The purpose of this article is to expose a gap
in the current academic discussion of visual art criticism: the lack of serious
attention to the role of ethical judgment. Critics tend either to avoid
discussing the judgment of art or they dismiss it as a contemporary
impossibility. However, ethical
criticism is nonetheless practiced, albeit only occasionally and in an under-theorized
manner. This paper calls for a reconceptualization
of ethical judgment in art criticism, a reconceptualization that brings art
into explicit relation with ethics.
art criticism, ethics, judgment, justice
Justice . . . is a matter of
judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in
happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else.
wrote this she was reflecting on responses to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. As Arendt explains, justice demands judgment
and it was Eichmann’s inability to judge the moral status of Nazi ideology which
paved the way for him to commit the crimes he did. On this understanding, the exercise of judgment
is central both to guiding our behavior and to our understanding of relationships
with others. If this is true, there is an ethical imperative to judge.
1. A judgment of Christian
Boltanski’s Missing House
Leaving Arendt in the background for the time
being, let us consider an example in visual art criticism of one form of
judgment, a form I will call 'ethical judgment. This example, written by Abigail
Solomon-Godeau in 1998, examines Christian Boltanski’s installation Missing House, 1990. As Solomon-Godeau explains, the work comprises
two parts. The first is a site-specific
installation in a vacant block in Berlin. On the block a house once stood that was
bombed during the allied attack of 1945. The two houses on either side remained standing.
Boltanski’s work consists of plaques on the walls of the remaining houses adjacent
to the destroyed building. These plaques
name the last inhabitants of the missing house, their occupation, and time
spent living in the building. The second
part of Boltanski’s work consists of (now dismantled) vitrines on another
bombed site: a former arts and crafts
exhibition building. These vitrines
contained specific, detailed information relating to the former inhabitants of
the missing house. Since the vitrines
have been removed the only extant elements of Missing House are the plaques on the vacant block.
analysis of the installation, Solomon-Godeau raised the serious objection that
Boltanski’s work does not make the fate of either the building or its
inhabitants sufficiently explicit. Solomon-Godeau argues that we do not know,
just by looking at Boltanski’s work, that the house was bombed (though an
argument could easily be mounted that we do, as the dates referred to in the
work and its location should be enough of an indication for anyone with a
rudimentary knowledge of twentieth- century history). And, she goes on, the inhabitants of the house
have included both Jews and Germans—many Jews occupied the building initially,
and were replaced by Germans as the Jews were almost certainly removed and then
killed prior to the bombing of the building. This information was supplied explicitly only in
the vitrines (though, again I would argue that it is implied in the site of the
In her article
Solomon-Godeau analyzed other works by Boltanski in which she noted that this
lack of differentiation between individuals, types of people and their fate is
a common theme: a work such as Les
Archives: Detective, 1987 does not make distinctions between victim or
murderer; and Boltanski’s modes of representation in general do not distinguish
between, for example, someone who died of natural causes and someone who died
as a consequence of Nazi ideology.
For Solomon-Godeau, this refusal to make distinctions between groups of people
is extremely problematic since “it implies a bottom line equivalency from which
ethical distinctions are banished.” This means that we are unable to cast judgment
on those represented. A defense of
Boltanski’s work might argue that evident in the work is an acknowledgement of
a bottom line respect for all individuals regardless of their deeds.
not Boltanski’s work can be defended against Solomon-Godeau’s claims is not,
however, the subject of this essay. What
is of interest here is the nature of her discussion of the work. Solomon-Godeau
is making a judgment about Boltanski’s Missing
House and about an aspect of his practice in general. Solomon-Godeau’s key concern here is with
justice. She perceives that there has
been a lack of recognition given to the original Jewish inhabitants of the
building and a lack of recognition given to the specific history of the war. She calls Boltanski’s work a “generic elegy”
which is “wholly inadequate to the historical, indeed to the ethical requirements of historical
What is needed instead, says
Solomon-Godeau, is an acknowledgement in the work “of the singularity and
irreplacibility [sic] of what has been lost.” Solomon-Godeau’s main concern is with the
extent to which the artist has paid just attention to the history of the Second
World War and to the individuals who are referred to in the work (these people
include those who are referred to explicitly
through the use of plaques, and those who are referred to implicitly by the absence of any mention of them).
Solomon-Godeau has made what she herself terms
an "ethical" concern, a concern in this case about the appropriate
representation of individuals, central to her reading of the work." Solomon-Godeau’s discussion is an
example of a kind of art criticism which, as Emmanuel Levinas has put it, “measure[s] the distance” between
representation and human life.
forthright judgment of Boltanski’s installation is significant for several
reasons. It is significant most
obviously because the subject-matter of the work deals with questions of justice. Boltanski’s work sets out to provide (an
opportunity to remember those who suffered grave injustice, and in this sense
it deals with ethical concerns and thus invites ethical evaluation. Solomon-Godeau’s response to this invitation
is important because it draws attention to the need for an ethical approach to
writing about art and because it illuminates the notion that some kinds of art
works demand such an approach more than others.
example of ethical judgment is also significant because it is based on the
assumption that, from an ethical and historical point of view, it matters what
art does. Her reading assumes that art
is fundamentally linked to politics and history, and that art plays a role in
these domains. This means that art’s
role is ripe for evaluation and that art does not exist in a discrete realm
separated from the demands of ethics. In
so far as this kind of criticism recognizes that art is at some level
heteronomous, ethical judgment is invited by (but not exclusively by) art
practices that have emerged since the end of modernist claims to art’s absolute
autonomy. Artistic practices that claim
that art is engaged with society and the concerns of individuals, communities,
history, and politics are particularly open to the kind of ethical judgment of
which Solomon-Godeau’s work is one example.
of judgment of art works, based on an acknowledgement of art’s relative
heteronomy is, by necessity, distinct (but not necessarily completely divorced)
from historical forms of judgment. This
includes Greenbergian judgments of artistic quality and Kantian versions of
aesthetic judgment. Therefore, Solomon-Godeau’s work is
significant because it illuminates a gap in the discussion of the role and
nature of one significant type of judgment in art criticism: a type of ethical judgment that asks about
the relationships between the representation of others and their history, and
about the nature of our experience of art. This issue, the position of ethical judgment
in visual art criticism over the last twenty-five years, is the focus of this
here that judgment in general should be understood as intrinsic to the task of
art criticism. I argue that judgment is
under-theorized in contemporary visual art critical circles and that the
ethical judgment of art is of particular importance. My position is something of a departure from dominant
understandings of judgment in these circles, for since the end of modernism, judgment
(of whatever type) has been widely held to be either outmoded or inappropriate.
This is especially true for critics who
write for academic art journals. The
reasons for this, as I will explain, are both historical and ideological. I want to show that despite judgment’s ‘bad
name,’ critics do on occasion judge
art works, and they judge these from an ethical point of view.
This is often the case when
art works deal explicitly with questions of justice, but I also want to
suggest that ethical judgment should not be restricted only to controversial
art works. Ethical judgment requires, therefore, both acknowledgement and
theorization. After developing my discussion of ethical judgment,
I will then argue that this kind of art criticism allows substantial questions
to be asked of art, and to the extent that it does that, a specifically ethical form of judgment has a
significant role in criticism.
2. Judgment and art criticism
understood broadly, is intrinsic to the nature of criticism. James Elkins is one writer who argues for the
relevance and centrality of judgment. In
describing the place of judgment in criticism, he put it this way: “Art criticism is a forum for the concept and
operation of judgment, not merely a place where judgments are asserted, and
certainly not a place where they are evaded. At the same time, criticism cannot become exclusively a forum for meditation on
judgment, as Krauss once said, because then it would lose itself in another
way—it would dissolve into aesthetics.” Elkins identified art criticism as an
evaluative discipline, and criticism’s task of interpreting and judging works
of art is what distinguishes it in emphasis from art history and aesthetics,
even while there are important overlaps between these three disciplines. By definition, criticism’s primary concern is
concept of judgment is inseparable from the discipline of art criticism, the
nature of criticism and, in particular, the role and nature of judgment in
criticism are not without controversy. The
question of judgment in art criticism has been the topic of much international
debate with a recent spate of books, articles and conferences on the subject. Rarely has judgment (of any kind) been
championed in these forums. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the
question of judgment, not only ethical judgment but also aesthetic judgment and
questions of judgment of quality, is to argue that it is, if not impossible,
then at least undesirable. As Elkins has noted, art criticism in recent
times has been marked by a “flight from judgment … and [an] … attraction …[to]
Most (of what is referred to as) art
criticism is not concerned with judgment. Judgment is most usually dismissed as no
longer valuable or central to the critics’ task.
Princenthal gave voice to a negative attitude toward judgment in 2006, writing
that “judgment is simply not the most important thing a critic does. The question of whom, and what a categorical judgment
serves has no clear answer. . . . it tends to shut down fruitful discussion.” Princenthal’s statement is not only dismissive
but also belies a limited conception of the significance and nature of judgment.
This is an understanding of judgment that
implies an unjustified, unreflective pronouncement and refuses to allow for
elaboration or discussion. It is an
altogether different understanding of judgment from that, for example, which a
person might make of him- or herself after moral reflection on his or her own
actions, or which a critic might make of art works as a result of considered
on a denuded understanding of the nature of judgment goes some way in
accounting for why judgment in general (and not just ethical judgment) is
largely absent in contemporary criticism and the discussion around that
criticism. There are also two deeper reasons why judgment is often dismissed. The first is related to the relationship
between the history of judgment in art criticism and changes in art in the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries. References
to judgment in art criticism are often understood to refer back to the work of Clement
Greenberg, whose writing is understood as paradigmatic of a style of criticism
that is no longer regarded as appropriate: the most important or interesting things in
contemporary art are not typically related to questions of quality, technical
innovations, or the formal aspects of the work. Greenberg is also regarded as exemplifying an
absolutist style of judging, one which is a long way from contemporary
subjectivist approaches to writing. On this reading, Greenbergian judgment is
neither appropriate nor worthwhile. Similarly,
neo-Kantian aesthetic judgment is generally not regarded as significant. At least since the advent of conceptual art,
it is less about formal qualities and aesthetic experience and more about
ideas. The object of judgment in art criticism has
altered, leaving the critic with the sense of being bereft of an object to
key reason why judgment is regarded with a high degree of suspicion is
ideological. The concept of judgment is
deemed to be outmoded since it presupposes a claim to an objective standpoint
from which to judge. To judge is to
judge against a model or an ideal and, in this sense, judgment implies
This implicit metaphysics stands at odds
with what is, as Solomon-Godeau put it in a discussion on art criticism, the
contemporary “institutionalization of the notion of pluralism.” This hegemony recoils at the notion of an
expert art critic who claims to make judgments against a pre-determined
standard. Boris Groys also noted that
“The development of art in this century has ended in a pluralism that
relativizes everything…and no longer allows for critically grounded judgment.” The
invocation of metaphysics leads, then, to perhaps the most significant reason
for the rejection of judgment as a key feature of the critic’s task. Skepticism regarding the possibility of a
stable, objective vantage point and the widespread contemporary rejection of
metaphysics and the acceptance of relativism precludes the possibility of judgment.
Judgment is deemed no longer relevant
because it is coextensive with normative claims: to judge is to declare that something is good
suspicion about judgment is often intensified when that judgment is of an explicitly
ethical or moral nature. The culture
wars debates of the 1980s and 1990s in the US, the debates in the media which
have courted the work of Andres Serrano internationally, and the public furor that
erupted in Australia over the work of local photographer Bill Henson, all
hinged on competing judgments, most usually conducted in the mainstream media
rather than in academic art journals (the latter tended to shy away from making
direct judgments about the works in question).
The consequences of the judgments published in the mainstream media have proven
in some instances to be severe: the cutting
of funds to arts programs and the threat of censorship. These kinds of experiences have contributed to
the art community’s wariness about judgments made in the name of ethics, and
this, in turn, has asserted (on the part of the mainstream media) an
understanding of art’s heteronomy which goes beyond what is acceptable for that
community: an understanding of art as
being at the behest of tabloid-style moralism. In this way, ethical judgment is often taken
to be an activity circumscribing art practice in a way that runs counter to
claims for artistic freedom.
are wary of ethical judgment and of judgment in general, this wariness should
be understood in the context of the changing role of the critic. Judgment is associated with a potentially
antagonistic relationship between the critic and the artist, rather than the
collaborative relationship which many contemporary academic art critics seek.
This collaborative approach is a long way from
the critic's task which, from the late eighteenth century until the
mid-twentieth century, was when the critic was to act as an arbiter between the
art work and the public, as an independent voice to guide the public. Judgment was central
to this role. Criticism is now often
understood as a practice that is either coextensive with art practice or is a
benevolent commentary on art works.
Many of the
above reasons for judgment’s displacement from art criticism were identified in
a roundtable discussion published in October
in 2002. George Baker, for example,
stated that “Never has it been more difficult to practice art criticism.” The root of this difficulty lies in the issue
of judgment. As David Joselit put it: “what is hard to maintain today is criticism
as a mode of judgment that carries weight.” Later in the discussion, Joselit explains that
while judgments are based on interpretation, “one of the crises of criticism
might arise from the fact that the concept of quality has lost its legitimacy
for people like us. So you can’t say this is good and that is bad,
at least not in the ways in which it was possible [in the past].” This goes to the heart of the problem with judgment,
since judgment is precisely about deciding on the basis of some concept of quality.
As the participants go on to discuss,
the difficulty, or as Joselit suggests, impossibility
for a certain kind of art historian, in practicing criticism as it has been
understood historically is related to the lack of consensus regarding
criticism’s function, and to the lack of serious attention to the implications
of judgment and the capacity for contemporary critics to carry out such judgment.
to those involved in the discussion, one reason for the lack of serious
interest in criticism (and hence in judgment) is that the critic’s historical
role (of judging good art from bad, and thus of deciding which art should have
currency), has now been taken over by the curator. The historically deeper reason, implied in the
discussion, is that Joselit’s “people like us” appears to refer to art
historians and critics who understand the history of art since modernism, and
who are not attempting to judge art against predetermined criteria. Art criticism is presented with particular
problems related to the current post-conceptual art climate. Judgment is now regarded as internal to art
since the art work performs its own self-critique of its relationship with the
institution and with the history of representation.
The investigation into art’s nature instigated
by Marcel Duchamp and later pursued by conceptual artists’ desire to create
work which would both insist that the meaning of the work exists in the mind of
the viewer and that would avoid the apparent elitism of formalist art means
that much recent art has taken on board the evaluative and investigative
function previously assigned to criticism. Indeed, since the 1960s and 1970s artists, including Joseph Kosuth, have
claimed that the criticism of art is conducted by the work itself, leaving the
art critic without a role to play. The task of the critic under
these circumstances is, as Elkins noted, to describe rather than judge the way
the work operates. In the 1980s, this
descriptive role was reinforced with the advent of artists’ direct engagement
with theory, which has also been taken up by many critics. Once again the self-reflexive analysis of much
of this work, along with the complexity of the material, means that the task of
criticism has moved into explication.
1990s, judgment has been more or less out of art criticism’s official picture
and we have been left with varying, and often anemic understandings of the
critic’s role. For Joselit it is to
“judge what constitutes an object;”
similarly, for Baker one task of the critic is “to delineate the field of
artistic practice” as well as “to bring into public discourse practices that
are being silenced.” For Rosalind Krauss, criticism involves
“scanning the horizon for some new blip appearing on it.” For Helen Molesworth, good criticism is “a
dialogue between texts and objects.”
The task of criticism might be summarized as
an attempt to articulate the place of a work in art history. This task is essential to understanding the
meaning and significance of a work, but it is a long way from judgment. It is worth noting that the logical extension
of this very limited understanding of judgment in art writing is that once
something is deemed to be art (or “our” kind of art), it is protected from the
responsibility that judgment (and ethical judgment in particular) entails. It is implied that art is a privileged
practice beyond the reach of the ethical judgment being argued for here. When judgment
does come into play for these critics, it is often limited to choosing to
ignore some kinds of art. Therefore, the kind of judgment at work here
is minimal; it is concerned with sorting out and describing what will count as
are the limitations of this minimal understanding and use of judgment in art
criticism? As Elkins pointed out, there
are interesting questions to be asked of works of art, including “What is the
art’s present relation nowto the social sphere? How does this work enlarge my perception of
reality?” and, we could argue, these questions are the kinds of questions which
would result in a peculiarly ethical form of judgment, if that judgment is
concerned primarily with understanding art’s relationship to and impact on the
realm outside art, including politics, history, and our relationship with
Following Elkins’ lead on this issue, we might
also ask about the extent to which a particular work threatens to diminish one’s
perception of reality, and it is this latter kind of question that seems to
have motivated Solomon-Godeau in her ethical critique of Boltanski’s practice. Solomon-Godeau’s work opens a space for the
discussion of art’s relationship with the world. Her criticism provides a way
of articulating the meanings and effects of the work. This, in turn, provides
the viewer or reader a forum with which to engage and within which to test
analyses of the work. The key
significance of ethical judgment is, however, the basic assumption that
underpins its practice, namely that art
cannot be divorced from the ethical. A refusal or hesitancy to judge presupposes
not only a romanticism about art and its role, but also an impossible autonomy
for art that presupposes a strange understanding of ethics.
point there are two things to note. First,
if the argument that we need ethical judgment in criticism is persuasive, then
we need to rethink the need for and consequences of judgment in the light of
the criticisms and hesitations about it cited above. In other words, the dominant discussion about judgment
is inadequate to the practice of art criticism. Michael Newman hit the nail on the head when
he wrote that “The aporia of judgment in modernity—in modernity as a historical
fate—is...that we must judge, but “we” cannot.” Our current situation, he explains, is one
where “the role of critical judgment...is thrown into question.” The second point to note is that ethical judgments
in particular, despite all the arguments against them, are, in fact, made about
art works (as we see in Solomon-Godeau’s writing), and in this sense it is
clear that “we” can, and do, judge. But what is needed is a deeper investigation
into how and why to make such ethical judgments.
3. A contemporary tradition of
considering what ethical judgment might be and why it might be significant, it
is useful to look briefly at two other examples where critics have judged art
works with questions of justice at the forefront of their discussion. This will illuminate something of an
unacknowledged tradition of judgment in relation to art since the end of modernism
and the alleged end of judgment. As with
Solomon-Godeau’s work on Boltanski, other influential academic art critics have
been concerned with analyzing the nature of artists’ representations as they
compare to historical facts, particularly when the work in question is related
to issues regarding historical commemoration and justice. We can see this in Benjamin Buchloh’s reading
of Gerhard Richter’s, Uncle Rudi, 1965. This painting is, famously, a blurred copy of
a family photo that shows the artist’s uncle in Wehrmacht uniform during the
Nazi period, thus inscribing the artist himself within Germany’s recent
history. The work, says Buchloh, marks
an awareness of “the necessity of representing this subject.”
In other words, for Buchloh, Uncle Rudi
plays a role in the construction of an understanding of Germany’s sense of its
own history through the manipulation of the image itself and the manipulation
of the context in which the image is seen. For Buchloh, Uncle Rudi reveals the
difficulties attendant to the representation of Nazism and in this sense
returns the viewer to the question of how Germany might deal with its past. What we see here is both a painting of a
family snapshot and a Nazi. It is a
domestic image that brings us into proximity with a horrific regime. Buchloh’s passing comment regarding the
significance of the work offers (at least implicitly) a judgment about the
significance of this art in political and ethical terms: that Uncle
Rudi contributes to the productive investigation of German history. An awareness of such a judgment encourages
viewers to consider the work in relation to ethics and politics, and in this
sense ethical judgment circumvents the refusal to judge which characterizes
Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann’s situation.
Similarly, the discussion surrounding the work of
Anselm Kiefer is in many ways exemplary of a residual acknowledgement of the
significance of judgment in art criticism. In Kiefer’s notorious series of photographs, Occupations, 1969, the artist evokes
historical moments while performing the Sieg
Heil salute in numerous places: at the Colosseum, at the Roman Forum, in a
bath tub, and so on.
Concerned with the relationship between
Kiefer’s representation and an appropriate understanding of history, Matthew
Rampley notes that some critics (including Buchloh) argue that Kiefer “is
guilty of a regressive mythologization of the question of German history.” Rampley
himself rehabilitates Kiefer on this charge, arguing that Kiefer both romanticizes
and questions the mythology informing Nazism, while Andreas Huyssen argues that his work
grapples with the question of how to represent the past and concludes that
“redemption through painting is no longer possible.”
concern of these critics is with justice and with analyzing modes of
representation in order to consider and judge the extent to which Occupations bring us into an appropriate relationship with history.
Rampley does not say that it does not matter what Kiefer does. Rather, his intention is to understand the
implications of this art’s engagement with history and politics. For Rampley,
there is a question about the effects and meaning of Kiefer’s practice and an
assumption that it is not acceptable merely to mythologize Nazism. Rampley argues that Kiefer’s work, judged
against similar criteria to that of Buchloh and Huyssen, can be
understood as doing something other than simply mythologizing Nazism: it is a broader investigation into the
connections between German culture and Nazism. Kiefer does this with a level of ambivalence
which, according to Rampley, “distances him sufficiently from the tradition [of
German romantic anti-capitalism] to permit him to be regarded as interrogating
it, but only just.”
instance Rampley judges Kiefer’s work. What
Rampley is also doing is making an ethical judgment that engages with the judgments
of other critics and draws different conclusions from those of others. Rampley’s judgment in this example is not at
all about closing down fruitful discussion (to borrow Princenthal’s phrase). On the contrary, the various judgments made by
several critics have provoked a productive and instructive debate about the
relationship between Kiefer’s work and, in this instance, our understanding of
history. The debate between critics of
Kiefer is a collaborative investigation into how to read and judge Kiefer’s
work against the demands of justice. It
is precisely the kind of forum for serious ethical consideration I argued for above.
examples cited here suggest, critics acknowledge that there is an ethical
requirement at work in the analysis of art that relates to historical questions
of justice, and it is no accident that the examples cited here refer to the Second
World War. Indeed, the representation of
any kind of traumatic historical event demands an attentiveness to those
involved. We can also see this in some
of the literature surrounding art works that take the September 11 attacks as a
central theme. For example, in her
examination of works that present individuals ‘falling’ from the Twin Towers,
Andrea Fitzpatrick argues for a methodology of reading these works that both acknowledges
the vulnerability of those depicted and examines the impact of that depiction on
viewers who see it. In an explicitly
ethical move, one that echoes Solomon-Godeau’s call for just depictions of
individuals, Fitzpatrick calls for art works that produce, and art criticism that
acknowledges, “the dignification of the experiences of all the subjects
involved” in works of art, those depicted as well as viewers.
Fitzpatrick's essay offers an example of criticism
that regards art as one instance of inter-human relationships and that judges
art accordingly. This is
about more than the representation of history. It is about the meaning of viewers’ experience
of art. Once again, this type of
criticism regards art as part of the world and as having an impact on it. This criticism understands ethics as infused
in all aspects of human experience and, in so far as that is true, then it is
false to say that we can not judge.
4. Ethical judgment
does, as we have seen here, take place in academic art criticism, in spite of
all the historical and ideological reasons why many critics argue that it is no
longer possible. But while art criticism that deals with
traumatic events is illustrative of the contemporary practice of ethical judgment,
it does not follow that these kinds of instances of judgment in art criticism
are or should be exclusive to work that invokes overt questions of justice.
Precisely how ethical judgment should be
characterized and applied will depend on the description or understanding of
ethics that is brought into play. For instance,
taking up Levinas’ description of ethics as constitutive of subjectivity, means
that all art, regardless of whether or not it deals explicitly with questions
of justice, history or human beings, is answerable to ethics. This is because in Levinas’ view, no aspect of
human experience can be divorced from the ethical. The task of Levinas’ critic is to compare the
phenomenology of our experience of art with his phenomenology of ethics. This approach (one with which I am
sympathetic) means that no art is beyond the reach of ethical criticism. Obviously a different conception of ethics
would result in a different understanding of the task and scope of ethical
judgment. What is needed in the
discussion about art criticism is, therefore, serious consideration about
ethics itself and about the way ethics might inform ethical judgment.
for ethical criticism I am making here has a direct impact on our understanding
of the role and value of art. Ethical
criticism asks about art’s relationship with politics and history, and about
the ethical character of the relationship between the viewer and the art work.
Crucially, the task of ethical criticism is also
concerned with interrupting any residual claims for art's autonomy. Such claims are made implicit in art created since
modernism when it is assumed that at some level art is not answerable to
ethics. While contemporary art is
understood not as autonomous but as having a direct relationship with the realm
outside art, ethical criticism is inextricable from an acknowledgement and
analysis of this relationship.
Judging an art work joins art with ethics, it
calls art out of any partial or wholly autonomous sphere it might claim to reside
in and situates it instead in the realm of human needs and experiences; it
renders art active in the world and therefore accountable. In what other way can we have fruitful
discussion about important notions of, for example, historical justice in art, other
than by analyzing and then deciding on the appropriateness of representation and of experience? Any refusal to judge art in this way demands a
response to the difficult question of what makes art so special that it can be situated
beyond the reach of ethical considerations.
then, is not a moralizing about art but a practice that investigates the
adequacy and nature of art’s relationship with reality. As Plato explained in the Theaetetus, the concern of judgment is with things that are, and
this means that judgment is a form of knowledge. So the objective standpoint necessary for judgment
is reality (as well as we can understand that). For Levinas, reality and ethics are
inseparable. The significance of not attending to this reality threatens
to allow injustice to remain unchecked: malign
stereotypes perpetuated, histories excluded, viewer’s behavior misguided, a
diminished understanding of our relationship with and responsibility for each
other, a denuded sense of community and, most significantly, a failure to
consider seriously the character of our experience of art and its ethical
This essay represents a call for such
consideration, a consideration that is largely lacking in contemporary visual art
criticism. This situation is not unlike
that noted by Arendt in her response to the reception of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she asserts
that all around her she sees evidence of our deep-seated and dangerous fear of judgment. According to her, it was the breakdown of judgment,
rather than of responsibility, that characterized the early stages of the Nazi
regime and which allowed that regime to flourish. It is a blind
and silent subscription to the reigning ideology that entrenches injustice. In this context, judgment opens an important
space for the articulation and evaluation of ideas and experiences with which art
Many of the critics participating in
the October round table discussion on
criticism implied that contemporary criticism is concerned with understanding
where a work of art sits in art history. While that is an essential project, my
argument here is that criticism should be equally preoccupied with asking about
the relationship between our experience of art and our engagement with history per se, where history is understood in
the broadest sense to encompass both our relationship with the past and our
daily encounters with other people. If
Arendt was correct when she wrote that “one of the central moral questions of
all time...[is] the nature and function of human judgment,” then this moral
question will, by necessity, extend to our analysis and experience of works of
explains in a different context, the experience of being judged is not the
hearing of an impersonal verdict but rather a summons to respond. While art works are not responsible in
themselves, our thinking and writing about art and our experience of art must
be responsible if we take the reasons for judgment, and the potential
consequences of not judging, seriously.
Nowak is Melbourne Research Fellow in Art History at the University of
Melbourne, Australia. Her doctoral thesis was on the relationship between art
and ethics in the work of Levinas. Her current research interests include the
relationship between contemporary art, ethics and politics, and the status of
the concept of art’s autonomy in contemporary art criticism.
Published on December 3, 2012.
like to thank an anonymous reviewer of this article for incisive questions and
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann
in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1964), p. 296.
 This article focuses on the very particular discussion
about judgment in contemporary academic visual art circles. This discussion is distinct from that of
literature, for example.
 Ibid., p. 7, emphasis added.
 Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and its
Shadow,” trans. Alphonso Lingis, in The
Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil
Blackwell, 1989), pp. 129-143; ref. on p. 142.
 Certainly Solomon-Godeau is far from a
lone voice in this regard. Other obvious
examples of criticism that also assume that art is at some level heteronomous
include feminist and Marxist criticism. It should be noted, too, that Solomon-Godeau
is explicit about her view that there is a need to critique institutional
structures in art. See James Elkins and Michael Newman (eds.), The State of Art Criticism (New York and
London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 161-162.
 James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003), p. 84.
 For an understanding of the nature of art
criticism see Lionello
Venturi, History of Art Criticism,
trans. Charles Marriott (New York: E.P.
 These include: Maurice Berger (ed.), The Crisis of Criticism (New York: The
New Press, 1998); David Carrier, “Why Art Critics don’t Matter Anymore,” Art US, 18 (May-June 2007), 30-32; Elkins,
What Happened to Art Criticism?; Kritik conference, Vienna, 2006, organized
by epicp (see http://eipcp.net ); October, “Round Table: The Present
Conditions of Art Criticism,” October,
100 (Spring 2002), 200-228; Raphael Rubinstein, “A Quiet Crisis”, Art in America, 93, 3 (May 2003), 39-45;
Raphael Rubinstein ed., Art Critics on
the State of their Practice (Lenox, Massachusetts: Hard Press Editions,
 The few critics who do call for some kind
of judgment include James Elkins and Raphael Rubinstein.
 One example of this understanding of the impossibility
of judgment is David Carrier’s remark that “we really cannot make prophetic
judgments of taste or be convincing theoreticians.” (“Why Art Critics don’t
Matter Anymore,” 32)
 James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism?, p. 80.
 Ibid., p. 12 and pp. 42-50. Here Elkins also sets
out some reasons for critics’ move away from judgment into descriptive
 Nancy Princenthal, “Art Criticism, Bound
to Fail,” Art in America, 94, 1
(January 2006), 43-47; ref. on 45.
 Isabelle Graw, “Judging—Yes, but How? Response to
Christoph Menke,” Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw (eds.), The Power of Judgment: A Debate on Aesthetic
Critique (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010), pp. 37-42, ref. on p. 37. See
also Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture:
Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).
 One exception to this (with some important
qualifications) is Christoph Menke, “The Aesthetic Critique of Judgment”,
Birnbaum and Graw (eds.), The Power of
Judgment: A Debate on Aesthetic Critique, pp. 9-29.
 In this context it is important to note
that the concept of aesthetic judgment in contemporary visual art criticism
raises a distinct set of problems relating to its history, particularly that of
the twentieth century. It is for this
reason that this article does not address the question of the relationship
between aesthetic and ethical judgment of the kind raised by several writers
(including James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, Noël Carroll and Robert Stecker)
since the 1990s in the British Journal of
Aesthetics and elsewhere.
 This has been noted by several critics and
theorists, including Paul de Man, Blindness
and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 8: “Even in its most naïve form, that of
evaluation, the critical act is concerned with conformity to origin or
specificity.” Benjamin Buchloh, speaking
at a 2010 symposium organised by Texte
zur Kunst, noted that “the criteria of distinction, of qualitative
differentiation, have always been dictated from above, from the judgment seat
of power.” Quoted in J. J. Charlesworth,
“Criticism v. Critique,” Art Monthly,
346 (May 2011), 7-10; ref. on 9.
 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, in Elkins, (ed.), The State of Art Criticism, p. 156.
 Boris Groys, “Critical Reflections,” Artforum, 36, 2 (October 1997), 80-81+; ref. on 119.
 See Richard Bolton (ed.), Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent
Controversies in the Arts (New York: New Press, 1992); and David Marr, The Henson Case (Melbourne: Text
“Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism.” See also Graw, “Judging—Yes, but How?,” pp. 37-38.
“Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” 201-202.
p. 209, emphasis added.
 See also Abigail Solomon-Godeau in State of Art Criticism, pp. 138-9.
 See, for example, Boris Groys in State of Art Criticism, p. 132, and
Arthur C. Danto, Unnatural Wonders:
Essays from the Gap between Art and Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2005), pp. 356-7.
 See Newman in The State of Art Criticism, p. 30.
 For example,
David Joselit has argued that postmodernist art has taken on the role once
claimed by art criticism. See David
Joselit, “An Allegory of Criticism,” October, 103 (Winter 2003), 3-13; ref. on 3-4. For more on Kosuth’s position see, Joseph
Kosuth, “Statement from Information,”
in Art After Philosophy and After,
ed. Gabriele Guerico (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, 1970), pp. 73-74. See also Andrea Fraser’s remarks in October, “Round Table,” 213.
 As Danto puts it, “the fact I write about one show
rather than another is already a value judgment.” See his Unnatural
Wonders, p. 366.
 James Elkins in State of Art Criticism, p. 159.
 Newman in State of Art Criticism, p. 51.
 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Divided Memory
and Post-Traditional Identity: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning,” October, 75 (Winter 1996), 61-82; ref.
 Matthew Rampley, “In Search of Cultural
History: Anselm Kiefer and the Ambivalence of Modernism,” Oxford Art Journal, 23, 1 (2000), 73-96; ref. on 73.
 Andreas Huyssen, “Terror of History,
Temptation of Myth”, October, 48
(Spring 1989), 25-45; ref. on 45.
 Andrea D. Fitzpatrick, “The Movement of Vulnerability:
Images of Falling and September 11,” Art
Journal (Winter 2007) 85-102; ref. on 102. Significantly, Fitzpatrick draws much of her
ethics from her reading of Judith Butler who, Fitzpatrick notes, is indebted to
Levinas. See note 7, 87.
 See Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken
Books, 2003), pp. 18-24. Arendt makes
the point here that we have a responsibility to judge.
 Jacques Rancière, too, has noted that there has been
an ‘ethical turn’ in recent art criticism. For him, the understanding of ethics at work
in such criticism is too indistinct to be valuable, and is one that situates
itself beyond the rule of law, where the distinction between fact and law is
blurred. This understanding of ethics is
distinguishable from the one under discussion here. See Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Stephen
Corcoran (London and New York: Continuum 2010), chapter 13.
 Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow.”
 When this bridge between art and the
extra-art realm is not made, there can be some difficult consequences. For example, a controversy erupted in
Australia in 2008 when a postcard advertising an exhibition of the work of
photographer Bill Henson came to the attention of the mainstream media. As Kate MacNeill has shown, the debate was,
broadly speaking, drawn between the arts community and the public, with neither
side engaging effectively with the terms of the other’s argument. It appeared almost as if each side was
engaging not with the same image, but with two things of radically different
orders. See Kate MacNeill, “When Subject
becomes Object: Nakedness, Art and the
Public Sphere,” Media International
Australia, 135 (May 2010), 82-93. In
this case, one of the consequences of the failure of critics to judge is a rift
between the arts community and the public.
 Much of this call for ethical criticism is
drawn from Levinas. See his “Reality and
 Plato, Theaetetus,
187a-b, trans. M.J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat in John M. Cooper (ed.), Plato: Complete Works
(Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
 The role of judgment in the creation of community is discussed
in Menke, “The Aesthetic Critique of Judgment.”
 Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, pp. 18-24.
 Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 294.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University, 1969), p. 244.