For someone who is past experiencing, there is no consolation.
– Walter Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire
About two years have passed since all I did was write about art. Between writing reviews and museum essays, and securing enough freelance gigs to keep the lights on, every drop of energy went into that task. Eventually the intellectual and emotional barrel went dry.
Distance from this routine was enabled by two factors, one mundane, the other confusing and a little embarrassing. First I wrote a short book about an artist, a task for which the Canadian Arts Council granted me enough financial support to work for several months, more or less stress-free. Then came Corona. For the low-earning community of freelancers and artists in Berlin of which I am a part, the plague’s effect was incongruous. The financial support that we received from the state was meagre in comparison to a professional’s earnings. However it also roughly matched the money that precarious freelancers had become used to operating on under ‘normal’ conditions. For this labour sector, in this place, Covid confusingly blended shock, sickness, and death, with temporary freedom from the pressures of exploitative knowledge production.
It was this process, within this awful crisis, that opened the time-space necessary to reflect on what exactly we do when we write about art. Those reflections brought to renewed attention the way in which a tacit conspiracy between the art world and the gig economy has, as I’ve written about elsewhere, largely warped the discipline of criticism into a mass-produced discursive product, not so different from public relations copy.
Freelance art writers (like freelance writers generally) have become alienated labourers like any other. We do not sell raw labour-power alone, but also a very specific product: the representation of an autonomous, critically engaged and perceptually sensitive individual. While the classic alienated worker is coerced to sacrifice their creativity and self-determination in order to sell themselves fully to production processes in which individual works function as embodied machine components, the art writer sells their ability to subjectively and critically engage with artworks and their myriad personal and social effects. However, this product is advertised in bad faith because the conditions of art writing’s production precisely destroy that product which the customer (the reader) is promised. The pace and material conditions (bad pay) of the industry, force the critic’s work away from intimacy, and towards a dogged performance of it, delivered in the convincing tone of bourgeois erudition.
Eventually, the performance of autonomous criticism became an inside joke. “I just skip to the second to last line of exhibition reviews,” one curator told me. “That’s where you can find at least a shred of honest response.” Even this fleeting candor is efficiently co-opted and de-fanged. Almost without fail, a glossy magazine review’s last sentence recuperates the exhibition described, by explaining how it has in fact not faltered, but instead skillfully works against, complicates, or challenges its own implication in the potential failure. Through this rhetorical two-step, exhibitions are endowed with the highest merit of contemporary art: critical self-reflexivity. I once heard the writer and critic Lynne Tillman caution critics against “spreading bromide”. This is what she meant. Disassociation dressed as engagement. Virtual criticality.
It’s all too easy, however, to simply describe this grim situation. Too easy because not even this crisis is safe from co-optation. On the contrary, it is deeply saleable. I have become wary of how its retelling can itself become a performance, contemporary art’s answer to self-indulgent leftist melancholia.
The fact that I immediately describe this challenge in the reactionary key of the ‘non’ — instead of explaining what I actually want — reflects the dearth of models that we have to work with here (many of us say we want more honest judgment, but according to whose criteria?) More insidiously, this deferral to forlorn and reactionary phrasing reflects the black hole pull of melancholy and depression. As I wrote those words, a dull pain split me in half, a symptom of the knowledge that these words themselves ride the line between performance and reality. This is true even as the words are driven by a need that is real and that should never be abandoned. No matter how idiotically futile the belief in art sometimes seems.
The overworked and disenchanted critic has a strong incentive to narrativize their bleeding de-mystification. This essay appears at a time wherein the first-person confessional voice wields massive and dualistic power. To confess one’s pain is to feed a bottomless public thirst. When the writer follows this incentive, they work in a dangerous borderland between important personal and political explication, and an exploitation of self and community. To co-opt one’s own loss of faith is to get fucked coming and going. 1
- This instrumentalizing of the emotions through late capitalism has been effectively traced by Eva Illouz, not least in her 2007 book Cold Intimacies, which details the integration of psychoanalytically informed understandings of empathy into industry, in the form of management techniques, and into areas where business and social life overlap, including media.
The point is not that the grief of disenchantment is false. On the contrary, it could not be more real. However, the truthful articulation of that grief and its causes relies on paying rigorous attention to the seductive rhetorical skin through which pain is co-opted for clicks. That co-operation is a flame that vaporizes any hope of criticism.
Towards a description of a more believable mode of criticism, I’ve started throwing around the word re-animation. Its shorter cousin ‘animate’ falls short. Animation is what art writers who have been sapped of their critical spirit do every time they charmingly reformat an exhibition press release and dress it up as criticism. To animate is to impart the impression of life to something lifeless. In this case, the lifeless things are artworks that have not even been given the chance to live, through our experiences with them, because the collaborative force of the market and art-writing rush in like frantic rescue workers, to cloak them in a puffy blanket stuffed with synthetic meaning and context — in order to make the fastest possible use out of them.
In contrast, re-animation refers to the re-creation, in the imagination of a reader, of an encounter that already happened between a living subject and art. This technique only works if the encounter was real. Which can and does still happen. Implausible as it seems, real encounters persist, language does not order all experience, social and psychological constructs are bonded to flesh and feeling — this is a polemic position that should be vigorously defended. This defence is hard work, and is part of the writer’s re-animating task.
The distinction between market-driven animation and competent re-animation is subtle but crucial. It is especially so, because this type of re-animation is not a-critical. Its criticality inheres not in impatient and attention-thirsty judgements, but in the transmission of complex and difficult formations of intimacy and conflict that take place in interactions between the individual body, relationships, and broader social worlds. The difficulty of this assignment makes the perfunctory animation of art shows look like child’s play.
Soon after we graduated from art school, a friend of mine was picking the brain of a senior artist in the community. He wanted to know how to actually be an artist in the post-academy world, unsupported by the institutional apparatus, a readymade community with its built-in structures for gaining and giving feedback and developing meaning. He was advised to “forget everything [he’d] learned in art school”.
I’ve been thinking about this piece of advice, in relation to my own need for critically re-animative criticism. The advice is of course a cliché. But it’s also on point, as a call to forsake institutionalized styles of making and talking about artwork that often have more to do with cultivating the aura of cultural authority and papering over the gig economy’s ruthless destruction of experience, than seriously engaging with art.
This plea for a return to innocence entails an enormous danger. While rushing headlong back towards the real, we might forget that the ways of thinking about and discussing art that are taught in contemporary academies have a certain purpose, even in the moments when they seem like pretentious performance. Yes, crypto-academic art jargon fortifies us within a sense of bourgeois superiority. But institutionally-promoted ways of considering art can also turn up the proverbial soil of thinking and feeling, and provide an important counter position to the corollary fetishization of a reactionary and closed definition of ‘authentic experience’. In the best cases, the engaged, critical, and explorative intellect is admitted into experience, and vice versa. The thinking brain does not serve as a paranoid agent, monitoring and scolding sensuality, but instead as a collaborator with eros. In this cauldron of language, new modes of engaging art can be produced, which can reflect dimensions of the real that are themselves covered in the dissociated facade of constructed, mediatized, and capitalized reality. Against reactionary aesthetes, I agree with Albert Camus: “the intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd.”
The last thing anyone needs, in societies already threatened by a resurgent right wing populism, with its malignant hostility to the intellect — a reactionary tendency driven by the same capitalized structures of rapid cultural production and social-media behaviour modification that dissociate criticism from its reason for being — is a rejection of open and exploratory thinking in artistic discourse. Our best option is to reject the false dichotomy between mind and body, criticality and intoxication.
When the music critic Greil Marcus wrote that “criticism has a good deal to do with a willingness to be fooled”, he voiced the central paradox of all critical writing worth reading. The dissociation that plagues both criticism and human relationships is so insidious that the only workable option we have left is to step back from our assumptions about the emancipatory or politically critical functions of art practice, in favour of radically direct and palpable descriptions of how the qualities of specific artworks work on and through us.
This does not mean abandoning thoughts about the relationship between experiences of art and broader political potentials. But it does mean honestly confronting the limitations of what art can do politically, precisely so that art criticism ceases to be a specialized rhetoric through which art’s political potential is simultaneously fantasized and forever forestalled. In a 2007 interview with Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey for Artforum, Jacques Ranciere circled in on the apparatus of performed criticality which more often than not achieves the inverse of its goal: “An art is emancipated and emancipating when it renounces the authority of the imposed message, the target audience, and the univocal mode of explicating the world, when, in other words, it stops wanting to emancipate us.”
It is, after all, impossible to forget what we’ve learned. Better then to understand the directive as a utopian-rhetorical catalyst, a call for rigorous intelligence and sensitivity, for a healthier and more vital synthesis.
In this sense, we could transform the directive to forget into a directive to let the ways in which we experienced art and the world, before institutionalization, come into conflict with and affect our experience of art, in a way that is not merely symbolic but real. We’d end up with a strange mash of desires, competing with and complicating one another, anxious, clanging, mercurial. We’d end up with a closer and more powerful relationship to the buried albeit very heavy anxiety inherent in the experience of transitioning between the slow drift through art galleries, and the world outside, in all of its banal bizarreness, its buckling libidinal weight. Our goal is above all contact.
Thank you Ksenia Jakobson, for recommending to me Eva Illouz’s ‘Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism’.
Mitch Speed is a Berlin-based writer. In 2019 his study of Mark Leckey’s video artwork Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) was published by Afterall Books, as part of their One Work series. His collected essays are forthcoming from Brick Press.