Art criticism is dead, very dead, buried

Is art criticism dead? And in case it is, who is it that might care about the news? Reflections on the current contemporary art system.

That art criticism is dead, very dead, buried, is self-evident. That no one except the very small and self-referential contemporary art clique gives a damn is even more blatant, total. Not that this is a good thing, indeed it is tragic albeit reflected on very few people, but it is simply the logical and clear consequence of an economic, cultural, digital (and even aesthetic) capitalism that has pervaded every field. Even that of art.

There is a leisure industry to capitalize on and an artistic field to capitalize on-a story that has been going on for years now. How? By indiscriminately expanding the audience (no longer “elevating” it, no longer producing thought, critical mass), equating culture with entertainment, fomenting its needs and demand, initiating the celebration of a ritual. How? Through an art that is easier, impactful, immediately communicable, accessible, usable. A “popular,” mass, consumable art. How? By entertaining, by spectacularizing, by creating an event to be conveyed through the power of marketing: to amaze and surprise (with the accompanying complicit glorification of the mass media that amplify nothing, even without being paid, to collect views). A world of entertainment like any other, for everyone. The figure of the (serious and prepared) critic is therefore useless, if not harmful, to the mechanism. Better the more condescending presence of the curator, facilitator, mediator, manager, butler, sometimes even guru, often very “social,” great if healthy bearer of relationships in fashion, design, luxury, perfect if also “character,” shaman, worldly oracle, perhaps without cumbersome art studies behind them - replaced by those of Management. All widely known.

And the contemporary art system in the narrower sense? Identical. The market makes the laws, the market gives the values. The rule of supply and demand applies, hence the uncritical equating of value and price. It costs therefore it is worth. The work is a commodity of exchange without too many controls, in every possible sense. The guarantors of the system, even here, are relegated to specks, irrelevant. Museums have lost their guiding role as builders of thought, reflection and historical-critical inquiry at the expense of their own economic component to gratify, thus becoming appendages of the market (even in its narrowest sense, that of art), mere validators. Contemporary art exhibitions, often, are made to raise prices and turn the spotlight on that particular artist. It is the context that creates the text, now for over a hundred years. Independence little, like that of the other guarantor-certificator: the (always was) critic, replaced by the multitasking curator, an accomplice prosthesis of the hinges of the system: the top gallerists, the top auction houses, the top collectors, the top fairs, the top investors. Those who control the market.

Gabriel von Max, Scimmie come critici d'arte (1889; olio su tela, 85 x 107 cm; Monaco di Baviera, Neue Pinakothek)
Gabriel von Max, Monkeys as Art Critics (1889; oil on canvas, 85 x 107 cm; Munich, Neue Pinakothek)

We are enveloped in an immense molasses that struggles to discern and identify that mixture of matter, idea, technique, genius, sense, research, poetics, power, meaning, vision, value, form and on and on that can combine into a verisimilar proclamation of “art,” for an obvious and opportunistic “free all” of illusory democratization. Without rules, anything can work, anything is acceptable in this playground on a global scale. Hence: devaluing the value of criticism at the turn of individual value judgment-“ahead all,” profuse platitudes, chatter, superficiality, all much simpler. All very clear: if there were independent and constructive critical action operating in the field a good 70-80 percent of contemporary production (legitimate for heaven’s sake, but far from merging into the above mixture) would vanish from the art field. That is: many fewer clients, many fewer millions (either for the new artist to spam or for yet another useless exhibition).

Criticism -like all complex thoughts and systems- if it is true that it hasn’t been scary for years, it might at least bother a little: if one scratched under the glittering veneer of “art” one would almost always find emptiness, just as if one scraped under most contemporary curatorial superciliousness- sterile and superfluous to the spiritual, social, existential purposes of human beings. It’s all written here, too: the market uses contemporary production as a financial tool, thus with its own, often speculative, logic; the globalization of art has opened wide the interpretations of canons and the “sacred” concept. The important thing is to keep the scissors of the “critical” range as wide as possible and play with the scenic, impactful, glittering, sellable, enjoyable, entertaining.

These are the times that are, without any qualitative judgments, and these are the logical and natural times of a larger and more totalizing world-in which the market dominates-than that very small Italian art fair in which we stay, live, and live. That’s it, camp. Since no one cares about this whole page of petty sociology and, indeed, it suits almost everyone to remain in the ever-digestible big molasses-which then is a wallow in the big slime-what do we do? If we have to and want to try to live and wallow in it, what do we do about it? Who stands up to defend the high battle of a war lost at the start? Who immolates themselves? Publishers, entrepreneurs, influencers? Deans of the arts? Intellectuals, politicians, art historians, bloggers-do we deliberately lump them all together given the cross-cutting and universal flattening of the field in question? Or the aforementioned critics, clerics, curators now completely compromised, enslaved to the most obvious economic or relational interests, and absolutely no longer credible?

Will those who boast of making exhibitions, texts or projects seen when it suits their cousin, uncle and colleague by poking here and there a little Bourriaud, Bourdieu, Foucault, giving vent to the most classic human onanistic action, perhaps raise the barricades? Who, in microcosm Italy then? That we are all addicted, conniving with each other, hanging in a perpetual balance not to displease anyone and get by with a minimum of dignity. Sold for a dinner, a catalog, a trip, a banner or an advertisement on the facing page? Paid, when paid, two peppers to write an article, a critical text, curate an exhibition or manage “things”? Who, if you have to maintain a minimum of the mythological public relations within the system to combine anything? Who in this circus? That very often in order to make a living and build a minimum of road and horizon one has to do, or at any rate does, more work in the art universe, therefore also more marchette, trespassing in more areas-from non-fiction to curating, from journalism to consulting, from communication to organization-thus multiplying the figures that one goes to trouble, and with whom one necessarily has to or will have to deal in order to do. Somehow you have to stay afloat in the muck with some life preservers, right? If you vegetate in a closed circle of people, always the same, you have to live with it to live.

We know very well how in the art world there are a set of unwritten rules that condition everything and atrophy any “momentum” out of the pot, criticism in primis -- which takes refuge in chronicling. Prudence, paraculism and conformism: three elements that have been the constant for years in the magical world of the contemporary-and not just this one of course. A tribe that thinks of itself as morally superior -and that often thinks it is called upon to save the world- but which is just like everyone else. Journalists, intellectuals, critics, historians, press offices, influencers, bloggers, curators, editors and whatnot, all in the same golden slime. All in the same crippled boat, all considered increasingly equal to all - a total leveling. It is increasingly common for so-called professionals in the field to be replaced -in a game of downward pressure (of quality and price, which go hand in hand)-by the first self-proclaimed character on social media with the title of independent curator, art lover, art influencer, art blogger, art critic, art whatever to tell his audience of followers (often Thai or South African because bought on the internét) what the employer-event organizer has kindly “asked” him to do. Perhaps this is fair: if the result always has to be the Marchetta, why pay more for a more qualified one who, however, does not have the quantity-or pseudo such-for example, the Instagram stage? Right, wrong? Whose fault is this vicious circle? The cause? Will we get out of it? The system, world, market takes its course and doesn’t give a damn about the answers (it just is), least of all the Italian one relegated to the margins of the global system, whose international “capital” Milan seen from the outside is but a tender province dotted with shoddy museums and -generalizing- embarrassing exhibitions. The questions above, quite stupid and deliberately rhetorical, will always remain there, because more or less rightly no one outside gives a damn about any of this. On the contrary, it is easy for the circus in question to continue to be targeted with mockery and irony for its total disconnect with the real world. That’s how it is. Let’s just deal with it.

This contribution was originally published in No. 13 of our print magazine Windows on Art Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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