PRINT May 1992


In the pages of this continuing series Artforum invites a range of critics or theorists to articulate what they see as the role and responsibilities of art criticism today.

IN THE YEARS SINCE 1970 or so, a deep divide has occurred in art criticism: its vocabularies and modes of address no longer even begin to cohere into one dialogue. By contrast, even the most demanding criticism of the Modernist generation took for granted a common space of viewing and, by extension, of discussion of art. Art was made in the studio, then brought complete and intact to the gallery. The critic’s task was to give a response to what was immediately present to vision, that is, to offer an account of an experience available in principle to every visitor to that space. And any member of the lay audience was in principle able to judge the adequacy of the critic’s assessment. The arena of exhibition remained the functional microcosm it had become in the great public displays of the Enlightenment; it was assumed that its space could adequately encompass the significant moral questions art addressed.

With Minimal art, and in the Conceptual and performance art that followed it, the site of practice shifted from the hidden studio to the gallery. It was there, increasingly, that the work of art was assembled or performed. Prompted by practice that contested the hegemony of autonomous objects in traditional materials, the most influential writers on art began to address the institutions and ideological biases that had framed the Modernist gaze. This widening of concerns was undertaken in the name of the audience, to counteract mystification and manipulation of the viewing experience and to resist the identification between actual, heterogeneous spectators and an ideal viewer conceived according to unacknowledged hierarchies of class and gender. At the same time, however, this change had the effect of breaking the bond between the critic and the ordinary viewer, in that the perception and thought reported by the critic could no longer be a refined version of what the common space of viewing provided to everyone. Criticism of necessity came to depend on an insider’s language, in that it imagined itself having access to events that could only be experienced by those with an unusually high commitment to monitoring process-oriented, nonpermanent forms of art.

At first, this was literally the case: the new critical writing came from artists themselves. Practitioners like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Dan Graham, and Art & Language simply took over, manifesting their dissatisfaction with the available kinds of mediating criticism by assuming responsibility themselves for interpretation alongside production. The challenge to writers who were not practicing artists was how to match this new standard of professional exclusivity by other means.

An important early piece of writing in the new critical mode was written in frank acknowledgment of this predicament. Annette Michelson’s impressive and rather overlooked essay on Morris, published in 1969, begins with the assertion that the artist’s enterprise “commands recognition of the singular resolution with which a sculptor has assumed the philosophical task which, in a culture not committed on the whole to speculative thought, devolves with a particular stringency upon its artists.”1 This statement remains the best and most accurate justification for high abstraction in the arts, and, at the same time, for elevated, demanding language in criticism. One could expand upon it to say that in a culture where philosophy had been largely withdrawn into technical exchanges between academic professionals, artistic practice in the Duchampian tradition had come to provide the most important venue where demanding philosophical issues could be aired before a substantial lay public.

In this sense, the exhibition space as microcosm still works against the force of professional specialization in intellectual life. Almost no serious artistic project has managed to sever the essential link with the gallery. Any display of documentation cements that link, as does any work produced by the artist inside the exhibition space that is plainly related to what he or she executes outside it. Though installation work undermined the ordinary viewer’s confidence in the adequacy of what he or she could immediately see, still it was accessible in similar places and under the same conditions as traditional works of painting and sculpture. For this reason it is probably better that the period’s utopian ambitions for art to be removed from the gallery altogether were never realized. The gallery or museum has become the equivalent of an impossible church that can house learned colloquia of atheist philosophers alongside fundamentalist revival meetings in the same sanctuary. And this is why the artist might legitimately claim the role of last public philosopher.

Of course, that claim can in fact be extended to very few, and judgment must be based on more than an artist’s self-assertion and self-evaluation. In the end, interpretation is the collective endeavor of a community, arising out of conversation. The artist’s statement—physical, performative, or verbal—can only be the start of the dialogue, even if those in the audience do not always know exactly how to continue it. And it is the critic who speaks for the lay audience, and manifests all of its difficulties in finding something pertinent to say and a persuasive form of saying it. Both critic and audience lack the artist’s great resources of economy and allusiveness in the fashioning of the work, as well as the automatic presumption of knowledge in whatever he or she might choose to say about it. The developments of the 1960s, the emergence from eclipse of that Duchampian tradition in the hands and voices of articulate artists, left critics groping for the means to respond.

Michelson’s essay in fact contains the germ of the most common solution. This was, as far as I know, the first piece of art criticism to cite Jacques Derrida on the metaphysics of presence, years in advance of his translation into English and assimilation into the larger academic culture of the Anglophone world.2 Michelson saw in particular the high Modernism championed and articulated by Michael Fried, with its denial of contingency and temporality in the viewer’s experience, as bound by precisely this metaphysics.

Made today, this sort of assertion would be wearyingly familiar, and the subsequent success of deconstruction in the academic world would have made some such claim virtually inevitable at a later date. But the validity and interest of a move can depend very much on circumstance: in 1969, Michelson was making an effort to advance a serious dialogue with a fresh and unexpected point of reference. One of the chief attractions of the line of thought represented by Derrida was that it made the boundary between production and interpretation difficult to draw. Criticism could thereby parallel the position of practice in the Conceptualist mode. The meanings it was now equipped to seek were removed from the concrete, perceptible substance of the art object and found to be everywhere extrinsic to it.

More recent efforts to incorporate theory of this kind into art history and criticism, often half-digested and removed from the sort of disciplined observation fostered by Modernism, have been responsible for a great deal of tedium, irrelevance, and gamesmanship verging on imposture, symptomatic rather than diagnostic of a decade notable for the reign of imposture in its public life. It is always worth noting that most of the excited discoveries of recent literary theory were long anticipated in the lines of practice descended from Dada and Constructivism, and it has been sad to see art-world professionals, unmindful of their own inheritance, conceding priority to latecomers and then seeking to borrow what they already possess.

But complaints about this state of affairs need to be carefully distinguished between, on the one hand, those made at a commensurate level of seriousness and, on the other, the know-nothingism of mid-cult journalists who deny the need for different levels of critical diction in the first place. The split in critical language is not the problem; rather, it is to be welcomed. The crucial thing about the old exhibition-as-microcosm idea was that it never assumed that the viewer would be obliged to address all kinds of art in the same state of mental preparation, nor that the conversations it contained would all be conducted in the same language. It may seem a paradox to discern a way toward the rebuilding of a consensual public discussion in language that, for the moment, excludes so many. But the alternative is for art to remain walled within a recreational “Arts & Leisure” mentality—this, as much as patriarchal hegemony, having always been the real danger of Modernist assumptions.

The best criticism now being produced—I am thinking for example of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s or Charles Harrison’s—is preoccupied with the most difficult art and is distinguished by a thoroughly appropriate elevation of tone and an impersonal precision of language. It can sometimes be forbidding in character (as was Michelson’s stringent prose in 1969), but this is no more than rhetorical decorum, style being adjusted to the demands of the occasion, which our predecessors in the 18th and 19th centuries would have taken for granted. The critical vocabulary of each has been crafted out of a longstanding personal engagement with the work of certain artists—Art & Language in Harrison’s case, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Graham, and Michael Asher in Buchloh’s—where a corresponding refusal of commonplace responses and sensory compensations is the rule.

But where art demands translation into a more vernacular idiom, refined vocabularies can suddenly appear ill-adapted to the job.3 This can be the case even within the home territory of high criticism. Some of the most important and successful work in an impeccably conceptual mode—that of Graham, Asher, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, or Christopher Williams, to name a few—has depended upon reference to specific, local histories and experience. A full account of their achievements will require a more demotic style of paraphrase than serious art writing has generally been able to accommodate. The results of that limitation can be criticism in which all the works of such artists sound as though they do the same things and in which there is too little comparative evaluation of their relative successes and failures. On the other hand, in the case of art that intentionally fails to meet a certain standard of professional good manners, the higher forms of criticism can find themselves with too little to say.

What is missing in the current scene is more critical writing that knows how to mix its modes, that does not take one level of language and one commensurate level of artistic practice for its significant universe. It may be too much to ask that present-day critics exhibit the literary range of a Diderot, but it is instructive to read his exhibition reviews, which stand near the beginning of the whole enterprise of professional criticism. Diderot’s preoccupations are openly rhetorical, in regard both to the art and to his own practice, from start to finish. The motif of conversation is explicitly sustained throughout. No one approach is reserved for any one kind of painting; therefore no one level of discussion ever pretends to adequacy. His writing thereby becomes a flexible instrument of a kind that is hardly visible today.

This by no means amounted to a happy eclecticism. No one is more convinced than Diderot of the need for distinctions in level, and the reader is always aware of a dissonant edge when the “wrong” mode is being pursued. The pressing questions of our own moment involve the ways in which economic pressures, along with the various tribalisms operating in the art world, prevent such an approach to criticism from even being conceived. For some such sophistication in practice across the whole rhetorical field is surely required if we are to follow the interplay between abstraction and local knowledge in the best work and to redeem the rest with some kind of common understanding.

Thomas Crow is a professor of history of art at the University of Sussex.



1. Annette Michelson. “Robert Morris—An Aesthetics of Transgression.” Robert Morris, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1969, p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 9.

3. An exemplary recognition and analysis of this predicament can be found in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Periodizing Critics,” in Hal Foster, ed., Discussions in Contemporary Culture no. 1, New York: Dia Art Foundation, and Seattle: Bay Press. 1987, pp. 65–70.