PRINT September 2009



New York Stock Exchange closing numbers, April 9, 2009. Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

SEPTEMBER MARKS A FULL YEAR since our encounter with economic cataclysm prompted many in the art world to suggest that seemingly retardataire notions of critique, resistance, and transformation—often easily dismissed as abstract or archaic—were now not so highfalutin. Rather, it was suggested, at a historical juncture when dynamics in finance were clearly rattling the very foundations of the global economy, even the most speculative conceits of art assumed a pragmatic air. Such dizzying questions as “How do we want to be governed?”—to cite just one matter raised in this publication around that time (by Charles Esche, in reference to Documenta 12)— were seemingly suited all too well for our hour of societal vertigo. (That a US presidential election coincided with the financial meltdown just amplified a sense of these issues’ timeliness.) As a colleague once said to me with gallows humor, “Only when the plane begins to fall from the sky does one realize what’s been at stake all along”; the real stakes for conversations around art suddenly seemed quite clear a year ago this month.

And now? Certainly, daunting questions remain about the remaking and development of industrial and economic infrastructures for a new era. Yet debates about the role of government—or, better, about the place of the “public”—in tackling these issues seem at a dramatic pause, if not an outright stalemate, in many regions of the world. Something of a similar impasse exists in the artistic realm as well: Pervading these pages is a deep-seated anxiety about the efficacy of art as a discursive instrument—and, in fact, of criticality itself in both artmaking and writing—with contributor after contributor registering skepticism about critical models of the past as they are applied time and again to distinct problems of the present.

Some of these complaints are relatively straightforward and earnest, as when Diedrich Diederichsen, discussing this summer’s Venice Biennale, argues that many group shows today create lineages among different generations of artists only to cloud our perspective on contemporary circumstances. “By propagating the related illusion that the old rules (and thus the old ways of breaking them) still apply,” he writes, “[this curatorial approach] also holds at bay the question of whether a new relationship between decisions about form and about content, about references to the world and to the self, needs to be laboriously developed.” Elsewhere, contributors are more deliberately provocative, as in the statements by curator Alison M. Gingeras and artist Matias Faldbakken, both of whom reach for a “nihilist” approach in their respective projects, suggesting that delving into systems beyond the parameters of the art world—whether those of business or of fundamentalism—is more effective than any mode of critical distance. (An intriguing counterpoint is found, perhaps, in Tom Holert’s discussion of Cerith Wyn Evans and Florian Hecker’s stunning opera No Day No Night, which the writer says is “rooted in desperation about the impossibility of abstraction”—an acknowledgment of the perceived impoverishment of avant-garde strategies if ever there was one.) And then there is art historian Howard Singerman, who, considering “The Pictures Generation” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, laments its curator’s devaluation of analytic theory: “For him, art criticism always comes too late, and always in excess.”

One is apt to share Singerman’s apprehension, particularly if one buys into the idea—which seemed so reinvigorated a year ago—that artistic discourses have meaningful corollaries in social experience (and might even anticipate it, when it comes to creating conversations that are the basis of participatory democracy and its public sphere). If we cannot conceive of such dialogues here, how can we possibly envision them there? Art historian Thomas Crow speaks to this exact predicament in remarking upon the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Biennale, which featured a work by Jackson Pollock Bar: Consisting of two actors lip-synching a previously held press conference by the pavilion’s curator and commissioner, the set piece is designed, according to a wall text, to imbue the pavilion with “a reasonable measure of self-reflexivity.” As the art historian eloquently puts it, the actors’ appearance in such a context “does double duty in highlighting the degree to which such gestures, dyed as they are into the fabric of advanced contemporary art, persist by necessity but, having exhausted most of their power of revelation, return with renewed vividness as performance.” The observation recalls Stanislavsky’s description of “rubber stamp” actors, who play their role without bringing life to the part, offering only the empty display of convention. Crow thus underscores once more the apparent remove of accepted critical models from the issues of our own day, only to register the ways in which these models have returned as theater, with a greater undercurrent of urgency. If in recent years the place of such performativity has been much on people’s minds—recall the flurry of exhibitions and performances around the world some five years ago devoted to reenactments of historical artworks and conferences—now the technique has spiraled back to make a subject of ourselves. Ironically, the greater the reach of this “reflexivity” is, the more hermetic the spiral—further diminishing art’s outward effects. Looking ahead, there must be some way to reevaluate the idea of criticality in order for it to resume meaningful operation: to understand our impasse not as a fait accompli but rather as a situation alive to (and not simply accepting) the conditions of contemporary culture.