The first time I heard about art criticism’s supposed crisis was from Nancy Princenthal. She wrote “Art Criticism, Bound to Fail” in the January 2006 issue of Art in America, though hers was not the first essay to argue it. She starts out by saying that a “lack of order, rules of conduct and fixed standards for measuring success have lately, again (there is periodicity to this), provoked some despair; the term ‘crisis’ has been used.” Had been used. She mentions a 2001 roundtable in the contemporary art journal October and a short book by James Elkins—who got a lot of mileage out of the debate—called What Happened to Art Criticism?
In the years that followed, a lot of art critics spilled a lot of ink on the topic. It’s tough to say how valuable any of those arguments will end up being to art history. Will students study them? I’ve tended to find them as often stifling and self-absorbed as constructive. Criticism’s crisis has been its own death of painting—never over. One thing at least seems certain: The supposed crisis gave critics something to write about. (It may have even been a strategy of self-preservation, a substitute for a dissolving sense of purpose.) Who knows whether it’s been as interesting for readers; if it’s had any impact on whether art criticism has been written, or how.
This was supposed to be the root of the crisis: Art criticism couldn’t be critical, didn’t have defined criteria, or didn’t have much reason to be critical. Was the supposed crisis the result of shifts in the market? Rather than ‘critical,’ most debates seemed to assume, recent writing on art tended / tends to be discursive. Maybe the inward-looking debate over art criticism was further evidence of its discursiveness. Or maybe it had something to do with the sea change of opinion regarding conventional models of critique? Some say the trajectory of post-1960s critique—its ‘failure’—had to do with ‘imminence.’ I first heard the word in this context at a conference, Art and Its Frames, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Lüneburg University’s artspace Kunstraum in 2014. Kunst-raum is best known for its projects with artists in the 1990s artistic tradition of Kontext Kunst. At the conference, a German writer and curator known for her work in that era, Marion von Osten, used the word in her talk. ‘Imminence’ for von Osten seemed to be both a reality and a model. It implied the belief that outside positions can only ever be hypothesized; even if doing so might bring one into existence, it could only ever be temporary. (Derrida’s “The Parergon” presided over the conference and was invoked in the organizers’ introduction.) Institutions, it was assumed, are flexible enough to accommodate critique, to expand to incorporate alternatives, to assimilate and subsume. ‘Imminence,’ then, would be like a horizon, both an accepted fate and an always-closing window of opportunity. But it would never be a reason not to try. Von Osten’s use of the word in this context signified determination—to the extent that I can remember her meaning. ‘Imminence’ seemed to stand for something perpetual, something inevitable, something always already happening as well as a window constantly closing. Unfortunately, when I’ve searched online, I couldn’t find any cases of it being used similarly.
My dictionary widget defines ‘imminence’ as “the state or fact of being about to happen.” ‘Imminence,’ it goes on to say, could easily enough appear in a sentence like “The populace was largely unaware of the imminence of war.” Dark, dictionary. But then, war is imminent, in that it’s bound to occur at any moment—before we know it, you could say. Even more likely in the dictionary’s hypothetical example, though, would probably be that the populace was distant or numb to the constant war(s) raging in an elsewhere nearer or further away.
The same dictionary doesn’t list ‘imminent’ and ‘inevitable’ as synonyms, nor suggest that anything about what’s imminent is perpetual. It describes ‘inevitable’ as “certain to happen; unavoidable” in the sense of “war was inevitable.” Again. Something imminent seems to be different in that it’s not just going to happen; it’s going to happen soon. ‘Imminent’ the adjective is “impending, close (at hand), near, (fast) approaching, coming, forthcoming, on the way, in the offing, in the pipeline, on the horizon, in the air, just around the corner, coming down the pike, expected, anticipated, brewing, looming, threatening, menacing; informal in the cards.”
Ironically, the adjective ‘imminent,’ when exemplified, is “a ceasefire was imminent.” But then isn’t war always—just about to start; just about to end?
As you might have guessed, I’d misunderstood. I’d only heard von Osten speak about ‘imminence.’ I hadn’t read a transcript of her talk, so I didn’t realize she was speaking about ‘immanence’ with an a, its homonym, a word I wasn’t familiar with. So I’d drafted this essay and given it the wrong title.
‘Immanence’ with an a means “existing or operating within; inherent: the protection of liberties is immanent in constitutional arrangements.” It apparently also means: “(of God) permanently pervading and sustaining the universe. Often contrasted with transcendent.” Had I googled von Osten and immanence, as I later did, I would have found a link to the contemporary art journal e-flux’s 17th issue, from Summer 2010. It was guest-edited by von Osten as her contribution to the 6th Berlin Biennale. The site doesn’t link to a Pdf of the issue, but it includes a statement from the journal’s three editors about why they invited von Osten:
A number of alternate, informal approaches to art and economy that arose in the Berlin of the 90s created a great deal of space and potential for rethinking relations between people, as well as possible roles for art in society. Today, however, much of this hope has since been obscured by the commercial activity and dysfunctional official art institutions most visible in the city’s art scene, and though many of the ways of living and working that were formulated in the 90s are still in practice today (not just in Berlin), many of their proponents acknowledge a feeling that the resistant, emancipatory capacities inherent to their project have since been foreclosed upon. Our interest in inviting Marion von Osten to guest-edit e-flux journal’s issue 17 had to do precisely with this widespread, prevailing sense of rapidly diminishing possibilities in the face of capitalist economy, and her extensive issue offers a broad and ambitious reformulation of how we might still rethink resistance and emancipation both within, and without capitalism—even at a time when alternate economies move ever nearer to everyday capitalist production, and vice-versa.
The webpage also includes what appears to be von Osten’s preface to the issue. She proposed that the issue could be thought of as “the beginning of a debate that asks whether the (cultural) Left is still capable of thinking and acting beyond the analysis of overwhelming power structures or working within the neoliberal consensus model.” (Her emphasis, not mine. Already contained within.) She then asks, “What would such thinking beyond the existing critical parameters disclose and demand? Wouldn’t it call for spaces of negotiation and confrontation rather than of affirmation, cynicism, and flight?”
Von Osten wrote that the issue itself was conceived in conversation with e-flux’s founder-editor Anton Vidokle at a café in Berlin Mitte. She chose to recall the setting because, for her, it symbolized unfriendly changes happening in the city. (I was part of those changes; I moved to the city a couple months later, in October 2010.) Perhaps to compensate, issue 17 of e-flux contained contributions from mostly Berlin-based artists, cultural producers, and theorists knew had already been reflecting on von Osten’s chosen themes for some time. Still, it might come as no surprise that “the authors [provided] few easy answers to the above questions.” Which raises the question, Was posing them the point? So that the questions wouldn’t go ignored?
In the introduction’s concluding paragraph, von Osten utters the word ‘immanence’ and then states: “Although the present is constituted by postcapitalist practices (and politics as well), we still have to engage in the discourse and establish a new language, whether textual or visual, in order to make these practices apparent, articulated, and applicable.” She closes by making an inspired distinction, explaining that the issue aspires to ask not “What has to be done?” but rather “What has been done already? And how do we go on?”