in Frieze | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Canvases and Careers Today: Criticism and Its Markets

eds. Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw (Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York, 2008)

in Frieze | 01 NOV 08

There’s something of Paul Valéry’s sprawling literary experiment the ‘Teste Cycle’ (1896–1948) about Canvases and Careers Today: Criticism and Its Markets, an intricate and scrappy corpus, clumsy in its completeness, which reads well either in extreme close-up or from a great distance, but which gets a bit indistinct in mid-range.

This collection of essays reconfigures ten presentations from last year’s eponymous conference organized by the Institut für Kunstkritik in Frankfurt am Main. Its aim is to track the convergences and divergences between criticism, art and the market: no small order. The contributions are highly competitive, both with each other (structured, as they are, in pairs, each responding to the other’s content) and with the very market they interrogate, making for a tense yet enjoyable anthology. In fact, for a book about criticism this is a pretty easy read – a good thing for a publication that takes complexity as its primary tenet, indicating perhaps that the ‘heavy work’ has been done before coming to the table, and indeed coming to the page.

Merlin Carpenter is not happy. His contribution, ‘The Tail that Wags the Dog’, begins by tracking the professional relationships between panellists – himself included – not without some rancour. Such an explication of hierarchy has a whiff of frankness about it, which may well of itself be an obfuscation, for transparency resurfaces as a theme later in his text: ‘Transparency is a kind of foil overlaying secrecy; it does not work’, and again, ‘Is there something beyond selective transparency and business ethic that it conceals?’ Perhaps the real ‘wage’ of criticism may be best collected from cultural rather than economic capital, for it’s at this very congress of relocation that opacity could be punctured.

‘More than This’, by Johanna Burton, unpicks a dystopian view of the critic as functional producer, treacherously perched at an inky desk, ‘always providing the same service no matter what the intention’. The suggestion here is that the role of the critic is intrinsically linked to an art-world money market, but that the critic receives precious few juicy scraps from the table. Burton posits a radical strategy for the invigoration of criticism, one that takes advantage of its apparently ‘impotent’ status by bypassing its tendencies for ‘standardization and acceptance’ and channelling this impulse into a methodological inquiry that is more speculative and less judgemental. Such a diversion of energies might well lead to the recognition of criticism’s best side, the nub of its vitality: the (no) ‘more than this’ of Burton’s title.

The overall timbre of Birnbaum and Graw’s vade mecum is optimistic, viewing the anxious mass of contemporary criticism as a portentous blob of contradiction. Criticism and its markets are unwell; criticism and its markets are well.