This anniversary issue of Texte zur Kunst is dedicated to the question of the “canon” – a decision motivated, in part, by the need to reflect on our own role: after twenty-five years, this journal has become the sort of institution that helps define the canon. In the past quarter-century, we have not only vigorously promoted certain methods of critique, we have also played a crucial part in fostering the careers of numerous artists. By devoting our 100th issue to a debate regarding our own practice with a particular view to how the canon is formed, we want to turn the spotlight on the fact that, although the rejection of hegemonic cultural phenomena is central to TzK’s mission, critique always also manifests itself in affirmative stances. That is why we asked longtime contributors, artists, and selected younger critics to each come out in favor of one or several artistic practices after 1990, the year Texte zur Kunst was founded, and to explain their choice and the underlying methodological premises. What makes a particular practice interesting and relevant now, and why do I believe that engaging with it is vital to the mission of helping readers navigate the diverse field that is contemporary art today?
The canon, we argue, is the locus of active art-critical debate. This view thus puts us at odds with the standing, conservative idea of the canon: that the tradition as an integral ensemble is binding, simply because it is there. This idea is not just naturalizing and authoritarian, it also unduly simplifies the reality of the canon. The latter does not coincide with tradition, which always already surrounds us in a way that informs our beliefs and preferences. Crucially, it also incorporates value judgments that are subject to change, and so it embodies the active – the critical – embrace of the tradition. Although the position of critique can never entirely disregard the tradition it questions, it is capable of dislocating aspects of the contemporary hegemonic conception of the tradition, challenging its narratives and criteria, or repudiating premises of the cultural community it invokes. To the extent, then, that “canon” designates the dynamic contention between critique and the totality of the tradition, it is essentially in dispute. The feminist and post-colonial critiques of the canon – two discursive lines this journal has explored – have offered especially compelling demonstrations that much more than just the past is at stake in the canon’s ongoing controversy; arguing over the correct account of our history, we always also grapple with the conception of the present it informs and the future toward which it orients that present. In this regard, the normative discourse of the canon is intertwined with the discourse of progress; it is here that art criticism touches on politics.
It follows that there is no thoroughly neutral reference to the canon, even when the question at hand is what to make of a particular point of art history. Any such reference must be understood to be an argumentative intervention, a move in a playing field in which all parties always also pursue their own interest in winning wide recognition for that which they present as canonical. The dispute over the canon, in other words, always involves claims to universal validity. Yet the fate of a proposed revision of the canon – whether counter perspectives on the tradition it entails gain general acceptance – is beyond the control of its advocates: the success (or failure) of such efforts is itself a historical phenomenon, emerging in an intersubjective process in which arguments are exchanged and novel objections are to be expected even in phases of consensual calm. “Canon,” then, also designates a dynamic interplay between the particular and the general, between I and we.
This dynamic, moreover, involves processes of canon formation – processes driven by assertions that this or that contemporary phenomenon is potentially canonical. Yet as the contributions to the present issue illustrate, such assertions are not primarily bets on the future; they are not motivated primarily by the hope that the positions a critic endorses will remain true, eventually becoming widely recognized. Rather, they initially serve to explicate the criteria of canonicity in regards to a specific object: what becomes part of the canon and why? This inquiry may result in the confirmation, evolutionary modification, or critical dislocation of established criteria or even their outright substitution by new ones. The debate over the canon, then, lets us observe in concentrated form what is going on in all art criticism even when it does not expressly address canonicity itself. To defend positions in art – as art – that tackle, say, the myth of the male artist, the central role of media-specificity in modernist discourse, the blindness of the bourgeois ideology of art to the relations of production, or the privileging of Western art discourse (to mention only a few major motifs in the criticism this journal has engaged in the past twenty-five years) is to change the criteria of value formation, and in a way that also affects our relationship to the past. The stances we take today always imply at least the possibility of different genealogies, different hierarchies, different ideas of value and inclusions. What had been marginalized may become the new focus of attention; so may previously disregarded aspects of ostensibly well-established practices.
By devoting this issue to the “canon,” then, we do not mean to conclude the debate; on the contrary, we hope to shed light on, and initiate discussion of, a normative field that has coalesced around a concrete institutional formation: this journal. As the contributions reveal, Texte zur Kunst is hardly a monolithic enterprise; from the outset, our endeavor has been driven by a range of different critical interventions and sustained by diverse, evolving, and occasionally incompatible lines of critical argument. On the other hand, the issue also demarcates the common ground that accommodates these differences: not only shared basic convictions and theoretical or artistic points of reference, but also a social milieu built on friendships and nourished by institutional structures (galleries, Kunstvereine, museums, art schools, universities). This milieu is a product of critical labor as much as it is an effect of contingent factors. Several contributions offer astute reflections on both the canon’s inclusionary and its as exclusionary effects and examine why certain aspects, even though they fall within the purview of this journal, go unaddressed while others are held to be relevant.
Such critical self-scrutiny is part of the vindicatory discourse in which we would explicitly embed the discussion of the canon, the discussion of our own practice: the pretension to a universal dimension implied by the idea of the “canon” is inextricably bound to the specific situations and positions from which we argue. Our views would have no claim to validity if we did not spell out our arguments – and expose them to potential counter-arguments. As the culture around us increasingly operates with generalized “likes” that effectively uphold the primacy of economic considerations, we believe it is imperative to insist on the vital importance of argumentative and normative debate.
In this spirit, the present issue is first and foremost a call for the ardent continuation of art-critical contention.
Translation: Gerrit Jackson