Art criticism is a strange activity. In the academic world, it has a very marginal place. The grander art historians mostly occupy endowed chairs, posts which are highly prestigious positions. But critics, today as in the past, are generally independent intellectuals, doing jobs that pay poorly and so in our commercial culture are thought to be of modest value and importance. Of course there are experts in the history of art, who can attribute the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio and Nicolas Poussin, describe the background history and identify their subjects. But it’s only by making aesthetic judgments that we can judge the value of these works. That’s why art history is teachable, and so has become an academic activity, while critics are self-taught. Leaving aside such historical painters, who pose different issues, consider three of the contemporary figures to whom I as a critic have chosen to give serious attention. Sean Scully, world famous, is a household name in the international art market. Maria Bussmann, a mid-career figure, is a teaches philosophy in an adjunct post in Vienna. And William Anthony, who just passed away, was a marginal figure in the New York scene. They are very different artists with very different careers.
When I publish my philosophical arguments, as carefully and self-critically as I’ve gone over them, they are always surely contestable. That’s how it goes in philosophy, which lives from critical interchange. Even the grandest historical philosophers provoke ongoing controversy. But in art criticism, the situation is entirely different. My aesthetic judgments, like those of other critics (including the most eminent figures) are not always usually generally accepted. That controversy is built into the process, for a critic’s judgments claim to be persuasive, while allowing that other critics are likely to have very different viewpoints. We make aesthetic judgments, which differ from the arguments of philosophers.
What art criticism offers, whether the subject be a grand figure like Scully; an esteemed artist such as Bussmann; or a cult figure, Anthony for example, is an absolute focused attention on an individual’s works. I take all of these artists completely seriously in exactly the same way, without any concern for their comparative worldly status. That’s the job of any serious critic. Criticism is always a form of dialogue, for in describing artworks it seeks to engage readers. But criticism is also, at the same time, a monologue, for it is the identifiable, highly personal voice of one person, the speaker. Here, then, we get to the key moral point. For the working critic, every such esteemed artist, whatever their worldly status, gets exactly the same treatment. The assumption, in each case, is that the art being judged deserves close prolonged absolute attention. I am aware, certainly, that within the art world Scully, Bussmann and Anthony have very different status. But that knowledge is bracketed when I respond to their individual artworks. And this, to take up an important practical point, is why excessive interest in economics is such a dreadful distraction for the critic, for it confuses mere financial value with what matters in these judgments, value as art. And that is a disaster. As a critic, I certainly am aware of the diversity of responses to the art I judge, but that knowledge does not have any effect on my responses. If anything marks an authentic art critic, it’s this independence from mere opinion. It would be absurd, morally speaking, for a critic to assent to a judgment that she or he cannot personally accept.
A critic thus must think for her/himself. Here I allude to a famous description of thinking by the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Perhaps paradoxically, this essential feature of art criticism was best first understood by two men who weren’t themselves critics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Kant, who was much influenced by his predecessor’s claims. In his radical theory of legitimate government, Rousseau rejected representation, for no one (he argues) has the right to stand in for me and make judgments in my name. (And also, more eccentrically, he rejected theater, finding morally representable the way that an actor play acts by pretending to be someone else.) Kant’s aesthetic theory took up this point, which is implicit (but not adequately discussed) in his late writings on politics.
Kant’s The Critique of Judgment (1781) is a famous book, but its implications have not as yet been properly understood. The political implications of his analysis of criticism are striking and very very limited, both at the same time. No one who knows anything about our art world could honesty pretend that a Kantian analysis adequately describes the practice of evaluating contemporary art. Dream on! It would take a very worldly novelist to describe that picturesque system of upscale hustling that defines the life of our dealers and curators. And yet, as an art critic I would not scorn presenting this Kantian discussion, for at some level that vast, unregulated capitalist marketplace in art requires something like such an analysis.
Walter Benjamin famously said that the past can be viewed in Messianic terms, looking towards its present day relevance. The dialectical materialist, he argues, needs the concept of a present moment when time comes, as it were, to a halt. The past, Benjamin is arguing, can hold promises that are only recognizable from the viewpoint of the present. My aesthetic theory, and so my political hopes certainly are different from Benjamin’s, but I find this particular way of thinking eminently suggestible and happily convincing. Aesthetic judgments hold out the promise that every individual artwork, the humble ‘marginal’ works as much as the grand masterpieces, will be seen and so described justly. When will that happen? When we the viewers learn to trust our independent experiences? When, that is, we allow ourselves to become enlightened. But when shall that happen? The belief that that will ever happen is, need I say, is essentially optimistic. Kant’s belief in enlightenment made him an optimist, a way of thinking that is right now very out of fashion. However we judge that broader political worldview, this Kantian analysis does explain why the practice of art criticism, which often seems such a marginal, even frivolous activity, has a real moral seriousness.
A full account of aesthetic judgment would need to consider, also, responses to mass culture- cinema, popular music and the various novel media, which often influence the visual arts. These media differ from the works found in galleries and museums, but conceptually they pose some of the same issues. With a movie, for example, knowing how it was made, what was the intention of the director, or what are the political implications of the plot: discussion of these questions doesn’t tell us if it ‘works’ artistically as a film.
The analysis developed here about art criticism can also be applied some other artists I’ve greatly admired recently, Bill Beckley, Julian Bell, and Idris Khan, which would allow extending this argument. But that’s another story for another occasion.
On Benjamin see https://hyperallergic.com/650613/a-deep-dive-into-walter-benjamin-by-fredric-jameson/ and “Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus,” Bordercrossings, 158. 122–4 A fuller account will appear in In Caravaggio’s Shadow: Naples as a Work of Art (London, 2024). On Scully, https://brooklynrail.org/2018/03/art/SEAN-SCULLY-with-David-Carrier ; on Bussmann, https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/philosophical-skepticism-as-the-subject-of-art-9781350245136/https:// on Anthony, www.counterpunch.org/2023/02/03/william-anthony-1934-2022-rip/.