Art crisis: Call for a new critical language? (2005)

In the early 90s, there was a lot of talk about a “crisis…[of] the loss of convictions that once governed the practice of art and the interpretive enterprise associated with it.” John Gilmour, one of the people announcing the crisis, said in Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern world, that “We no longer feel sure of how to distinguish art from non-art, good from bad art, nor even how to identify what makes a work distinctively modern. Moreover, we have doubts about whether the idea of the modern matters any longer in a culture championing, in the broadest ways, the cult of the new. We discern artists and critics alike practicing their professions in an atmosphere of uncertainty about the direction the history of art is taking, and we seem forced to describe the dominant ethos as pluralistic.”

The key element in this “crisis” tends to be seen as the “pluralism” of the era, something bemoaned by many other writers and something that has puzzled me— I’ve found myself asking, what’s wrong with pluralism? Though perhaps there is a better term to explore the current situation. I’ve also recently heard a lot about the need for a new critical language in the field of public art, a language to describe what’s going on or analyze the logistics or judge the particular objects being presented.

I think there is such a need, but I think the problem is more general: we need a new language to talk about art today. The old rhetoric of the shock of the new, or of creativity, novelty, and mastery doesn’t really apply very well to the art of today. We are in an age of multiplicities and particularities, each artist and each work of art struggling for space in a crowded, unfocused, and noisy arena. And that cluttered space isn’t a way-station between clear, well-lighted spaces labeled Modernism and something as yet to be labeled, it’s the space where we live, it’s our condition. Calling it Postmodernism, which was the vogue in the 90s isn’t very helpful, at least not any more.

In the 1980s, the perceived need for a new language of art prompted a revival of the rhetoric of the sublime, as well as new maps of the artistic territory like Rosalind Krauss’s “expanded field” of sculpture. The landrush for to stake theoretical claims in that new territory was one of the most characteristic aspects of the art world of the 80s and early 90s, but the attempt to use theory as a whip to dominate art has subsided or at least become fragmented. Just as there is no dominant trend in art, there is no dominant theoretical perspective, not even the competing theories of the 80s, such as deconstruction, abjection, and so forth. And, in fact, the skeptical nature of these theories may have retarded our awareness of our situation rather than clarified it: Juan Muñoz, in a late interview, said that there are millions of stories we have not allowed ourselves to tell during the last ten years because of our ’suspicions’, incredulity, etc. regarding expression or the notion that art has an expressive rather than conceptual core (Benezra, 2001: p. 28).

Some of those critical perspectives, however, might be revived, with a certain skepticism turned back toward them, to provide some markers, some beginnings toward a new mapping of contemporary art, both public art and what might be called gallery art. I say “public” and “gallery” art not to limit art to those categories but to limit the field of discussion by excluding private languages, art that either chooses to remain out of the public eye or is ignored or denied by the gatekeepers of what is shown as art. It is not just the artists that determine the character of the art world, it’s also the gatekeepers, the curators, gallery owners, museum directors, critics, magazine editors, and so forth— because what’s shown is a combination of the art created and the venue provided.

And as a critic and an editor, I can only make suggestions about what a new critical language might be, or might need to be, by opening up my own experience of seeing, responding to, and representing artworks. One of the key things I experience in looking at art is what the Russian Structuralists called estrangement: art always makes you look, and makes you look again at what you thought you knew or saw in the world beyond the work of art. The individual work of art does what Alfred North Whitehead said: before anything new can happen, you have to make a clearing. Art makes that clearing, or the individual looking at it, and for the field of contemporary art. I have to look again at the work and the world, and the art world has to reexamine itself in the light of the individual art work that presents itself as new. All of that is a way of saying that I keep looking at the work of artists, because I learn from them, at least from the best of them.

One way of characterizing how art works to rearrange the world of the viewer can be seen in Gilles Deleuze’s notion of a “being of sensation,” which John Rajchman says is best seen in art: “artworks just are sensations connected in materials in such a way as to free aesthesis [perception?] from the assumptions of ‘common sense’.” (Pure immanence, p. 9) But in the current situation, such a work of art is, as Adorno says, a “bottle thrown into the sea of communication.” (ibid, p. 19) In such a world of communications glut and information overload, art becomes just another “repressive desublimation,” a carnival to keep a segment of the population quiet, just as we might say that the current administration allows large anti-war demonstrations as a means of giving people the illusion of democracy and free speech while it closes down access to information and forecloses on privacy rights. And in an age that needs as much critical dialogue as possible, the art is losing its press: the magazines are disappearing: Art & Text, New Art Examiner, and Art Issues recently folded, Contemporanea, On View, and Stroll folded a few years ago, and a number of regional magazines have ceased publication.

There is another side to the art world that I’ve mentioned, the system of the galleries, museums, and publications. The relation to the art in an idealistic sense to that system is found in the notion of publicity, something that has been investigated in two interesting books. The first is Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity, which examines the discovery of architecture’s true field as publicity rather than buildings. That discovery is based on architects’ realization that most of their projects are never built, they circulate instead in the journals. Something similar applies in the career of Vito Acconci, whose unbuilt projects and unsuccessful competition entries are as important for his reputation as the actual works visible in the civic realm or the gallery. The second book is Alexander Alberro’s Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, which draws attention to the dual nature of a dematerialized, conceptual art— the drive to bring art to the public and the need to find a way to sell art that has been deprived of the art object. Again, publicity is the key— both to getting the word out and in providing a kind of authenticity that a collector may be willing to buy, when a certificate of ownership may be the only physical object that is delivered at the end of the financial transaction. Although conceptual art was a creature of a particular time, its resonance is still tangible in the art world, not least in the importance that publicity has for art.

Alexander Alberro. (2003). Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity. (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press).

Neal David Benezra. (2001). Juan Muñoz. (Washington, DC, USA: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden & Art Institute of Chicago.)

Beatriz Colomina. (1996). Privacy and publicity: Modern Architecture as mass media. (Cambridge: MIT Press.)

Gilles Deleuze. (2001). Pure immanence: Essays on a life. Introduction: John Rajchman. Trans.: Anne Boyman. (Cambridge: Zone Books.)

John Gilmour. (1992). Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern world. (Philadelphia, USA: Temple University Press).