Why art criticism?
An extensive collection covering the 1700s to the present day demonstrates the elasticity and openness of the form.
Why art criticism? : a readeredited by Beate Söntgen and Julia Voss, Hatje Cantz, 471 pages, $35
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The title sounds like a plea: explain yourself, art critic, what have you done now? If that is the case, Why art criticism? is named deadpan. This collection, edited by art historians Beate Söntgen and Julia Voss, presents excerpts from forty-five writers whose work, listed in chronological order, spans 258 years. (These—proper disclosure—include 4Columns contributor Aruna D’Souza.) We move from Denis Diderot’s salon review to Jennifer Higgie’s Instagram post, from Marxist-inspired analyzes to playful imaginary dialogues. Editors know this menagerie is too varied to control. The goal, they write, is a “taxonomic record” of art criticism to date, not a “history or genealogy”: histories and genealogies have inherent purposes, but you can extend a taxonomy as far as you want.
As you travel through space and time, you begin to form clear opinions about who is in and who should have been out. It’s hard to see why historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy is the only author to appear twice, or how Stefan Germer, whose forehead may be high or low, is done justice by the excerpt here. Conversely, you have to love Sergei Tretyakov and his constructivist mania. The Soviet writer tells us that “in fighting against the professional photographer, we are fighting against people’s habit of lying about themselves” and declares that some trees in the USSR rot “irresponsibly”. Why art criticism? can be stretchy – Mark Sinker’s article on Afrofuturism talks about jazz, or whatever you call Sun Ra – and even a little weird: Roland Barthes defines disgust as a “panic erection”, then compares it to the kitchen, and Georges Bataille makes a silky reference to Miró’s work as “a kind of dust illuminated by the sun”. What I especially appreciated, after hours spent in the wild grass, were the flashes of quirky spirit. It’s there in Roger Fry and “Mary Josephson” (read: Brian O’Doherty); in Lynne Tillman and Hito Steyerl; and even in Julia Voss, whose Markus Lüpertz withdrawal is acidic enough to excuse her for including herself. Less witty, and stranger in a scholarly book, is a sketch of the Venice Biennale by the late curator Igor Zabel; in its lazy, stereotypical scene, Americans in shorts want “oono cappucheeno”, Japanese men carry flashy cameras, and “useless Slovenes and Poles” throw their trash in the streets.
Each multi-page entry is preceded by a preface of several hundred words. These feature the author at your fingertips, and since they’re written by academics…Why art criticism? was born in 2019 from a symposium in Lüneburg – they can go too quickly from facts to majestic analysis. At worst, that is to say often, their prose is a hymn to inelegance. “Impactful” is used as an adjective, “seismograph” as a verb. In the introduction, Söntgen and Voss declare their aversion to “generally binding critical standards”, because such things are “problematic” – that word should be illegal by now – although they also disdain “trench warfare in which different approaches to art criticism have been pitted against each other.
This goes to prove that “readers” are akin to buffets: unlike a tasting menu, you can skip the bits you don’t like without being rude. Maybe you want Coomaraswamy’s The Indian craftsman (1909), a decolonial study of craftsmanship in British-ruled India; maybe you want “I Committed a Happening” (1967) by Oscar Masotta, an Argentinian journal about the eponymous act. But whether in subject or in manner, they are hardly engaged in the same pursuit, and although Why art criticism? has a lot of scope – if that was the mandate, it’s a success – one gets the impression, by bringing together writers as dissimilar as Francis Ponge and Patrick Mudekereza, and separating their work with prefatory sanitary cord, editors turned a party into a grand but cold museum. This museum may be difficult to increase – although personally I would have added Frank O’Hara, James Elkins and Vernon Lee – but the problem is the way it is organized. According to the editors, they tried “to bring diverse voices and perspectives into a conversation with each other,” but it’s unclear how such a “conversation” works. Since these excerpts are not intrinsically linked – readers have orders, not plots – the task of guessing what they are saying to each other is a tricky and dubious thing. Within a few pages, your attention settles, you become engrossed in what you’re being told, then a preface breaks the spell, pulling you out and onwards.
The fickle nature of the format just makes you critical instead. Jostled from writer to writer, you blanch before the enigmatic, or the abstract, or the bad. For every Tillman or Zabel there is a Germer, offering a “thesis” on “postmodern” art criticism that is understandable but grimly worded: “Standards for the sphere of art production will be ‘coming. . . be neither qualitatively determined nor able to claim absolute validity”. Maybe it was sexier in the German original, and Germer wasn’t always in that mood, but you don’t have to be intimidated by writing like that, by his implicit belief that his specialization makes him special in one way or another. Style, among other things, is a matter of mutual respect.
That, if you’re not looking for a reference guide, is the value of Söntgen and Voss’s book: it’s a practical primer on the uses and abuses of art-critical prose. It may not be as fashionable as analyzing, say, ideology, but it is just as instructive, and perhaps more: the humanity of a voice lies in its tone, a affective quality that you ignore if you treat speech as information and the public as receptacles. When Fry attacks the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema with a scalpel, calling them “very good, pure and wholesome margarine”, the invective is vivid not only because of the image, but because its rhythm has a vicious grace. I might disagree with him, just like I might disagree that Vanessa Bell’s paintings are worth my time, but the deal is goodbye. Enthusiasm is not a thesis, but an affair of the heart.
Cal Revely-Calder is Senior Art Editor at Telegraph. He wrote for art forumthe Nationand the Mock examand is working on a book on melodrama.
An extensive collection spanning the 1700s to the present demonstrates the elasticity and openness of form.