The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Ethical Criticism

“It’s not only that ethics is unthinkable outside the domain of the political, but that thinking itself depends on the complex intertwinement of the two.” — Judith Butler, from lecture on Hannah Arendt.

“Seek intellectual emancipation in new modes of communication and new forms of social relation. Failing that, clog the machinery that manufactures the new by simply repackaging the old.e” — J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminimsm

I came to art writing as a teenager steeped in post-punk culture and politics..3 At the time, criticism seemed like a noble form. There was an ethics to it: art was viewed as “critique” and the word “political” was used frequently. Ethics were not mentioned, however. Ever, that I recall.

But we live in changing times. Technology has altered our brains, and ideas about family, gender, work, space, and time have shifted, too. The effects of neoliberalism are felt everywhere, in massive debt and global inequities of wealth, persistent wars, and environmental destruction. Perhaps in response to all of this, culture is experiencing an “ethical turn.” The global uprisings, protests, and revolutions of recent years are evidence of this. In the academy, Emmanuel Levinas is being read alongside Pierre Hadot, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, Gandhi, and others.

Art criticism is facing similar issues. The conservative argument is that we’ve entered a “post-critical” era in which the only recourse might be to look back to the 1920s, a similar epoch of crisis. Because the problem with art today is that it releases a “given practice from the criteria of either social effectivity or artistic invention,” such that “one tends to become the alibi for the other … and so the announced resolution breaks down again.”.4 Occupying a middle ground is the notion that we’re living in a “post-optical visual art world” characterized by a “performative turn” in which art and theater have been placed in a conversation that disrupts traditional expectations and yields “forms that are both aesthetically and socially innovative” and acknowledge “the degree to which art worlds and social worlds are not autonomously ‘self-governing.’”.5 On the radical end is the projection that we will see an end to objects, that creativity will eclipse “art” and the individual artist, and new “communities of reception” will replace the critic. .6

So, how does this affect criticism in the present? Ethics have been considered, but only in relation to the actions and intentions of the artist. And “ethical” criticism of new work is still couched in old language—that is, evaluation and judgment, as well as pernicious notions of “quality” and “standards” based on “shared values,” which many artists (particularly those overlooked by institutional art history) rightfully view with skepticism or disdain. With this in mind, the notion of an ethical criticism might better be reframed in terms of the critic rather than the artist or the work. What is the critic’s role in contemporary art and culture? How can we function in this new and shifting landscape?

Let’s consider some recent incidents. One is an open letter, an online petition, written anonymously and addressed to Ken Johnson, a critic for the New York Times. The letter expressed dismay over the way Johnson “compares women and African-American artists to white males, only to find them lacking.”7 The Johnson affair raises not only the question of an older, white male critic out of touch with recent discourses around race and gender, but also the continued problem of institutions packaging art into exhibitions based on categories devoted to such themes, the role of the “generalist” journalist-critic in an increasingly specialized world, and a much-less-discussed problem of labor: over-worked, underpaid freelance writers whose precarity mirrors that of the artists they write about but who are nonetheless accused of performing “below the editorial standards typical of the New York Times.8

Two other incidents occurred in Los Angeles last summer. The first involved the defection from the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, of all its artists, an act of refusal that reverberated throughout the U.S. art world. The second stemmed from a letter written by Yvonne Rainer criticizing Marina Abramović’s participation in a museum fundraising event in which young performers sat on rotating turntables with their heads poking out from holes cut into the dinner tables. As Grant Kester points out, Rainer stumbled in her critique by couching it in the issue of degradation and exploitation, charges vehemently denied by some of the performers who argued that it was a privilege to work with a “great artist.”9

These incidents might qualify as criticism within Brian Holmes’s notion of new “communities of reception.” But where does that leave the critic? The easy answer might be that critics are no longer needed in a world where artists critique other artists and the public criticizes critics. However, as I have suggested elsewhere, criticism as we know it started off as a rogue form of political speech, an uncensored loophole for writers like Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne and Denis Diderot to criticize monarchy.10 But while that criticism was an exercise in free speech before the latter was constitutionally enshrined, and today other forms of “censorship” exist (particularly with regard to writing about the funding of art works and museums through sponsorships by corporations and patrons who represent the global ruling class), there is no reason criticism can’t learn from earlier paradigms, draw from other sources, and assume other forms.

The lessons of eco-criticism might be helpful, for instance. Ursula Heise, a literary scholar, describes how poststructuralism, despite its post-1968 revolutionary rhetoric, created a problem for the burgeoning field of eco-criticism because it treated nature as a cultural construct, discouraging connections with social movements aimed at rescuing the environment.11 Meanwhile, thanks to anthropogenic climate change, there is no such thing as nature “untouched by culture” since “in a quite literal way there is no part of the planet that hasn’t been touched by humans.”12 In art, there is no “wilderness,” no “autonomous” moral space in which works and people circulate outside capitalism, debt, and rising poverty. Art is still tied to the global ruling class, just as it was in the days of Michelangelo and Rubens, only now partnerships with “liberal” institutions are often more insidious. The eco-critical parallel is even more poignant after Hurricane Sandy, which has demonstrated just how precarious New York is as an art center.

Other lessons might be drawn from recent feminist race and anti-racist theory, much of which focuses on ideas of refusal (Tiqqun) and collective forms of organizing. As both Jackie Wang and Nina Power point out, the language of individuality and freedom, which is often associated with art and romantic notions of the artist, and which is now used as a way of convincing a broad spectrum of workers that they’re an enlightened and unfettered “creative class” rather than merely working without contracts or benefits, is often used to atomize people and foster competition. Like eco-criticism and its emphasis on how nature and culture are necessarily intertwined, these theories can serve as a model for thinking about new relationships between artists and their communities and publics.

Drawing from these incidents and precedents, an “ethical turn” in art criticism might mean redefining the role of a critic to function more as participant-observer, a facilitator, or even a griot, with critical duties shared or handed over to participants. Criticism might be more durational than episodic. Art magazines and newspapers are still tied to the institutional exhibition format—and advertising dollars—but the Internet offers freedom to invent new genres, from blogging and social media to ad hoc or formalized discussion groups, Tumblrs, and other forms of culture-jamming, beyond the review, feature, or the proto-canonizing “critical essay.”13

It has also been suggested that criticism might shift from a rhetoric of “critique” to that of the “pragmatic.”14 These calls echo reconsiderations of American Pragmatism in the academy (particularly philosophers such as John Dewey) or Bruno Latour’s call for a “realist attitude” (a la William James), in which the self-reflexive critic moves from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” But they also suggest, quite simply, a move away from identifying problems and towards suggesting alternatives and solutions.

Drilling even further, what would a specifically ethical criticism look like? What precedents might it consult? For the engagé critic, the history of activism is an obvious source. .15 Words like “responsibility,” “subjectivity,” “intimacy,” “the Other,” and “the encounter” recur often, for instance, in Levinas’s work. Ernesto Laclau suggests an ethico-political position that favors a “dialectic between detachment and engagement,” in which some “ultimate event” functions as an “empty signifier.”16 His example is the direct actions leading up to a possible general strike (the projected “empty signifier”) undertaken by Georges Sorel, the French philosopher and revolutionary.

We have “mastered” aesthetic criticism. Now it’s time for an ethical one.

For art critics, this dialectic might be expressed in the varying tasks and venues for our work and in acknowledging our role within the art system. In this context, representation is judgment: Who are we making visible? What are we overlooking? How can our writing support a system that is ethical rather than one that valorizes only a few artists, privileges institutions over individuals, or legitimates growth and profit rather than sustainable art practices?

In many ways, this is a “prefigurative” politics, as David Graeber has described the Occupy movement: envisioning the future by implementing it in the present (or, per Gandhi: being “the change you want to see in the world”).17 This role for criticism was also described by Terry Eagleton over 30 years ago:

The role of the contemporary critic is to resist [the dominance of the commodity] by re-connecting the symbolic to the political, engaging through both discourse and practice with the process by which repressed needs, interests and desires may assume the cultural forms which could weld them into a collective political force… Modern criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state; unless its future is now defined as a struggle against the bourgeois state, it might have no future at all.18

What ethical criticism demands is that we look more closely at the “container” or context as well as the object, performance, or action; that we move beyond Eagleton’s Marxist “cultural politics” to consider our affective attachments to the current systems of art and writing; and that we take a truly radical (i.e., root) approach to changing these things.

It is scary to think about ethics, just as it is frightening to think about change. And yet, it’s really just another branch on the same Western-philosophical tree (just the one that doesn’t support capitalism). We have “mastered” aesthetic criticism. Now it’s time for an ethical one, because, as usual, artists have already gotten there first, creating work that either proposes or implements new modes of focus, value, and exchange. It’s not just a question of altering the world for the sake of it, out of boredom or caprice: change, in many other forms, has already found us.


  1. Judith Butler, “Hannah Arendt, Ethics, and Responsibility,” lecture at the European Graduate School (2009).
  2. J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 220.
  3. I took my first art history class when I was 16 and published my first piece of criticism three years later in the Chicago Maroon at the University of Chicago.
  4. Hal Foster, “Post-Critical,” October 139 (Winter 2012), 8.
  5. Jackson, Shannon. Social Works: Performing art, supporting publics. New York: Routledge (2011).
  6. Brian Holmes, “Art after Capitalism,” in It’s the Political Economy, Stupid, Eds. Gregory Sholette and Oliver Ressler (New York: Pluto Press, 2013).
  7. See “Open Letter to The New York Times,”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Grant Kester, “Galatea’s Gaze: Ethics, Spectacle, and Participation,” in Engagement Party. Social Practice at MOCA 2008-2012 (MOCA, LA: 2013). The problem with the exploitation charge is that everyone from cult members to reality-show participants have been known to deny their own exploitation. From a critical perspective, Rainer might have done better to focus on how the decadence of the proceedings within a “critical” art context, occurring at the same moment as global uprisings protesting gross disparities of wealth, seemed like a gesture straight from the courts of pre-revolutionary France. Of course, Abramović’s 2010 retrospective at MoMA was predicated on similarly grotesque, imperial assumptions.
  10. Martha Schwendener, “What Crisis? Some Promising Futures for Art Criticism,” The Village Voice (January 7, 2009).
  11. Ursula Heise, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism,” PMLA (2006), 505.
  12. Heise, “How to Talk About the Weather,” in The New Inquiry (January 2013).
  13. I am thinking of Kevin Killian who has hijacked’s review format and written nearly 2,500 reviews of both cultural and consumer products, as well as Brian Droitcour’s gallery reviews on Yelp, Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube performance-critiques, and Twitter reviews and “haikus” by Alex WA, Margaret Graham, and others. (Thank you to Brian Boucher, Chris Kasper, Dushko Petrovich, Karen L. Schiff, and Sam Wilson for discussing this with me on Facebook.)
  14. Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 116. 15.Ezequiel Adamovsky, “A radical ethics of equality,” (2007).
  15. Ezequiel Adamovsky, “A radical ethics of equality,” (2007). politics_principles
  16. Ernesto Laclau, “Ethics, Politics and Radical Democracy – A Response to Simon Critchley,” Culture Machine, Vol 4 (2002).
  17. David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013).
  18. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London: Verso, 1984), 123-124.

The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues