Criticism V Critique: JJ Charlesworth Critiques Critique

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The problem of what art criticism is, can or should be continues to be an itch everyone wants to scratch, and it's spreading. At Tate Britain in December, for the newly established annual lecture of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) UK, US academic James Elkins cheerfully reasserted his argument that there is currently no clear definition or common understanding of what art criticism is or does, no canon of art critical writing, and no coherent methodology that might define it as a discipline. A few days earlier, to mark its 20th anniversary, the Berlin-based journal Texte Zur Kunst had put on a conference (published in its March issue) to address 'the fundamental question of the relationship between art criticism and social critique', at which publisher Isabelle Graw proposed a 'rethinking of methodology' at a time when 'art critics and art historians tend to opt for an eclectic mix of methods without ever reflecting them explicitly'. In October last year, Irish magazine Circa relaunched itself--albeit briefly--as an online publication, its first issue devoted to examining the magazine's role as a space for 'criticism and criticality'. Meanwhile, coming out of Canada, the Vancouver-based magazine Fillip published the results of a 2009 forum, in its collection Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism, with contributors as diverse as Tirdad Zolghadr, Tom Morton, Maria Fusco and Diedrich Diedrichsen, with an afterword by the prolific and now seemingly ubiquitous Elkins.

So while the 'crisis of criticism' rumbles on, it is becoming a more energetic and internationalised debate; it is--perhaps only tentatively--starting to give shape to a key division in the recent history of how critical reflection about art relates to the context that produces art. This division could be characterised as the historic split between 'criticism' and 'critique', and the double impasse now facing both these trajectories. While the field of art criticism, in terms of the writing of commentary on the day-to-day production of art in art magazines and newspapers, tends to be seen as racked by self-doubt regarding its co-option by the art market and the culture industry, and uncertainty about the troubled question of 'judgement', the continued existence of this field of 'everyday' criticism nevertheless nags away at those who defend a more theoretically grounded criticism of art, but who find themselves frustrated by the exhaustion of the theoretical and methodological trajectories whose heyday was the art theory of the late 1980s and 90s.

For the editors of Texte zur Kunst, for example, the symposium, titled Wo Stehst Du, Kollege? (Where Do You Stand, Colleague?), provided an opportunity to review the magazine's evolving commitments to certain key methodologies and theoretical paradigms, some older, others more recent. While one section reviewed the continued critical value of the social history of art approaches to criticism, another acknowledged the resurgence of aesthetics in contemporary debates, alongside a third examination of how theories of the 'biopolitical' could inform discussions of the relationship of art to the increasingly administered realm of cultural economy and 'immaterial labour'.

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What emerges from the overlapping discussions of these three strands although barely alluded to by any of the contributors--is a tension regarding the problematic site of human subjectivity and the agency of the human subject when confronted with the deterministic implications of many of the theoretical approaches that have come to dominate current critical debates on art and culture. So while Graw seeks to defend the insights provided by the tradition of the social history of art, and its 'shift in focus--away from the art work "as such" and on to the social conditions of its production and reception', she acknowledges that 'when art works are related to social conditions, for instance, the latter often turn into a "deterministic causation" . …