Critical Art, Critical Sense, and Receptivity

Alexandre David
When Chantal Mouffe argues that “critical art tries to create an agonistic situation, a situation in which alternatives are made possible,” 1 1 - Sébastien Hendrickx and Wouter Hillaert, “The Art of Critical Art,” Rekto Verso no. 52 (May – June 2012), accessed May 21, 2015, 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 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, 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 art-works 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.

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This article also appears in the issue 85 – Taking a Stance - Taking a Stance

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