in Opinion | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

State of the Art

Can we really suspend the power of judgement?

in Opinion | 12 MAY 05

In their latest film, A Visit to the Louvre (2003), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet use the power of cinema to frame the discourse of art criticism. In long takes a static camera captures on celluloid the luscious colours of various paintings from the Louvre’s collection, blowing them up to the size of the cinema screen. While your gaze is absorbed by the images, your mind is entranced by the film’s voice-over. A female speaker comments on the pictures with the passion of someone who has an intimate understanding of painting, but also with the pride and competitive élan of an artist who, through a series of rigorous assessments, sets out her own position in relation to other artists by dividing them into genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents. Her speech culminates in her proclaimation ‘I am Cézanne’.
It turns out that the commentary is an actual piece of criticism taken from Cézanne’s writings; it set me wondering whether it would still be possible to talk like this today. The power of the words lies in the passion behind the artist’s verdicts. Excoriation never fails to impress, and, given the complaisance of much art talk, there is always a need for outspoken critique. Still, I feel hesitant. Voicing strong opinions is one of the cheapest thrills on offer in art criticism. The instant rush you get from apodictic verdicts comes from a sense of triumph over the work of art. In an act of discursive bravado I, the critic, transcend the work and, in the name of the artist, claim the place of authorship myself: I am Cézanne. I have cannibalized him. Yet somehow I prefer to be consumed by the work instead. Why should I allow my judgement to overshadow the work itself? Why deny myself the chance to enter somebody else’s work and world, to feel and think in somebody else’s name something that previously I might not have been able to experience in my own? I am Cézanne and, thank God, for a minute not myself.
But can we really suspend the power of our judgements? There is no denying that criticism influences opinions and the market value of art. The basic choice about who to cover ensnares the critic in struggles about power, social recognition and the redistribution of other people’s money. To ignore this would be naive. But to embrace it is equally unacceptable. I think the issue of whether you relish or disdain power makes a difference here. It shows whether you choose or refuse to speak, as Lacan puts it, ‘in the name of the father’, that is, from a position of authority. As passionate and marginal as it may be, the apodictic discourse exemplified by Cézanne’s criticism seems patriarchal to the core. Its outcome is predictable. The conventional ritual of praise and rejection, in fact, limits art criticism to a tiresome Oedipal game in which a paternal pat on the back or an indignant slap in the face are the only gestures available. To relinquish authority thus actually means gaining the freedom to think and speak differently. The trick, I think, is to refrain from symbolically claiming the position of power that in practice is already assigned to you. That is what scruples are about.
When you look at how, in Germany, public debate about contemporary art is now increasingly a vehicle for the promotion of private patronage, it seems as if this set of scruples is disappearing. There is, for instance, a complete lack of qualms about how the heir to the Flick fortune, as a global player and distinguished owner of art, has used his clout to get the city of Berlin to build him a museum. There is also something unscrupulous about the way the city allows prominent exhibitions of contemporary art to trade on the name of Flick, part of a dynasty of shameless profiteers at the heart of the German military-industrial complex who managed to remain on top, before, during and after the Nazis and who still haven’t paid a penny by way of compensation to the forced labourers they employed during the Third Reich. Moreover, the trend for equipping prominent public museums of contemporary art (such as, among others, K21 in Düsseldorf) with private collections has effectively brought about the demise of the time-honoured tradition of donating works to museums. Collectors no longer feel obliged to give works from their collection to a city in return for the public exhibition space granted to them. The Flick collection, like others, is only temporarily on loan. Obviously, a museum show boosts the exchange value of a work. With no further obligations to the public, today’s exhibition is just a prelude to tomorrow’s auction. The culture of donations was important precisely as part of a codex of scruples that obliges private patrons to restrict the power of their own volition.
It is a culture that is well worth keeping, especially since donations raise the crucial question of in whose name should art be exhibited, collected and discussed. Should it be in the name of Cézanne, the voice of art history? Maybe. Still, what is so special about the donation system is the dedication of a work not so much to history as to an unspecified future audience, for whose benefit that work is preserved in the collection. Art is shown and kept in
the name of future aesthetic experiences and judgements. Of course, the art investor is also placing a bet on the future. The point, however, is that (ideally) the donation implies a future you cannot cash in on, as the cut-off date on which the exchange value of the work is declared is (again ideally) always deferred. I like the notion that your scruples might persuade you to step back from a position of power in the name of an undecided future; that is, to allow for the future to be not just yet decided.
The problem is that remaining undecided is precisely what you cannot do as a critic, as the politics of the day demand to be judged. It would take a heavenly aristocratic nonchalance to avoid the point where the discourse must be brought to a close in a verdict. So at some point, I suppose, somebody always has to step up and say, ‘I am Cézanne’.