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

Steve Lyons, "Towards an Anthropology of Influence" (2014) from "D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant / Actors, Networks, Theories," Dazibao, Montreal.

Given that I’ve chosen to contribute to a platform that boasts “a return to art criticism,” it would be worth considering what that might mean. To return to criticism implies that it’s been in exile or decline, that it’s been neglected or marginalized, or that what is called criticism today is actually something else entirely. None of these notions will be unfamiliar to anyone involved in writing about contemporary art. The idea that criticism is in crisis has been around so long (and reasserts itself so often) that it has begun to seem like a permanent feature of the landscape.

The complaints are diverse, though the complainants can usually be divided into two camps: journalistic critics, who bemoan the dominance of theory and call for more feeling, more engagement with a general audience, and especially more judgments of value (“is this art good or bad?”); on the opposing side, more academically-inclined critics complain about the market’s stranglehold over art and art publishing, about the ballooning proportion of Artforum’s page count taken up by ads, and about the lack of critical rigor and political position-taking in art writing. Both camps are united, however, in their frustration with the diminished influence of criticism in general.

Whereas once, in the prehistoric age of Clement Greenberg and his ilk (Harold Rosenberg, Leo Steinberg, etc.), critics could compete with art dealers in establishing the merit of artworks and the terms of debate with which artists grappled, much of that authority has since been seized by curators and by artists themselves (for whom a facility with writing about and promoting their work is now an imperative), though the principal power of conferring value seems to have been decisively usurped by the dealer-collector axis. Art fairs are the new biennials.

Meanwhile, any critic actually trying to make a living from writing faces the same pressures that journalists have faced everywhere as Old Media empires crumble: shrinking word counts; shrinking (or nonexistent) pay; grueling freelancing regimes (since full-time, stable art writing gigs have virtually disappeared); and the tyranny of page-views, listicles, gossip, and clickbait. This is in large part because of the internet, which demands immediacy, encourages everyone to be a critic, and allows images to circulate much quicker and more widely than they ever could in print magazines. The self-validating mechanics of virality have, in many cases, made the contextualization of images a moot point. All of which helps explain why there are so few people writing about art who identify exclusively as critics. Almost everyone who contributes to art magazines or writes catalogue essays also does (or has done, or will do) something else, whether they are an artist, an art historian (or graduate student), a curator, an educator, a worker in a gallery or museum, or whether they are, more nebulously, a theorist – arguably the position of highest cultural capital (though not of actual power) within the contemporary art ecosystem.

Indeed, it’s tempting to assert that criticism’s decline has been accompanied by theory’s ascent – that the most influential writing on art today (influential, that is, in terms of being broadly read by people interested in art and having an impact on curatorial programs and an effect on artistic production) is neither art criticism nor art history, but art theory. One of the most prominent platforms for art theory in recent years has been e-flux journal (which is, notably, readable online and ad-free thanks to the funds it collects via its announcement service), with Boris Groys and Hito Steyerl among its most representative and regular authors. In neither of the latter theorists’ e-flux articles, however, does one often encounter detailed or opinionated accounts of recent art production. Rather, their output offers more wide-angled cultural criticism, often focused on the relationships between technology and the history of avant-garde art, delivered in stylish, edgy prose that occasionally borders on satire or sci-fi hyperbole (both writers also have an appreciable sense of humor). This art theory, while not exactly art history or art criticism, is, furthermore, a bit different from what is typically connoted by the term “theory” in general. But what is theory, exactly?

This is a more complicated question than it may initially appear to be, in part because “theory” is a catch-all euphemism that’s been stretched beyond legibility by loose usage: “theory,” “French theory,” “postmodern theory,” and “post-structuralism” are often used interchangeably, as if they denote a single, unitary entity (they don’t). A variety of heterodox thinkers did emerge in France in the late 1960s, particularly following the tumult of the May ’68 student uprisings. Much of this work attempted to either continue the project of radical politics within academia or to move past the orthodox thought (party-line Communism and establishment philosophy, for example) that were deemed inadequate to the post-’68 situation. However, it was really the belated translation and reception of these texts in English-language humanities departments that made French theory into a canon. The artworld played no small part in this development: Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” had its first publication in the short-lived, American avant-garde art magazine Aspen in 1967, only appearing in a French journal the following year. The timeliness of this import was, however, an exception. It took until the second half of the 1970s for theory to really penetrate Anglophone universities and art schools.

The rise of theory in the artworld is often linked to the emergence of Conceptual Art. Conceptual artists were the first generation of artists to be university-educated, and the first to actively assume the role of contextualizing and historicizing their own work in writing. That said, the philosophical interests of most conceptualists tended towards the structuralism or phenomenology that were fashionable in the late ‘60s – structuralism in particular facilitated the turn away from modernist notions of individual art objects possessed of inherent quality (which was to be judged by intuition and conviction), towards a focus on art as a system of (linguistic) relations in which the actual art objects were contingent and sometimes dispensable. It was when first-generation Conceptual artists became teachers at the experimental art schools of the 1970s, though, that post-structuralism and the writing of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, and others began to assume a dominant role in art pedagogy.

By the time that Artforum dissidents Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson founded October in 1976, theory was a full-fledged concern: October’s first issue promised regular translations of critical and theoretical texts from foreign languages. Initially, this meant mainly the Russian avant-garde, but by the 1980s, it entailed a strong investment in French theory, especially around issues of authorship. The year 1976 also marked Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference, which convened Foucault and Gilles Deleuze alongside Kathy Acker, John Cage, and William S. Burroughs in order to draw out connections between underground culture and cutting-edge currents in high theory. This has remained Semiotext(e)’s mission, and their publication of small, smartly-designed books (exemplified by the Foreign Agents series they began in 1980) has been instrumental in making theory hip. Semiotext(e)’s editor, Sylvère Lotringer, has also had a long, collegial relationship with Artforum, in which he has appeared numerous times as author or interview subject, often commenting on authors that he publishes. Artforum itself enthusiastically embraced theory in the ‘80s. In 1983, they even added Jean Baudrillard to their masthead as a contributing editor, apparently without him actually knowing it.

This last anecdote comes via an art piece by Steve Lyons entitled Towards an Anthropology of Influence (2014), included in an exhibition currently on view at Montreal’s Dazibao gallery: D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant/Actors, Networks, Theories, curated by Vincent Bonin. This show is actually the second of two installments – the first was held at Concordia University’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery from November 2013 until January 2014 – both of which take the reception of French theory in the English-speaking artworld as their theme. It’s a very ambitious project, though not a surprising one if you’re familiar with Bonin’s résumé. He was a co-curator of Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art at the Brooklyn Museum (2012) and Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980 (2012), as well as the curator of another two-part exhibition on conceptualism held at the Ellen Gallery in 2007 and 2008 and entitled Documentary Protocols.

Naturally, a history of theory and its reception is an unwieldy subject for an art exhibition. In conversation, Bonin readily admitted as much. “I quickly realized,” he told me, “that French Theory was mainly a structural device to put together the exhibition about many other issues – one of them being a certain legacy of discursive practices and one other had to do with the relationship between the critic or theoretician and the artist.” If viewers are looking for a discernable narrative or historical account in Bonin’s two shows, they’ll likely be frustrated. While the two exhibitions will eventually be followed by a book in which Bonin can be expected to provide an informed and insightful historical perspective, he insists that curating ethically required him to give artists in the show “a lot of freedom” rather than instrumentalizing their work to advance his own argument.

Nevertheless, Bonin’s two exhibitions are equal to their subject, to the extent that they’ll likely confuse the uninitiated while rewarding those who either come equipped with certain background knowledge or are willing to invest the effort of digging into a lot of supplementary didactic material. For example, in the first instalment, different rooms represented various historic moments in the reception of theory and the development of critical art practices, often within a Canadian context. One room offered a section of Mary Kelly’s Post-partum Document (1973-79) that was purchased by the AGO in the ‘80s and was displayed, in this show, alongside a sound recording of Kelly speaking at Concordia in 1988 and a poster from an exhibition of hers at Montreal’s La Centrale. Other sections alluded to group exhibitions which, in Bonin’s words, “became contexts for a collective debate around certain theoretical ideas of the time,” such as Group Material’s Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard) of 1987, and Magnificent Obsessions, shown at Montreal’s Optica in 1985 and curated by artists who studied with Victor Burgin in England.

This sketching of theory’s reception and rise through affinities within intellectual communities (like teacher-student relations or Group Material’s activist milieu) becomes even more pronounced in the second instalment at Dazibao. Walking through the door, the viewer is immediately confronted with Bernadette Corporation’s video Hell Frozen Over (2000), which features Sylvère Lotringer standing on a frozen lake, giving a lecture on “nothingness” in the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, intercut with footage of models posing and being directed in a kind of absurdist fashion shoot. Staffed and shot by an incestuous who’s-who of the New York City experimental art scene in the early 2000s, Bernadette Corporation’s video (and corporate persona in general) represents the convergence of high theory with fashion and branding, made possible by theory’s institutionalization and the ubiquity (and consequent vagueness) of “criticality” at that point in art discourse. Nearly fifteen years later, it still feels pretty fresh.

Installed just behind Hell Frozen Over at Dazibao is the Steve Lyons piece mentioned above, which lays out, in a schematic fashion, the social network that Bernadette Corporation was moving in. In fact, Lyon’s contribution addresses the theme of the exhibition more directly than any other – unsurprisingly, Lyons is a doctoral student in art history in addition to being a practicing artist, and this work draws directly on his dissertation topic. One vitrine holds some ephemera related to the anecdote about Baudrillard on Artforum’s masthead, along with printouts of emails exchanged between John Kelsey (a member of B.C. as well as a gallerist and critic who regularly contributes to Artforum) and Lotringer. The wall behind is covered in mirrored wallpaper on which Lyons has printed black-and-white scans of every Artforum page spread in the last fifteen years that mentions Semiotext(e) or one of its associated authors. Suffice to say that it fills the wall easily. The mirror-wallpaper mimics the display strategy adopted by Semiotext(e)’s editors when they were invited to show (as an “artist”) at this year’s Whitney Biennial, but it also aptly encapsulates the allure of theory itself: it’s something alien but seductive, something hard and slightly futuristic, something you want to be seen reading, something you want to see yourself in. Towards an Anthropology of Influence also makes it possible to trace a network of mutual promotion. As Lyons wrote to me in an email, “Art and theory are mutually productive, since theory performs a legitimizing service for art when it enters art writing in magazines like Artforum and Texte zur Kunst, and the artworld has long provided theorists with a major promotional apparatus.”

 In Part Two of “A Theory of Everything: On the State of Theory and Criticism” (to be published Monday, Nov. 3), Saelan Twerdy considers the manifestation of theory in contemporary art since 2000 and the “critical” element in critical theory.



  • Lisa Cox says:

    I am not an art critic – I have no formal training in art, besides what I picked up in a history degree. This is what I know though – I have a small art blog where I put up contemporary (from the last 2 decades?) art. I see artists from all over the world who have lists of art contests they have won – regional, state, national etc., etc., They teach art at universities all over the world – middle east, south america, north africa, china. Their art is breath taking and 90% of what you just wrote is meaningless to their work, and also to the people who view and purchase their art. What you are talking about doesn’t seem at all applicable to the art that I see everyday – have you ever visited sites like http://www.artchipel.com/, http://www.saatchiart.com/, http://museumuesum.tumblr.com/, https://www.behance.net/ among others? I know – low brow art, probably not worth your time, but among just these a few million people view art. Maybe not people who would understand Derrida (who I read when I got my English degree), but people who love art, people who buy art. This conceptual art you describe seems to have skipped the current generation entirely, because no one, no one outside of your website ever mentions or show cases this kind of art. I have been looking at art for almost three years, and I have yet to see anyone mention on any other site “conceptual” art. These clunky, large, objects that inhabit museums as a hybrid of sculpture and performance art leave no mark on the larger audience – they are a dime a dozen (and I have seen dozens). This conceptual art leaves no mark on people who are accustomed to 3D, to Sci Fiction based art, to photo realistic illustrators, to people who have access to the best art of the ages in online museums at the click of a button. If you don’t care that you are leaving no mark on culture, then proceed as you have been. If you want to know what art that people love try http://artemisdreaming.tumblr.com/, try http://www.booooooom.com/, if you’re brave try http://red-lipstick.tumblr.com/. This theory, which is crucial to connecting our culture, to helping our past connect to the present and then to the future is going to go away unless you wake up and look around the now and see what people love and are pursuing passionately, even if you have to hold your nose to do it.

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