Post-Critical Art Writing

Post-Critical Art Writing

Postby CAP » Wed Feb 17, 2016 5:42 am

‘Post-critical’ is one way to describe the kind of writing on art that has to some extent replaced criticism in the mainstream press. For the most part it patently regurgitates press releases, themselves a drastically simplified version of the catalogue essay, or what remains of the catalogue essay in today’s exhibition practice. The ‘post-critical’ report offers a brief description of works, possibly noting material, numbers, size and colours and states their supposed meaning, usually along sweeping social or political themes. But there is little or no attempt to explain how the latter are derived from the former, what value may obtain there, much less a context. It is writing that essentially goes briskly through the motions of art criticism without understanding or caring. ‘Post-critical’ art writing is in some cases just art criticism for dummies, by dummies, but rather than lazy or poorly formulated criticism, which has always been with us, ‘post-critical’ writing actually announces a narrow and philistine set of priorities. It is writing dedicated to a promptly identified product and its market value. ‘Post-critical’ writing wants to cut to the chase and lay out flat matters of allegiance and ownership, to reduce art to messages, their positioning and circulation to prestige and finance. It aspires to a no nonsense approach, even in a field largely averse to plain speaking. Tacitly it sees itself as not much more than a sales prospectus or policy check list.

It would be too easy to claim this as just an alarming erosion of culture in the interests of commerce and politics. It may be more accurate to see it as a symptom of a larger malaise. We live in a time of global economic and political integration and turmoil at all levels. The stress of maintaining holdings and commitments has never been more complex or chaotic. The system is unstable, ultimately corrupt. Is it any wonder traders daren’t take their eyes off their screens for a moment? Daren’t attend to more than brief updates and end-of-play scores? They are not alone. It is this anxiety with fugitive, unpredictable factors that finds telling correspondence in ‘post-critical’ art reports. It is not so much that the writer and reader are indifferent to art, but rather that they cannot let go of their fixation with short term returns, with safe options. They view art (and everything else) in a neurotic quest for the insider’s shortcut.

We think of art usually reflecting such situations, but equally, it must find its audience. The audience must be suitably receptive, even prior to the appearance of the work. With ‘post-critical’ writing, one sees all too clearly, how anxious the market is for some suitably reassuring work, but at the same time how incapable it is of formulating it on critical or art historical terms. It does not know what it is talking about and it does not want to know. Essentially it wants stability, a conservative version of contemporary art, without being reactionary. But this proves chimerical. Artists too encounter a deeply compromised and erratic art world and equally struggle for guidance. Even to know what the problem is, is no guarantee of an effective reference or representation for it. This is properly a matter for criticism. Post-critical art writing actually exacerbates the situation, encourages just the kind of shallow and equivocal efforts it seeks to avoid. Judgements thus fall into a vicious cycle of fads chasing phantoms, desperately looking over our shoulder, hoping to steer by the attentions of others. No wonder the market looks jittery.

In the absence of substantive art criticism, writing on contemporary art sales takes on new prominence. Sites like Artnet and Art Market Monitor range across fairs and the secondaries market, gossiping about rumoured prices and the elaborate subterfuges of some sellers and buyers. It is often unclear that the sellers are strictly dealers or the buyers solely collectors, adding to the intrigue. But sooner or later discussion of a work or artist requires detail and it is then that the writing flounders. Take for example Marion Maneker’s article on the L.A. artist Aaron Garber Maikovska on his Art Market Monitor blog. Here the author initially notes rising prices but rather than dwell on collections and locales (to a degree a guarded and unwelcome area, as indicated) the article is at pains to promote the artist, firstly on the strength of his ‘sincerity’, based on studio visits by collectors. Does this mean most artists appear insincere to collectors visiting their studios? As an endorsement, the claim is pathetic. The artist’s slow and careful output is contrasted with Zombie Formalism by Kenny Schachter in the article (Schachter a contributor to Artnet and shrewd flipper when not dealing through a gallery) but Zombie Formalism is precisely what comes to mind as one contemplates the artist’s graffiti-like gestures, supposedly pacing a performance of standard outlines, except there is no discernible alphabet or shapes against which to measure such gestures. What we have seems no more ‘gestural’ than freeform calligraphy or flourishes as it is traditionally known. At best the work looks like an arty or designer version of graffiti, if only through choice of felt-tip marker, cursory in-fill.

The work is unlike some Zombie Formalism in that it has no interest in Minimalist fields, modules or process of accretion. But in that the artist divides his time between performance videos, poster-size colour photography artfully folded into small boats and installations combining these with the drawings or paintings; Garber Maikovska displays precisely the kind of generalist’s indifference to questions of form that properly distinguishes the Zombie Formalist’s managerial efforts. The artist’s attraction to abstraction, even when his needs would surely counsel more concrete formats, looks suspiciously like an artist just as aware of trends or ‘market forces’ as those Zombie Formalists that saw their stock falter in 2015. A more helpful analysis might have noted how and why the artist needs to spread his interests to paintings in this way and how consistent or coherent the practice is with performance or miming of everyday gestures on video, with folding the back of vast colour photographs into small boats; in what sense ‘performance’ is enhanced or highlighted by these options. But that would require an altogether greater expertise, and while Mr Maneker’s blog is titled Art Market Monitor, the monitoring rests purely with the market.
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