January 8th, 2013 / 3:24 pm
Craft Notes

How To Be A Critic (pt. 1)

There is a moment at the very end of this Vice documentary called True Norwegian Black Metal where the subject of the film, Gaahl of Gorgoroth, says ominously, “I don’t think that you ask me the right questions. I don’t think you’re focusing on what’s being told.”

The interviewer responds, “Guide me.”

Gaahl then proceeds to zone out for three long minutes. His eyes remain open, but his expression becomes blank as a corpse.  The filmmaker wisely resists cutting the camera or prompting Gaahl to speak.  Instead, we are forced to watch him.  At the end of his silent stare his eyes widen dramatically. Without speaking, he shifts his stare to the interviewer and raises his wine glass to his lips.

We await a response.  Nothing happens.  We await an explanation, a moment of clarity, resolution, some type of understanding.  None is revealed.

“Don’t ask what it means or what it refers to,” the artist Eva Hesse famously told viewers, “Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does.”

The image of Gaahl’s face as he sits motionless.  What does it do?

Hesse’s approach echoes the one described in the introduction of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Deleuze and Guattari, where they write, “We will never ask what a book means, as signifier or signified; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own convergence.”

The radical proposition made by both Eva Hesse and D & G is that art (including literature) should not be considered a communication between a creator and a viewer; instead, art should be considered an experience between a viewer and the artwork. In this way, there is nothing to interpret, nothing to decipher, nothing to “understand.”

The role of the critic, then, is to describe. What is the work doing? How is the work doing it? What happens to the work when it comes into contact with other works? And so on. Inherent in this approach is the act of participation, which requires the critic to become a part of the work by actively and creativly connecting with it.

Calvin Tomkins, in his preface to Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, says “[I]t’s been my ambition to write about contemporary art not as a critic or a judge, but as a participant.”

To participate with an art object is to engage with its surface, to connect your machinic assemblage to its machinic assemblage, as Deleuze & Guattari would put it. But what is a “machinic assemblage” and how does it relate to our engagement with art, you ask? One example is described by Andreia Machado Oliveira and Felix Rebolledo in their paper, “The Associated Milieu: A Machinic Assemblage between Artwork and Viewer”:

A real heavy paper, to be sure, thick with academic-speak, for which I have a particular fondness truth be told, but don’t let the jargon slow you down. To say it in another way, at least partly, they propose to reconceptualize the role of the viewer. Instead of thinking about the viewer as a separate entity apart from the artwork, they suggest thinking of the interaction between artwork/viewer as a creative act, a combinatory formation that resists “the linear causal chain of perception” in favor of a “succession of percepts and affects where pure sensation is the spontaneous ultimate content as image.”

For an example, we can return to Tomkins who describes his first encounter with Rauschenberg’s “Double Feature,” a painting with various collage elements that includes part of a man’s shirt with a pocket. “Glancing around to make sure no one was watching me,” he writes, “I fished a quarter out of my pocket and slipped it into the pocket of the shirt in the painting.” His act of participation with the artwork is a beautiful example of creative engagement, of identifying what the artwork can do and then connecting with it.

But there are many other ways of connecting with artworks, many other ways of answering the question “what is the artwork doing?”

The image of Gaahl’s face forces me out of my comfort zone by dint of its sheer strangeness. I am accustomed to certain behavioral responses, like if someone asks me a question I respond to it. Because Gaahl goes silent, I cannot tell if he intends this action to be the answer, or if he intends it to display his resistance to answering. Here we see the paltry limits of interpretation. His meaning is occluded. Thankfully, in place of meaning and intention, we have his face. The surface produces quite a range of affect. For one, it creates tension: at any moment he might snap and choke the filmmakers to death, or less violently he could call the interview off like Lil Wayne did that one time. For two, it evokes mystery, confusion.

“Most people fear confusion,” Dennis Cooper so brilliantly points out in his most recent Paris Review interview, “but I think confusion is the truth and I seek it out.”

If confusion is the truth, then Gaahl’s response to the interviewer’s question is as close to truth as one can imagine, because in his three minutes of silence the unknown presents itself with startling acuity.

Eva Hesse – “Addendum” (1967)

Looking at Eva Hesse’s “Addendum.” The object is made of papier mâché, wood, and cord. It lives in the Tate Liverpool museum. Accompanying the object is the following display caption:

The hemispheres along the bar of Eva Hesse’s Addendum are positioned at increasing intervals determined by a fixed mathematical series. Many artists used serial systems at this time because they provided a way of composing sculptures without recourse to personal expression. Hesse hung rope cords from each hemisphere which fall to the ground in unpredictable curls. The regulated structure of the bar contrasts with the disordered appearance of the cords. But Hesse recognised that such systems were hardly rational, commenting that ‘Serial art is another way of repeating absurdity’.

So what does it do?

Well, for one thing it calls our attention to space. If you look closely at the top left of the wooden bar you’ll notice the hemispheres are positioned very close together. As your eyes move to the right you’ll notice the compactness eases, space opens up, the distance between one hemisphere and another becomes wider and wider. It is uneven. The farthest left hemisphere has very little space around it, whereas the farthest right hemisphere has a much larger space around it.

For another thing, it creates a tension between orderliness and messiness. The top neatly ordered, the bottom messily arranged. What begins at the top as tidy falls down to the floor and becomes untidy. From clear rule to unruly. From organized to disorganized. Unless, of course, you perceive it from the bottom up, in which case the inverse applies.

Between the top and bottom, the cords make lines on the wall. The lines are uneven. The space between them varies not only according to the spacing of the hemispheres, but also the further down it goes. Notice at the top of the object the cords create straight lines on the wall, but then the lines begin to go wonky the closer they get to the ground. So if you compare the space just below the wooden bar and the space just above the floor, you will see the greatest inconsistency. In the center, the most homogeneity.

By describing what a work of art does, you help other viewers see it through your eyes. You do this not by trying to figure out the artist’s meaning/intention, but by simply paying attention to the work itself. In the words of Gaahl, you focus on what is being told.


  1. A D Jameson

      By describing what a work of art does, you help other viewers see it through your eyes. You do this not by trying to figure out the artist’s meaning/intention, but by simply paying attention to the work itself. In the words of Gaahl Gorgoroth, you focus on what is being told.

      By describing what a work of art is, you have described the artist’s meaning/intention. The work means itself. And there are better and worse descriptions—better and worse interpretations.

      By describing what effect a work of art has on you, you have described a subjective response that may or may not have anything to do with the artwork, and with its meaning/intention. Your experience may be of interest to others, or it may not be—it is entirely subjective, and any experience is “as good” as any other.

  2. deadgod

      In other words, description is interpretation. –because, as you say in the vocabulary of “subjectiv[ity]”, description entails perspective.

      The assertion that perspective is always of other perspectives, that interaction is all perspective — maybe that is radical. I would say, persistently radical – as radical now as when Heraclitus stood before Plato and Aristotle.

      But it’s not a perspective that negates understanding or declines to understand. It’s a perspective that, as you say, locates meaning perspectivally. Dolceuze & Guabbana can prefer “function” to “understanding” as a matter of vocabulary, but the limning of “function”, when it happens, is a mode of “understanding”.

  3. Jeroen Nieuwland

      Of course a problem is that although we can talk about immanence, any kind of description will inevitably leave some gap / parallax / point of transcendence, no? Even if one attempts to apply / create concepts as they are required per specific situation (instead of always using the same concept / theory across the board). I don’t see any way out of this, & figure it is just sthg to accept, be aware of, & always keep pointing out.

  4. .....

      Just a heads up, his name isn’t Gaahl Gorgoroth. Gorgoroth is the name of his band and Gaahl is just his stage name. Looking forward to Pt. 2.

  5. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks! I just fixed that mistake. For some reason I thought the band was doing some kind of Ramones thing where they all took the band as their last name…not sure why.

  6. Jeremy Hopkins

      Why, then, refuse outright to view a work of art as a signifier? Because it would disallow a natural progression to that which is (in subjectively ordained fact) signified. Maybe.

  7. Ken Baumann

      Dug this, Chris. It’s funny—the more I think about art, the more I feel like the explication of what is, isn’t, how it works, etc., are all profane shortcuts to an intuitive, sacred nature. In other words: what we can’t confer is worth it.

      Sending you an email soon!


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  10. rawbbie
  11. Ghost

      Hey people reading this, don’t read the post and then read the comments. Read the post and then think about the post. Oops it’s too late.

      I think most of us are at the point of: there is no fixed meaning in anything. so look at “a piece of art,” for example, and yeah, just focus on……. That’s the thing about “art”, is that there’s always supposed to be a meaning, right? We’re looking for something to “get.” I don’t think most people would “get” what you wrote about Eva Hesse’s piece unless they’d read “Many artists used serial systems at this time”. So look at something and maybe try to think for yourself, not that we have selves in this situation, as Deleuze would say, we are opening ourselves up to this something. Looking at art feels like doing a crossword puzzle sometimes. We guess what it is and then we read what the artist wrote about it, or what someone else wrote about, or what someone wrote about it based one what three other people said about it. but it’s all a process of translation and there is no original act!

      Don’t be so scared of what you think about something! Maybe you looked at Eva Hesse’s “Addendum” and thought it looked like funny floss or hair. Or you said to yourself, I can only see this aesthetically. Okay, what does that mean? Okay. Try not to forget about why you’re doing something. If you’re looking at a work of art, what do you want from it? Why are you looking at it? Because again, there is no absolute thing you’re supposed to understand. That would be so damn boring!

      Gaahl’s face might affect you because you don’t expect him to do that! Yeah, you don’t know what he is going to do! We need stuff that surprises us! We need confusion, yes Dennis Cooper! We need to be moved in such a way that makes US have to do something new or think something new or learn something to stabilize us. Do new things. Unless you don’t want to. That’s also fine. Do whatever you want. Think about what you think and maybe question that and question the thing you’re interacting with. Because all of it IS interaction, right? Wouldn’t it be nice if interaction is always exciting? Fear sucks.

  12. Ghost

      kisses and hugs! peace and blessings

  13. A D Jameson

      Yes, description is interpretation. Or, put more carefully, formalist description is formalist interpretation. One has to define interpretation, of course. For instance, in Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag is railing against a very specific type of interpretation—something akin to symbolic interpretation. But she’s all for formalist interpretation (describing the form of the work). She’s against the idea that content trumps form.

      Part of Chris’s problem is that he has no consistent definition of
      interpretation. He’s just blatantly against it, whatever it means (or
      whatever he thinks it means). It’s hard, therefore, to know who or what he’s really responding to, or referring to.

      But I also don’t get the impression that Chris is interested in being consistent, or in critically engaging with other critics. These posts strike me as more provocation than anything (i.e., they aren’t real criticism).

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