Of Rhetoric and Modern Art
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 08-11-11
Raymond Duncan, Socrates of the Avant-Garde

The onset of modernity, underpinned by the bourgeois revolution, saw art develop into a marketplace commodity sought by many. The critic's pen emerged partly as a substitute for the suspect taste of the buying public. The magazine n+1 recently printed an essay entitled "Against Reviews" excoriating the impersonality and blandness of the whole arrangement (though the author was talking about fiction, and mostly, it seemed, describing bad reviews).

But can criticism be taken out of modernism? When the avant-garde came along, criticism and rhetoric took on a new role: to explain and defend the shocking and alien. As quoted in a recent Artnet article, Tzara recalled from his Dada days: "Raymond Duncan, the philosopher who walks about Paris in the costume of Socrates, was there with all his school and came to our defense, quieting the audience. The very best Socialist orators took sides and spoke for and against us." Cubism helped build the careers of countless critics from the poet Apollinaire to Clement Greenberg. (With the increasing valuations of Cubism and Surrealism in the market of course, those competing roles of the modernist critic came to overlap).

Today, the bourgeois public is hard to shock; more often in fact the critic has to write simply to convince readers of the relevance of a given work amid the throng. Artists and curators too write more: wall text, artists statements, catalogues, etc. Conceptual artwork frequently comes with lengthy explanations for what it supposed to show or do (thematize the ghostliness of global networks, evoke the instability of language). It seems harder for an artistic gesture to speak for itself.

A conceivable next step could be (rather than getting rid of reviewers), to bypass artists and artworks entirely... and for the aestheticians and critics to simply extrapolate probable or possible artworks from the cultural matrix, then critique them. The late Roberto Bolano, (though again with fiction) laid the groundwork for this through his satirical, Borgesesque Nazi Literature in the Americas, which traced an imaginary fascist literary scene.

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