BY Brian Dillon in Interviews | 12 MAR 09
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Issue 121

Who do You Think You're Talking To?

Boris Groys in conversation with Brian Dillon

BY Brian Dillon in Interviews | 12 MAR 09

BRIAN DILLON Reading your essay ‘Critical Reflections’, in your recent book Art Power, I was reminded of two texts about criticism from the late 19th century. In his essay ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864) Matthew Arnold writes that the critic’s job is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. Twenty-seven years later, in ‘The Critic as Artist’, Oscar Wilde reverses Arnold’s dictum: criticism is rather supposed to ‘see the object as in itself it really is not’. Has this distinction – between criticism as science and criticism as art – gone away, or is it still with us?

BORIS GROYS Both quotations have something to do with description, with the ability of an art critic to describe the art object in a certain way: in one case, to describe it correctly; in the other, to describe it in an interesting way or in a way that is more interesting than the correct description would be. But it seems to me – and it was on my mind when I wrote that text – that description is part of what is expected from criticism, but it’s not the most urgent thing that readers expect. What they expect is a value judgment, from somebody who has more taste than others, rather than a greater ability to describe. And that’s precisely what seems to me to be in peril at the moment. When I came from the USSR to the West at the beginning of the 1980s, almost immediately I started to write about art for the German newspapers, and I very quickly understood that people reacted only to the fact that I had written a text, that this text was published in the newspaper, had a certain length, was illustrated or not, and was or was not run on the front page of the feuilleton section. They absolutely didn’t react to what I wrote, be it description or evaluation, and they absolutely couldn’t distinguish between positive and negative evaluation. So if they saw, for example, a long text with illustrations on the first page, and it was a negative review, everybody perceived it as a positive review. I understood immediately that the code of contemporary criticism is not plus or minus; I would say it’s a digital code: zero or one, mentioned or not mentioned. And that presupposes a completely different strategy, and a different politics.

BD What, then, are the politics of mentioning or not mentioning an artist?

BG You can escape politics as a theoretician, or as an art historian, but not as a critic. This politics excludes absolutely the possibility of being representative of the public, in whatever sense you understand that. Instead, it presupposes a certain obligation toward artists, curators and so on. You mention people that you like, and you don’t mention the people you don’t like. And you mention people because you like them, and that’s the only reason for mentioning them. If you mention them, it makes no sense to criticize them, because it’s obvious that whatever you say is an advertisement for them. If you don’t like them, you just don’t mention them; if you like them, you just approve them. So the system excludes the phenomenon of negative appreciation: something that has a very long tradition. I don’t have a feeling that negative art criticism is something people do very much now. So today’s criticism mostly does not function as a critique. Today artists want to be critical – but art criticism is almost always affirmative. It is affirmative, for example, by siding itself with art that wants to be critical.

BD It seems as though, on the one hand, criticism has lost its commitment to advancing an argument or ideology, and on the other, that critics are no longer eager to appear paradoxical: that is, to contradict themselves, even to appear hypocritical.

BG You can be hypocritical only if you say something you don’t believe in. The question is whether criticism today is a statement about one’s beliefs at all. Cultural production is based on memory: we have known that since Plato. And today, I’d say, we have lost our memories, and memory has been replaced by Google. Instead of memorizing, we are Googling. And that’s precisely what the art critic is doing. The critic creates a search engine for the reader; fundamentally, he just says, ‘Look at this!’ Whatever is said beyond this is perceived merely as an explanation or legitimization of this advice to look. People are not so interested in why they should look at it; they’re interested in the question of whether they should look at it at all. They’re also not interested in the critic’s opinion, but in whether they should have an opinion themselves about this phenomenon. I’m often asked by colleagues: ‘Should I look at this exhibition or should I skip it?’ There is a certain honesty in this: maybe there’s no reason to look at it…

BD The question ‘Should I look at it?’ suggests that, rather than enjoying or being fulfilled or improved or educated by the art object, one takes something useful from it: ideas or images that can be put to use elsewhere.

BG That’s too charitable an explanation. The question is: would you get lost in a conversation if you didn’t know the phenomenon in question? There are works and exhibitions and books that may well be awful – maybe not – but you have to have an opinion about them because, if you don’t, you are perceived as being uninformed and out of touch with whatever definition of contemporaneity you are faced with. Of course, there are a lot of things that don’t have this urgency: if I say I’m too busy to look at them, I’m forgiven for that. But with some images, some exhibitions, some books, you are not forgiven for being too busy to look into them. If I’m asked should I look at it or not, I always ponder the question seriously: would I be forgiven for not looking at this?

BD You write that the critic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries affected to makes value judgements on the basis of knowledge. He also wrote from outside the art world and deliberately distanced himself from artists. The Modernist or avant-garde critic, on the other hand, claims to speak for the art work, or for the artist. You suggest, however, that the critic is subsequently rejected by artists, whose work may very well speak for itself. How did this happen?

BG The critic has a fear and a desire, like everybody in this cultural system: he is afraid of appearing to be uninformed, not up-to-date. So he has to mention Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he has to have an opinion about Jacques Rancière, he has to know that, in contrast to yesterday, it’s not a good idea to mention Jacques Derrida but it’s a good idea to mention Gilles Deleuze and so on. So he has to be informed and to show explicitly that he is informed: that’s one source of his habit of mentioning. He mentions these people not because he’s interested in them, but because he shows that he belongs to a certain level of discourse. Then, after he establishes himself, he asks himself why and what he wants to advertise to the public. I don’t believe in neutrality. There’s no objectivity in art. Art is not a system, not a world: it’s an area of struggle and conflict, of competition, animosity and suspicion. That’s why I’m always irritated by any systemic approach to art: as though art production is like shoe production. You have to decide what you want to advertise, what your ideological position is, what you want to make known. Of course, you’re no longer interested in criticizing anything; you’re interested in forwarding what you think is interesting for you, what should be regarded as interesting for culture in which you are living, what you’re ready to support. If you make a bad judgement, and support something that fails in a non-interesting way – because it may fail interestingly – then it was a bad choice. It’s about taking risks.

BD That risk-taking sounds, though, like a belated version of the critic as avant-garde artist. The critic judges in the here and now, and in the process produces an unknowable future. Is what you’re describing a soft version of that avant-garde risk?

BG Yes. The classical avant-garde critic hoped to form or to educate, or simply was waiting for the coming of the new mankind, the arrival of a different public. He actually despised the public as it was and hoped that a new public would come, that it would form itself, or that it would come into being because the critic conceived of it. This fundamental belief in a change in human nature is no longer on the horizon of contemporary criticism. Rather, the art critic presupposes that people remain fundamentally the same, that human nature doesn’t change, at least it won’t in the observable or foreseeable future. And neither will art, or art criticism, change in the foreseeable future. And that means that the critic’s risks are not political, social risks, but simply personal risks. What distinguishes the classical avant-garde critic or theorist from the contemporary critic is that the classical critic believed that his failure would be a failure of mankind. And he had a responsibility for something bigger than himself. I don’t think the contemporary critic believes in that. Maybe it is the case … But it’s not my impression. It is rather my impression that he takes personal risks and looks to see what comes out of it. And, of course, to take personal risks also presupposes a capability to foresee developments, but it doesn’t presuppose the ability to rule the world or to change it: especially not to change the whole context of art.

BD At the same time the contemporary critic is more likely to be invested in an idea of cultural difference and in the idea that cultural differences are the ones that matter. Art is what allows us to encounter the other.

BG I don’t believe that cultural differences matter. I believe that the general presupposition of art as it appeared in its modern form at the end of the 18th century is that fundamentally art and art criticism have to appeal to all, so that they have a fictional idea of the universal audience. That’s the difference between art and science – science has an informed audience as its goal. Any attempt to create an informed audience for art has failed: and if it were created, it would be to some degree a failure for the initial impulse of the art. The idea is instead of a universal audience, and an uninformed one. That means that if what you want to communicate is otherness, then you do it in a universal way, because if you don’t, it makes no sense. So, for example, you go to an exhibition and see post-colonial works from India, Brazil and so on. And feminist works and so forth. But all of them are installations consisting of texts, photographs and videos, so they look artistically identical. If they didn’t look identical, they wouldn’t be able to convey otherness. The otherness here is the message, but it is not an artistic message – because we know, after all, that art is a technical thing and that the medium is the message – so the artistic point is not what is said or conveyed, the otherness itself, but the sum of artistic devices used to convey it, and this sum of artistic devices is of universal validity, because if it is not of universal validity, then it simply makes no sense to do it.

BD The celebration of plurality is actually the assertion of the same.

BG Absolutely, because the production of otherness (and the production of the new) is a repetitive gesture. I can produce otherness, of course, but I produce it in the same way, and if I didn’t, it would not be recognized as otherness. I can produce very different shoes, for example, but I have to have the ability to recognize the shoe as a shoe, produced in a shoe factory, because if it isn’t identified as such, it won’t be a different shoe. So for art to express otherness, it must be fundamentally the same. Only then can we recognize it as other.

BD The great avant-garde critics of the 20th century urged not only a transformation of art or of society, but also of criticism itself, of their own writing. If the critic is doomed merely to a kind of show-and-tell exercise, as you suggest, then what happens to this impulse towards textual transformation? You suggest that the critic can still write whatever he or she wants; but this is hardly the same as turning that possibility into a programme.

BG If you take the next step, after we establish the fact that simply pointing at what must be seen is the contemporary gesture that constitutes the critic as a critic, then of course it is obvious that it can’t be interesting for the critic. It’s like any job: we’re not born to work, to do a job like this. That’s obvious. So it’s how the critic survives: by establishing himself as an art critic. After he has established himself, he begins to do what is interesting for him personally. And what is interesting for us is ourselves. So, being a writer, the art critic does what a writer generally does: he talks about himself. Under the pretext of explaining his position – his pointing – he begins to write. Of course, his writing does not interest anybody. The gesture (of pointing) is enough: structurally, the additional explanation is unnecessary. Everybody knows this: the critic knows it, and the audience knows it. So it is extra: it’s some kind of surplus; it’s an excess of writing – almost in Georges Bataille’s terms. We know that this unnecessary activity offers us a space and a possibility where we can do what we really like doing and write what we really like writing. So, we can read art criticism in two ways. One way is to be informed about what has to be looked at. And if the critic is a good writer, we read him as we read any other writer: just as a text, just as writing. Our attention shifts between these two poles. For example: if I read Clement Greenberg or whoever, his writing is completely independent of which artist, or what kind of artist, he attached that writing to. There’s a certain gap; it’s often overlooked both by audience and artists. Artists say: ‘You said this about me’ – but it’s not about you! I mentioned your name, and that’s OK, it’s done. But everything else is about myself, and not about you. In fact, I don’t understand why I should write anything about artists at all, because they’re also adult, articulate human beings; they articulate themselves in their art and in their writing – they talk a lot nowadays – so I see no reason to say anything at all about any artist. Maybe only to mention the name, mention certain works, to attract the attention of the reader: that I understand. After the reader’s attention has been elicited, then the artist has to present himself; I’m no longer interested. I present my own reflections, which may be, or may be not, connected to this artist or to art in general.

BD In one sense, this idea of text as being in excess of its referent was part of the theory of experimental writing in the last century: in Roland Barthes, Derrida and so on. It seems that the idea is now shared (perhaps unknowingly) by gallerists and curators, who don’t necessarily – or even at all – want the critic to write about the art itself. That can be done in the form of interviews and press releases: the writer (of a catalogue essay, for example) is asked for something else, something more ambiguous.

BG The problem is that we tend more and more to associate art with the art market, which irritates everybody, perhaps most of all gallerists and curators. The only way to indicate that art is not simply a commodity is to put it in some kind of textual shell. Because even if we assume that writing is a commodity too, it’s obvious that it is not a commodity in the same sense, because it is very badly paid. And it’s badly paid for a very simple reason. What does it mean to write? It’s a very primitive and manual activity, of putting one sign after another, like an industrial worker in the 19th century, accumulating time into text. So actually, if you look at the contemporary world, only a writer functions in the contemporary world as a classical industrial worker. The text is produced by your own hands; the text accumulates the time invested. There are no other workers like that now. And of course the artists themselves are now entrepreneurs, fundamentally. Capitalism is making money by moving things from one place to another, as art also did after Duchamp and still does. Whatever contemporary art is, it is this entrepreneurial activity – it’s on the side of capitalism. But the writer is a classical worker. So the putting of a text into the catalogue is a sentimental reference to the working class of the 19th century, to the Romantic idea of production, because art itself is no longer about production. The text is a relic of the age of production in the era of developed capitalism. It’s very good for the writer, of course, because politically, economically, socially, psychologically, he gets this excess of free space; he’s a kind of quotation from the 19th century, so he has an extemporal role in contemporary society. What really strikes me, as I read my own texts and the texts of all my colleagues, is a nostalgic extemporality, independent of what they are actually writing. It’s as if we go to look at some people making carpets, and we’re suddenly moved to tears. There’s a story about Maxim Gorky: that whenever he saw somebody writing, he began to cry. There’s something very sentimental about it as an activity. Writers live in a completely different epoch from artists and curators.

Professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory at the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, Boris Groys coined the term ‘Moscow Conceptualism’ in the 1970s to describe the art of Ilya Kabakov and his contemporaries. After leaving the Soviet Union in 1981, he pursued his research on Russian art and on the contemporary museum in such books as The Total Art of Stalinism (1988) and The Art of Installation (1996). In his recent book Art Power (2008), Groys turns, among other topics, to the contemporary predicament of art criticism.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.