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Towards a Critical Insurgency

On May 17, 2019, I was a participant on the panel Art Criticism in the Twenty-First Century: Challenges and Prospects. My remarks were as follows:

A few weeks ago, we were given prompts for our opening remarks. One was the question, “Do you think there is a crisis in the field of art criticism?” I first learned that criticism was in crisis when I was enrolled at the MFA art criticism and writing program at SVA.

That was during the late Obama years. Superficially, these were cozy times for critics. We’d carved our way back near the mainstream, art criticism appeared in online magazines and young journalists were being trained in critical theory.

At SVA, we were taught that the act of criticism entails drawing finer and finer distinctions among like things. In other words, that criticism is the practice of creating crisis. We were often reminded that the words “criticism” and “crisis” share a root: krinein, Greek, “to separate, decide, judge.”

Criticism is perpetually “in crisis” because criticism is an engine for generating crisis. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the debate around the “crisis of criticism” most often rears its head when critics are most comfortable. That is, when we turn inward and direct this engine upon ourselves.

The past few weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in writings on the “crisis of criticism.” I think there are two ways this crisis is typically posed: The first is that criticism has lost its power to critique. The second is that criticism has lost its critique of power.

Underlying the first is the belief that no one takes critics seriously anymore, or perhaps that gallerists, content strategists and private collectors have won out over the noble arbiters of aesthetic and cultural value. This belief lapses, cynically, into the belief that culture has in some way failed critics—perhaps that critics have no worthy subjects or are doomed to wander Chelsea like wayward Cassandras.

The inverse line of inquiry is, “Has criticism failed culture?” Is the “crisis” of criticism its inability or hesitancy to address the very real encroachment of power and corruption, such as the influence of global markets on the arts? It’s a better inquiry (not least, because it’s the less comfortable one, for us in this room).

I’m not trying to be provocative, and I don’t think the answer to the question of whether we are failing culture is an unequivocal “yes.” But I do want to suggest that criticism neglects its responsibility toward culture exactly to the degree that it declines to critique the powers that define culture—including, yes, the power of criticism.

One of the essays I reread this month was “Resisting the Dangerous Journey,” by Michael Brenson. It’s from the mid-nineties, but it holds up. When Brenson wrote this essay, Newt Gingrich was leading an assault on the NEA and NEH, and Brenson took issue with the collective silence of critics who write for mainstream publications (or what he called “journalist-critics”) regarding cuts to public funding of the arts. Part of the reason for this silence is institutional: while journalists are allowed to critique power, art critics typically are not. But without government funding, Brenson cautioned (presciently), we’d be left with only private collectors and foundations patronizing the arts, each with its own agenda.

But it’s actually a small point Brenson made that makes me want to talk about it here. Almost as an aside, he notes that very few working art critics are actually at the job full-time—even those employed at major newspapers, who often write cross-discipline or operate within the more nebulous mode of “cultural reportage.”

The efficacy of Brenson’s journalist-critic is totally dependent upon total commitment to the task. If their inability to commit was cause for minor concern in 1994, it’s cause for more serious alarm today, following the migration of mass media to the web and the near-and-total takeover of the gig economy. I don’t know a single full-time art critic around my age (that’s including myself).

I take Brenson’s call to arms seriously. In fact, establishing a materialist model for dedicated art criticism should be the first task of an organization like AICA. I want to draw a distinction, here, between advocating for professionalized, comfortable criticism and advocating for the economic viability of art writing as a practice. If an organization like AICA can work to combat the material burdens affecting freelance writers—such as expensive healthcare, punishing taxes, low compensation and inadequate diversity in the arts—critics will be better positioned to address philosophical and political concerns. It’s only then that criticism can seriously redress abuse of power.

I’m still not sure if I believe in this idea of a “crisis of criticism.” For one, I think you’d have to lack a heart to read something like Jarrett Earnest’s book of interviews, What It Means to Write about Art, and not recognize a vibrant and engaged community. But I do think that within today’s milieu of alt facts and conspiracy theories we need to be particularly on guard against the tendency to ask the right questions but come up with the wrong answers.

Critical thinking aligns closely with what I’ve come to consider a late Obama-era mentality, characterized by our then-unchallenged belief that problems are best addressed by working methodically through their intricacies. To think that this might not be an entirely viable method for cultural and political critiques still seems strange to me, but clearly circumstances have changed.

The rise of the Trumpenproletariat has left a Cheeto stain across the critical discourse. Critics must remember that even in America today, not everybody has the ability to speak, and so self-censorship would be a particularly insidious blow in the new information war. 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.

But the question today is what to call upon the young critic—the millennial critic—to do in the current climate. 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 wrote 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.

Brenson argued that journalists and critics are separated by a firewall that keeps critics from addressing real power, and journalists from bringing power to the arts. Given this editorial bifurcation, could a guerrilla militancy be the only way forward for the journalist-critic? I think there’s evidence that we’re moving toward a point of inflection where these barriers can be broken down—where not only can these powerful, but separate, factions converge, they could even win. Maybe every young generation feels this way about their particular moment, but I still think there’s something unique about what’s happening now.

Take the recent protest Nan Goldin led at the Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums. I work at the Met, where one hundred people or so threw pill bottles into the pool surrounding the Temple of Dendur. Upstairs, as these protests were happening, we were all watching them unfold live, online. Many of us were cheering her on. Ten days later, the Tate stopped accepting Sackler money. The Guggenheim soon followed. On Wednesday, the Met announced it would no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family.

What we need now is not a Vichy collaboration. I think what we need now is crisis … but one of our own making. We cannot allow criticism to eat itself. Acceptance of this leads to acceptance of the fact: We must dismantle our delusions. What we need now is a critical insurgency.

Wangechi Mutu

Oliver Beer:
Vessel Orchestra