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The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism

Monologism … denies that there exists outside of it another consciousness, with the same rights, and capable of responding on an equal footing … the other remains entirely and only an object of consciousness and cannot constitute another consciousness.

—Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1961)

For several years now I have written about a new area of dialogical artistic practice, in which the conventional relationship between art and the social world, and between artist and viewer, is being transformed. Frequently collaborative in nature, this work is being produced by artists and art collectives throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. While otherwise quite diverse, it is driven by a common desire to establish new relationships between artistic practice and other fields of knowledge production, from urbanism to environmentalism, from experimental education to participatory design. In many cases it has been inspired by, or affiliated with, new movements for social and economic justice around the globe. Throughout this field of practice we see a persistent engagement with sites of resistance and activism, and a desire to move beyond existing definitions of both art and the political. How do these practices redefine or transform our understanding of aesthetic experience? And how do they challenge preconceived notions of the object of art? I have identified this work with an underlying paradigm shift in the nature of contemporary art practice, in which norms of aesthetic autonomy are undergoing a process of renegotiation. These shifts have significant implications for the critic or historian who writes about this work as well. In particular, they require new methodologies and new ways of thinking through modes of reception and production. I’ve found that it’s often difficult for conventionally-trained critics to address what we might broadly term social or engaged art practice with any analytic clarity. In this essay I want to explore several features of contemporary art critical discourse that have prevented a deeper understanding of this work. I will also suggest some ways in which in which we might reframe critical discourse in response to the particular challenges that it poses.

I’ll begin by outlining some more general considerations related to the status of theory within contemporary art criticism. In its most familiar form, the art critic or historian today takes on the role of a “subcontractor,” in Sylvia Lavin’s memorable phrase, importing theories developed by scholars from very different intellectual traditions into the analysis of specific works of art. While this can, on occasion, be accomplished with some nuance and sophistication, the more typical approach involves a straightforward exegesis, in which a given theory, reduced to a set of notional principles, is simply juxtaposed with a given work of art, as if their sheer coexistence within the space of the essay constitutes meaningful evidence of their analytic co-relevance. While the proper names vary over time, the gesture has remained remarkably consistent for the nearly three decades of my own involvement in contemporary art criticism. Because the art critic or historian can typically claim no substantive expertise in the area of theory they invoke, this material often comes to function as a kind of master discourse. They rarely subject the theory itself to any significant interrogation, nor can they challenge the foundational premises or the interpretations of earlier philosophical works presented by the theorist in question. As a result the critic simply and unproblematically reiterates the key points of a given theory, eliding the deeper textures of thought, as well as any engagement with the contradictions and tensions of the theory itself. The theory functions as a self-contained and self-evident apparatus, which can be brought onto the scene of critical engagement to perform the work of deep analysis or political demystification.

At the stylistic level this approach involves variations on the same basic grammatical structure, familiar to us from countless art reviews, exhibition catalogs, and books in which the phrase “According to Žižek,” (or Badiou or Deleuze or Rancière or Nancy or Agamben or Derrida) is followed by the recitation of some pithy truth about the inherent evil of collective forms of identity, the limitless capacity of an undifferentiated state or capitalist system to co-opt dissent, or the intrinsically transgressive nature of ambiguous or indeterminate forms of meaning. What had once been cathartic insights into the contingency of transcendent knowledge have been reduced to a kind of catechism, to be repeated as an article of faith, regardless of context or relevance. The effect is to promote a model of art criticism in which primary importance is assigned to the ability to explicate theoretical texts in more simple or accessible terms than those in which they were originally conveyed. I give as an example a recent essay in Art and Education’s online journal devoted to Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International project in Corona, Queens. Over half of the essay is taken up with a description of Wendy Brown’s analysis of “rights” discourse in political theory. Because Bruguera’s project engages with the discourse of rights and addresses the legal and political status of immigrants, it is thereby exposed as complicit with a broader logic of subjugation described by Brown. Here the artist can be shown to have naively wandered into vexed political waters, doing more harm than good in her simpleminded attempt to help immigrants, but inadvertently supporting the iron logic of neoliberal humanism.

Read the full article here.