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art criticism
and the
vanishing public:
in contact with 
metaphysics

by Donald Kuspit



I have been asked to address the question 

of "the evolution of the language of 

criticism in recent years, with particular 

attention to the question "to whom should 

critical language speak" and "what should 

it accomplish." Subsidiary to that is the 

influence of the academic study of art on 

its critical language, and the question of 

the relationship of academic criticism and 

journalistic criticism. The former often 

involves formal and poststructural 

analysis, while the latter may or may not 

involve one or the other. Also, the former 

tends to be addressed to a limited, 

specialized audience, while the latter 

tries to address a larger, less 

knowledgeable audience.


Let me begin by cutting through this wealth 

of questions with Baudelaire's remark that 

"there is never a moment when criticism is 

not in contact with metaphysics," and 

comment on Baudelaire with Whitehead's 

observation that "language...breaks 

down...at the task of expressing in 

explicit form the larger generalities--the 

very generalities which metaphysics seeks 

to express."


Now the tragedy and failure of academic 

criticism at its best is that it attempts 

to articulate the metaphysical truth about 

the art it addresses, and in the process 

"redesigns [ordinary] language"--to again 

use Whitehead's language--and thus loses 

contact with the ordinary public. In 

contrast, the tragedy and failure of 

journalistic criticism at its best is that 

it loses contact with the metaphysics of 

art--that is, it tends to be unconcerned 

with the larger generalities that are 

implicit in and sustain the art it 

addresses--in order to preserve access to 

the particulars of the art for the ordinary 

public that uses ordinary language. In 

other words, journalistic understanding 

sacrifices a deeper understanding of art to 

maintain the ordinary language which 

supposedly provides contact with art but in 

fact is inimical to art at its deepest (not 

to say the deepest art). 


In contrast, academic criticism sacrifices 

ordinary language for a language that 

supposedly engages and makes explicit this 

depth--but then that language is not easily 

readable by ordinary, that is, 

unmetaphysical people, only by the 

intellectually "happy few." These different 

attitudes to language imply different 

social attitudes: journalistic criticism 

serves the society of the spectacle, that 

is, the society which reduces all to "mere 

appearance," as Guy Debord puts it, while 

academic criticism is self-serving, in that 

it is the activity of a pretentious, self-

styled elite--metaphysical snobs--that 

claims to have the monopoly on the 

"reality" of art. One can join the elite if 

one lets oneself undergo an intellectual 

hazing at the hands of their language. Thus 

art language comes to serve a private, 

self-privileging cult, or else it becomes a 

public event, banalizing the art it 

touches.


Formalism in its way and poststructuralism 

in its way are academic attempts to 

articulate the larger generalities (of 

whatever kind) evident in art. Insofar as 

they "supply" the entity called the work of 

art with "a systematic universe" (general 

context)--to again use Whitehead's 

language--they help us understand its 

metaphysical significance. Journalistic 

criticism, insofar as it affords an 

adequate observation of the particulars of 

the work of art, helps us understand its 

sociocultural topicality. But observation 

of particulars, as Einstein said, is 

complicated by the fact that, to be 

sophisticated, it must be informed, however 

subliminally, by a systematic theory or a 

sense of generality; and systematic theory-

-metaphysical assumptions, as it were--is 

complicated by the fact that it must be 

informed by careful observation of 

particulars. 


Thus, the issue of criticism necessarily 

involves the old epistemological puzzle--

double bind--stated by Kant in his first 

critique: "intuitions without ideas are 

blind, and ideas without intuitions are 

empty." This can be restated for our 

purposes as: "observation of art without a 

systematic awareness of issues of general 

significance that informs art is empty 

without an observational prehension of its 

particulars." 


In my own case, I have tried to strike a 

balance--establish a dialectic, as it were-

-between systematic theoretical academic 

criticism and journalistic awareness of 

prehended particulars. My main theoretical 

or "metaphysical" concern is the 

psychodynamics of art--the psychodynamic 

generalities that inform it. To me, the 

understanding of the psychodynamics of art 

is the key problem of postformalist 

criticism. In general, I think the most 

important intellectual task facing our 

society is to make explicit, in ordinary 

language, the psychodynamic generalities 

that inform life. I think our society's 

survival depends upon our understanding of 

these generalities, which inform every 

aspect of life (and art).


I have tried to adapt my criticism to the 

venue in which it will appear, but one of 

the reasons I have not always succeeded--as 

I am aware--in integrating academic and 

journalistic approaches is because the 

writing venue itself does not always know 

which approach it wants to follow. 

Sometimes it wants to be a spectacle, 

sometimes it wants to be a club for the 

initiated--the self-appointed cognoscenti, 

full of the pathology of their superiority. 

The venue will often change the way it 

tilts to suit some desperately imagined--

not to say mythical--public. That public is 

always vanishing because of the 

indecisiveness of the writing venue more 

than because of the criticism in it, 

whether academic or journalistic. 


But the larger reason I think the public is 

vanishing--for contemporary art as well as 

art criticism, of whatever kind--is because 

the neo-avant-garde art, institutionally 

presented to the public as the most 

important contemporary art, does not 

psychodynamically appeal to it. That is, 

the art's "emotional transmission," to use 

Jessica Benjamin's term, does not convey 

anything of emotional consequence for the 

public, and thus does not satisfy it. Neo-

avant-garde art is too busy being 

"advanced" art to be concerned about its 

emotional effect on its audience. Neo-

avant-garde art is an industry that 

produces less emotionally satisfying 

products--except, no doubt, for the 

artists--that any other part of the culture 

industry, so why should anyone care what 

any art industry critic has to say about 

it?



The above text was delivered as an opening 

statement at a panel discussion, titled 

"Invisible Ink: Art Criticism and a 

Vanishing Public," sponsored by Art Table 

and the American chapter of the 

International Association of Art Critics at 

the American Craft Museum on May 15, 1996. 

The discussion was moderated by Amei 

Wallach; other panelists included Newsweek 

critic Peter Plagens; Lynne Cooke, curator 

of the Dia Art Center; and Museum of Modern 

Art curator Robert Storr.



Donald Kuspit is professor of art history 

and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. 

White professor at large at Cornell 

University.



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