrounding its complicities in upholding the power of the critiqued, corresponding to the specific ways in which transgression confirms, rather than undoes, the law of boundaries.”

As a tearing down rather than a systemic overhaul, Kester’s essay is inseparable from the canonical critical structures he seeks to unseat. The most convincing aspects of the text function to “reveal” the genealogy, and therefore the inherited limitations, of art criticism today—the aim therefore is to de-naturalize, conforming, in part, to the device it simultaneously sought to dismantle. Overwhelmingly, because it positions itself as an antagonist to October and its more recent derivatives, Kester’s text preserves precisely the role of the art critic that “dialogical practice” (to use his term) challenges and arguably makes redundant: both the status of the critic as an un-implicated analyst as well as the progressivist notion that a single critical tact must overtake current practice, replacing it to become the definitive mode of appraisal is undone by projects which involve complex relationships with their constituents. Not to mention the economy of high stakes and low salaries that this article participates in without acknowledgment: How can a text on “current art criticism” make no mention of the vast change in conditions for the appearance of writing on art—the change in platforms as well as financial viability—since the founding of October in 1976?

Kester calls for a replacement of the model of the October critic with one in which the critic undertakes what he terms a “field-based approach,” as if the practice of ethnography were uncontested or not in crisis itself. Frank’s essay also serves to remind us that the history of imperialism is inseparable from the discipline of anthropology—the anthropologists he draws on grapple with how to approach the notion of “fieldwork” and its subsequent representation and use. Particularly as Kester is proposing the use of an undefined notion of “fieldwork” in the analysis of socially engaged art practices, which are described as “inspired by, or affiliated with, new movements for social and economic justice around the globe,” the question of the historical and present-day relationship between anthropology and colonial power seems necessary to negotiate.

As Frank concludes, where the “border of the political” is at stake—beyond, in this instance, the internal conflicts specific to art criticism (the occasional moving of the goal posts)—divergent critical strategies are necessary. While I don’t purport to have an answer for what those strategies may be, it is clear that Kester replaces the reveal of a “device” with the “laying bare” of fundamental truths in his proposition for recording “the actual, rather than the hypothetical, experience of participants” within the social work of art. While speaking the language of power, impressing upon critics the need to report on the “moments” of agency and upset, these conflicts are framed as confined to the “actual experience” of the project, whereby the hierarchical foundations (what I would argue to be the border of the political here) of any gathering of people for change or exchange are purified from the critical undertaking. In the space of art, all participation is rendered, if not equal, at least divorced from power relations outside the frame.

Read the full article here.