Towards a Critical Insurgency
by Will Fenstermaker · August 02, 2019

On May 17, 2019, AICA-USA hosted the public panel discussion Art Criticism in the 21st Century: Challenges and Prospects. The respondents were Yasi Alipour, Katy Diamond Hamer, Jasmine Weber and me. One of the questions we were asked was, “Do you think there is a crisis in the field of art criticism?” These were my remarks. They appear here lightly edited and, in some places, expanded with additional commentary in parentheticals.

I first learned that criticism was in crisis when I was enrolled at the MFA art criticism and writing program at SVA. That was during the late Obama years. Superficially, these were cozy times for critics. We’d carved our way back near the mainstream, art criticism appeared in online magazines and young journalists were being trained in critical theory.

Meanwhile, at SVA we were taught that the act of criticism entails drawing finer and finer distinctions among like things. In other words, we were taught that criticism is the practice of creating crisis. We were often reminded that the words “criticism” and “crisis” share a root: Krinein, Greek, “to separate, decide, judge.”

I came to the mostly peaceable understanding that criticism is perpetually “in crisis” because criticism is an engine for generating crisis. I understood a critic’s task to be to direct this engine toward where it can be most productive, where crisis is most necessary. It seemed to me that the debate around the crisis “of criticism” itself most often reared its head when critics were most comfortable. That is, when we turned inward, directing this engine upon ourselves.

In preparation for this panel, I spent several weeks knee-deep in writings on the crisis of criticism. I think there are two ways this crisis is historically posed: The first is that criticism has lost its power to critique. The second is that criticism has lost its critique of power.

Underlying the first is the belief that no one takes critics seriously anymore, or perhaps that gallerists, content strategists and private collectors have won out over the noble arbiters of aesthetic and cultural value. This belief lapses cynically into the belief that culture has in some way failed critics—perhaps that critics have no worthy subjects or are doomed to wander Chelsea like wayward Cassandras.

(The trappings of this belief were on display in the question-and-answer portion of the panel so I’d like to take a moment to address them here. In response to, or perhaps in illustration of, my point that many critics feel cheated by the directions in which culture can move, a member of the audience posited that the crisis of criticism actually has to do with “the crisis of contemporary art, which has lost a lot of the public … and the fact that there’s no longer a coherent, consistent view of what the essential nature of art is.” She said, “You have to have an idea of what a good chair is—what the form of a chair is, what the purpose of a chair is—before you can say whether something succeeds as a chair or not.”

Jasmine Weber refuted this most succinctly. “I’m interested in the idea of these art forms existing simultaneously,” she said. “I’ve seen so many people who were apathetic to art become art lovers as this shift is being made. I’ve seen a lot of my friends who are young black women look at the Whitney hosting a Toyin Ojih Odutola exhibition and decide to go to a museum the first time the entire year.”

The categorical complaint of contemporary art dovetails with a charge often lobbed at young workers of any profession, and which was lobbed at these panelists also: Know your history. “Art criticism has a history, too,” we were reminded, as if it were not the topic of the night. The presumption that young people can’t know history because they haven’t lived it is a gross one—not to mention a disconcerting one for a historian to hold. But the logical fallacy is a red herring; the charge is really a way of smothering new energy in its cradle. “We tried that already and couldn’t make it work. The crisis of criticism is an old debate and not one worth rehashing. Asked and answered since the nineties.”

But let’s return to our panel, and to the second way the crisis of criticism is often posed: that criticism has lost its critique of power.)

Protest at the Guggenheim Museum
Protest at the Guggenheim Museum

This inverse line of inquiry regarding the crisis of criticism is, “Has criticism failed culture?” Is the “crisis” of criticism its hesitancy or inability to address the very real encroachment of power and corruption, such as the influence of global markets on the arts? It’s a better inquiry, not least because it’s the less comfortable one for those of us in this room.

I’m not trying to be provocative, and I don’t think the answer to the question of whether we are failing culture is an unequivocal “yes.” But I do want to suggest that criticism neglects its responsibility toward culture exactly to the degree that it declines to critique the powers that define culture—including, yes, the power of criticism.

One of the essays I reread this month was “Resisting the Dangerous Journey,” by Michael Brenson. It’s from the mid-nineties but it holds up. When Brenson wrote this essay, Newt Gingrich was leading an assault on the NEA and NEH, and Brenson took issue with the collective silence of critics who write for mainstream publications—or what he called “journalist-critics”—regarding cuts to public funding of the arts. Part of the reason for this silence is institutional: while journalists are allowed to critique power, art critics typically are not. But without government funding, Brenson cautioned presciently, we’d be left with only private collectors and foundations patronizing the arts, each with its own agenda.

But it’s actually a small point Brenson made that makes me want to talk about it here. Almost as an aside, he notes that very few working art critics are actually at the job full-time—even those employed at major newspapers, who often write cross-discipline or operate within the more nebulous mode of “cultural reportage.”

The efficacy of Brenson’s journalist-critic is totally dependent upon full-fledged commitment to the task. If their inability to commit was cause for minor concern in 1994, it’s cause for more serious alarm today, following the migration of mass media to the web and the near-and-total takeover of the gig economy. I don’t know a single full-time art critic around my age, and that’s including myself.

I take Brenson’s call-to-arms seriously. In fact, establishing a materialist model for dedicated art criticism should be the first task of an organization like AICA. I want to draw a distinction, here, between advocating for professionalized, comfortable criticism and advocating for the economic viability of art writing as a practice. If an organization like AICA can work to combat the material burdens affecting freelance and working writers—such as expensive healthcare, punishing taxes, low compensation and inadequate diversity in publishing and the arts—critics will be better positioned to address philosophical and political concerns that are traditionally our domain. It’s only then that criticism can seriously redress abuse of power.

(This shrinking ground defines an onus for the critic, even if it means foregoing a review or two. Another member of the audience questioned why politicians don’t debate matters that are important to the arts—why is it critics who must realign their conversations? She asked, “Is there a way we can bring these questions to a political forum?”

It’s a valid question. If the concerns of coal miners in the United States, who number fewer than American MFA graduates, can get national stage time, then certainly presidential candidates should be held to account for their perspectives on W.A.G.E. certification. While we’re at it, where do they stand on the resurgence of figurative painting, the demographics of gallery representation and the economics of the art market?

But I just don’t know what that would look like. Setting aside that popular discourse in the United States has always had an anti-intellectual bend, I simply don’t know why they would ever care. What power do art critics have to offer politicians that they don’t already have?

I’m certainly not advocating for benign criticism; however, nor do I think I could advocate for a world where the words of an influential critic like Clement Greenberg are enacted into policy. The truth is that I’m largely okay with abandoning “critical authority.” I think our responsibility is to be a redress to, rather than an element of, institutional power, because history shows that wherever such insurgencies are subsumed by hegemonic power, it’s to cripple them.)

I’m still not sure if I believe in this idea of a “crisis of criticism.” For one, I think you’d have to lack a heart to read something like Jarrett Earnest’s book of interviews, What It Means to Write about Art, and not recognize a vibrant and engaged community. But I do think that within today’s milieu of alternative facts and conspiracy theories we need to be particularly on guard against the tendency to ask the right questions but come up with the wrong answers.

Critical thinking aligns closely with what I’ve come to consider a late Obama-era mentality, characterized by our then-unchallenged belief that problems are best addressed by working methodically through their intricacies. To think that this might not be an entirely viable method for cultural and political critiques still seems strange to me, but clearly circumstances have changed.

The question at hand is what to call upon the emerging critic—the millennial critic?—to do in the current climate. Lately, I’ve been re-reading Umberto Eco, who has always held answers for me. Two essays in particular have helped me see a possible way forward and a renewed purpose for writing about art and images. In “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare” and “The Multiplication of the Media,” Eco wrote that the information war cannot be won by infiltrating the channels of authority, but instead by getting directly in front of viewers, standing where they see.

Brenson argued that journalists and critics are separated by a firewall that keeps critics from addressing real power, and journalists from bringing power to the arts. Given this editorial bifurcation, could a guerrilla militancy be the only way forward for the journalist-critic? I think there’s evidence that we’re moving toward a point of inflection where these barriers can be broken down—where not only can these powerful, but separate, factions converge, they could even win. Maybe every young generation feels this way about their particular moment, but I still think there’s something unique about what’s happening now.

(When I think of recent protests across the United States, I’m always reminded of the distinction Peter Lamborn Wilson draws between revolution and insurrection. Revolutions are insurrections that succeed—their power becomes that of a new State. An insurrection is a failed moment, but also one of self-empowerment. Its power can be cut off or maimed, but never intercepted. He writes, “the up-rising suggests the possibility of a movement outside and beyond the Hegelian spiral of that ‘progress’ which is secretly nothing more than a vicious circle. … The vision comes to life in the moment of uprising.”)

Take the recent protest Nan Goldin led against the fiscal support provided to the Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums by the Sackler family and other triggermen of the opioid crisis. I work at the Met, where one hundred people or so threw pill bottles into the pool surrounding the Temple of Dendur, which is housed in the Sackler Wing. In the offices upstairs, as these protests were happening, we were all watching them unfold live, online. Many of us were cheering her on. Ten days later, the Tate stopped accepting Sackler money. The Guggenheim soon followed. On Wednesday, May 15, the Met announced it would no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family.

What we need now is not a Vichy collaboration. I think what we need now is crisis ... but one of our own making. We cannot allow criticism to eat itself. Acceptance of this leads to acceptance of the fact: We must dismantle our delusions. What we need now is a critical insurgency.

Protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur
Protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur

Will Fenstermaker is a Brooklyn-based art critic, and an AICA-USA board member. He works as an editor and producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His writing has been published by the Met, the Brooklyn Rail, the Paris Review Daily, Artforum and more.

AICA supports art writers around the world through public programs and membership that includes free access to museums across the globe. Since its formation in 1950, AICA has been committed to elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
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