Criticism as advertisement (2009)

BRIAN DILLON Reading your essay ‘Critical Reflections’, in your recent book Art Power, I was reminded of two texts about criticism from the late 19th century. In his essay ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864) Matthew Arnold writes that the critic’s job is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. Twenty-seven years later, in ‘The Critic as Artist’, Oscar Wilde reverses Arnold’s dictum: criticism is rather supposed to ‘see the object as in itself it really is not’. Has this distinction – between criticism as science and criticism as art – gone away, or is it still with us?

BORIS GROYS Both quotations have something to do with description, with the ability of an art critic to describe the art object in a certain way: in one case, to describe it correctly; in the other, to describe it in an interesting way or in a way that is more interesting than the correct description would be. But it seems to me – and it was on my mind when I wrote that text – that description is part of what is expected from criticism, but it’s not the most urgent thing that readers expect. What they expect is a value judgment, from somebody who has more taste than others, rather than a greater ability to describe.

And that’s precisely what seems to me to be in peril at the moment. When I came from the USSR to the West at the beginning of the 1980s, almost immediately I started to write about art for the German newspapers, and I very quickly understood that people reacted only to the fact that I had written a text, that this text was published in the newspaper, had a certain length, was illustrated or not, and was or was not run on the front page of the feuilleton section. They absolutely didn’t react to what I wrote, be it description or evaluation, and they absolutely couldn’t distinguish between positive and negative evaluation. So if they saw, for example, a long text with illustrations on the first page, and it was a negative review, everybody perceived it as a positive review. I understood immediately that the code of contemporary criticism is not plus or minus; I would say it’s a digital code: zero or one, mentioned or not mentioned. And that presupposes a completely different strategy, and a different politics.

BD What, then, are the politics of mentioning or not mentioning an artist?

BG You can escape politics as a theoretician, or as an art historian, but not as a critic. This politics excludes absolutely the possibility of being representative of the public, in whatever sense you understand that. Instead, it presupposes a certain obligation toward artists, curators and so on. You mention people that you like, and you don’t mention the people you don’t like. And you mention people because you like them, and that’s the only reason for mentioning them. If you mention them, it makes no sense to criticize them, because it’s obvious that whatever you say is an advertisement for them. If you don’t like them, you just don’t mention them; if you like them, you just approve them. So the system excludes the phenomenon of negative appreciation: something that has a very long tradition. I don’t have a feeling that negative art criticism is something people do very much now. So today’s criticism mostly does not function as a critique. Today artists want to be critical – but art criticism is almost always affirmative. It is affirmative, for example, by siding itself with art that wants to be critical.

BD It seems as though, on the one hand, criticism has lost its commitment to advancing an argument or ideology, and on the other, that critics are no longer eager to appear paradoxical: that is, to contradict themselves, even to appear hypocritical.

BG You can be hypocritical only if you say something you don’t believe in. The question is whether criticism today is a statement about one’s beliefs at all. Cultural production is based on memory: we have known that since Plato. And today, I’d say, we have lost our memories, and memory has been replaced by Google. Instead of memorizing, we are Googling. And that’s precisely what the art critic is doing. The critic creates a search engine for the reader; fundamentally, he just says, ‘Look at this!’ Whatever is said beyond this is perceived merely as an explanation or legitimization of this advice to look. People are not so interested in why they should look at it; they’re interested in the question of whether they should look at it at all. They’re also not interested in the critic’s opinion, but in whether they should have an opinion themselves about this phenomenon. I’m often asked by colleagues: ‘Should I look at this exhibition or should I skip it?’ There is a certain honesty in this: maybe there’s no reason to look at it…

BD The question ‘Should I look at it?’ suggests that, rather than enjoying or being fulfilled or improved or educated by the art object, one takes something useful from it: ideas or images that can be put to use elsewhere.

BG That’s too charitable an explanation. The question is: would you get lost in a conversation if you didn’t know the phenomenon in question? There are works and exhibitions and books that may well be awful – maybe not – but you have to have an opinion about them because, if you don’t, you are perceived as being uninformed and out of touch with whatever definition of contemporaneity you are faced with. Of course, there are a lot of things that don’t have this urgency: if I say I’m too busy to look at them, I’m forgiven for that. But with some images, some exhibitions, some books, you are not forgiven for being too busy to look into them. If I’m asked should I look at it or not, I always ponder the question seriously: would I be forgiven for not looking at this?

BD You write that the critic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries affected to makes value judgements on the basis of knowledge. He also wrote from outside the art world and deliberately distanced himself from artists. The Modernist or avant-garde critic, on the other hand, claims to speak for the art work, or for the artist. You suggest, however, that the critic is subsequently rejected by artists, whose work may very well speak for itself. How did this happen?

BG The critic has a fear and a desire, like everybody in this cultural system: he is afraid of appearing to be uninformed, not up-to-date. So he has to mention Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he has to have an opinion about Jacques Rancière, he has to know that, in contrast to yesterday, it’s not a good idea to mention Jacques Derrida but it’s a good idea to mention Gilles Deleuze and so on. So he has to be informed and to show explicitly that he is informed: that’s one source of his habit of mentioning. He mentions these people not because he’s interested in them, but because he shows that he belongs to a certain level of discourse. Then, after he establishes himself, he asks himself why and what he wants to advertise to the public.

I don’t believe in neutrality. There’s no objectivity in art. Art is not a system, not a world: it’s an area of struggle and conflict, of competition, animosity and suspicion. That’s why I’m always irritated by any systemic approach to art: as though art production is like shoe production. You have to decide what you want to advertise, what your ideological position is, what you want to make known. Of course, you’re no longer interested in criticizing anything; you’re interested in forwarding what you think is interesting for you, what should be regarded as interesting for culture in which you are living, what you’re ready to support. If you make a bad judgement, and support something that fails in a non-interesting way – because it may fail interestingly – then it was a bad choice. It’s about taking risks.