A Return to What?

Tacita Dean, "The Green Ray from The Sun Quartet" (still), 2001.

As Momus nears its fourth anniversary, and cautiously begins celebrating its evolution from a very fledgling start, we’ve been met with a review from an elder statesman of criticism, James Elkins. This is the author of The State of Art Criticism, and “Whatever Happened to Art Criticism?”, texts that helped inform our start. He is known for sounding various alarms in the mid-aughts about the “crisis in criticism” – one much-debated among chiefly American critics, and variously argued to be the result of a theory-leaning academe, a sped-up art market, and the critic’s economic destabilization as publications moved online. It’s worth noting that Elkins issued these concerns from within the sound-absorbing walls of the university.

Elkins’s recent missive cites Momus as an example for his renewed concern, but his thesis isn’t new. Published in a small Chicago outfit, The New Art Examiner, his essay “Art Criticism is Too Easy” sets the current moment in criticism against the broader backdrop of modernism, but also asserts that not enough has changed. It’s both ambitious in scope and light on validation, and comes from a tenured theoretician who, in 2018, names nearly a dozen established, white male critics – some no longer breathing – as the example we should match. Elkins then offers “strategies” for approaching the field anew (publish books and read Proust, he says. Emerging freelancers, take note!). Elkins wants to be surprised by the structure of criticism – by something unrooted in predictable modes of evaluation – but holds tightly to examples that feed and are fed by that very edifice.

His prod provides a welcome opportunity to articulate our first principles, especially as criticism is charged with the task of constantly renegotiating its terms of existence: what constitutes the criticism that we hope for a return to? The field may be at a crossroads (or some may say, stalled in an enduring crisis). But criticism’s light is not dimming. It’s gathering anew after the dark days of the early internet. We are now shaping our voice to meet an impatient, critical, and responsive readership; and the reality that, in order to take up space in this cacophonous culture, we’d better have something to say.

When Elkins raises our occasional informality, or failure to cite the philosophical underpinnings of current conversations in contemporary art, it feels very much like a coded appeal to a Eurocentric canon that has failed criticism in the final instance. In what does this failure consist? Elkins makes the strong observation that much art writing is predictable and falls into one of two camps: opaque, academic artspeak, or corny, rehearsed colloquialism. It strikes me that Elkins’s twin poles of bland art writing are symptoms of the force that truly paralyzes criticism – that has institutionalized, monetized, bureaucratized contemporary art and fettered it to the contemporary university, with all its insularity and corruption: the booming univocity and certain certainties of Europe’s Modernity.

Momus is working at this by fostering emerging voices and inviting experimentation with form – but we need to do better. Momus’s “return” is not one to the presumed universalism of modernist values. It is not to a model of “judgment” or “evaluation” that stands upon a high hill and presumes to settle what is true. Critical writing should meet its object on level ground, while aspiring to newness in voice and form. And, if what offends us about descriptive writing is that it fails to catch us off guard, or rattle our ossified beliefs, should we not also be offended by “evaluation” that is purely didactic, convinced that it will shake down the work for values it insists on finding? Disembarking from familiar models of “evaluation” is, we think, one way that criticism can take us by surprise.

Finally, to suggest, that criticism is – even in its most common, dilute, and descriptive forms – easy, sits uneasily next to the relative safety of Elkins’s position. To perch above the fray and decry the field’s paucity seems far too comfortable. Now more than ever, taking the temperature of criticism must account for the structural forces that drive its high-minded ideal, but also its real-world occupation. Art criticism, like all professional forms of writing, is conditioned by the publications who pay for it. We’re often working with writers who – because of the structural nature of freelance writing in economic precariousness – have learned the standards of a modestly profitable mode of expression. Changing the terms of valuable writing is a long, slow process involving rigorous edits, prolonged critical conversations, and our fighting for better standards in the field’s pay. And none of it is easy.

  • Sky Goodden and Casey Beal


  • Earl Miller says:

    The colloquial/academic split Elkins speaks of as a means of defining the state of art criticism, a split which you wisely mention in your response, strikes me as particularly American. Canada has had a publishing history of criticism that merges the academic and the informal and manages to stay free of October obfuscation and Saltz vulgarity simultaneously. Magazines including C, the defunct Vanguard, the old Impulse, and for four years now, Momus are four I would categorize as such. To me, readability without dilution of content is a virtue that gets us out of a “critical mess” rather than keeps us entangled in it.

  • MOMUS writes; “Published in a small Chicago outfit, The New Examiner?” Ad hominem is not always the best response to criticism. The New Art Examiner, started in 1973, is published in both the U.S.A. and Europe as an actual magazine, and is of course also online. Now I also have a critique of MOMUS that was accepted for publication this past June 2018 by the New Art Examiner (October in print / November online). I mention this to avoid confusion, as my article is not related to James Elkins’ essay, which I have not read yet.

  • Geoffrey James says:

    Never a bad idea to read Proust. He also did some journalism— wrote about the stock market for Le Figaro, often in the voice of writers he admired, such as Flaubert. (He inherited a million or two and nearly blew it all, but recovered, so that he had the time to write.) Too bad that I can’t access The New Art Examiner on-line.

  • Andy Patton says:

    At least one of Elkins’ observations might be right: “Art criticism is not returning to judgment. That change is a long-term shift…” I once had a graduate student (in a course on criticism and art writing) who believed that “criticism” was a synonym for “promotion.” The student wasn’t making a larger point; they honestly believed that the terms meant the same thing. I was horrified and tried to demonstrate that this was incorrect. I failed to convince them. Now, a decade later, I can that the student was correct, in that the two terms did collapse into each other, balanced socially by the “this show sucks” blogs of pure opinion. Good luck to Momus in welcoming and producing thoughtful criticism.

  • Jason says:

    I enjoy this site, but this article takes the low road of ad hominem. Attacking Elkins critique because he is an academic is well below the critical threshold for this magazine. Try harder!

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