On critical art practice: some preliminary reflections

Hammam Aldouri posits that any artist who wishes to found a critical art practice must first examine his/her basic beliefs about creating art, in order to discover who s/he is as an artist and form a sense of why art is necessary. -- Artblog editor


Introductory remark

Any understanding of contemporary art has to grasp that it is based on two seemingly irrevocable facts: anyone can do it and anything can be it. The historical precedent grounding these two “facts” is, without question, Marcel Duchamp’s readymade. (I am in fact writing this short essay exactly 100 years after the realization of the first work to be titled “readymade”: “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” November 1915.) These “facts” should not, however, be affirmed as absolute, unquestioned principles for art practice. Rather, they should be seen for what they are: problems for, and of, art.

One concern that emerges from thinking about Duchamp’s readymade is that of the possibility of a distinctively critical art (if anything can be art, what can art do? What does it try to achieve?). This essay will focus on how a critical art practice can emerge from out of the “Duchampian” condition; I will pay specific attention to the way in which an artist recognizes him/herself as the individual that makes art.


I recently attended a “round table” on “art schools, labor, and the economy” at Vox Populi. Throughout the conversation, it seemed to me that an idea of a critical art practice was, at some moments, at work. The structure and meaning of such a practice was not properly thematized or consciously reflected on, mainly because it was not ostensibly the topic under discussion. I do think, however, that the notion of art practice was at stake because parts of the discussion touched on potential “alternatives” to current problems that artists and art educators face.

The following reflections will, accordingly, consist of a preliminary contribution to a possible conversation on the structure, meaning, and social import of critical art practice.

The problem with being a god

There is no reason for art to exist. It is not, for example, the result of an idle God who, one divine morning, felt the compulsion to bring a new creation into Eden—Adam—in order to name all the things that resided there. It is easy to sweep aside the cosmic mysteries of God and the question of creation in the context of thinking about contemporary art for the simple fact that the idea that there is an intelligent being that governs our capacity and necessity to create art is no longer seen as the ultimate cause of creation. When we think about the existence of art and its creative character, we do not understand it as an effect of a higher cause.


Consequently, to speak of the necessity of art in terms of the fulfillment of a “dream,” “passion,” or “compulsive inner force” that one is compelled to feel and listen to is to rehabilitate the figure of the God that, at bottom, does not have to explain the reason for His creation and, consequently, the reason for the identification of Himself as creator. God does not have to provide reasons for his creation precisely because He is nothing but creation (in scholasticism, this quality is called God’s actus purus). Because of this, God knows what He is. The point to be made is that He does not need to legitimate His actions to anybody as He is omnipotent, sovereign, and His own master.

The idea of the absolute identity of God is analogous to artists who insist on the “inner compulsion,” when faced with the question of providing a sense of why they produce art (a question that comes from both their fellow artists and non-artists). This insistence leads to a catastrophic dead-end; artists end up simply stating that “art is necessary; it just is.” By continuously repeating this assumption as if it were a mantra, artists reassure themselves that they are absolutely free to create art in whatever manner they so choose (like the divine in whose image the artist is created) and that because of this internal power to create, art is essential (art becomes the external expression of this inner power and impulse to create). To be free should be grasped in its deepest sense: as radical autonomy, that is, the state of being in absolute control of one’s capacity to self-govern and self-determine.

Unfortunately, the sense of the dynamic freedom of the artist is a fantasy that still permeates our imagination. I believe that it continues to linger in our minds for the following reason: it protects us against the anxiety of our incapacity to be the creative source of our own artistic destiny and, importantly, to sufficiently articulate why we do what we do. An artist who takes recourse to internal “affects” (dreams, passions, ineffable compulsions) tries to protect him/herself against the essential void that everyone faces when the question of the necessity of art is raised.


The impossibility of answering the question of the necessity of art reveals a fundamental experience of the loss of the very freedom that one thought one had. I think this experience is, however crucial. There are four reasons why: (1) it clears the ground for the process of thinking why indeed art is necessary; (2) it shows that the necessity of its existence is a continuously contested one; (3) it annihilates the delusion that the artist is the sole agent of his/her own “creation” (the “artist-as-God” model) because s/he is mediated by society (the things and people that make it up); and (4) it reveals in what sense artistic freedom is something that has to be constructed through a struggle over its form and content.

It is here that we come to the initial moment of what a critical art practice means and consists of.

Critical art practice

A critical art practice begins from the attempt to suspend all our presuppositions about art, its necessity, and the agent that makes it. It does this by reflecting on the social meaning of its own existence and production. What does this mean?

A critical art practice consists of a way of thinking about the very conditions that allow an art practice to identify itself as precisely that: an “art practice”. These conditions consist of art historical legacies, particular institutional power (galleries, museums, online databases, journals, review panels, etc.), general institutional forms (education, politico-economic formations, forms of media and news production, etc.) and the material conditions of everyday life at a given moment (conditions of work and everything connected with it).

A critical art practice, accordingly, does not reflect itself as if what it does is either already liberated from, or in direct opposition to, these conditions. Rather, it composes itself with the knowledge that it does what it does precisely because of the conditions that mediate it, that bring it into existence. One way of understanding what a critical art practice means is to contrast it with the conception of art according to the American art critic Clement Greenberg.

According to Greenberg, art has to become autonomous—independent and self-sufficient as a free thing—by purifying itself of anything that can be “read into the work” that is essentially outside its formal parameters. It does this, in part, by breaking itself up into specific media: painting, sculpture, etc., thus concentrating on what the artwork is through its medium specificity. The “quality” of a painting—the way we think about and ultimately judge it—is, consequently, defined by the success of its purification of any link with its social reality, that is, as something that is caught in a specific historical moment and, therefore, defined by relations to specific social practices, conditions of art production, and politico-economic mediations (those noted above).

A Greenbergian art is one that tries to simply reflect itself and only itself. It is an art that, as Duchamp once succinctly put it, “doesn’t attempt to do anything except to please me on the retina.” The important thing to make note of is that Duchamp is not making a critical point from outside of the context in which he is working. Rather, his practice can be understood as, amongst other things, a critique of an art that wants to purify itself against the goings-on of everyday life. His critique, one could say, is intolerant of “retinal” art (as it is amongst other forms) and he wants to suspend its production.

But Duchamp’s practice is also not simply a (necessary) protest that clears the way for a kind of art that would be (finally) liberated from the limits of retinal art. It discloses to us the sense in which artistic practice is much more deeply embroiled in the conditions that it tries to resist. It does this, however, by first turning against its own assumptions, that is, against itself and its own mode of reflections about art and its production.

This is the first self-conscious step of critical art practice after the experience of un-freedom: it commences with self-criticism. And it should perhaps begin, if we are to recall the context of the reality condition of contemporary art (“anyone…anything”), with the self-critique of art’s tolerance to the expanse of artistic production as an alibi for the continuation of non- and anti-critical art.

Why do artistic practices today tolerate one another? This tolerance is evident by the production of artist-run spaces and the longing for “alternative” spaces. The basic ideological premise of these strategies is, I believe, “You do what you want to do, and I will go and do what I want to do; let’s just leave each other alone.” (I find the large number of artist-run spaces in Philadelphia an interesting phenomenon. But “interesting” here does not mean either “good” or “something to be celebrated”.)

Current art practices putatively seen as “critical” (and, more recently, as “post-critical”) have lost sight of their persistent mediated relation to other existent artistic practices and thus to their own assumptions about art. (Think of this, for example, in relation to the continued institutional existence of painting as a specific medium that develops, for the most part, only in relation to itself and thus is converted into a self-contained, autonomous discipline in such a manner that it grounds the fundamental premises of BFA and MFA programs dedicated to it.)

Instead, current critical art practices articulate themselves in relation to larger socio-politico-economic problems (unevenness of wealth distribution, the radical dissolution of welfare provisions, the increasing privatization of public space, etc.) (The notion of critical art practice sketched out here would have to be understood in the context of 1960s and 1970s conceptual art and its legacies. It should not, however, be reduced to it.)

The limit of critical art as social change

More recently, critical art practices have tried to be more radical; they try to realize a substantial change of the larger socio-political problems themselves, that is, to resolve them in some manner. This development of art is problematic. Any art caught under our current politico-economic conditions that identifies itself with the production of social change will always be misleading. This is because it lacks a social and political relation to a collective social subject of social-historical change, that is, with a group that will bring about the actual transformations of society.

Recall a significant historical example: the Russian Constructivism of the 1920s did not suffer any “spiritual defeatism”—to use an expression coined by Renato Poggioli—in the face of art’s power to bring about change for the simple fact that they knew that the power of the Bolshevik revolution was on their side. Constructivists could associate their artistic practice more concretely and directly with the transformation of social life.

The interesting thing about current discussions around the social necessity and function of art is that, regardless of the absence of a social subject of change, it is unquestionably oriented toward social change (think about discussions about “socially engaged art,” for example). But what does this social change amount to when there are no clear signs for the possibility of a collective subject that will actually bring it about?

That said, I do not think artists should be dejected by the experience of the absence of such a subject. But neither do I think it is worthwhile to busy oneself with attempts to realize social change, as this would amount to the same reactionary position of dejection. A critical art practice has to turn first to an examination of the more fundamental assumptions about art practice that are concretized and naturalized in the expanded field of its production, principle of which is, I believe, the construction of the sense of the necessity of art and who the artist is in relation to that.

In light of this, one could say that thinking about Duchamp is perhaps needed now more than ever.