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On time and spaces for criticism: an interview with Thijs Lijster


11 November 2015
This month's topic: Art criticism

On time and spaces for criticism: an interview with Thijs Lijster

Your contribution to the book “Institutional Attitudes. Instituting Art in a Flat World” (Valiz, 2012) was titled “Where is the Critic?”. In the book “Spaces for Criticism: Shifts in Contemporary Art Discourses” (Valiz, 2015)[[Thijs Lijster, Suzana Milevska, Pascal Gielen, Ruth Sonderegger (eds.) (2015). “Spaces for Criticism. Shifts in Contemporary Art Discourses”. Amsterdam: Valiz]], that is going to be published next December, you and some other authors have reflected on the question “Where is Art Criticism?”. What does this change in the question’s subject (from the Critic, to Art Criticism) denote? What are we actually missing?

In our book we wanted to ask the question ‘where is criticism?’ rather than ‘what is criticism?’ In other words: we wanted to make a ‘topology’ of art criticism and explore the new spaces where criticism is happening. In this way, we wanted to move out of the discourse revolving around the crisis, end or death of criticism, which has dominated discussions on art criticism for quite some time. In our view, it is rather a ‘displacement’ of criticism: to new media, institutions, professional contexts, etc.

This also involves the subtle, but important difference that you noted in the two titles you mention. Even if you would agree with the idea that the traditional art critic is facing difficult times, that is not the same thing as saying that criticism is in crisis, or dead, or ending, etc. So in that sense you might say that although the critic is in crisis, criticism is not. You now see, for instance, that criticism is also more and more practiced by artists themselves, by curators, or by academics from other disciplines (for example philosophers and sociologists). In our book we explore the implications of these kinds of shifts for criticism.

In a chapter of the book “Satin Island” author Tom McCarthy describes Mr. Peyman, the head of a firm who has disappeared because he is everywhere at all times. With this disappearance McCarthy means that everyone is constantly but unconsciously affected by his decisions. Is the kind of disappearance that Criticism has suffered similar to this? If so -and it means that Criticism is everywhere-, why do we still feel the necessity to locate its place?

This is indeed a very nice example. In our text (Pascal Gielen’s and mine) we apply David Harvey’s concept of space-time-compression to the field of art criticism: what does it mean for art criticism if we can be anywhere in no-time? This is a problem, not only for the authority of the traditional critic (which depended on a distance in space and/or time), but also for the critical distance of the viewer. If art becomes de-historicized and de-territorialized, the risk of a kind of ‘generic art’ lurks, and along with it, the loss of giving a meaningful critical context to works of art.

Still, we cannot just return to an earlier situation. There is an interesting distinction made by the French philosopher Michel de Certeau, between place and space. Place is fixed, but space is created in a practice. Therefore I would propose to talk about spaces for criticism rather than ‘the’ place for criticism. I think that, although the proper place for the critic has become radically uncertain, it is up to the critics themselves to create their own spaces. For me this implies that they should be considered, and should consider themselves, as public intellectuals.

What about the readers? Where are the Art Criticism’s Readers? Does reflecting on the place of the criticism require a reflection on the conditions of the existent, non-existent or even potential readers? If it does, how does it happen?

The critic has a kind of dual responsibility: both to the work of art and to the public. I think that since the Second World War, you see that this responsibility is distributed between two kinds of critics: the academic critic writing only for his peers (among which often also the artists), and the ‘popular’ critic writing for a broader audience. Today, both kinds face difficulties: the academic critic because of the crisis in the humanities and cutbacks in universities, and the popular critic because of decreased readership.

This means that one always should ask oneself the question what or where your audience is, or should be. Our book title ‘Spaces for criticism’ is derived from a fragment in Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, in which he provocatively says that advertisement is superior to criticism. Of course, being a marxist philosopher, Benjamin did not actually prefer advertisement over criticism. What I think he meant is that advertisement is in the street, and in your face, and exactly knows how to ‘tickle’ its audience, so to say. From this, the critic might learn something.

In “Where is the Critic?” you explained the William Marx’s idea that the crisis of language firstly expressed by Hofmannsthal and Valéry not only affected poetry and literature but also seriously conditioned the writing of criticism. Literature reacted to this crisis in many interesting and experimental ways that attempted to break the structure of language as we know it, such as the works of Samuel Beckett, the people at OULIPO or the conceptual poets, amongst many others. Can we speak of any analogue experiences in the context of criticism?

It depends a bit how broad your definition of criticism is. For instance, if a poet reflects on a work of art, or a piece of music, is this criticism? Or a different example from our book: there is an interview in there with queer DJ Terre Thaemlitz. Among the editors, we had some discussion about whether this interview actually was about criticism. But Thaemlitz him/herself considers his/her own practice as a DJ and mixer as a kind of criticism, and since the exploration of new ways of ‘doing’ criticism was the topic of our book, we thought it would indeed be an interesting contribution.

I myself would be hesitant, however, to consider art criticism as itself an (experimental) art form. I think that criticism should stick to its ‘servile’ role, as an attempt to interpret a work of art, or give words to an aesthetic experience. Of course, that sometimes makes it necessary to be experimental, if the art in question demands it, but for art criticism the experiment should not be an end in itself (as it can be for the work of art).

Your dissertation at University of Groningen was called “Critique of art. Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno on art and art criticism”. Reading some of Benjamin’s writings I have sometimes got the feeling that the way he wrote about art criticism is pretty similar to the way he reflected on the practice of translation. Do you think that those are comparable practices? From your point of view, what would it mean to understand the critic as a kind of translator? Besides, Benjamin wrote that a translator needs also to be a poet in order to do his or her task. Should a critic consider himself an artist?

You are definitely right that there is a strong connection between the figure of the translator and the figure of the critic in Benjamin’s writing. He even planned to write an essay titled ‘The task of the critic’, as a sort of companion piece to his famous essay on ‘The task of the translator’. But what does this imply? What I think is the most interesting in Benjamin’s notion of translation, is that for him the ‘original’ is not sacred; he argues that a translation might just as well be able to grasp the ‘idea’ of the work of art as the poem in the original language. The same goes for criticism, which he considers to be an intervention in the ‘afterlife’ of the work of art. Criticism is not trying to find out the ‘original’ meaning, but is about actualization.

Still, I have some difficulties with equating criticism with art, as I already said above. Here I am perhaps more influenced by Adorno (or even Hegel!) than by Benjamin. Since Adorno considered art and (philosophical) criticism to be two principally different things: art is about sensuous particulars, but criticism (and philosophy) always has to deal with concepts, which are general in nature. This brings about a huge tension, since how could you ever grasp something particular in general terms. But I think this is a fruitful tension, which produces a productive back-and-forth between sensuousness and conceptual thought. We would lose that tension once we would turn criticism in art. Or, the other way around, such as in some conceptual art, but that’s another matter!

Last year I assisted to a symposium called “The post-digital scholar. Publishing between open access, piracy and public spheres” at Leuphana University, Lüneburg. Amongst the keynotes there was Geert Lovink, who at the beginning of his talk said that the only way to properly speak about digital media is in a conference because the times for writing and publishing are so slow that once a text becomes published, digital media is already transformed. It makes me think that the ways we people deal with time are becoming more and more related to a complex network of production and consumption that demands faster movements than the ones related to the traditional ways of writing, publishing and even reading. How does Criticism get conditioned by the contemporary rhythms?

I think what Geert Lovink says is true not just for digital media, but for most things. There is a huge ‘social accelleration’ going on, as sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls it. But you also see a counter-movement, wherein people try to seek refuge and try to find things to slow the pace of the contemporary world. Criticism might actually benefit from that. For instance, you see that Internet platforms today sometimes allows for longer and more thorough art criticism than newspapers (where reviews should often be no longer than 200-300 words).

But the danger we face in our ever accelerating times is that we end up stuck in some eternal present. Criticism can be an important counter-force against that, on the condition that it is thoroughly historical. This is actually what I will propose in my contribution to the symposium in Barcelona: an ‘espacement’ and re-historicization of art criticism.

Anna Dot was born on a Sunday in April. She is from Torelló and works between two worlds, worlds that she cannot perceive as being in any way separate: one of artistic production and one of reflection, writing about contexts of art.

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