The Bureau-cratization of Judgement

JJ Charlesworth

Published the 7 May 2021
Illustration by Danila Ilabaca

When did the crisis of art criticism begin? Was it in the 2000s, when James Elkins wrote that ‘Art criticism is in worldwide crisis’, arguing that art criticism’s decay: … is not the ordinary last faint push of a practice that has run its course, because at the very same time, art criticism is also healthier than ever… So healthy that it is outstripping its readers – there is more of it around than anyone can read.[I] Or was it in the 1970s? As critic Michael Newman would argue at the start of the 1990s; … one of the reasons for the problem of criticism today is its redundancy when changes in art practice, notably Conceptual art, displaced criticism from its role in relation to the avant-garde by incorporating critique… into the practice itself: art theory replaces art criticism as the appropriate way of mediating the practice, and is often carried out by the artists themselves.[II]

For Elkins, writing on the rising tide of the new, increasingly internationalised artworld of the 2000s, art criticism’s crisis was, paradoxically, a product of the artworld’s growing success. Newman’s earlier diagnosis, however, is the more substantial, although they are linked. Conceptual art – with its unprecedented conflation of art-work with text-work – is often seen as the paradigmatic turn in the trajectory of art in the last century. As Newman argues, this had a significant impact on the practice of art criticism, since Conceptual art incorporated the critical constitution of the artwork without mediation into the object of the artwork itself. For the practice of art criticism, the ‘conceptual turn’ posed profound problems for the critic, since in setting out the terms by which the artwork should be considered and understood, artists removed any space for interpretative and evaluative indeterminacy, which, of course, had up until then been a key characteristic of the role of the critic. By 1972, the British art critic Richard Cork, writing about a show of predominantly conceptualist work he had selected for a London commercial gallery, could write that ‘whatever angle the [the artist] chooses as his entrée has to be grasped by the critic, who must attend closely to this drastic reorientation of art if he wants to retain any validity at all. The traditional hierarchy, which dictated that the artist produced and the critic pronounced, has lost much of its meaning with today’s best work’.[III]

The extreme nature of the conceptualist challenge to the ‘hierarchy’ of ‘who produced and who pronounced’ makes Conceptualism appear a prominent influence in tracing the history of the crisis of criticism. But it is perhaps more the case that the Conceptual turn catalysed – albeit very self-consciously – the activity of selfproduced theory and criticism that artists were already increasingly engaged in throughout the 1960s. Reminiscing to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist about the New York art scene of the 1960s, critic and curator Lucy Lippard recalled that ‘Don Judd and Sol [LeWitt] and [Ad Reinhardt] and Robert Morris and Bob Smithson all wrote about art. That made a big difference – artists writing a sort of esoteric criticism. Maybe that took the place of manifestos. And with Conceptual art, texts became more important.’[IV] Artists have always written about art. However, what is at stake here is not the critical competences of artists, but rather the institutional divisions through which critical activity was distributed and articulated, and in which the figure of the critic once seemed to play such an influential role. Elsewhere in her conversation with Obrist, Lippard recalls the response to her curating of the show Eccentric Abstraction at the Marilyn Fischbach Gallery in 1966: ‘I was a critic and critics at that point didn’t really curate shows. Eugene Goossen and Lawrence Alloway had, but for a young woman critic to pop up caused a certain amount of attention. Hilton Kramer, or somebody, actually said writers should write and leave curating to curators.’[V]

Artists, critics, curators – everyone in their place, everyone performing their designated function.

Artists, critics, curators – everyone in their place, everyone performing their designated function. Of course we know that since then, artists have not stayed ‘in there place’. While the Conceptual turn epitomised the reality that artists were increasingly active in intervening in and regulating the terms of mediation of their work, curators have also not ‘stayed in their place’. Or rather, their practice has mutated, and in that mutation, it has appropriated the activity once assumed to be the domain of the critic – the deliberation, evaluation and mediation of the meaning of artworks produced in the present. In his preface to Obrist’s collection of interviews, Christophe Cherix suggests that:

If the modern figure of the critic has been well recognized since Diderot and Baudelaire, the curator’s true raison d’être remains largely undefined. No real methodology or clear legacy stands out in spite of today’s proliferation of courses in curatorial studies.[VI]

The preoccupation with the supposedly difficult-to-define character of contemporary curating (a difficulty, it should be said, that seems to be most strongly expressed by curators about their own practice) is a persistent motif throughout the period in which contemporary curatorial practice has risen to prominence, roughly since the mid-1990s. The perplexity of curators towards their own raison d’être is odd. After all, it appears straightforward to outline the professional and critical competences of the contemporary curator: a close awareness of the activity of contemporary artists; a working knowledge of the history of recent art; an engagement with the currency and history of intellectual and critical trends; and a capacity to make evaluative judgements about current artistic work which asserts and validates that work as worthy of the attention of the various publics that exist for contemporary art. It is immediately apparent that this is not a very good definition of what curating is or what a curator is – not because these qualities and competence are not those of the curator, but because they could equally also all be correct definitions of those of the critic. In other words, we need some further terms to distinguish the curator from the critic. What, then, do curators really do?

A simple answer would be: curators manage. Curators administer the institutions of the contemporary at the point of presentation. The vast development of the institutional forms of contemporary art since the 1990s has produced an equally vast demand for those capable of administering those institutional forms. We should remind ourselves, at this point, that the institutions of contemporary art are institutions of contemporary art – art being made now, circulated now. The mutation of curating then, can be also adequately described as the process of the museification of contemporary artistic practice – that is, the systematic extension of the public art institution into the presentation (and increasingly the production) of contemporary practice. The world that Lippard recalls – the Western context of the 1960s in which artists made work and critics criticised – was one which was only just assembling the infrastructure for the modern art museum; the rapid growth of the contemporary art centre would come after the cultural revolts of the late 1960s. The ‘crisis of criticism’, then, can be attributed in part to the end of an earlier distribution of critical practice in contemporary art. It is linked to the evolution of the institutional economy of contemporary art, in which contemporary artistic production became institutionalised, in the sense that the public institutions of contemporary art began to produce a permanent exhibition culture of strictly contemporary production; one which existed beyond the framework of the private gallery system or the artist-curated Do-It-Yourself exhibition, but which also transcended the archival, conservative and retrospective temporality of the museum.

We could argue, then, that the apparent ‘crisis’ of art criticism could in fact be its success.

This cannot be understood in isolation from the other change I have touched upon earlier. That artists are closely involved in the formation of critical discourse around their work is also a legacy of the Conceptual turn. The discourse which artists produce to legitimate their work could be said to regulate the reception of their work. Artists do not leave the business of meaning to critics anymore. The combination of these two historical developments produce the institutional culture we have become familiar with. As curating contemporary art has become more institutional, the administration of critical discourse around artworks has become more pre-emptive and predetermining. The extensive critical armatures which now attend the biggest curatorial-institutional projects – Kassel’s Documenta, for example – effectively administer the intellectual and critical space which these presentations occupy. Artists, equally, often produce works whose discursive space is carefully framed and inserted into recognisable critical preoccupations, which are anyway regulated by the economy of presentation managed by curators. This is why the ‘crisis of criticism’ appears at the turn of the 1970s, since it is from this point onwards that critically-reflexive artistic practice begins to intersect with a new economy of temporally reflexive institutional presentation, which goes beyond the retroactive historical limitation of the museum’s remit and which participates in the production of contemporary critical discourse.

We could argue, then, that the apparent ‘crisis’ of art criticism could in fact be its success – as long as we accept that this success is dependent on its professional relocation to a possibly more productive exchange between curator and artist. But this exposes the absence of another protagonist which we have so far not touched on – the public. Who, after all, do the curator and the artist represent? No-one but themselves. Who does the critic represent? This is a bigger question than can be explored fully here, but the history of the art critic is not simply that of the history of critical or historical discourses or methodologies. The history of the critic is that of the mediation of cultural life and the work of artists in relation to the attention and interest of a wider public. This is where the critic’s complicated position of mediation exists productively – in one direction articulating and communicating the facts and intentions of artworks and artists, and in the other direction bringing the interests and positions of those who are not artists to bear on the reception of the work.

This intermediate and conflictual practice of critical discourse is what has defined the position of the art critic since the role of the critic took shape in the mid-nineteenth century. Taking a position between the artist and the public, and between independent media and the official institutions of the state, the critic has, historically, moved continuously between the assertion of orthodoxy and the promotion of heterodoxy. The critic’s position is therefore partly determined by the tension that exists in different historical moments between orthodox and heterodox artistic practice, and by the conflict between official culture and non-official, oppositional or avant-garde artistic tendencies. This is why the critic can, at different times, take the role of censor or advocate. But in either case, that position has been defined by the particular character of public life at a given moment. What is often under-recognised about the period since the 1970s is the way in which heterodox artistic practice has become absorbed into official culture, as contemporary artistic practice has shifted from existing in the independent public realm (commercial culture or self-initiated artist-led initiatives) to operating in the increasingly officially sanctioned spaces of contemporary art.

the ‘crisis of criticism’ urgently needs to be understood relative to the tendency towards increasingly institutionalised forms of critical production.

Here, the post-1968 evolution of an institutionally sanctioned form of contemporary production has shifted the relationship between the public, independent artistic activity and the official institutions of art. That relationship has been – in Western Europe and North America at least – underwritten by the efforts of accommodation made by political establishments to contain the cultural revolts of 1968. So, for example, in the four decades leading to the economic crisis of 2007-08, public subsidy came to play an increasingly important role in sustaining the public, non-commercial venues which increasingly offered the context for contemporary artistic practice. This was supported by the gradual cultural normalisation and deradicalization of contemporary art which began from around the turn of the 1990s: while contemporary artistic cultures became the object of increasingly enthusiastic state patronage (particularly in Western Europe), a speculative commercial market for contemporary artistic practice emerged among a new generation of collectors who were no longer suspicious of the forms and practices of contemporary art that had taken shape during the 1970s and 80s. As this shift has occurred, the locus of critical activity has tended to shift towards more institutionalised forms and relations. Critical discourse on art has come to be organised more actively within the significant institutional spaces of professional formation – the art school and the curatorial department. Significantly, while the development of ‘post-medium’ teaching models in art schools since the 1970s have increasingly privileged the artist who can theorise and practice their own criticism – professionalising the fusion of ‘producing and pronouncing’– so curating has become an institutionalised and transmissible discipline – a development which began in earnest in the 1990s.

In this changed context, the idea of the critic mediating contemporary art for a broader public has become increasingly precarious, since the critic’s role as either advocate or censor of new artistic developments has been largely demobilised by the détente which now exists between much contemporary art and official culture. The era in which artistic developments could be subject to significant public debate appears to have ended when official culture decided that accommodation was preferable to censure. The idea that it should be for official culture to regulate what was acceptable in artistic culture, or to produce cultural institutions which excluded some artistic forms and privileged others, is no longer a widely held position. However, it is still the case that critical judgements are made by such institutions – the difference is that, today, those decisions are less publicly declared, and less subject to public critical scrutiny, than they may have been in the past. The fifty-year ‘crisis of criticism’ needs to be understood as the result of an important historical change in the relationship between official and non-official culture, and between official culture and the public. Any renewal of art criticism, therefore, requires a renewed analysis of the relationship between the public, artists and professional institutions, and the position which the art critic and their criticism takes in amongst these.

The role of the critic is not pre-determined. It emerges when official culture starts to be challenged by the demands of an independent public, who comprise both artists and their audiences. In the early twenty-first century, the ‘crisis of criticism’ urgently needs to be understood relative to the tendency towards increasingly institutionalised forms of critical production – what might be called the ‘bureaucratization of judgement’. That bureaucratization should also be understood in the context of the broader tendency, now widely evident in liberal democracies, to contain and restrict democratic participation in decision-making, which is increasingly transferred to the professional competences of experts and administrators. In that regard, the parallel between the institutionalisation of critical discourse in curating is evident, since curators do not, on the whole find themselves directly accountable to the wider public.

In this context, art criticism’s public role becomes more important.

This professional form has worked well while official support for contemporary art enabled the development of the curatorial profession, its administrative class. Recently, however, curators have started to find themselves in conflict with official patronage: the last few years has been punctuated by a number of high-profile controversies occurring between curators, their institutions and the wider political bureaucracies they inhabit – at Spain’s MACBA, the Stedelijk in the Netherlands, Germany’s Documenta 14 exhibition and Volksbuhne theatre, for example. While these are often presented as disputes over administrative competence, what lies behind these are the tensions produced by a shift to populism among politicians looking to provoke popular scepticism of contemporary art to further their own political agendas. Such events suggest that contemporary art is likely to face similar challenges in the future. With changeable official support, institutionalised forms of critical discourse will remain vulnerable to their sources of patronage. In this context, art criticism’s public role becomes more important, since the space of public criticism is alone able to offer a non-institutional critical discourse on art, independent of the instrumentalism of official culture or the institutionalised interests of curatorial discourse. Re-democratising judgement will mean making appeal to the public, rather than official culture, in how questions of artistic and cultural value are argued and decided. It is in on this terrain that criticism’s mediating, speculative and dissenting role might be reinvented.


[I] James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago, Ill: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), pp. 2–4.

[II] Michael Newman, ‘The Specificity of Art Criticism and Its Need for Philosophy’, in The State of Art Criticism, ed. by James Elkins and Michael Newman (Routledge: New York, 2008), pp. 29–60 (p. 30).

[III] Richard Cork, ‘The Critic Stripped Bare by His Artists, Even?’, in Critic’s Choice: 1973 Selection by Richard Cork (London: Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd, 1973).

[IV] Lucy Lippard and Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Interview with Lucy Lippard’, in A Brief History of Curating, ed. by Lionel Bovier (JRP|Ringier, 2018), pp. 195–233.

[V] Lippard and Obrist.

[VI] Christophe Cherix, ‘Preface’, in A Brief History of Curating, ed. by Lionel Bovier (JRP|Ringier, 2018).


This text is a revised version of an essay first published in Crítica de Arte: Crisis y Renovación, AICA Spain, 2019