October 25, 2012

The Critic and The Critique

Recently the art world lost two individuals whose absence now puts art criticism and the critique in jeopardy.

Robert Hughes a major critic whose opinions on aesthetics and the nature of art, though often leveled with vindictive barbs, were absolutely essential to come to grips with the “shock of the new.” Hughes was 74 and died on August 6. Hughes’ relationship with art world denizens and sycophants cannot be better described than Michael McNay did in his obituary on Hughes in The Guardian when he wrote: “He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing.”

Never one to suffer fools, Hughes spoke from the hip with a frank manner on the current tenor of art. His critical views on art that he found worthy of consideration were honest and eloquent. His attacks on artists he found to be lacking were brutal and frank appraisals, not petty or born of jealousy. In one episode of his highly regarded “The Shock of the New” television series, Hughes shared his incredulity about a Damien Hirst piece that shows “what so much money and so little ability can produce.”

Hughes will be missed and it is hard to imagine who would fill his shoes. Today's critics seem more inclined to merely type out general descriptive assessments of what they're looking at without making any “judgments of taste.” Most disturbing is the fact that relations between advertising and the commercial aspects of the art world seems a barely concealed truth about an obvious complicity between the benefactors and their dealers.

In the “real world” the art critic informs us of his opinion so that our opinion is informed. Meanwhile, in our art schools the erstwhile artist/educator is responsible for creating a tone of sincere critique. This sincerity of critical analysis of the “art of the newbie” in art institutions is necessary to provide a properly engaged atmosphere to allow in-depth critiques. However, for the most part the rank-and-file of art institutions have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in much more than random, project-driven crits, given the expectations heaped upon them by various accreditation agencies.

Yet Michael Asher did provide such a critique. Michael Asher was 69 and died on October 15. One of the originary Conceptual artists, Asher’s work ranged from nearly intangible actions to his perhaps single-handed invention of what became institutional critique. But it is for his contribution as arts educator that Asher may be best remembered. Having taught at California Institute of the Arts for 33 years, Asher’s legendary day-long "crit class" held at CalArts is fabled and revered by CalArts alumni and fellow faculty for the intellectual depth and emotional breadth of these marathon critiques. Grad students in Fine Arts underwent close, diagnostic investigations of even their slightest intentionality in making artworks. As Sarah Thornton observes in her “Seven Days in the Art World,” Asher’s critiques usually ran for 12, even 14, hours:

'I don't have a theory of time," he explained to me in an interview. 'It is a very simple, practical matter. For clear investigations, you need time. That is the only rule of thumb. If you don't have it, you run the risk of being superficial.' Asher doesn't remember when or exactly how the class got so long. 'People had more to say,' he said. 'Unfortunately, we can't go on for as long as we would like.'(1)

With the loss of Michael Asher at CalArts it remains to be seen whether his "crti class" will be able to continue. After all, who would, or even could, champion such all-encompassing, rigorous analysis of contemporary artworks?

Thus, with the passing of these two iconic proponents of criticism our art world has lost two of its most stalwart believers and that void may be both improbable and impossible to simply fill.


1. Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World, New York, 2008, 70.

October 8, 2012

Theory-Checking: Jamais lu la théorie?

Taking my cue from today’s contentious, over-wrought political climate with its saturation of “facts” and faux-statistics, I think it is high time we add “theory-checking” to our sometimes parochial Art World discourse. Pundits and fact-checkers had a field day with the recent Presidential debates and though “truth” may never surface in that conversation we can expect a modicum of accuracy when it comes to art theory, can’t we?

Aimee Walleston’s review of recent work by Nicolás Guagnini (AiA, Vol. 100, No. 9, Oct. 2012) opted for theoretical specificity concerning Guy Debord and his Situationist theories of détournement. Apparently, Guagnini has painted several reproductions of a photograph of a Parisian wall where a young Debord had graffiti’d “ne travaillez jamais,” or “never work.” However, when Ms. Walleston tried to point out how Guagnini “détourned” a bit of scrawled graffiti by Debord she blatantly misinterprets Guagnini’s actions as Debord’s détournement by “redirecting appropriated materials to antagonistic or subversive ends.” Ms. Walleston should have dug out and re-read her copy of The Society of the Spectacle, or at least Googled the Situationist movement before attempting such misguided presumptions.(1)

In point of fact (and here comes our “theory-check”), Ms. Walleston has confused détournement with the opposite Situationist theory of recuperation. In recuperation, revolutionary tactics such as Debord’s graffiti are coopted by those in control of society (The Spectacle, mass media) in order to defuse such ideas, or sometimes transform them into capital.(2) Moreover, the Situationists “pinpointed the increasingly evident problem of capitalist institutions subverting the terms of oppositional movements for their own uses…recuperation operated on all fronts: in advertising, in academics […](3) Thus, the use of Che Guevara’s image to sell t-shirts as metonymic trope of “rebellion” is exemplary of the recuperative act. Détournement is the exact counter-action that would subvert the language and imagery (advertisements) of the capitalist machine and turn it against those in power (corporations, government).

Guagnini’s paintings are not provocative subversions against capitalism but in actuality support the inherent commercialization of Debord’s subversiveness via a complicit art market. As acquiescence to the Almighty Dollar, Guagnini’s paintings actually trivialize the revolutionary impetus of Debord’s Situationist movement. Guagnini’s intentions are suspect but for Ms. Walleston to misrepresent his recuperative actions as “revolutionary” is an egregious insult to our collective understanding of critical theory and Debord.


1. It would appear that Ms. Walleston swallowed whole the press release on Guagnini’s show issued by the Miguel Abreu gallery which extols the original misinterpretation of détournement in Sven Lütticken's essay and exacerbates her confusion.

2. “Power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it coopts.” - quote from “All the King’s Men,” a Situationist International essay written in 1963 (by Debord?).

3. Kurczynski, Karen. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 53/54 (Spring-Autumn, 2008), 295-6.