Towards a Critical Insurgency

There are few of us now, soon
There will be none. We were comrades
Together, we believed we
Would see with our own eyes the new
World where man was no longer
Wolf to man, but men and women
Were all brothers and lovers
Together. We will not see it.
We will not see it, none of us.
It is farther off than we thought.
— “For Eli Jacobson,” Kenneth Rexroth, 1952

Art critics, unlike journalists, aren’t generally held to strict standards on the timeliness of their work. To the contrary, a degree of untimeliness is often held in esteem, as we have liked to think of ourselves as arbiters of who and what society values, and the placement of artists within our canon requires constant re-evaluation. Which is why it’s so unsettling for me that the pieces in this journal, all of which were drafted before November 8th of last year, often read like essays representative of another time.

Ann Collins opens with a meditation on the narratives we craft to give our lives meaning and justify our beliefs. “But at what point,” she asks, “does traveling back along the same set of associates become constrictive?” A rhetorical question to which we might now be ready to formulate an answer. My own piece on the work of Patrick Nagatani functions as a critique of the American tendency to refute official stories with inane conspiracy theories. The tone, though, naively verges on academic, as if discussing something from which we’d progressed into a more rational political consciousness. It reads as if Obama’s words at Hiroshima on nuclear morality truly marked the beginning of a new era of enlightenment, rather than foreshadowed a revival of the nuclear arms race during what is now being called the post-factual age. In José Peña Loyola’s contribution, a pastoral American landscape dissolves into ominous forms, and with it the memories held by a woman who has since returned home to Latin America. The signs were all there. The conspiratorial milieu had settled into even our bones, such that we asked all the right questions and saw few of the true answers.

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Other examples are more subtle, but each piece is, in a way, representative of what I’ve come to consider a late-Obama Era method of thinking, characterized by our then-unchallenged belief that problems are best addressed by working methodically through their intricacies. In retrospect, these were cozy times for critics, as we carved our way back into the mainstream publications that cast us out last century, often in the form of young journalists trained in critical theory (whose politics are visible solely through their collective content consumption). To think that this methodology might no longer be a viable method for cultural and political critiques still seems strange to me, but clearly circumstances have changed. I fear those who double-down on opaque intellectualism and omit its participatory furnishings have missed the point. As an undergrad, I sometimes ate at Comet Ping Pong after readings at Politics & Prose or gallery openings in Georgetown—so all of that in particular hit me pretty hard.

The election of Donald Trump has left a Cheeto stain across critical discourse. The examples are already numerous, particularly among certain writers and activists who fear having their visas revoked in retaliation for exercising their right to free speech. Self-censorship would be the most insidious blow in the new information war; even citizens have been silenced. When I began to write this note, my partner informed me of the Rockettes, who were then being compelled to kick high in open-legged salute to our Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief on Inauguration Day, and this semiotic potency. She wept the night our then-President-Elect moved to halt the Women’s March. I’m glad women marched anyway; the Rockettes, at least, were saved. And yet, as the high-volume protests fade, we must remember that this does not mean people are compliant, or have resigned the fight to our representatives; we must remember that even in America today, not everybody has the ability to speak. We should find bravery in this condition because it’s better, more effective, to be seen and heard for as long as we are still able.

“The information war cannot be won by infiltrating the channels of authority, but instead by getting directly in front of the viewer, standing where she sees. Such a form of criticism seeks to reach the people and spread the experience of what a work of art can do.”

The question, then, becomes what to call upon the critic for within this condition. Lately, I’ve been re-reading Umberto Eco, who has always held answers for me. Two essays in particular have helped me see a possible way forward, and a renewed purpose for writing about art and images. In “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare” and “The Multiplication of the Media,” Eco writes that the information war cannot be won by infiltrating the channels of authority, but instead by getting directly in front of viewers, standing where they see. The artists Hannah Black and Parker Bright have demonstrated this quite literally at this year’s Whitney Biennial, by organizing a blockade of bodies in front of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, which they accuse of appropriating black suffering. Black has also called for the painting to be destroyed, an iconoclastic gesture that’s earned her accusations of censorship from oxymoronic progressive reactionaries.

Despite their conception in an early age, the following writings represent a form of criticism as outlined by Eco, in that they seek to reach the people and spread the experience of what a work of art can do—values instilled in us in the MFA Art Writing program—even though the rules of the game have since changed. They give me hope for the future of both art and criticism as tools for redress.

What we need now is not a Vichy unity; nor, especially, can theory’s bastard forms, which have become the critic’s calling card, help us return art to the people so that they might believe in it once again. These impenetrable cultural elitisms we are guilty of have done their part to bring us here. Acceptance of this leads us to the realization that what must be our new goal matches that of the Trumpenproletariat in theory, although not in praxis: We must dismantle our delusions. What we need now is a critical insurgency.

On y va—let us go there.