PRINT November 1989


Knowledge of art is not enough to make one a critic, any more than knowledge of art is enough to make one an artist. The student who turns to art in order to avoid reflecting upon his condition may become a specialist, a scholar, a connoisseur, but not a critic. For the latter exists through curiosity, indignation, and the widest practice of intellectual freedom.
—Harold Rosenberg

THE DAY OF ART CRITICISM’S eclectic and accessible generalists—like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg—are long gone. Certainly this has something to do with the increasing professionalization of the practice of criticism in general, for the funneling of the creative energy of young critics through academic channels has tended to produce specialists with little sense of (or interest in) synthetic perspectives. And needless to say, this academicization is related in complex ways to the commercialization of art, the ubiquitous commodification of culture in our day.

Yet given the deadening potential of these processes in all fields, art criticism has lagged behind the theoretical moves made in other branches of cultural criticism. In recent years, there simply have not emerged art critics who have commanded serious intellectual attention on a par with their colleagues in the literary arena. The predominance and preeminence of the grand art historians (E. H. Gombrich, for example) in the highbrow humanist mode has cast a long and troublesome shadow. While literary critics, from the beginning of our century, could draw energy from the erudite analysis of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, springboards that freed them (from old historicist encumbrances) to leap boldly into the Modernist literature of their own day, art critics like Roger Fry, Wyndham Lewis, or Herbert Read remained tethered, despite their admirable attempts to engage with the present, to a backward- looking glance. It is no accident that many noteworthy nonacademic art critics—those who wrote for a wider public, not only for “trade” journals—took their inspiration from Eliot.

This problem was exacerbated after World War II, as the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York—to a country whose Puritan origins and instrumentalist bent ill equipped its intelligentsia to take painting, photography, and sculpture seriously. It is not surprising, then, that the first generation of formidable modern art critics in America were recent European immigrants, or the products of immigrant subcultures—like Greenberg and Rosenberg. And these critics looked to European resources—Trotsky, Freud, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Picasso—to grasp the new developments in postwar American art.

The entrance of art critics into the academy produced a generation crippled by a collective inferiority complex vis-à-vis the scholarly humanist tradition of old-style art historians; art critics who stood by in utter amazement at the self-confidence of post-Eliot literary critics. And since the slow demise of New Criticism, the brief moment of Northrop Frye’s myth criticism, and the French invasion of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault in literary criticism, art critics have principally played catch-up. Yet seeking to overthrow, or to undermine, the received tenet that the work of art is, at some fundamental level, independent of the social, political, psychological world in which its creator operates (certainly a worthy goal), the basic thrust of contemporary art criticism has been to deestheticize (or historicize, sociologize, or psychologize) art objects in order to render them worldly. Hence the major battles in esthetic theory have been those that pit Kantians of various stripes against different kinds of Hegelians, Marxists, or Freudians. These debates have been and can be fascinating and illuminating—but in the end they prove simply parochial and provincial.

This is so because they presuppose contexts and consensuses that no longer exist. The received modern world of differentiated autonomous spheres, a teleology based on Eurocentric notions of history, determining productive forces, and ego-centered subjects—once legitimate assumptions from which to proceed—has now given way to a world characterized by global commodification, postcolonial and New World histories, nationalist, religious, and xenophobic revivals, and hybrid subjects with shattered superegos. Thus we must now proceed as did Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Freud in their day, namely by acknowledging the ways in which the very act of criticism must construct the new contexts and consensuses in which we should operate. As Rosenberg warned in “Criticism and Its Premises,”

Unless critical discussion achieves the intellectual scale of our revolutionary epoch, it cannot be taken seriously. In practical fact, current writing on art consists largely of opportunistic sponsorship of trivial novelties and of assertions of personal tastes for which support is sought in pedantic references to art history. . . . As a result, art criticism today is looked down upon by other forms of critical thinking as an unintelligible jargon immersed in an insignificant aestheticism.1

Young art critics today would, no doubt, contest Rosenberg’s claim by trotting out their new historicism and discursive materialism, inspired by Foucault, Clifford Geertz, Julia Kristeva, and others. And one does find in the recent work of art critics obligatory appeals to history, society, culture, and the role of power. Yet I suggest that this new wave of art criticism is itself another form of estheticism in disguise. This is so not only because the ironic consciousness that informs this decentering, deconstructing, and dismantling of highbrow European art objects and perspectives is the reflection, in part, of an estheticizing of art history through the cloudy lens of liberal antiimperialist guilt; but more important, because it refuses to give an account of how the present historical context shapes its own “historicizing” efforts. If most of our art critics offered such an account, it would be quite apparent that they are actually recycling new forms of Eurocentric parochialism and provincialism in the name of a professional avant-gardism—and one far removed from much of the interesting work of contemporary artists themselves.

The fervent post-Modernism debate in art criticism is a good example of how new historicists, textualists, and materialists wax eloquent about power and subordination, yet provide no analyses of their own deployment of power in regard to what their debate excludes or is silent about. Robert Storr rightly notes,

To be sure, much postmodernist critical inquiry has centered precisely on the issues of “difference” and “otherness.” On the purely theoretical plane the exploration of these concepts has produced some important results, but in the absence of any sustained research into what artists of color and others outside the mainstream might be up to, such discussions became rootless instead of radical.2

We might add that the rootlessness—that is, the ahistorical character—of the post-Modernism debate dovetails neatly with estheticist “weightlessness”— namely, the failure to examine who bears the cost of the “absences” present in one’s discourses, and in one’s exercise of authority and power.

Part of the problem here is simply the rather racially segregated and discriminatory practices of the art world—much more so than the literary world—which make it much riskier for critics to take seriously art outside the white mainstream. Yet the esthetic historicism of the new wave of art criticism—which refuses to examine the operations of power at the present historical juncture and what role their own ironic stance is playing in this juncture—tends to reduce this kind of demand to mere moral finger-pointing and pleas for inclusion (as does the belletristic stance of “give-us-back-the-good-old-days” critics like Hilton Kramer).

My point here is not to trash the new historicists—they are often insightful and instructive. Rather, my aim is to emphasize that to be a critic is to do more than reinterpret isolated historical moments with dazzling descriptions, or to cull other disciplines for stunning juxtapositions of cultural and artistic practices. To be a critic is to muster the available resources to respond to the crisis of one’s own time—in light of one’s view of the past.

The challenge is a formidable one. Walking the tightrope between the Scylla of estheticisms and the Charybdis of reductionisms is difficult. And those few critics who pull it off do so when they are summoned by the power of the art objects that engross their curiosity, not when they follow the dictates of even the most subtle methodology. In this sense, evaluation is never an end in itself (to preserve some eternal canon or further a political cause), but rather an integral by-product of a profound understanding of an art object, of how its form and content produce the multiple effects they do, and of the role it plays in shaping and being shaped by the world of ideas, political conflicts, cultural clashes, and the personal turmoils of its author and audience.

The future of art criticism, then, lies in a more thorough turn toward history, with each step in this turn making possible the next. First, we must require of ourselves a more ambitious structural analysis of the present cultural situation (embracing a wholesale inquiry into both the personal and the institutional operations of power within the academy, the mass media, and the museum and gallery networks). Only then can we focus on the specific art object, according creativity its integrity while conceiving of each artwork’s distinctive form and style as a response to the cultural present and to past artistic styles. And finally, in examining how significant art objects (those that are accorded stature in the articulated canon, and those that are not) offer insights into the human condition in specific times and places, but also shape our view of the current cultural crisis, we will hear the silences and see through the blind spots that exist alongside those insights. Art criticism is art history, but much intellectual baggage must be shed if we are to have a criticism commensurate with the complexities and challenges of our epoch; if we are to make history as well as to mine it.

Cornel West is a professor of religion and the director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University. His latest book is The American Evasion of Philosophy, 1989.



1. Harold Rosenberg, “Criticism and Its Premises,” in Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 140.

2. Robert Storr, quoted in "The Global Issue: A Symposium,” Art in America 77 no. 7, July 1989, p. 88.