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Impossible critique

One thing stays: everyone is dissatisfied with art critique.
Tuomas Nevanlinna

Art critique changes and its social conditions are in turmoil, but one thing stays: we are dissatisfied with art critique. Artists, publishers, publishing houses, the general public, researchers, the critics themselves…

To be sure, those who work within art critique approach the critique institution from different angles and with different motives, but the complaint is sung in one voice: right now critique has slipped into its etymologic sister state; critique is in an unprecedented crisis, and its conditions have weakened dramatically compared with earlier times which were five, fifteen or a hundred and fifty years ago when, of course, the complaint was the same.

The discontent, however, will not bend into a coherent story. The resources of critique are insufficient, while at the same time it has too much power. It is a necessity to art, but all the same subjective and unreasonable. It is snobbish but uncouth and inexpert. It is always either excessive and insolent or shrunk and pitiful. Or all of the above at once. Critique which should give art its measure seems to have no measure itself.

There is an obvious explanation to this disproportion haunting the critical body. In fact I already mentioned it: there are different actors in the field of critique whose “interests” may not necessarily be the same. Not everyone seeks or expects the same thing from critique.

The reading public expects this and that – information on what is in the offer, analysis of the works, readings, recommendations. A public like this – which harbours various expectations – is not of course a single actor but a bunch of individuals with their notorious preferences. As a matter of fact, this motley crew is united as a “public” by the very fact that it is not an actor. The public does not participate, it receives (much to the dismay of the avant-garde). The public does not talk, the public does not act. The public sends signals.

Artists claim in their public statements to expect “constructive criticism”. Understandable as a wish, of course, but do they really want it from those usually called critics, that is, art journalists? Does not the propitious time for constructive criticism come before the work is made public? Should journalist critics really be burdened with the task, or should not rather trusted colleagues, supervisors, mentors, editors, specialised and official, professional critics shoulder it?

Publishers would rather skip critique altogether, were it not that they occasionally have to include some in their columns in order to maintain media credibility. They want stars being born and advertisements. Publishing houses and artists, with all their talk about constructiveness, want puffs and publicity. And so on.

It is less obvious what the critic wants. Or is that obvious, too? The critic, of course, wants better working conditions, more time for research and background work, more column space, better remunerations. Anyone who presses for more favourable conditions believes to be doing something important and expects others to recognise and acknowledge this. They just want to draw people’s attention to the grim conditions in which they are forced to fulfil their crucial task.

Let me stress that this list of trade union demands is as such completely justified. It addresses important practical and political questions. Even so, the list of demands implies that there is no problem and nothing wrong with critique as such, its nature and duties are clear, the only thing is that they cannot be realised.

But what, what kind and what for would be art critique that had been composed in the sweet shelter of tender time limits (deadline), fair remunerations and lush column spaces? Would its disproportions and contradictions be wiped clean out?

My initial answer to this is negative. Modern art critique suffers from a fundamental problem which, for the moment, I will sum up abstractly: in the modern state of art, critique becomes necessary for the first time in history and at the same time impossible.


From antiquity to the 18th century, thought concerning art took the form of poetics in the West. The word is usually taken to mean the “study of poetry”, but often the same thought model was used for all the arts. It is audacious to sum up a millennium-long history without underestimating its multiplicity.

Presumably, however, features such as the following were typical of the classic types of poetics:

a) The authority of the old philosophers. Aristotle, the rhetoricians, Horace… Even Plato’s remarks on art were much exploited, after changing the sign as it were, though he had banished dramatic poetry into symbolic exile in his State.

b) Art discourse which, from the contemporary angle, seems unabashedly normative. A relatively modern example: The French Academy promulgated the rules of true tragedy, modified in the 17th century and based on remarks made by Aristotle.

c) The idea that all the arts share a foundation in rhetoric, the analysis and rules of the art of rhetoric. Including music: the theme is the thesis, the contrapuntal counter-theme is the antithesis, the elaboration of the theme is the explication of a proposition, and so on. All the tropes of rhetoric work together seamlessly, not only as instruments of art analysis but also as instructions to the author.

d) Despite the shared rhetoric model (or rather because of it), a taxonomy of genres existed written out inside each art form. A tragedy is written like this, a comedy like that; a pastoral is like this, a passion like that.

e) In both thought and practice, art was part of religion and production of the type of handicraft. That is why, subjected to poetics, art in its contemporary sense did not actually exist yet – art as the independent activity of an artist-author aiming at producing something expressly aesthetic or artistic, however the “expressly” was to be understood.

f) The conception of art as mimetic and sensual representation of an eternal or lofty idea – God or ideal nature.

Under these circumstances criticism was easy in the sense that all actors ultimately shared the same conception of what was worthy of praise. The critic or patron could thus even improve on a work of art without the artist, at least in principle, feeling that this violated his or her freedom. The artist’s creativity, the patrons’ demands and the public’s taste had not yet gone their separate ways.

Critique which should give art its measure seems to have no measure itself.

Even today it is considered acceptable that if a furniture maker has made a lousy chair the user is free to touch it up without violating the maker’s “creativity”. Earlier, the same was thought of an artist. If critique had clearly defined standards and reference points, it was also less needed. It was closer to editing and educating.


The poetic approach began to crumble in the course of the 18th century. It no longer fitted the budding new world of bourgeois public life and civic society or the modern scientific, technological and industrial development of capitalism. After this disruption, the ideals of classic art were to transfer into liquid reserves of the cultural industry (the pursuit of beauty, heroes, a clear plot, genres, formats…).

At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, early German Romanticism, with the Schlegel brothers at the helm, finally shattered the philosophical foundation of the poetic ideals of the classicisms, in Kant’s footsteps.

Instead of representing the form, figure or magnitude of God, the objective now was to do what God had done: create the world out of nothing, without a model, by means of the Verb alone. Because creation is free and unconditioned, there is no preset content for which the correct form ought to be found. Form and content cannot be separated, as they still could be in rhetoric.

In the absence of presumed normative models, the artist’s creativity and the public’s taste were doomed to go their separate ways. Critique could no longer lean on poetics, because a (great) work will create its own standards. Thus the artist not only creates the work but also the entire “poetics”, subjected to which it was made.

The boundary between the work and its critique collapses. Critique can only finish off what is already included in the work itself. The work contains its own critique; it becomes self-reflective, while, on the other hand, critique itself becomes a form of art. Critique settles down inside the work and/ or extends the world of the work.

Critique can only finish off what is already included in the work itself.

Critique ceases to be “negative”: something that states where the work falls short of the given ideal. Instead, in the hands of the Romantics, critique becomes “positive”: it completes and continues, it is critique where the work is processed in relation to its own ideals, while the ideals are modified and drawn more clearly at the same time.


Romanticism and its modernist extensions have become universal, but in the process, their bind in relation to the classic has been exposed. The pioneers of modernism did not count for the situation that classic education could no longer be taken for granted.

Contemporary artists no longer free themselves from their classic education: they never had one in the first place. Neither do contemporary critics any longer operate with the Romantics’ concept of “greatness”, which as an objective can only be understood in relation to classic ideals.

Critique settles down inside the work and/ or extends the world of the work.

Together with modernisation, critique becomes universal and democratic, but at the same time splits and is fragmented into “opinions”. Critique becomes the critique of the consumer: ”I bought it” (as the apt metaphor says), you should buy it, too.


Everyday critical journalism does not easily bend to a reformulation along the guidelines of romantic metacritique. The romantic programme is simply not easily combined with the working conditions of the capitalist media: a passive, reacting public reduced to sending signals; column space allotted by assumed sales; contents modified in accordance with false punchiness and the smallest common denominator.

What happens to everyday critique is similar to what happens to art under cultural industry: in the pressure of commercial success, it collapses back into classic kitsch. It combines two things: the horizon of classic critique and the function of a puff.

Neither, however, has been justified “officially”: the horizon of classic critique (is the work good or bad in relation to the given standards?) does not correspond to the frictional union of the creating author subject and the preferring taste subject, on which the space of modern art is built.

The puff function cannot be publicly justified, either – neither the commercial media nor the writer contributing to them can settle for trumpeting the fact that the ultimate and therefore only true task of the publication is to gather a public for the advertisements.

The modern subject renders critique impossible, because everything is in the eye of the beholder and the critic is but one of the beholders. At the same time, it is the fact that art is mediated by free subjectivity that makes critique necessary. Once a work ceases to be regarded as holy in itself and its meanings are acknowledged to be created in the subject, public critique becomes the only way to share the work.

Exactly because there is no figure or law for modern critique, the only possibility is to open up and improve the space for the critique.

Romanticism lifted critique and art on the same level as synonymous. Art is critique: it is a continuation, commentary and elaboration of what was before, but at the same time self-critical reflection on its own objectives. Correspondingly, critique itself is art, from a metaperspective acting as a judge: the critic continues the work on its own conditions, beyond itself. Thus, while critique becomes more necessary than ever, it becomes impossible to carry out at the level of everyday criticism.

What to do? The critics listing their trade union demands may have been on the right track after all. Exactly because there is no figure or law for modern critique, exactly because it does not fit in the conditions where it is to be carried out, the only possibility is to open up and improve the space for the critique. In all ways: as column space, the critic’s working conditions, freedom, openness, distribution, receptivity…

The Internet is in this sense a brilliant but also far from unproblematic opportunity. One problem concerns the famous ”revenue logic”. Another is the fact that the Internet lacks the assembling aspect of public life: it does not gather people together around something shared, as everyone customises the contents they want for themselves. In this sense, the Internet in its present form slips effortlessly into the neo-liberal mode of administration.

We should nevertheless remember that nostalgia for the old ideals of bourgeois public life is futile. We just have to grasp the opportunities which the new digital and virtual world has opened, never mind that it has neither realised nor redeemed them.

Tuomas Nevanlinna is a writer, essayist, journalist and translator living in Helsinki.

Hegel, G. W. F.: Lectures on Aesthetics.
Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe & Nancy, Jean-Luc: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism.

”Holy critique”

It is always tempting to say that the basic question is what the function of a particular practice or institution is. Although the answers vary, to insist on the function is regarded as a philosophical primal act, self-evident and fundamental. In other words: to be able to assess the present state of critique, we must first know what the “function” of critique is. This approach, however, is beset with problems.

To talk about the function suggests that a phenomenon, such as the critique institution, is located in some existing whole with a given division of labour. Fundamentally, it is the old metaphor of the social body. Although nobody today preaches that the sovereign is the head and the workers are the limbs, or some such thing, the metaphor of the social body is still alive and kicking. It lies in the background of all the ways of thinking that start from order, safety and functionality as the ultimate raison d’être of society, instead of politics, conflicts and struggle.

Critique was the most important catchword of the Enlightenment. Wherever it earlier said “holy”, let it today be said “critique”. To declare a taboo becomes the only taboo. Seen from this angle, critique is not only one subsystem among others but becomes the basic justification of all institutions. Critique cannot be exercised without self-criticism, reflection, the continuous weighing and re-evaluation of one’s own functions. Institutions therefore evaluate themselves, and it is only through this that they can subject other institutions to critical assessment.

Take any modern institution. In election democracy, the people themselves make the laws they will obey. The university is a self-evaluating institution. Every faculty is “developed” and “evaluated” – even if, to a large extent, this is nothing but sham busyness, it still reveals how central a position institutions hold in the modern world.

Is critique, then, the “function” of these institutions? It would be misleading to say so.

It is not the “function” of the people to make itself laws, it is through its laws that the people perceives its functions – what it wants to do and carry out as a society and how it wants to live politically. Elections are a kind of institutionalisation of critique at the level of the state: a guarantee that the government will change from time to time.

Science does of course have a technological function in society, but if research is subjected to science, this function will be lost. In other words, the science community itself must assess what to study and how.

Philosophy has no function assigned from the outside for the simple reason that such a function could not be given any formulation from the outside which could be made immune to philosophical critique in advance.

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