Inciting Reflection

A Short Manifesto for and Introduction to the Discursive Reviewing of the Arts


Literary history can be viewed alternately in a perspective of continuities or discontinuities. In the former perspective, what I perversely call postmodernism is simply an extension of modernism [which is], as everyone knows, a development of symbolism, which … is itself a specialisation of romanticismand who is there to say that the romantic concept of man does not find its origin in the great European Enlightenment? Etc. In the latter perspective, however, continuities [which are] maintained on a certain level of narrative abstraction (i.e., history [or aesthetic description]) are resisted in the interests of the quiddity and discreteness of art, the space that each work or action creates around itself. – Ihab Hassan

2Ihab Hassan’s words, published in 1975, continue to resonate today. How should we approach art? Can an artwork ever really fully be described by its critical review, or does its description only lead to an ever multiplying succession of terms? Michel Foucault spoke of the construction of modern sexuality as being seen as the hidden, irresolvable “truth” of our subjectivity, as that secret which we must constantly speak about, and hence as an “incitement to discourse” (Foucault, History of Sexuality). Since the Romantic period, the appreciation of aesthetics has been tied to the subjectivity of the individual and to the degree an art work appeals to the individual’s sense of self: to one’s personal refinement, emotions and so on. Art might be considered part of the truth of our subjectivity which we seem to be endlessly talking about – without, however, actually ever resolving the issue of what a great art work really is (anymore than we have resolved the issue of what natural sexuality is). It is not my aim to explicate the relationship between art and sex but to re-inject a strategic understanding of discourse, as Foucault understood it, back into commonplace, contemporary aesthetic criticism.

3The problems in rendering into words subjective, emotional experiences and formal aesthetic criteria continue to dog criticism today. The chief hindrances to contemporary criticism remain such institutional factors as the economic function of newspapers. Given their primary function as tools for the selling of advertising space, newspapers are inherently unsuited to sustaining detailed, informed dialogue on any topic – be it international politics or aesthetics. As it is, reviews remain short, quickly written pieces squeezed into already overloaded arts pages. This does not prevent skilled, caring writers and their editorial supporters from ensuring that fine reviews are published. In the meantime, we muddle through as best we can.

4I argue that criticism, like art, should operate self-consciously as an incitement to discourse, to engagement, and so to further discussion, poetry, et cetera. The possibility of an endless recession of theoretical terms and subjective responses should not dissuade us. Rather, one should provisionally accept the instrumentality of aesthetic discourse provided one is able always to bear in mind the nominalism which is required to prevent the description of art from becoming an instrument of repression. This is to say, aesthetic criticism is clearly authored in order to demonstrate something: to argue a point, to make a fruitful comparison, and so on. This does not mean that criticism should be composed so as to dictate aesthetic taste to the reader. Instead, it should act as an invitation to further responses – much as the art work itself does.

5Foucault has described discourse – language, terminologies, metaphorical conceits and those logical and poetic structures which underpin them – as a form of technology (Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and History of Sexuality). Different discursive forces arise in response to different cultural needs and contexts, including, indeed, those formulated not only by artists, but also by reviewers. As Hassan intimates, what is or is not “postmodernism”, for example, depends less on the art work itself – it is less a matter of an art work’s specific “quiddity” and its internal qualities – but is, rather, fundamentally dependent upon what one is trying to say about the piece. If one is trying to describe something novel in a work, something which relates it to a series of new or unusual forms which have become dominant within society since World War Two, then the term “postmodernism” most usefully applies. This, then, would entail breaking down the “the space that each work … creates around itself” in order to emphasise horizontal “continuities”. If, on the other hand, the critic wishes to describe the work from the perspective of historical developments, so as to trace the common features of various art works across a genealogical pattern running from Romanticism to the present day, one must de-emphasise the quiddity of the work in favour of vertical continuities. In both cases, however, the identification of common themes across various art works so as to aid in the description of wider historical or aesthetic conditions requires a certain “abstraction” of the qualities of the aesthetic works in question. The “postmodernism”, or any other quality, of a single art work thus remains in the eye of the beholder. No art work is definitively “postmodern” as such. It is only “postmodern” inasmuch as this description aids one in understanding a certain aspect of the piece and its relationship to other objects of analysis. In short, the more either an art work or its critical review elides full descriptive explication, the more useful reflections which might be voiced in its wake.

6What then is the instrumental purpose of the arts review as a genre of writing? For liberal humanist critics such as Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis and Harold Bloom, the role of the critic is straight forward and authoritative. Great art is said to be imbued with the spirit of humanity; with the very essence of our common subjectivity itself. Critics in this mode seek the truth of art and once it has been found, they generally construct it as unified, cohesive and of great value to all of humanity. The authors of the various avant-garde manifestoes which arose in Europe from the fin de siècle period onwards significantly complicated this ideal of universal value by arguing that such aesthetic values were necessarily abstract and so were not immediately visible within the content of the work per se. Such values were rather often present in the art work’s form and expression. Surrealism, Futurism, Supremacism, the Bauhaus and the other movements were founded upon the contention that these avant-garde art works revealed fundamental truths about the essence of human subjectivity: the imperious power of the dream at the heart of our emotional and psychic life, the geometric principles of colour and shape which provide the language for all experience of the sublime, and so on.

7The critic was still obliged to identify greatness and to isolate and disseminate those pieces of art which revealed the hidden truth of our shared human experience. Few influential art movements did not, in fact, have a chief theoretician to promote their ideals to the world, be it Ezra Pound and Leavis as the explicators of the works of T.S. Eliot, Martin Esslin for Beckett, or the artist her or himself, such as choreographers Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham, both of whom described in considerable detail their own methodologies to various scribes.

8The great challenge presented in the writings of Foucault, Derrida, Hassan and others, however, is to abandon such a sense of universal aesthetic and philosophical value. Like their fellow travellers within the New Left and soixante huit-ièmes (the agitators and cultural critics of 1968 Paris), these critics contend that the idea of a universal human subjectivity is problematic at best, if not a discursive fiction, which has been used to justify repression, colonialism, the unequal institutional hierarchies of bourgeois democratic systems, and so on. Art does not therefore speak of universal human truths. It is rather – like aesthetic criticism itself – a discursive product whose value should be considered instrumentally.

9The kind of a critical relationship which I am proposing here might provisionally be classified as discursive or archaeological criticism (in the Foucauldian sense of tracing discursive relationships and their distribution within any given cross-section or strata of cultural life). The role of the critic in such a situation is not one of acknowledging great art. Rather, the critic’s function becomes highly strategic, with interpretations and opinions regarding art works acting as invitations to engagement, consideration and, hence, also to rejection. From the point of view of the audience, too, the critic’s role is one of utility. If a critical description prompts useful, interesting or pleasurable reflections in the reader, then the review has been effective. If it has not, it has no role to play. The response to criticism thus becomes as subjective as the response to the art work itself. Similarly, just as Marcel Duchamp’s act of inverting a urinal and calling it art showed that anyone could be an artist provided they adopted a suitably creative vision of the objects which surrounded them, so anyone and everyone is a legitimate critic of any art work addressed to him or her as an audience. The institutional power accorded to critics by merit of the publications to which they are attached should not obfuscate the fact that anyone has the moral right to venture a critical judgement. It is not actually logically possible to be “right” or “wrong” in attributing qualities to an art work (although I have had artists assert the contrary to me). I like noise art, for example, and find much to stimulate my intellect and my affect in the chaotic feedback characteristic of the work of Merzbow and others. Many others however simply find such sounds to constitute unpleasant noise. Neither commentator is “right”. Both views co-exist. What is important is how these ideas are expressed, what propositions are marshalled to support either position, and how internally cohesive are the arguments supplied by supporters of either proposition. The merit of any particular critical intervention is therefore strictly formal or expressive, lying in its rhetorical construction, rather than in the subjective content of the criticism itself, per se.

10Clearly, such discursive criticism is of little value in describing works devised according to either an unequivocally liberal humanist or modernist avant-garde perspective. Aesthetic criticism authored in this spirit will not identify the universal, timeless truths of the work, nor will it act as an authoritative barometer of aesthetic value. By the same token though, a recognition of pluralism and instrumentality does not necessarily entail the rejection of categories of value altogether. Such a technique of aesthetic analysis functions primarily in the realm of superficial discursive qualities and formal features, rather than subterranean essences. It is in this sense both anti-Romantic and anti-Platonic. Discursive analysis has its own categories of truth and evaluation. Similarities between works, influences amongst artists and generic or affective precedents become the primary objects of analysis. Such a form of criticism is, in this sense, directly in accord with a similarly self-reflexive, historicised approach to art making itself. Where artists are consciously seeking to engage with their predecessors or peers, to find ways of situating their own work through the development of ideas visible in other cultural objects and historic aesthetic works, then the creation of art becomes itself a form of practical criticism or praxis. The distinction between criticism and its object is, therefore, one of formal expression, not one of nature or essence. Both practices engage with similar materials through a process of reflection (Marshall, “Vertigo”).

11Having described in philosophical and critical terms what constitutes an unfettered, democratic and strategic model of discursive criticism, it is perhaps useful to close with a more pragmatic description of how I myself attempt to proceed in authoring such criticism and, so, offer at least one possible (and, by definition, subjective) model for discursive criticism.

12Given that discursive analysis itself developed out of linguistic theory and Saussure’s discussion of the structural nature of signification, it is no surprise that the primary methodology underlying discursive analysis remains that of semiotics: namely how systems of representation and meaning mutually reinforce and support each other, and how they fail to do so.

13As a critic viewing an art work, it is, therefore, always my first goal to attempt to identify what it is that the artist appears to be trying to do in mounting a production. Is the art work intended as a cultural critique, a political protest, an avant-garde statement, a work of pure escapism, or some other kind of project – and hence one which can be judged according to the generic forms and values associated with such a style in comparison with those by other artists who work in this field? Having determined or intuited this, several related but nominally distinct critical reflections follow. Firstly, how effectively is this intent underpinning the art work achieved, how internally consistent are the tools, forms and themes utilised within the production, and do the affective and historic resonances evoked by the materials employed therein cohere into a logical (or a deliberately fragmented) whole? Secondly, how valid or aesthetically interesting is such a project in the first place, irrespective of whether it was successfully achieved or not? In short, how does the artist’s work compare with its own apparent generic rules, precedents and peers, and is the idea behind the work a contextually valid one or not?

14The questions of value which inevitably come into these judgements must be weighed according to explicit arguments regarding context, history and genre. It is the discursive transparency of the critique which enables readers to mentally contest the author. Implicitly transcendental models of universal emotional or aesthetic responses should not be invoked. Works of art should, therefore, be judged according to their own manifest terms, and, so, according to the values which appear to govern the relationships which organise materials within the art work. They should also, however, be viewed from a position definitively outside the work, placing the overall concept and its implicit, underlying theses within the context of other precedents, cultural values, political considerations and so on. In other words, one should attempt to heed Hassan’s caution that all art works may be seen both from the perspective of historico-genealogical continuities, as well as according to their own unique, self-defining characteristics and intentions. At the same time, the critical framework of the review itself – while remaining potentially dense and complex – should be as apparent to the reader as possible.

15The kind of criticism which I author is, therefore, based on a combination of art-historical, generic and socio-cultural comparisons. Critics are clearly able to elaborate more parallels between various artistic and cultural activities than many of their peers in the audience simply because it is the profession of the former to be as familiar with as wide a range of art-historical, cultural and political materials as is possible. This does not, however, make the opinions of the critic “correct”, it merely makes them more potentially dense. Other audiences nevertheless make their own connections, while spectators remain free to state that the particular parallels identified by the critic were not, to their minds, as significant as the critic would contend. The quantity of knowledge from which the critic can select does not verify the accuracy of his or her observations. It rather enables the potential richness of the description.

16In short, it is high time critics gave up all pretensions to closing off discourse by describing aesthetic works. On the contrary, arts reviewing, like arts production itself, should be seen as an invitation to further discourse, as a gift offered to those who might want it, rather than a Leavisite or Bloom-esque bludgeon to instruct the insensitive masses as to what is supposed to subjectively enlighten and uplift them. It is this sense of engagement – between critic, artist and audience – which provides the truly poetic quality to arts criticism, allowing readers to think creatively in their own right through their own interaction with a collaborative process of rumination on aesthetics and culture. In this way, artists, audiences and critics come to occupy the same terrain, exchanging views and constructing a community of shared ideas, debate and ever-multiplying discursive forms. Ideally, written criticism would come to occupy the same level of authority as an argument between an audience member and a critic at the bar following the staging of a production. I admit myself that even my best written compositions rarely achieve the level of playful interaction which such an environment often provokes. I nevertheless continue to strive for such a form of discursive exchange and bibulous poetry.