Dossier | Critical Art, Critical Sense, and Receptivity | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Critical Art, Critical Sense, and Receptivity

Critical Art, Critical Sense, and Receptivity
By Alexandre David

When Chantal Mouffe argues that “critical art tries to create an agonistic situation, a situation in which alternatives are made possible,” (1) she envisages the transformation of individuals through the tensions and conflicts generated by artworks. What Mouffe is suggesting here falls within a broader social critique, based on recognition of the legitimacy of adverse positions.(2) We could consider critical art, as a whole, using this model. Yet there is no consensus about what this category encompasses. Different schisms give rise to the emergence of competing notions. Yet beyond the possible confrontation of different visions, what of the act of categorizing and evaluating artworks and practices, regardless of the vision on which this act is based?

At first glance, making distinctions is an act of classification like many others. It falls within the bounds of regular language usage, in which classifications are a means to understanding the world and organizing thoughts. A classification or category, such as critical art, is something other than the result of a delimitation that is consolidated in the common space of language. In fact, all mental acts that take shape as thoughts with sufficient clarity to be perceived as entities depend on divisions conditioned by language, which itself is socially determined. It is therefore difficult, among the contours that we give to things, to establish which are the result of experience and personal reflection and which are the result of standardized social learning, inasmuch as our inner lives are shaped by external conditioning. Equally problematic is the extent of our ability to assess the validity of notions resulting from these entangled divisions, including notions that seem to have been acquired passively but are no less valid. Critical sense, in the broadest terms, is an attitude that allows us to tackle this difficulty by taking a step back from certainty to re-evaluate both its origin and its impact on ourselves and others.

If we have sought to transfer this attitude into the body of texts and artworks, it is because we postulate an equivalence between these and the stringency of the thoughts to which they give expression. Their authors’ intention may well be clearly stated — there is not necessarily an equivalence between the scope of a text or an artwork and the critical dimension of the reflections presented within it — only because their very presentation, the form that it takes as much as its visibility, raises new issues deserving of critical reflection. Regardless of our evaluation, the simple fact of looking beyond what is presented to us as emerging from critical thought ensures a certain disparity between this thought and what we retain of it.

The convergence of thoughts is therefore never certain, and, although this is not specific to the domain of art, it has been the subject of numerous discussions on the critical dimension of art. I am not seeking here to expand on a critique of art based on a direct connection among intentions, the forms in which these intentions are expressed, and their effects on the spectator. Rather, I am surprised to see a certain critique reviving the very model that it seems to oppose: the emancipatory aim of art has shifted from a model based on direct representation to one that challenges that very model. In fact, it amounts to one and the same ethical model that survived the devalorization of a critical mode compromised by too much scholarly effort, which, for a number of years, has focused on the uncertainty of the relationships between artworks and the spectator as a means for emancipation. (3)

This uncertainty undoubtedly offers greater freedom than does a social space that is completely regulated. Yet, to presuppose that artworks that acknowledge that the disconnection between intentions and their effects may encourage emancipation of the spectator more than do artworks that aim for a direct likeness is already to imagine the relationship between the spectator and the artworks in a regulated manner. Paradoxically, it is also to evaluate artworks and practices based on how much they conform to a particular model that is not at all intended to be prescriptive. And, above all, it confuses intentions and their effects, which is exactly what this model rejects.

In fact, whatever the intention of the author or artist, it is never the statement — as remarkable as it may be — or the distinctive form of a work that provokes spontaneous critical thought in the reader or spectator. The critical sense involved in understanding a text or experiencing an artwork is acquired through long experience, not dissociable from learning a language, with its assimilated rules and codes. It develops based on conditionings that facilitate their own subsequent questioning, and it interferes with everything that seems to counter its emancipatory potential. Critical thinking does not migrate beyond the conditionings that, in part, constitute our respective identities, but traverses them much like a breath passes through the body: sometimes very rapidly, sometimes more slowly. Critical sense imposes a rhythm on experience. By rhythm, I mean the flexibility with which our disposition adapts vis-à-vis things that are invariably singular, and whose singularity has to do not with the exceptionality of their form, but with a nexus of relationships that join together with our personal perspective in ever-original ways. The variation in the rhythm itself corresponds to our receptivity to the world, and, for our purposes here, to that which from the outset can be only a presumption of art.

A presumption is already a great deal. Inevitable expectations interfere with our receptivity. Absolute openness in face of what we may subsequently wish to call art — or not — is neither possible nor desirable. We are each already involved in the discursive field of art, and it is thanks to our respective convictions, reflections, and sensibilities that we contribute to the perpetual transformation of this field. Nevertheless, in the receptivity that I am trying to define here, something is at odds between a position of passive acceptance of our identities and one of total distrust. Our identities arise, in part, from the tension between these two antagonistic positions. The receptivity at stake here — that which allows us to encounter an artwork, a project, or anything related to art — in fact navigates between mutually incompatible attitudes, such as the thought that an artwork can be unconditioned although we know full well that this isn’t possible, or thinking that we can be unconditioned in front of an artwork although we are convinced of the contrary. Or giving ourselves up to a work, allowing ourselves to be carried away, while constantly reconsidering the conditions at the origin of this decision. Abandonment itself is often regarded as a predisposition foreign to critical thought. And yet, we do not open ourselves up to something without good reason, and accessing an artwork is one. It is a question here not of championing an indescribable experience accessible only by putting reason aside, but of being sensitive to works or situations whose mode of access is not predetermined. A more discerning critical sense, which assumes the objectivity necessary for analyzing a situation, may be a mode of access suitable for certain works. What is problematic is its systematic application, and this is supported in particular by the categorization of works based on their critical import.

The act of recognizing the critical dimension of artworks is complex. It relies on countless viewpoints, contexts that are in constant transformation, and enough distance from our own preconceptions; yet, despite everything, it remains an evaluative activity that we should not confuse with the apprehension of artworks themselves. If it tends to substitute for experiencing artworks, it is because its operation depends on an ethical vision that converges with the critical thinking at play in the experience, itself most often envisioned from the perspective of its emancipatory potential. The intensification of the classificatory act at the core of experiencing an artwork tends to produce an identity between these two distinct activities. Experiencing a work and passing judgment on its critical value become one and the same thing.

Of course, it is not possible to separate our experience of an artwork from the judgment that we pass on it. Identifying a work also allows us to outline the experience of what we feel, but from within this experience, in a sort of reflexive consciousness — sometimes more intuitive, sometimes more analytical, depending on the circumstances. The effectiveness of our receptivity in the face of a presumption of art is linked to the inner detachment that draws us closer to what we are experiencing and, in doing so, makes this experience possible. The idea of inner detachment in no way implies an autonomous experience, nor even the sensation of autonomy. The experience may be diffuse or entirely circumscribed, experienced as an exception or abstractly. Its coherence may be only conceptual. The lack of distinction between art and life may be its driving force. I am in no way seeking to qualify the experience. Rather, it is the identity of the critical judgment and the experience that defines the scope of what we feel in any given situation.

Categorizing artworks from a critical perspective is not ultimately a classificatory gesture like any other. It is the cornerstone of a vision that sees critical judgment as a first step in an emancipatory inclination that traverses the field of art as a whole, beginning by distinguishing what might have emancipatory potential from what does not. For naming what does have emancipatory power is a gesture that assumes an emancipatory purpose. It is thus the field of art as a whole, and not just the works at its heart, that acquires the power to liberate individuals from their perceived alienation or from alienation that might occur if we cease to be vigilant.

Yet who are we beneath our perceived alienation? Alienation has long been the Achilles’ heel of a critique whose goal is the emancipation of each individual. Twenty-five years ago, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote, “There is no point repeating the critique of the duality of alienation and original authenticity which this account presupposes.” (4) Indeed, rare are those who still dare to venture down a path stripped of authenticity, or one that ends in alienation. Critical sense has, however, recovered from the gulf that had developed between those who would be alienated and those who would come to their aid, since the emancipation of individuals and the affirmation of their equality have been asserted as a starting point — and not as the result of an emancipation founded on self-fulfilment in the present, always a work in progress.

Here, we return to the point of convergence between politics and art, considered based on the tensions inherent to their respective domains. (5) Art, like politics, is fraught with tensions, not only due to the indeterminate relations between artworks and those who experience them, but also because, in general, there is no consensus about what art and critical art are. Each definition is contested, and the dividing line between what qualifies as critique and what does not is constantly being redrawn. One might conclude that the whole field of art contributes to the emancipation of individuals, or that artworks contribute by being inserted, one by one, into a political universe indifferent to any distinction between art and the world. These are hypotheses that can be defended. Yet making one or another of them a requirement transforms the emancipatory potential of artworks, whether they were created with this intention in mind or not, into an ethical purpose incompatible with its own foundations. Should we conclude, then, that a critical perspective bound to an emancipatory purpose contributes to the alienation of the spectator? I believe that we can presume nothing about anybody’s alienation. This does not imply that there is no possible alienation. It simply suggests that the encounter with the other can be based neither on the misfortune of the other nor on his liberation. As an artist, I try to bear this in mind every time I work on a project. As a spectator too.

Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft.

(1) Sébastien Hendrickx and Wouter Hillaert, “The Art of Critical Art,” Rekto Verso no. 52 (May – June 2012), accessed May 21, 2015,
(2) Mouffe gives a good synthesis of this idea, initially developed with Ernesto Laclau in their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso [Radical Thinkers], 1985), in “Critique as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention,” published in 2008 on the website of the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, accessed May 21, 2015,
(3) I am thinking particularly of Jacques Rancière, who refutes an ethical model while reviving it within an aesthetic regime whose effectiveness is judged according to the emancipation of each. See Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) and The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).
(4) Jean-Luc Nancy, A Finite Thinking, trans. Edward Bullard, Jonathan Derbyshire, and Simon Sparks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 20.
(5) On this point, the positions of Rancière and Mouffe dovetail. Other authors, including Claire Bishop, present similar arguments. Bishop calls on Mouffe and Laclau to distinguish between practices that recognize the importance of conflicts from those based on unacknowledged consensus. See “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, no. 110 (Fall 2004): 51 – 79, and Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

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