BY James Elkins in Frieze | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Five reasons why the art world is a desperate mess, followed by five responses. Do not read the conclusion until you've read the rest

BY James Elkins in Frieze | 01 OCT 08

1. Visual studies has stalled.

The field, which emerged in the early 1990s, had great potential: it promised to be the place where you could study images of all sorts, outside of fine art. The allegedly moribund field of art history was to be critiqued, and a new interdisciplinary space was to be opened between art history, anthropology, film studies, media studies, literary criticism, philosophy, anthropology and performance. Visual studies was to be trans-disciplinary, non-disciplinary, sub-disciplinary. It was to be the place where television, film, video, advertising and photography could be analyzed together, where Erwin Panofsky, George Kubler, Meyer Schapiro and Ernst Gombrich would give way to Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes. Visual studies was to provide serious political critique, an analysis of the operator, a renewed interest in the gaze, a rethinking of post-colonial theory, a genuinely international scope, a reach beyond the art world and beyond the narrow precincts of the humanities. But that promise has been dissipated, and the field remains a collage of special-interest studies that fail to cohere into a larger project or extend beyond the familiar confines of fine art and mass media.

2. Political art is lost.

With the waning of concerted institutional critique in the late 1990s, artists who have genuine political commitment have turned to relational aesthetics and other, unnamed strategies of intervention. Some of the most interesting and radical political art projects use the word ‘art’ in an undefined sense: its practitioners have no models of what ‘art’ means in the context of their practice, except as a marker for work done outside the institutions and ideologies that are under critique, or as a placeholder for whatever in their practice cannot be assigned to aesthetics. Some current projects avoid the word ‘art’ altogether, begging the question of their own political place and deferring the question of what ‘art’ might optimally be. At the same time, international art fairs and exhibitions have become at once scrupulously tolerant of political art and impeccably agnostic about the force, truth or necessity such art might have. As a result almost every political practice can find a place in the international art world, where it is quickly accepted, assimilated and divested of any significant power. There is still no theorizing about why visual art should be a privileged vehicle for political action.

3. The art market is uninterpreted.

The art world produces an avalanche of literature. No one in the art school where I teach reads even a tiny fraction of the 208 art periodicals we subscribe to. No one reads more than a tiny fraction of the blogs and websites that announce new art. No one reads more than a few of the hundreds of books on art history and aesthetics that appear each year. As far as I can tell, no one seriously sets out to read the brochures and catalogues that galleries produce in such bewilderingly vast numbers. Some major markets, such as Chinese art, exist in an almost total absence of any interpretive literature. Serious criticism and theory do exist, but they are nearly inaudible, lost in the background clutter. Only a few major artists, such as Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter, have attracted enough good writing that the principal positions on their work can be set out and argued. For most, the literature is scattered, unread and very often repetitive. Artists are interviewed incessantly, the questions are easy or predictable and well-known artists are asked the same questions again and again. The sum total of literature on an average artist is a sad collection of newspaper clippings and commissioned essays. This situation does not seem to bother anyone, perhaps because any appearance of common ground or concerted argument would appear to be conservative or reactionary.

4. The art world is incoherent.

The art world sometimes describes itself as being in a state of pluralism. The advent of Postmodernism in the 1960s, it is said, produced a condition in which any number of styles and manners could be practised simultaneously, so that theories of art became effectively numberless, each one the philosophical equal of every other. (It is a nice paradox that the person associated with this doctrine, Arthur C. Danto, writes strongly principled, clearly argued prose.) But the art world is more incoherent than pluralist. Individual subjects in art such as photography, the representation of landscape and religious issues in art and globalism are marked by differences and misunderstandings that cannot be characterized as pluralist. In the field of photography, for example, some people decline to argue about the index, or about Roland Barthes’ punctum, and by itself this could be a normal effect of a plurality of interests. But at least some of those people also have no position on those subjects, and they have no reason why it should not matter that they have no position. The field of photography criticism is more than a simple plurality of viewpoints: it is a heterogeneous field, past any reasonable hope of developing a coherent conversation.

5. Art criticism is powerless.

The massive international organization AICA, the world’s principal society of art critics, is intellectually bankrupt. Some of its members join simply to have the ID card that gets them into museums around the world for free. AICA gives an annual award for best curating, even though it is an organization of art critics, so it should be giving an award for criticism. (In the UK they do have the Bernard Denvir AICA Memorial Award for Art Critics, and they have given special prizes for distinguished contributions to art criticism, but their main award is for curating.) By giving the award for best exhibition, AICA avoids having to discuss openly what optimal art criticism might be. Art criticism is in massive disarray: there are no longer forums on critical terms, leading concepts or ethical issues. There is no discussion about whether art critics should judge (as older generations thought) or consider the conditions of judgement (as the group around Rosalind Krauss proposed in the 1970s) – and yet judgement has historically been the sine qua non of criticism. Some of the most widely read critics are happy to declare they have no guiding ideas, no theories, no perspectives. No one knows if art criticism has a history: does Charles Baudelaire count as a precursor to contemporary art criticism? Not if you judge by the way people write, because no one emulates Baudelaire. But without historical models, without a history, art criticism becomes a form of writing like any other. It would be difficult to find any other named field as thoroughly without self-definition as art criticism. This piece proposes five reasons why the art world is thriving, followed by five responses. The piece is a trick. Do not read the conclusion until you've read the rest

1. Visual studies is triumphing.

Visual studies is spreading around the world, with new programmes opening in Central and South America, South-East Asia, China, Eastern Europe and South Africa. There is evidence, from student enrolment, that visual studies is overtaking art history, and it is possible that visual studies may absorb and transform art history in the coming decades. Visual studies’ emphasis on agency and visuality, as opposed to visual objects, is a transformative re-reading of art history. It is genuinely trans-disciplinary, and if it doesn’t cohere, that is simply a sign of strength. Visual studies is open to film and media studies, visual anthropology, sociology, economics and other fields, and it has the capacity to become a unifying force in university life, bringing together people from various disciplines with a general interest in visuality. The diversity of journals that are concerned with visual studies – from the Journal of Visual Studies to Critical Inquiry – shows the strength of the subject. It would be difficult to point to a field in the humanities that is growing more quickly or generating more interest.

2. Political art is central to fine art.

Given the overwhelming influence of the worldwide art markets (the many art fairs filled with art that is market-driven, merely decorative, recherché, neo-conservative or otherwise belated and unchallenging), and given the equally enormous number of graduate-level art students (whose work can be homo-geneous and predictable in its chameleon mimicry of the latest trends), and given the exponential growth of national art markets in China, Brazil and India (where the production, marketing and interpretation of art mimics and expresses the triumph of capitalism and prosperity) ­– given all these, political art is more important than ever. The most interesting projects – such as Critical Art Ensemble, Institute for Applied Autonomy, The Yes Men, Conglomco Media Network, Finishing School, Temporary Services and – are finding creative ways to disrupt the spectacle of endless consumerism that now drives so much of worldwide cultural production. Even art that is not openly political is florid and outlandish in ways that would not have been possible even ten years ago. Its exuberance mirrors the wild growth of late capitalism.

3. The art market is full of meaning.

It is not true that the art market is uninterpreted. The North American and European art markets are so densely interpreted that it is impossible to keep up with the literature – and that is a good thing. Even contemporary Chinese art, which may seem to be growing in a relative absence of critical discussion, is actually creating an entire generation of Chinese historians, curators, collectors and critics who are often overlooked in the West, such as Zhang Zhiyang, Pi Li, Wang Huangsheng, Johnson Zhang, Li Xianting, Gao Ming Lu, Qing Huang, Peng De, Wang Nanming, Shui Tian Zhong, Wang Lin Tao Yongbai, Wang Jianwei, Yin Jinan, Zhang Rui, Xu Manray and Hou Hanru. Saying the international art world is uninterpreted is a sure sign of Western bias, of the certainties and overbearing prescriptivism of what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls ‘Europe’. The art world is full to the brim with interpretations. There is more serious theory in it now than ever before, and that theory extends from French post-Structuralism (Alain Badiou, Jean-Louis Scheffer, Jacques Rancière, Marie-José Mondzain, Jean-Luc Nancy) to neuroaesthetics and cognitive science (John Onians, Ladislav Kesner, Barbara Stafford). Who could possibly want more interpretation?

4. The art world is incoherent; that's fine.

What does ‘incoherent’ mean, and why is it so bad? Maybe it means the art world is pluralist, or relativist, or both. If you look up ‘pluralism’ on Wikipedia, you will find political pluralism, hylic pluralism, methodological pluralism and a dozen others. In the art world pluralism means there are practices that involve concepts that are incommensurate with others. But so what? The art world is also relativist, meaning that there is no single viewpoint that is independent of others, so that each interpretation depends on another viewpoint. But that seems unremarkable, even necessary, for any cultural enterprise. So if the art world is incoherent, that only means it is healthy. For example, few people have fully worked-out theories of what photography is (Rosalind Krauss, Joel Snyder, Thierry de Duve, Liz Wells, Geoffrey Batchen, Jan Baetens, Carol Squiers, Anne McCauley, perhaps a dozen others). Most people have more or less bootstrap ideas about what makes photographs different from other media, and that is fine. It’s also fine if their ideas don’t mesh with one another, or if they speak different languages, or if they don’t have any ideas at all. That’s art.

5. Art criticism is perfect.

Art criticism is exactly, precisely, what it should be at this moment in time. It has abandoned its principles, which were only Modernist strait-jackets or ideological rant, and it has become as flexible as the art scene demands. It makes sense that critics such as Jerry Saltz and Dave Hickey are so popular with young artists in North America: Saltz’ anti-theoretical stance and Hickey’s anti-establishmentarianism are pitch-perfect for today’s market. Danto is popular in part because he is a liberating influence: his doctrine seems to call for an end to art history, with its obsessive interest in lines of influence and the looming importance of the past. Criticism wouldn’t be criticism if it had an academic-style history or academic-style principles. Criticism works by judgement: it is the moment of subjective encounter, the moment in which the art work first presents itself. If that moment were tied down by some intellectual requirements, it would no longer have the openness of genuine phenomenological experience. It wouldn’t be wild, it would be domesticated. It would be art history.


These arguments express two moods. The first set of five is pessimistic and sceptical. The second set of five is optimistic and hopeful. I put the optimistic ones after the pessimistic ones so that this piece ends on a positive note, and also to create a little puzzle. I think that if you read the piece straight through, it appears that the optimistic arguments answer the pessimistic ones, but actually they don’t. The pessimistic arguments answer the optimistic arguments, and in fact the optimistic arguments are arranged so they misunderstand the pessimistic ones. The art world is a productive mess, and that’s fine if you are not interested in saying what the art means. Once you start considering the historical, philosophical and critical meaning of the work, then the art world is in a desperate mess, made even more desperate by the unblinking optimism created by markets and money. I am not calling for a return to principles, argument, rationality, effective political intervention or anything else. I am noting reasons why it does not make sense to be optimistic about the freedoms, possibilities, market values, historical position, expansion, significance or direction of current art, art history, visual studies, art criticism or art theory.