Jose Luis Brea on Thu, 11 May 2000 01:34:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Online critique

Online critique.
Transformations of art.criticism in contemporary societies

We live in a time of profound transformations, which radically affect the
way in which we tend to articulate our relationship with the world around
us: transformations which affect the general framework of our
comprehension of the world, of what it means to inhabit it, of what we can
expect of our existence and of what it means to share that existence with
our fellow beings. The old "grand recits" that articulated that
comprension have collapsed, and although forceful ideas -such as freedom,
brotherhood and justice- continue to orient our practices, the models of
response that they support are no longer rigid, stable and univocal. We
thus find ourselves facing the need to reformulate the horizons, the
mediations: we need new maps for understanding our times, new visions that
will help us articulate our relationship with the world and all that it
means to "be human" within it. 

Regarding the practices of symbolic production in the ambit of visual
things, I believe that those transformations have two principle signs. 

- First, the appearance and already accomplished settling of a time-image,
of a moving image, in the ambit of the technical image. It is true that
this appearance of a moving image already has a century long history with
filmmaking. Nevertheless, that could not affect the practices of visual
production in such a decisive way. Not until the general conditions of
expectation, of contemplation, varied enough so that the time-image was
converted into the dominant form of experience of the image -something
which has already begun to occur-, permitting for the first time in the
history of humanity that representation be made ponderable in itself as an
event, as a "happening", not as something definitively given and forever
identical to itself. That implies great transformations not only in the
general symbolic ordering that mediatizes our whole relationship with
representation, yet also and consequently in the totality of the social
devices of production, transmission and experience of the image and visual
things in contemporary societies. It is therefore inevitable to assume
that those great transformations have affected not only artistic practices
but also the modes in which the practice of art criticism can be developed
with them. 

- The second of the great signs of which I am considering refers to the
current proliferation of the mediums through which their social and public
distribution are verified. If the mechanisms of collectivization of
experience of visual practices in modern societies were formerly
conditioned by the requirement of presence, and they were therefore
mechanisms of a spatialized nature (such as museums, galleries, urban
spaces, specific locations, citizen's spaces or even alternative spaces),
the current proliferation of mediums and new mediums profiles a much
broader, swarming and lively panorama of devices. A panorama that, above
all, is no longer conditioned by the obligatory resolution of the
presentations in terms of presence or specific location, spatialization.
It seems to me evident that from there follows an almost immeasurable
challenge for the creative practices, and by extension a peremptory
transformation of the space for art criticism (which will soon find itself
facing the possibility of utilizing a multiplicity of channels, mechanisms
and forms for which it was not conceived). 

I would not like to omit pointing out that there is a third sign of even
greater importance, if indeed possible, that also conditions the modes of
experience of that visual communicative practices in contemporary
societies, which is the very emergence of a paradigm of diversity in the
cultural organization of experience, submitted to a bursting process of
geopolitical globalization which ought to be administered cautiously
within a postcolonial paradigm. Let us say that this new paradigm
profoundly affects all the processes of the construction of subjectivity
and therefore of the circulation of whichever modules of social
"communitary"  identification, through the imaginary visuals. In any case,
and since this refers more directly to the questions of content which are
the specific responsibility of the creators and cultural producers, and
since many of my colleagues have also alluded to them, I will leave that
question aside, yet not without first confirming my conviction that, for
however much we situate the "structural" problems, in other words, those
that refer to the social mechanisms of production and social distribution
of artistic knowledge, these questions of content will always prevail as
the truely principle ones. 

 From now on I will try to be precise and specific, and I apologize if,
due to this, I fall into a simplifying schematism. Below, I will
enumerate, in a very synthetic manner and parting from these
considerations, what I believe to be the 5 principle challenges imposed on
the practices of art criticism by this transformations. 

1. The expansion of the entertainment industries, which follows the
consecration of the spectacle in contemporary societies, absorbs the
practices of production of sense into its territory, converting the critic
into an integrated manager under the figure of curator, who is virtually a
negotiator of cultural offer. It is the task of the critic to resist the
trivialization of his work by opposing the aim which precedes the demand
-the increase in audience- an aim in keeping with the increase in the
ammount of sense in circulation. If this compels him to organize fewer
exhibitions or to tailor them toward more specialized audiences or those
more willing to make an effort to participate in the processes of
construction and distribution of sense, she or he should not falter. The
current inflation of curatorial work hardly disguises the need for the
contemporary cultural industry to supply itself with products that
demonstrate meaningful elements of novelty or content. It is the work of
the committed critic to demand that those contents do not merely "appear",
demonstrating the deceitful brilliance pertaining to phantasmagoria, but
that they can truely be inscribed and partaken in with the maximum
intensity and ponderable critical elucidation. 

2. The transformation of the economies of visuality through the emergence
and settling of a time-image presses against the spatialized devices of
the exhibition of the practices of visual creation. The critic ought to
join that pressure, favouring the rapid transformation of the old devices
so as to make them capable and adequate, as soon as possible, for the
presentation of the new forms of a time-based-art emerged on the impulse
of the settling of such a time-image (even there where this pressure can
make the disappearance of such devices ponderable). I wish to say that
this does not only mean working on a transformation of the exhibition form
which requires the museum, the gallery or the "independent space" to find
formulas for presenting within its territory "non spatialized" forms of
immaterial work in the production of time-images. But that it can even
mean making ponderable modes of social distribution and collective
appropriation of these new artistic forms and practices that do not cross
the required rituality of its presentation within spaces. 

3. It is highly likely that, as within the arena of criticism, what is
taking place is that we are witnessing a transformation of the function of
those devices of public presentation and social appropriation of the
aesthetic experience, of artistic value. If it becomes clear that to a
large extent that change of function claims for a task of dynamization of
the processes of reception -of activization of the instruments of
enrichment of the participative or interpretive character of expectation-
perhaps it also ought to become clear that there exists a need to adapt
those public devices into effective instruments of support for the very
processes of production. 

The contemporary cultural producer feels liberated from the "compulsion of
the object" that pressured him from a spatialized conception of artistic
practices, and that leads to a limitlessness of the forms in which it is
ponderable to resolve and develop his immaterial work (of sense
production). Since this ought not to be conditioned anymore by a
necessarily material resolution of one or another object, inscribable in
the market or presentable under a stabilized appearance in the
institutionalized space, the institutions must assume a new role of aiding
the production of these new practices. If that compels the museum to begin
taking on a new responsibility related to the production -almost in the
filmmaking sense- of the new expressive practices, it seems evident that
it is the critic who should take on this work together with the creator,
conceiving of his role as a cultural producer, and at the same time
mediating with the institution so as to achieve an evolution therein and a
newborn receptiveness of this new system of production necessities. 

4. However it comes about, it is necessary to restore, reestablish and
reinforce the terrain of writing as a fundamental domain of the work of
the critic. This implies in any case a withdrawal from the journalistic
space, in which criticism succumbs to the demands (always trivialized) of
information and the advertising interests of the cultural industries in
its systematic search for a spectacular projection -supported by the

The domain in which that recuperation is ponderable cannot be any other
than the essay space -meant also as a space open to experimentation, to
the attempt, to the test. The critic must be, first and foremost, an essay
writer, even more an essayer* than an essayist.... 

and 5. This essay writing -which appears not only as the domain of
judgement or valoration, but also and especially as a territory or machine
for the proliferation of the interpretations and the multiplication of the
senses- must dare to expose itself to the challenge of interaction, of
being online, of constrasting itself in the real time made possible by the
new communication technologies. If the power of writing as a critical
device charged with a specific ontological potential resides in its being
structurally projected toward its posterity, toward the other time in
which it will be read, it is possible to imagine that the challenge of a
rewriting and rereading online (in the resulting approximation of the acts
of writing and reading) supposes an imponderable margin of risk and at the
same time a strengthening, that must be investigated. 

The participative act of a critical essay, at all times objectionable,
open to dissent, in which any enunciation is not exercised in any way
other than one among many possibilities, profiles a map of a breakdown of
the hierarchy of interpretive judgement and value, which is expanded in
the style of a time that knows that only in the multiplicity of
interpretations and their interweaving, in the diversity of the paradigms
and their contrast, can any remaining effect of truth repose. 

Submitted to that tension, critical writing does not only become
accomplice to an unrenounceable project of compromise with the
radicalization of democratic forms, but it is itself submitted to its

I trust that it is understood, in any case, that with these brief notes I
do not intend to define answers or definitive orientations, but merely to
point out some of the milestones and challenges that, in my opinion, defy
and interpellate the practice of art criticism in our days. 

Josť Luis Brea ----------------- 

I read this paper at a panel discussion
about "The art critic in the culture of today" organized by de Appel,
Amsterdam, apr2000

[Translated from Spanish by Dena Ellen Cowan] *. Essayer is Ensayador in
Spanish and in that language can also mean rehearser. (Translator's note) 

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