Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1968

[Clarity in art writing] is not something one ought to condescend or resort to, simply in the interest of communicating with the general public – it’s something any theorist or critic ought to be striving for at all times. It’s simply best practice as thinking.

This came as part of a long and pithy comment (which includes a 1992 quote from philosopher John Searle : "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself") from CAP on Parsing Martspeak below, and I'm posting it here to make sure it isn't overlooked, as it is at the crux of the entire debate. Reading it I realized that the reason I’m so invested in the subject is because this is the joy of writing about art for me. Some people play Sudoku, I try to figure out what makes Robert Irwin tick.


hr_g said...

Absolutely, but I think you're assuming everyone has the same standard when it comes to the issue of clarity.

Clarity, like everything in life, is subjective. In an ideal world we would be able to communicate with everyone clearly all of the time but it never seems to work that way.

Samter Petuel said...

I disagree that clarity is subjective. If you are writing in English, then you are simply making something understandable, clear. It does not involve standards. True, that not everyone will have the same experiences, and will have varying perspectives, but language should be used to inform not confuse.

John Haber said...

I wouldn't say that clarity is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Heck, I edit textbooks for a living. But I'll suggest it's helpful to distinguish a few things that might be seen as kinds of clarity or factors affecting clarity.

One is what I'll call transparency, the ideal of being equally open to all readers willing to put in work. Another is publicity, the ideal of ensuring that when technical or unusual vocabulary enters, it does not belong to a clique or establish one. Another is simplicity, the ideal of getting rid of such vocabulary altogether. Or at least define your terms clearly when you need them.

One might say that science depends on the ideal of transparency and publicity, even though I can understand quantum mechanics better than some because I majored in physics. Democracy, some have argued, depends on these, and contract theories such as Rawls's in effect turn them into axioms. At the other extreme, marketing jargon and political spinmeisters depend on obscuring things with ordinary words, in effect fixing on simplicity at the expense of transparency.

I'd say that the Biennial text is not terribly simple or transparent, because it's incompetent, but does not really privilege insiders. Meanwhile, I'd call a lot of conservative art criticism, blaming the state of the art on political artists and critical theorists, as demanding simplicity. It's like marketing, and it's got some problems blaming free markets for anything, but a little appeal to insiders who appreciate beauty rather than celebrity is allowed.

Oh, in reply to caps, thanks for reading, but I'll disagree that critical theory was about ditching esthetics in favor of making art a branch of social science. I'd say it was about criticizing the very division in order to return art to its context. That could be in praise, as in dealing with Renaissance religious art without making it all into inadequate versions of Piero's columns; criticism, as in worrying about the power of art institutions; or just understanding, as in taking an interest in feminist art without demanding either that it go away or all look like Judy Chicago's inane lectures. If anything, when Derrida said philosophy was a kind of writing, he was subordinating the social sciences to art and culture.

CAP said...

JH – We obviously differ in our views on Critical Theory, Derrida and deconstruction. I’ll only say that Derrida’s description of philosophy as ‘a kind of writing’ neatly demonstrates just the kind of over-generalization I censure this approach for. Such a claim is surely non-controversial! But here is not really the place for an extended criticism (or critique, if you like) of deconstruction.

Instead I wanted to dispel any impression that I’m urging a return to the standards of art criticism of the 50s or 60s – as if we could. While I see plenty wrong with art criticism since, there are good reasons why this approach caught on the way it did – and I don’t think these are necessarily to do with Marxist sympathies. There were plenty of other versions of Marxism around, even within The New Left. The problems with preceding Formalist criticism (which often had Marxist sympathies as well) were firstly the over-specialization of many of the criteria, its deep flaws as a coherent art history (even of just the 20th century) and its intolerance to variety, rivalry or diversity. At a certain point (and usually quite quickly) those critics simply could not respond to new kinds of works, could only hold them hostage to inadequate and misleading criteria.

The problem now of course is rather that criticism responds equally well to too much, to literally anything, since it need only be identified by social program, on the vaguest of terms. So I think the real work for art criticism now lies in formalizing a lot of the practices in place, in some cases re-defining styles or supplementing existing ones. I don’t say the art championed by Critical Theorists over the last 30 years or so is all wrong, only that their explanations of it are too general, too fuzzy. Although in some cases works are wildly over-valued - but this was ever the case in art history. As always, we write it in order to be corrected in light of subsequent developments….