Beyond comparison

In a famous 2002 article, Raphael Rubinstein announced a “quiet crisis” in art criticism. Over a decade later, the quiet has been replaced by a cacophony of voices clamoring to diagnose criticism’s many ailments. No consensus has yet emerged; perhaps the root of the problem is that critics have forgotten their proper task, lost their nerve, been supplanted by market forces, or become distracted and fallen into other pursuits, such as the writerly pleasures of description.

In On Criticism, Noel Carroll presents a theory of what criticism is (or ought to be) that aims to set the field right. Carroll argues that “criticism is, first and foremost, evaluative discourse supported by reasons” (p. 15). Critics do many things, of course, including describing, classifying, contextualizing, elucidating, interpreting, and analyzing artworks. But he thinks all of these tasks are subservient to the larger purpose of producing evaluations of the work. Evaluation is what distinguishes criticism from other forms of discourse that take artworks as their objects, such as art history and theory, as well as arts journalism.

Whether this is controversial depends on what Carroll means by evaluation. The critic’s evaluations take the form of claims about whether the work is successful or not, considered as an example of the kind of artwork that it is. But an evaluation of a work’s quality is more than just a freestanding opinion or idiosyncratic expression of taste. Acts of criticism require establishing the identity of the work, figuring out the relevant criteria by which it should be assessed, and deciding how well it meets those criteria. Describing the work, putting it into its cultural and art historical context, explaining its meaning, evoking its phenomenological effects, and so on, are all in the service of underwriting assessments of this kind.

In championing evaluation, Carroll joins a familiar call for criticism to return to its roots. He, like many others, wrings his hands over the infamous 2002 survey of art critics which (allegedly) showed that making judgments about artworks came in last among their goals and concerns. But I doubt whether appeals to evaluation alone can serve as a panacea for modern criticism, because I suspect these debates actually center not so much on whether to make evaluative judgments as on the appropriate standards for making them.

Carroll emphasizes that how you assess a work depends on what category it belongs to: “critics, especially by adverting to categories of art and their purposes, have access to general principles about what counts as success in the pertinent artforms, genres, and so forth—which principles, in turn, are sufficient to ground their evaluations” (pp. 167-8).

This is actually a remarkably strong claim, but sometimes it rings true. Mistaking one of Jeff Wall’s staged photographs such as Mimic for a spontaneously captured street scene triggers an entirely different set of criteria and expectations. But it’s equally possible to judge the merits of works that fall into no well-defined category. What genre does Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind belong to? How about Tarkovsky’s The Mirror? Deciding whether and how they succeed doesn’t require settling these questions. If claims that contemporary art exists in a “post-medium condition” are correct, this blurry categorical uncertainty may be the general way of things.

Even when we have some reasonable way to classify artworks, though, Carroll is emphatic that evaluation is fundamentally noncomparative. As he says, “there seems to be a misplaced emphasis on the critical comparison of artworks, especially for the purpose of ranking them” (p. 188), and that critics are not tasked with saying “which artworks are best, which better, and which are worse” (p. 187). Comparison is never mandatory: “[c]riticism suffices that assists its readers in comprehending what is valuable in the work under discussion—period and full stop” (p. 188).

It’s here that Carroll’s view of evaluation falters. Critical judgment lives on comparison. It’s actually a little hard to see how to make judgments about the positive or negative aspects of a work that don’t, even if implicitly, involve such comparisons. When Vivian Maier’s work was discovered, it was rapidly classified as street photography (itself a highly contested category). In deciding whether her images are successful or not, one is irresistibly led into thinking about how they compare in terms of subject matter, approach, composition, and emotional register to the work that rises to the pinnacle of that form: Winogrand, Frank, Meyerowitz, Davidson, or whoever you prefer.

Comparison is inextricably woven into this process because we don’t evaluate works by reference only to their categories, but to the best work in those categories. If there are norms that determine what makes something a good pratfall comedy, a good portrait, or a good street photograph, their content flows from these works, which constitute the most exemplary ones being produced in that style, genre, or medium at this point in its history. These exemplars determine the geography of a form, and serve as landmarks signaling what is possible, challenging, surprising, and exceptional within it. Our sense of this geography is what explains the evaluative judgments that we make.

Standards are embedded in a dynamic history, which is why a work can check all of the right boxes but still fail to succeed, and why being derivative or unoriginal is a form of aesthetic shortcoming. Many formerly living styles have ossified into a set of acceptable but empty moves (witness the category of “zombie formalism”), a phenomenon of decline that is only comprehensible against a historical backdrop. Moreover, even single works by an artist can be assessed relative to the others in their oeuvre, as when a collection of poems that would be a strong effort from a lot of writers is a disappointment compared to that author’s earlier work. It’s always critically significant to ask how well the work being assessed stacks up against a body of relevantly similar works.

The crisis that Rubinstein identified was that seriously argued comparative assessments of quality and importance are thin on the ground. As he put it, “value judgments and the quest for historical significance are so yesterday”, although it’s important to remember that he didn’t think that this was limited only to critics. Artists, too, have lost the stomach for “qualitative, trans-generational match-ups”: “Too few painters seem willing to get into the ring with great artists of the past, to really grapple with their strong predecessors. Instead, we have a lot of shadow boxing and influence without anxiety.”

It’s not, then, the mere refusal to make judgments that accounts for the critical crisis, but instead the refusal by both critics and artists to engage in sufficiently ambitious acts of comparison. He makes such accusations himself in similar terms (“slight pictorial ambitions”), and proposes that a more expansive range of comparisons between artists and their works will produce both better painting and better critical discourse around painting. The relevant context of comparison for a critic should be widened as far as possible, to include not just the works in the show or in the painter’s own oeuvre or even the vanguard of the contemporary scene, but should include all of the most challenging work within the bounds of the medium throughout its entire history. This is an outrageously demanding definition of what ambitious critical discourse should amount to—not to mention an intimidating challenge for painters—but it’s what lies at the root of Rubinstein’s complaint.

A famous quote from Guston, which he attributes to John Cage, says: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” What the critic tries to do is to drag everyone and everything back in the room. If making requires a kind of forgetting, criticism is a process of perpetual remembering. Carroll’s argument for the importance of evaluative judgments trails off at just this point. Evaluative criticism that shackles itself to weak or undemanding standards is as much of an obstacle as criticism that refuses to judge at all.

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