The Necessity of Criticism
by Linda Nochlin · October 26, 2018

In 1983 AICA-USA (then called the AICA American Section) hosted a two-day national conference titled American Criticism Now. Linda Nochlin was invited to present the convocation address at the Guggenheim Museum Auditorium. Her remarks are published for the first time here.

As an art historian rather than a critic, I will resist the temptation to comment on the recent onslaught of German and Italian neo-expressionists because this has already been done so thoroughly by others. As an art historian who was also a feminist, however, I can't resist mentioning that I find the total lack of representation of any German women artists from the country of Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker in the recent New York exhibitions to be revealing, as is the lack of any Italian female presence from the land of Artemisia Gentileschi or Sofonisba Anguissola. Resisting, therefore, the temptation to address this issue, I will instead, in my role as historian, turn first to the art critics of the past.

What does an art historian have to bring to a meeting of art critics? For one thing she can point out that criticism itself has a history and that this history is not entirely irrelevant to an understanding of the position of criticism in the present. But secondly, it is equally important to see that criticism, or rather a consciously critical attitude, is essential to a meaningful art history. The art historian, in other words, needs to learn from contemporary criticism as much as, if not more than the critic needs to learn from the art historian.

"What is needed now, I believe, is a self-consciously critical art history, one that learns from the lessons in 'seeing through' offered by some of the best art criticism at present."

The intention of the great critics of the 19th century was literally an epiphanic one—a showing forth. “This book seems to give me eyes,” wrote Charlotte Bronte of Ruskin's Modern Painters in 1848. “Hitherto I have only had instinct to guide me in judging of art; I feel more as if I had been walking blindfold—this book seems to give me eyes.” The great 19th century critics opened up the eyes of a new middle-class public, a public which often wanted to keep its eyes firmly closed and protested at having them opened, and a public which sorely needed instruction in new notions of the aesthetic as well as in the previously exclusively aristocratic accomplishment of connoisseurship. But of course in the case of a critic like Ruskin, more than mere seeing was involved. Or rather, there was nothing “mere” about seeing for this “prophet of the eye” as Harold Bloom has called him. For Ruskin, the art critic who awakened visions from sleep was a seer and a prophet. He says as much in his manifesto: “...The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can sing, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion in one.” For Ruskin, vision itself was replete with moral meaning. It was not a mere technology of the eye that was at stake, but a liberation of the total self through the morally charged act of educated looking.

True seeing as opposed to false was of course understood in this charge to the public to see. “ To see the object as in itself it really is has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever…” declared Walter Pater, citing Matthew Arnold in 1873. How nobly, naively, nostalgically simple this sounds 110 years later, when terms like “object” or “the object in itself” or phrases like “really is…” have been sternly rejected or ruthlessly deconstructed, along with Pater’s conviction that painting or sculpture has some objective truth that criticism can reveal as the prophet reveals a truth of religion or a scientist a truth of nature.

But at the dawn of Modernism, in the infancy of the avant-garde, the major critics of the mid-nineteenth century in France and England were clear about their function. They were there to praise the new and the innovative rather than to encourage imitation of the old. Evolution was in the air and progress—however seasoned with bitterness—was a challenging concept. Critics were to rid their publics—new, growing, middle-class publics—of past error, of clinging to outworn authority, and to educate people to see and to think for themselves. None of these great critics—and I am thinking of such figures as Ruskin in England, Baudelaire and Zola and France—none of them were narrow specialists and probably none of them would qualify as teachers in today's academic departments of art history, for they had no postgraduate degrees and little technical training, and yet each of them thought himself eminently qualified to talk about art with authority. Each, in a sense, had turned to art criticism as a way of defending certain other positions: their own as writers; a certain vision of the world, an innovative metaphysical standpoint; a social vision. And each wrote his most memorable criticism in defense of a particular artist with whom his name is always associated: Ruskin with Turner; Baudelaire with Delacroix; Zola with Manet—an artist, a heroic individual who was misunderstood, ridiculed and often pilloried by the lesser critical intelligences of the time. What really unites all three of these 19th century critics is the simple fact that they were defending what was new to an audience that liked what it was familiar with, and that they were there to persuade that audience to abandon habitual attitudes towards works of art: to cure the middle class not merely of its blindness but if its skittishness in the presence of the new.

Zola, like Ruskin, is quite specific about this aspect of the critical mission. The public, he maintained, the public who laughed and jeered at Manet's works in the 1860s, looked at them the way children looked at their picture books—to have a good time, to be amused. Originality, Zola declared, that was the terrifying thing. After comparing the public to children, Zola, in his famous defense of Manet in 1867 then compares it to an old, routinized beast of burden, a tired old horse that each new road frightens, makes balky. “As soon as a real personality appears, defiance and terror seizes them [the members of the public]; they are like those skittish horses that rear up before a tree falling across the road because they do not understand the nature and cause of this obstacle and furthermore, they don't try to understand it. The critic's work is clearly cut out for him,” Zola maintains, “There is always some obliging passerby to make us ashamed of our irritation and who is willing to explain away our fear. I simply wish to play the modest role of this passerby with regard to the Scottish people whom the paintings of Edouard Manet make rear up and tear on the road.”

Baudelaire unabashedly, and perhaps a bit ironically, addressed his famous Salon of 1846 to the bourgeoisie and mapped out his mission as the education of the vision of this class. “Enjoyment,” declared Baudelaire, “is a science and the exercise of the five senses calls for a particular initiation…”. his main intention in the salon that followed was to defend the reputation of Eugène Delacroix, who he maintained, had met with injustice; for whom criticism had been bitter and ignorant; and for whom, Baudelaire says, even the praises of his admirers must often have seemed offensive. In leading the public to see Delacroix correctly, revealing his hero’s triumphs which, as Baudelaire says, we're invisible to the inattentive eye, the critic leans heavily on Delacroix's defining modernity. it is upon this modernity that Baudelaire insists as the life-giving force in contemporary painting. For Baudelaire, ”Delacroix is the latest expression of progress in art,” and he insists on modernity again and again as the quintessential pictorial quality of beauty itself in his later essay on Constantine Guys, whom he calls “The Painter of Modern Life.”

In today’s climate of revivalism and revisionism, how can criticism speak out for that which is new, for standpoints that challenge received opinion? Certainly, one issue that preoccupied the critics of the 19th century—the issue of seeing, of seeing for oneself—seems today to be both more highly charged with controversy and infinitely more complicated than it was in the 19th century. For today one must ask: who controls the act of seeing? Who is the subject of vision, who is its object? Seeing can no longer be considered an act of individual liberation unless one is made aware of the powerful forces around us—institutional, ideological, commercial—designed to make us see certain things in certain ways. For many younger critics—and artists and photographers as well—the issue is not so much seeing and convincing others to see, but rather articulating the structure of power implied by certain modes of seeing in representing. The question becomes one of “seeing through” rather than of “seeing” itself.

And it is this notion of “seeing through” that interests me most as an art historian. Part of the conventional division between art criticism and art history rests on the curious and I believe, false, opposition which claims that discourse about contemporary art is opinionated, charged with a viewpoint, whereas the discourse about past art—that is to say, the practice of art history—is in some way “objective” or even “scientific.” Obviously, this is not a true analysis of the situation. Art history is as opinionated, as ideologized as criticism; it simply veils its vantage points more successfully. What is needed now, I believe, is a self-consciously critical art history, one that learns from the lessons in “seeing through” offered by some of the best art criticism at present. The recent spate of revisionist exhibitions of 19th century art brings this need into still sharper focus. How do we approach the relatively neglected art of the past century, whether it be that of Orientalism or the minor realist painters of France? Do we see our function as art historians to be mere collection and documentation, a gathering and setting forth of little known works and artists; establishing art historical categories then depositing new works in them systematically; substantiating our claims with formal analysis and iconographic explication? Do we attempt to justify the rediscoveries by assimilating them to established monuments and movements, cuddling forgotten little masters up to established superstars, praising minor figures with faint damns? Art historians in this country tends to operate in “the celebratory mode” as one French sociologist of art, Pierre Bourdieu, has termed it, and the objects of celebration are often paradoxical. What are we to make of recent revisionist shows, for example, that present the Academic painters of the 19th century in the unlikely guise of an “oppressed” minority, cast out by an avant-garde cabal, and deserving of rehabilitation on moral or even political grounds as well as on aesthetic ones?

If an artist like Gérôme, for instance, recently featured in an interesting exhibition Of Orientalism at Rochester and Purchase, obviously vulgarizes and naturalizes a motif by Delacroix, he must be justified in terms of ostensibly different stylistic motives, his greater sense of accuracy or his affinities with ter Borch or Pieter de Hooch—in other words, assimilated willy-nilly to the canon. On the other hand, art historians who wish to maintain the canon—i.e., who assert that the discipline of art history should concern itself only with major masterpieces created by great artists—simply say that Orientalists like Gérôme—and the vast majority of those whose work appeared in the Salons of the 19th century—should simply be ignored as though they had never existed simply because they cannot be included in the category of great art.

Yet it seems to me that both of these positions—on the one hand, the position of those who see the exclusion of Academic art from the sacred precincts as the result of some art-dealers’ or vanguard plot; And that of those who see the wish to include them as a revisionist scheme to weaken the quality of High Art as a category—Both these positions are wrong or partial at best. Both are based on the notion of art history as a positive rather than a critical discipline: on the notion of seeing rather than seeing through. Works like Gérôme’s or Breton’s or Cabanel’s are interesting and worth investigating not because they share the presumed aesthetic values of great art on a lower level, but because, as visual imagery, they share in and predict the qualities of incipient visual mass culture, and as such, in their strategies of concealment and their ideological transparency, lend themselves admirably to the critical methodologies, the deconstructive techniques now employed by the best of film historians or sociologists of visual propaganda, as well as by our best contemporary critics, rather than those of mainstream art history. In the case of so-called Orientalist art, for example, it is French colonial policy, imperialism, and the sexual politics of the time that are the defining issues, not conventional stylistic categories like “Romantic” or “Realist” that simply blur critical distinctions with superficial resemblances.

Still another art-historical area that could use some seeing through rather than mere seeing is the whole new academic and, one must hasten to add, commercial sub-genre of 19th century studies: the history of photography. This discipline has grown up so recently that we are in the privileged position of literally seeing it constructed before our eyes: watching the compilation of catalogues raisonées: the attribution of prints, etc., with the concomitant rise in prices, the creation of important collections that marks the subject of art-historical discourse. Here we have a paradoxical situation of a visual medium that would appear by its very nature to be multiple, mechanical and almost limitlessly reproducible being transformed into one in which uniqueness, the preciousness of the individual object and unreproducibility seem to be the important issues at stake. We are, in other words, witnessing what might best be termed, borrowing the word from Walter Benjamin but creating a neologism with it, the “aurification” of photography: the creation of an aura for precisely those images which Benjamin had seen as the very negation of mystifying uniqueness, a process in which even those visual images not blessed with the elevating property of uniqueness at their birth are having uniqueness thrust upon them.

Finally—what kind of criticism do I like, do I think is most appropriate for the present moment of history? Naturally, I tend to prefer the criticism I agree with; I am often seduced by clarity, harmony and the cozy sensation that yes, I think exactly the same thing—how right this critic is. But I am by no means sure that the sort of criticism is really the best criticism, best in the sense of making me draw back, check myself, rethink my own position. For the best criticism, I believe, is often that which opposes my position in an interesting or difficult way, not that which soothingly echoes it: a criticism which is difficult, strenuous and demanding. It may now be the duty of the critic to disrupt rather than to instruct; to complicate rather than to clarify; to antagonize rather than harmonize; force us to ask questions rather than offering solutions. For each of us, there is a criticism that disturbs us most, challenges our most cherished beliefs and convictions about art, pulls the familiar rug out from under our feet. This is, in my opinion, the criticism that best leads us to see through rather than merely to see. But maybe this had always been the critic’s task. Blake implied it many years ago when he said that the tigers of wrath were wiser than the horses of instruction; and Baudelaire suggested something similar in 1846 when he declared: “To be just, that is to say, to justify its existence, criticism should be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons.” Nobody could have said it better.

February 15, 1983

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