What Happened to Art Criticism?

Dan Hopewell over at Iconoduel has a review of James Elkins’ book, What Happened to Art Criticism?. Elkins surveys the contemporary state of art criticism and examines the prospects for developing a new approach. If I read the review correctly, it sounds as if he dismisses any attempts to build 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 and value 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) transcendental intervention and 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.

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 for anyone to take value judgments seriously. Hence, the “official policy” of either limiting oneself to “descriptive criticism”, or offering modest critical judgments with the implicit disclaimer that “it’s only my opinion”. This policy is, of course, rarely adhered to in one’s personal life where all sorts of judgments are made.

One finds such abnegation of judgment 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 relatively 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.

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