PRINT October 1990


ANY CRITIC WHO DOES more than jerk a knee to kick a tire operates, knowingly or otherwise, from a set of first principles. But immediately the critic finds it necessary to relate principles to practice. This is an alchemic transmutation effected by mind reimaging itself through words, and it is felt to be faintly but essentially mystical by those who live with it daily. You could say, then, that the first or primary problem of criticism is language.

There is a two-way flow between language and “truth” that has not been done serious harm by the skepticism of the philosophically minded. I set the word in quotations because I am not speaking of a presumed essence apart from experience. My own model is slipperier and more phenomenological, woven on the loom of ordinary life. I like to imagine that the echo of mind in matter, and the echo of matter in mind, is where language touches ground.

Modern analytic philosophy has worked over this “language question” (the question of the relationship of language to truth) until it has acquired a considerable history and a bagful of inflections. Semiotics, in separating the signifiers from their significance, has performed a similar sort of surgery. I leave to the professions their professionalism. I quit philosophy when I felt that my relationship to the “truth” word was being diverted into patterns developed by philosophy departments for their own purposes, primarily linguistic. When I use the word—not very often to other people, this being a private matter—I’m not talking about conclusions. Anybody can reach a conclusion. I mean the truth-seeking momentum of human consciousness, which exerts itself through language, and through all those experiences, both material and immaterial, both “real” and “fanciful,” that attend the systems that language generates.

I’m an art critic who still has a shred of amazement about what I do, because I’m always asking myself exactly how I can presume to glimpse in a physical object what an artist intends to mean—and what the object itself means, irrespective of the artist. I can make the presumption, I’ve decided, because that truth-seeking momentum works in practice, even when it can’t be talked about. If I had to limit myself to talking about things that can be proved—physical things, and whatever shreds of sensation stick to them—I would have to be a formalist. How boring. And wrong, too.

Art criticism is a hobbled profession. Physical experience begets only a few words, compared to those engendered by nonphysical experience. We talk about not only what is there, but what is not there. What I love about language is the nought—the nothingness, the gap—within concrete existence, which can be filled only by mind and its products. The invention of zero is the beginning of civilization. To all writers comes the magical opportunity to fill up the hole with perpetually new mental matter. Evolving, the filled-up nought becomes the history of thought and culture. To participate in that evolution, even in its tiniest aspect, is the greatest miracle available to me (supplanted only by the much-more-inaccessible miracle of “being” itself).

But I think there is a crisis in criticism today (and has been for 30 years or so), and it has to do with the flight from whatever is genuine in language. I am alarmed when nonprofessionals try to adopt the rigorous terminology and the carefully wrought discourse of the professionals. Systems of ideas that are sufficient unto themselves, and were never intended to be applied to practical disciplines, are being asked to create an architecture for valuation. The system (in most cases, the pseudosystem, since only its superficial aspects have been skimmed off) is thrown like a blanket over the living experience—the real contact with the art object. The crisis betrays an absence of clarity about fundamental questions: Where does language originate? Is it a pure construct, a web of self-contained definitions that its practitioners can build into a tower of babble? Does language have any “truth” whatsoever?

I suppose this issue is not so much a philosophical one as a moral one. Very few critics, in the practice of their profession, ask themselves about the epistemological status of language. But nearly everybody, one way or another, makes a (conscious or otherwise) decision about what’s true. I’m irritated and upset when the decision is that nothing’s true. I have had to ask myself why I react to garbled, pompous, dialect-ridden theorizing as though some violence had been done to something I believe in. I realize that it’s because that’s exactly what has happened. What I believe in is the power of language to sift through the chaos of sensation and to speak about intangibles, using the mechanisms of language itself to sketch in the parameters of the void that language can’t reach. To cut language off from its source of meaning—to turn it into solipsism—is to confine it literally to meaninglessness. Solipsism profoundly offends me. I have built my own life—not just my critical writing—around the conviction that my only guide in this wilderness of “being” (what the Buddhists call samsara, the cycle of suffering) is what I feel to be true.

So criticism, for me, has a moral dimension that has nothing to do with the much-more-limited social term “morality.” As far as I am concerned, thinking clearly has to coincide with feeling clearly. That is, you have to know what you care about, and—equally essentially—why you care about it. When your own “conscience” (from the Latin scire, “to know”) is clear, you can proceed to use language with full forcefulness. James Joyce is an example of a writer whose knowledge was clear, who knew exactly what he was doing, and whose writing has awesome integrity. Then there is Ernest Hemingway, who seemed so clean a stylist when he came on the scene, and whose career now appears so blighted by a horde of character flaws that have turned both literary critics and ordinary readers against him. One measure of a writer is the length and breadth and height of the shadow of her moral universe.

But to know who you are and where you stand involves a process of self-examination that can resemble peeling your skin inch by inch off your flesh. Attaching yourself to a system is an easy way around this painful self-flaying. The system supplies the index, and the writer merely adds the page numbers. Nobody need bother to look further. Besides, “morality” is an ill-fated word in the 20th century; wasn’t victory declared over Beaux-Arts moralisms in Manet’s Paris? Yes, but Modernism in its early forms was an intensely moral affair, in the sense of knowing what you care about and why you care about it. Post-Modernism is not so sanguine. Or so willing to take risks.

If there is a crisis in criticism, it’s because a bleak irony has interfered with the truth-seeking process. The expectation of meaninglessness has left some practitioners with an unshakable sense that irony is the only path out of “boordom.” Better to be hip than earnest. Better to say nothing than to run the gauntlet of self-doubt. Picking one system over another is thought to be a vital career move, offering what you might call identity security. Pick the right one and you will 1) get tenure; 2) make a name for yourself; 3) confuse and irritate your potential detractors; 4) remove yourself from the fray of genuine argument over ideas; 5) sound bigger than you are; 6) have lots of friends. Cynicism about the task of criticism has an inevitable conclusion. If language is nothing but a matter of strategic positioning, then the artwork is just chaff in the field plowed by theory.

The great philosophers—Ludwig Wittgenstein is a perfect example—often attempt to push the limits of language, to pierce the envelope of daily existence; they are guided, and judged, not by their obfuscations, but by the meaningfulness of their insights. For a critic to attempt some similar flight of linguistic adventure is to forget that criticism is grounded in the physical object. If criticism is to be something other than strategic positioning—if the critical process is to operate as it should—you have to feel that some things you can say are more true than other things. (True for yourself; only coincidentally true for other people.)

Problems of language tend to be reliable indicators of problems in the system that generates them. It’s no coincidence that formalist theory had to perspire so brutally and go to such mangling lengths to describe physical/perceptual phenomena. In what you might call classic formalism, what counts is the “facts” of canvas, paint (or other materials), and the perceptual mechanisms by which those “facts” manifest themselves; only these aspects of existence are allowed into critical discourse. Formalist theory was a sophisticated version of a very simple proposition, namely that material reality and the concrete experience of materialism are the only admissible criteria for contact with and entry into an artwork. Great contortions of language arise when the formalist struggles to find words for material reality—a giveaway that the system is an incomplete model.

Classic formalism perpetuates the dualist dilemma of Cartesianism, which segregates body from mind, or, in this case, the artwork from what you can think and say about it. The unexpected consequence is that the formalist, like Descartes, was obliged to discuss only a certain fraction of experience. Descartes said, Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), not I think, feel, know, believe, sense, therefore I am. The formalist critic has to mangle words in order to talk about the elusive fine points of perception, forgoing the vast number of other notions that language is more capable of dealing with. (Ironically, the only formalist critic I know who didn’t get into this bind was Clement Greenberg, who boldly and casually proclaimed what he liked; he didn’t bother with description. In his universe, language and value were absolutely simultaneous. He left it to others to attempt the impossible.)

Formalist language began by struggling valiantly to limit itself to the near horizon of physical evidence. But in terms of physical evidence, language can do little more than point, as anyone should realize who has spent hours in analytic-philosophy conferences dealing with the thorny matter of the color of Ginger Rogers’ hair. (Her hair is red, but it’s not red, it’s orange. So why do we call it red? And so on.)

Eventually formalists discovered that the only thing they could justifiably talk about was what they thought. They had reached the dead end pioneered by Descartes: cogito ergo cogito (I think therefore I think). By this time, they were no longer strictly formalists; they had become theorists. They had discovered post-Modernism. Post-Modernism is a term with many definitions, but from this perspective, it could be defined as the end of the moral universe proposed by Modernism. Having been severed from the wholeness of meaning by Cartesian dualism, theorist-language discovered that it had only itself as its ground. Thus began the closed loop of critical discourse. Criticism came to exist for itself; in the minds of theory-oriented art critics, criticism was prior to (in the philosophical sense of being more fundamental than) the art object. Thinking about art had nothing to measure itself against; set loose from its moorings in experience, it became pure fiction. In some hands, it even became careerist caricature.

MY OWN SENSE IS that you can’t maintain the Cartesian position for long if you know anything about the evolution of philosophy and science in this century. To be ridiculously brief, I would say again that matter and mind simultaneously imprint themselves on us, and that neither is conceivable without the other. Both share the same universe and may well be the same thing; certainly they share the same conditions of “knowing.” What this means in practice is that any sensitive observer already knows the whole range of existence in any one experience. Every perception comes attended by a huge existential baggage train. Otherwise why would the formalist have to work so hard to limit language?

I can see why formalists turned into theorists. Pure invention is seductive. You can play all sorts of fascinating games in the land of nought. The issue is not a critic’s license to be inventive. (Why shouldn’t she be?) In my mind, the issue is a critic’s obligation to be meaningful. One can be both inventive and meaningful, as the greatest writers and artists are. One can be inventive and meaningless, and the value of that position is considerably diminished. (I do have problems with Gertrude Stein.)

Formalism has a whole raft of descendants. One of them, curiously, is Marxist criticism. Marxists had a lot of problems with the “truth” word, which they regarded as a dangerous tool by which people in power could manipulate their subjects. (They had a point.) There are still critics who rail about “quality,” which, as nearly as I can tell, depends on a usefully invisible set of “standards” by which critics can blast away at anybody who has the gall to disagree with them and their covert social agendas. I don’t think that “truth” and “quality” have much to do with each other. The first evolves out of the monologue you carry on with yourself as witness. The second is a ranking system that falsely presumes objectivity.

But every system has its up side and its down side. There is a kind of fashionable neo-Marxist critique, these days, that attempts to recreate commodity fetishism with language (and with art). Art, it’s felt, should replicate the conditions of alienation and reification it wishes to censure in consumerist society. The result is that you can’t tell the simulation from the original fetishistic commodity—or vice versa. This type of theory can supplant Marxism with Structuralism, or any number of other isms, as necessary. My point is that alienation itself has become the ground of discourse, as though language could replicate alienation without itself participating in that state. Instead, what I see is that emptiness and contentlessness become themselves reified conditions, fetishized and glamorized. A supposed critique of capitalist consumerism comes to share the poisoned state of that which it criticizes.

As language is increasingly debased, you get to the bottom of Dante’s eighth circle. At some of its academic extremes, pseudophilosophical discourse becomes a way of establishing your social relationship to a primate group: what matters are patterns of dominance and submission, territorialism, and alliances with allies against enemies. “Truthfulness” lies not in what’s said, but in mimicry of those speech patterns that define the group you want to belong to.

What are the ambitions of criticism? I am not speaking of critical theory per se, which is and should remain a thing unto itself, but of art criticism that aspires to be critical theory. I’m a working critic, which means that I feel irritation at hermetic systems that abuse language and the fundamental impulse of language, which is to refer beyond itself. Perhaps that’s why I have inclined toward journalism, a profession posited on the notion that there is a (momentarily) true answer, if you can only get to it. Mired in its contingencies, journalism isn’t everybody’s answer. But it seems that some system, in the sense of some organized thinking process, is necessarily present whenever language confronts art. And so intellectual fashions roll like juggernauts over artists, who are the unintended victims of the difficulty of thinking about physical things.

Kay Larson is the art critic for New York magazine.