A Theory of Everything: On The State of Theory and Criticism (Part Two)

Brad Troemel, "TSA No Fly List Vacuum Sealed Gerald Raunig, - ‘A Thousand Machines’" with AOCS, copper Bitcoin; and "TSA No Fly List Vacuum Sealed Tiqqun, ‘Theory of a Young Girl’" with Fairfax, California time/labor barter coin, both 2013.

Continued from “A Theory of Everything: On the State of Theory and Criticism (Part One)

Looking at Towards an Anthropology of Influence, it’s possible to see how the roster of “current” theorists within art discourse has changed in the last fifteen years. By around 2000, the post-1968 French theory that had been introduced in the late ‘70s and ‘80s was fully absorbed into the academic mainstream. Postmodernism had ceased to be a contested term and was more-or-less thoroughly naturalized. It had become commonplace for our current era to be referred to as neither modern nor postmodern, but “contemporary.” As such, much of the new philosophy that emerged, especially after September 11, 2001, explicitly or implicitly broke with the orthodoxy of deconstructionist postmodernism: Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, for example, championed a return to Marxism (and even full-blown Communism) while Jacques Rancière rose to artworld popularity with a notion of “aesthetic politics” that, while vague enough to lend itself to diverse use, offered a reorientation of the increasingly exhausted rhetoric of “criticality” in art.

With regard to critique, it’s worth pointing out that the “critical” aspect of critical theory has two primary sources. One is the deconstructive method of post-structuralism that conceives of all fixed meaning as a form of ideological oppression (specifically, the fixing of meaning in binary terms like white/black and man/woman that privilege one term at the other’s expense), to be combatted by decentering meaning and embracing slippage and fluidity. The other source derives from the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, which focus on how class power is bolstered and enforced by its coding in cultural and artistic forms.

Within contemporary art, these two streams of critical theory can be roughly mapped onto post-conceptual strategies developed in the late 1970s and early ‘80s – such as the Pictures Generation’s appropriations of images from mass media and advertising, often aimed at a critique of commodity culture or the social construction of gender, and modes of Institutional Critique that employed didactic installation and site-specific interventions to indict artworld power relations. Somewhere between these two poles, we could situate the film theory- and psychoanalysis-inflected documentary strategies of Victor Burgin, Mary Kelley, and Martha Rosler. All of these tendencies have remained the template or toolkit for much contemporary art.

For both artists and critics, then, theory’s influence caused culture to be reconceived as a system of signs for decoding (and contesting) rather than the cultivation of sensibility to be developed through contact with a tradition of great art. The operations of artists and critics became functionally similar: to research, analyze, and critique the way that ideology operates through images. Moreover, this grounding in a rigorous method and a body of scholarly knowledge facilitated the academicization of both art and criticism: for artists, MFAs are now essential, just as most working art critics are now trained in art history. October’s stable of authors now staff America’s most prestigious ivy-league art-history departments. They make up the establishment. Meanwhile, Artforum’s front pages are penned by tenured academics while the reviews in the back are filed by grad students and adjuncts (both, of course, are mainly an accessory to the ads in the middle). While the milieu of art once maintained an aura, however illusory, of bohemian non-compliance with bourgeois norms – enabled largely by the vanished prosperity, cheap rent, and expansive welfare state of previous generations – contemporary art is now a highly professionalized site of privilege.

What troubles our current art discourse, then, is the perception that these academically-certified tools of critique are exhausted, that they’ve calcified into an arcane and self-legitimating lexicon whose function has more to do with professional accreditation than anything meaningfully connected with their objects or their ostensibly radical objectives. Andrea Fraser (who was included in Bonin’s exhibition, along with a number of her co-conspirators in the short-lived NYC artist-run gallery Orchard), is one of the most articulate and indefagitable exponents of latter-day Institutional Critique. In 2012, she contributed a frustrated, poignant essay to that year’s Whitney Biennial, deploring the fact that “art discourse may be “one of the most consequential – and problematic – institutions in the artworld today,” and that there has been “an ever-widening gap between the material conditions of art and its symbolic systems: between what the vast majority of artworks are today (socially and economically) and what artists, curators, critics, and historians say that artworks – especially their own work or work they support – do and mean.”

What Fraser is pointing to is that art today – even its most ostensibly radical variety – is primarily bankrolled by (and lending cultural prestige to) the very actors and forces against which it is criticality opposed. In fact, the installation of critical theory in the academy over the last forty years has, on balance, done virtually nothing to stop or slow the advance of neoliberal capitalism and the ballooning inequality that has accompanied it. This is a major problem for Left politics in general. By focusing on difference, desire, individual particularity, and anti-foundationalist critiques of universal values, the postmodern Left effectively ceded the field of struggle while the Right was busy transforming institutions.

This is the territory on which the likes of Badiou and Žižek have reasserted a militant version of Marxism. Meanwhile, theorists of immaterial labor have examined how digital networks enabled capitalism to appropriate the mobility, fluidity, and decentralization idealized by post-structuralist thinkers (though, controversially, theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri also see the potential seeds of capitalism’s own undoing in the spontaneous collectivity of the internet). Other voguish philosophical currents of recent years – like Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented Ontology, and Affect Theory – have likewise splintered off, in sometimes antagonistic ways, from the established path of critical-deconstructionist-postmodernism. And in the post-crash, post-Occupy era we’re currently living in, variants of anarchism (like that purveyed by David Graeber) are also resurgent.

Thus, while the language of post-’68 French Theory, or at least a bastardized, watered-down version of it, is still the basis of contemporary artspeak (making it ripe for mockery in articles like Alex Rue & David Levine’s “International Art English”), the persistence of theory within the artworld has depended on some fairly radical mutations. The currently dominant trends are basically all materialist in one sense or another, pitching their relevance either on more concrete engagement with political struggle or on moves beyond the post-structuralist obsession with language games, towards “objects” or “emotions.”

At the same time, however, the enormous influence wielded by dealers and collectors has meant that entire sectors of the art market now seem to operate without any need for the legitimating services that theory once provided. So far, no amount of critical skepticism has stopped the current glut of neo-abstract painting (“zombie formalism,” as Walter Robinson memorably dubbed it) from selling briskly. This kind of viral value-creation, in which the circulation of money rather than discourse makes and breaks careers, doesn’t require the kind of interpretive context that a critic provides: an algorithmic tool like Artrank.com, itself a kind of tongue-in-cheek art project, can do the job.

An increasing percentage of young artists, mostly associated with Post-Internet aesthetics, are also focused on how the mechanics of circulation in a network culture bypass the need for explanatory text. As Christopher Glazek recently wrote,

Many of the artists I knew enjoyed whatever years they spent under the formal tutelage of credentialed elders. Very few, though, had found their operational armature in academic theory. This wasn’t just a trend among visual artists – in the age of Wikipedia, the ability to manipulate specialized vocabularies and esoteric knowledge was commanding less and less authority across the board, from Marxism to indie music. The easy diffusion of information was having ripple effects across publishing, art, and the avant-garde. This was clear to many students, but not always to their professors, who understandably continued to ply the methods and methodologies that had helped them get tenure. As a result, many art-school grads were coming of age at a time when what felt most oppressive wasn’t consumer capitalism: It was the institutional codes and guild vocabularies in which they had been trained.

For such artists, theory is unappealing because it cuts them off from a larger audience. And what these artists crave is impact, even if that impact is mainly limited to seeing their own aesthetics distributed as widely as possible. Rather than launch an ineffectual critique of the world of representation and ideology, they want their art to make things happen in the world, which is why so many of them focus on brands and marketing, the dominant ways in which aesthetics actually affect how people behave.

Brad Troemel, one of the artists most closely associated with Post-Internet art, argues that we should think of artworks as potential memes, able to circulate through a variety of audiences instead of remaining quarantined in the elite artworld. What happens in this process, however, is that interpretive context is stripped away from the image – it spreads (or doesn’t) strictly on the strength of what a Deleuzian might call “affective intensity” and what a Buzzfeed editor would call its “win,” “lol,” or “omg” factor. In this model, potential meaning or engagement with individual works is reduced to the same metrics that marketing algorithms use to analyze your online activity: nothing but clicks, likes, and page-views. Success simply equals a larger quantity of ultimately fleeting attention.

Whereas this position devalues individual units of content, however, it privileges the network or platform in which it circulates, which is why a Post-Internet artist might aspire to become a brand. It allows them to become a more enduring node in the network through which other content might pass and connections might form. Further, this devaluation of content has happened at all levels of culture – our zeitgeist is now dominated less by specific forms of music, fashion, and imagery and more by the technology that we use to access them. Individual MP3s are basically worthless, but the latest model of iPhone is a must-have. Similarly, the notion of progress, outdated since the collapse of modernism, has been displaced by the hype around innovation, which arrives free of baggage about any moral (or even qualitative) improvement in the general social condition. It simply installs anxiety about the future as a permanent condition: the new will replace the old whether you like it or not.

Under these conditions, what kind of meaningful role can criticism possibly have? In the first part of this essay, I noted the temptation to see criticism’s decline as the consequence of theory’s ascent. Perhaps I should reconsider those terms. What I called “art theory,” especially essays in the style of Boris Groys or Hito Steyerl, such as you can find on e-flux journal, may actually be a species of criticism that focuses precisely on networks and systems of image distribution rather than on judging individual works of art. In other words, it takes the essay rather than the review as its paradigm. Following the lessons of post-’68 theory, this kind of criticism treats culture as a system of signs, but rather than assert the political significance of one kind of image versus another (a politics of representation), it focuses on the political economy of how images are produced and circulated, which is why it spends so much time discussing the role of technology. What this kind of criticism does not do, however, is simply import theories developed in other spheres of intellectual endeavor in order to apply them to given artworks or artists in a functional or reductive way (as has too often been the case). The best criticism, in fact, has always advanced theories of art that arise from close attention to the activities of artists and the context in which they work, whether in the format of a review or not.

What I hope I’ve made clear is that a “return to criticism” isn’t possible if it rests solely on a return to a modernist model of art as autonomous subjective experience. In other words, criticism can’t just be all about your transcendent experience of something “good,” and trying to make louder, more decisive judgments about quality in itself is not going to return criticism to a position of relevance. Network culture makes the simple act of judging as ubiquitous as it is disposable, and the old-fashioned review by the generalist critic, however sensitive or erudite, runs the risk of becoming just another entry in a massive dataset, alongside every Facebook like or Amazon review (which hasn’t stopped some people from experimenting with Yelp as a literary form).

What should criticism aim for, then, besides padding a CV? Certainly, the Post-Internet contingent is right to want to connect with a broader public, to have an impact. Perhaps the most deplorable thing about contemporary art is the exclusivity of its audience, which is almost entirely composed of extremely high-privilege individuals. If criticism (or art itself) aims to be relevant, it has to be meaningful to more kinds of people and address issues that affect peoples’ lives. Questions of quality, judgment, and relevance do come in, here, when we ask what a work of art does or could do – formally, emotionally, socially, economically – in relation to what we want to see happen. Art writing can provide a platform for fleshing out these issues.

Connecting with an audience, however, does not have to mean jettisoning big ideas or cultivating false populism. The sphere of theory is struggling to overcome its enclosure in academia in much the same way as art writing. Ben Davis has written that “what a good theory should account for … is actual history and the material specificity of a process.” Important ideas, in other words, can’t just stay in the realm of ideas, they have to lodge themselves in reality. Most importantly, we can’t dictate in advance how this process might happen, which is why the division between theory, philosophy, criticism, and even writing in the most general sense ought to be an artificial one. Just as we never know in advance what kind of effect an artwork might have, we should never take an existing audience for granted, but rather hope that our writing can mean something in a way we can’t anticipate – that it can bring a new audience into being. Writing should make a form of knowing available by making people interested in it. It’s our own responsibility to produce a context for the work we want to see.


Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer my questions and help me think through these ideas, including Vincent Bonin, Steve Lyons, Jennifer Chan, Robin Simpson, and Aaron Peck.

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