Affective Criticism

Collectif Phorie

Collectif Phorie (Félix Chartré-Lefebvre & Benoit Jodoin)Photo : Nicholas Dawson
Phorie, our research and creation collective, is formed around a camaraderie based on the sharing of ideas. To bring back some of the passion that tends to be leached out of theory by the reflexes of critical distance acquired at university, we decided to consider the question of affect first. Though it is, ironically, a highly abstract term, it nevertheless has the advantage of prompting us to adopt a research position that calls upon both our emotional and sympathetic dispositions and our penchant for analysis.
A digital residency on the website of Esse this fall provided an opportunity to test out this first wave of research on essays published in the magazine. How does affect permeate writing on art in the magazine? Is it possible to discern the affective experience of artworks in the critiques—the very experience that leads the authors to write about them? In what forms and under what terms is affect expressed? An exploratory reading of the writing about contemporary art in the magazine’s archives led us to posit some tentative responses, within the vast research field of affective economy.

Seeking Affect

Our interest was piqued by what the art theoretician and critic Jennifer Doyle has to say on the subject of art criticism in her book Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Denouncing what she calls the “dominant austerity”9 9 - Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 4. in art criticism, she laments that authors take refuge in critical distance, producing objectivizing analyses rather than deeply felt narratives arising from affective encounters with contemporary art.

Doyle sees this reserved posture as the extension of a certain attitude adopted in exhibition venues. As she observes, “In an art gallery, anger, tears, arousal, and certain kinds of laughter may appear to signal the disintegration of composure, naïveté, and a lack of class. In such spaces, as much as we are encouraged to be moved by works of art, we are also encouraged to remain cool.”10 10 - Ibid. Beyond the classist aspect of this behaviour, which has been thoroughly analyzed by museologists, it is a deplorably contradictory form of interaction with art, as it sanitizes a field that is in fact defined by its capacity to mobilize through form or emotion.

As we went through the Esse archives, we quickly observed, as did Doyle in her own readings, a certain reticence about emotionality. This made us realize that our tendency to create a polarization between analysis and emotion can no longer fully describe the complexity of the critical position with regard to contemporary art.

Despite what Doyle wrote, appropriately, about difficult artworks and their clinical treatment in art criticism, we took up our reading of the archives with a new hypothesis, obvious in some ways, but challenging to unwrap: regardless of the form, tone, or style, affect is always at play in writing on art. Our task was to seek its traces rather than to despair about the apathy we sensed in the critical position. Starting from the conviction that writing on art is motivated by what the works do to us, we had to posit that concept influences affect and vice versa, and to seek out ways in which the analysis and form of texts convey different affective states. In opposition to the austerity alleged above, we investigated the traces of authors’ sensitivity, even heightened attention, to the work of writing affectively beyond the rare obvious manifestations of authorial subjectivity.

Writing Affect

The immanence of affect in the archives first came to our attention in the critical approach employed by Ricky Varghese in his essay “Queer Black Grief in Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Parade of Champions,” about the subaltern grief of three queer Black people.11 11 - Ricky Varghese, “Queer Black Grief in Michèle Pearson Clark’s Parade of Champions, Esse Arts + Opinions, no. 91 (Fall 2017), accessible online. To highlight how Pearson Clarke undertakes to treat grief at the intersection of marginalities, Varghese refers to both poetry and theory. In his essay, the visual arts mingle with textual metaphor. These paired means of expression—one used by the artist and the other by the critic—complement each other in a shared attempt to name the unnameable, the disrupted universe in which a grieving person lives.

So, in a sense, Varghese carries on the project of the artist Pearson Clarke in the form of art criticism, as if the piecemeal addition of his attempts to name grief to hers—attempts that are multiple but imperfect—were the best means of expressing it. It is in navigating among different registers—in linking the narrative, the poetic, the theoretical, and the visual—that Varghese is able, following Pearson Clarke, to shape his own relationship with grief. These are some of the ways in which affective writing is used in art criticism, which becomes the stage for an emotional experience that the author seeks to externalize. Through such writing, the emotion somehow bursts through. It is what bursts through that is given us to read, that is offered for sharing, and it is in this created space, this space of overflowing, that we must, in turn, seek affect—at least as Brian Massumi defines it, following Spinoza: the power to make an impression.12 12 - Brian Massumi, Politics of Affect, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2015, p. ix.

Furthermore, the voice of Varghese, in the role of both art critic and social worker, is not totally absent. “In writing this,” he notes, “I had to recognize that I was writing a text about an affect or a feeling of grief that is still other to me, still distant to me. I have not, as yet, had to mourn the loss of a parent.” And yet, it is not an opportunity for him to create an object–subject distance in relation to grief, because, he explains, “The work of writing, like the work of mourning, is a queer task unto itself; both have the capacity to break from normative hegemonic forms.” That which takes place in the interstices of the different registers employed and evoked creates a space for the deployment of becoming queer, that perpetual process in which each encounter can be transformative.

Analyzing Affect

It seemed pointless to seek affect in the explicitly subjective passages that we found here and there, in which authors expressed themselves in the first person or used meliorative adjectives such as “remarkable,” “ingenious,” “stunning,” and “rare.” Whether or not the “I” is expressed, contemporary art criticism is always the co-construction of a “we” in which emotion goes beyond individuality, passing first between the author and the artwork, then between the artwork, the text, and the reader.13 13 - The conviction that there is a social dimension to affect comes to us from, among others, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (“Sincerity/Sentimentality,” in Epistemology of the Closet [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990], 114–21) and Sara Ahmed (The Cultural Politics of Emotion [London: Routledge, 2014 (2004)]). Therefore, affect must be discerned in how these relationships are reconstructed and produced in writing, beyond the adoption of a more personal voice, as Doyle proposes. So, we set out to uncover how plays on affect are crystallized, as well, in textual analyses and conceptualizations in which authors appear to profess a certain sense of emotional reserve.

One such play on affect consists of using works to name and specify a collective living experience. This is the case, notably, in the article “Fear and Its Double. (Real and Imaginary) Fears in Performance Art from Latin America,” co-written by Patricia Contreras Fuentes and Alexander Del Re.14 14 - Patricia Contreras Fuentes and Alexander Del Re, “Fear and Its Double. (Real and Imaginary) Fears in Performance Art from Latin America,” Esse Arts + Opinions, no. 61 (Fall 2007), accessible online. Exploring fear within the Latin American avant-garde, the authors present a series of performances, each of which reflects issues with fear and the many forms that it may take, including ontological fear, insecurity, fear of the other, and collective fear. Fear, they posit, is symptomatic of the context of authoritarian military dictatorships from the 1960s to the 1990s; for artists who came of age during this period, performance acts as a radical index for understanding the affective ambience of a given situation.

By associating different fears with a series of case studies, Contreras Fuentes and Del Re attempt to make legible a shared affective state. One might think that upstream of an intention to define a typology or an art trend, they are interested in describing the diversity of modes through which an intergenerational community of affect exists, is expressed, and is understood through art. In this perspective, Contreras Fuentes and Del Re’s sensibility is transposed into performance critique as the validation, in writing, of a plural affective movement: fear.

Another version of play on affect consists of disrupting received ideas with regard to affects. In “Toward a Critical Mode of Spectacularity: Thoughts on a Terminological Review,” art historian Elisabeth Fritz rehabilitates the spectacular, defined as that which aims to provoke an affective reaction in spectators.15 15 - Elisabeth Fritz, “Toward a Critical Mode of Spectacularity: Thoughts on a Terminological Review,” Esse Arts + Opinions, no. 82 (Fall 2014), accessible online. Following Guy Debord and the Frankfurt School, contemporary criticism has been wary of the spectacular, Fritz notes, even though it undoubtedly contains the power of political mobilization, as illustrated by the practices of Phil Collins, Danica Dakić, Omer Fast, Aernout Mik, and Gillian Wearing. Far from the cliché that emotion throws reason out the window, Fritz promotes a holistic position of aesthetic reception in which perception, cognition, and affect, rather than coming into conflict, work together to activate transformative potential.

These plays on affect throw open the window to looking in a new way at the analytic practice inherent to writings on contemporary art. Indeed, these writings betray the idea that adoption of an analytical point of view quells emotions. Although objective, the two essays cited above make affect the background against which the work is conceptualized in criticism. Not only do their authors substantiate affect, but they enshrine their affective experience within their methodology. In other words, theorization hinges on the sympathetic encounter between the author and the artwork. It is through this encounter that the text acquires autonomy from the artwork’s para-texts and from authorized discourses—those of artists and presenters. Thus, we come to recognize, in a counter-intuitive way, the emotional aspect of criticism, even in the most theoretical and analytical texts.

Fundamentally, writing about art is an account of an encounter, an event. Giving oneself the time to reflect on a work around its classification or theorization, conveying a relationship, even in objectivizing terms, re-enacts the affective potential of the encounter with art. As we read the articles in Esse, it seemed to us that the affective nature of the encounter with the artwork was entangled with the conceptual formulation found in the texts. Writing about art, then, attempts to reconcile the artwork’s capacities to move us and to stimulate us intellectually, and it uses the latter to testify to the former. Such writing therefore makes a risky wager: the hope that, as we read, the concept stands in for the inexpressible nature of affect.

Reading Affect

Finally, our investigation led us to develop a specific epistemological position with regard to art criticism, a position for which Fritz’s point of view perhaps offers the key. By adhering to the feminist conviction that we think with our body without dissociating ourselves from its faculties, she reminds us that to reason, it is not enough to be reasonable. It is much more important to think with all the powers available to us: to conceptualize, to have emotions, to organize, to feel, to consent, and so on. If we create and write through our affected body, we should also read texts on contemporary art the same way. Art criticism as an exercise, in the end, turns back to us—we who read it—to our capacity to activate the affect in these texts, independent of the manifest expression of emotion, by relying on the intensity that motivates the writing.

Such a speculative reading, which posits that analysis of an artwork depends on and is traversed by affects, reveals our original intention, the one that first impelled us to undertake this research on the affective economy of writing on contemporary art. As naïve as it may seem, we believe that art criticism is written through love of art, of what it makes us and what it makes us think, no matter how difficult is our experience.

Although this proposition may seem simplistic, it is there, and its complexity becomes manifest in the texts that interested us; it is perhaps especially obvious in the artist and poet Cynthia Girard’s critique of the work of Marie-Claude Bouthillier.16 16 - Cynthia Girard, “De la peinture comme écriture abstraite,” Esse Arts + Opinions, no. 80 (Winter 2014), accessible online. In her text, bursting with analogies, Girard puts into words the visual pleasure aroused by the intelligence of a practice in which painting and textile arts, domesticity and art history, intersect. Such a reading of artworks calls upon us to read the text in a way that is just as generous and inventive, an appreciation that arises strictly from neither criticism nor celebration, but is instilled in the extension of what touches our world.

Many of the essays in Esse include an analysis of feelings, emotions, mental states, or affective relationships addressed in contemporary art. In other essays, however, it is the writing itself that serves to convey affects. In the end, though, the question of affect in art criticism that drove our investigation impels us to find what comes next. For we cannot conceptualize affect without sensing, or even feeling, even in the non-immediacy of writing in contact with art.

Links to articles cited: Ricky Varghese Patricia Contreras Fuentes and Alexander Del Re Elisabeth Fritz Cynthia Girard

Collectif Phorie
Collectif Phorie

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