Art Writing Under the Sign of Conceptualism Reflections on the workshop

Stephen Moonie

The issue that attracted my interest was perhaps a more tangential issue within the context of the workshop: the debate around the value of the term ‘artwriting.’ This debate revolved around the term’s conceptual fuzziness. Detractors regard the term as irritatingly vague, falling well short of the rigorously grounded criticality that would render it a meaningful term. It was perhaps no surprise that those challenges came from the standpoint of philosophy: Peter Osborne and Yaiza Hernández Velásquez. Artwriting was defended by Michael Newman, who, like others more sympathetic to the term, defended it by claiming its flexibility as a virtue. The to-and-fro of the debate, however, ended up in a stalemate. There was merit to both sides of the argument, but I would contend that what caused the debate to run aground was a result of differing disciplinary priorities.

Philosophically, the inability to define one’s terms is clearly unacceptable. This, indeed, was at the heart of Velásquez’s paper, which situated artwriting within the broader philosophical tradition of critique stemming from German idealism. However, from the point of view of artwriting or criticism (especially if we take the term in the more restricted and unglamorous sense of reviewing exhibitions), it is not clear what the benefit would be to set out criteria for its practice. The debate sent me back to David Carrier’s study Artwriting (1987), and what I would like to do here, is to set out a few thoughts on Carrier’s work and how they might relate to the debate.

One of the reasons to bring up Carrier is that he was not discussed during the workshop, even though Velásquez’s paper was concerned with the term that Carrier had coined. Perhaps the main point to raise is that that Carrier is equivocal about the term ‘artwriting’. Far from singing its praises, he posits it as a problematic: one impelled specifically by the critical impasse of the 1980s. Further, Carrier conceives of the term as functional, rather than being guided by a priori principles. In his assessment of the artwriting of the 1980s Carrier makes three remarks which seem apposite today. He writes that: ‘1. The present-day function of artwriting is to advertise art; 2) unlike art history, art criticism has not been able to establish its place in the university; 3) this artwriting remains largely unaware of its rhetorical dimension.’1

The first remark is reminiscent of Peter Osborne’s claim, made during his presentation, that ‘artwriting’ is an alibi for curatorial practice. This is certainly the case if we acknowledge that the curation of art is part of the broader apparatus of cultural promotion. Carrier’s second remark gets to the heart of the dispute mentioned above between philosophy and artwriting. The desire to establish criteria for critical writing depends upon whether or not we want criticism to be part of the university curriculum. It is true that artwriting programs exist, although they are a relatively recent phenomenon. Further, those that do exist, do so in Fine Art schools, where the flexibility of the term allows for ‘writing’ to form part of an artist’s wider practice. In this sense, it is not advisable for the term to be pinned down, any more than it would be advisable to pin down the notion of artistic practice itself. However, if art criticism is to become an institutionalised subject, an issue mooted in The State of Criticism (2008) roundtables chaired by James Elkins and Michael Newman, then the body of knowledge being taught requires the grounding that artwriting’s detractors insist upon.

But what might this knowledge consist of? The recent history of artwriting suggests that the search for such criteria is fruitless. As far back as the 1960s, which mark the beginnings of the turn towards contemporary art, a clutch of essays were written about the problem of criticism. These included Leo Steinberg’s ‘Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public’ (1962); Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964); Max Kozloff’s ‘Venetian Art and Florentine Criticism’ (1967); and Clement Greenberg’s ‘Complaints of an Art Critic’ (1967). The latter two essays formed part of Artforum’s ‘Problems of Criticism’ series which spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite these essays, no consensus was found, and in Amy Newman’s Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–74 (2000), it is noted by several protagonists from those heady days that criticism is something one learns ‘on the job.’ This vocational aspect of criticism practice conflicts with the desire to turn it into an academic discipline.

In Carrier’s third remark, the notion of criticism as a groundless activity is conceded when he claims that artwriting is primarily rhetorical, and that the critics who have exerted the greatest influence, such Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss, are those whose accounts are the most rhetorically persuasive (Artwriting, p.129). For Carrier, then, ‘artwriting’ designates a problem, but it also marks periods of historical transition. Two of the major figures in Carrier’s study are Bernard Berenson and Clement Greenberg, and there is a telling symmetry between the two. Berenson was an amateur art historian, whose tireless spadework, trudging around Italian villages to catalogue Renaissance art, laid the ground for the subject’s more comprehensive professionalisation. Likewise, Greenberg was an amateur art critic (his academic background was in literature). Like Berenson, Greenberg’s narrative of modernism remains a fixed point against which much post-war art history and criticism has defined itself, both amongst his followers, and his detractors (who constitute the larger group). Artwriting, then, poses a problem not simply because it confounds art history and criticism, lacking adequate conceptual definition: if we follow Carrier, artwriting might also be said to characterise periods of historical transition. In the cases of Berenson and Greenberg, this transition would be marked by the shift from amateurism to professionalism, where new fields of enquiry are formed (Renaissance scholarship, and the formation of contemporary art history respectively).

I would also suggest that the term artwriting might be symptomatic of other historical shifts. The current debates over the nature of contemporary art and contemporaneity, in conjunction with the confusion over the nature of criticism signified by the term ‘artwriting’, demonstrate that the ground under our feet is indeed shifting. Perhaps the seemingly insoluble nature of these problems is due to our current historical viewpoint, and in time, potential answers to these problems will come more clearly into view.

Stephen Moonie is Associate Lecturer, Newcastle University.