Suddenly vanished, it seems, are the critical practices that in the 1990s still held tremendous sway over the direction of artistic discourse. The art market has swallowed up all criticism and no longer tolerates any contradiction. This makes the true critic an incorrigible idealist who continues to fight for critical opinion, even though nobody listens any more.
Vladimir Sorokin, one of the principal representatives of Moscow Conceptualism, recently announced: ‘Art must be comprehensible to all. Therein lies its strength.’ And further: ‘Today, the [conceptual] works [of the 1970s and 1980s] primarily evoke sympathy for those who were compelled to assert themselves in such a manner in a totalitarian state.’ And the great critic Jekaterina Djogot, apologist of the postmodernist Russian 1990s, came to his aid almost as a newly purged socialist realist: ‘In times like ours, all discussions about form constitute betrayals of content.’
In Beijing last autumn, when Pauline Yao was awarded the first Chinese Art Critic Award for her work, which involves deliberately reading the methods of Western criticality practiced by the October school against Beijing discursive motifs, prominent forces from the old school came together in parallel and in conjunction with the CAFA, Beijing’s Art Academy, to establish a new prize designed to encourage a return to Chinese values. Currently, the recapturing of anti modernist ‘Asian values’ also accounts for the success of a new journal appearing in Seoul, one which has received broad support among the East Asian intelligentsia. And the west too is in agreement with this new universalism: the applause which greeted public appearances by Martin Mosebach – hater of Modernism and apologist for classical form – after the award of the prestigious Büchner Prize in Germany last year may well have been audible as far away as the Netherlands.
At least an echo of Mosebach’s attack on aesthetic experimentation was detectable in the vehement public condemnations of documenta 12, with its argumentative claims to cultural overlays, coded formalism, and a thoroughly global perspective. Not infrequently, the opponents of d12 also appropriated Mosebach’s calls for simplicity and authenticity. The boom currently enjoyed not just by conservative aesthetes such as the Colombian Nicolás Gómez-Dávila (not only with Mosebach, but throughout the Latin American continent as well, allowing him to appear there too as a new luminary of art criticism) may serve as additional confirmation: observable in many places today is a peculiar kind of aesthetic revisionism which not only singles out the avant gardes that emerged after 1950 as its principal adversaries, but in particular its “seconds”: critical discourse, in short: critique.
In the wake of the frequently invoked global art boom and of discussions of the dominance of the marketplace, said to have penetrated into every aspect of the art business, it is often again the ‘artist artist’ who has a say in an equally globalised art market. And in this world, the repudiation of the secondary, of critique, has a different ring than it still did in Georges Steiner’s Real Presences, a polemic directed against the Postmodernist play of signs. For the new criticism likes to see itself vis à vis its new masters as a hagiographic play with work analyses, or else deteriorates to the level of the glossy brochures which accompany the art fairs with smart aleck lifestyle and market exegesis. It has certainly never shrunk back from making use of lines of argumentation provided by the opposition, the most recent and frequent instance being Jacques Rancière’s suspension of the distinction between the aestheticism of l’art pour l’art and committed art.
Urging itself upon us here is the question which presumably also preoccupies this issue of Metropolis M: is there not something more behind this rapid conversion than a mere generational shift or the craving for distinction on the part of the new elites? It often appears almost as though we are witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift, as though the new cadres – at least in Western Europe – are enforcing this change all the way into the structures and personalities of the old institutional landscape of the art market with a zealous and rigorous consistency. Given that the consequences of this are disguised by an even more grandiose slogan of rupture, that of globalisation, it is perhaps useful or even necessary to ask (assuming one wishes to understand the current almost voluntary declarations of capitulation by the political vis à vis the economic differently than in the statements, put forward like a program and nonetheless astonishingly inept, by means of which European cultural politics, for example, argues for and legitimise its decisions on the basis of this change) to ask: how has it come to pass that, through an almost voluntary act of exchange, in many sectors of the public political life, economic and political action has come to parallel culture or else be equated with it? And why is it that critical argumentation in the field of art criticism appears so outdated today?
If you ask me to name the most durable thing I have experienced in recent years on my circuit through the global circus, then my answer would be: I have gained confirmation of the fact that, for the local context as well, the layering of cultural narratives on which one happens to be working is as a rule nontransparent. Each local context consists of a multiple layering of narratives that remain unaware of one another. I have lost any belief in the transparency of local contexts along with the hope that it would be possible to compare certain motivic layering with one another beyond local contexts. Anyone who comes knocking should be aware that in the eyes of the local, the next hand that is extended to it will always be the wrong one. The local is always permeated by numerous nontransparent power relations. To avoid succumbing to them and to avoid losing one’s critical perspective, one needs to take advantage of various means and methods. Taking place on the way, however (and this is my second impression, especially in recent decades, often referred to as post–Fordist) has been the tremendous professionalisation of individual structures, with individual critical milieus increasingly differentiating themselves, generating their own substantial truths, ones which the market has only now begun to absorb.
That which appears to be especially important today, especially for the critic, is to take a good hard look at the conditions of one’s own professionalisation – not in the form of old-school institutional critique, but instead as an analysis of one's own double binds. And to confront market–economical striving for maximisation of the globally active art market with the coordination problems that are its consequence. It is a treacherous feature of the new sublime forms of authority (and the art market is one of these) that they rely upon modern ‘fluid’ technologies of power in which the socialisation of the individual is accomplished precisely by means of his/her subjectification. Insufficiently reflected upon in many cases, and with regard to the status of authorship and autonomy, is the conflict between claims to criticality and a consciousness of the specialised tasks or roles of individual critics or media within the structure of the market to which criticism is addressed. If many people working in the art market today have difficulty conceiving of categories such as institutional significance and political interpretation as key problems of criticism, and if the category of culture is read primarily against the background of economic processes, then this is not connected to the fact that the economy is capable as a rule of recognising its own fictions as such, but instead with the situation in which most critics find themselves who work outside of the canonisation machinery of the academy:
To begin with, they produce under conditions typical of flexible capitalism. Independent of their respective activities, they attempt to implement an efficient risk management: they perpetually acquire new qualifications, are mobile, often switch occupations, and combine various fields of work. These strategies bring a series of consequences in their train, among them an expanded self economisation and self rationalisation, one might even say a commercialisation of ones own life conduct. Economic values such as productivity and flexibility (values consistently condemned analytically by leftists as disciplinary norms of the system) have themselves assumed the character of a second nature and take precedence over deeper knowledge. In a certain sense, the cultural sector represents the avant garde for this regime, for which it is responsible for constantly blazing new trails. A doubt forces itself on us: are we a part of the problem, and not – as we had thought – a part of the solution?
The critical enterprise must continue to function, and the positions that are open within it are nonetheless constrained by a market which regards it with indifference. Presumably, we must first learn how to deal offensively with these structural compulsions, which pervade the economy of the critical project. Despite all of the ‘virtuosic servility’ which the freelancer or media critic are expected to display, there does exist a surplus, an intellectual added value which can be wrested from one's activities. On the one hand, it is a question of developing a parallel and more horizontal history of art which does more than to simply accredit the great canons. On the other hand, there exists the hope that the great canons can be brought into dialogue so that finally, they are able to perceive the marginal phenomena lying alongside them, because this phenomena represents not a sedimentary layer, but also the apex of knowledge of a respective structural layer.
It is a question, then of one’s attitude toward the dominant conditions: either pure, or even cynical Realpolitik: that which Sorokin and Djogot pursue in relation to Putin, that which drives the Chinese CAFA into the arms of the Central committee; conservative, militant avoidance of reality: that which Mosebach and others pursue in relation to Gomes-Davila; or else the allowance of a critical dimension. One always has a choice. I am not so naïve as to believe that a hegemonic agency will simply abdicate from power. I have read my Carl Schmidt to thoroughly for that. When it comes to the lifeworld, there is no exterior for criticism today; the primacy of the economic has certainly won the day. In play here are certain dilemmas. To write against the banalising forces of the global art markets – even while chained to and ridiculed by them – still remains an option. Sisyphus is my hero. In the hope that perpetual work on difference will not, in the long, run, to be without effect.