Crisidellacriticology. Why criticism (not only of art) is in crisis

The crisis of criticism, which indifferently involves all disciplines, is the product of different causes, ranging from the structure of the information system to the tangled complexity of the cultural system. An analysis.

Generally, those who criticize aim to dissect the reasons for a work of genius, to assess its value, assumptions or argue its negligibility. Criticism is a form of caring for collective interests that arose in the nineteenth century and matured during the twentieth century with the development of the figure of the Marxist intellectual, whose action is aimed not only at a deep understanding of phenomena, but also at the search for a truth that is not always manifest: in this way, criticism fulfills the function of a sentinel with respect to the present time and, ideally, to history. The crisis of criticism, which indifferently involves all disciplines, is the product of different causes, ranging from the structure of the information system to the entangled complexity of the cultural system, from the changing role of the intellectual to the social and anthropological transformations of the last four decades.

In the field of cultural journalism, and particularly in the field of visual arts, the gradual decline of criticism has among its causes (A) the precarization of labor, which inevitably tends to devalue the instances of problematicity that all criticism implies: what non-stable worker wants to take the risks of creating problems for a newspaper that often has among its advertisers the very people who produced the event? If the economic interdependence between the writer and the producer (B) is in itself a problem, then the typically Italian lack of specialization of visual arts writers (C) should be considered. Before working as a curator, I began to deal professionally with the arts as a journalist, some 20 years ago, and I have seen colleagues, even in magazines or large newspapers, write indifferently about exhibitions, cinema, travel or food and wine, often with results of little incisiveness. Thus the articles are nothing more than textual editing on materials prepared by press offices, enriched with quotes from the protagonists. In addition, there is a tendency to turn culture into chronicle narrative (D), in which a preview (thus made without having experienced the content) or an entertainment reading aimed at the protagonists’ storytelling is favored. This aspect takes its peak in lifestyle or glamour magazines, where artists, curators, and writers are celebrated as personalities - see, for example, the case of the 2019 Italian pavilion - often to the detriment of the content they themselves propose. On the other hand, don’t we live in the society of entertainment?

In addition to these causes internal to the world of newsrooms, there are also others attributable essentially to insiders. Indeed, there is often a substantial overlap between those who produce exhibitions, or books, and those who write (E), both in specialized magazines and in the in-depth cultural inserts, contrary to what happens in disciplines such as architecture or cinema. It is a small community, in which functions are not rigidly divided, where people find themselves, at short notice, taking on roles in blatant conflict of interest (in the world of culture often the recognized conflicts are those of others). This phenomenon brings us back to the familistic logic of our country’s cultural system (F), which, in my opinion, reaches levels of almost incestuous closeness in the field of art and literature, as has been denounced even in recent years. For example, an art historian or critic will never go so far as to crush an exhibition or publication produced by one of his or her “masters” or peer “disciples”: at most he or she might attack the sheep of another flock, knowing, however, that he or she is opening a feud that is anything but bucolic. Similarly, it is difficult for a scholar, essayist or editor to vigorously attack an author who publishes for his own publishing house or for one with whom he might collaborate later: cui prodest? E and F lead irretrievably to benevolent reviews, in which the preservative logic of the members of the system trumps that of the general interest.

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en 1779 (1779; olio su carta incollato su tela, 19,5 x 44 cm; Parigi, Louvre)
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en 17 79 (1779; oil on paper pasted on canvas, 19.5 x 44 cm; Paris, Louvre)

The dissolution of criticism is also part of the broader crisis of the role of the intellectual (G), who, in the liquid Western world, no longer enjoys the prestige status he had a few decades ago: his function as a reference for the masses, both in understanding society and in being an active watchdog, has disappeared. The capitalist world has downsized its authority and significance, first turning it into a commodity to be coveted and then creating cheap and far more maneuverable substitutes for it. Indeed, in the democracies in which we live, mature but now addicted to the logic of the market, those who convince with easy answers seem to prevail over those who provide problematic critical-analytical tools (H).

But another anthropological phenomenon, observable well before social networks although heightened by them, has progressively matured an environment averse to criticism: the difficulty of carrying out serious and intellectually articulate confrontation (I), which is one of its prerequisites, which has given way to a simplistic adherence to or sometimes rejection of confrontation. We are less and less educated to express our dissent and to argue it (J), because in the family, in school or in other social activities, we are too often asked to conform and adhere to a preordained system, despite rhetorically flaunting freedom and care for diversity. Compared to a life programmed by goals, to shorten processes and speed up learning and our actions, posing problems too often turns out to be a waste of time (so, for example, if an exhibition or a book is weak instead of crushing it we end up not talking about it, which also has the advantage of being less risky).

All these reasons, in my opinion, lead to the conclusion that art criticism itself is not dead as a discipline, far from it, but that those sociological reasons that have in the past increased its importance and made it popular have somehow disappeared. I do not wish to be apocalyptic, but it is likely that, consistent with the evolution of the media, it survives to some extent in a niche, as a product intended for elites (cultural, academic, etc.) willing to engage in real, time-consuming and perhaps resource-consuming in-depth study. Although I intimately retain the hope that the embers sleeping under the ashes may be revived, reason leads me to pessimism.

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

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