Art Criticism: Mark Prince on the Slippage between the Boundaries of Art and Criticism

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Art criticism is a discipline distinguished by the permeability of its boundaries. It is always straying into--or being strayed into by--the surrounding fields of art history, philosophy, literature and visual art itself. Many commentators, in attempting to define its remit, are inclined to shore up this slippage by specifying what it is not, or prescribing what it should be. Michael Newman distinguishes it from art history in its reliance on judgement, and its lack of self-consciousness of its own history. The two points share an emphasis on aesthetic subjectivity, as distinct from historical objectivity. James Elkins, meanwhile, laments art criticism's renunciation of the faculty of judgement--at least since the 1970s--in favour of description spiced up with theory.

'Judgement', with its Kantian resonances, is a word that seems to recur. Geoffrey Hill, discussing TS Eliot and FH Bradley, finds in a line from Bradley's Essays on Truth and Reality, 1914--'to get within the judgement the condition of the judgement'--a description of both the poetic and critical act. He finds in Bradley an early intimation of Eliot's concept of 'objective correlative': the emotion of poetic language justified by the theatrical events which give rise to it (the phrase first crops up in Eliot's 1919 essay on Hamlet). Bradley had written of 'the uniqueness' of 'the "this" of feeling' being 'made "objective"'. That word 'within', bridging the two halves of the line I quote above, suggests how the slippage of criticism's parameters might be its essence, reconciling the insistent subjective/ objective binary, and intimating a symbiotic identification between art and critical commentary. The 'condition of the judgement' may comprehend historical context and objective critical witness, but it also covers 'the "this" of feeling': the subjectivity of art itself. Opening up to objectivity or gathering back to subjectivity, Bradley's 'judgement' encompasses both positions.

Eliot, in his roles as both poet and critic, came up against what this symbiosis might involve in practice. For its first publication, in 1922, he tacked a series of notes onto the end of The Waste Land, a poem notoriously dense with literary allusion. He was later to disown them, claiming they had obscured more than they revealed and encouraged a belief that access to a few arcane source references could 'explain' the poem. The notes resemble the work of an eccentric editor. At times, a peculiar tone creeps in, or rather an unfamiliar combination of tones, as Eliot shuttles between the formal language of annotation and a more personal, even confessional note. Offhand recollections are scattered among lines of neutral reference. Where these tones clash he seems to be recognising an irony in applying the critical language of an editor to his own poetry, and finding himself unsure of how and where his roles, of critic and poet, should intersect. Critical exegesis and self-revelation surrender to each other, and the fusion generates an unfamiliar electricity.


Artists of the 1960s, particularly those associated with Conceptual Art and Minimalism, offset critical language--in interviews and supplementary texts--with art which borrowed something of the pseudo-objective air of these documents. It is a commonplace that early Conceptual Art incorporated criticism into the artist's job description. For Newman, this is a usurping of the function of one discipline by the other. He sees art theory--'often carried out by the artists themselves'--'replacing' art criticism. Certainly, it was at this point that a symbiosis between the disciplines became explicit, self-conscious, even performative. Robert Morris's Box with the sound of its own making, 1961, might stand as a neat embodiment of Bradley's self-circling statement as well as the moment at which the phenomenology of Minimalism became self-reflexive. …


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