Art Criticism and Self-reference

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Art Criticism and Self-reference

The text that you are reading at this moment is self-referential in double manner: it concerns the problem of self-reference and criticism on theoretical level and, at the same time, since I am an art critic myself, it deals with the practice of criticism as well. It is a kind of critique of the criticism.
It might sound like cutting the branch on which one is sitting, a heroic act, when I criticize the critics who while attempting to find a new methodology of criticism, more adequate to the arts, merged in the field of art – in fact, I am doing exactly the same. Still, it seems necessary to point to the possible danger if the equation is made between art and art criticism: it does not necessarily mean that the new kind of critique that would be more creative is not needed, especially in the time of the flourishing of the new media but it is only a call for a kind of precocious attitude toward the artistic criticism.
At this moment there is a strong tendency that tries to challenge the distinction between art and art criticism arguing that the critical writing should also become artistic – self-conscious as the art itself. This orientation is not anything new and related only to postmodernism: it is a tradition going back to Schlegel, Wilde, Benjamin and Barthes. What I am trying to clarify with this essay is the need for a distinction between the calls for a more creative critique in the modernism and the notion of creative and self-conscious critical writing within the deconstructive discourse.
One of the crucial points to make in order to distinguish the presupposed changes is the different approach that the various critical tendencies had toward the self-referentiallity. the most problematized issue by the critics of modernism was the problem of the (in)adequacy of the image to its referent. According to Craig Owens “modernist theory presupposes that mimesis, the adequation of an image to a referent can be bracketed or suspended, and that the art object itself can be substituted (metaphorically) for its referent…”1F
Furthermore, Owens finds the postmodernists’ approach toward the reference different because it does not negate the referent but it problematizes the activity of the reference. It is not easy to bring arguments in favor of this assertion because it is not very clear if deconstruction is not based exactly on self-reference as Paul de Man has stated it: for him, the practice of deconstruction and self-reflectivity are the same phenomenon because the self-reflection is in accordance with the rhetoric nature of the text and art language which tend to escape from the logocentric illusions and metaphysics2F.
It is interesting that de Man connects the self referential texts with the ambivalence and ambiguity which are natural entities of the language of literature.In contrary, Rodolphe Gaschè3F denies that the ambiguity is an assumption of Derrida’s deconstruction since he asserted that about writing it is not possible to think in the terms of subject. For Gaschè, Derrida developed the concept of deconstruction exactly to explain the contradictions contained in the self-reference which are in fact metaphysical.
It seems that the question of self-reference, when it comes to the deconstruction and critics who followed Derrida, gets more complicated and leads to many misunderstandings. Trying to find the difference between criticism and post-criticism, Gregory Ulmer4F introduces the distinction between “narrative allegory” and “allegoresis”. “Allegoresis” would be the mode that has been practiced by the traditional critics who suspend the surface of the text and apply the terminology of “verticalness, levels, hidden meanings, the hieratic difficulty of interpretation” whereas “the narrative allegory favors the material of signifier over the meanings of the signified”.5F
In order to highlight the practical value of this approach it is useful to take account of the “new mimesis” invented by Derrida as a kind of representation without reference by putting mimicry to work for a new reference, as in the mechanical reproduction. This model of relationship between the critical strategy and its chosen referent was criticized by R. Lane Kaufman6F for not being aware of the cognitive distance from its material, the distance that criticism should share with art. In Kaufman opinion this problem comes from the role of the criticism which is not simply to join but “ only by maintaining its generic distance can criticism summon the powers to censure art’s complicity with the existing order, and to understand its strivings for a different one.
Kaufman reminds us on Adorno’s critique of Benjamin’s striving for criticism which would be closer to art: “A philosophy that tried to imitate art , that would turn itself into a work of art, would be expunging itself.”7F Contrary to the assumptions of the post-criticism, the generic distinction between art and art criticism does not rest on an authoritarian appeal to the superordinate status of reason over the senses, nor on the putative ontological boundary between critical and literary language. It is grounded rather on the discrete cognitive and social functions of art and criticism, and on their attendant institutional differentiation.
The lack of this differentiation is almost the same reason that, according to Peter Bürger8F made possible the failure of the avant-guarde movements in their main task: to rebel against art’s autonomy. This confusion between art and art criticism and all paradoxes that follow from it are the results of the paradoxes hidden in the language and its own self-referential nature.9F Similar to Russell’s principle of vicious circle in the set theory, within the deconstruction and its followers in art criticism there is an open field for paradoxes of self-referentiality, even when they are put into question.
Whenever the operation of deconstruction is utilized on a totality of a certain kind, it produces a new entity of that kind. When it is used on the totality of all entities of that kind it has to produce something which is inside and outside of this totality (the problem of parergon).
In all polemics about the meaning of diffèrance (the central Derrida’s term) it comes across the paradox of something which is ineffable and we still talk about it and try to express it. This paradox comes from Derrida’s ambiguous definition of diffèrance: as a term that we come to after the deconstruction of one text although there are no facts about this term expressed in this particular text and the definition of diffèrance as a result of deconstructing of the totality of all linguistic elements.10F
Whenever a critic points to his own task and methods it necessarily means a possible danger from the self-referential isolation from its own art object – while the relation between the art object and its own referent can easily be interrupted without a real attack to the existential status of the both, the link between the art critique and its object would lead to a referentless critique.
While in the field of theory this problem of loosing the connection with its object would only mean that the theory is not in accordance with the reality as in Baudrillard’s11F claim that the theory should not be a description but an event, in the practice of art criticism this can lead to art criticism which criticize nothing and art objects which are not touched by critics.
I extended this problematics to its paradoxical and radical limits on purpose: to show that the task of the art criticism today is really to change its own methods as the arts have been transformed so much that it is impossible to attempt to construct a true or a correct representation or interpretation of the object and its meanings. Instead of explanation, criticism better moves toward a process of creatio.
The problem pointed through the paradoxes of self-reference lies in the call for the abolition of the theory’s autonomous status and its reintegration into the practice of art which would mean the abolition of any possibility for reformation. Instead of new kind of procedure of criticism there is a danger of its abdication and trivilization. Merging with art by renouncing its own procedures and embracing those of art, the criticism takes the risk of abolishing itself instead to tend to become more critical and more creative.


1. Owens, Craig, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism”, October 12 (1980), p. 84
2. Gaschè, Rodolphe, “Deconstruction as Criticism”, Glyph 6, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1979, pp. 177-215
3. Ibid., p.205
4. Ulmer, Gregory, “The Object of Post-Criticism” in The Anti-Aesthetics, ed. by Hal Foster (Port Townsent, Washington, Bay Press), 1983
5. Ibid., p.186
6. Kaufman, R. Lane, “Post-Criticism, or the Limits of Avant-Garde Theory”, Thelos, No.67, Spring 1986, pp.187-188
7. Adorno, Theodor, Negative Dialectics, N.Y. Seabury Press, 1973, p.15 (According to Kaufman)
8. Kaufman, R. Lane, op. cit., p.189
9. Priest, Graham, “Derrida and Self-Reference”, Australian Journal of Philosophy”, Vol.72, No.1, March 1994
10. Ibid., p.65
11. Baudrillard, Jean, “The Extasy of Communication”, Brooklyn, N.Y. Autonomedia, 1988

AuthorSuzana Milevska
2018-08-21T17:23:59+00:00 February 1st, 1999|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 07|0 Comments