Notes on Art Criticism with Reference to the Writings of Sven Lütticken

Joan Fowler

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Joan Fowler is a writer and lecturer at the National College of Art and Design, and Associate Fellow at the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media.

Preface
The first version of this text was a paper delivered at the Conference Arts Research: Publics and Purposes which was held in Dublin in February 2010 and organised by the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM). This is a revised and extended version.

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While the guideline for this section of the Conference is to describe my research and to address its potential for change, I will look at someone else's work. My object of study therefore is not strictly my subject but that of the academic, critic, theorist, and sometime curator, Sven Lütticken. My surrogate mini-study could be said to be a figure in my research: recently his writing played a discreet part in my thinking. Here, I will examine a critic who publishes with remarkable frequency and considerable theoretical substance on contemporary art and culture. My interpretation of someone else's work is itself incomplete, not simply because Lütticken's work is work-in-process, but also because I have not read a proportion of his published work to date. For example, I do not take account of his writing which is published only in German or in Dutch (he is based in the Netherlands). This may seem to illegitimatize my task from the outset, but I believe Lütticken's general aims are sufficiently clear to justify my assessment. Another kind of issue arises from his English language reviews, essays, and books. The reviews and essays are usually exact and exacting of the various cultural products under scrutiny; but what of the books? Are these densely layered texts deliberately so in order to declare that the intent is not a reductive analysis of contemporary art and its condition, or is it that such ambitious writing involves a speculative component which exceeds conventional views of art and culture? The primary purpose of this paper is to propose and trace a consistency of theoretical intent in Lütticken's writings. This should not be taken to mean that art's function is to illustrate theory. On the contrary, it should be clear from a reading of Lütticken's work that he is interested precisely in the speculative in art, and his texts may be seen as interacting with this speculative practice. In this respect, his work may be seen as akin to the intellectual tradition in literary criticism, though it is emphatically geared towards the social rather than aesthetic or spiritual ends.
I need to expand on what this word ‘ambition' involves in this context because it is this which seems to me to distinguish Lütticken. He has ambition for artistic, cultural, and theoretical critique that he develops through theory and practice, the latter as criticism (including the exhibitionary form). While art criticism, according to several commentators, is undergoing crisis and redundancy,1 Lütticken's work implies otherwise. It raises the possibility of reinvesting art criticism's original role as an interface between art and public, though in a different way than before.
At very least this latter claim requires qualification, and I offer a cautious stab in this direction. Initially, in the eighteenth century, the task of art criticism was largely one of reviewing and commenting on exhibitions, largely through the organ of the press. By the mid-nineteenth century there were indications of greater contextualisation of contemporary art in criticism, that is, art was set within a larger social / cultural milieu, most notably in Baudelaire's writings on art and modernity.2 Further, in the early 1960s in New York, several art critics who followed Clement Greenberg aspired towards more rigour in criticism with the development of their respective arguments for certain contemporary avant-garde American art as the most significant art of its time. For these critics significant art was to be advanced through significant criticism. In principle, the criticism pursued by Greenberg and his circle3 was to be based in objective research and critical judgement, and it assumed the form of reviews and articles which were published in art magazines. Here we see for the first time a more systematic shift from the particular to the general, from particular art works or exhibitions towards art in general, even if the general in this instance did not reach beyond the art within the New York art world. It is therefore possible to say that by the mid-twentieth century there existed a concept of art criticism which aspired towards a determination of contemporary art in general.
However, after the rejection of what became the orthodoxy and even dogmatism of Greenbergian formalism, the next extant attempt to proclaim general principals and purview in art criticism, as well as promoting radical change in art and in how ‘art' is thought, was through the historical and critical category of postmodernism. This was articulated - at the point of its general emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s - by the critics associated with October, the periodical inaugurated by Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson in 1976.4 While in reality the case for paradigm change in art involved complex arguments around art, culture, and theory, a simple message was successfully conveyed: a major change was taking place in how art was produced and consumed. At October this was marked by the advocacy of postminimalist art, and especially by the rejection of Formalist criticism and the adoption of so-called French theory or poststructuralism. The title, October, was itself based on Eistenstein's film of the Russian revolution - a sign of intent that the journal was about artistic and cultural overhaul ... and more.
Through the decade of the 1980s the question of what postmodernism did or didn't entail was the most contested issue within (and without) the art world.5 Postmodernism had potential for general application: modernism was international as an arm of western capitalism and the ‘post' prefix could have flexed muscle as a critical tool in an emerging global economy. Yet the very popularity and therefore inevitable appropriation and re-contextualisation of the term led to its rejection by its original proponents at October.6 Radical change in art and criticism was seen to have mutated into mere fashion accessory. Hal Foster, for instance, quickly saw ‘the postmodern' as little other than commodity packaging and instead (for a time) he turned to the term "neo-avant-garde" as his preferred critical category in respect to contemporary art.7 In this he was building upon Peter Bürger's book entitled Theory of the Avant-Garde.8 Foster largely accepted Bürger's analysis of the early avant-garde (coined ‘historical avant-garde') as engaging in a critique of the institution of art, but rejected his analysis of post-war avant-garde (‘neo-avant-garde') as merely simulating the practices of their predecessors in that the critique was absent. Foster argued that conditions in the later twentieth century were different and that artists have necessarily responded to change which meant their work was to be distinguished from their predecessors in this respect. In the 1990s Foster had initiated a concept of art criticism based in part on psychoanalytic theories and practices in which he identified avant-garde returns (in the psychoanalytical sense) to problems of modernity and art. However, he quickly abandoned it. Yet he has not reneged on the principle that there is a need for a "narrative," as opposed to a critical model, in and for contemporary art.9 "Narrative," then, is not a model to be emulated, but "narrative" is more than merely an incidental story: "So what sort of narrative?"10 he asks, a question addressed not only to himself but to the object of his analyses. Narratives do not simply narrate something; they perform another more important function connected to ideology and are in part intentional.
In the wake of the proposition that postmodernity is the defining condition of the contemporary we have witnessed a fragmentation of critical discourse in and on art: institutional critique, relational aesthetics, and variants of ‘public art' are among localised formations identified with particular artists and critics, as well as curators as recent stars within a commodified, globalised art world that have to some extent replaced critics as the acknowledged interface between art and public. None of these aspires to the encompassing embrace of ‘postmodernism' as a theory of contemporary art and culture. After the orthodoxies and exclusivity of modernism, and after what was often perceived as the autocracy assumed by the so-called ‘Octobrists' during their heyday,11 it is hardly surprising that diversity of views on contemporary art is construed as good and reflective of cultural diversity. Yet this is a situation with stark weaknesses. For example, Foster has remarked that when art can do "whatever.... (t)his ‘end of art' is presented as benignly liberal - art is pluralistic, its practice pragmatic, and its field multicultural - but this position is also not-so-benignly neo-liberal, in the sense that its relativism is what the rule of the market requires."12 One might take from this that a revived art criticism should guide art with a more beneficent hand than market ‘pluralism', though in reality there is little prospect of a Greenbergian-style helmsman. While Foster has said on a number of occasions that art needs a narrative,13 it seems clear enough from his publications over the past decade that what he intends by this are little narratives which are relatively accessible rather than a master narrative. This question of the extent to which criticism could be said to formulate art has been at issue for a long time.14 At the moment this question is more likely to be posed at the curator. It is in itself therefore unusual in the context of contemporary art that Sven Lütticken places importance on the role of criticism, or more precisely, in critique. Moreover, as such, he tends towards the master narrative, especially in his books, while managing to maintain considerable openness in his practice of criticism. While Lütticken has similar interests to Foster,15 and probably owes much to him, it is remarkable that whereas Foster's role as critic and role as academic art historian are generally seen as separate fields, Lütticken appears to see his roles from critic to academic as part of the same continuum. For example, where Foster's writing, in keeping with much art criticism of the past, often lacks references, Lütticken's writings are usually liberally sourced. This seems to me to be not just a generational difference, but to contain differences of outlook as to the operations and function of criticism. It reflects a shift to the knowledge economy that characterises the start of the twenty-first century.
In summary then, art criticism as a practice comments on and (sometimes) assesses contemporary art but exists in a marginal, ill-defined location in contemporary culture. On one hand its original function of writing on art in newspapers and magazines has receded. The primary reasons for this are economic and the conditions prevalent in the mass media. But at the same time its survival is, perversely, an outgrowth of university courses: practice and study of contemporary art are often more popular with students than say, art-historical studies. More or less as a direct result, art criticism is now much more theoretically based but, as such, it has mutated. In its purer form, its outlets are increasingly in specialist journals or equally specialist catalogues. In its secondary form, it has entered the practice of art itself since critical awareness is so much a part of the formal and informal education of artists that criticism or critique is seen to be essential. The task of this paper is to pursue text-based criticism through the writings of Lütticken. However, this inevitably raises general questions: what relation does this criticism bear to its original which functioned in the public sphere? That is to say, its theoretical leaning is strongly oriented in the academy. Also, if there are fundamental questions regarding the role and position of art criticism, there are also fundamental questions regarding its subject. What theoretical frameworks can we speak of in respect to the concept of the contemporary, and the concept of contemporary art? And, what critical principles can be employed in or on contemporary art?
I should emphasise that my interest is primarily in Lütticken's writings on contemporary art and to a lesser extent his reviews and essays on film and writing which incorporates other elements of visual culture. I will necessarily concentrate on his analysis of contemporary conditions and art's general role therein rather than on his actual practice of criticism in which particular artworks or artists are discussed. While I believe that his practice of criticism isn't burdened by theoretical pre-determination, it is possible only to indicate what I take to be the principles behind his approach: the criticism needs to be read in context. It remains one of the peculiarities of art criticism, perhaps reflecting the temporal conditions of art and art criticism, that it remains less subject to recuperation within a canon than, say, literary criticism. It should be noted also that Lütticken has published on art - historical subjects, and that historical analysis plays an important role in his position as critic.

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"It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place."
Thus runs Fredric Jameson's grand opening sentence in what remains his most widely circulated book.16 While the concept of the postmodern is no longer the burning issue it was twenty years ago when Jameson wrote these words, it serves to identify the framework for Sven Lütticken's criticism. Firstly, though less explicitly than Jameson, there is his interest in a Marxist legacy. In a loose sense writers and artists who are critically informed by this legacy are the primary reference points for his writing, and it is clear that he sees it as his task to develop aspects of Marxist and neo-Marxist theory for the contemporary context, amended by recent French theory. Secondly, his aim can be said to be a thinking of the present historically and this involves the critique of current culture in conjunction with art that itself is deemed to contain critique of art or culture. While transformation of the conditions of capitalism is not imminent, all the more reason to intensify the critique. Thirdly, like Jameson, Lütticken extends his interest across the social and cultural spectrum. He is not so much a writer on art as a writer who sees art as one aspect of the cultural sphere. Thus, where predominant "philosophical art critics"17 from Rosalind Krauss to Claire Bishop can be said to apply theory to the site of art, Lütticken is less inclined to privilege art in this way. This differentiates Lütticken from many of his peers in thinking the present.
In the preface to his latest book, published in 2009, Lütticken comments that his research towards it had become an attempt to rethink the dominant conditions of the first decade of the twenty-first century.18 This not only signals his sense of periodisation, as Jameson might put it, but his sense of his own course within the decade. While he has been active as a critic since the mid-1990s, the occasion of his third book is to recollect that together they are distributed across the decade. I will concentrate on these texts since they indicate in most concentrated form the development of Lütticken's thinking.19
Lütticken's first book is in fact his student dissertation which was published in a limited edition in 2002. Allegories of Abstraction is largely an attempt to trace a shift in language and meaning bestowed on abstract art from the mid-twentieth-century ‘symbol' to the late-twentieth-century ‘sign'. Further, the effect of adopting the discursive model of the sign is to break with "the teleological model of history."20 Since its initial plan for the dissertation dates back to the 1990s, this expansive work is essentially an attempt to document and analyse a change from modernist to postmodernist discourse. This is pursued through the strictures imposed by abstract art as central to modernism and the shift in artistic, conceptual, and theoretical frameworks which in one way or another came to distinguish postmodernist from modernist art. The book aims to demonstrate through detailed textual analysis an evolution in the ‘abstract' work from the unique, sensual object of modernism which embodied feeling or even spirituality, to the abstract work which was discursive, or postmodern, in both conception and reception: the latter sections of the book give detailed accounts of how artists such as Gerhard Richter and Peter Halley articulate their ‘abstract' paintings. While it is written as an art - historical text without a gesture towards criticism, it has to be said that there is nothing ostensibly new in this overall thesis. A shift to the concept of the sign as an explanatory vehicle for art was precisely what October critics had advocated in the late 1970s and, while their initial critical intent was against formalist abstraction and towards new art that addressed itself to the context of culture and the mass media, later art and criticism in this ‘postmodern' guise re-addressed abstract art.21 By and large, Allegories of Abstraction can be seen as a basis for Lütticken's later work. It serves as a thorough examination of the immediate background for the art later produced by his contemporaries during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
At the same time Allegories of Abstraction can be read as other than a conventional text within the discipline of Art History. For instance, nowhere within the text is there reference to the importance of abstraction as a concept in the emergence of Art History as a discipline in the early twentieth century which is what one might expect from an aspiring art historian. More importantly, and despite the rigor of the research, it is difficult or even impossible for the reader to pin down a precise distinction within Lütticken's dissertation between ‘symbol' and ‘sign' for this context. In definitional terms both mean ‘stand for something', yet Lütticken uses these terms as pretext for nothing less than paradigm change. It seems that already Lütticken has more in common with the art-critical writings that frame this work than with the presumed neutrality of the discipline of Art History. The text is more ideologically driven than it might at first appear. In this respect, one can read the title as an incorporation of both Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Benjamin is identified in the Introduction, where his writing on allegory is cited. Benjamin had derived his concept of allegory from his study of the pre-modern Baroque. Lütticken writes:

Generally speaking, an important element of modernism was the quest for ‘pure' abstract signs; the discursive side of abstraction was often denied in favour of a symbol theory that assumed forms could communicate directly - almost magically. This quest has been abandoned in postmodern art for what will be argued is an allegorical approach to abstraction: the artists use elements from the past of abstract art (as well as other formal sources) as the German baroque playwrights of Walter Benjamin's Trauerspiel (Tragic Drama) book use antiquity - as a collection of ruins to be endowed with meaning, as fragments to be pasted together again after their original function is lost.22

This introduction of the concept of allegory as a "temporal and historical mode of signification,"23 reinvests Craig Owens's October essay ‘The Allegorical Impulse'.24 However, in stating his case, Lütticken alludes to Michel Foucault's critique of the teleological model of history, but rejects his alternative of the episteme, or the set of relations that define a given period. Foucault had rejected allegory on the basis that its application merely replaces one essentialism (symbolism) with another (the allegorical approach which asks what the text really means). Foucault's episteme is, according to Lütticken, nothing other than "an ideal of pure description and categorisation."25 Lütticken defends Benjamin against Foucault, claiming that "Benjaminian allegory is an attempt to make sense out of the debris of the past from the present point - precisely because these historical ruins have become illegible, because they are fundamentally alien."26 Examining the past is crucial to an understanding of the present.
Lütticken's relationship with Adorno is more elusive, but nevertheless present within this text. In the first instance it is possible to reference Adorno via Fredric Jameson in the latter's account of the emergence of postindustrial society in which the intent is to expose the new society's hidden meanings through the concept of the allegorical. Modernist critics, notably Greenberg and Adorno, had sought to defend abstraction as a last bastion of resistance against the mass media and an increasingly administered society. But, in the end, abstract art proved to be the perfect adornment to the office environment of the new corporations. In Allegories of Abstraction the eventual alliance between abstract art and postindustrial society is crucial: the abstract artwork is consumed within the context of Corporate America, a model which will eventually extend across the rest of the world. There is though a more philosophical sense in which Lütticken might regard Adorno as a luminary but of the past rather than the present. Adorno believed that in modern conditions all products, including artworks, have become commodified. However, avant-garde modernist art - by turning critique in on itself in the autonomous artwork - held a resistance to capitalism. This dialectic between commodity and autonomy, the artwork's ability to be other than commodity, is a potential for the future. Postmodernism, however, is observed by Lütticken as superseding the singular and autonomous artwork. This constituted a shift from the autonomous artwork to perceiving the artwork as necessarily caught up in intersubjective relations where its existence as artwork depends on acceptance between people, or cultural recognition as such. But where postmodern art was seen by many of its proponents as reinvesting in cultural and social politics and its ability to take up causes, especially the causes of minorities identified by race, sex, or gender,27 Lütticken is much more circumspect, seeing it rather as another, more intense phase of relations under capitalism.
Lütticken's second book is his collection of reviews and essays, Secret Publicity, published in 2005,28 which remains his most cohesive contribution towards a foundation for his art criticism. The organisation of the collection reveals much. The term ‘postmodernism' is replaced with, simply, ‘contemporary art'. The first essay, ‘Secret Publicity: the Avant-Garde Repeated',29 has at its centre, Jürgen Habermas's theory of the Public Sphere.30 This deserves some comment because it is unusual in art criticism or contemporary art theory that theory based in research on documented social conditions is brought to the fore, which is what Habermas had done in developing his theory. First an outline of Habermas's original account is in order. It can be divided into three phases. The first is a pre-bourgeois public sphere, a still feudal situation where, according to Habermas, the "publicness (or publicity) of representation" is "something like a status attribute."31 An enactment of status is more symbolic than simply being a function of the apparatus of authority. By virtue of this display of status an aura is created. The subsequent emergence of the bourgeois public sphere is marked by the development of a separation between public and private, and by the formation of ‘public opinion' which is distinct from the State apparatus and a necessary foil to it. While "representative publicness" continues in new forms (such as the performative role of the ‘gentleman'), Habermas is more concerned with "critical publicity" as constitutive of the new public sphere. Public opinion is formed through the discursive capacities of organs such as printed matter, associations, etc. Crucially, public opinion has capacity for rationality and universality in its judgements as to the good for society generally, and thereby this articulation of public opinion serves to moderate the power of the State through critique of the actual or proposed ordinances of the State because Government needs to heed such opinion for its survival. In the third phase, the public sphere begins to lose its position in assessing what is considered right for the good society because the privatising forces of commerce, which includes the privatising of media, rapidly becoming the mass media, begin to take greater control and begin to construct ‘public opinion'. Thus, in modernity, the State apparatus works to break down the distinctions between public and private spheres in the interests of its power and in collusion with the interests of capital. It seeks to construct ‘public opinion' at the expense of the public sphere. Publicness therefore begins to assume one of two forms, one whose purpose is critique in the interest of the greater good, and the other whose purpose is to construct ‘public opinion'. While Habermas moved on from his analysis of the bourgeois public sphere, in his later writings he retains the principle as the project of modernity. The enemies of a public sphere are the normativising duo of morality and utility and Habermas seeks to counteract these with what he sees as the dialectical play of publicity and secrecy.
While the above outline is crude, it makes apparent a model where criticism and critique can be placed on a broader, more social platform than simply as functions within the arts. However, the validity of Habermas's claims for the public sphere remain at issue, especially since many now doubt its existence at all. For his part, Lütticken rejects Habermas's public sphere as an idealised notion and insists that the ‘public sphere' today is a creation of the mass media: it is spectacle.32 The purpose of the critic is then to consider "the potential of art to constitute a critical form of publicness within the contemporary spectacle."33 In Secret Publicity then, Lütticken adopts Habermas up to a point. Taking his writings as a whole, Lütticken maintains a commitment to the critical role of art and criticism. At no point does he take up the ‘aura' of the earlier form of publicness as a concept to be applied to art or aesthetics as residue from an earlier era. He has, however, said that "the modern work of art is both critique and promesse de bonheur."34 Art is assessed by Lütticken (he does not subscribe to a Kantian ‘judgement') in its critical relation to its subject, not in regard to some notion of quality. In the essays and reviews on contemporary art in Secret Publicity, this subject is the institution of art. But critical art is not identical to ‘good' art; criticality may be considered necessary but it is not sufficient. It might be said at this juncture that while Lütticken does not use the crude label ‘critical art' he does pursue art which he sees as critical or as having critical potential in regard to cultural and social institutions as well as ideological conservatism. ‘Critical' here is not the same as ‘good' art in terms of aesthetic judgement. The latter does not enter Lütticken's lexicon, presumably because Aesthetics as a theoretical justification for the fine arts is closely aligned with class privilege. (The question of subjectivity is addressed by Lütticken in the context of psychoanalytic theory [see below].)
The second important element of the first essay in Secret Publicity is the development of the ‘Secret' of the title. Given the extent of spectacle, the identification of counter-publicness is necessary, and Lütticken turns to the small-distribution networks of journals and reviews which were important forums for avant-garde groups from Dada to the Situationists. In this, he follows Habermas's lead but with particular reference to the radical dimensions. Lütticken then examines Georges Bataille's writings in some detail. Unlike Habermas, Bataille had an "aversion" to the Enlightenment and the belief in the rational society. Bataille called for a sacred avant-garde which would transgress the autonomous spheres of modern society with their subject-object distinctions. Bataille called for a reintegrated society which required the creation of new myths and rituals. Lütticken writes: "But how to create new myths? To answer this question, Bataille looked towards secret societies as tools for radical change, arguing that the idea of the secret society was already implicit in the artistic avant-garde ...." Continuing this theme and in reference to the mythologies of the secret group which operated during the Romantic period, Lütticken asks, "Could such an esoteric group not be used to create something that might also function as an esoteric, popular mythology? Secrecy would then be a necessary preparation for going public in future."35 This both looks back to Adorno and Benjamin (resistance and allegory) and forward to themes in his most recent book, Idols of the Market.
The reason for the need for secret societies is the prevalence of spectacle which is the subject of the second essay in Secret Publicity. ‘The Art of Revolution: the Situationist International and its Afterlife',36 sets out Lütticken's position on the Situationists and Guy Debord in particular. Its significance for Lütticken is measured by the fact that in Idols of the Market he is clearly of the view that spectacle, or advanced capitalism as a whole, is pervasive. What then for critical art? In his essay Lütticken argues that Debord's practice is aimed more towards the art of negation than the negation of art. While it can be deduced from Debord's theorising in Society of the Spectacle37 and elsewhere that he was fully committed to collapsing art into life, Lütticken references Debord's films to argue that there is indeed a positivity as well as a negativity in the work. This is a crucial point for many who have concerned themselves with the possibility of art under spectacle. Hal Foster, for example, is of the view that Debord was indeed committed to art's negation. More broadly, Foster sees this foreclosure as part of his objection to Debord or this version of Marxism. For Foster, spectacle is not all-pervasive.38 Foster believes that art may still contribute towards alternatives - which is also Lütticken's position. The difference is that Lütticken argues that what has become the dominant reading of Debord is too simple and he makes the case for a different reading which will demonstrate his belief in the efficacy of art. The difference between Lütticken and Foster may seem as hair-splitting, but it is a difference between standing inside or outside a Marxist legacy. For Lütticken, at least in this instance, he can stand inside the legacy and challenge dominant readings of artworks as popularised through art's media.
These two key essays in Secret Publicity establish reference points for Lütticken's criticism. Given the pervasive nature of spectacle, counter-publicness must operate within secret, even sacred, societies with codes and practices that are deliberately obscure. This though does not pre-empt examination of conditions under the spectacle, both in art and in criticism. Before turning to the development of these precepts in Idols of the Market, I will refer to another important aspect of Lütticken's work which has been neglected here thus far. For a publication on knowledge production in relation to art, Lütticken contributed an essay, ‘Unknown Knowns: on Symptoms in contemporary art', which has as its subject Freudian psychoanalytic theory and art.39 In a rare reference to methodology in Art History, Lütticken introduces the symptom over the symbol: "[Georges] Didi-Huberman wages war on the Kantian-Cassirerian idealism inherent in Erwin Panofsky's iconology and its decoding of symbols, which reduces the work of art to transparent, readable entities entirely subsumable to the concepts of ‘humanistic' reason.... The symptom is an inadvertent non-sign, ‘local catastrophes,' explosions in the realm of meaning. Symptoms, in other words, undermine the idealist readability of symbols even if, in Freud's work, they are constantly being made amenable to reason and to readability."40 Lütticken makes a distinction between the ‘symptomatic' and the ‘symptomatological' as a difference between symptoms as means to effect a liberation from power and violence, and their product.41
But in a move which further complicates the issue, he identifies artworks that point in both directions, work that is both symptom and is in some measure amenable to being read and therefore in part accessible to reason: the unknown knowns. He says of Martha Rosler's video work, The Semiotics of the Kitchen, "Rosler engages in behaviour which is so disturbingly inadequate that it can only be seen in symptomatic terms; a sign failing to function in accordance with a code, a flawed sign signifying something else, something repressed."42 On the one hand, Rosler references the behaviour of hysterics and neurotic patients, while at the same time she suggests a Foucauldian institution in the form of the kitchen. Lütticken locates Rosler's performance within the symptomatological tendency in Conceptual art but, in this case, "even while the role of language is here reduced to that of pseudo-objective linguistic identification, the alphabetical recital nonetheless makes it clear that conceptual symptomatology is not exclusively, or even primarily, a visual one."43 If the essay is not entirely clear on the complex distinctions made (the English is somewhat uneven), Lütticken nevertheless addresses in a direct way a major conundrum in art criticism which is the relation between the visual and the textual, as well as the limits of language, knowledge, and our relation to the world.
Idols of the Market, perhaps somewhat presumptuously, sets out to track the course of image-making in the first decade of the twenty-first century.44 The century is marked by the spectacle of 9 / 11, which was designed to shatter "the subject's defensive shield." For the Western audience, it is the most spectacular and disturbing image in what Lütticken sees as the "Media Wars" between Islamic fundamentalism and Western fundamentalism. While Lütticken identifies the mass media and their representations as the major site of the conflict, the book is not so much ‘about' the media as an account of iconoclasm, the rejection of graven images, as a fundamentalist element in religion and capitalism. Idols of the Market presents western, capitalist society as being as fundamentalist as its Islamic Other; that is to say, the monotheism on which it is based is intolerant of other doctrines. Lütticken investigates the West's Christian background as well as its capitalist present in a thoroughly researched book that is as much academic as polemical text. Indeed, it is ostensibly so far removed from the discourses of contemporary art that it may be easily dismissed within the art world. However, art, as first-degree spectacle, is an exclusive commodity within the culture industry and the mass media are second-degree spectacle. The spectacle is commodity that appears to take on a social life.45 If art discourse is slow to take on board the significance of religion in the contemporary context, Lütticken is leading a march. Immediately, there are two aspects to this. First are the religious and racial tensions in western societies. Holland, for instance, has witnessed the growth of extreme right-wing groups which have militated against ethnic minorities.46 Second, and Lütticken has undoubtedly taken cognizance of this, many of the philosophers at the forefront of contemporary thinking on culture and the social have turned to the study of religion. From Alain Badiou to Slavoj Žižek, religion has become a major concern for philosophers. In Lütticken's terms, as set out in Idols of the Market, the secularisation which was part of the Enlightenment brought with it a change in the relation between Word and Image. Using Jacques Rancière's distinction between the ‘regime of representation' and ‘the aesthetic regime' as occurring at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Lütticken signals a shift from Christian theology's strictures on the image to the modern concept of the work of art as, quoting Rancière, "things of thought."47 As noted elsewhere in Lütticken's writing, the Enlightenment is synonymous with idealism and abstraction. As is usual with Lütticken, this text is multi-faceted. Criticality is central and in this we are reminded that the words fundamental and radical have the same meaning. Monotheism is critique of other religions at its inception though it falls into dogmatism; "critical thought is not enough, but it is a necessary condition for interventions in the course of events .... Critique must preserve some of the force of the criticism of idolatory."48 Criticism needs to be more fundamentalist.
"(T)his book was written with one foot in the university and the other in the art world, purposefully occupying the increasingly deserted no-man's land beyond the borders of art criticism and contemporary academia, both of which increasingly produce texts that are not meant to be read - in the case of criticism because the texts either report on the market or advertise certain products, and in the case of academia because publications primarily exist in order to appear on publication lists."49
So Lütticken summarises the state of art criticism. Art criticism is bound up with the public sphere, or the concept of a public sphere. However, if it is to challenge the publicity of the art world where fashionable philosophers strut their stuff, its theoretical credentials need to be strong.


1. See for example: Maurice Berger, ed., 1998, The Crisis of Criticism, New York: The New Press; George Baker et al, 2002, ‘Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism', October, Vol. 100, Obsolescence Issue (Spring 2002), pp. 200-228; Raphael Rubinstein, ed., 2006, Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice, Lenox, MA: Hard Press Editions.

2. See Charles Baudelaire, 1995, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, London: Phaidon; and Walter Benjamin, 1997, Charles Baudelaire, London and New York: Verso.

3. As well as Greenberg, the group included Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Barbara Rose. Much of Clement Greenberg's writings are available in collected volumes. For accounts of these critics see Amy Newman, 2000, Challenging Art: "Artforum" 1962-1974, New York: Soho. Hal Foster wrote an excellent review of this book which is reprinted as, ‘Art Critics in Extremis', in Hal Foster, 2002, Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes), London and New York: Verso, pp. 104-122. It should be noted that these critics were initially reacting against the lyrical criticism of the previous generation such as Harold Rosenberg and the circle associated with ARTNews.

4. See the writings of Douglas Crimp, Rosalind Krauss, and Craig Owens of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Hal Foster's writing of the mid 1980s. Crimp, Krauss, and Owens were members of the October Editorial Board at this time, while Foster joined at a later point.

5. At the time, the term ‘postmodernism' had currency throughout Western culture, whether ‘high' or ‘low'. Such an example of pervasiveness might be useful to a reconsideration of the relationships between the arts and a wider public in the present context.

6. No account of contemporary art criticism would be complete without extensive coverage of the work of Rosalind Krauss. This would require analysis of her use of so-called French theory, and her recent advancement of her term "the post-medium condition." Here, however, I confine my references to what are predominantly Marxist / post-Marxist and Frankfort School influences as a context for Sven Lütticken's criticism.

7. See Hal Foster, 1996, The Return of the Real, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press

8. Peter Bürger, 1984, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. by Michael Shaw, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

9. Foster has stated: "I think we need to recapture some sense of the political situatedness of artistic autonomy and its transgression, some sense of the historical dialectic of critical disciplinarity and its contestation - to attempt again to provide culture with running-room." Hal Foster, 2002, op. cit., p. xiv. Since writing this, Foster has limited his publications on contemporary art to individual subjects in short essay or review format.

10. See Foster, 2002, Op. Cit., p. 116. Again, Foster writes, "all of us (artists, critics, curators, historians, viewers) need some narrative to focus our present practices - situated stories, not grands récits. Without this guide we may remain swamped in the double wake of post / modernism and the neo / avant-garde. Rather than deny this aftermath, then, why not admit it and ask ‘what now, what else?'" Foster, op. cit., pp. 128-29.

11. While Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, cultural neo-conservatives, attacked Rosalind Krauss and the October critics in the periodical The New Criterion, Irving Sandler reserved more surprising vitriol for them in his book on recent art. (I. Sandler, 1996, Art of the Postmodern Era: from the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s, New York: Harper).

12. Foster, 2002, op. cit., p 125.

13. On the broader point, Foster has said, "I think we default on cultural narratives at great cost - one counted in, among other ways, the slack relativism of much contemporary art and the indifferent thematicism of much exhibition practice." [Hal Foster, 2003, "On the First Pop Age," New Left Review, No. 19 (Jan-Feb 2003), p 96.]

14. The conservative author, Tom Wolfe, famously caricatured Greenberg's influence on the likes of Jackson Pollock in his short book, The Painted Word. (T. Wolfe, 1976, The Painted Word, New York: Bantam.)

15. Both are interested in the commodification of art in which art collapses into design, and both make a case against relativism in art and in criticism.

16. Fredric Jameson, 1992, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.

17. A variation of a term coined by David Carrier. (See D. Carrier, 2002, Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism: from Formalism to Beyond Postmodernism, Westport, CT: Praeger.

18. Sven Lütticken, 2009, Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle, Berlin and New York: Sternberg, unpaginated.

19. These are, Sven Lütticken, c. 2002, Allegories of Abstraction, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit; S. Lütticken, 2005, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art, Rotterdam: NAi; and, Lütticken, 2009, Idols of the Market op. cit.

20.Lütticken, c. 2002, op. cit., p. 1.

21. See, for example, Douglas Crimp, 1979, ‘Pictures', October 8, pp. 75-88. See also Craig Owens's two-part essay, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: towards a Theory of Postmodernism', originally published in October in 1980. (Reprinted in C. Owens, 1992, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, Berkeley, CA and Oxford: University of California Press, pp. 52-87.) For discussion of abstract art as sign see Hal Foster's 1986 article, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders', reprinted in Frances Colpitt, ed., 2002, Abstract Art in the late Twentieth Century, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 105-118. Yve-Alain Bois presented a more in-depth study of the sign and abstract art in Painting as Model. (Yve-Alain Bois, 1993, Painting as Model, Cambridge, MA and London, MIT Press).

22. Lütticken, c. 2002, op. cit., p. 1.

23. ibid, p. 2.

24. C. Owens, op. cit.

25. Lütticken, c. 2002, op. cit., p. 2. Significantly, Lütticken does not look beyond Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge at this juncture. Foucault"s later work is not addressed. I will argue that Lütticken's later writing demonstrates an assimilation of some lessons from so-called French theory.

26. Lütticken, Allegories of Abstraction, p. 2.

27. Lambert Zuidervaart offers a good summary. He quotes Adorno in his essay 1962 ‘Commitment': "'This is not the time for political works of art; rather, politics has migrated into the autonomous work of art, and it has penetrated most deeply into works that present themselves as politically dead.'" Zuidervaart continues, "But societal structures and cultural contexts have shifted in the intervening years. The rise of new social movements, such as feminism, the ecology movement, and gay and lesbian liberation, have helped turn the focus of cultural theory from autonomous works to emancipatory practices ..." T. Huhn and L. Zuidervaart, eds., 1997, The Semblance of Subjectivity: Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, p. 5.

28. Sven Lütticken, 2005, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art, Rotterdam: NAi.

29. ibid., pp. 21-41.

30. See Jürgen Habermas, 1992, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge: Polity.

31. ibid, p. 7., ‘Publicness' is an English-language word which had fallen out of use. Its nearest modern equivalent is ‘publicity'.

32. Lütticken, 2005, op. cit., p. 193.

33. ibid, p. 7.

34. ibid, p. 13.

35. ibid, p. 32.

36. ibid, pp. 43-54.

37. Guy Debord, 1992, Society of the Spectacle, London: Rebel Books.

38. Foster writes: "(In the Marxist account) art is not subsumed by the theoretical category of representation but overwhelmed by the practical dominance of ‘the Image,' the primary form of the commodity in a spectacle economy, from which art can no longer pretend to be distinct." Foster adds that while he does not disagree with this view he believes that it "concedes too much too quickly," and he wants to recover something of what it surrenders. (Foster, 2002, op. cit. p. 125.)

39. Sven Lütticken, 2008, ‘Unknown Knowns: on Symptoms in Contemporary Art,' in M. Hlavajova, et al, eds., On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Utrecht and Frankfort: BAK / Revolver, pp. 84-107.

40. ibid, p. 88.

41. ibid, p. 91. Lütticken cites examples of the work of Jeff Wall and Douglas Gordon as "inadvertently articulating power" (ibid, p. 98).

42. ibid, p. 99.

43. ibid, p. 101.

44. Lütticken, 2009, op. cit.

45. Lütticken, 2005. op. cit., pp. 11-12.

46. In 2008-09 the art organisation BAK held an exhibition and a series of seminars on "the Return of Religion" in Utrecht in which Lütticken was a main contributor. See Maria Hlavajova et al, eds., 2009, The Return of Religion and Other Myths: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Utrecht: BAK.

47. Lütticken, 2009, op. cit., p. 40.

48. ibid, p. 20.

49. ibid, p. 22.