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Inflated phrases

Most texts which accompany contemporary art production are so twisted and woolly that they could easily pass for self-parody. Christian Demand takes up a three hundred year old lament.

In anticipation of any objections that might follow: I am not an art critic. I am not now and I never was, and I don't intend to become one. When I talk about the crisis of criticism, I am not speaking with the authority of someone who has proved he can do things better.

I am driven by nothing more than the frustrations of a reader who is interested in art and who simply cannot believe the mass of linguistic strutting, moral imposture and lazy thinking that is inflicted upon him by this genre. Take the official exhibition text for the Anish Kapoor show in Munich's Haus der Kunst (2007/08): "In Kapoor's work, material plays a central role, although always in connection with an idea of presence and spirituality that transcends the superficial 'actuality' of the object. In Kapoor's words: 'In a certain way matter always leads to something immaterial.' He sees this as the fundamentally paradoxical yet complementary proviso of the material world. (...) Terms like lightness, slowness and growth seem to be the inspiration and driving force for Kapoor's new kinetic objects and spacial objects shown in this exhibition. At the root of them all is Kapoor's expression of anxiety through unabashed emblems and formal reference to sexuality and violence: the unspeakable is given voice."

Most texts which accompany contemporary art production are so alarmingly twisted and woolly that they could easily pass for self-parody. Clucking hysterically they describe works "which hover on the border between the visible and the invisible", which - in the most wonderful way - "function as a link between geology and biology", which - how could it be anything else - "tackle aesthetic-political questions on cultural difference and the migration of form", which - it goes without saying - "reference the key artistic avant-guards of the 20th and 21st centuries", while naturally "incorporating the key questions of architecture, design, philosophy and science" and representing, in their spirituality, "a realisation of the present".

All these confused, inflated phrases stem from one and the same text which ,as far as I'm concerned, speaks for the genre as a whole. After centuries of unbroken lamentation about the intellectual hopelessness and the unkempt state of the genre I feel no need to produce further evidence of the fundamental rottenness in art criticism. As far back as the early 18th century, the great court artist Antoine Coypel, president of the Paris Academy and Premier Peintre du Roi, an expert on art in other words, complained about the "vapid and bizarre jargon" of "falsely applied artistic terms" applied by the art critics of his day, and he left no doubt that he thought the great majority of them incompetent and dimwitted.

If the foreword of a contemporary guide for budding cultural journalists expresses the hope that the publication will help ensure that "art critics once again do their work with a clear conscience" then it would appear that this general suspicion has obviously not been dispelled. My suspicion about this suspicion is that if a complaint this fundamental stills holds true after three hundred years, it cannot be down to coincidence. We are not dealing with the teething problems of a discipline, with exceptional journalistic condition or with an unusually obdurate cluster of incompetent or malicious authors. The error must be in the system.

This suspicion is the real reason for my prolonged preoccupation with the subject. What bothers me is not so much the individual critical judgement but much more the activity of judging per se. So I don't really care whether or not I can agree with other people about the importance of Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin, whether I can convince them about my opinions on the latest Turner Prize winner, or whether we can reach an agreement about how the London art scene could be more lively than the one in New York or Shanghai.

As far as I'm concerned – and please excuse this old fashioned expression – it's all just a matter of taste and as such, can only be substantiated to a limited extent. I am also reluctant to deduce consequences for other people based on my personal likes and dislikes. After all I would never dream of trying to convince someone else that football is a better sport than ice dancing, just because I happen to prefer watching football.

But I am extremely interested in public discussion about matters of taste. I find it fascinating to follow the ways and means with which people deal with differences in opinion, how they argue for their personal preferences and attempt to establish universal authority for their own passions, making opposing views seem misplaced. The strategies of reasoning and argumentation, the rhetorical twists which are summoned in public talking and writing about art are particularly worthwhile object of study.

In many cases these are degenerate forms of argumentative speech. Texts on art rarely explain what they profess to explain; they simply simulate the explainability of their theories. From this point of view, I should add that the differences between review, catalogue text, laudatio and artist profile are nominal. However varied the forms of writing which circulate in the art world, they are unified in their claim to truth, in their allegation of stringency and factuality. Even a Kunstverein press release doesn't want to be read as some dubious rhapsody, but as a reliable source of information and coherent aid to understanding, in other words, as criticism in the best sense of the word.

If I am right in my theory about a general system error, then one would expect to encounter it not only in texts by critics, but also in the places were critics themselves are critiqued. Were this not the case, the countless suggestions for improvement and guidance on good criticism, which since Coypel's time have come to form their own art-critical sub-genre, would have guided things in the right direction and the problem would have been solved long ago. But the opposite has happened. As evidence of this conjecture, I would like to quote from the aforementioned vademecum for critics: "Artworks are undoubtedly social objects. They are produced and absorbed by people, they have an effect on the life of the individual as well as on culture as a whole, and at the same time they take on their meaning from the socio-historical environment in which they exist."

I would have little to object to here, were not the paragraph to continue as follows: "But works of art are more than this, they possess their own qualities which raise them above the status of social things. They might be human products, artefacts, but unlike others which exhaust themselves in their utility value, they are marked out by a surplus, a quantum of non-utility. Art works 'are an end in themselves', art theory tells us. The refusal of the art work to be a means to an end stands it apart from us. Proud and exclusive it stands and faces us. whereas all other media offer themselves to us wholeheartedly so to speak: the newspaper to impart information; an essay, instruction; a football match, excitement; a cabaret, relaxation; and good wine, a lifting of the spirits. The art work claims the right not to have to fulfill needs, not to want to join the ranks of useful things. Instead of giving, it demands the exertion of the (perceiving) senses and the (understanding) intellect."

It is pure coincidence that in my search for material to bolster my theory about the dire situation of criticism, I should stumble on this particular text. Yet it doesn't strike me as coincidental in any way that this text, which reflects on the aims and reasons for art criticism, should contain this bizarre anthropomorphic theory. What this reflects is less the result of an individual mental effort and more the traces of an intellectual mass movement.

The idea that art has to possess certain characteristics which 'raise' it above the rest of the social world, thereby freeing it from all obligations to justify itself, has become so deeply entrenched over the course of 300 years by the pens of entire armies of writers about art, that it will take considerable effort to take another road across this terrain. But why should you? It is certainly in the interest of the critic to follow in these footsteps. They offer, for example, a plausible means for explaining the phenomenon of the chronic variance in the evaluation of art, and in practical terms, one which guarantees that in his work the critic is automatically on the right side.

It is a clear-cut hierarchical model which relies on the basic assumption of an absolute moral-intellectual divide: there is such a thing as art in the singular, an amount of artefacts whose particular characteristics make them art, no matter whether we personally think they merit the definition or not. The leading authorities generally entrusted with awarding this distinction tend to be art history and the museum – these also tend to exist in the singular, interestingly enough. Secondly, there are, unbridgeable topographical differences between art (and its friends) on the one hand, and the audience, another strangely singular being, on the other. The audience lives in the profane world of aims and needs; art on the other hand forms a special kingdom beyond the profane. At its borders end the rights of the audience to make demands or more precisely: the rights are transferred directly to art, which itself makes demands on the audience.

Since the audience is not used to having to meet expectations, it is simply no longer prepared or able to do this. It has been so thoroughly pervaded by the everyday indolence that comes from dealing with the profane, that it comes as no surprise that it should have the most peculiar ideas about what art should look like. Since the critic, by contrast, is on a par with art, he always stands on the right side of the expertise gap. His task is essentially to educate the people: from the lofty heights of expertise he informs the audience about what art is and how to behave towards it. Shocking amounts of writing about art follow this view to a greater or lesser extent. Against this current, there is something I want to cling to: "Art" is – and always was – a value judgement, in other words a term whose application reflects the likes and dislikes of the person using it. Art is therefore anything we call art, because for whatever reasons we find it interesting, exciting, enriching or delightful. Since however experience tells us that people find very different things interesting, exciting, enriching or delightful, it follows that the popular pedagogic declaration "That is art!" is trivial (in that it simply denotes that the object in question is, let's say, being exhibited in a museum) or presumptuous (in that it assumes that something which I find interesting, automatically has to be interesting to others).

There is no real way to prove the validity of likes and dislikes, they have very little to do with understanding and knowledge, and really only reflect our convictions about what makes a successful life. This is an ethical question and in ethical questions no one has an expert edge. Every voice carries equal weight.

This is not to say that there is no possibility for a sensible discussion about aesthetic judgement. Because even if our likes and dislikes have no universal authority, they are anything but unmotivated. Indeed our passions are our most compelling motivations, nothing interests us more, there is nothing we can talk about more. Why don't we do just that? And why do we try to do it with such inflated intolerance, instead of just promoting them honestly. We have to do this in our daily lives. And even outside the world of art it rarely happens that other people share the same interests, feel the same affinities, foster the same sympathies as we do.

Generally we don't react to these differences with dogmatic arrogance. We are much more likely to make an effort to present our likes and dislikes as cogently as possible to the person we are addressing. We try to infect them with our enthusiasm, to paint as enticing a picture as possible of the increased happiness to be had from dealing with edifying fields of activity, we try to bring their attention to factors they may have overlooked in their assessment, and much more besides. Admittedly, there is no guarantee that this will work. But is there ever?


Christian Demand
is a professor of
art history at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Nuremberg. He is also writes regularly for Merkur magazine and Bayrischen Rundfunk on art and aesthetic theory. His book "Die Beschämung der Philister. Wie die Kunst sich der Kritik entledigte" (Shaming the philistines. How art did away with the critics) was published by Klampen Verlag in 2003.

This article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Folio May 2008 edition.

Translation: lp

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