Coffee Break Art Criticism (Afterthoughts!)

A&E Session on Art Criticism

Monster Truck Gallery, Dublin

4 April, 2011

Audience for A&E Session at Monster Truck Gallery, 4 April 2011.

Something to Salvage

At 2:30am Tuesday 5th April James Merrigan wrote:

After the A&E session at Monster Truck with Tim Stott, Niamh Dunphy and myself, I was

left once again, disenchanted, with the continuing failure of these types of forums that are

setup to discuss the problems of art criticism. Moderated by Kevin Atherton, the

discussion folded in on itself, a kind of naval gazing about the histories, the vernacular,

and the obstacles that block the way to criticism. I added to this by mentioning Rancière. I

regret this but I will explain what I meant.

I said at the session that I disagreed with prescribing philosophical texts to student/artists,

which has become a compulsory ingredient in developing the practice of the artist in some

local art institutions. The reason for my criticism of this practice is that I believe that it invariably

becomes an obstacle or a crutch for the student/artist. I must clear up that my definition of an

artist is someone who makes ‘art objects’.

The obstacle of philosophy in the process of art-making is not about a fear of

philosophy, which was proposed, but a saturation of philosophy, which within the art

institution is led by students who can digest philosophy, against those that cannot. There

should be a choice as to whether a student/artist reads these texts. I know many an artist

who has avoided such prescribed texts and who makes art objects that offer philosophy,

without philosophy offering them art objects.

As a practicing writer I understand how Rancière’s contribution to aesthetics effects the

way we critique politics and aesthetics and vice versa – outlined by Tim Stott. But as a

practicing artist I do not believe that Rancière is a sole ingredient in the process of art-

making. I believe, through my own process of art making, there is an amnesiac effect

which forgets language. This is not the case for every artist, but this is my process. I

believe that art-making comes first and philosophy last.

I was also asked about my obligation as a critic to diagnose ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. As I

outlined in my introduction at the session at Monster Truck, I believe that art criticism is

not possible. I also said that I didn’t believe that there was a such thing as good and

bad art. First of all, I am not a ‘professional’ art critic that is tied to an institution. The

impetus for +billion_ is not out of an obligation to say what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about art;

there is no deadline per se and there are no editors. I have learnt though my own

experience as an artist and a writer that the art object cannot be defined through the

closed terms of good and bad. Personally I understand criticism as something that

happens unbeknownst to the critic, which wipes it clean of any personal agenda.

What we term ‘bad’ art is formed by the contexts that shape the art object and the

questionable intent by the artist to frame the art object within a given context. Generally,

the critic is ignorant of the intent of the artist; we can only assume the intent of the artist

up to a point. As critics, our reception of the art object is coloured by history and our own

personal reading of that history of the art object. If it is the art writers intent from the offset

to critique the art object, then there is an agenda on the part of the critic, to either give a

stamp of authority over the art object, or to give their own criticism some gravitas.

My position as an art writer (which Tim Stott described as very different from criticism) is

to find criticism through the act of art writing, rather than being critical for the sake of

criticism. I am a fan of acerbic art criticism, such as Robert Hughes (The Younger), Adrian

Searle (The Guardian), Peter Schjeldahl ( The New Yorker), J J Charlesworth, Jerry Saltz (New

York Art Magazine), and his wife, Roberta Smith (The New York Times). Maybe these examples

exhibit instances of opinion that don’t shy away from being impolite. They are also entertaining,

negating philosophy, which defines the gap between academic criticism and newspaper criticism.

Which brings me to a point that was not discussed, but was mentioned after the session in

an instance of what I described during the session as ‘coffee break criticism’; which came

from an observation by Hans Ulrich Obrist, who said: “The only interesting conversation

happens at the coffee break, in the interstices, the in-between spaces, when we leave that

space of representation.” The ‘point’ discussed was the position of the critic, between the

professional and the amateur, between myself the amateur – who is devaluing art writing

in the proliferation of texts on the web, and Tim, who is a professional art critic, paid by

respected art journals.

Other points that were discussed was how PhDs were taking up the time of some of our

best writers, such as Tim, and is the PhD the cancer of potential critics or art writers?

Other questions that were posed but not discussed were: Who or what is art criticism for?

Tim mentioned that he received the best response to one of his more critical texts on an

artist. I think this is an anomaly as it is my experience that criticism is not for the artist.

Afterward, we discussed certain ‘myths’ of criticism and how they effected the artist in

some tragic fashion. It is my personal belief that these critical ruptures (when criticism

turns bad) cannot be a form or tone of criticism. These ruptures can only occur when

intentionally sought or fell upon by the critic.



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