Wednesday, March 19, 2014

After Critical Thinking: The Non-Thought of Frenemies

In "After Criticism," Lane Relyea notes, the evaluation of contemporary art has passed from "the paranoid guardianship of cliquish connoisseurs" (357) to
professional art historians who are more institutionally networked. The critic, by comparison, looks isolated and unconnected: she or he is too inward turned, still supposedly privileging a subjective interior, the place where the experience of art is received and submitted to aesthetic judgment. The art historian instead privileges an exterior, a field of [...] disciplinary discourses, all bridged and related. Art historians are strongly identified and integrated as professionals; they conduct their practices within institutionally defined fields that are striated and organized by title, rank, and collegiality; they belong to professional associations; they advance their respective fields by situating their efforts in relation to contributions by their fellow practitioners. In short, they are abundantly hyperlinked [...]. Critics don't have any equivalent of academia or the museum world; they lack institutional grounding and organization; they have no well-organized system of training that erects high educational barriers of qualifications. [...] Compared to professional historians, critics are unincorporated, even amateurish (361-2).
I felt a chill down my spine when I first read this passage, as I think anyone would who has managed to climb over those "high educational barriers" to see what passes for collegiality on the other side. I find Relyea's view of scholarship as enforcing a bland, careerist, credentialed, tribalistic group-think, supplanting an independent, not to say introverted, contemplation of aesthetics deeply chilling. This situation is not presented by Relyea as a good or bad thing, but simply the way things happen to be now. But in fact we have a choice. We always have to choose whether we will conform to the herd or not.

Relyea's remarks are from an excellent anthology called Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, a volume I am using in a class I currently teach. It was recommended by an extremely intelligent colleague as a supplement to a more conventional textbook, and it has more or less supplanted that other resource as the semester has progressed. The anthology is filled with a number of texts by what another author in the volume refers to as "friendly enemies" of the art world (186). Like Relyea's penetrating if unsettling assessment of the current state of art evaluation, which expresses neither a preference nor an abhorrence for the current situation, there are many clear-headed and sober observations on the current art world to be found within its pages. Scholars today are nothing if not acutely aware of the many contradictions to be seen in contemporary art, and their own conflicts of interest stemming from their reliance on the very institutions of that art, but their observations are always carefully offered as frenemies. I have supplemented these offerings with a further reading or two from more snarky mainstream observers of art (disaffiliated critics who, one is tempted to say, are good enough writers to get their work published in magazines like Harper's and Vanity Fair) who for whatever paranoid or cliquish reason cannot find it in themselves to remain quite so obligingly neutral. My hope is to influence my students at least to the extent that they consider the possibility of thinking for themselves, and above all to question the material presented to them, particularly the version of contemporary art history as presented by the institutionally-connected and interest-conflicted.

I am reminded of this passage because of very recent interactions with my own "hyperlinked network." Anyone who knows the conformist, hierarchical culture of academia will realize that what is sacrificed in the passage from the critic to the art historian is more than mere personal opinion; it is perhaps individuality itself. Relyea sees this somewhat optimistically as "the demise of consensus" (358), but it is in fact its opposite. It is a mindless consensus supported by endless footnotes (ingratiating oneself to one's more important peers), CVs (one's life lived and career pursued always in contrivance of what will look good on paper), and favorable letters of recommendation (the most subtle form of institutional behavioral control ever devised), yielding a consensus of opinion that is safe and utterly without meaning to the extent that it  remains impersonal. As Boris Groys remarks, the end result is an art that "expresses no taste at all—no public taste, no personal taste, not even the taste of the artists themselves." It is an art that appears to have happened at the behest of the Invisible Hand of History. It is an art and a scholarship of non-taste and non-thought, more rigorously policed by cliques far more draconian than those they have supposedly supplanted.

Scholarship developed in the West as a means of situating one's intellectual efforts among and building upon the ideas and thinkers of the past. It was a means of interacting with and reanimating a cultural heritage that would have otherwise become remote and inaccessible, if not lost, over time. As a means of advancing one's career among the living, and of excluding the noncomformist, the amateur, and the heretical in favor of the unoriginal, the conventional, and the pedestrian, it is worse than a corruption. Diachronically, scholarship is a means of connecting with the greatest minds across time. Synchronically, the institutional networking of contemporaneity serves only as a totalitarian means of mystifying contemporary life and culture, of exclusion and barriers, and promoting a stifling and repressive status quo.

Minor edits and additions made 3/20/2014, including the modification of the subtitle. The final paragraph was added 3/21/2014.

Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).