This is an edited version of the Ortiz Campo essay.
To read the complete version click here
to read the spanish version
Writing about art is a struggle with the void of distance. Of distances, to be precise: the distance between the work and the text; the distance between the artist and the writer (a critic, an art historian, and so forth); and the distance between the text and the reader. Although one can say that this void is true for all writing, in the case of art it goes both ways. There is a gap separating the text from the work and there is a distance separating the reader from the text. But art writing sees itself as if it were just a way of transmitting the work, as if the experience of writing—the struggle with the void of distance—were subordinate to the experience of the work.
For some time, art writing has served to preserve the artwork’s originality—in its most literal sense, in its proximity to the origin. While we know that a work of art has no single unequivocal origin, the myth of the artist as its sole author continues to be the cornerstone of the institutional apparatus of art. Museums, critics, art history, even popular ideas on art (to say nothing of the art market and the art industry) are almost always geared towards preserving that originality, that mythical origin. “What was the artist’s intent?” “What did she mean?” These questions are asked of almost any work, as if the artist’s experience were the only horizon available for interpretation. I emphasize the word “only,” as the main demand of any discourse on art is for it to address these questions. Art writing, then, would seem to have a clear role: to bridge the distance separating the work from the reader. That is the benevolent—humanist—conception of art writing: that it bring the viewer closer to the work. But if that distance is ultimately insurmountable, this task cannot be fulfilled. And so art writing is condemned to being a sterile and futile task.
This perspective relies on the notion that art writing is purely mimetic: if the interpretative horizon is to preserve some mythical originality of the work—namely, the artist’s intent—then the text must articulate in words what the artist did. The words must imitate the work itself, becoming a translation of sorts. Like a mirror, words would reflect what the artist meant to say, his true intention—and the closer the text to that intention, the truer the text becomes, the better the mirror. Understood this way, a critical text simply hashes out the contours of whatever the artist was trying to say, as if writing were a poor substitute for the experience of art. And in the process, this text, this writer renounces the experience of writing. At this point it might be useful to remember Baldessari’s piece. The young artist copied not only the reproductions—in black and white—of Cézanne’s paintings, but also the captions and other accompanying text.
The marked separation between the act of writing and the act of reading is partly responsible for art writing being an imitative form—someone reading an article or essay about a work of art is doubly removed from the work. The text would be the shadow of a shadow. This is implicit in this way of understanding art criticism and also explains why the critic is so often described as a passive figure, lacking in experience—a frustrated artist, weak and haggard, condemned to living in a world of shadows. As Baudelaire wrote:
You can see a drawing of Gavarni showing a painter bending over his canvas; behind him is a solemn, dried-up-looking gentleman, stiff, with a white tie, and holding in his hand the newspaper with its serial story. “If art is noble, criticism is holy.” “Who said that?” “Criticism did!” If the artist so easily plays the fine role, it is because the critic resembles all the critics who come a dime a dozen. In terms of ways and means drawn from the works themselves, the public and the artist have nothing to learn from this. Such matters are studied in the studio, and the public is perturbed only over the result.1
The artist indeed plays the finest role, as Baudelaire rightly asserts, because the critic has allowed himself to be caught up in “ways and means drawn from the works themselves.” In other words, their writing seeks only to imitate, to be mimetic. The critic described by Baudelaire does not take advantage of his own experience, even as a writer, neglecting even what his own act of writing could bring into consideration. What lies beneath this is the myth—which is very much alive—that critical writing is fundamentally devoid of experience, stripped of the intoxicating experience of creation. When Baudelaire announces the need for a biased and enthusiastic critic, what he is really looking for is a critic rife with experience.
An Essay by Agamben
In an essay titled “Infancy and History,” Giorgio Agamben points out two things which are relevant here. Firstly: in the modern age there has been an absolute inversion in the role of the imagination and its relation to the act of knowing. “For antiquity,” Agamben writes, “the imagination, which is now expunged from knowledge as ‘unreal,’ was the supreme medium of knowledge.”2 Imagination is no longer “the intermediary between the senses and the intellect, enabling, in fantasy, the union between the sensible form and the potential intellect.”3 And secondly: the exile of the imagination also implies an exile of desire. That is to say, the modern concept of science is lacking in both desire and imagination. As Agamben writes, “Indeed, the phantasm, which is the true source of desire (‘phantasia ea est, quae totum parit desiderium’) is also—as mediator between man and object—the condition for the attainability of the object of desire and therefore, ultimately, for desire’s satisfaction.”4This latter instance seeks to achieve what Duchamp notoriously wanted, namely “to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina”: the phantasm appears through writing.5
The critical act contains two forms of experience. One is obvious, and has to do with the experience of being in the presence of a work of art. The second is related to the first one: it is the experience of writing. The act of writing allows for a different sort of relationship with the work, one that does not have to be mimetic. In fact, it is here that the demands of a mimetic language become counter-productive. This is precisely what Baudelaire criticized: a way of writing devoid of imagination and desire, to use Agamben’s words. “Critics who come a dime a dozen” are those who don’t develop a means of writing around the works of art. In other words, they instrumentalize language, a neutral informative tone being the clearest symptom of this. That mimetic exigency is ingrained in the notion of what a theoretical discipline must be, and is a direct consequence of the exile of imagination, as Agamben puts it.
A critical text can affect its object of study. That is why art criticism, history, and theory must acknowledge a complicated relationship with art. To an even greater degree than much experimental scientific research, these disciplines can, and often do, transform the object of their study, even just by looking at it. Nevertheless, all the academic, institutional, and bureaucratic protocols surrounding art writing pretend that this is not the case. And this problem, which would seem to be a purely theoretical one, is expressed in the statutes of artistic investigation within academic institutions, in the nearly schizophrenic separation between theoretical and applied courses in art.
And what if art writing is understood as an exercise? In Western culture the possibility of learning through exercise has been gradually lost over time, whereas exercise was one of the fundamental means of understanding something throughout all of antiquity. Art is, perhaps, the last holdout of exercise in contemporary life. One of the important consequences of art education at the university level is that it forces us to keep a form of exercise-based learning available—which, deep down, is a form of learning based on experience.
To understand the act of writing about art as an exercise does not imply that writing should abandon the rigor of established academic norms. But the notion of exercise adds another layer, another level of depth that brings with it a necessary reflection on the channels through which criticism circulates.
1 Charles Baudelaire, “What Is the Use of Criticism?” in Flowers of Evil and Other Works, ed. and trans. Wallace Fowlie (New York: Bantam Books, 1964), 155.
2 Giorgio Agamben, “Infancy and History: An Essay on the Destruction of Experience,” in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), 24.
4 Ibid., 25.
5 Duchamp said this in September 1956 to Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., who was writing his dissertation on The Large Glass for Princeton University. See Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., The Position of Duchamp’s Glass in the Development of His Art (New York: Garland, 1977), 312.
*Translated from the Spanish by Ezra Fitz.