Introducing 'The Ends of Art Criticism' by Patricia Bickers
Patricia Bickers's book, The Ends of Art Criticism, the second volume in our exciting new series: New Directions in Contemporary Art, will be published on 26th May!
At a time where there are repeated claims of the impending demise of art criticism, The Ends of Art Criticism seeks to dispel these myths by arguing that the lack of a single dominant voice in criticism is not, as some believe, a weakness, but a strength, allowing previously marginalised voices and new global and political perspectives to come to the fore.
‘The time to worry’, writes Patricia Bickers, ‘ is when criticism is not perceived to be in crisis, when there is consensus.’ Bickers contests the all-too-common idea that the critic’s function is to impose a hegemonic judgement of value. Instead, she cultivates substantive disaccord. Acknowledging that both art and criticism are ‘at risk of being co-opted, institutionalised and theorised out of existence’, she insists on the continuing urgency of independent criticism.
~ Barry Schwabsky, art critic, The Nation
Working under lockdown conditions during the Covid pandemic has underlined, perhaps as never before in recent memory, the vital importance of communication, of making your voice heard. Art criticism is first and foremost part of a conversation, and the role of the art critic or writer is to join in, and sometimes initiate informed – critical – conversations about art. The critic’s role is not about achieving critical consensus, which only serves the art market, but about helping to open up debate, not least about the nature of art and criticism, and reaching out to the widest possible audiences while never forgetting that they themselves constitute part of those audiences for art.
To further whet your reading appetite, excerpted below is the author's preface...
The title of this book is deliberately ambiguous, referring to often repeated claims that art criticism is dead or dying, while also suggesting a range of possible aims and outcomes of art criticism that indicate the contrary: that art criticism is thriving. As someone who has spent half a life professionally engaged in reading, writing, commissioning and editing art criticism, I am bound to refute the claim that criticism is either moribund or actually dead. However, I do so not merely from a sense of obligation to all those I have worked with, but from conviction.
In making my case, I draw heavily both from what I learned from my experience of teaching art students and from material published in Art Monthly magazine, a British-based magazine albeit with an international perspective. I make no apology for this because I have been associated with the magazine, first as a contributor and then as editor, for over 30 years; but I also hope to show that magazines have played, and continue to play, a vital part in identifying and engaging with new ideas in art and in disseminating them – arguably one of the chief ‘ends’ of art criticism. Much of the material is recent, since nothing makes the case for the continuing vigour and relevance of art criticism better than the quality of so much new writing on art.
Some disclaimers: while a degree of historical background is required by way of context, this is not a historical study of art criticism but a thematic and occasionally polemical one. Also, while all writing on art is necessarily informed by theory, not least because it forms part of the context in which art is made and understood, neither Art Monthly nor The Ends of Art Criticism are theory-driven. Theory as applied to art is exactly that – applied theory – and to that extent it is contingent on the art that is being addressed, or at least it should be. The American painter and sometime sculptor Barnett Newman (1905–1970) spoke for many artists when he said: ‘Aesthetics for me is like ornithology must be for the birds.’ He was speaking at the Fourth Annual Woodstock Art Conference (held jointly by the American Society for Aesthetics and the Woodstock Artists Society in 1952), and though he didn’t say that aesthetic theory per se was ‘for the birds’, he insisted it was irrelevant when applied to an artist’s work without reference to the artist’s own values. It is surely a legitimate requirement, but it is equally legitimate for critics to question the degree to which the artist has succeeded according to those stated values. It is one of the ends of art criticism, after all, to get close to the art, the very opposite of the now somewhat discredited ‘twenty-five year rule’ intended to ensure that art historians keep a proper distance from art.
Artists draw from a range of theoretical sources and disciplines: aesthetic, anthropological, cultural – including popular culture – economic, feminist, historical, political, psychological, sexual, social and environmental, sometimes in the same work. Critics, too, therefore must cast their net accordingly, or risk excluding work on the basis that it doesn’t accord with a particular theoretical position – unless, of course, that is the somewhat etiolated point the writer wishes to make. To take just one example, while the late, great Susan Hiller (1940–2019) drew from her background as an anthropologist, as well as her interest in psychoanalysis, her work is unmistakeably art not anthropology, as any anthropologist would probably corroborate, nor is it psychoanalytical in any therapeutic sense. Similarly, while any critic engaging with her work should at least address those aspects of it, to focus on them to the exclusion of all other possible avenues of engagement would be a disservice both to the artist and to the reader. The alternative is theoretical orthodoxy, which belongs in the academy.
Art creates a space in which alternative and even opposing ideas can be engaged with at the same time. An example of this is the three-channel triptych, No Permanent Address (2010) by Mark Boulos (b.1975), for which he spent three months in the jungle with the New People’s Army in the Philippines. While no one is more aware of the limits of art’s reach, and of the ethical issues and inequalities raised both by his relatively safe position as an artist amongst fighters and by the presentation of the subsequent work miles away in the context of a gallery, arguably the artist is also uniquely placed to test those limits and to articulate those contradictions. Boulos refers to this space, or ‘gap’, in an interview with art historian and critic Jonathan Harris:
I wanted to explore love from feminist, queer as well as psychoanalytic perspectives. Love as the basis of queer politics, for example. The necessary ethics of communist politics, beyond Marx, may be something that comes from Christianity and other elements: love and agape. I first became interested in the New People’s Army when they performed the first gay wedding in the Philippines. That love could suture a gap in theoretical Marxism, a gap in its ethics ... Between Marxism, feminism and Christianity, the common denominator is love.
Boulos here makes a play on the words ‘a gap’ and the Greek ‘agape’, suggesting that what could fill the gap is not merely love but agape, the highest form of love according to Greco-Christian theology, because it transcends the self. It is a beautiful idea, an aesthetic idea in the original Greek sense, but it is also for Boulos a political idea, and it could be said to be a model for art – and for art criticism – whereby the acknowledgement of difference paradoxically enables reconciliation and even gestures towards resolution. To put it another way, a condition that psychologists describe as ‘cognitive dissonance’, is grist to the mill for artists. To adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation in the introduction to his collection of short stories, The Crack-Up, titled after the 1936 story of the same name, the test of creative intelligence is ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function’. Art critics must be able and willing to negotiate this challenging terrain. The artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) famously described his work as acting in the ‘gap between’ art and life, and it could be said that critics work in the gap between art and its potential audiences, while also always being part of those audiences. By virtue of their closer engagement with art as critics, however, they are usually lucky enough to occupy a front row seat.
Get your copy of The Ends of Art Criticism HERE.
Also available as an E-Book.
Patricia Bickers is Editor at Art Monthly magazine and Director of the Art Monthly Foundation. She has lectured at the University of Westminster, St Martin's School of Art, London, Goldsmiths' Collage, London and the Ruskin School of Drawing at the University of Oxford, amongst others. She has also curated various exhibitions and was a judge for the Turner Prize in 2001 and Northern Art Prize in 2009.
New Directions in Contemporary Art is a series of newly commissioned, engaging, critical texts identifying key topics and trends in contemporary art practice and discussing their impact on the wider art world and beyond. The art world is changing rapidly as artists avail themselves of new technologies, travel ever more widely, reach out to new audiences and tackle urgent issues, from climate change to mass migration. The purpose of the series is to discuss these and other changes, in texts that are accessible, stimulating and polemical.