¹ Maria Lind, “RSVP, or: What Rhythm, Scale and FormatCan Do with Art” (2002), in Selected Maria Lind Writing,Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2010, pp.135-150
² ³ Byung Chul-Han, The Scent of Time, Polity Books, pp.22
⁴ Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”(2004), in October 110, Fall 2004, pp.51-79
Main image ©Shutterstock
Criticism on Demand
Maria Lind, writing on the time signatures of exhibitions, begins with a nod to the constraints of advertising. She writes:
To be eligible for purchase and screening by the Discovery Channel, a television program has to be either forty-seven minutes and a half or twenty-three minutes in length, neither more nor less — regardless of what it is about. The length and frequency of commercial breaks creates the standard that the networks call “the universal clock”. The art world too has a “universal clock,” not calibrated in minutes but in weeks and square meters, in terms of artistic celebrity and recognition value. (Lind, p.137)1
The task of criticism, seemingly outside of the artworld’s universal clock, commenting upon it and forming judgements is, despite its appearances, fully embedded in the spatial, temporal, economic and reputational cycles that it defines and comments upon. I will consider criticism from within those confines, identifying its limitations in order to establish what the task of the critic both can and might be, as a process that is acted upon by forces of constraint at the same time as offering resistance, tools, and support to new positions. I will propose that the critic is not a romanticised observer or flâneur, but operates within a complex yet tightly defined relationship to the artworld. They might, in so doing, propose a partial remaking of the artworld, in order to foster renewed discourse, renewed relations of co-operation, the return of generosity and hospitality, and critical relations to capital. But if we are to discuss what criticism could and might be, we must begin with the constraints that shape its current forms.
In her essay, Lind adopts the analogy of television to describe the restrictions and constraints of institutional programming: in the artworld, these include the homogeneity of exhibitionary time, and our dependence upon the white cube as the pinnacle of display. Artworks could, she argues, suit a variety of responsive, diverse formats, beginning with talks or performative lectures, to presentation in new spaces, and a multitude of new and as yet unimagined forms. Despite the value and prestige given to institutions, Lind acknowledges that the limits to the formats of exhibition are in fact the result of an ‘amalgam’ of forces, which she notes often extends to “a growing tendency in such discussions for administrators, economists and managers to have the final say.” Yet, rather than berate those forces entirely and diminish her own agency, she suggests that, whilst acknowledging these incoming constraints, it is also “again high time for art institutions and those of us who work in them to seriously challenge our understanding of our remit and our methods.” (Lind, p.144). A rethink is necessary. There is much to note in Lind’s analysis, but we might highlight especially her call to remember our own responsibility. We each enact or challenge the limits that are shared by culture’s many participants, whatever the constraining forces.
Lind acknowledges the journal as an institutional form, though an expansion is required to consider the full gamut of writing that falls within the large umbrella of ‘criticism’ and related commentary. We should expand its parameters, not only because most writers consistently cross its many forms and audiences, but because — from website to the magazine, to the journal and the book — each exists within highly specific and deeply embedded spatial, temporal, professional, and economic relations, and these shape how writing might or might not enact useful forms of critique. Perhaps this is doubly necessary because we assume all too often that critique functions as if it had successfully detached itself from complex contexts, that it can and should operate in transcendent rather than immanent space. It is an illusion that criticisms protagonists reside in spaces of quiet sanctuary — the museum, the mountaintop, or the University, descending into the exhibitionary world before returning to the quiet campus. I know this, because I am one of them, and work not only as a writer and critic, but as a Course Director at a University. It is an illusion not because critics do not necessarily reside in some of those spaces, the mountaintop aside, but because these sites are neither sanctuaries nor spaces of higher judgement, at least not in the neo-liberal and post-fordist labour spaces of the present. For better or worse, it is time for criticism to be debated and returned to the world. We might begin taking a cue from Lind, examining time’s impact.
Time – The Critical Clock
Writing and criticism exist in an unstated tension to the institutions and industry of art. Although judgement appears to flow in one direction, the process is highly discursive, collaborative and intertwined. Magazines possess a distinct proximity to exhibitions, in a relationship that is temporally and economically interlinked: the commercial gallery and art magazine run on what are predominantly monthly cycles, a parallel that constructs relations in both editorial direction — decisions made about what to cover and when, and in advertising, as specialist magazines depend upon advertising revenues from galleries promoting their exhibitions, as anyone who has browsed through an art magazine, to locate content after twenty pages of ads will recall. This appears to place the magazine and the exhibition in synchronicity. Similarly, journals function in relation to the exhibition but at an apparent remove, framed by academic or institutional alignment and peer review, with a quarterly publication that equates to both the academic term and the longer exhibitions of the kunsthalle or small museum. Advertising is less common — this is the space of public funding, though the funding streams are, as a result, fundamentally drawn from the same or similar sources: national bodies of funding, a small but select group of philanthropic funds, and University monies, sometimes supporting academic projects. Collaboration is commonplace here, not least because partnership and collaboration are to the present what interaction and participation were to the turn of the Millennium. Books are complex, in that they come in many forms: though potentially independent and stand-alone, it is not unusual for the book to be the product of an exhibition, appearing in advance or, in rare cases, after an exhibition has finished. Increasingly, the green light for a book on the arts, to go from draft to commission, is the guarantee of a parallel exhibition, with its corresponding opportunities for the publication to sell. Though still a little rare, it is no longer unusual for an exhibition to take place because a book, especially from a celebrated or luxury publisher, has, or is just about to be released. From a distance, books need not necessarily operate according to schedules. Close up, they are often intimately intertwined. They operate within the past, present, and futures of the institution and its programmes.
If the publication is subject to the universal clock of the artworld, it should not surprise us that a recurrent pressure of time surrounds the critic, writing in these spaces of interconnection and exchange. And yet this is so at odds with our image of criticism, that is hard to shake off, and needs further illustration. Here, as a writer, I’ll often switch from the plural ‘we’ and into the first person, designating sometimes specific personal experiences, alongside commonplace structures and systems. I very much doubt my experience is unique — not automatically good or bad, but simply witnessed — to reframe the practicalities of criticism, so that we might propose a form of writing and critique that can begin not in speculation or projection, grandstanding or unrealistic romanticism, but in the actualities of the task.
The shortest time from commission to deadline I have had as a writer was just three days. This was for a widely read magazine that appears to plan parts of its issues far in advance. Such decisions appear simple: as a writer, you have time or you haven’t. In fact, such deadlines are not uncommon, even if the time from commission to deadline seems unusual. What was apparent here was only a system operating openly, where it otherwise provides the illusion of space and organisation. The time signature of a writing commission is more complex than whether your diary permits. Whilst many magazines commission their essays and reviews a couple of months in advance, there are unspoken or uncalculated time constraints, which return the writer to limited time windows, almost by default. A key parameter here is that magazines issuing reviews state the desire to publish whilst an exhibition is still open — something more than half of the major publications I have written for continue to do. The principle of this form of publishing — in time for the review to be live and subject to further reflection and perhaps its own critique — sounds fair on first glance: publication at the time ensures relevance, and might generate visitors to exhibitions. But whilst exhibitions and magazines appear to be synchronised, the actual logistics are more complex. Perhaps we mistakenly imagine the newspaper critic attending the first night of a theatrical performance, and a review appearing in the paper the very next day. Here, the writer, editor, typesetter or designer, and printer, work overnight: everything runs in a tightly scheduled sequence. Printed are tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, provided by salaried workers whose sole task is to ensure this text reaches audiences the very next morning. We expect the same of the art writer, though no editor I’ve met responds overnight, and no designer is ready in a couple of hours. Similarly, no art magazine or newspaper has hundreds of thousands of readers, and few writers live off their writing fees. As the majority of exhibitions last four to five weeks — longer institutional exhibitions last 6 weeks to 2 months, and museum displays of 3 to 6 months, but are a small percentage of total exhibitions — the review will be commissioned, but needs to wait for the exhibition to open. The writer will wait, but as the exhibition opens, they will need to pounce. Put aside a week for printing and shipping, a week for copyediting, proofing and corrections, and a week with a designer, and you’ll have one week to write. Here, at five weeks in total, you’re already past most exhibition cycles — in fact, a number of exhibition reviews I’ve proposed have been denied for the very reason that they will close before a magazine can publish (something that includes online publications, equally). Most four week exhibitions do not get reviewed at all, a fact that is rarely discussed or acknowledged. If it can get to six weeks, an exhibition has a chance: though it’s still likely that the writer has to see the exhibition in its first few days to deliver currency at the time of publication: press previews are strangely luxurious though hurried affairs, with bland coffee and luxury pastries, and the sense that no one really has time for anything, even the work. Because the magazine seeks currency, it is wedded to exhibitionary time — and because only the largest and wealthiest galleries, and large scale public institutions, can commit to a cycle that keeps an exhibition open long enough for reviews to come out — the result is that the majority of exhibition reviews systemically favour exhibitions costing more money to realise and keep open, and these are always already looked at in a rush.
Though not constrained by the time signature of the exhibition, it would be a mistake to suggest that essay writing is considerably different. Similar concerns for currency and thematic coherence dictate that the texts are largely written as new — only a small percentage of essays come from pre-existing sources, as-yet-unpublished texts or extracts of larger publications. The majority are commissioned afresh, and come about through discussions exploring a meeting point between writer and editor. So rare is the occasion of writing without an imminent deadline, and that writing then finding a home, that writer colleagues share the event, if it happens, on social media. It is rare now to write without a purpose, without a destination, and without the pressure of an imminent deadline. We are trapped in a cycle of excess demands and unrealisable hopes. For an essay to be written with rigour or coherence, the writer can be expected to carry out new research and revise old knowledge, read and re-read a range of relevant texts, and situate their proposition in a critical context (as I did by pointedly foregrounding Maria Lind’s essay at the beginning). The writer must build and structure an argument, write a draft, compress it towards a viable word count, and go through a cycle of editing and revisions to ensure the text is both compact and coherent. An essay can be started without the constraint of the exhibitionary schedule, but its timings are no less strained.
A key reason for this has to do with labour. In all but the rarest cases, magazine, journal, and book texts are written by academic writers or curators, artworld workers who have institutional affiliations. Academic writers are selected primarily for critical rigour and their specialist or theoretical focus, whilst curatorial writers are selected for their proximity to contemporary practice and their work with artists (with plenty of crossover in between). Whilst the institutional writer is selected for the professional accreditation that comes with their role, and professional or academic recognition and clout, it is an equally important unspoken truth that both find the majority of their employment in regular, and for the most part, salaried work. It is a feature of contemporary writing that it is so low in pay that it is predominantly practiced as an accompaniment to other work. Academic journal submissions are often written for free, whilst magazines pay small amounts with fees that depend strongly upon institutional affiliation and funding streams. Writers are secretive about the pay that they receive, but it is widely acknowledged that institutional catalogues and monographs by major publishers are the only commissions paying close to a sustainable fee, acknowledging the time taken in research and writing. Celebrated writers with name-recognition value are the main beneficiaries, with publishers seeking their gravitas to increase or facilitate sales, even when, as is unfortunately not at all unusual, pre-existing texts baring no direct commentary on the work presented, are reproduced in bald and largely unsuccessful attempts to claim significance. From my experience as a writer, academic and conference participant, I can attest to the fact that celebrated writers, philosophers, historians, poets, and writers on radical social issues of the moment — inequality, gender, race and political division — are often recipients of grossly disproportionate fees, whilst other contributors operate according on diminishing returns. The majority of texts that are actually written — academic papers, reviews, and essays in popular journals, or magazines with wide or expansive readerships — are too time consuming and unsustainable to be taken up by anyone without a primary income.
The conditions of pay for writing necessitates an institutional writer, and the writer, such as myself, perpetuates or enables its continuation if they do not query or test its parameters. Noting the financial conditions of writing practice should not, however, be conflated for a call to pay writers fairly or a claim that each action of labour should be paid: both are simplifying narratives that encourage the financialisation of everything, and a concern only for the financial components of my argument. What is significant is that the combination of economic and temporal factors produce a criticism that is doubly constrained, by money and time, and this produces a condition that favours easy explanations and enables orthodoxies to thrive.
We have seen that the writer is necessarily institutional because the fees and status required for writing necessitate other, usually institutional, employment. We should also acknowledge that these spaces are contemporary battlegrounds of labour, as recent strikes in education have shown. In both the museum and university, bureaucracy and economics determine. In addition to crossing the complexities of the artworld, art and design academics regularly have to contest or comply with their own obscure, unsupported research mechanisms. Similar challenges are not uncommon in the spaces of museums and public institutions: the protracted and labyrinthine funding application process, so neatly summarised for artists and art professionals everywhere by Boris Groys in his essay The Loneliness of the Project — which describes how the application writer applies endlessly for funding, mainly to be spared from the task of writing applications — describes a funding pincer-movement that is backed up by the challenges and limitations of philanthropy, with its targeted investments: together they describe the uneven flows of exchange surrounding the practices of art beneath the universal clock that criticism must contend with.
Though the writer is subject to forces challenging and perhaps undermining the task of writing, this does not eliminate a responsibility that criticism has to, as Lind states, “seriously challenge our understanding of our remit and methods”. The writer participates within, is given privileged access to, and can shape specialist discourse. If criticism acknowledges the challenges and forces that are exerted upon it, it should follow that it must in its own way resist the temptation to simply shift or deflect those forces to the work that it considers, again negating the complex interstice that the critic finds themselves within.
Criticism should not deflect, project, or exercise a hurried or hyperbolic critique because these are the conditions of the present.
Lind’s analysis draws us to time and the modalities through which art is presented, experienced, seen and understood. How writing ultimately puts this context to work, at both the level of criticisms reflexivity, and commentary upon the artwork in its contexts, might enable an altered conception of the moment we participate within.
Time is significant to writing not simply because it shapes and determines understanding long beyond the moment of its publication, but because it activates time and provides the condition for its transformation. Giorgio Agamben, in his essay, What Is the Contemporary? argues that to be contemporary is to be outside of time. This is not to attempt timelessness, the false search for eternality, but to resist the twin poles of both timeliness and the timeless. It is for time to be reclaimed, shifted and changed, removed even from linearity, so that new connections can be built. He states: “[c]ontemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is “that relationship with time that adheres to it, through a disjunction and an anachronism.” (p.41). It is here that criticism might identify one of two openings: to write not for the urgent present, to publish to be live and to be current, but to write precisely because criticism enables the artwork to be thought and seen as exiting the now and entering multiple temporalities, to be in one’s time and at a distance also. Agamben invokes the figure of the poet to describe the transformation of time, but he might equally figure the critic, if we might consider for a moment the writing that is to come, and the second opening for a new criticism: that the need to get both close to and distant from its object, to draw it into connection with the past and a future — necessarily means that criticism cannot only speak of the work that it encounters in the urgent now, that is the pressure which Agamben rails against, but sees and thinks it in the time of its maker and writer and the many times, outside of our usual perception, through which it will come to be. This is a key facet of criticism’s relationship to value or meaning: to see the work existing not only in the immediate present, but to think through, and attempt to foresee, how it might come to encounter a future as yet unknown. Each and every writer must refigure multiple relationships through the process of writing: this begins by overcoming time, its pressures and conventions.
As Agamben seeks for a relationship to time that adheres, Byung-Chul Han too notes that a binding force is necessary for dialogue and meaning to be shared and valued. According to Han, an evaporation of meaningful dialogue produces a chaotic, ‘atomic’, whizzing of disconnected, independent trajectories, an evocation that can resemble parts of our critical field. A dynamic and heterogeneous multitude of perspectives is healthy of course, but Han rightly suspects that a sense of living together has given way to the force of individual perspective above all. Without connection to shared experience, which he compares to a gravitational force producing meaning, we accelerate and decelerate erratically, without purpose and without context or means of comparison. He writes “from the outside, this might look as though things were freeing themselves from the earth’s gravitational field with the help of acceleration. But in reality, they would be escaping the earth and moving away from each other because of the absence of the gravitation of meaning.”2 (p.22) Quickly, we have been both encouraged — by neoliberalism — and prompted — by much criticism — to speak only from our own singular perspectives. We should not forget that, as Agamben has stated, we need to be both close and at a distance, or as Isabelle Stengers has written, to be both at the centre and at the margins, simultaneously. The risk of a writing that does not do this is the loss of the gravitation of meaning, the possibility of connection. Byung-Chul Han continues: “meaning is not atomic. Only meaningless violence can emanate from atoms.”3 (ibid.). For Han, the philosopher of the burnout society, we are perennially at risk of only being able to see the world from our perspective, and this causes problems for ourselves and for those we live amongst.
Violence emerges from the critic who speaks from a singular position, and does not shift or respond at the moment of encounter.
To evade the limitations of the singular or atomic view, criticism must give time, in its multiple meanings, to its object of study: we might include in this the generosity of time of the critic’s evolving perspective. This is not to state that criticism should be casual, or that time permits shifting positions to be stated continuously, in a version of a critical, unreliable narrator. But it does require the critic to be prepared to be surprised, and prepared, moreover, to be wrong. Perhaps this is one of the most difficult things for criticism to do, seeing as it sets out to demonstrate judgement, and because we seem to place upon it the increasing pressure of being on the right side of history, at the same time as our culture expects all problems to be fixed immediately, regardless of scale, complexity or its embeddedness. Without time being given, the time to realise error is covered over. There is so little place for doubt in our 24/7 culture, that it is scarcely a surprise that criticism makes it case urgently and often pointedly, as overwhelming positivism, and also as a willful, but equally uncritical, turning against the tide. As Agamben writes, “what does he who sees his time actually see? What is this demented grin on the face of his age? I would like at this point to propose a second definition of contemporariness: the contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure.” (p.44). Agamben does not mean to suggest simply that beneath the veneer of the presence is a dark reality: it is certainly the case that that which is presented as the light often is its opposite, but it is also the case that that which is truly significant is not at the surface. It is an obscure object, hidden from view. What we locate, through prolonged observation, and what we come to understand, by encountering our own changing relations to the work at hand, will be a position that moves into depths that our present urgency seems not to permit.
If the writer will not give the time to seek understanding, and in turn admit that this understanding might arise after error, what realisation can criticism pass onto others?
Though generosity is often lacking, it should not be confused with the capacity to be critical and clear in judgement. Openness must work in both directions, equally. The most damning essay I have written, which I thought might not be published, concerned a book that I was asked to review, and that I looked forward to reading, that I thought would be rich and full of information. Were my expectations unreasonable? I don’t believe so; the book promised an expansive view, but provided centrifugal prophecies, essays that negated the nature of what its initial enquiry promised. I was surprised; I gave the book a chance, but I could also see that it did not live up to its claims. This is not uncommon in an age of hypertrophied press releases and the domination of the market. There are criticisms to be made. Yet criticism must take its time not simply to explain the strengths of artworks, but the conflicts that surround our discourses, practices and cultural field. It should be possible to identify the plausible conditions of strength in a work that is problematic, and which is approached and written about because of its problematic nature — something that I have also done. In fact, I have written about work that I knew was already widely criticised — though for me, it had been slated with weak arguments, with poorly considered consequences, and inadequate attention to detail. Those critiques, as I saw from viewing its recipients, were roundly ignored. I wrote about the work and criticised it also, though my essay sounded positive by comparison — a mistake that could be made only in a hurried reading. To identify strengths is not to apologise, or to deny failures. It is to see accurately. This is what the writer should attempt to do.
It is too simple and too convenient, too coercive and too weak in the face of clickbait, to write without having attempted to extrapolate the consequences of an argument or to have checked your claims and become sure that they stand up to scrutiny. This is the temptation to be reductive. And it is too tempting to write for an audience who will not give your essay the time of day without it being provocative. An argument that splits its audience to win one point does not see how it arms its enemies or loses new allies. For when it comes to showing its teeth — as it should unquestionably be able to do — criticism should not miss the opportunity to ensure that it grounds its critique, begun by encountering the work on its own terms first. To take a mildly comical, and yet disquieting example, I can recall the writing of a widely read critic who claimed in an exhibition review that the work of video artist Omer Fast was ‘not documentary enough’. Had the critic taken the time to encounter Fast’s work in anything other than the two photography shows that had screened the artist’s work that year, and looked at the artist closely and done their research, they would surely have discovered that the blurring of fact and fiction was one of the artist’s central and recurring concerns. To detach the work from its context is to think outside of it: here, the critic’s concerns overshadowed the work’s own distinctive trajectories, and the critic’s entrenched point of view — that documentary has a value above all else — thoroughly clouded the capacity for realising what Fast’s work is and is not able to achieve. Within this critique is the assumption, it seems, that criticism must necessarily criticise.
This is not only a zero-sum game, it is semantically and etymologically inaccurate — the reader who accepts the first entry in a dictionary, without noting the second line placing it into context. Indeed, that the notion of criticism as only disapproval negates the analysis we expect criticism to possess, is lost on the hurried and keen-to-impress writer in the age of likes and shares. The short circuiting of writing towards blogs — a platform to which many published writers have retreated, away from the process of seeking an editor as a critical sparring partner, is worryingly commonplace in the photographic field. Arguments that take place on blogs or social media necessarily differ from most forms of discourse, because these communications are enframed by operating systems which depend upon the ramping-up of engagement and participation in searching for responses, because no audience precedes its production. In search of quick criticism for a work that the writer perhaps could not come to like, the result is a failure to comprehend. This is a commonplace criticism that can be levelled at writing online, where inaccuracies are systemic, then copied and pasted.
Whilst I can hope that my concern for a generous and open criticism is not conflated with the positivist celebrations and acclaim of the marketplace, it is necessary to address my reservations towards a common complaint which will surely arise: that I appear to be criticising negativity itself. This comes hot on the heels of existing claims that there is not enough writing that calls out or criticises, or which acknowledges the contradictions and limitations of the art and photography industries. Whilst it is possible to be sympathetic and even understanding of this criticism, it is important to add one further thing: that the criticism that does exist, that does do this, so far does not do it well. When I encounter this approach in writing, if it works me up, it is usually against the writer, and not their target. This continues to surprise me, because I agree that there is a lot of writing which does little more than repeat what is already available on a press release, because I know that some writers take shortcuts or don’t venture something new from their encounter with the work. It painfully reminds me of a former colleague who, writing for an esteemed Italian art magazine, missed the last day of a show of a sound artist he was meant to review. A site-specific sound artist! He didn’t make it to the exhibition, and instead rephrased the press release. I’m glad to say he doesn’t seem to be writing anymore: the consequence of a practice that loses its rigour is surely self-evident, even if it is not as immediate as we might wish it to be. But his weak writing was not a reason for me to go out and be negative or more demanding than I already was: in fact, it gave me a clearer sense of how to go about constructing my own reviews, ensuring that I visited an exhibition multiple times, to see how my perspective had changed, something I learnt also from reading critics who could describe the difference of seeing one of the Dia Foundation’s nine-month exhibitions across multiple seasons. The rewards are not quick, but with a different conception of time, this might not be the penalty it currenty seems to be. There are writers who give exhibitions an easy-ride, but I believe that this is a problem that criticism addresses by writing at a higher standard, and not by losing your composure, or setting out to antagonise.
With the political climate of the present so polarised, its influence on the conditions of criticism cannot be overstated. Indeed, there is a heightened sensitivity to criticism. It is, at least in part, borne out from the way that arts have found themselves positioned between the forces of philanthropy, with its concern to influence choices, the utilisation of culture to drive tourism, which has seen the growth of art audiences, and postcolonial critiques, which have rightly pointed to a system of prevailing power structures which inhibit and control access. There is a need for this tri-part transformation of the institution to be considered in more detail, because it provides a complex system of both critique and its inhibition and deflation, though that is outside of the scope of this particular study. It is necessary, simply, to state that criticism has few places where it can both be voiced, debated and actually enacted. When museum curators complain about being forced to lower the challenge of their writing, and critique is disabled by the powerful influence of a small number of influential individuals providing funding, major institutions cannot be sites of collective identification and the commons of cultural knowledge.
It is not surprising to see that in some fields, critics have turned to political theory, not only to account for and enframe the work they discuss, but to provide, in effect, models for critical engagement in the work of art and artists. Claire Bishop’s celebrated 2004 essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,4 which took aim at the positivist celebration of participatory practices collected under the roof of Nicolas Bourriaud’s writing and curatorial activities, adopted Chantal Mouffe’s writings on Agonism as a means to describe critical relations to audience participation, simultaneously balancing a concern for critical interrogation, whilst resisting the dual hyperbole of 90s positivism at one extreme, and the brewing inflammation of political division on the other. Indeed, Bishop’s writings, including her celebration, in Radical Museology, of the L’Internationale coalition of museums and universities, operates as a comparatively rare example of recent critique which not only enacts substantive critical judgement, but does so without becoming ensnared in needless fisticuffs.
What is notable about Bishop’s citing of Mouffe is that she outlines how Agonism, as a political strategy attempting to move beyond the ineffective antagonism of political polarity, which has long debilitated western governments, not only provides a model for a critique of Bourriaud’s relational activities, but also effectively enables Bishop to substitute those artists practices — Liam Gillick, Rikrit Tiravanija, Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster et al — with projects, such as those of Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn, which are undeniably more challenging or confrontational, and effective in their forms. This is because Bishop reveals how Mouffe’s Agonism does not deny — in fact, promotes — the necessity of disagreement in discourse. But this disagreement, Mouffe makes clear, can only be confronted once the complex positions of each protagonist is understood and acknowledged by both parties. It is the distant refusal to acknowledge which fuels aimless confrontation. With both disagreement and acknowledgement allowed take place, the importance of a larger, long-term project is able to be seen. And so, the potential for stronger criticism is made possible. As Bishop describes in detail, it is thoroughness with which Sierra and Hirschhorn clearly state and situate their activities, indeed situate us as viewers also, which enables the move from distant name calling of entrenched positions, to become sites of discourse. If our criticism is to become effective, such positions will need increasingly to be adopted.
Discourse needs to be attended to, rather than posed. How we approach the artwork also indicates how we approach our encounters with others.
Institutional spaces, as Maria Lind has argued in her writing, have become sites of layered, bureaucratic, political, and ideological operation. And whilst it is simple to state that they are ruled by pencil pushing, or run by individuals holding purse strings against our better judgement, we must nevertheless consider the institution itself as something we as individuals come together to form. Criticism is a process not only of writing and constructing judgement, but an establishing of a form of belonging, participation, and dialogue, a space delineated by layers of practices. We need to ask what the vision of an institution is set out to be, and how it holds to or deviates from its mission. This is important now, because there has been a movement away from traditional institutions whose functions have gone long unquestioned, towards the founding and establishment of new spaces, and new projects, many small in scale or transnational and collaborative in intent, whose aims are clearly specified and articulated. Now is a time, as old structures are failing, to form new institutions and new alignments, so that alternative models have the opportunity to come forward.
I have called for a stating of the positions of critics, and acknowledged the complex circumstances under which they operate. I have described, also, how the deeply embedded interrelations of publishing operate within the artworld, and how this establishes a dominant mode of criticism on-demand. I believe that criticism is needed, but it is its duty to persuade and convince, and not to hammer. There is a place for damning rhetoric, too, but it loses its impact if it is overused or under-developed. We live in histrionic times: more than ever, the solution seems unlikely to be to write in an accusatory mode that invariably engenders defensive responses and resistance.
Writing criticism is to practice a politics in the form of thought made visible, and this should be a writing that does not fuel the fire, but actually enables and constructs both a critical position and a space for dialogue.
A reader will not shift their opinion if they perceive that a writer cannot shift theirs. We must dismantle a system of bubbles.
We will become more open to criticism. We are not, as it stands, because we expect it to come with lashings of the irrational and accusations of indefensible crimes. We must acknowledge that criticism produces its own conditions. Criticism must put this right. A return to a criticism that evaluates the positive and the negative, the complimentary and the challenging, can be had. We must decipher and rework some of the specific limitations brought about by the current conditions of writing and the spaces in which it operates. Writing must give time. It must look beyond the urgent now, and return to the project of building a better discourse and a sense of history. It cannot be in a hurry to come to judgement. The universal clock can be extended.