PRINT September 1977

Art Criticism: Where’s the Depth?

The good critic remains what he always was, as rare, said Schopenhauer, “as the phoenix, which appears only once in five hundred years.”
—Henri Peyre, The Failures of Criticism

TRADITION HAS IT THAT THERE are two steps to criticism, namely, description and judgment, or an empirical and an evaluative step. The dilemma is, which has priority. For some it is more important to describe the actuality of a work of art accurately than to appraise its esthetic quality. For them, judgment is not a separate act because intuition of quality is inherent in perception. The way perception of fact subsumes intuition of quality is the way description subsumes judgment. Max Kozloff’s view that description is “laconic interpretation”—he might also have said laconic appreciation—is perhaps the most sophisticated recent articulation of this critical strategy.1 Others hold that one can’t begin to describe a work of art cogently unless one is first certain of its value. The work is to them meaningful before it is factual, and simply to describe it, in however subtle a way, is to neutralize its value. That value, which is discovered by judgment, has to do with the extent to which the work exemplifies a “universal idea of art.” As Lionello Venturi wrote in the History of Art Criticism (1936), such an idea is “the essential condition of artistic judgment.”2 The way the work does or does not live up to the idea determines its seriousness, which in turn determines the way the critic describes it.

The two views are complementary. The one makes the work of art’s facticity explicit, the other, its universal value. Both mean to be objective. The one deals with the objectively given particulars of the work of art, the other with an objective general idea of art. They would seem to go together. Yet increasingly in contemporary art criticism the description of particulars has come to seem more important than general ideas about art. This is because such ideas do not seem durable and, worse yet, seem altogether beside the point of—in fact are overwhelmed by—actual art production. Description seems better able to cope with the sheer variety and mass of art because it makes no presumptions about the general nature of art and has no fixed expectations about its quality. Description has also come to seem all-important because of the sense that past art criticism was irresponsible to the individual work of art, which is, after all, the point of departure to which all critical reflection returns. Thus, traditional idealistic criticism, geared to judgment, subsumed the particular work under a general idea of art, in effect assuming that the work was vital and viable only to the extent that it exemplified the idea. But contemporary empirical criticism, geared to description, allows the particular work an independent life of its own, recognizing that it outlives all the general ideas that claim to give it life.

In the last analysis these reduce to a number of limited perspectives on a particular kind of art. Not only are there other kinds of art, but the art in question can survive without these perspectives. But a revitalized idealistic criticism would argue, in response to this belief, that however wrong its general idea of art—however much it reduces to a general idea about a particular kind of art—the fact remains that the reason any work of art outlives the moment of its making and seems to transcend its own particularity is because it is critically mediated. In the last analysis the presence of the work—its way of being present—depends upon critical reflection of it, and criticism’s effort to formulate general ideas is an effort to ground the particular work in such a way that it will have a durable presence. However much the work seems to be beyond the reach of any general reflection on it, it finds itself subject to still further reflection, without which it would not be cogently present.

From this point of view, description, however Delphic, is a limited immediate response to the work that precludes further reflection on it and forces all reflection to one level. Description not only does not deal with the work’s aura,3 but it also inhibits the capacity to create the general ideas that can. Geared to particular detail, description not only ignores general ideas, but forbids them as implicating an overinterpretation of the work’s facticity. Empirical criticism, issuing in description, does not realize that, while detail cannot be transcended, the clarity or obscurity (sharpness or dimness) with which detail appears depends upon its unity with other detail; and this unity, with its evocative aura, can in turn be grasped only by consciously created ideas. Not to attempt to create such general ideas is to leave half the work of criticism undone. It is to forfeit critical purpose for empirical precision—which, in fact, is an illusion, since its constancy is contingent on an assumption of the way the work is known, that is, some limited epistemology of art. Critical consciousness is not simply a passive instrument for the description of particular detail (a recorder of fact), but an active creator of general ideas designed to articulate the aura of the work as the whole to which the sum of its details refers—but is not equivalent to—when understood in complex, changing unity. Critical consciousness openly takes command of the work. It does not humbly submit to the work, as description implicitly does.

Neo-idealistic criticism counters the naive empiricism of descriptive criticism, with its quasi-absolutist particularism and immediatism, by arguing that whatever descriptive ideal and method is brought to bear on the work of art (whether stylistic or sociological, assimilative historical or a poetic method which displays the work’s radical individuality), its “topicality” and viability depend upon the critical viewer’s sense of its still undisclosed depths, its still untold pertinence, its still unmined significance: the sense that whatever method is brought to bear on the work of art, it remains an evasive although experienced aura. In effect, the probing of the art’s aura will never be completely done, for that aura (the art as operational) is itself never complete without that critical probing. From this point of view, the art continues to remain “vulnerable,” and any description of it that means to be more than naive must take this vulnerability into account, openly suggesting avenues of approach to the work which the description on its own does not take. In other words, any description must imply its own contradiction, or at least open-endedly emanate an aura of alternatives. Theoretically, no description is simple, unless the art’s aura is itself simple and severely limited. But in “critical” practice all too many descriptions are simple, indeed simplistic, for they are implicitly concerned with eliminating the uncertainty—or at least leveling the contradictions—of the art’s aura. Such seemingly “pure” description exemplifies false critical consciousness.

Very little contemporary empirical art criticism has any “idealistic” tendency, because very few empirical critics are willing to acknowledge their vulnerability, i.e. the contingency of their reflections, corresponding to the contingency of the aura of the work of art. They want closure and completeness—seeming comprehensiveness and finality—and description, pursued far enough, seems to guarantee it. But in fact it is a way of foreclosing on the work of art, a way of cutting possible future loss of meaning by gambling it away in the present by seeing the work as all fact when, indeed, it does seem to be all fact. Description reduces the work to a secure obviousness, abolishing the “fantasy” of what it might be. To restore contingency to the vision of it, so that it might become visionary, the critic must acknowledge the contingency of his own consciousness, and not attempt to capsulate the work in a hermetic description. This contingency is not entirely acknowledged by accepting the inadequacy, or recognizing the limitations, of critical methods. Nor is it acknowledged by admitting partisanship—the critic’s willingness to defend or attack an art on the basis of his taste (whether that be the expression of a prejudiced, fixed sensibility or one which discovers itself in response to an unexpected art). The empirical critic means to be disarming by acknowledging the weakness of his methods—to abide by description alone is already to make such an acknowledgment—and his passionate partisanship (his pursuit of his sense of quality). But neither acknowledgment accounts for his inability to deal with the work’s aura. The critic’s contingency has less to do with the limits of rationality and the prejudices of irrationality than with a condition of consciousness itself. Consciousness is conative as well as cognitive: unless this is recognized, criticism cannot begin to comprehend either its own desire for descriptive closure or, self-contradictorily, its unhappiness with such absolutism—and its unhappiness with the work of art as given, whether in itself, in description, or in any final appraisal. Criticism is always struggling free of its bondage to its own presuppositions and knowledge, its own sense of the given.

Thus, critical contingency is not the same as the contingency that results from what Lawrence Alloway, in his endorsement of Apollinaire’s kind of criticism, calls the “population problem.”4 That current (but not necessarily everlasting) problem creates for the critic the difficult, almost overwhelming task of responding to and sifting through immense numbers of artists and styles—the hordes in “a complex art scene” who are not pre-sorted by being associated with workshops or schools but who drift in overgeneralized, ill-defined “movements.” The strain of this situation produces a kind of contingency, which, although not the kind of contingency I am driving at, is revealed in the pastiche that criticism becomes. Thus a potpourri effect, typical of the work of many critics, results not only from criticism’s tendency to spread itself thin in an effort to do justice to all kinds of art, but because of, as Apollinaire suggests, the pastiche character—or else the virtuosity or mock-individuality—of much of the art itself. While Alloway argues that, in the modern situation of information density and art population expansion and because of modern art’s own “expansionist esthetic,” the critic must submit to being “hounded by topicality” and must write, like Apollinaire, from “straight journalistic motives” (hopefully speaking “in the present the words of the future”) combining modest, realizable goals with immodest and ultimately unrealizable pretensions—there is no guarantee that he will do so. Indeed, the essentially descriptive journalistic approach seems to preclude doing so. For that approach wants little to do with undisclosed depths of meaning that the future might uncover, only with disclosed surfaces of meaning self-evident in the present. Alloway’s approach is the best for producing the evidence itself—I know of no other critic today who so admirably produces such a wide range of evidence—but not the range of possible conclusions about it.

The fashionable, like the topical, also interferes with the development of critical consciousness, but in a different way. Where pursuit of the topical does not carry it far enough (a problem Alloway recognizes when he raises the question of the critic’s “lead time”), pursuit of the fashionable in art does not let it get off the ground. The question of fashion seems more harrowing today than it did when Proust’s Swann, in “his scepticism, as a finished ‘man of the world’,” first

held . . . that the objects which we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of dates and castes, and consists in a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined.5

Today much art seems self-consciously fashionable: concerned as it seems with being made by a certain date, before similar art, as if that proved its originality and permitted it to acquire pre-eminent commercial and historical (use and surplus) value—and to appeal to a certain caste, if only in the art world. Or else it becomes fashionable by confirming the look of art already accepted as fashionable, much as a good deal of regional art confirms the look of cosmopolitan New York art. It can be argued that both kinds of art—the originally fashionable and campfollower fashionable—make no attempt from the start to create the illusion of profundity or depth. They want only a striking, esthetic surface, or to refine on known surfaces; they want, that is, to deal only with what is self-evident, as regards either form or meaning. Of course art which self-consciously attempts to create such an illusion is not necessarily unfashionable. There are fashions in depth (in the art world existentialism was one and Marxism now is another) as well as in surface. The use of a readymade depth, a finished theory valued for its conclusions rather than for the reality its methods might continue to disclose, brings with it a fictional finality of eternal significance that issues in dogmatism. Whether the critic has his finger on the pulse of the topical or can readily determine profundity on the basis of a fashionable idea, the result is often the same opinionated, monodimensional description of the work of art. The result can be the same all-too-knowing, pretentiously definitive description. In such a situation the critic is forced back, in unwitting despair, on taste (Swann’s seemingly implicit ability to distinguish between vulgarity and refinement); but that is itself a fashionable disguise, interfering with a depth response to art.6

The contingency I am asking the critic, and artist, to acknowledge for their own good involves recognition of what Robbe-Grillet scornfully called “the myth of depth.” I am not only less scornful of this myth, but I think accepting it and indeed attempting to generate it constitute all that art and criticism are about. The contingency of art and criticism has to do with the difficulty of actually doing that, and with the uncertainty or perishability of the results. Art must generate a myth of the depth of the world it deals with, even if that world is art itself (the illusion of art’s autonomy is just such a myth of depth) and then criticism must generate the myth of art’s depth. Both attempt to get beyond the surface of the given by charging it with implicit meaning. Indeed, to cling to the surface is to show allegiance to a greater myth than that of depth: the myth of surface is the belief that the facticity of anything manmade or deliberately exhibited for human “edification” is self-referential rather than the sign of consciousness that made or “revealed” it. That not only falsifies it but precludes its use by another consciousness for its own purposes. And criticism is just such a use to which art can properly be put, in the name of its relevance for consciousness—for human intention—in general.

Thus, criticism must not stay on the surface of the art it investigates, just as art must not stay on the surface of the reality it explores. Criticism appropriates the art, for its own sake as well as for an understanding of the art’s intention, just as art appropriates and gives a “reading” of reality. Admittedly, the effort of appropriation leaves in its wake the sense of having abandoned the given for the mythical, the factual for the fictional—even the fake. For the creation of depth—the attempt to make the given signify the relationships which make it what it is, with no sense of any absolute priority or necessary limitation on these relationships—is not only an uncertain, heuristic enterprise, but one which seems to negate rather than affirm the given. The search for depth seems to lead far afield from the given. Put another way, it seems to burden the given with an import which is neither self-evident nor inherent to it. Yet to remain on the surface of the given, to stick with it so as always to circle back to it without having circled away from it—to mirror it tautologously, as much description does, and as that kind of esthetic exaltation which issues in a sense of the ineffable (blind recognition) does—is in the end to make the fact of the given more of a myth than any projection of its depth might do. That, in Whitehead’s terms, misplaces its concreteness and treats it as an independent abstraction—a pure “fact.” To abide by the facticity of the given—whether this be conceived as a matter of style, history, or fashion—is to treat it categorically and so to miss its reality as the representative of consciousness.

Art, then, finds the significance with the given—always an unfinished depth, although the art seems to complete it by embodying it—and projects this significance through its own givenness. And criticism makes explicit the implicit depth of the art, and how its facticity mediates this depth. To do this the critic must know more than both artist and scholar, those “mediums” and students of surfaces who themselves always become “academic.” It is not clear that the artist necessarily knows what his work is about, or that he even understands its allure—the way it lures the critical viewer “speculatively” on. The artist’s ignorance of his own work’s import is often marked by a self-righteous assertion that his art be taken on the terms he stakes out for it and, correlatively, that it not be critically comprehended and culturally appropriated in terms other than his stated intention. Yet this demand, like a stated anticipatory intention, does not so much safeguard the meaning of the work as shrivel it. If we leave the work of art to its own arrogantly obvious appearance and to that of its artist’s intent, it becomes dust. Keeping to itself behind the fence the artist builds for it, it will never become significant. So the force of criticism, which rips that fence away, is irresistible, and the work shows its power only by surviving the onslaughts of a criticism which seeks to “undermine” it—to prove to it that it is something other than it seems to be, to exhibit it in unexpected ways.

The critic must ignore the artist’s protests that his art is being mangled, and he must also transcend his own tendency to exhibit it in expected ways. He must transcend his own habits of understanding, which are usually codified in descriptive purpose and enforced by the social pressures of the given art world that, insofar as it is a commercial world, wants to know art in set ways so it can be easily consumed or becomes comfortable. (Description unwittingly plays into the hands of this commercial purpose—and the general human desire for comfort and easy familiarity—by functioning as publicity for the art rather than analysis of it.) Above all, the critic must transcend his own, however laconic, empiricism, moving beyond any mediation of the work as a topic of immediate importance. And he must transcend his own will to judge, avoiding that preening of the peacock feathers of his own sensibility calling attention to the power of his own presence as on a par with that of the work of art. Not accepting the artist’s efforts to control the destiny of his work, not accepting habitual ways of knowing the work used for the sake of convenience and commerce, renouncing descriptive journalism with its intellectual laziness and the mandarin posture of his own judgment and sensibility, he becomes radically independent enough to begin the difficult task of descending into the depths of the work. He may use the artist, convention, description, and his own judgment as guides, but in the end he must go his own way as it leads through the work—as it cuts new paths through it and sees new possibilities in it. And when he does not see them the work will be dead, “complete.”

All methods, then, are subsumed in the attempt to determine the work’s intentionality, which can only be done by the critic with the aim of determining his own intentionality through the work. It is its complex, often slowly revealed, intentionality which gives the work its staying power, and the critic can grasp that intentionality only by becoming a participant observer (participant creator, even) in the work, which requires that he become conscious of his own intentionality, seeing it as well as the work itself as a “complex.” Description and judgment, to become telling, must be transfigured by this sense of the critical task as an exploration of intentionality. If they are not understood “intentionally,” criticism becomes simply another way of making a market for a product, a form of advertising. Untransfigured, description at its best is anthropological. Historical and stylistic concerns are subsumed in a sense of the work as a social product and cultural artifact. Then judgment can become moralistic and even mystical, but neither reveals the world view or kind of consciousness, collective and individual, that the work represents. Admittedly, the anthropological sort of description puts us in a better position than the moralizing or mystical judgment (in one way or another “superior”) to grasp the work’s intentionality, but only if that description becomes dialectical; that is, if it shows us how the art it describes negates other art and relates to other social products and cultural artifacts in general. But to do this the critic’s own intentionality must be dialectical.

The critic, then, must lead the casual viewer away from the exhibited character of the work of art, of which the critic’s exhibition of his own taste is an indirect aspect, and toward its possible intended character. This may confuse the viewer, but it will free him from regarding the work of art as simply another phenomenon and product in a world already crowded with them. The critic will thereby liberate the viewer from his superficial consciousness, educating consciousness to become generally critical toward phenomena and products. Art criticism is a branch of criticism in general, and like criticism in general it is a way of educating consciousness—of making one aware of invisible significance behind visible reality, whether in art or anything else. Criticism teaches one not to parrot the given in description (which, however subtle and eloquent, remains a kind of endorsement of its subject matter) nor to exult about it in quasi-religious esthetic ecstasy, which quickly creates moral hierarchies—that is, not to be raised by it, or, for that matter, lowered. It is never to be taken on its own terms, although these are to be used to unmask it. Thus the critical revelation of the work of art’s possible intended character liberates the work from its own superficial appearance: the critic must create the illusion that the work will find its own level in the context of thought he creates for it. In a sense, the critic’s whole task is to construct that context, which must be deep if the work is to have the chance to prove that it—the work itself—is not shallow. The critic’s “oceanic consciousness” is a cosmos in which the work of art learns whether it can swim—or sink. The critic must take on whatever art he can handle, however bizarre it may seem to his taste, and locate it in as comprehensive a climate of opinion as possible, to see how short or deep its breath is.

Donald B. Kuspit is professor of art at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.



1. Quoted in Lawrence Alloway, “The Use and Limits of Art Criticism,” in his Topics in American Art Since 1945, New York, 1975, 251.

2. Lionello Venturi, History of Art Criticism, New York, 1964, 31.

3. I use “aura” in an expansion of the sense in which Walter Benjamin wrote of it in “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,” Schriften, I (Frankfurt am Main, 1955), 366–405. For Benjamin, there are two outstanding facts about the work of art’s aura: (1) its “foundation in ritual,” which determines its “unique worth” and guarantees its “genuine” character (p. 374); and (2) “its wasting away in the age of the technical reproduction of the work of art” (p. 371), when its foundation becomes “politics” (p. 375). Whether the aura of the work of art is premised on its ritual or political relationship to social reality, either is no more than the springboard of its possible depth of meaning. In other words, for me the work of art’s aura does not disappear because the work of art can be technically reproduced; it only changes, i.e. is put on a different footing. The foundation of the aura of implications the work has changes, not the fact that it has an aura.

4. Alloway, p. 255.

5. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, New York, 1934, pp. 289–90.

6. See Donald B. Kuspit, “The Dialectic of Taste,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, IV (1973), 123–38.