In Defense of Question-Seeking Criticism ‹ Literary Hub

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“Why Is the Sky Blue and Other Questions Regarding Writing” was originally published in Documents, no. 7 (Fall 1996): 16–19. A version of this paper was given at the panel “The Voices of Criticism,” organized by Janet Kraynak and held at Basilico Fine Arts, New York, on June 27, 1996.

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As a question, “What is criticism?” is on par with “Why is the sky blue?” I know I know the answer, but I can never remember it. When confronted with the question, I often experience a kind of sputtering effect; my sentences become punctuated with “and” and “but.” So my remarks here will operate in that manner: they will take the form of numbered ruminations, the conjunctions between which may be somewhat associative.

1. I never describe myself as an art critic or a cultural critic, although I have performed acts that people associate with those roles. I like to think of myself as a writer before any other institutional affiliation. I write in large part because I love to read. I love reading because I like to experience how other people’s minds work. This is also, by the way, why I like art. I write something that corresponds to the term criticism because it is often the best way to figure out what I think. I tend to write about things that I don’t fully understand because writing helps me to understand them better. I also write about things I love. I have a bad habit of falling in love with art objects.

We want to explain, to convince, more than we want to ask questions or pose problems.

2. The writing that appeals to me the most tends to capture a series of seemingly opposed terms. Doing so, it seems to acknowledge some of the problems bound up in the notion of criticism. I am drawn to writing that embodies the texture of the everyday but also has an acute sense of the historical (and because it seems appropriate to name names, I will give examples as I go; here, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station). I like writing that straddles the divide between subjective immersion in the material and a more traditional sense of objectivity between itself and its object of inquiry, writing that exhibits a personal sensibility, yet is also somewhat aloof (Leo Steinberg’s essay “Other Criteria,” Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida). I prefer criticism that is generative of questions and possibilities to criticism that is prohibitive or corrective (Miwon Kwon and Dave Hickey).

What I desire most from criticism, and is often the hardest thing to find, is writing that is highly tuned to the problematics of the relational. By this I mean writing that is aware of the difficulties of positing and/or describing the relations between art objects, their makers, their historical conditions of possibility, and their various interlocutors. In other words, work that pays close attention to what happens when you put something called theory or history next to something called an art object (Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines, Carol Armstrong’s Odd Man Out, Molly Nesbit’s essays on Duchamp). This is to suggest what criticism is, for me.

3. Terry Eagleton begins his book The Function of Criticism with the assertion that criticism has no function. He argues that criticism developed as a form of protest against an absolutist state, and that its historical transformations have tended to be intertwined with changing systems and formations of power and state apparatuses. In other words, criticism has an intimate relation to the public sphere, both making it possible and helping to bring about its demise. Eagleton ends his book by stating that while criticism currently has no function, it must create one for itself, and that its task should be to fight the bourgeois state.

The problem with this argument and others like it is that we don’t live in a bourgeois state. The terms of our world are structured by multinational global conglomerate capital. There is, in this regard, no public sphere (in the broadly Habermasian terms in which Eagleton understands it) for criticism to operate in or against. This may be one of the reasons for the development of cultural studies, an academic interdiscipline which sets out to examine the “anti-public sphere” of the entertainment industry. The impulse behind cultural studies is not wrong, especially the notion that consumers can be active rather than simply passive participants in their culture. The problem is that cultural studies has largely taken as its field an extremely narrow, albeit incredibly popular, segment of cultural expression. It sees popularity or numbers as generating interest as such. In so doing, it frames practices that have smaller fields of interest, expertise, or constituents as either elitist or uninteresting. Or, conversely, cultural studies discourse has tended to privilege the marginal as such, assuming a kind of inherent radicality in subcultural or youth culture formations.

Unfortunately, many art historians and critics feel threatened by the development of cultural studies (an anxiety felt in other disciplines as well). Certainly art magazines have turned to fashion and everything under the sun but art in order to be as hip as cultural studies. This is slightly confusing, given the fact that art is more popular now than ever before. Even though the culture wars are evil and ridiculous, they have focused an incredible amount of energy on art. And we need only think of the Vermeer and Cézanne shows, and the use of contemporary art in city festivals and tourist junkets, to see how “in demand” art is at the moment. These developments should not be read merely as cynical, corporate-sponsored gestures designed to dupe the public through an elaborate public relations ruse.

They are that, of course, but the public is also flocking to see “art.” And while we need to remain aware of what “use” art is put to, if we imagine it put to no use or not open for ideological manipulation, then perhaps we have imagined art to exist in a separate sphere after all. But both cultural studies and art specialists have made a common error, of not seeing the interrelations between various manifestations of visual culture. We have set up an either/or situation instead of an apparatus that is able, or willing, to account for “both.”

4. Historically, America has been suspicious of intellectuals. Leo Steinberg has argued that American artists have often wanted to be seen as “workers,” doing everything they could to distance themselves from the notion of “art.” Critics have been similar, billing themselves as “cultural workers” and preaching high political value for their articles. This means we have not embraced terms like uncertainty or failure in our writing or in the way we approach objects and problems. We want to explain, to convince, more than we want to ask questions or pose problems.

Given the absence of a viable public sphere, the task may not be to resuscitate an older, corrective model of criticism but to be more open and inventive in our current approaches to culture, for its terms, too, have changed dramatically. And if in fact criticism has no function, then perhaps we shouldn’t try to defend it on the grounds of functionality. After all, do acts of interpretation need to be justified as such? Do we need to make huge claims for the status or function of criticism?

If in fact criticism has no function, then perhaps we shouldn’t try to defend it on the grounds of functionality.

5. We live in a culture that rewards stupidity and mediocrity. We live in a nation of increasing homogeneity and “surburbification.” We live in a culture that equates being smart with being elitist. We live in a country, and especially this state and city, that has no regard for education. In my (relatively short) lifetime, I have seen the dismantling of public and state school systems, as well as federal aid to students. This has been accompanied by the rise of the star academic, whose major concern is not pedagogy but, borrowing terminology from the sciences, “research” (i.e., the lecture circuit). These phenomena have contributed to the intense isolation of academic debates and concerns, as well as the sense of threat or danger felt on many campuses by humanities programs. (Perhaps the “crisis” or “threat” of “interdisciplinarity” is a straw man in this regard, a stand-in for the real possibility—indeed, actuality—of disciplinary elimination, in the form of the wholesale cutting of departments.) Universities have for the most part stopped teaching students how to think, let alone think critically, and instead have opted for preparing them for vocations. The university has become, in large degree, a training center.

What is to be done? A lot and not much. I think we live in a period in which the Big Questions are not so productive. I think we live in an era of the small gesture. In the Jewish faith, people are supposed to make a mitzvah every day. A mitzvah is a good deed, for in Judaism the task of faith is to make the world we live in a better place, not to put all our effort toward an afterlife. In some senses I feel that criticism, art making, writing, and teaching are like mitzvahs. In a culture that actively promotes stupidity, to express a thought, to contribute to intellectual dialogue is itself a form of struggle against the status quo. But to allow that we might “contribute to intellectual dialogue” is in some way to posit a public sphere that earlier I said doesn’t really exist. Contradiction. The traditional public sphere doesn’t exist; neither does the role of public intellectual. So we have to recognize, on one hand, that when we write or make art we do so in and for microcommunities, at best. On the other hand, we have to recognize that our little communities are part of the culture, that they overlap with each other, and that our friends sometimes talk to people we don’t know.

To sum up, the first point that I would emphasize is that for me the series of “crises” posed by the fall of criticism, the rise of interdisciplinarity, the isolation of the art world, etc., can be traced back to the larger problem of the lack of importance education has in our culture in general. The second is that to say that what I do (write, and write criticism) has no function is not necessarily to say something cynical. I often experience this with great freedom: if it has no function, then I can do what I want with it. But then, I’m not the only person involved; usually there is an artist (and if they are alive you can count on at least one reader). To take this into consideration generates a certain obligation to write with respect and kindness, terms that in the last instance I find much more compelling than “criticism.”

POSTSCRIPT

I quit smoking (three packs a day) cold turkey the day after my thirtieth birthday, making this the first essay I ever wrote as a nonsmoker. It was also written when I still assumed I would be a professor. In the ’90s, cultural studies, visual studies, and interdisciplinarity were some of the most charged buzzwords to be found in the university. They signaled a growing discontent with academic fields created in the eighteenth century, and a need for many to justify their “nontraditional” objects of study—ranging from television shows, vernacular photography, advertising imagery, and popular culture writ large. At the time, many of my professors were dismissive of these new ideas. I wasn’t particularly bothered. It seemed to me that as long as the writing about the thing was intelligent, then anything, and everything, could be an object of study. (This was for me the import of a writer such as Greg Tate, RIP.)

Today, I suppose, this might all seem a bit quaint, though I suspect that the structure of the opposition—which was largely generational—still exists. In other words, emergent generations can’t help but extend and discard the fights, language, and interests of their elders. Now that I am on the elder side of the equation, I endeavor to remember this now faded “crisis” of criticism when listening to my peers express their fears and anxieties about what will be lost as new forms of knowledge and new objects of study become ascendant.

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Excerpted from Open Questions: Thirty Years of Writing about Art by Helen Molesworth. Copyright © 2023 by Helen Molesworth. Reproduced by permission of Phaidon. All rights reserved.

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