Critical Reflections

By Shiff, Richard | Artforum International, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Critical Reflections


Shiff, Richard, Artforum International


Historians may seem to act as critics - they're as willing to pass judgment as the next person - but there is a difference. It's the business of historians to gather new information, or, if lacking that degree of industriousness, at least to become versed in the documentation assembled by others. So historians' interpretations tend to be guided by an array of whatever passes for fact at the moment. This gives their reckonings the aura of objectivity, as they appear to articulate conditions beyond the limited realm of each writer's own identity, personal interests, and immediate esthetic responses.

Always tenuous, such professional authority has now been thoroughly compromised. For better or worse, art historians today are acknowledging the arbitrary nature of their data, even to the point that they trust more to the rhetorical order of theory than to the orderly "facts" of recorded history. Like philosophy, theory can claim a certain global logic; yet it also retains local subjectivity by being identified with the particular stance and constructive effort of its writer/creator. A fact, in contrast, seems to belong to everyone, regardless of the politics of its finder. When interest in differentiating among subjectivities and identities (including gender and ethnicity) exceeds the concern for common property and collective agreement, universal "fact" loses its cachet.

Does the difference between what is subjectively plausible and what is objectively verifiable matter? Not necessarily, for whenever a guiding theory flows quickly and compellingly enough, it carries along the factual elements of its argument like a flood of debris; a few contrary facts don't divert a torrent of implication. Recognizing that, historians feel justified in borrowing documentation from luminaries such as Walter Benjamin, with no attempt to verify the alien writer's sources. Benjamin created a massive file of curious notes and rather disjoined bits of information, posthumously published as he left them. If it happens that he made some honest mistakes while copying at the Bibliotheque Nationale during the 1920s and '30s, or if he scrambled a reference or two, a remarkable number of academic studies of the '80s and '90s will have duplicated his errors. But they will suffer only if someone cares to inspect the construction. It's not that the accuracy of Benjamin's data isn't important enough to be checked, but that the enthusiasm for his work today has less to do with the documentary material he assembled than with his style of organizing, interpreting, and reorienting it.

Just as Benjamin combined bits of information from what others regarded as incompatible sources, so today's critics and historians quote diverse bits of Benjamin - both his fragmentary library notes and his abstruse philosophical statements - with little regard for the rhetorical differences or for the environment of the production of his various texts. Everything is simply there to be used: documentation and theory join in a reconfiguration of words, which becomes a new criticism and a new history. Barriers between the various academic and literary genres erode.

Like many others who have noted this effect of convergence and leveling, I associate it with what has become for us - at least during the postwar decades - customary critical practice, as much an aspect of life under late Modernism as under post-Modernism. Some view this practice as enriching the collective culture, others as devaluing its finest disfunctions. Compare the fact that critical theorists, philosophers, and estheticians contribute their rarefied thoughts to Artforum along with writers on current art and popular culture, who often choose a thoroughly journalistic style. Both types of submission seem proper. In an increasingly familiar turnabout, writers restate themes from popular culture in academic jargon, while abstract philosophical problems acquire their solutions in the modulations of a subculture or the passing cliches of an exhibition season. …

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