Towards a More Independent Aesthetic

In a 2008 article for The Guardian, critic Adrian Searle suggests that “writing about art only matters because art deserves to be met with more than silence.”1Searle, Adrian. “Critical Condition,” in The Guardian, March 18, 2008. Link.​ These words resonate with some of the same questions we are still grappling with, many years later. For instance, how can we continue to “meet” art under recent global conditions defined by distance and separation?

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person viewings of art, online exhibitions promptly arose to bridge the distance between art and the public. These virtual formats have instigated a conversation on the relation between object and viewer, as well as the conflict between what constitutes the object itself versus what is ultimately described, delivered, and consumed.  While this phenomenon produces a meaningful body of thought that helps the viewer to better understand the contexts to which artworks respond, much of the artists’ creative process, including labor and craft, is left behind. As a result, the artwork’s persuasive voice is reduced to an illustrative tool, wherein the spectacular aspect of its visual scope and the viewer’s experience are both necessarily limited.

In an effort to stimulate conversation around the strength of visual representation, I wonder if art criticism can today play a role in restoring a joint approach with the artwork “without losing touch with their language of images,” as Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino suggests in “Lightness,” a 1988 essay published in the compendium Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in which he argues to relieve from his writings the burden of representing “the frantic spectacle of the world”. 2Calvino, Italo. “Lightness,” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).​  Calvino believes that a direct description of his own time would add “weight and inertia” to his writing. When an artist must refer to the surrounding reality — i.e. the world’s facts and events — he encourages a diagonal approach. This approach would take into account the “lightness” of one’s work, its mythology and visual language, “the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm,” becoming a means to understand reality itself and enable the work to speak more intimately to the viewer. This is how Calvino avoids the “petrification” of his production. He explains this process by likening the writer’s creative act to an indirect gaze on the world: just as Perseus defeated Medusa without being turned to stone by following her movement in the reflection of his shield, the strength of the literary imagination is in a writer’s ability to wade through the opacity of our literal world by transforming fact into fiction.

As Calvino locates the writer’s relationship to the world in the conflict between Perseus and Medusa, I see a similar dynamic with the art critic and curator against the artist’s work. In both cases, the conflict resolves through “the lesson we can learn from a myth,” which “lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.”

Our role as art writers is to position the artist’s process within the context of our time and suggest how the facts of the outside world are articulated in its aesthetic. Inevitably, however, we risk weighing down the process of art with a description that hews too close to those events of the real world, and ignoring the visual narratives that define the work at its core.

If we look back at the root of the discipline, art criticism has traditionally been an important venue for the discussion and debate of emerging trends and methods in visual art. And while this historical process resulted in explicit positions from art critics on how artists were, or were not, redefining the boundaries of their discipline, nowadays neutrality seems to be prized over judgment, thus affirming the chasm between concept and execution, as well as the disconnected nature of the industry. In this nonpartisan vision, the experience that the artwork instigates through its visual language becomes replaceable by others, so long as the context of these other languages — their debated issues and topics — are the same and lend themselves to ideological instrumentalization. The engagement between artists and curators, in fact, seems exclusively bound within the frame of a specific project or a job to be done: an article, a catalog, an exhibition, an open call, etc. This interaction reveals how opportunism is shaping criticism and curating practices by exploiting the artistic experience with excess focus on what artists say, rather than the actual language they create. I believe that art criticism has, instead, the power and responsibility to reflect the trajectory of artistic production and argue for its historical significance. When this role is abandoned, one winds up with inverted criticism in which the thesis is decided independent of the work itself. As a result, the artwork is reduced to an interchangeable image that is simply intended to buttress the topic at hand, when it should serve as the source and subject of conversation.

As this fissure between message and aesthetic expands, one wonders how evidence of the aesthetic can be critically approached when immaterial narratives and theories dominate the consumption of art and, consequently, public debate. How does the work — as an aesthetic experience with specific visual qualities, technical approaches, formal solutions, aesthetic strategies, stylistic criteria — remain relevant in the discussion? These questions take on greater meaning in a moment such as the current one, where political dysfunctions and social tensions are pushing art to engage more directly, or even to merge, with politics and activism. Art practice has indeed evolved substantially; it doesn’t have the same boundaries that Clement Greenberg once could have made sense of. As a consequence, the increase in discourse around art provides fundamental support to those political and activist principles that trigger the visual experience. It should be no surprise then that the latter is sidelined by the strategic constructions of words, or that artists themselves have internalized social and civic principles and are developing their work accordingly. They themselves are interested in and contribute to the annihilation of the image. Such a thing exists within practices that intentionally avoid identifying themselves in the process of producing an aesthetic; rather, through what was traditionally referred to as programming — lectures, workshops, etc. — these artists make the production of the work itself a prolonged experience.

In the end, how do art critics, many with art history backgrounds, navigate a landscape that apparently requires political, scientific, technological, or even legal knowledge and skills, which go well beyond those acquired within the academic discipline? Should we perhaps redefine art criticism through new terminologies, such as “art-content criticism” or “content-visualized art criticism”? And if that’s the case, does this formula open the door to a new discipline that frees itself from art criticism as a whole, or will it remain within the same realm as an experimental solution to a still-evolving discipline?

Through this disproportionate interest in what, as Calvino says, "we add from the outside" versus “the language of images,” ​we risk reducing the voice wherever it exists and inhibiting artists’ freedom with the “weight” of responsibility to convey messages, beyond the artwork itself, in order to be understood. This fixation on messages that subsume the importance and complexity of aesthetic value becomes even more prominent when we talk about identity politics. Art historian Darby English takes on this matter in his 2007 book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, in which he rigorously investigates how artists of color view their practices as threatened by ever-intensifying expectations to discuss topics of race, body, and identity in their work, thus diminishing the conceptual and visual depths of their oeuvre. 3English, Darby. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), pp. 205-206.​ This is particularly evident in English’s response to Ad Reinhardt’s claim that his practice is “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting — an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of nothing but art.” English asks and replies to the following rhetorical question: ”Could a Black artist describe a black painting in the following way without being taken for a fool? Probably not.”

How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness is a dialectical compendium that helps us understand how to navigate the reiteration of today’s limiting and exploiting forms of cultural misinterpretation, appropriation and colonization, as well as dysfunctions and inconsistencies in critical and curatorial approaches, where predominantly white culture reveals its opportunism, bigotry, and superficiality. It seems, then, that these discrepancies also apply mutatis mutandis to artists sharing a specific gender, religious, social, or cultural identity, whose work suffers the same limitations and boundaries.

How can art criticism work to defuse these conflicts and help form renewed disciplines that are more involved in the complexity of the artist’s work? How can we move from a criticism that passively consumes aesthetics to one that actively commits to learn more about what artists hold dear? These predominantly moral challenges point towards values we should prioritize when art is critically approached. And with this, I’m not necessarily suggesting that criticism should neglect those references to the real world, nor abandon its own independence. I mean that we should look at those poetic solutions more accurately and closely, giving them credit for the crucial role they have in defining the artist’s methods, aesthetic, and essence. Aesthetic is what artists want us to immediately interact with when it comes to societal issues that matter. These visual devices alert us to what is going on, just like sirens. They are the shield the artists provide to us when a given reality presents danger. I may be naïve, but I’ve always thought that art is on our side. Artists give us the tools necessary to understand moments in our era that require diagonal views and indirect gazes. We owe it to artists to serve as the frontline, to be those who watch diligently and enthusiastically so that we can make vibrant and continuous contributions. Returning accuracy to their work, I believe, is our responsibility as witnesses and chroniclers of their process, one that goes beyond any rhetoric on the alleged diminished influence of art criticism in the art world. On the contrary, this responsibility has to do with more than just programming or strategizing. It is the recognition of what we see. Because if it’s true that art “deserves to be met with more than silence,” so then does art deserve to be met with more than blindness, too.

Alessandro Facente is a New York-based Italian independent art critic and curator, currently a curator at Artists Alliance Inc. His research focuses on the crossover and interplay of art criticism and curatorship through a concept that he refers to as “curaticism.” Facente participated in various curatorial programs worldwide including Curatorial Program for Research 2018 (Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden), Residency Unlimited (New York), HIAP (Helsinki), and Ateliê397 (São Paulo). He has curated solo and group exhibitions, as well as independent projects, artist initiatives, and talks in nonprofit spaces, foundations, and galleries, such as Critical Practices Inc., Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space, Hudson Valley MOCA, the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, NARS Foundation, and Kunstverein Dresden (Dresden, Germany). His articles, interviews, and essays have appeared in art magazines including Artribune, Art Asia Pacific, DOMUS, Hyperallergic, and TemporaryArtReview, as well as in exhibition catalogs for museums such as GAMeC in Bergamo and MADRE in Naples.

Detail of “Perseo e Medusa” by Pietro Aquila (1630 - 1692) after Annibale Carracci fresco in Camerino Farnese, XVII sec., engraving, link.

Screenshot of a quote from Lightness by Italo Calvino from his Six Memos for the Next Millenium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, web source from link.

Published: 2021.01.21