Thursday, 7 August 2008

Responsible Criticism

Image: Open Dialogues. Design Jeremy Betchel.

This is a letter, forthcoming in AN Magazine September 2008, in response to Lara Farrar’s article Arts Criticism in Crisis

The recent debate on arts criticism in A-N Magazine July/August 2008 by Lara Farrar brought two very different types of arts criticism clearly into view. One is a mainstream, conservative mode of printed criticism, sanctioned by editors and written by authorised purveyors of taste who comment on, but remain distinct from, culture and their reading public. Farrar cites the advocates of this traditional form of criticism as Harold Hobson, Kenneth Tynan and Brian Sewell. In contrast, Farrar says, the other mode of criticism is manifested online. It is immediate, self- published criticism, written by people both educated in art history and those who aren’t, and beamed out globally to millions of potentially unknown readers. Farrar typifies this new type of criticism as the unedited online critical writing platform: An Interface, and my own work as a blogger who, as part of Open Dialogues, writes online and in real time during biennales and festivals. Farrars’ polarising of the debate - setting Brian Sewell as the traditionalist against myself as a blogger – is a useful outline but does oversimplify what is at stake in today’s arts criticism and its perceived crisis.

Farrar’s debate focuses on the impact of blogging and new media upon traditional arts criticism, and cites it as symptomatic of the current state of crisis in arts criticism. But new media- as Farrar knows - is not the underlying cause of criticisms’ troubles. The internet medium merely crystallises the crisis. It manifests the difference in responsibility, subject position and relationship to reader between emerging forms of criticism, or critical writing, and the traditional. In turn the internet brings to light the latent ideologies that are at work within both modes.

The practice of art criticism grew on Enlightment ideals, including the Kantian notion that the critic’s definitive and elevated subjectivity claims assent for all his/ her readers, and a belief in immanent meaning, universal reason and public consensus. In this model, which Jurgen Habarmas has described as the ‘bourgeois public sphere’, the critic is a kind of specialised everyman: he delivers meaning to people just like himself.

Blogging puts pressure on this enlightenment mode. It embodies a threat to such a bourgeois public sphere, and reveals it to be a closed, hierarchical space in which certain people endowed with extra ordinary critical senses write for the benefit of the un-educated masses; in practise these extraordinary senses are learnt and conditioned, and the masses stay homogenised and un-educated only in relation to the critic’s self-defined prowess.

In contrast, Blogging is mass communication based upon distinctly individuated critical reception, similar to the models of TV and Radio. It destroys the possibility of a reified public sphere. The variety of divergent content that the blogosphere allows disturbs the eighteenth century notion of a reasoned public consensus of opinion.With blogs, people can now shape their own critical encounter with art or at least choose how and by whom they wish to be ‘educated’. Moreover, they can publicly answer back within this online encounter instead of being rendered passive receptors or mere consumers of received logic.

As Farrar cites, Brian Sewell, Dr Ronan McDonald of University of Reading and the critic David Lee of The Jackdaw bemoan the uniformity and commodification of culture that ensues from the blogosphere’s eschewal of reified art ‘experts’ and the critics’ lack of authority over public opinion. But what they are really mourning is the loss of Enlightenment ideals that say that meaning can only be defined by specialists who bestow the benefits of their education on their peers.

In fact, the methodology of contemporary critical writing, which acknowledges the power of the individual, is not completely at odds with the discursive aims of traditional criticism like Sewell’s, which assumes that (educated) individuals will share an opinion. Nor is blogging a non-hierarchical, non critical pool of different but equal subjectivities. Hierarchy of voice remains online. But the autonomy and authority of the critic, and the attendant ethics of that particular subject position, is something a contemporary critical writer wrestles with in text, rather than cloaks in the myth of critical distance and transcendent meaning. Contemporary critical writing is an attempt to move away from criticism, beyond the knowing cynicism of critique, towards the critical; a more self aware and responsible mode in which meaning is indebted to the performative, and the writer and the writing are equally at stake as the subjects under discussion.

This focus on agency, contingency and the heightened sense of responsibility – towards subject, writer, writing and reader – results in a grey area compared to the judicial verdicts passed down to us by traditional, mainstream arts critics. But negotiating the safe passage of criticality in between the thorny aspects of authority, judgement and logocentrism is both the danger and the joy of contemporary critical writing.

Rachel Lois Clapham