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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue
Critics Page


There is a vast and musty used bookstore at General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is hard to resist browsing for something unexpected and adding it to your carry-on luggage should you be fortunate to arrive a few minutes early for your flight. On a trip to Los Angeles I picked up a text from 1937 titled A Primer for Critics published by Phaeton Press, New York. It was tedious and lifeless, but not inaccurate. In summary the volume claims the following: “Every work of art is multivalent.” “There is no one task of the critic nor is his authority equal in all fields.” “He is an observer and can only speak from an observer’s point of view.” “Evaluations will in essence be purely autobiographical and will be authoritative only to men like himself.”1 Okay, all that rings true.

On the plane back to the Midwest I read the book I initially packed for the trip: Vile Days, The Village Voice Art Columns 1985-1988 by Gary Indiana, edited by Bruce Hainley. Nothing in Indiana’s writing mattered if it was accurate. It was compelling and critical because it was likely wrong. A motley collection of insights, immodest rants, histories, wordplay along with an extraordinary command of linguistical intercourse that added up to a dense and critically rich collection of interpretative engagement. Indiana’s art column proves that a critic can be unreasoned, overgeneralizing, contradictory, simplistic, slanted, unfashionable, impolitic, and presumptuous. Being right is not the goal. One of countless examples is his 1987 review of the Whitney Biennial where he wrote that, “since the Whitney has been so gracious to me by confirming my own taste, I will try to oblige the Whitney with at least a mixed review, to help draw in those who are attracted only by horror.”2 Reflexively and trenchantly he summarizes several of the participating artists and their contributions: “Who the fuck is David Bates?” “Julian Schnabel, Ugh.” “Ed Ruscha and Richard Prince: This was a good idea…but then the Whitney with its typical flair sticks in two Neil Jenneys, one of them not even slightly interesting, the other one too obvious.” “Donald Sultan. Yech. Give it up. Go home.”3 In context these rants wryly challenge notions of taste, institutional control, curation, and critique insomuch as they surface skim the artwork.

Today post-critique is currently recalibrating critique’s longstanding objective to interrogate, demystify, defamiliarize. An alternative to suspicious hermeneutics and the excavation of hidden truths is firmly afoot in the field of post-critique where interpretation and the embrace of complex temporalities yield new approaches to critical writing; approaches that support admiration and exploration in addition to the investigatory method of unmasking “pretense, deceit, and illusion.”4 The critique and post-critique debate is mostly an academic affair but one that regularly threads its way into art discourses. The authority of critique has always been a strategy to maintain infallibility. I continue to witness its practice in graduate art programs, instrumentalized by faculty concerned with their own influence over “giving an account of why [art] deserves our full attention.”5 The academic debate is worth understanding if only because art criticism can risk being wrong and academic critique cannot.

There is another “wrong” that stretches criticism and that is the idea of excess. In most cases excessive critique is not concerned with interpretation. Instead, over-reading a work of art is meant to incite the reader while arousing an original concept. There is controversy here too. Is over-reading wrong because it distorts what is actually in a work of art? Or can excessive interpretation give new life to artwork? As critical thinking and as literature, excess is vital. It is deliberately wrong so that another form can take shape. It is its own kind of artmaking, parasitic and critical, unoriginal and inventive. As Žižek writes of Deleuze’s excessive interpretations: “his buggery produces true monsters.”6

Description—criticism’s first obligation, I believe—can approach accuracy with a dedication to unbiased and factual delineation. Exacting observance combined with a command of precise language is foundational to the subsequent act of interpretation. Description should not be wrong. Interpretation however should not concern itself with the question of getting it right. “The very work of criticism can conjure up anxiety, fear of exposure, dread of being misunderstood.”7 But if criticism was transactional—predictably capable of getting it right or of getting it wrong—then its expectations would give way to the binary opposition of winning and losing or truth and fiction. It would also compromise the critic’s position of fundamental care and admiration for art, and importantly, the responsibility to articulate and interpret why it matters.

  1. George Boas, A Primer for Critics (New York: Phaeton Press, 1937) p. 149.
  2. Gary Indiana (edited by Bruce Hainley), Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988 (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018) p. 414.
  3. Ibid. p.415.
  4. Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (editors), Critique and Postcritique (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017) p. 47.
  5. Ibid. p. 46.
  6. Colin Davis, Critical Excess (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010) p. 61
  7. Critique and Postcritique, p. 46.

The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues