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July 20, 2004

More on Criticism... Hannum, Relyea, Husby

Isn't it lovely when things just converge? Continuing on the topic of the Crisis of Criticism, I offer a couple things I've stumbled upon (and returned to) recently...

Rifling through a bag of mine (still packed from my recent East Coast safari) I pulled out a copy of Coterie, another critical venue for the semi-ubiquitous Terence J. Hannum (not to sell the other three Coterie founders/editors short), who kicks off this second issue of the new rag thusly:

Maybe it was a year ago, maybe a bit more, when criticism was the bemoaned topic. [I guess I'm behind the curve.] Bemoaned for its lack: of presence, of judgement, of PR, of frequency and of overall criticality. I always took it as the final passing tremors of the collective realization that New Art Examiner wasn't coming back. The status of criticism, specifically in Chicago, has begun to improve through a variety of attempts..., even to be replaced by the current sparse gripes about a lack of collectors. Though these gripes about collectors want art writing to be PR for art selling. At least those motives are clear. Motives that permit and encourage a roll [sic] for the critic to reiterate gallery/museum press releases in complete collusion never exercising an agency (or effort for that matter) but allowing their verbiage to serve as conduits for PR. In writing about art description is a given. Judgement is expected. Duh. Context on the other hand, not to forget relevance and/or irrelevance (Note: There is immense power in obsolescence.), are what begin to set art criticism apart from art reviewing. Yes, there are differences between an art review and art criticism and we hope that at their best Coterie's writings can open a dialogue toward productive forms of criticism.

While I don't put much faith in neological semantic distinctions, I think Hannum's opposition of 'reviews' and 'criticism' offers a servicable pair of terms, the one designating something everyday, pragmatic and participatory, the other something rigorous and ambitious, perhaps even committed. We need not denigrate the former in the service of the latter. Ideally, there is room (and a need) for both, though I suppose the practical possibility of this is another matter.

Similarly serendipitous: At last Thursday's ThreeWalls salon on the topic of independent curating, someone made mention of a show Lane Relyea curated (though apparently he disapproves of the term, speaking of neological semantics) at the Pond, "Allover and At Once." The exhibition, I gather, was based on a four-part essay published in X-Tra. (Read an excerpt here or various selections posted by blogger Dennis Hollingsworth here; order back issues here, $30 for all of volume 6 (issues 1-4) which will also get you Christine Wertheim's response to Relyea in issue 3—my copies are en route.) Though I hadn't seen the show myself, this sent me back to panel-house to review this response to Relyea by Steven Husby, which I remembered reading back in March (and which, as it should happen, was reprinted in the second issue of Coterie, mentioned above).

More on Husby below. First, a bit of Relyea's take on the crisis of criticism (or at least what I can gather from the limited excerpts available online). He locates it, in part, in the infinite extensions and deferrals of postmodern textuality and in the spectacle of commerce:

The pervasive sense that artworks rely on chains of explanation residing outside themselves, that they are a sub-species of theory, that they depend for their legibility and legitimacy on discourse, that they are most fully revealed in books and magazines, in the dual-slide-projector lectures of classrooms and artist talks, in informed discussions among artworld insiders, did much to erode conviction in the single, framed, all-there-at-once image. The readymade was made to exemplify this: that meaning in art is contingent, it comes after the fact and from outside in the form of a caption, a framing language, or a framing institution and ideology. But what happens to such meanings, and to discourse itself, when contextual determinants are in turn exploded, when every context reveals itself to be just another text, when framing institutions merge, diversify, cross-merchandize, when all disciplines feather into one another, when every caption is constructed from an information glut that can be endlessly edited, reorganized, manipulated, spun? Captions and contexts have lost all credibility, and the dissolution of these and every other frame has given rise to an infinitely landscaped situation, an awareness of only pure flow. Hence perhaps the popularity of landscaped, interior-décor art, big installations and video projections and other types of spread-out work. Every era has a dominant art that other forms imitate, to paraphrase Greenberg.
It could be argued that discourse, as it has become a dominant medium, the chosen medium of the transnational art world, has been subjected to the same skepticism leveled against more traditional mediums like painting in the '60s. There are of course different levels of discourse, different ways it functions: there's the ideal of critical, rational public debate as described by Jurgen Habermas; there's Michel Foucault's model of discourse as the enforcement of disciplinary regimes; and there's Pierre Bourdieu's idea of discourse, which is perhaps most permeated by class, social prestige and market forces. Discourse as criticism, as power, as value. If today discourse has become disenchanted, belief has drained away only from the first two of the three levels; what remains is discourse as the circulation and enactment of social status, prestige and symbolic capital. The waning importance of October and the new priorities established at Artforum indicate as much; if we no longer believe in discourse as criticism, we also can't afford to believe in its policing of disciplinary borders. In purely market terms, even discourse has proven not "expanded" or "horizontally spread" enough. Its requirement that members of the field stay abreast of terminologies and topics, that they read up and be in the know, has proven too exclusive. Today, what has replaced the gatekeeping of discourse is the all-pervasiveness of art stardom, the allover reach of celebrity. Art continues its expansion by embracing celebrity as the spectacle's lowest common denominator.

No comment except to highlight his observation regarding the skepticism that now greets discourse and to add to this my suggestion that this skepticism is itself discursive, perhaps rendering this critical impasse that much more difficult.

Onward, then, to Husby's response. We recognize first the accusation of nostalgia:

Within a self proclaimed dialectic there is something perverse in expressing nostalgia for a previous stage of criticality. To do so demonstrates not only a desire for the previous successes, but also a desire for the previous state of affairs that gave those triumphs their ground.

To Relyea's claims of a crisis of uncertainty, Husby replies, "But for whom is this uncertainty a crisis? We are urged to believe that the critic's crisis is our own. And in a sense it is, if we as artists and participants are not reflective." While I have my reservations about Lyotard, on whom this essay leans heavily, Husby does offer a pleasant antidote to overwrought Chicken Little rhetoric. Above all, he questions Relyea's desire for a more stable frame of reference.

Relyea rails against the unholy workings of an "experience economy" slackening our ability to locate and evaluate objects of aesthetic and moral intervention. Tying the expanded field of postmodernism with an emerging totalitarian hegemony, he suggests we ought to identify an apparent freedom from ideological constraints in contemporary practice with the lack of freedom imposed by such constraints under totalitarianism, or rather, what's proposed as it's more seductively coercive double, post industrial capitalism.
Against this backdrop there is currently no shortage of criticism devoted to the subject of its own retreat in recent years. Relyea concedes as much, liberally citing the recent critical revisions of both Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, who's work for October played an instrumental role in bringing about the changes in the conceptual framing of art that led to this supposed impasse. Relyea argues that "we need a compelling discourse on art today...We need a discourse capable of framing art..." (emphasis on compelling is mine) A discourse, he adds "that provides it with an adequately ambitious context." But why "compelling" discourse? Criticism synthesizes work for discourse, for better or for worse. But I would argue that the work of artists and critics already has a context well before the critic utters a single word.
On the one hand we get a demand that criticism rise to it's 'proper' function as a kind of control of the work, and on the other we get the paradoxical command that art be disruptive and incommensurable. But if we accept Foster's demand of art then we must also allow for work that is disruptive of the grounds of criticism. Certainly such work already inhabits the canon, if the canon must be appealed to; Newman's sublime, Kosuth's reconceptualization of Art as the invention of new concepts of art, Reinhardt's absurdly negative pronouncements and almost invisible paintings, Guston's rejection of modernist purity. And we find the same spirit of disobedience and disruptive presentation of the Other in more recent work as well, in Roni Horn's poetic constructions and installations, Martin Kippenberger's seemingly amoral and anti-totalizing performances of self.
What is promoted by Relyea and others is nothing short of a harmonic convergence of theory and practice. But what is not spoken of enough is that it is already occurring, shifting the site of authorship away from professional critics and isolated artists towards makers engaged in dialogue with writers and other producers. What this criticism seeks is a novel but obedient art, in other words nothing so novel that it can't be cornered. The problem for these critics is that no frame, including their own, can convincingly compel conviction to the exclusion of the others. In 1966 Michael Fried asserted that to be a modernist was to live life as few are inclined to live it - in a constant state of moral alertness, in a world in which one could never be certain that one was making the right decision. And now under the banner of moral alertness we are told that it is essential that we harness our creativity to the resistance Capital. But there is more to resist than that, and there's more to goodness than resistance.

"More on Criticism... Hannum, Relyea, Husby"
Posted by Dan at 02:44 AM


All very interesting! Something Relyea said rang a memory bell for me:
"Today, what has replaced the gatekeeping of discourse is the all-pervasiveness of art stardom, the allover reach of celebrity. Art continues its expansion by embracing celebrity as the spectacle's lowest common denominator."

Compare to J.G. Ballard:
"Today's art scene? Very difficult to judge, since celebrity and the media presence of the artists are inextricably linked with their work. The great artists of the past century tended to become famous in the later stages of their careers, whereas today fame is built into the artists' work from the start, as in the cases of Emin and Hirst. There's a logic today that places a greater value on celebrity the less it is accompanied by actual achievement."
...from an interview of J.G. Ballard in The Guardian

Speaking from a local perspective, my city's infrequent art reviews in our newspapers by art "critics" or reviewers are the descriptive types, with some praise given but not much criticism. Is it the fault of the newspapers or are there no real "critics' here?

Posted by: Marja-Leena on July 20, 2004 at 10:05 AM

I get the sense that this is a fairly widespread phenomenon.

See, for example, Artblog's Franklin Einspruch on the Great Miami Art Criticism Die-off here:

Or see Cinque Hicks (of Austin):

and Franklin again:

both in response to a Norman Lebrecht NYTimes column on the deplorable state of American art criticism vis a vis the British:

As Hannum suggests, things may be improving in Chicago, mostly as people seize the opportunity to fill this critical vacuum. But these seem to me to barely reach beyond "the scene," let alone to mainstream newpaper/media criticism. Does robust criticism require a healthy audience, or is it the other way around?

Posted by: Dan on July 20, 2004 at 10:29 AM

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am currently doing a project on Martin Kippenberger for my Art AS-Level and was wondering if you could send me any information about him, or even if you could give me the email addresses of anyone who could tell me about his work and what inspired him.
Thankyou very much

Yours Faithfully,

Emma Carpenter

Posted by: emma Carpenter on October 11, 2004 at 05:11 AM

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am currently doing a project on Martin Kippenberger for my Art AS-Level and was wondering if you could send me any information about him, or even if you could give me the email addresses of anyone who could tell me about his work and what inspired him.
Thankyou very much

Yours Faithfully,

Emma Carpenter

Posted by: emma Carpenter on October 11, 2004 at 05:11 AM

Referenced in this post:

CalArts School of Critical Studies: Faculty—Christine Wertheim
Chicago Art Critics Association: Biography of Terence Hannum
Dennis Hollingsworth: Lane Relyea's 'All Over and At Once
Iconoduel: Some Quick and Random Notes
New Art Examiner
Newcity: Eye Exam, Season's greetings—Michael Workman
Northwestern University Art Theory & Practice: Faculty—Lane Relyea
OtherGroup: Wed, 03 Mar 2004 10:07:47
Panel-house: Riposte: 'All Over and At Once'—Steven Husby
Terence Hannum
ThreeWalls Gallery
X-Tra: Allover and At Once, Excerpt (part 3)—Lane Relyea
X-Tra: Volume 6, Issue 3