May 2003
volume 1, issue 2


When I told Marc Herbst I would like to contribute to The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, he asked me if I could write a piece on the current “role of criticism”. I’d written lots about art in the past, so I said “sure’”pretty positive of my critical credentials. But the more I read up on criticism, particularly within the context of the Los Angeles art world, the less certain I became. I felt like I had stumbled into an anthill, where thousands of industrious (anty) intellectuals were going about their business of empire-building and ankle-biting.

My own role in this society was negligible, to say the least (aphid? dust mote?) as I began to realize a full-scale critical war was underway, mired in a rhetoric as black and white as Dubya’s post 9-11 paeans to binarism. Brian Tucker painted a succinct picture of this division in X-tra’s Summer 1999 editorial:

“…discussion of art often takes the form of belligerent camps who caricature each other, then wage war against the caricatures: In this corner, wearing white trunks, Reactionary Patriarchs, their jackets grandly embroidered with the word “Beauty.” And in red, fun-hating Marxist Puritans who strive to repress every wayward tongue and testicle.”

Tucker, very sensibly, calls for dialogue instead of warfare (sound familiar?), rightly acknowledging that we are all, at the end of the day, folk that like to talk about art, and therefore ought to be able to find some common ground. Besides, he opines, “Dave Hickey isn’t Hitler.” “I think he is,” counters an anonymous colleague of Tucker’s.

At this point I had to shake my head. How did it come to pass that someone as seemingly affable as Hickey was being equated with the architect of the Holocaust? Hickey’s penchant for classicism coupled with regular jabs at his favorite punching-bag - the politically correct art institution - make him popular with conservatives and libertarians alike (and yes, we know they are alike). But does this kind of retrograde vision really spell the doom of everything we have fought for? Or is it simply an invitation to an invigorating ideological joust? To lose one’s sense of humor is perhaps more fatal than loss of morality. Hickey plays the Joker in a deck that is stacked against the humorlessness of the left.

Regardless of the content of Hickey’s writings, it was their style that annoyed some critics. “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism” in October 100, (1) was a discussion including luminaries such as Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, and Hal Foster. James Meyer said something about Hickey which almost made me want to defend the good ol’ bad boy:

“I find myself asked to write “Top Tens,” reduced formats - “sound bite” criticism - in a style that Rob [Storr] is calling “writerly”. One feels a certain pressure to emulate a Hickeyesque model, which I would more precisely characterize as belletristic…the word “writerly” is used to describe a criticism which, having pretensions to the literary, is valorized for its tone of sensibility and its capacity to seduce, to sell a magazine…And because it often concerns the author’s “feelings” or personality, belletristic writing of this kind tends to avoid a sustained reflection on the art.”

In my experience, very little art criticism is ever a “sustained reflection” on the art - it is more often a sustained reflection on the history of art criticism and an insertion of the writer into a specific discourse, with the art itself as a mere trope to warrant that writer’s inclusion in the canon. “Belletristic” writing (a term I wasn’t even familiar with before reading this article, neither was I familiar with James Meyer) at least allows for some transparency of the medium. Writerly writing, in acknowledging its own form, is at least a step closer to acknowledging other often glossed-over truths. When you play with form, you implicitly acknowledge its constructed nature – and this transparency may lead to further revelations, such as the writer’s connection to the subject. Like a kind of verbal Pompidou Center - the underlying structure is clearly visible from the outside. Opinions are no longer immaculate conceptions but the product of sticky earthly realities. I have far more respect for nepotism when it’s admitted to, rather than swept under the rag-rug of old school ties.

Reading Meyer, I started to think that leftist academics deserved Hickey’s astounding popularity for being so doggedly dry and dull, not to mention for blindly lauding deliberately incomprehensible theory. Though I probably share many of the abstract aims of leftist academe, I have difficulty digesting the dry cardboard they call “criticism.” This is why I, along with friends, started my own magazine (twice, actually). (2) And in 1997 I had an epiphany reading Chris Kraus’s novel/confessional/critical tour-de-force I Love Dick, which caused almost as much of a schism as Hickey in the art world but for very different reasons. Kraus interspersed incisive criticism with real stories about real people - herself, her husband Sylvere Lotringer, and cultural critic Dick Hebdige, and this upset a whole posse of intellectuals. Hebdige did not consent to his inclusion in Kraus’s epic of unrequited love, and though this could be seen as one of the meanest tricks a novelist has ever played, and Hebdige’s supporters are many and powerful, I still believe Kraus’s project - a kind of Awful Truth for the intelligentsia, was incredibly brave and ground-breaking.

Kraus helped me put my finger on something that I’d been instinctively drawn towards, but unable to define. It was so simple, but seemed to me such an effective way to reinvigorate the world of criticism (and journalism) - first personism. The radical gesture of introducing the “I” means that you own your opinions, as opposed to falsely presenting them as historical “facts”, which is still how the majority of criticism and journalism is written. Reading I Love Dick (and noting its effect on a host of other readers/writers) I sensed the ground shifting - the smell in the air of a whole hide-chaffing, hoof pounding STAMPEDE of I’s of all kinds, from all places - not the capital I of authority (have you noticed anyway how all authority figures invoke a false “we”?) but the small I of a thousand untold stories.

I’m not trying to pander to the Western humanist exaltation of the individual - we all know our fate as members of the human race is rooted in cohabitation and cooperation. I’m thinking of the kind of collectivity that stems from organically networked individuals, rather than difference suffocated by the media’s insipid blanket. Think instead of the Rastafarian I and I which replaces WE in everyday speech. The peer-to-peer model of communication that the Internet is making possible will surely help more and more of us to have a hand in producing and exchanging our own realities - instead of simply absorbing government- and corporation-sanctioned skewe(re)d versions of ourselves through a broadcast medium we have no control over. Jello Biafra encourages us to “BECOME THE MEDIA!” and in writing this piece I’ve consulted some of the folk I know who’ve done just that, by starting up their own magazines, or making their art into a critical tool. At the end of this article these people speak for themselves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is properly no history, only biography,” while Oscar Wilde opined that criticism was “the only civilized form of autobiography.” I Love Dick was remarkable for wedding criticism and autobiography into a unique form – like two canines stuck in coitus – a union that was absurd, natural, and urgent. I started to wonder what kind of revolution would be unleashed if everyone was as courageously, awfully forthright as Kraus. What would journalism be like if reporters told us how they were feeling? Or, what would journalism be like if its subjects spoke for themselves?

In the first issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Marc Herbst interviewed the Los Angeles Independent Media Center. Collective member Cayce Calloway talked about broadcasting news which was less about journalists presenting the “facts,” and more about people talking from their own experience - news in the first person. This kind of journalism cuts out the middle-man and makes no pretence towards being non-partisan. The only way to heal hypocrisy is to out the hidden agenda, admit to partiality, define your lineage. Tell us what you had for breakfast, what cocktail of hormones and chemicals is coursing through your blood as you take pen to paper, tell us what pays for your rent and whether or not you are dating the editor of the magazine you write for.

Frederick Nietzsche drew a distinction between “interpretation” and “explanation,” saying “There are no facts, everything is in flux, incomprehensible, elusive; what is relatively most enduring is our opinions.” Opinions have been unpopular in the US media of late. To be precise - since September 11, 2001, there has been a voluntary witch hunt for thinkers who are not doing their patriotic duty by shutting down their thought processes until the state of national emergency is declared over.

One of the first casualties of this new McCarthyism was Susan Sontag, whose New York Times column post-9-11 called for the United States to ask itself why it had become the target of such hatred. This unparalleled sin of anti-patriotic sentiment led to a barrage of brickbats and even death threats. Sontag’s outspoken views throughout her career have been at times controversial, but nothing came close to the full-scale animosity that was leveled at her after she dared ask a question when she should have been genuflecting to state-sanctified vengeance. (3) Sontag’s writing on Leni Reifenstahl and the spectacular power of art when appropriated to extreme nationalist ends (Fascinating Fascism, 1974) eerily presages the current distaste for critical thought:

A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting "critical spirit." The book bonfire of May 1933 was launched with Goebbels's cry: "The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit." And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November 1936, it was for having "typically Jewish traits of character": putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling.

Re-reading these words, in the context of post 9-11 paranoia, in which stultifying atmosphere the stars ‘n’ stripes was starting to look more swastika-shaped every day, I felt a sudden surge of patriotism of a different kind. My duty is to my own nation, or would-be family, of wingeing, whining, complaining, back-biting, nit-picking, hair-splitting, griping, groping, inquisitive, alert, ponderous, prevaricating, quibbling, questioning, thought-provoking CRITICS! Far from having a vampiric relationship to cultural production, critics were the very life-blood of our eternal quest for self-improvement, a built-in evolutionary necessity. Oscar Wilde again, “Creation is always behind the age. It is criticism that leads us. The Critical Spirit and the World Spirit are one.” Harold Bloom, whose book Kaballah and Criticism is a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary structural tools, writes that the Kaballists developed a “psychology of belatedness” with a “rhetorical series of techniques for opening Scripture and even received commentary to their own historical sufferings, and to their own, new theosophical insights.” He says the Kaballistic figure of “Adam Kadmon” represented “man as he should be” in a kind of self-generated perpetual war of “light against light.” This “war” emanates out from his head in patterns of writing. (4)

Nietzche again; “All our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary upon an unknown text, one that is perhaps unknowable but still felt.” DNA, perhaps? If we’re nothing but code, we have the rights to our own re-writes. As crude as our tools may be, only constant revision of the course we are on, and perpetual dialogue, can improve our conditions.

Lest you think that by all this fussnummering and posturing I only support “issues-based” criticism, fear not, for I believe the best critics are artists too, and should be encouraged to employ the same liberal doses of anarchy and abstraction as their self-absorbed artist hosts. Harold Bloom again (talking about poetry criticism, but you can substitute the cultural genre of your choice); “I knowingly urge critical theory to stop treating itself as a branch of philosophical discourse…A theory of poetry must belong to poetry, must be poetry, before it can be of any use in interpreting poems.” Sometimes the most powerful and resilient form of resistance is the one that is the most aesthetically pleasing (think of Capoeira – the martial art disguised as a dance by African slaves in Brazil).

In this case, resistance means rejecting forced complicity with crimes we abhor – crimes against the planet and people that we never devised and thoroughly despise. To vocally dissociate ourselves from the Nazis of our times is as essential to being as any art or critical practice. I don’t think Dave Hickey is Hitler, but unlike Hickey, I can’t for the life of me find beauty in places where injustice remains unchallenged. Perhaps I am becoming some kind of Kantian moralist – just another casualty of what Hickey calls the “moralizing institution,” equating post-modernism with the new Protestantism. So be it. Better to be humorless than complicit with Grade A demons. And, come to think of it, what’s so humorless about dancing in the street with a “Bush + Dick = Fucked” placard, especially in comparison to licking the arse of some exec-or-other because he might buy some art off of me?

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