Art Criticism and Writing as Failure: "That is not what I meant at all."

Imelda Barnard is a writer based in Dublin.

Imelda Barnard

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) by T. S. Eliot pivots around the failure of articulation and the inadequacy of words, a failure that is symptomatic of the speaker's own personal inadequacy. The iteration that "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" and the continued insistence that meaning is deferred, absent, perhaps even impossible, alerts us to the discrepancy between word and thing.1 According to Zadie Smith, "writing is always the attempted revelation of an elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation ... is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience."2 The compromise that a writer must make, between the way the world is seen and the way it is written about means that "the most common feeling upon re-reading one's own work, is Prufrock's: ‘That is not it at all... That is not what I meant, at all...' Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure."3 This inability to fix what is fleeting means that writing must accept that there is no absolute meaning to express. Whatever is captured is bound within the unstable fabric of language.
For art criticism, any attempt to approach the chasm between word and thing - a desire to faithfully verbalise what is seen - is complicated by the fact that the artwork itself is an elusive entity. Translating the visual into the verbal exposes the referential inadequacy of word and thing, of both the text and the artwork; the act of writing, never easy, is entangled further when the object of its attention is something as loaded, confusing, obtuse, antagonistic and speculative as a contemporary artwork. The pile of wood in the middle of a white cube gallery space, the semi-figurative paint marks that bleed off the canvas and the neon lights that are blinding in all their look-at-me glory can be felt and written about in innumerable ways. This is part of language's - and art criticism's - dilemma, hinting at the more general difficulties of ekphrasis, of overcoming the ‘otherness' of the visual from a textual standpoint. The image - the artwork - cannot literally come into view, meaning that "the textual other must remain completely alien; it can never be present, but must be conjured up as a potent absence or a fictive, figural present."4 However, the interpretative pluralism that contemporary art fosters, as well as the myriad ways in which to express this interpretation within discourse, renders the gap between word and thing - which so troubles Prufrock ­- less relevant. Although "at first you feel a bit lost ... on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is."5 Not quite knowing what the artwork is, or quite what words to use, enables a productive failure, precisely because there are no certainties, only possibilities.
Smith's study into the nature of writing posits that writers are themselves in possession of ‘self-hood', that writing is infused with personality. Much more than biography, this is rather a film through which we view and process the world. Conversely, Eliot believed personality had little place in writing, arguing instead for impersonality, the text itself an individual entity, yet one tied to a very palpable tradition. Eliot stood firm in his belief that writing and criticism be elevated to the status of an objective science, simultaneously abandoning any trace of the writing self.6 In similar terms, contemporary art criticism may be seen to revolve around a subjective / objective dichotomy, with the latter encompassing calls for a quasi-scientific and academic form of critique, a writing that leaves the writer's personality very much outside. Despite the oft-perceived de-skilling of art criticism, as separated from the theoretical field of art history, and thus engaged in an activity that is less rigorous and more ephemeral, artistic practice is still situated within a set of validating norms: "Art writing, as pluralistic and uneven as the genre may be, is tightly linked to an established set of references and intellectual expectations ... Too much writerly attention to the form of a text can lead to dismissive charges of belle-lettrism."7 Additionally, the unique development of a complex art vocabulary promotes the sense of contemporary art as a specialism, and although the challenging nature of this field perhaps requires specialist ‘artspeak', it also establishes a standard by which to measure all alternative ways of speaking about art. In discussing the possibilities for a philosophy of art criticism, a ‘critique of critique', Pablo Lafuente nevertheless acknowledges the difficulties inherent in transforming a vaguely coherent practice into a more empirically rooted discipline: "What is the point of embarking on a process of clarification, definition, stabilisation and institutionalisation of art criticism, precisely when art is involved in a process of blurring demarcated lines and eliminating distinctions?"8 In searching for a definition applicable to art criticism the resultant feeling is that this term is too loaded, too confining, such that "the word criticism has become part of the problem. Or the problem is that we are asking the wrong thing of the critic: critics are not the painting police nor the sculpture Swat team."9 Dismissing notions of critical authority - "What authority?" - Adrian Searle further notes that "criticism is never objective, never impartial, never disinterested. It is subjective and partisan."10 We know that the domain of art criticism admits a limitless number of subjectivities: freelance writers, theorists, curators and professional magazine contributors, to name a few, are all engaged with different methodologies, different audiences, and different agendas. This massive production of art criticism led James Elkins to proclaim a "worldwide crisis," for although it "attracts an enormous number of writers" it is simultaneously "massively ignored."11
The subjective nature of writing, or the self-hood which Smith describes, need not be the negative to the positives of critical judgement and impartiality. Writing about art means "... not looking at art in narrow, academic or ‘objective' ways, but engaging uncertainty and contingency, suspending disbelief, and trying to create a place for doubt, unpredictability, curiosity and openness."12 This move away from fixed meaning is elaborated by Susan Sontag, who dismisses the arrogance of interpretation provoked by a content-driven critique. Yet the paradox here, however, is that Sontag's critique, whilst eliminating Prufrock's insistence upon meaning, nevertheless presents the function of criticism as showing "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is." 13 Yet perhaps there is no "what it is" to uncover: always in the process of changing its currency and position, the artwork is continuously remaking itself, shifting meaning from context to context, text to text. The text then is merely a faint addition that attaches itself to the glut of never-ending interpretations. Bound within discourse, the artwork may be seen to function as a trace, conjuring Derrida's presentation of the trace in language, itself an attempt to escape totality and finite interpretation: "Always differing and deferring, the trace is never as it is in the presentation of itself. It erases itself in presenting itself, muffles itself in resonating."14
Acknowledging the slippery nature of writing allows alternative forms of engagement, and perhaps accounts for the recent insistence upon art-writing as a form of art, privileging the fictive rather than factual. Such critical methodologies engage varying modes of writing, which differ from more academically structured narratives.15 Rather than a purely objective mode of describing or unveiling, the emphasis is on performance rather than explication - on the "writerly attention to the form of a text" (see above). Answering the mysterious artwork with a form of writing that is itself mysterious opens a tangential dialogue between the visual and verbal, productively accepting the communicative failures within artwork and text. Questioning why more art writers do not "stray from the well-trodden path" to privilege great storytellers as their authorial models, Vivian Rehberg cites Italo Calvino as a writer who pursues a "constant and joyous shuttle between the verbal and visual realms."16 Calvino asserts that "the word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing,"17 suggesting that art writing, as a way of speaking the visual - or futilely attempting to - is valuable by its capacity to render absence present. Yet, ultimately, this is a presence that constantly erases and re-presents itself. This turn away from revelation, this failure, alerts us to the successful multiplicity of the artwork, the text and the writing self, all of which leave traces everywhere: "Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable."18
Envisaging the practice of art criticism as exploiting its status as a verbal medium that is utterly incapable of confronting the art object with any form of linguistic certainty frees it from potentially restrictive critique. It also means accepting Prufrock's assertion that it is impossible to say exactly what one would like, that the distance between experiencing an artwork and the moment of facing the blank page is a vast, but productive, one. In the poem Words, Wide Night by Carol Ann Duffy, the last line reads "... this is what it is like or what it is like in words."19 A necessary way of expressing our mode of being in the world, words constantly fail us. But this does not mean that the art critic should turn away from the blank page; rather it is a case of trying to fail better.

1. T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915). Available at:

2. Zadie Smith, ‘Fail better', in The Guardian, 13 January 2007; available at:

3. ibid.

4. W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Ekphrasis and the Other' (1994); see:

5. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1981, p. 9.

6. See T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919); available at

7. Vivian Rehberg, ‘Notes to Self', in frieze, Issue 131, May 2010; see:

8. Pablo Lafuente, ‘Notes on Art Criticism as a Practice'; see ICA Website:

9. Adrian Searle, ‘Has Big Money Replaced the Pundit as the True Authority in the Art World?', in The Guardian, 18 March 2009; ee:

10. ibid.

11. James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism?, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 3.

12. Jerry Saltz, ‘Writing Wrongs', in frieze, Issue 94, October 2005; see:

13. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1964); see:

14. Jacques Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences', in Alan Bass (trans), Writing and Difference, London: Routledge, 1980, pp. 278 - 94.

15. See, for example, journals such as The Happy Hypocrite, F. R. David and Dot Dot Dot.

16. Vivian Rehberg, op. cit.

17. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, quoted in Rehberg, op. cit.

18. ibid.

19. Carol Ann Duffy, Words, Wide Night, in Selected Poems, London: Penguin, 2006, p. 86.