Is it evading the question “what is criticism?” to ask instead what criticism does, what it can do, in 2016? Like many who commit themselves to writing about culture, I carry in mind a store of polemical definitions that could justify and stake out ontological imperatives for criticism: it must be “partial, passionate and political,” as Baudelaire wrote, or motivated by the amateur’s sense of curiosity and care rather than the professional’s specialized expertise and proximity to power, per Said. But I am more concerned with the work that criticism performs, today, in the context of the economic and political conditions in which we write, in relation to other activities within the art world, and in tandem with modes of writing and performing critique outside of it.
Understanding the context in which criticism emerges entails recognizing that most young critics are also nonprofit interns, gallery assistants, service workers, and students—often all at once. The pressures of mounting debt, precarious work, and high rents assure that few can afford to make a living writing, with the result that would-be critics lack the time to practice their craft, to train themselves in looking, describing, relating, distinguishing. Criticism is no longer, if it ever was, a vocation. If there is any benefit to this, it is that when we do have the opportunity to write, we are more compelled to write criticism that incisively reflects on our grim political reality and connects cultural objects to the social movements arising out of today’s multiple crises, from economic inequality to police brutality, climate change, endless war, and resurgent white supremacy.
Perversely, then, an important moment for art criticism came with the Ninth Berlin Biennale, curated by the New York-based collective of artists, DJs, fashionistas, and writers behind DIS Magazine, and lambasted everywhere from The Guardian to Hyperallergic for its allegedly glib attitude to the problems of the world. If, to give it a more generous reading, the biennial succeeded as a portrait of the present, it was due to its willed failure to escape the binds of its own curatorial framework, a hall of mirrors refracting and amplifying the rhetorical fictions and narrowly Euro-American, middle-class experiences of neoliberalism. But what is noteworthy here were the many extraordinary reviews of the exhibition that settled for neither condemnation nor celebration, that harnessed the show’s strengths, elisions, and contradictions to examine and critique contemporary culture beyond the biennial’s coordinates. Exemplary was Hannah Black’s Artforum essay, which sensitively articulates the theoretical premises of the biennial and radicalizes its political conclusions by probing the crisis of whiteness it left unspoken.
It is noteworthy that Black critiques the biennial without recourse to the familiar pattern of suspicion, exposure, and denunciation that Eve Sedgwick memorably termed “paranoid reading”: A-ha! Here’s the part that reveals how the whole is racist, neoliberal, reactionary, etc. Her essay and others like it suggest an alternative practice that Sedgwick names “reparative reading,” which “succeed[s] in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.” Criticism, in this light, is neither a mode of revelation nor of disinterested judgment. It is, or at best it can be, a means to repair the world, through careful attention to the cultural objects that constitute it.