fine print

The critic as community member

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This text is inspired by the writings of Mark Fisher and Donald Brook. This homage to Fisher appears on @xenogothic. Courtesy of Instagram.

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In 2016, curator and academic Tara McDowell published her essay ‘The Post-Occupational Condition’. Expanding on Rosalind Krauss’ discussion around the post-medium condition, McDowell traces the 21st century rejection of occupational specificity to define a condition that now feels like a natural assumption. Building on the “parasitic phenomenon of the ‘artist-as’”, (1) McDowell defines the post-occupational condition as having gone one step further, “dispensing with the term ‘artist’ (or critic, curator or art historian) in favour of something like art worker at large.”(2) Occupying the role of artist, curator, critic, teacher, administrator, and art historian often at once, arts workers are contorting themselves into multi-dextrous professionals as a means to survive in a workforce that is systematically casualised and underpaid. In the hope of a sustainable career, the arts worker must commodify themselves into optimisation, up-skilling and flexibility, all whilst attempting to meaningfully engage and collaborate within a community.

The central contradiction of this post-occupational condition – born out of dependency upon the global capitalist system – is the competition between the individual and the collective, the authority and the community member. The contemporary worker – often freelance, casualised, precarious – harbours an underlying anxiety between fulfilling the demands of professional mobility and maintaining their status as a community member.(3) Sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello summarise this phenomenon in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism as the contradiction between austerity and ascetism on the one hand, and flexibility and creativity on the other.(4) It exposes the double-edged demands of neoliberalism: the expectation of one’s competitive individualism is at odds with personal desires to build relationships, advocate for a community, engage in dialogue with like-minded people. As such, labour conditions reproduce themselves by exploiting workers to up-skill for fear of expendability and loss of work, allowing this very anxiety to masquerade shared individualism as meaningful collaboration. As this issue of fine print directly contends with, the term community shifts and finds new meaning depending on the context in which it is used. As such, the term is used here to reference a constellation of actors, a network of peers whose connectivity begins with – but is not limited to – the practical foundation of proximity.

The post-occupational implications for community can be understood from two opposing positions. As McDowell outlines, the precariat – a mashed up term combining the proletariat and precarity (5) – has produced an ‘emergent new class of cognitive labourers’ (6) which harbours the precariousness of labour conditions to either create social cohesion and community (which can lead to collective action) or exacerbate feelings of risk that leads to rampant and competitive individualism. In a necessary reaction to such conditions, the arts worker is thus forced to confront the potential of these opposing implications on how communities are formed, maintained and contested.    

This essay takes a closer look at one key actor in many global arts ecologies – the critic – to argue that upholding this contradiction between social cohesion and individual commodification can lead to towards criticism as generative community practice.

Can the critic be both critical and a community member? Who is the critic speaking for or to? How does criticism remain a generative practice when the precarity of one’s professionalism hinges on participation within the community it critiques?

One of the results of the post-occupational condition – alongside pedagogical shifts, the professionalisation of artistic practice and institutional demands – is the artist and curator’s ability to theorise themselves. As editors Thijs Lijster, Suzanna Milevska, Pascal Gielen and Ruth Sonderegger point out in the introduction to Spaces for Criticism: Shifts in Contemporary Art Discourses, “the art critic has lost its self-evidence … increasingly the public either ignores or contests the ‘professional’ judgement of the critic,” (7) declaring an end to the critic’s monopoly on interpretation.

If, as Spaces for Criticism seems to declare, artists and exhibitions no longer need the critic to theorise their ideas, what then does the critics function become? And does being embedded in a community allow for the critics more intimate mediation between artist, artwork and public?

While their declaration knowingly simplifies the multifaceted task of criticism – as the anthology’s central aim is to expose new ways and spaces where art critics interact with the public – it provides grounds for suggesting the role of the critic has transformed from ‘authority’ to ‘translator’. This is not a new idea, but a useful analogy to consider the intersection of current labour conditions and what this means for the critic’s relationship to their audience. The critic is increasingly embedded in spaces – in their other roles as artist, curator, administrator, board member – that strengthens their place in a given community and affords them the cultural capital to make commentary.

As such, understanding the critic as a translator implicates heightened levels of responsibility to the audience, and by proxy, the critic themselves in their occupation of multiple professional positions. By interrogating the theoretical contradiction between the means of production ­– criticism from within a community that is professionally and personally entangled – and the traditional aims of criticism – to critique, evaluate and make judgment – we can re-assess the outcomes of criticism by repositioning the critic as a community member.

Leaning in to the demands for individual optimisation and community collaboration to build meaningful relationships between peers demonstrates the generative capabilities of criticism from within an arts ecology that is enmeshed, overlapping and built on conversations that slip between personal and professional spaces. Instead of complications arising from the critic’s occupation within multiple professional contexts, this becomes a powerful position in which to empathise and problematise. To exist within the space between free worker and community member allows the critic to reframe modes of display and interrogate organisational practices by way of intimate comparison.

Criticism’s task is no longer simply defined by evaluation, explanation and judgement, but by a close understanding of the actors, decisions, organisational dynamics and institutional ambitions that make up an arts community. As criticism finds new and diverse platforms, it becomes an integral practice by which organisations and individuals are held accountable, systems of inclusion and exclusion are provoked, and institutionally naturalised power dynamics are contested. Professionally enmeshed, criticism serves both the writer and its audience by opening up dialogue between peers that recognises the limitations of a community defined only by proximity.

In understanding criticism as peer-to-peer dialogue, we can do away with the tired exclamation of the critic’s loss of criticality, and instead understand how criticism can serve the critic and their audience simultaneously. The nature of post-occupational professional relationships provides an intimacy of being-with and a part of multiple arts communities that affords a familiar position from within which to critique. If the critic’s trustworthiness is no longer defined by their expertise but measured by their participation, the unidirectional claims of the critic’s authority can be replaced by processes of dialogue that are more akin to generative community practice. Criticism can generate discourse in both the content of its writing and the conditions of its publication, disrupting the often-unequal opportunities for a diversity of writers to speak on the very community criticism claims to emancipate. Perhaps the critic as a necessary and engaged community member provides the grounds for a revitalisation of critique, recalibrating the relationship between criticism and community that works with, rather than against, the post-occupational condition.