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July 10, 2004

James Elkins on Our Moribund Critical Discourse

I recently digested SAIC art history smarty James Elkins' What Happened to Art Criticism? from Prickly Paradigm Press, a problematic and at times messy essay (but one that is also thought provoking and often dead right). Of particular interest to me was Elkins' refutation of several proposed solutions to contemporary art criticism's woes. After detailing the sad state of criticism, rather than setting forth a bold program to set things right or offering directions toward the way out he admits to the intractable difficulty of such a task (being a historian he "can afford to step back, and ponder other people's motives for change"):

It is tempting to try to escape the fog of current art criticism and run out into the clear air of certainty. Of course, everyone has their own idea about where that clear air might be found... I think things are more difficult. The very idea of finding something wrong with the current state of criticism is itself historically determined. Why should October have a roundtable discussion on criticism, a kind of writing it has largely refrained from publishing, in the fall of 2001? Why does a text with the title What Happened to Art Criticism? [that is, Elkins' text] appear in autumn 2003? It is important to understand why a problem comes to the surface at a given point in time, because we all ride the currents of historical thinking of which we're only intermittently aware. Thinking about the reasons for various calls for the reform of criticism helps reveal that the proposed solutions tend to be born from nostalgia for specific moments in the past.

And so Elkins proceeds to dissect and dismiss "Seven Unworkable Cures" for the undeniable ills of contemporary art criticism. Flirting with copyrights, I summarize these dismissals here, primarily in his own words and without argument, commentary or speculation on my part...

Elkins first dispatches with the notion that criticism "should be reformed by returning it to a golden age of apolitical formalist rigor" (a position represented in Elkins' example by Hilton Kramer) and rather efficiently at that, holding that "Kramer's polemic is driven by nostalgia. He wants things the way he imagines they once were, and that is not a plausible model for contemporary criticism."

To those that lament that criticism "lacks a strong voice" (exemplified here by Quentin Bell's desire for "a critic who can be a 'censor' and 'apologist for the contemporary scene...'") he simply notes that

the history of criticism shows that many, perhaps most, decades since Vasari have lacked a strong critical voice. Criticism was weak and dispersed before Winckelmann, as Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann has shown. It was weak after Diderot, as Michael Fried has argued. After Baudelaire there were many interesting critics, among them Theophile Thore, Ernest Chesneau, Jules Castagnary, Edmond Duranty, Felix Feneon or Albert Aurier, but none have been as important for modernism as Baudelaire. Criticism was arguably weak again before Bloomsbury, and again before Greenberg. It doesn't reflect poorly on us that we have no prophet at the moment. Bell's complaint is another instance of a nostalgia for something past.

To those who hold that criticism "needs systematic concepts and rules" Elkins responds that, far from a rational or systematically coherent discourse

art criticism has long been a mongrel among academic pursuits, borrowing whatever it needed from other fields (the sublime and the beautiful, of judgment and imitation, of the gaze and the spectacle). It has never been a matter of the consistent application of philosophic concepts, and there is little sense in hoping that it ever will be.

From there we can backpedal and simply offer that it "must become more theoretical." Elkins admits the appeal of the notion that

it is crucial to be part of the same reservoir of concepts and theoretical tools as the rest of the generation, even if they only enter into the work in the form of unused capital. I would find it difficult to argue against this: it is not dogmatic, and it isn't propped up by nostalgia for some earlier state of perfect passion and eloquence.

And so he doesn't argue, only promising to get back to this one later. He never really does in any explicit way, but I suppose his extended take on "Unworkable Cure" #7 below (the even weaker idea that "a critic should occasionally take a stand or have a position") does bring to bear some criticism against this view.

Next on the block, and in a similar vein, is the October crew's view that criticism "needs to be serious, complex, and rigorous," a notion Elkins deals with thusly:

Calls for a return to criticism that is serious, complex and rigorous are indebted to the model provided by Artforum and its descendents. That means, in turn, that it is important to ask whether it makes sense to revive those particular senses of commitment, verifiability, and intellectualism. It seems to me the only defensible answer is that such values are no longer a good fit for art at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Metaphors of intellectual labor, of difficulty, of challenge recur in Artforum discussions, beginning with Greenberg: when it is good the work is dry, hard, obdurate and irrefragable...it is not easy to imagine how those values can be transposed to the present, and even if they were, it is not easy to picture how useful they would be.

Some (notably here, Rosalind Krauss) feel that criticism "should become a reflection on judgments, not a parading of judgments," hence the traditions of the reception history ("in which the object of study is the ideas people once held about art," thus properly art historical, not critical) and its ideologically committed brother, institutional critique.

The problem that faces both institutional critique and reception history is the present. We live in it, we make judgments in it. When we judge contemporary art, we engage concepts that we believe in—there is no other way to judge... If a figure like Greenberg has already receded far enough into the past such that his discourse is an object of historical analysis, that means concepts at play in contemporary art are entirely unrelated to his. If they aren't—if Greenberg's senses of words like "flatness," "abstraction," "kitsch," and "avant-garde" are still echoing in the present—then the evaluation of contemporary art becomes extremely problematic. How, after all, is it possible to judge a work using criteria that are no longer believable, that belong to another time? When concepts all belong to past writers, criticism becomes chronicle, and judgment becomes meditation on past judgment. The present is immersed in history, and finally drowns in it.

It is not that Elkins does not find institutional critique or reception histories useful, even for the purposes of criticism and judgment rather than history, but that such evaluation at a remove cannot alone suffice for the consideration of contemporary work, that as "a prescription for art criticism, the turn to reflection on judgment is still ill-resolved, especially when its aim is to replace art criticism."

Finally we winnow our way down to the ultimate, minimal and fundamentally diluted prescription that "a critic should occasionally take a stand or have a position." This ellicits the longest (as well as the messiest and most poorly resolved) response from Elkins, so it appears that he sees in this suggestion the heart of the matter. This argument "seems sensible, and even inevitable: it is a minimal demand. It is, however, exactly what is most in contention in contemporary criticism." Specifically, he argues, 'taking a stand' or 'having a position' are far more problematic notions than such a weak formulation might suggest. Contrasting Jerry Saltz (whose only position is one of an impossible positionlessness) and Michael Fried (whose strong and consistent position is described, like Greenberg's, as not a matter of personal choice or agreement but of recognition or allegiance on account of conviction compelled by evident quality—"a position that is both reasoned... and passionate to the point of being irrevocable"), Elkins finds their diametrically opposed approaches ill-suited as prescriptions for the reformation of criticism. "Clearly, if art criticism is to be reformed by requiring critics to take definite positions, they cannot be the kinds of positions Fried exemplifies because those can't be taken: and if criticism is to go on without positions, it cannot go the way Saltz goes without running into the problem of not having positions."

There is a lot of treacherous ground between the kind of unwanted convictions that possessed Greenberg, and the positionless position—the theory of theorylessness—espoused by Saltz... Art critics who do not seem to have positions can end up having them anyway, when the sum total of many judgments seem to point in one direction... Positionlessness finds its limit, however, when the writing itself implies there should be a position. A critic who recoils from theories may fall prey to an autoimmune reaction when his own criticism implies that he does in fact have a position. On the other hand, a ferociously strong position or Theory of Everything limits discourse with other critics and historians, and in Greenberg's case it even seems to have limited his articulation of the genesis of his own preferences. Clearly, it is dubious at best to reform art criticism by requiring art critics to have positions: it leads back along an uneven path toward a kind of commitment so ferocious even the person who held it, Greenberg, described it as a force outside himself. It's not that the opposite is best—it's that positions are not things to which a person can return.

"My moral is simple: no reform comes without the severe penalties of anachronism and historical naivete." Ultimately, Elkins doesn't "think it is necessarily a good idea to reform criticism: what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment, and the attraction of description" (that is, the appeal of descriptive criticism, so prevalent now, as opposed to the fiery polemics of a century ago). So it appears that, if I can hazard a bit of commentary at the end here, the attractiveness of detached description extends to the critique of criticism (and, for that matter, to that critical criticism's wholesale regurgitation on some jerk's weblog).

This seems wholly appropriate as, at a point in the ebb and flow of the history of a discourse at which we encounter the sort of knowing self-awareness that now characterizes our discourse (by virtue of triumphs both theoretical and historical), the reserved, descriptive passivity of the reception history has become normative and virtually inescapable. Equally inevitable is the paralyzation of judgment that follows, where we anticipate our judgments' failings even before we utter a word.

Likewise for contemporary art where, in the shadow of a "golden age" and as aware of our predecessors' faults as we are of our own, only a hubristic fool would aspire to the heights they once eyed. The way "out" is not to be found through more theorization or through critical refinement. Self-conscious theorization is precisely what led us here. (Not to be too fatalistic.)

"James Elkins on Our Moribund Critical Discourse"
Posted by Dan at 03:24 AM


Thanks for digesting Elkins' book and providing such a clear and concise account of his (apparently) descriptive survey of critical strategies. It sounds as if Elkins dismisses the possibility of building on past critical traditions as hopelessly "nostalgic". If that's the case, it's an unfortunate and untenable position.

The only way to get beyond the impasse confronted by critics, artists, philosophers, etc. -- the only way there ever has been -- is to work one's way out THROUGH the past and into a practice that's adequate to one's contemporary experience. To admire past accomplishments is not necessarily to fall prey to a static and unproductive nostalgia IF one approaches those accomplishments critically and with a sense for their historical relevance.

The present and future come from somewhere. Setting aside (here comes my bias) divine intervention and the transcendental inspiration of the creative genius, our only hope is to understand the forces that have constructed the present and to find the concepts, methods, and techniques that we need to confront, challenge, critique, and refine the cultural production of today.

One last remark: It seems to me that the present state of critical discourse is strongly influenced by the long reign -- nearly two generations -- of pluralism in the artworld. If you add to that the dismissal of the "high/low" distinction, you find that it's difficult to take value judgments seriously. Hence, the "official policy" (not adhered to in everyday life over a couple of drinks), of either limiting oneself to "descriptive criticism", or offering modest critical judgments with the implicit disclaimer that "it's only MY opinion". One finds this not only in criticism, but in art school pedagogy, as well.

Crits are no longer occasions in which the artist is expected to talk intelligently about their influences, interests, and intentions, and to face tough questions about whether the work embodies them. The result is that we're educating yet another generation of artists in a comfortable and uncritical environment. That's a fact that must be faced and factored into our attempt to understand the nature and limits of contemporary art practice and criticism.

Posted by: tq on July 14, 2004 at 11:53 AM

"So it appears that, if I can hazard a bit of commentary at the end here, the attractiveness of detached description extends to the critique of criticism (and, for that matter, to that critical criticism's wholesale regurgitation on some jerk's weblog)."

I think you should hazard a lot more commentary. Your words are less than the Elkins you quote. Elkins essay is only 85 pages long. If it's worth a critique/review, surely you could come up with 850 or so words of your own?

play ball!

Posted by: simpleposie on July 15, 2004 at 12:04 PM

I have a variety of conflicting responses to Elkins' arguments, few of which I can articulate at this point with any directness or clarity. Rather than spin my rhetorical wheels, muddy the waters and probably never get the post up, I opted to put his arguments out there so that they might stir up a few reactions in other people (so that they might do the work they were written to do).

I chose to disseminate rather than to pontificate weakly.

Posted by: Dan on July 16, 2004 at 12:51 PM

Referenced in this post:

James Elkins
James Elkins: What Happened to Art Criticism?
Prickly Paradigm Press
School of the Art Institute of Chicago