A Halo of Pixels: The Internet as Religion, not Art

Art and the Internet are hardly strangers. In the last decade-plus we’ve already cycled through net art, new media art, post-Internet art, and frantically onward, with each new movement and manifesto trying to formulate aesthetic principles and create works that respond to the dominance of networked computing over modern life.

Even when released onto the web, though, these have mostly been creations of the artworld. In Magic and Loss, Virginia Heffernan hopes to reorient the discussion by construing our everyday use of the Internet as a kind of art-making. “The Internet,” she proposes, “is a massive and collaborative work of realist art,” an idea she tentatively fleshes out by analogy with participatory games such as MMORPGs. As a vehicle for its own distinctive forms of aesthetic experience, it constitutes “the great masterpiece of human civilization.” Continue reading

Everywhere and nowhere: A. O. Scott on criticism

There is a minor genre of books bemoaning the state of contemporary criticism. According to most of them, the “crisis” in criticism is internal or self-inflicted: it comes from critics who have lost interest in making judgments, or perhaps who only know how to make the wrong kinds of judgments. A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism is a departure from this narrative, but a vexing one. As a guide to understanding the material conditions behind criticism’s present woes, it falls short. But his positive vision of criticism opens up some interesting and neglected theoretical avenues. Continue reading

The pleasures of being lost

The attraction of art criticism as a form of writing is that no one agrees on exactly what it is. My own image of the critical landscape resembles an unruly, half-mapped wilderness. A place to get lost in, dotted with alien vistas and odd flora that defy easy naming and classification. Academic writing, by contrast, is as dull as a suburban neighborhood governed by a strict and watchful homeowners’ association. Everything is tightly prescribed, down to the color of your mailbox; there is little room for the singularity of an authorial voice, or for developing much of an individual style, and this near-total repression causes academics’ expressive desires to seep into their texts in strange ways.

Art also poses a unique challenge as a subject. The philosopher and critic Arthur Danto pithily defined artworks as “embodied meanings,” by which he meant, roughly, that they are material things (paint, pixels, thread, clay) that somehow convey or express richly specific thoughts and emotions. At the same time, though, artworks are also obstinate, mute objects. They simply sit there, refusing to respond to pleas, curses, and queries, no matter how fervent. Whatever they mean isn’t anything that they can say.

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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.

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