Criticism, according to Carole Talon Hugon, is a judgement rendered by an authorized individual on contemporary works of art. Setting aside the debatable meaning of “authorized”, it is nevertheless legitimate, given the mistrust that criticism currently faces, to question this profession. Is criticism, as some claim, unable to render a “judgement” on contemporary works or is it, instead, in the process of being renewed in the face of current practices?
Rather than blame criticism for its silence it could be explained by returning to the context of the 1960s. In fact, during that decade artists used a “de-definition” of art, to borrow the title of a book written by American theorist and art critic Harold Rosenberg. He noted that “no one can say for certain what a work of art is – or more importantly, what it isn’t”. Although modern art fell within the spectrum of the avant-garde formalists of the 19th century (impressionism, cubism, pointillism, etc.) who fought against academia by modifying both their subjects and the ways of representing them, modern art is actually part of the Marcel Duchamp tradition. Yet what made Duchamp’s work special was that it was “about art”, about what art is and what its limits are. Duchamp’s ready-made pieces thus created a hybrid between art and what previously had not been considered as coming from the field of art. It was an example of a phenomenon known as “artification”, a term used by Roberta Shapiro to refer to the process of transforming non-art into art. Consequently, the phenomenon of “artification” led to what Théodore Adorno called in an article published in 1953 in Merkur magazine a “de-artification” or the loss a piece’s artistic qualities. Criteria such as beauty, talent or effort no longer had any meaning when judging pieces whose goal was precisely to call into question their necessity in the field of art. By constantly pushing back the borders of what constitutes a work of art, the arts offered audiences new experiences that were impossible to evaluate using old criteria based on sensibility. Ideas about taste, detached contemplation, aesthetic pleasure or imagination had become useless in judging the quality of art because by “de-defining” itself, art also “de-aestheticized itself” (to borrow another term from Rosenberg).
Criticism has also been accused of “gossiping” by promoting all cultural goods without establishing a hierarchy and without being able to define its criteria at the outset. This critical “gossip” could be explained by the evolution of the context of how pieces are produced. As early as 1970, Adorno also described in his book Aesthetic Theory, the phenomenon of the industrialization of culture and showed that the rise of organized production of cultural goods for commercial purposes led to standardizing works of art. The phenomenon of standardization has called into question the very meaning of transgression to the degree that, as stated by sociologist Nathalie Heinich in 1998 in Le triple jeu de l’art contemporain, pieces that were created to test the definitional boundaries of art are systematically integrated by the players in the art market. These de-definitional contributions are then transformed into “forced games, patterns that are destined to appeal for a short time to the market or even positions deliberately reserved for an initiated minority” as Marc Jimenez wrote in his 2005 book called La querelle de l’art contemporain. The effect was to question whether the boundaries of art had lost the transgressive power that legitimated them and to demonstrate how art merely simulates subversion and consigns itself to the category of spectacle. Yet, as Adorno emphasizes, relegating art to the realm of distraction doesn’t liberate audiences but rather reinforces their commitment to what they see. The public, caught in an approach governed by sensation loses its capacity for judgment. In this situation criticism legitimizes the choices made by market players.
However, if the evolution of art from the transgressive to the spectacular has made it difficult to engage in reasoned evaluative discourse about art itself, there is still reason to be confident about the future of criticism. First of all, most works today no longer fall within Duchamp’s model of “art for art’s sake”. Although Yves Michaud commented that work produced in the 1970s signalled the end art’s symbolic power because it did not refer to anything beyond itself, today’s art is not just the result of a willingness to continually extend the artistic realm. Today’s artists do not repudiate the legacy of recent years nor the “de-definition” of art that it created but the works that they produce form a discourse on concerns of the day (ecological disaster, immigration, the place of minorities etc.). But more importantly, a number of artists from our era deny art’s spectacular quality. The forms that their art takes and the locations in which they are displayed demonstrate a desire to be removed from the realm of the spectacle. Artists who, for example, produce temporary conference-performances in scholarly venues like universities produce experiences that are not reducible to products and that are intended for audiences who cannot be described as ordinary consumers. In so doing, they provide criticism with the freedom to evaluate their works with criteria other than those that are purely economic or related to profitability and speculation. It is possible, in fact to speak of their work in terms of “sense”, if one considers the double meaning of the word; that of sensitivity and that of signification. Current criticism can question the relationship between one’s feeling as an audience member and the artist’s thoughts when they created the piece; they can analyze the way in which the work affects the sense and the mind, to define if it allows this transition from perception to conception, in a word, to evaluate if it works.
“Thoughtful practices” (neither transgressive nor spectacular) allow criticism to reconnect with the job requirements as defined by Diderot (i.e. trying to sort out, in today’s art, those pieces which are successful and those which are not). It restores the authority of the expert figure whose goal has always been to contribute to fostering independent critical judgement from those to whom it is intended, but more importantly, it outlines the task ahead. Among the criteria of the past, criticism must now determine which ones are still valid for analyzing art today. Criticism’s duty is to decide if it is possible to incorporate all the criteria from different aesthetic traditions in order to approach contemporary hybrid works. It must decide if constantly evolving works need to invent new criteria for their evaluation and if that’s the case, begin using them.