Thoughts on art criticism and market development

« Wit lies in recognizing the resemblance among things which differ and the difference between things which are alike.» (Madame de Staël, Aphorisms)

«Criterion» derives from Ancient Greek and refers to «a characterizing mark or trait, a means of judging». A «kritḗs» is an arbiter, a judge, an interpreter.

Criticism calls for «criteria»: standards to guide us in making distinctions and assessments on which our value judgments are based. In order for me to be able to distinguish, it is essential that I possess a sound knowledge base and a broad aesthetic outlook. Criticism draws its charm and necessity from diversity and is up for review and analysis in a scientific procedure. In order to review something, I first have to take a close look. This already brings me to the sphere of aisthēsis, of perception, which is per se judgmental, like it or not. «Aisthēsis» originally means «sensation» or «perception», in contrast to intellectual concepts or so-called rational knowledge.

Aesthetics needs highly developed linguistic skills

Aesthetics is about the factors that determine how people judge the objects and environment they perceive—something that is certainly neither easy to understand nor to analyze and explain. In philosophy, aesthetics is the theory of sensory perception—a field where theoretical approach and practical reality often enough clash. Perception in this context relates to what surrounds and concerns us, and, as a result, to our judgment regarding the value of what we have before us. Perception is consequently a highly complex process demanding our greatest possible concentration.

Perception moreover presupposes immensely differentiated linguistic faculties in order to be cast into words that adequately illustrate the intentions of the perceiver. Unfortunately, we nowadays find ourselves in a state of progressive dissolution of clear logical and textual—and thus also contentual!—contexts. The accuracy of all public and private statements is noticeably deteriorating; our statements (and therefore eventually our skills to make statements, too) are becoming vaguer and sloppier from day to day.

Omissions, inaccuracies, and linguistic reinterpretations (such as the euphemisms in politico-social everyday speech that have meanwhile become so common) open the floodgates to increasingly subjective and arbitrary statements, often under the guise of what is nowadays conveniently referred to as «sensitivities». In the field of criticism, we are on the verge of irrevocably leaving the already thin ice of so-called rational argumentation in favor of pure matters of faith. This leads to the fatal consequences which all of us are already experiencing in our everyday lives. 

As the German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) pointed out as early as 1884: «We are all too ready to invoke inner intuition, whenever we cannot produce any other ground of knowledge.» (The Foundations of Arithmetic: A Logico-Mathematical Enquiry into the Concept of Numbers)

When art was a calling and collecting a passion

There is really not much to be criticized about the art market—markets will be markets, after all! Unless, of course, it is no longer about art at all, as I ultimately realized on a trip to East Asia two years ago. I illustrate this post with photos of artworks that caught my eye at the Casino Hotel Resort «Paradise City» at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, Korea.

The so-called visual arts have left their vested ivory tower fairly long ago. When the first art fairs in Cologne and Basel were established in the end of the 1960s, those working in the art business were relatively professional. Artists still felt dedicated to their work; they were driven by creating art rather than by making money. And collecting to most of the collectors was still a passion they enjoyed, and not primarily a «secure» investment.

Art criticism degraded to decoration

Then came the major, long overdue shift that had already taken place in other art forms such as music and film: the shift toward entertainment! The fun society needs its fun industry. At the same time, art criticism became increasingly redundant, something that could be done away with. Gallerists and art dealers created entire artists’ careers from scratch overnight, complete with bulky volumes approved by famous critics via text contributions. Everyone benefited equally from these pop ups, so there were only few to complain. Why should a critic want to work for several weeks on an elaborate and sophisticated, however, poorly paid publication if euphemistic transcribing of press texts from glossy magazines yields a princely sum? Considering, in addition, that nowadays the articles have to be written long before the exhibitions to be reviewed open. Criticism? Thanks, but no thanks!

In their heart- and mind-refreshing text «Against Curating», the curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew remarked: «Without power, criticism has fallen to the level of pure ornament. In art magazines, criticism fills the pages between the advertisements. Together with most of the theories circulated in the field of art, it has largely retreated to garland the work of the curators with a decorative philosophical florilegium.»

Political correctness does the rest

The money generated so quickly at the turn of the century in the course of globalization and turbo-capitalist neoliberalism had to be invested profitably, promisingly, and prestigiously. The new markets in Russia, China, and the Arab world did their part to pump plenty of oxygen back into the somewhat dragging art market, which was now subordinated to the «efficiency» and rules of other markets. 

Whether in polemic or realistic terms, the result is a mass of decorative knickknacks, superfluous, overpriced, and entirely devoid of meaning, that has kept the global art markets alive in much the same form for about thirty years now. At the same time, trend-oriented contemporary art has committed itself to a politically correct success track. The manifestations of art, its phenomenological aesthetics, no longer matter; it is only the ever-same contents that count.

Ecological or gender-related «artistic» manifestos a priori defy any critical evaluation; criticism is in effect inadmissible, since the manifestos possess an ethically unchallenged value, which is of course above and beyond criticism. 

Let’s keep up our eager expectations and hope for better times!

  1. Dear Hans, thank you once again for a thoughtful and interesting post. I agree with you that their has been a key shift in current art from a struggle over aesthetic forms and ways of looking to an ethical question in relation to the market and the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Art criticism has not risen to this challenge but has become stuck in its old criteria without reevaluating them. That’s why perhaps it’s become irrelevant – or at least one reason along with being bought off by the market as you say.

    What I wonder though is how the better times you write of will come? Or, better said, I don’t think that a return to a dispute about aesthetic judgement based on building shared criteria will be enough. My hope is more that the discussion of aesthetics might become politicised again, so that both ethics and aesthetics can be at stake around the sensing of art. For instance, this might mean a turn away from the visual as the key sense organ of (visual) art towards a plurality of sensing mechanisms – the five senses at least if not other ways of sensing such as the feeling of conviviality or touching the spirits of the earth. Rolando Vazquez writes wonderfully (IMO) about the difference between aesthetics (a judgemental study of the senses) and aesthesis (the act of sensing itself). For those better times, I think we need more to understand how aesthesis is created through art – how judgement is let go in the face of inter-relations and co-dependencies. It would be great to hear from you, with your rich experience in Latin American art, how the sense of the senses and the politics of being together is made tangible by artists there. My intuition is that you saw a lot of that kind of work there that might help us towards those better times.

    1. Dear Charles, thank you so much for your insightful thoughts and your contribution to this blog!
      Sorry for that late answer, but I just arrived from Rio and São Paulo, visiting the Bienal and opening a show on Servulo Esmeraldo. I fully agree with your commentary. For the question how aesthesis can be created through art, please have a look at my post no. 8 “valor sin precio” in this blog! I think that might be a good example.
      All the best, yours Hans

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