The Critic as Avant-Garde Artist

by Travis Jeppesen on September 21, 2008

I have to say that I’m a lot more interested now in the prospect of reading Boris Groys’s new book Art Power than I was before reading Brian Dillon’s review of it in the latest issue of Frieze. According to Dillon, Groys argues, among other things, that art criticism “is not necessarily written to be read.” Once you accept this, you are pretty much free to do anything you want:

[L]iberated from the constraints on content and form that cripple academics and journalists, the art critic can potentially write anything at all. Voices and styles ramify, readerly expectations are bravely neglected, and the critic starts to resemble nothing so much as the figure of the avant-garde artist.

This resonates with something I argued back in 2006, when I was reviewing an exhibition of contemporary Slovak painting in Prague for Think Again. I’m pasting an excerpt from that essay below (you can read the entire thing on p. 348-349 of my forthcoming book, Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary”):

What does the new Slovak painting look like? This is the question a new exhibition at the House of the Golden Ring asks. About a year ago, I wrote an article in Um?lec complaining about the lazy strategies of local curators – namely the fact that, instead of coming up with interesting themes for exhibitions, they conservatively bow at the alter of nationalistic ideals. This Is The New Croatian Sculpture. This Is The New Polish Video Art. Etcetera, etcetera. Apparently, no one bothered to read my commentary, or if they did, then they didn’t take my ideas seriously. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that no one in this town bothers to read art criticism. This would explain why so many exhibitions are lousy, and why the public has almost no interest in contemporary art.

At the same time, there’s an unprecedented amount of freedom allotted to a writer like me. As a writer that no one reads, I can get away with nearly anything – and I do. I don’t have to feel subservient to any literary tradition, I’m not weighted down with any real journalistic guidelines, I can be as poetic or absurd as I want, as harsh in my judgments as I want. There’s definitely something nice about living in a country where no one really gives a shit about anything.

At the time, in my isolation, I believed that the problem was merely a local one, but now I realize that criticism is ignored across the board.

Now, then, is the time to start writing anything. I’m happy to say that I’m still na├»ve enough to believe in the figure of the cultural revolutionary, the unseen human force that generates microscopic ripples that eventually give rise to massive waves, and I endorse Groys and Dillon’s projection that the art scribe – the solitary outsider in a closed realm that values power, money, and recognition – has the sole potential to play this role, in that s/he is entitled to none of these advantages.

There is a wolf at the door, it is rabid, and it is on its way inside.

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