Michael Maranda



“The Reluctant Critic” 1
Michael Maranda
originally published in Blackflash 20:1 (Fall 2002)

Once upon a time, a gallery asked me to write a response to an artist’s exhibit.

The work certainly intrigued me, and as a then rather new editor for an arts magazine who had little experience writing for art magazines, I thought it a useful project to undertake. Everytime that I sat down to put together some words about the work, however, I returned to a clause found in the writer’s contract — in essence, the gallery required that writers for this series of texts discuss the work with the artist. Being more conscientious than contentious, (aside from submitting the article late) I followed the terms as set out in the contract and had a very enjoyable conversation with the artist about the nature of narrative, psychoanalysis, and the rather contentious difference between Jungian and Lacanian approaches to dream analysis.

I also pointed out this clause to a few friends in the expectation that they would find it — as I had — rather strange. None, other than myself, did. Thus, in order to begin writing a response to the work, I felt I needed to start with a few introductory remarks concerning the very process of criticism before getting to the direct response — namely, how the work offered us a narrative without a (definitive) content. As someone interested more in narrative as structure than in what it contains, the work intrigued me and continues to do so. In the end, my ‘short’ introductory comments on the nature of criticism ended up taking most of the space that was available, and so I did not elaborate on what I might have meant by a narrative without content — and in the process offered a review, without content.

There remained a desire, however, to write on the possibilities of narrative without content in reference to works which I find particularly intriguing. This, then, would have been my second attempt. I just couldn’t shake the strange feeling I get about that clause — although now, the strangeness is inspired more by my apparent singularity in thinking it strange. It might seem obvious that information garnered in a discussion with an artist might be vital in unlocking the ‘meaning’ of an exhibition, acting as a linchpin holding together the enigmatic machine that is the contemporary art work. Contrary to a set of conventions which surrounds a specific version of art criticism, however, I tend to view such information — biographical or otherwise — with a certain amount of scepticism. In fact if pressed I would have to argue that this sort of ‘content,’ which certainly lies outside the work, should have virtually nothing to do with an interpretation presented in a public sphere.

There is, of course, the necessity for understanding the context of the production of the work, and any hermeneutically responsible interpretation requires that this be taken into account. This includes a recognition of the ‘identity’ of the artist, which would clearly be irresponsible to ignore. Nevertheless, the limits of this responsibility is towards the set of references that are included in the work or its immediate context.

There is the risk that the critic can misread these references, especially when the work critiqued references a cultural context with which the critic is unfamiliar. In cases such as this, the artist can be a source of clarification, and avoidance of a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, as absurd as this may sound, the artist could be as misguided as to the ‘meaning’ of a conjunction of signs and should not be considered an infallible guide if semantic accuracy is the concern.

Biographical details as explanatory tools, on the other hand, not only reinforce the romantic notion of ‘genius’ and imply that the artist and the art work are an inseparable singularity, but also are the sort of details which are accessible only to the privileged insider who has access to the artist through either personal or professional connections. It is these connections, this hidden knowledge, that often will give the critic the aura of authority in presenting a reading of a particular work — pulling together otherwise opaque or ambiguous references with a facility unavailable to the viewer lacking such access. In similar ways, the quotation of theories imported from other disciplines such as literary studies can function as interpretative models which carry with them their own interpretative strategies and which authorise the use of certain dominant metaphors which may or may not be present in the work being discussed.

The irony — and to a certain extent the contradiction of any anti-intentionalist argument — is that within the contemporary art scene, this ‘side’ knowledge is unavoidably accessible. After all, the successful integration of subjects into the art world consists not in the acquiring of the codes and conventions of art production and interpretation but rather entering into a ritualised exchange of gossip — tokens of (usually biographical) information which have the status of public secrets for those ‘in the know’ and which can unlock the seemingly impenetrable collection of disparate objects, symbols, and traces which make up the contemporary art work. The acquisition of the skill of reading what is not present in the work and only present in the context which surrounds it (the galleries, juries, cafes, classrooms, and studios which make up the multiple sites of the art world) assures for those who master them entry further into this particular form of cultural insider-trading.

My persistent returning to the vocabulary of market capitalism is not just because it functions as a convenient metaphor for the art world. In our present context it would be hard to argue that the art world and the art market are not synonymous. Even the Canadian context, marked by a significant absence of an established primary market for art products, functions within a mercantilist logic. The granting agencies, for all the cutbacks and ‘rationalisations’ that they have been subject to recently, make up for the lack of collectors. The Canada Council could be considered a close cousin of a venture capital fund, and an exhibition proposal an advertising pitch for the finished product (that is the category, after all, where I deduct exhibit proposals on my tax return).

To pretend otherwise is not, however, the purview of the naive. As the analysis of Pierre Bourdieu illustrates, the disavowal of the logic of capital in the art world is one of the core strategies in the creation of cultural capital.2 It is also perhaps the public secret on which all the others which criticism deploys are modelled.

The work of the art world is to channel readings through the filter of these public secrets and in the process determine what is worth considering and how it is to be considered. A work of art will have both socially sanctioned as well as socially unacceptable readings — the determination of which is which depends upon the context in which these readings are offered for public consumption as well as the track record of any particular source.

Criticism, especially the sort that leverages itself most strongly with insider trading, is one of the cornerstones of this gate-keeping activity — as a purveyor of cultural capital, it is up to the realm of the critic to confer ‘critical acclaim.’ In the process, successful criticism acts as a filter in determining which public secrets are more interesting than others.3

This is not to play into the hands of the neo-conservative critique of contemporary art which claims that these oblique methods of interpretation imply that those who are part of the art world are somehow fraudulent impresarios. Rather, we are dealing with a situation where being a competent artist, critic, or curator is merely a necessary — but not sufficient — condition for entering into this system of exchange. The result of this is that, while there is an excess of talent and competence involved in cultural production, there is a limited amount of cultural (and economic) capital to support it, and thus artificial constraints have been established. The development of the modern art-world mechanisms of exclusion (an occurrence coinciding with the professionalisation of artist production), then, is not a cynical attempt at hiding a paucity of production. Rather, it is an attempt at gate-keeping a system which suffers from an embarrassment of riches with regards to what could be called the raw materials at its disposal (whether you want to think of the raw material as the artists, the art objects, or the theories that enable the act of interpretation). According to Bourdieu, these artificial constraints are not only required for the (limited) allocation of cultural capital, but constitutive of its existence. Thus, while insider-trading violates the rhetoric (though not necessarily either the practice or ideology) of ‘free-market’ stock exchanges, it is central for the existence of the cultural marketplace.

This system of gate-keeping, of course, occurs at many levels — the most insidious being the restricting of access to the means of production based on concerns other than ‘successful’ work. Griselda Pollock has convincingly argued that the absence of many ‘great’ women artists in nineteenth-century European art history has less to do with a willing blindness regarding significant female artists, and more with the limitations on training imposed by the men who controlled access to the academies and ateliers. This is not to argue that the only route to the production of art works is through formal training in Western art academies but it is one that, for the professional artist resident in the West, is often followed. It grants to the potential next ‘art star’ not the means of production, but the means to the means of production. In the nineteenth-century, this might have meant the training necessary for painting. Today, it might be the parallel needs of an understanding of theory and, more importantly, knowledge of the existence of and procedures for applying for grants and exhibitions as well as a smattering of gossip tokens spoken of earlier (information sparingly offered only to those students considered ‘ready’ for initiation into the rites of the arts profession).

That the art world and the market have always been so linked (at least since the rise of the modern era) is arguable; it is not, however, my intention to delineate the historical developments that made this so. Rather, I would like to circle around the implications that this insider trading might have on the critical venture in particular, and marginally so on the less than marginal effect this might have on our relation to art works which criticism considers. In order to do so, I would like to lay aside the more mercantile function of criticism — Bourdieu deals with it much more eloquently and persuasively than I ever could — in order to consider the realm of interpretation, or, that which happens in the process of establishing market worth.

While not all interpretation should be considered criticism, all criticism — even the most prosaic descriptive piece — is interpretation. Within interpretation lays the possibility for something beyond a line in the critic’s and artist’s respective resumes. It is on this level that cultural workers (critics, curators, and artists alike) can have an impact on the social order. To do so, I fear, requires utilising tactics similar to those named by Michel de Certeau as “la perruque,”  a worker disguising their own work as that for their employer or using the capital available in the workplace for their own purpose.4

A direct translation to the cultural sphere (one hypothetical example: a managing editor who uses computers set aside for the production of the arts magazine for which he works to write a critical article questioning one of the main functions of an art magazine) is not what I have in mind, for the disavowal of the market economy in which we work undercuts the subversive potential of such an act. Similarly, the artist who uses the production facilities of a photolab at which they are employed or the critic who, contracted as a copy-editor to a mainstream press, bills for time actually spent writing their own work are certainly as admirable as Certeau’s example of the secretary who writes a love letter instead of the boss’ memo concerning office productivity, these functional tactics hardly impact on the discursive viability of the resulting cultural artefact – unless, of course, the conditions of the works production are invoked as a backstory to invest the work with subversive appeal (in which case, however, one has to return to the earlier question of biographical details).

That all reviews ultimately engage in concerns of the market, especially those that disavow it most stridently, does not necessarily mean that the form cannot be utilised for other purposes. Thus, I am thinking of the possibility of actual cultural critiques existing parasitically within the market driven practices of reviews (and, for that matter, art production). There is a fine line, of course, between the facade of cultural critique which appears to be a necessary feature for success in the contemporary art scene since at least the early 1980s, and a practice that manages to engage actual critique. This is to say that the form of the rhetorical strategy is not what would determine the effectiveness, nor the insightfulness, of the text. Even the stodgiest of vocabularies can manage to say something new or, at least, something relevant.

A prerequisite for such a strategy for the exchange of ideas (and not just gossip) would be the mutual determining of a common-ground, a vocabulary and a grammar, in which a dialogue of engagement can arise. To do so requires the utilisation of more interesting modes than simple ecphrasis usually allows.

Over the last few decades, the terrain on which this common ground has been most commonly built has been through the wholesale adoption of literary theory by art critics — particularly New Historicism and other currents which draw heavily from French structuralist and post-structuralist thought. Of course, near this terrain one will find the inevitable anti-intellectual backlash against ‘theory’ — or, more properly, the backlash against the circuitous rhetoric, the apparent obfuscation, and the seemingly capricious use of terminology which often accompanies these more ambitious critical forays. Another similar charge is that the critic often is taken far from the work at hand. The situation inevitably arises wherein the critic will tend to take as reference point the writings of other critics, and not the work at hand — a situation paralleled in the writings of art history. If the concern is for a practice of criticism that manages to extend its influence beyond the establishment of cultural capital, however, this seems less a problem. A more relevant critique of the wholesale adoption of literary theory into art criticism will, unfortunately, return us directly into the field of cultural capital as well as returning to the structure of gossip tokens exchanged amongst the cognoscenti.

There is little question that the influx of literary theory has been beneficial for critical practices, particularly in lending a common vocabulary with which to ask questions that cannot be formulated in any other manner. Theory is also, and the anti-intellectual position gets this one right, difficult stuff from the start. Its very difficulty (some would say, its resistance) is what allows it to do ‘something’ above and beyond the intentions (whether conscious or structural) of the writer. This very slipperyness of the approach is no doubt tied to the primary motivation behind the slipping of structural thought into post-structuralism: namely, the recognition of the ambivalence that lies at the core of language. To dismiss theory for this reason, then, is hardly a wise decision.

Now, I suppose I can take this article in several directions at this point, one of which could be a jingoistic defence of the use of theory in a time when theory seems to be losing much of the column inches it once commanded, but that would be to ignore that the death of theory has been highly exaggerated. Certainly, there is a trend towards arts journalism as society page, and yet theory is far from losing its influence — never has criticism utilised more quotational practices than today. Perhaps, then, the real risk to theory has been its very success in infiltrating practices both critical and visual.

The very difficulty of theory lends itself to a situation where the most persuasive ‘users’ of it can very often pass themselves off as ‘experts’ — mediators between bodies of knowledge and a(n assumed) less savvy public. The position of the expert, at least according to Certeau (and yes, my practice of referencing does push me towards being the object of my own misgivings), is as a social authority and not (necessarily) as a practitioner. The very proliferation of quotational practices suggests as much. It is easier to quote theory and create the appearance of being an expert, than it is to enact theory as a practice.

In the process, the questioning that theory is so good at instigating becomes instead the answer offered in the process of mediation. The critical project becomes the act of explaining the work, of limiting the questions that the work posits. When criticism plays this role, not only is it most closely aligned with the process of the creation of cultural capital (for the critic, for the work itself, and, by implication, for the aquiescent reader) but it also claims authority over the proper reading of the work. By limiting the potential multiplicity of readings, the work being discussed is objectified into becoming merely illustrative of the theory being quoted.

While the content of this particular brand of criticism seems distant from the insider trading of gossip, the structure is (frighteningly?) similar — if not identical. The right quotations, and subsequently the ‘correct’ readings of works, become merely more tokens to be exchanged. Quotations become formal devices, convenient quick fixes to bolster a work into something that appears critical (to be fair, this is a practice that is not exclusive to critics). In the end, the surface content in both cases becomes an empty signifier of hidden secrets, and the ‘true’ content is the emptyness of the structure.

It’s at this point where I would have to turn to the work I had in mind when I began reworking this text. After all, I am entangled (at least professionally) in the field of criticism. I remain reluctant, however, unable to convince myself …

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1. A much shorter version of this article appeared as “A Response to ‘Fragments of a Work in Progress: Aspects of My Father’s House,’” Interplay  1:4 (April 1999), in response to Victoria Lewis, “Fragments of a Work in Progress,” The Photographers Gallery (Saskatoon). [this version published in BlackFlash]

2. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction:A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 1984). While the specifics of his analysis might only be applicable to the French context in which he is writing, his general scheme holds its strength in translation.

3. In this way, criticism functions in the same manner as curators, and any of the comments I have made concerning the status and functioning of criticism could be applied equally to curating as a practice, if not albeit more directly and transparently.

4. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 24-28.