Every critical judgement of art is founded upon a decisive moment of discrimination (in the sense of demarcating), which is why discrimination and art criticism are inherently linked to one another. But how can a form of art criticism be developed that reflects social discrimination as well as its own discriminatory preconditions? And how can art criticism create criteria other than those that ultimately support economic developments within the market? The co-founder of Texte zur Kunst, Isabelle Graw, together with the art historian Sabeth Buchmann, explore these questions from a perspective that is as much contemporary as it is historical. In so doing, they take up the corresponding debates in the almost 30-year history of this magazine and (self) critically question their own tools of discrimination.
1. Our project amid the array of reproaches
Criticism is having a rough go of it these days. Detractors on all sides paint a picture of a practice in “crisis.” Criticism is said to be playing a “miserable game” (Bruno Latour) of knee-jerk suspicion and anti-empiricism, as though an ideological critique fixated on “power, society, discourse” were its only mode. More serious than such polemical dismissals, which we believe do not do justice to the problem, is the anti-modern call for a self-abolition of (art) criticism. Kerstin Stakemeier, for example, has recently argued that, because the art critic functions as a “citizen of a thoroughly financialized present,” art criticism is effectively in the business of “system-immanent value creation” (rather than “calling reality into question”). Criticism, she concludes, is instrumental to the “induction” of works of art “into the national cultural property,” which stabilizes the system, and so shares in institutionalized forms of discrimination in the guise of national assignations. And indeed, it is hard to deny that criticism – the inherent interconnection with discrimination is indicative enough – produces demarcations, distinctions, and valuations that correspond to and perhaps cater to institutional forms of discrimination.
In the following, we will take Latour’s polemic against the “hermeneutic of suspicion” as well as Stakemeier’s advocacy of an “anti-national” return to the “early Romantic universalism of art criticism” as exemplary points of departure for reflections on art criticism and discrimination. In light of these gestures of self-repudiation, which strike us as constitutive of art criticism, we will try to offer a different assessment of its contemporary social function.
We will have to pay particular attention to those forms of the critique of (art) criticism that take aim at the dominant modern modes of thought and categorical systems, examining their limitations as well as their potentials. Similarly, we will need to consider the (methodological) disunion of art criticism today between universalist and particularist conceptions of art. We will seek to take into account the valid objections to the reductionisms of (art) criticism based on social critique as well as the no less justifiable charge that its primary purpose is to shore up traditional privileges against pressure from groups victimized by structural discrimination. Ultimately, we hope to show that, despite the dilemmas and challenges we will sketch, viable options for art criticism remain.
2. Hermeneutics of suspicion
To complete the array of reproaches that have been leveled against art criticism, we also need to consider the attacks on it from the schools of thought known as New Materialism and speculative realism. One of their central arguments is that art criticism, situating itself between Kantian judgment and poststructuralist discourse analysis, is myopically focused on theories of subjectivity, identity, and language, and therefore blind to the subject-independent obstinacy of empirical realities and the distinctive agency of objects and materials. Our own perspective on art, which is informed by structuralism and psychoanalysis as well as social and cultural history, cautions against failing to recognize the share that subjective projection, imagination, and interpretation contribute to the “aesthetic” animation of dead – or, for that matter, organic – matter: the reference to forms of existence and agency independent of any subject, we believe, is insufficient to explain why specific material objects are selected in the name of art. It follows that New Materialism’s response to art is no less dependent on demarcations, distinctions, and valuations – the essence of criticism. Critical operations are manifestly also in play in discourses that regard criticism as obsolete. Moreover New Materialism’s sustained popularity may have something to do with its implicitly vitalizing revaluation of the material object, which promises to disempower the critical subject and the authority of criticism – a tendency that could not be more suited to the attitudes that prevail in the art world today. The neo-materialist reproach, after all, takes aim especially at conceptions of art criticism as a mode of social critique that underlies institutional analysis and its struggle against demeaning and humiliating mechanisms of exclusion. To the New Materialist, such critique is nothing but a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that reduces art to the discrimination of marginalized groups a medium of power interests to be exposed. In this perspective, the objections of critics are merely discursive effects dressed up in morality, and, for that matter, effects of discourses that stabilize the system and thus benefit from discrimination.
If we nonetheless insist that art and criticism are interdependent, it is because aesthetic objects and the subjects who produce them do not exist outside the mechanisms of social discrimination. Like other practices, art and criticism employ strategies of demarcation, distinction, and valuation that, on institutional and social levels, do help produce the exclusions, inequities, and disparagements that we argue must necessarily be the objects of any art criticism’s reflective self-examination. Such reflection on discrimination, however, offers no escape from the predicament that discrimination is implicit to art criticism. On the contrary, the latter can certainly be guilty of perpetuating discrimination.
4. A loss of distance and the concomitant alignment with the market’s values
The growing systemic weakness of critique is no doubt due in part to the consequences of changes in society at large; for instance, as early as the 1980s, postmodern theorists including Fredric Jameson and Donna Haraway observed a loss of critical distance, which they traced to multinational high-tech capitalism’s reconfiguration of the fabric of space-time. Their diagnoses echo in contemporary analyses of society: Wendy Brown, for example, argues that the complete transformation of “liberal democracy […] into market democracy” has undermined the “platform of critique.” Market democracy, she notes, makes it impossible to mobilize the “liberal democratic principles and expectations” required “to limit capitalist productions of value and market distributions.” Published a year before Trump’s election, the American political scientist’s study “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution” concludes that only the “capacity […] to limit the reach of market values” can sustain “critiques of those values and distributions.” Without trying to downplay the capitalist underpinnings of liberal democracy, Brown champions its “different lexical and semiotic register from capital” as an indispensable corrective. Art criticism, we believe, can be such a corrective when it sticks up for values that diverge from the conventional registers of the market, though without blinding itself to its own more or less pronounced involvement in market relations. Art criticism has a hand in market processes most basically because its production of meaning contributes to value formation – although given the growing power of auctioneers, collectors, and agents to set the terms of the debate, one should not overestimate its influence. At the same time, critics are capable of dissociating themselves from market processes by considering them from a distance and framing alternative criteria. Still, the claim to such disassociation often articulated by politically minded art critics presupposes the possibility of a standpoint outside (what Brown also describes as) economic reality, and that reality is obviously much more encompassing than the art market. Criticism’s distance vis-à-vis market relations, as Luc Boltanski has remarked, is necessarily fictional in nature. In this light, critique means insisting on a fiction of distance that allows reflection on and revision of the critic’s role while acknowledging her participation in capitalist market relations.
Plakat / poster ACT UP
There is a pitfall, however: when critiquing “the market’s values” if all that counts and reflection on the market is enshrined as the sole or at least paramount yardstick of the significance and critical capacity of art, the critique of capitalism can fail to break the market’s spell, merely inverting its preferences. The rise of the biennial format, structurally speaking a neoliberal vehicle, has produced paradigmatic examples: their agendas, which are typically presented as politically motivated and critical of the market, have proved capable of integrating and neutralizing even the most radical artistic and social critique. The alignment of these exhibitions with criteria of economic success – hardly surprising given their role in regional and/or national economies – is rarely considered within these presentations and usually ignored by the critical response as well. In other words, the introduction of anti-discriminatory programs here as elsewhere would need to be accompanied by an economic critique that calls the foundations of the “market’s values” in question, and this critique would paradoxically presuppose the distancing fiction or illusion of “other,” not purely economic values in order to put the ascendancy of the purely economic ones in perspective. This is not to say, however, that art criticism is especially well-positioned to bring down the ruling economic morality – far from it. As noted above, by acting as a corrective to the prevailing values, it is in fact apt to contribute to value formation. What is worse, the “other values” it proposes often amount to the establishment of a no less fictional belief system that manifests itself as a “jargon of criticality” and offers reflexive opinions with a strong air of self-righteousness. That is the unresolvable dilemma at the heart of critique: it must insist on the fiction of another world and standard of value while remaining embedded in capitalist relations.
Now, the post-Marxist leftist art discourse that emerged in the 1990s in these pages and elsewhere has availed itself of the “lexical and semiotic registers” that Brown posits as requisites for the possibility of critique. These registers have evolved and shifted in concert with the postmodernist skepticism concerning spatio-temporal figures of distance, primarily in the branches of critical studies – i.e., cultural, gender, and postcolonial studies. Reacting to what Brown describes as the “stealth revolution” of neoliberalism, they have, at worst, sometimes promoted it as well. We are thinking, for example, of the way that anti-discriminatory programs have helped modernize art institutions and lent legitimacy to their authoritarian and austerity-minded reorganization. Of particular interest for the questions of the present issue is intersectionality, a set of discourses that build on a mix of (post-)Marxist and poststructuralist theories of power and subjectivity: unlike earlier theories, including Marxism, intersectional categories of analysis focus neither primarily on class as the classical main contradiction, nor solely on gender, ethnic origin, or skin color. Instead, the guiding assumption is that power is typically exercised, and discrimination experienced, in multiple and contradictory ways at the same time.
Learning from the intersectionality framework, we hope, will help us understand discrimination as it informs the contemporary social situation, in which an analytically challenging “blend of authoritarianism, nationalism, conservatism, populism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and contempt for pluralism” , as well as anti-Semitism and sexism, is on the rise. This concern is all the more urgent because the art world, which had been converging toward a consensus endorsement of liberal democracy, has hardly been left untouched by these developments. That is why we believe it is important to scrutinize both conventional notions of autonomy and the “counter-values” proposed as alternatives to “the market’s values” by intersectionally inspired art discourses. A review of issues of, and essays in, Texte zur Kunst dedicated to institutional analysis that sought to combine methods of critical studies with approaches from social history, the new art history, and more recent sociology shows that those “counter-values” are typically based on hypothetical “latitudes” and “margins,” on “rifts” and “cracks” in the “system.” Yet the insistence on counter-values immanent to the system, we believe, needs to be distinguished from romantic stock fantasies of subversion as much as from the popular idea of a voluntaristic subject capable of undermining the laws and constraints of the market without getting tangled up in its own contradictions. The latter is an argumentative trope that often figures in institutional exhibition programs and magazine and catalogue essays by politically minded art historians: they all trust they can agree on those “lexical and semiotic registers” – the abovementioned “jargon of criticality” – that, as Brown has argued, have long been eviscerated in the dismantlement of liberal democracy by the instruments of neoliberalism. Here as elsewhere, art criticism and discrimination prove to be inextricably connected.
6. Identity politics vs. formal analysis
The Wohlfahrtsausschüsse – anti-racist coalitions of cultural leftists, including associates of this magazine, and political activists from the radical Left that formed in response to the arson attacks on refugee shelters in eastern Germany around 1992 – already recognized the incipient radicalization of the political center and sought to bridge the gulf between art and politics. That turned out to be easier said than done, and the episode exemplifies the general observation that waves of political mobilization in the art world are impossible to sustain for very long. The short-lived Wohlfahrtsausschüsse also illustrated the difficulties and limitations of this kind of project: sexism, for instance, was never more than an issue raised by the few women involved in the initiatives. The official tenor was that it was not just a side contradiction, but that is how it was treated. On the level of methodology, the mutual hostility between aesthetics and politics that the Wohlfahrtsausschüsse sought to overcome has flared up with some regularity in the debates in these pages; consider, for instance, the symposium “Methodenstreit” in 1997. One influential opponent of the approaches rooted in the postmodernist discussion of modernism that are associated with this magazine – social and feminist history, the new art history, recent tendencies in sociology and cultural and visual studies – was the art historian and critic Rosalind E. Krauss. But her contribution to the symposium also reads as a response to conflicts within the editorial board at October. Douglas Crimp, for one, had championed a politically committed art criticism allied with queer creative practices and AIDS activism – a program that Krauss rejected, arguing that art should be judged not by the standard of specific interests but by its ability to defend an exclusive aesthetic experience that resisted cooptation by the culture and commodity industries. That controversy is the primal scene, as it were, of an ongoing dispute that has been waged in this magazine as well: between an identity-political criteriology and one grounded in formal aesthetics. And then there has always been a parallel second strand – see, for example, the issue on identity politics in 1991 – of attempts to resolve the antagonism between identity-political and formal-aesthetic approaches (by running, say, an essay on ACT UP side by side with an interview with Martin Kippenberger). In other words, one of our first issues sought to demonstrate that sensitivity to the concerns of identity politics did not necessarily conflict with an interest in questions of formal aesthetics. In any case, aesthetic experience, contrary to what Krauss seemed to think, is not a category divorced from the sphere of commodities and values, as later issues on the art market and the question of value sought to show.
Martin Kippenberger, „Was ist Ihre Lieblingsminderheit. Wen beneiden Sie am meisten“, Plakat / poster, 1985/86
Then as now, an ostensible universal – be it aesthetic experience or social reality – is played off against the particularity of identity. We encounter the same pattern in today’s political debates, where right-wing critics of identity politics like to accuse the exponents of these struggles of distracting from society’s real problems. We should firmly disavow this contemporary tendency, which, as Cornelia Koppetsch has pointed out, is a new iteration of the old game of class politics v. identity politics. She compellingly argues that historical class struggle already evinced an identity-political dimension: it was fought for the interests of white heterosexual men. Conversely, as Aram Lintzel has noted in a review of Lea Susemichel and Jens Kastner’s book “Identitätspolitiken,” identity politics implicitly contains a universal dimension. Identity-political movements such as Black Lives Matter, the authors write, are effectively always concerned with society as a whole: “the point is not that black lives should matter more than or differently from other lives, it is that they should simply matter as much as all others.” Identity-political demands, that is to say, transcend particular interests and cannot be reduced to them.
The issue is complicated by the fact that any identity-political struggle is compelled to refer to the very fixed definition of a group that it seeks to escape. Renée Green sketched this difficulty in her brilliant essay “I won’t play Other to your same” in the Texte zur Kunst issue on identity mentioned above. If the inclusion of her voice threatened to cast her as a victim of discrimination, the American artist refused to let herself be confined to this role. The later issues on sexisms and feminisms accordingly revolved around the question of the significance that an identity conceived as “plural” has for the art-critical interpretation especially of works that bring their author’s identity into play. It struck us as inappropriate, a kind of pigeonholing, to consider such works solely through the lens of identity, but to ignore the issue altogether would be no less questionable, effectively depoliticizing art. As early as the 1990s, in other words, we understood identity to be one factor among many that can inform works of art without determining them in every respect. The challenge for art historians was and still is to do justice both to the material specificity of the work and to the social and historical parameters that have left their imprint on it.
7. The decline of liberal democracy
But what about the expectation that making anti-discrimination normative by writing it into law may restore the critical distance, vis-à-vis “the market’s values,” that is essential for liberal democracy? Wendy Brown makes short work of such hopes. Her pessimistic diagnosis builds on a careful reading of Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2013, in which he promised that old elites that had acquired power by undemocratic means would be replaced by new ones based on anti-discriminatory principles. Looking back today, two years after Trump’s election, and with reactionary right-wing and even fascist autocracies on the rise around the world, Obama’s program reads almost like a counter-revolt that was stealthily eliminated. But as Brown argues, it was also a manifestation of a mode of rationality committed to “economic growth” above all else. The revision of democracy that Obama outlined, which would be a necessary prerequisite for the institutional implementation of social justice for non-white and non-male-heterosexual people, never happened. On the contrary, individuals who, not so long ago, were to be given rights that should go without saying now learn that they are the designated targets of vicious hate speech and violent exclusion. The hope of political inclusion has been dashed by a fresh wave of stigmatization.
Brown pinpoints the realignment of anti-discrimination efforts under the banner of “economic growth” as a key moment in the self-inflicted decline of liberal democracies. Not surprisingly, the art market and the world of art auctions present a similar picture: diversified subject positions are regarded quite simply as a resource to be mined for surplus value. The success that many artists of color are currently enjoying in the market is long overdue, but it is also the product of a business trend that poses no real challenge to the art world’s structural racism.
The subordination of anti-discrimination to “economic growth” as the overriding “ultimate goal of the nation” made it only too easy for Trumpism to pin the blame for the impact of neoliberalism – the fact that “hard work” no longer “leads to decent living” – on the Left. Trump’s flagrantly discriminatory embrace of “the market’s values,” unlike Obama’s, no longer requires the participation of the many, whose voices and interests might have sustained the aspiration to a range of values other than economic success. These values are reflected, for instance, by anti-discriminatory conceptions such as otherings, queerings, and decolonization, although we may ask, with Brown, whether these are mere conceptual and semiotic fictions or actual viable categories for a rethinking of (the fiction of) critical distance vis-à-vis “the market’s values.”
Art and criticism are implicated in an ensemble of mechanisms of social discrimination, but they are also capable of adopting a “critical” stance toward discrimination. The paradox we have sought to highlight – that art criticism discriminates and is capable of reflecting on social discrimination – strikes us as the root of criticism’s challenges as well as its potential. We believe, moreover, that if criticism undertakes a critique of society and power, it needs to subject its own involvement to scrutiny as well, though we would caution against a purely reflexive self-criticism that finds a kind of comfort in the mere admission that it occupies a position in the field. If we claim that art criticism is a “medium of the reflection on social discrimination,” we do not merely mean that it analyzes the unequal, unfair, and demeaning treatment that some members of society face. We also argue that reflection on, or more accurately speaking, destabilization of its own position (which is never more than temporary) is the necessary condition for art criticism’s laying itself open to challenges to its situated and time-bound judgments. Given the systemic weakening of critique under a neoliberal regime in which the market’s values reign supreme, criticism must confront its fundamental predicament: participation in the production of value is one of its defining features, and yet it needs to articulate a distance from these values of the market. We do share Brown’s conviction that this project of critique requires alternative semiotic and conceptual registers, such as the category of intersectionality. Yet these registers often engender a fiction of their own, one that expresses itself in a (self-righteous) jargon of criticality. As we have also sought to show, the critique of capitalism and thinking in economic terms can neatly complement each other. Our hopes for anti-discriminatory measures enacted by state authorities will have to remain modest as long as such measures are subject to an economic rationality. As we see it, anti-discriminatory conceptions can emerge as viable counter-values only when their proponents are cognizant of how their ideas are complicit in the market’s values and include those entanglements in their analysis.
Translation: Gerrit Jackson
Title Image: Stephan Dillemuth, „Etwas besseres als die Nation“, 1993, Filmstill