Our Art and Its Texts (or Our Text and Its Art)

by Michael Pepi, December 2012

All around us, criticism is coming to terms with technology.

While such a transition invites endless pontification and analysis, the facile narrative that new technology dehumanizes art has long been exhausted. Socrates himself was skeptical of the deleterious effects that a popular innovation—writing—would have on the polis. Instead of resurrecting bromides or pitching battles on moral grounds, one might interrogate, without forming normative judgment, the more hidden ways that technology troubles the relationship between text and art.

Current debates surrounding new media art are but one facet of the larger crisis in text’s license to render explicit a relationship among meaning and form. Inquiry into such a totalizing conflict implicates several fields: linguistics, journalism, economics, art history, literature, computer science, digital humanities and even so-called “big data.” The convergence of these fields into the realm of the visual arts comprises what some have termed “Network Aesthetics.” Others locate these issues under the large umbrella of the “New Aesthetic,” a broad term that resists precise definition, though for many is a signifier for the “eruption of the digital into the physical.” Finally, the transition can be viewed from a materialist perspective, which proposes that the struggles of a cultural discourse are a reflection of disturbances in the economic structures of intellectual life. At the risk of making generalities, these three concerns might be purposely conflated to puzzle the various disruptions with which writing about art must contend.

Though their ideologies and style are unimaginably alien to each other, Baudelaire and Buchloh share the fundamental pattern where x writer makes claims about y practice wherein the entire equation functions as a form of mutual edification, dialectic exchange and bourgeois intellectual fulfillment. A function that was, for some, established by the Hegelian tradition in which art remains a “thing of the past” that does not merely exist for our “immediate enjoyment” but most importantly something whose appropriateness is forever “subject to our intellectual consideration.” William Wood refers to this “pain of separation and distance” as one of the primary ways that criticism has stood ontologically fixed, stubborn to the point of its own detriment.

As artists embraced new media, such work first shocked the prevailing discourse out of its standard formula. Critics and historians then began to create new frameworks in accommodation. The mechanics of criticism seemed again to have again arrived “late on the scene.” Art endured anti-aesthetics, postmodernism, post-skill, post-studio, not to mention every other radical upheaval of modernity; yet in this same period the intellectual and social imperative of the critic shifted only slightly. That is to say, below the surface changes, the debate and inscription of meaning relied primarily upon text. At present, however, we might consider the phenomenon that text’s very position as the primary means of this discourse about art is facing decline.

Digital Discourse

Today it is impossible for a work of art to come into the world without being swaddled in text. Language—very often in textual form—is required to insatiate and “see through” the translation of the abstract idea embodied in form. Nonetheless, the social act of writing about art is a period of swift transition. As the digital impulse progresses deeper into the avenues of authority, less and less of this text is supplied by way of the ideological framework of the critic. There is a paradox under which an efflorescence of text associated with art practice coexists alongside its negation: a certain “know-nothingness” in which the object is privileged to a grievous degree.

Though liberating on several fronts, this also comes at the very dear expense of contextual factors such as history, judgment and, perhaps most perniciously, a regulation of the commodity relations that overwhelm art as it is de-historicized by capital. Previously, art’s relationship to capital was superficially regulated by the fact that its inquiry enjoyed the status of a humanistic discipline. Recently several thinkers have tried to show how this relationship has been reformed by our digitized intellectual ecosystem.

While online publications and blogs are changing forms with boundaries still to explore, a general place has been circumscribed by their practice. For journalism, this has been disastrous. Few denizens of transforming, dying or dead newspapers will excuse the blog—pseudo journalism delivered anywhere, free of charge—as a device of disruption and destruction. The neoliberal counterpoint exists to say that such publishing opportunity democratizes culture. However it is clear that the hyper-pluralized digital publishing ecosystem has historic moral and emancipatory potential. It is difficult to mount an a priori case against it. Yet, as we begin to enter the second phase of such enlightenment, new questions emerge. We might examine the reign of page-view-oriented journalism, especially to the extent it structures page-view-oriented discourse, which later leads to page-view-oriented thinking…and on and on until our historical field is limited in a way unfathomable to archivists only a decade ago.

At the same time, the discourse of art has a peculiar anachronistic streak. In this sense art criticism falsely appears to be insulated against the “disruptive” wave of innovation that dominates the sciences. Some critics and art historians still compose their writings with the “site specificity” of certain nineteenth-century forbears, much in the same way that many artists still paint with oils and an easel. Further, the entire framework for the discipline of art writing is fixated on the myth of the lone researcher engaged in a noble search for aesthetic truth deep with the archives or museum, or an aesthetician who penetrates the physical shackling of an object to uncover its spiritual dimension.

In How Art History is Failing at the Internet, Getty Trust CEO James Cuno draws attention to how scholars and curators have not shifted their practices to incorporate new technologies. Beyond only a few material means having changed with the adoption of new tools, vestiges of the discipline’s foundational shibboleths persist. Art writing draws in equal part on the hermeneutic facilities once projected on the enlightenment salon, the poeticism of the Romantics and the research methods of the dusty, continental fathers of art history. With an eye towards the digital humanities, Cuno is most concerned that art historians are still “proprietary” of their scholarship. Freed only marginally from the careerist stringencies of the academy, the practice of art writing is no less guilty of this sin. Both are in a state one might characterize as an embrace of technology with Luddite arms. Far from being insulated from digital disruptions by virtue of some “site specific” quality of art and its experiences, criticism in fact passively reflects the ways in which the humanities have sought to leverage digitization in service to egalitarian and pluralistic ends.

For David Joselit, the “Epistemology of Search” has undone the framework in which art writing so comfortably functioned. This struggle was inaugurated by the “dislocation of images from any particular site, and their insertion in networks where they are characterized by motion.” In After Art (Princeton, 2012), Joselit mounts a historiography of art “after” the reality of rapid image sharing. The result is what he terms a “Network Aesthetic.”

Joselit replaces the Benjaminian aura with his concept of buzz as a proxy for image value: “The more points of contact an image is able to establish, the greater its power will be.” A creature of the digital age, buzz “arises not from the agency of a single object or event but from the emergent behaviors of populations of actors…when their discrete movements are sufficiently in phase to produce coordinated action.” He continues: “Such events are not planned or directed by a single focused intelligence.”

The discourse of art has now enhanced its form of power by dispensing with the distinctions of the medium. Medium is obsolete since “technologies” have the “capacity to transpose any work in sound, image, or text into numerical sequences—into code.” Joselit extends the logic of “site specificity” into the digital to show how images—characterized by their motion—are no longer witnesses to their history but rather constitute its very currency. Moreover, the ability to sort images and their data into coherent networks that approximate their real historical connections further reduces the need for a human arbiter to ascribe narrative meaning—the burgeoning field of “cultural analytics” inaugurated by Lev Manovich being one manifestation.

Finally, Joselit contends that the Renaissance phenomenon in which art has been folded in with humanist learning is nearing the end. As such, the method taken up by the critic or the historian cannot be interested solely in the disclosure of the meaning of the work of art. This even includes, one supposes, the strategic Marxist hermeneutics of the October group, the debased enlightenment criticism of mainstream arts journalism, or the belles lettres heirs to the Romantic tradition. The patterns of connections of the Internet—the very means by which the image explosion was realized—is what replaces the need for the single image to be understood or “read” by the unilateral directive of the critic.

The question for criticism quickly emerges. To wit, the art object is no longer a fundamental unit of analysis, and will no longer harbor a meaning as such. The Romantic era assumptions under which Ranciere claims that work of art was first viewed as an “object of thought” has been overturned. Under this rubric, the critic is no longer a reliable “reader of meaning.” Even the most self-reflexive and dialectical critical project will be ill-suited to find a logic for a work whose value, Joselit argues, is not to be found in its status as an object but as its resolution to be a “format” for content. This privileging of the “format” follows directly from the fascinating manner in which the digital regime constitutes its hegemony simply as a mid-wife to content generation through scalable sharing and read/write interactions.

Criticism as a Format?

Claire Bishop has likewise investigated the results of artistic and critical practice during a time when, in her words, the Internet is “our dominant social field.” By asking whether artists “thematize” the “digitization of our existence,” Bishop’s positions guide a similar interrogation for arts discourse. Invoking the “Read/Write” paradigm of Lawrence Lessig and Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media, Bishop’s controversial essay, “Digital Divide” (Artforum, October 2012), considers how “the Internet asks us to reconsider the very paradigm of an aesthetic object.”

Bishop’s essay on the digital comes short of implicating the critic in the new logic of the Internet. She thus spares the field what she achieved with her piercing critique of participatory art and social practice where, beginning in 2006, she highlighted the ways in which the practice’s stress on collectivism resulted in aesthetic judgments having been “overtaken by ethical criteria.” In “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” the 2006 Artforum essay that laid the ground for her book on the same topic, Artificial Hells (Verso, 2011), Bishop asserted that “what serious criticism has arisen in relation to socially collaborative art has been framed in a particular way: The social turn in contemporary art has prompted an ethical turn in art criticism.” In Artificial Hells, Bishop attempts to rectify the facile-yet-dominant polarities upon which we make assessments of such works: namely singular authorship (bad)/ collective authorship (good) or active/passive spectatorship.

We might pose a similar examination of the critical methodology as the aesthetic configurations of Joselit’s Network Aesthetic seep deeper into the contemporary artist’s thought process. Will our critical methodology fall into the same trap by extoling the work’s fidelity to the Network Aesthetic without commenting on its own inherent qualities of execution or display? Will critics exclusively pay attention to the degree to which artists such as Thomas Hirschorn, Rachel Harrison and Liam Gillick are able to facilitate “nodal connections,” establish “patterns of links” or “author provisional structures that channel content”?

The Marxist art historian Arnold Hauser reminds us that criticism is not a logically positivist discipline that, like science, adheres to a superindividual theory of validity. In a similar vein, Joselit aligns the visual with the concept of informal knowledge, as though the data produced by images is not knowledge in the formal sense. As Hauser explains: differing works of art do not “contradict” each other. By this he means that things are not “proven” by good art history. Rather, critical and historical statements are highly symptomatic and determined by their “circumstances of origin.” In our own time, the circumstances of digital regime have armed us with methods of recognition and cognition fit precisely for iterative, objective deduction and knowledge production; our criticism cannot help but passively reflect this drive.

In the essay “Critical Condition,” (Artforum, September 2012) Hal Foster laments the end of the grand recit style of criticism of the late 1960s and 1970s, whose intensity, earnestness and intellectual rigor made it the canon of modern art literature. Foster highlights and then diagnoses the critical device of “hypostatization” (the conversion of an aesthetic adjective to a noun to form a criterion—think “flatness”) as a defense mechanism against the late-modernists’ fear that kitsch, theatricality or the spectacle of happenings would deskill art and relocate its reception beyond the realm of aesthetic judgment. James Elkins offers the most cogent reading of the theory of that era. He points to Thomas Crow’s writings on minimalism, which determined that since such movements “engaged preeminently philosophic problems” they therefore “called for a philosophic criticism.”

Still, Foster is keenly aware of the pitfalls to that period’s model for criticism, and gently supports the notion that such an approach, spooked as it was by poststructuralism, is not fit for the current time. But in the end he asks us to consider just “what was lost when this concept was junked.” Foster’s remembrances should give one pause as October recedes deeper into a politicized and petrified academic irrelevance and its glossy cousin Artforum is merely tolerated by the intelligentsia as a signifier of market relevance.

How would one characterize the kind of discourse that is structured by contemporary art? In this vein, Benjamin Buchloh has recently observed that “artists have been increasingly integrated into an ever expanding structure of cultural control by mirroring….the apparatus of industrialized culture itself.” In one sense, theory of the anti-aesthetic and hypostatization of avant-garde practices have left much of the critical discourse a laughable enabler of the market.

In “Farewell to an Identity” (Artforum, December 2012), Benjamin Buchloh articulates what is now a major facet of the general crisis in criticism: “All criteria of the judgment of artistic objects were inevitably erased” as soon as the “radical, utopian sociopolitical horizons that had previously licensed avant-garde practices as agencies of actual transformation of cognition and perception had been foreclosed.” This development problematizes criticism due to its near total “effacement of criteria for evaluation.” Buchloh reminds us that originally the steady destruction of criteria was designed to dismantle classist exclusivity, collectivize cultural activity and eliminate the supposed mythical power of visual representations. Instead, an effacement of political and aesthetic criteria left us with artwork that meshed preposterously well with consumer culture, namely Koons, Hirst and Murakami. What once was a stridently leftist undressing of aesthetic judgment and hierarchy instead led us to the orgy that is Art Basel Miami Beach.

Thus, paradoxically, today’s art writer is confronted with an environment where theory still holds interpretive power, yet is being burned in effigy all around us. The prevalence of artists with practices located around the “inescapable order of spectacularization” delegitimizes the barrier existing between cultural production and pure spectacle now (literally) coded into the patterns of our digital consumption. This leaves us in a position wherein the author of such cultural production is totally removed from the sphere of the political or the social. Criticism, too, suffers from the same disqualifications accelerated by digital consumption. Mix in an even more materially determinist problem of the consolidation of the traditional relations of responsible journalism brought upon by the tyranny of the page-view, and Buchloh’s “de-professionalization” of the critic takes on two sources of generation: the ideological and the economic.

What about a return to judgment? Might criticism salvage a voice by reclaiming the act of enforcing criteria upon new practices, instead of reveling in its own self-reflexivity and dialectical strategies? Returning to the historically informed judgments of a medium-specific tradition (a “slowness of painterly perception”) would be, in Buchloh’s view, tantamount to advocating conservative position. In all such scenarios, Buchloh finds it “instantly plausible” that such an act might smuggle in reactionary bourgeois values or restore the “cultural privilege” that the project of late modernist criticism worked so hard to unseat.

Buchloh’s trouble with contemporary criticism is a high-water mark for the deep divisions and existential nausea that nearly all current critics feel towards their craft. One needs only to read the many responses to Irving Sandler’s questions to critics published in the Brooklyn Rail to find tract after tract of utter dejection. Or one can pore over the literature produced by the light industry now dedicated to debating and resolving the crisis in criticism (of which this essay is perhaps one small part). Do not the denizens of theory look back at the second half of the century and feel responsible for what was wrought by such a heavy-handed program? Such discourse hardly seems like a responsible steward of the humanist possibilities of the worthy debates inaugurated at the climax of modernism. In its very drive for objectivity and disavowal of a bourgeois subject position it eroded any connections to empirical inquiry, alienating it from academic art historical research. Instead we find that the only estate not scared off, but rather emboldened by the broad postructuralist alliance was, the neoliberal ethos of the market, more vulgar today that at almost any moment in history.

The moralizing of the anti-digital humanities proffers that a practice loses its very humanism once it becomes quantifiable. For visual art, such a transition away from the humanities renders the economic relations that sustain it even sharper relief. Such “data” introduces doubt about the weight of such a careful project of criticism, bound up as it was with an ever-receding picture of modernism’s Cold War individualism. Digitization and its attendant quantification, a form of capitalist marking, colonizes the voices of the Enlightenment (reason, ex cathedra assessment) and the Romantic (exhortation of spirit, beauty or a work’s inner logic) that now serve as market-enabling insipidity.

Why does all this threaten the critic and the craft of art writing? The stress of our text does not lay with the author or a specialized organization of history and judgment. Instead the text is a kind of pabulum that purposely lacks incisive theories launched by critic towards present modes of art making. Theories do exist, and they are grafted onto to practice. However they are either so autonomously alien to everyday experience to the point of disengagement with meaning, or they hail from other, more organized and productive fields, appearing in criticism only as Gladwellesque pseudo-intellectual hand-me-downs. Further, those who do the influential match making of theory to practice are often curators instead of scribes. Capitalism more readily tolerates such masturbatory intellectual posturing in a manner more compatible with the presentation of real objects (the curator) than with a printed discourse (the critic). The Internet functions as a kind of veil for ignorance; as a rhizomatic platform for the artist as agnostic visionary, freed from judgment, meaning or reflection. Under this cloak the curator and the capitalist muzzle the discursive critic who launches the traditionalist’s campaign against innovations in digital pluralism.

The museum’s role as a store for “real” images is undercut by Joselit’s formulation and the rise of digital epistemology in general. With the obsolescence of the symbolic identity of museum, art history’s attendant notions of authority face ruin. At the end of 2012, The Museum of Modern Art is displaying Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which despite its high-art ambitions is a species of Youtube practice known colloquially as the “supercut” that sprung into circulation thanks to the availability of digital video and editing software. Continuing in this trajectory, MoMA will eventually arrive at the point where it exhibits Youtube clips on the medium’s own terms, defensively re-appropriating the digital practice into its hegemonic space.

The museum and criticism have a dialectical relationship upon which judgment and ordering serve out mutual enlightenment ends. Consider again Hauser’s notion that it is only “by the concepts of art criticism and art history” that the airless, detached and ordered experience of the museum turns art “into comparable, compatible, comprehensible examples of one unitary human activity.” The discourse of art must ape its modes of display. Because Joselit’s digital images “can never again be site specific,” the currency of network systems will replace art’s existing currency, derived from the scarce, ordering of a limited collection of singular art works in a physical storeroom. In this formula, the Internet that facilitates Joselit’s “image motion” is a partial progenitor of ignorance of traditional art historical knowledge. The all-out aesthetic point of view is adopted—art is then that disinterested object form, totally removed from historical experience. For Joselit, its experience now may only lay in its dissemination, a process for which themuseum is little else than a prison.

Perhaps the most viewed and discussed piece of art of 2012 was Ecce Homo, a fresco by nineteenth-century Spanish painter Elias Garcia Martinez. The decaying depiction of Christ was “restored” to comic error by a local elderly woman. The finished product resembled a grade school rendition of a monkey, and the so-called “Beast Jesus” was born. The before-and-after juxtaposition of the original and its “restoration” was widely reported throughout the traditional media. Beast Jesus became historically relevant due to its “image motion.” Its afterlife as an internet meme accelerated this development to iconic proportions. Every period of art history has dealt with the figure of Christ in its own definitive way, summarizing its very worldview through its stylistic rendering and reception. Our period, likewise, offers Beast Jesus, an image whose authorship is pluralized, whose value was characterized by its digital motion, and for which no reliable critical reading would suffice to regulate its meaning.