Everything You Wanted to Know About Criticism Right Now*

*and didn’t ask

I. Preface

In the wake of several articles critically surveying, or purporting to critically survey, one particular place and time—no more important than any other besides that it is ours—it seems useful to demarcate: (a) what is criticism, especially of cultural objects; and (b) why it should have consequences.

Underpinning this effort is the fact of the slow demise of criticism over the last decade as an absolute, exacting, and more importantly, impactful mode of engagement with art and ideas. Without taking too much time to examine what preceded this development and the circumstances for it, we can securely attribute the once totalizing role of a work’s written or spoken critique to the domain of modernism and postmodernism, just as biography and typology were prime to historical understandings of art production, and as, perhaps, intertextual literacy and diagrams are crucial to an appreciation of its present. There are two issues at stake here—what has happened to the art critic, and what has happened to art—that we will address as interrelated.

Classically, criticism aims to furnish an artistic current with coherence and direction, having the secondary effect of buttressing its author’s stature as a person of committed vision. That secondary effect is now the main motivation for today’s “critical writing,” which opts to turn the cultural object inside out, so that what orbits an artwork is misconstrued as its core substance. In the bowels of worlds artistic and literary—codependent in their narcolepsy—churn the low, seething, boilerplate texts of small-fry functionaries. Their singular preoccupation with what Arnold Hauser dryly modeled as “the social history of art” is neither unique to our period, nor irrelevant to its assessment, just a pitiable waste of already dwindling brain cells. Attending solely to the homologous mechanics of how culture and politics copulate in public perception (as relations of same and same, irrespective of which is on top or on bottom) presents only the most cynical picture of what an artwork actually is, let alone what distinguishes its character.

Then again, the contemporary critic does not capture a “moment” in order to intervene in or enrich its making but to reify his own anemic image against the Wynwood Walls of the “creative.” Any semblance of will to excellence in the competitive middling of the cultural diary is a pantomime by and for the already enervated. Professionally butthurt commentators indict without identifying the purpose of indictment and illuminate what does not lack in light already, circular missteps that deprive the few claims they are so bold to make of generative power. Awash in a sea of petty squabbles, they often blame the decrepitude of their discourse on a poverty of inspiration, even as their barely-there interpretations fail to induce it. The hot potato of generalized mediocrity grows cold tossed round from artist to writer to audience, none of whom see it as their problem to solve. Drowning out the schoolyard chorus of “who started what,” the critic can still service an object with its requisite dialysis, not to dignify what is undeserving but to aerate the pathways for something greater. Accept the given, and “complicity” is too weak a word for subservience to the temporal without the anchor of a superior cause.

The death of capital-C criticism as it was known—and feared—for at least a century has not gone unnoticed, nor unmourned, by younger (and occasionally, older) members of the apparatus that continues to pretend to perform it. Even those led astray by recent pretensions to criticality that are little more than advertorial comedy will recognize what media veteran Rahel Aima means when she maintains that “nobody reads art criticism,” or the few evaluative (rather than summarily descriptive) texts still published in traditional journals: that, save for some unharried elders and agent-having millennials, nobody truly writes it. [1] Kaitlyn Phillips, who came of age out-lettering the lettered, no longer does either, waving her shaka sign of a pitch deck as if to say “rest in peace, Rhonda Lieberman.” The broader reality of de-criture is pithily encapsulated by Jarrett Earnest’s What It Means to Write About Art, a standout in the virtual cottage industry of late 2010s anthologies on the topic whose very title polishes off the gradual pivot of the “art writer” from polyphonic responsibility to freewheeling ekphrasis, always spiraling down, not up. [2]

We can forgive any casual observer’s defection from critique as a natural response to the specter of backlash condemning to ignominy those who divulge opinions—of a work, or an idea—removed from the accepted mean. Yet for the belletrist to surrender to climatic anxieties by abdicating her categorical authority is to disrespect the innate courage of the artistic gesture, the sole thing to which she is obligated. Panic over reputational and economic security has ushered an intellectual retreat to aphoristic press release speak, never mind that much of our best writing comes from those who fend it off with invective. Moreover, such cowardice elides the culpability of a lack of qualitative standards in lending credence to ostracization, quietly welcomed as a show of, at last, arbitration worth fearing. [3] The ensuing convergence of laziness, venality, and fear of cancellation to mock criticism from all sides would be a hilarious alliance if it were not an offensive waste of cognitive resources.

“The shade of that which once was great,” as Wordsworth remarked of the Venetian Republic’s extinction, will be seen by every generation as having just passed it by in some enviable regard. We now encounter the mythological “greatness” of what was criticism through its masks, to retool Dean Kissick’s “naive” term—here as less the cloaking devices of industry aspirants (ourselves included) than variations on écriture that cover for the critical void. These might encompass passive income podcasting and corporate trend-trawling moodboards, or more altruistic endeavors such as interviewer-centric interviews, bovine county fairs, and a ritualized airing of grievances. With its champion eliminated, criticality is sublated into a salaried narcissism of small differences among largely online “cabaret” vaudevillians. No one voice among them crows out above the many or moves in advance of movement; any “points” are scored in numbers, by replicative quora. Their output is often affecting—it can indeed “change the culture,” and at the very least, an Amtrak poster—yet stops short of actual criticism amidst the inviolability, or desired inviolability, of its polemical overtures. [4]

From heartfelt scrapbooks to “drive by shootings,” a smattering of documentary amuse-bouches are supposedly “de-zombifying” prior cultural toolkits. Yet the inanimacy of the nomenclature and identities being retroactively mainlined as evidence for this (“hipster” and “indie sleaze” having the mouthfeel of dentures) only concretizes the end of criticism and the endlessness of content. In more para-institutional framing, whether or not you accept Barry Schwabsky’s diagnosis that contemporary art is a literal expression of “ethical” intentions—rather than a constant, covert play on them—we might still expect the critic to preside over adherence to an ethic. But the critic has been rendered squeamishly dumbstruck by the audacity with which new material (good, poor, or both, simultaneously) manifests interpretation at emergence, localized to whatever domain—platform, patron, philosophy—facilitates its circulation.

Contemporary artworks thus appear apathetic, if not downright hostile, towards external pressures to taxonomize as nothing more than a waiver of old guard co-signing, just as their own bounds become increasingly, and interestingly, capacious. Appearances, though, are misleading, for these same works also yearn to be grounded in a “real” that is remembered—the territory of the participatory “happening.” Meanwhile, the default taxonomists are so confounded by conditions of sentient production, however much an organic culmination of postwar avant-garde inquiry, that they will readily hail even the mildest of works as revelatory or dismiss it as impenetrably graceless—either way, failing to make any incisive contribution. And so, we end up with an algorithmized Hegelian Polyvore. As AI-Kissick once noted: “Post-internet...Everything is created, everything is equal, and everything is art...Adequate description and adequate understanding are now impossible to accomplish.” The cipher can be rich artistic territory (Trisha Donnelly, Ann Quin, www.rachelormont.com), but why should the critic stop at the accommodating threshold of its surface intimations? And why not confess, with nothing so noble as humility, to a fear of what lurks beneath the monotony?

Instead, when everybody’s an artist (perhaps even a Pasolinian terrorist!), no one a critic, all are granted the independent progenitor’s privileges of “no thoughts just…” self-explanation. The exceptionally magnetic credo of “theoretical gossip,” for instance, which rejects the art historical while hijacking its theaters, surely warrants analysis beyond the third grade reading level, yet will likely never receive it, not because few are capable of doing so but as a closed circuit governed by the hermeneutic thesis that “one doesn’t defend one’s god, one’s god is in himself a defense.” [5] How such containment transcends mere autopoiesis towards what Eric Schmid scopes as “no ontology,” or a “de-ontologized metaphysics,” requires separate consideration. The key point being that a treatise such as Schmid’s Prolegomenon, dealing with the “discretization” of the arc of historical continuity in which criticism participates, is not criticism, either, but an extension of his artistic practice.

So the question remains: what comes after the funeral ball that is today’s not-quite critical writing? On April 7, 2021, Kissick tweeted, regarding contemporary images but with application to their criticism:

We’re trapped in the world Fredric Jameson foretold, “a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” But I know there are ways out.

To which Aima responded:

imo the way out is through the international airport.

A year later, an exit strategy feels all the more urgent—and elusive. Yet perhaps the crushing weight of critical “inadequacy” is a good thing, a signal for the rigorous to stay still, to not desert when the going gets morose. To delineate the fundamental principles of criticism, not as it is, not even as it was (for who alive can remember!), but as it should be, is to adventure into anachronism as-a-bit. [6] Whereof one cannot critique, sometimes it’s best to conjure. This approach is no more violently nostalgic than the cultivated poignancy that is Kissick’s geyser of Ruskinian feeling—with its perpetual rush of empathic wonderment—or, as Aima suggests, a promenade through the gift shop of subaltern exploitation. So let’s put to the test some elementary principles of criticism and see if they stick. These may indeed prove vintage enough—as in, appropriately inert—as to come back into fashion.

A dejected-looking Carrie Bradshaw wears Christian Dior newsprint in Sex and the City

“What Goes Around Comes Around” (S3E17, 2000)


II. Working Principles of Criticism { check back for updates ! }


  1. Criticism is a means of confronting the driving force of a cultural object and fostering confrontational experiences in others. The “driving force” of an object is its impetus for existing and creative goals, which the critic divines from external sources—authorial motives—and the properties of the object itself. [7]
    1. The degree of intensity and intention with which the critic confronts the object is directly proportional to the girth of its “driving force.”
    2. When the cultural object is plural, as with an exhibition review or a topical survey, “driving force” encompasses the object’s contents, i.e. sub-artworks and the narratives that they impose. While the critic’s responsibilities to “driving force” may become broader and more demanding as the cultural object grows heftier, his stakes in it, as expressed attitudinally, stay the same.


  1. The critic’s task is to test an object’s constitutional properties—symbolic, material, compositional, contextual—against their contribution, in the form of novelty, “beauty,” or “truth,” to an existing corpus of artistic production.
    1. The critic evaluates the object’s truthfulness either as accuracy or believability.
      1. Accuracy entails the object’s correlation to a known reality, or a known surreality.
      2. Believability is the object’s convincing instantiation of a potential reality or surreality.
    2. Beauty is accuracy and believability graded on a more subjective scale. Regardless of whether an individual critic understands it to be relative or absolute, beauty is appraised in correspondence to period conventions.
      1. The critic has a hand in these conventions, but once he introduces a precedent, it is swept up in a mass will that overtakes his own wrangling faculties.


  1. Criticism should cathect the object at hand with a qualitative depth beyond its surface representation.
    1. Criticism is additive, which means that when the critical object is in the negative, as in cannot assert itself, strong critical intervention raises its caliber to a baseline level of palatability or understanding. Conversely, meek, maladroit critical intervention further enfeebles the cultural object when it is already weak, and simply bounces off of that which is strong.
      1. The cultural object should be conceptually permeable and emotionally impervious to critical opinion.
    2. In lieu of passively “reading” the object as one would read a book, acceding to its basic rhythms as if they were not constructed in order to be deconstructed, the critic adapts the layman’s method of Structure-Proposition-Evaluation (Mortimer Adler) as abstraction / investigation / intuition (no special order). This approach of triangulation enables the critic to act upon the object, and elicit its feedback, rather than the object acting upon him without recourse or control.
    3. The critic must isolate the object’s force from its actual presence, and “tack” a microscopic sample of his own presence onto that force. He then returns the compounded force plus presence to the object and proceeds to see what it sees, feel what it feels, probe what it plumbs. This is how “qualitative depth” is determined—from experiential projection that momentarily carries the critic into the eye of the work.
    4. The surface representation then becomes mostly disposable.


  1. In this way, criticism offers one of three axonometric views of a cultural object suspended in public view. The critical plane is situated between the anterior plane of the object’s presentation and the posterior, originating plane of the artist, as a static proxy for the otherwise mutable register of a perambulatory audience. We can also think of criticism as the measure of the object’s volume, adjoining its height and its weight—or the history of the object and the object itself.
    1. The history of an object follows from its critical response, but those deductions become secondary to contextual information.
    2. Meanwhile, the object silently conveys its own standpoint through basic visual, or sensorily legible aspects.
      1. Criticism of the object is not only a translation of the object’s standpoint into language, but an assertion of its success or failure.
    3. Axonometric views can symbolize relations within a cultural object, and also without, by representing how that object operates in a temporal context. Critical writing augments and dramatizes the axonometry of a cultural “moment,” lending words to angular constellations of visuals, concepts, thoughtforms.


  1. At its best, a piece of criticism is (or appears to be) full of contradictions. Such contradictions are symptomatic of human thoughtfulness, or the working out of an idea over the course of a text, with care and in real time. When the critic does not agree with, or fully comprehend, the reasoning behind an object, his duty to it becomes all the more heightened, for his language must at once safeguard its existence and prosecute its achievements.
    1. To “work out an idea,” to make an object of fussing itself, is to work almost as much as the object while seeming to work more.
      1. That said, to be a critic you simply cannot be a try-hard . No one takes seriously the all too serious.
      2. There is no room for critical vulnerability except in scenarios where confession invites respect (big magazine settings).
    2. In producing and disseminating his work, the critic faces a series of negotiations that, in public, hide behind the screen of analytical certitude. These challenges, which primarily relate to differences of opinion concerning who criticism is for (see below), can be mitigated by conceptualizing criticism as a devotional idiom, just like the artistic gesture.
      1. The devoted critic knows where to be merciful; where, merciless. And the limits of her devotion: that speech cannot be deployed to save, only to savor.
      2. When criticism is no longer devotional, it emanates tackiness. Criticality does well where projecting an air of piety but with a touch of monkish parsimony about it that implies selectivity and discernment in its “service.”


  1. Who is criticism for:
    1. Criticism “belongs” exclusively to a work of art or cultural life. It is warranted in its creation.
    2. That said, criticism is not obliged to the object’s creator, who is thin skinned and likely, proximate. Criticism that predicates its existence solely on the support of an individual or community falls prey to the innately mercurial disposition of the artist and the broader “market” for their appreciation. Criticism may dictate the vicissitudes and taste of this market, but its antennae must be attuned to other frequencies that lie just above or below it.
      1. A critic can be a friend to the artist, not of him.
      2. The respectable critic can separate himself from ephemeral “market” (i.e. social) patterns through temporal distanciations with a minimum of two days and a maximum of two months delay in pronouncing his conclusions about an incipient phenomenon. In that interval, he still keeps track of said patterns.
      3. The critical window lasts from the moment when the cultural phenomenon becomes malleable to molding to the moment that it is intractably hardened. Then, history sets in.
    3. Though servicing a public, criticism is not owed to it, if it were, it would be as distractible, esurient, and vacuous as the attentions of any given readership.
      1. Criticism with designs on persuading an audience of personal prejudices is prevalent but foolish. While background resentments lend color to a critical thesis, they ultimately fade into children’s trivia. By contrast, the pitch of a cultural idea will always be vibrant and palpable if the critical focus rests on its unchanging constitutional elements.
    4. Nor is criticism “for” its author. Criticism is facilitated through a private assignation between writer and object, but once that assignation is exorcized through language, and that language is launched like kaitenzushi out to an appetitive audience, the writer’s individuality is already absorbed into his critical work.
      1. The critic sheds the skin of his ambitions to sustain a purer contact, and charge, between object, interpretation, and recipient. Beneath skin grows skin, such shedding implies the critic’s continuous renewal of self, of relevance.


  1. The critic can be appointed to tertiary positions of advocate, diplomat, or adjudicator by any body that receives his work. This is helpful in anchoring critical conclusions in the general airspace over which they hover. Nonetheless, the critic can only discover for himself which role is really his by doing, and by studying the outcomes of that doing—be it padding an artist’s resume, soiling another’s, or most likely, nothing at all.


  1. Critical writing will inevitably come across as arrogant favoritism to some and courteously illustrative to others. Pedantry tempts the critic’s instructive proclivities, as do “pay-for-play” promotional arrangements (6b-c). These tendencies should be discouraged as deliberate strategies, unless of course, the critic has deliberately adopted the strategy of the “hack” (as legitimate as any other).


  1. The critic settles on a keen directive by homing in on what she likes in a work, what she disdains, and what there should be more of, without acting on these conclusions herself.
    1. If a work of criticism is to mirror the forms or styles of the object it examines (e.g. memoir, poetic meditation), which means that it shares the feelings of that object, it must, from the start, enunciate feeling as a throughline and a boundary between it and its focus.
      1. Digital art aggregation, from sponsored posts to Contemporary Art Daily to are.na, is not critical in part because such throughlines and boundaries are ambiguous, or simply not there altogether. The promotion of an object’s visibility by augmenting its display using interpretive didactics is not criticism. The same is true of memes, which evoke criticality but are ultimately only motile shadows of an originating object (which can be a meme, as well).
    2. Artists have long written about art, about their art, and about their notion of art. An oscillation between criticism and production is to be expected, as contiguous ways of grasping at any visual or sociocultural concept.
      1. We might go as far as to say one does not exist wholly without the other, and empirically, in an era of total production and critical abjection, the potential for pleasure has been undeniably curtailed, in both. And everyone suffers for it.

[1] To elaborate, in place of an Amy Sillman cartoon, art writing is spread across the following: Fiefdoms like Frieze (of Andrew Durbin) and Artforum (of David Velasco), administered by whomever is most popular at this point in high school; The Brooklyn Rail, or 8-Ball Community for boomers; 4Columns, which is the same old—unimpeachable, but unprovocative, too; and Spike, which seems to enjoy tripping over its shoelaces. The Artnet/ARTnews megaliths are more journalistic, Text zur Kunst altogether plotless, but unlike Mousse, has no beauty in its measured mayhem. As far as literature, there are stalwarts like Bookforum, the NYT-NYRB-LRB-LARB fortress, and the similarly regionalist White Review, as well as the motley diffusion lines of energetic graduate students. It is unclear whether anything they publish is truly critical.

[2] The art writer’s evolution can be related to a motif of the same period: a fascination with artists who have “left society,” as Tao Lin put it, from Martin Herbert’s sleeper hit Tell Them I Said No to new research on Lee Lozano, Elaine Sturtevant, and other recalcitrant “outliers.” There is also the conceptual omnipresence of the thin man himself, Marcel Duchamp, who famously slank away in later life from the culture he bequeathed to us.

[3] The now rather obvious reasons for why cancellation, or any lever of restriction (including religion, or cult-building), is so seductive in an age of hedonistic torpor is well put in this short review of Michel Houellebecq's Submission (2015), from the heyday of such tensions.

[4] (e.g. the La Chinoise of one such “text artist” slash metaversal Kurt Kunkle).

[5] Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.” We shall soon see how well—with misunderstanding as his medium—investigator M. “Crumps” channels H. Bloom. Also, “closed” circuitry as a structural trait is not incompatible with a theme like “open intelligence,” but the foundation of any attempt to make inroads in it.

[6] This is also an Enlightenment approach, per Reza Negarastani’s articulation of Carnap’s late thinking, as cited by Schmid:
Carnap admitted that the Enlightenment paradigm has been corrupted, it has become a recipe for conformity to the order of is. But the real ambition of the Enlightenment as he understood it is to move from the order of is to the order of what should be or what might be. (Italics our own.)
Is The Staten Island Art Review advocating a return to Enlightenment ambitions? The devil is in the deviations from them.

[7] We use the phrase “driving force” after Henri Bergson’s élan vital to quickly integrate the history of criticism’s early rise, which coincided with Bergson’s theorizations.

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