by Premjish Achari
This essay comes at a time when art criticism has become completely decentralized. With the proliferation of social media and online portals, short format reviews and opinions about cultural products (art, cinema, photography, etc.) have been widely produced every other minute. The influence of market forces and the contemporary post-critical turn has affected the status of the critic. Criticism has been replaced by auction reports, box-office collections, top-ten lists, and Nielsen ratings. Art criticism has become what I will call, “affable eulogies”. I use this term to denote a set of writings which only produce “stars” and are often complicit with the status quo. The institutions and networks built around art in India are firmly entrenched in the caste system. It is therefore not surprising that the writings on art maintain the status quo rather than generate radical forms of expression.
At this crucial juncture, I propose an alternate Dalit-Ambedkarite paradigm to rescue the tradition of critical writing on art. This paradigm is enabled by the writings of BR Ambedkar, especially his critical analysis of the Indian caste system and his call for the annihilation of such hierarchical structures; the ideas of ‘virtue and terror’ proposed by Maximilien Robespierre; and the notion of ‘divine violence’ that was put forward by Walter Benjamin (who was the first to warn us about the possibility of criticism being replaced by advertisement). Apart from these thinkers, the conceptualization also takes its formulations from Alain Badiou and Hal Foster. Badiou’s militant and radical philosophy or the philosophy for militants has been inspiring to formulate insurgent strategies. Furthermore, Hal Foster’s extensive analysis on contemporary art, especially the post-critical nature, in which criticism is side-lined in favour of descriptive writing, is significant.
The paradigm proposed in this article aims to instrumentalize the figure of the Dalit or ‘the broken person’ to expose the socio-economic hierarchies existing in cultural institutions and question the idealized and aestheticized understanding of art. This will enable us to universalize the status of ‘the broken man’ in that we will be able to bring into its ambit all practitioners who exist in the peripheries of art-making and its institutions. I am developing this paradigm as my curatorial premise which I plan to eventually develop as an exhibition project.
The Dalit-Ambedkarite paradigm I propose will reconfigure the use of language and rhetoric of conventional art history and cultural and literary theory in order to inspire, provoke and create a critical paradigm that moves beyond the surface details of cultural production. I would like to problematize the cultural violence that stems from the erasure of cultural labour, i.e. the materialistic and conceptual efforts that go into the production of cultural products. In our society we have deemed artists in such a position that society expects them to produce art without any remuneration. Hence, cultural labour is produced as a result of a debt an artist owes to society for his/her existence. This Brahmanical moral order is problematic. We therefore have to move ahead in a ‘new vehicle’ (navayana) and strongly reject the old moral order. The paradigm foregrounds critical assertion to resurrect the experiences of ‘the broken man’ and unravel the unequal material exchanges and inherent defects of art and cultural institutions. This task is arduous and art criticism has to seize this opportunity to introspect. We need to formulate a critical thinking that rejects the existing modes of analysing culture and thereby charts a new way to map the individual’s relation to social and economic structures.
Walter Benjamin’s incisive observations in ‘One Way Street’ on modern capitalism and its replacement of the critic with the market are prophetic about the arrival of the post-critical turn. But we did not arrive here only through the machinations of the market. There are many constituent factors to it which were triggered by the intervention of global capital. As Hal Foster observes, it included the rejection of judgment, especially of moral right that seemed to be arrogated in any act of critical evaluation. Then, too, there was a refusal of authority, particularly of the political privilege that allowed the critic to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Finally, there was skepticism about distance, about the very possibility of separation from the culture that the critic purports to examine, what Benjamin refers to as the correct distancing. But most importantly for me the failure to turn an anti-fetishistic gaze on the critic’s own belief, in particular his own convictions in the power of demystification, is an acute one. I will touch upon this soon. So, this dominant celebration of the market position of an artwork has rendered criticality obsolete. Hal Foster observes that today criticality is frequently dismissed as rigid, rote, passé, or all of the above.
Untitled, Digital Art by Ranjan Kaul, 2020
This brings me to another issue, which is of the proliferation of art criticism or art writings in contemporary times, especially during the “boom” period. James Elkin’s astute remark that “art criticism is in a worldwide crisis” is pertinent here. Part of the reason, he says, is that while art criticism is produced in ever-increasing amounts and bolstered by ever-increasing opportunities for distribution (journals, magazines, gallery brochures, blogspots, and so on), no one really takes it seriously.
Art criticism is “massively produced, and massively ignored”; it is in a state of “vigorous health and terminal illness”. But is this the case with the Indian art scene where we face a serious dearth of art magazines and journals? Most of the art writings are now available in inaccessible and expensive art catalogues which churns out affable eulogies on artists. How could criticality possibly exist in such spaces?
To begin with, the critic has to exercise restraint from making a fetish of their own critical tools. But is it easy to demystify art criticism? Donald Presiozi has demystified the discipline of art history by embarking upon a genealogical analysis of the trajectory of this discipline and has exposed its foundational fascist and nationalist impulses brilliantly. Would it be possible to expose art criticism as such?
What then is the current state of art criticism? A definition of criticism, and an evaluation of its state, might appear to mitigate the heterogeneity of art critical practices, making them appear similar and uniform. As some historians have argued, the birth of art criticism as a literary genre in mid-eighteenth-century France and its extension into a variety of forms of “Kunstliteratur” in the nineteenth (museum guides, exhibition reviews, travel accounts, monographs, historical studies, art correspondence) anticipated its modern heterogeneity and multiplicity. Historically, then, art criticism is characterized exactly by its lack of codification: one does not have to prepare to be an art critic by engaging in any specific professional training – art criticism has no common rules; no common set of objects to which it applies; it does not share a standard mode of writing, presentational format, or rhetorical conventions; it is not located in a single place. By all accounts, as Michael Orwicz has pointed out, criticism has no “internal coherence”. Yet, this heterogeneity is frequently taken as a sign of health. In his assessment, Julian Stallabrass takes art criticism’s “fundamental lack of clarity” and the “undecidability’ of its objects” to be its greatest virtue. So why worry about a “state”? Why worry about its death?
But in these times of mounting fascism, I would not like to take a nihilistic view of the situation and would like to resist till the end and infuse it with the militant perspective offered by Alain Badiou. We should perhaps also look at Benjamin and follow his advice on criticality in the times of global capitalism. He advocates that criticism must change and the model for this change is advertisement, or simply, anything that creates a “perceived contact with things”.
Like advertisement, criticism must touch and fascinate readers; because they are touched by it, blown away by it, or simply warmed by the subject, people desire it.
In a more theoretical sense Benjamin tells us that criticism, like advertising, should affect the reader with visceral projections of fragmented intensity which erase any process of thinking. But, sadly, while pointing to the replacement of criticism with advertisement, Benjamin also says that objective or traditional criticism does not collide with people; all it can do is die.
So, this leaves us with the question: can such a criticism, in the post-boom and post-critical moment compounded with the advent of fascism, wage war against the onslaught of cultural homogenization? Indeed it can and does so by providing us with a mirror image of our own fragmentation; it goes from the subject and hits us. Benjamin shows us that the boundaries between proper and improper criticism need to be dissolved if revolutionary work is to be done. Like Marx saw the destruction of the boundaries of the nation-state by cosmopolitan capitalistic drives for new markets as a positive force which can be used to create a global form of communism, Benjamin sees the effacement of boundaries between criticism and advertisement as a prelude to a higher form of criticism which would be more vital and revolutionary.
[Cover digital art by Ranjan Kaul]
Premjish Achari is a curator, writer and translator based in Delhi. His translations have appeared in Indian Literature published by Sahitya Akademi. He has initiated an independent curatorial platform called ‘Future Collaborations’ that aims at theoretically and politically informed curation. He received the prestigious Inlaks’ Take on Art Travel Grant for Young Critics in 2016. He is a regular contributor to Art India and Take on Art. He is a Visiting Faculty at Shiv Nadar University where he teaches art history and theory. He is pursuing his PhD from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi.