Amanda Beech: Don't fight it: the embodiment of critique

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Beech, Amanda. "Don't fight it: the embodiment of critique." Journal of Visual Arts Practice 6, no 1 (2007): 61-71.

Key Words: institutional critique, knowledge, recognition, subject/object, tragic, techne, pragmatism

Other Words: culture, politics, absolute knowledge, Hegelian subjectivity, Oedipus, discourse, detheorization, art's condition


Amanda Beech’s (Course Director MA Critical Writing and Curatorial Practice, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Art) “Don’t Fight It: The Embodiment of Critique” considers the ethics of institutional critique vis-à-vis art’s political, social and aesthetic significance. At stake is an enactment of knowledge as techne. As “doing” that is “interested,” techne is a way of circumventing the recognition and understanding of the institution as a condition of critique. This is in contrast to the kind of knowledge underpinning Hegelian subjectivity (viz. knowledge as absolute, redemptive and idealist), which turns on definition as a condition for overcoming.

The myth of Oedipus serves Beech as a metaphor for considering the politics of recognition as it pertains to contemplating the subject/object slippage in institutional critique. Using Lacoue-Labarthe’s Hegelian interpretation, Beech identifies the anti-hero’s incapacity to differentiate his own actions from those of the Gods, a conundrum highlighting (a) the challenge of recognizing the institution targeted by institutional critique; and (b) institutional critique as itself an institution. The limitations of the institutionalization of critique (reminiscent of Adorno) is also, however, an aspect of institutional critique. Self-transcendence is already and always part of its mechanism, and it is precisely this problem that drives Beech’s discussion.

Addressing the question “What work does art do?” near the beginning of her paper, the author observes a widespread “faith” that art not only does “something” but that “…knowing what art does will help us make it (and [she] is referring to both art and politics here) better. ”(61) What are the parameters, characteristics and consequences of this labour, specifically in relation to the social when art has a long history of disappointing as an agent for political change? Beech’s response to these questions crystallizes in the final part of her discussion. Here she argues by way of Nietzsche’s self-preservation, Fish’s neo-pragmatism and self-consciousness and Rorty’s sense of critique as contestation that, in the absence of complete knowledge (of the institution or the self) and with the recognition of critique as embedded—as part of the institution (as an institution in itself)—the subject’s critical agency resides in accepting his or her insinuation in the institution (of critique) and dealing with it as part of art’s condition.

This idea (with "condition" here understood as both a quality of art and a circumstance shaping art) relates to the political labour of art as contemporary culture. The problem with this condition for Beech, however, is that institutional critique is typically “tragic” and "pathological,” to use her terms. Fixated on its validity, it entails a “…crisis or the struggle to overcome the entrenched dialectic of the institution/subject and [it is] founded upon a strange form of self-analysis based upon a definition of its limitations” (62). And to this end, institutional critique becomes an end in itself.

This, however, need not be the end of the story...because with this recognition comes the challenge of reactivating critique, which for Beech involves bracketing off the idealism of transcendent knowledge to offer instead a de-theorized sense of contingency. “We are the institution, so we deal with it,” she contends. “We define it as we define ourselves,” (68) a conclusion that conveniently evacuates the problem of subject/object conflation (the compulsion to other the self).

Circling back to Oedipus, Beech proffers her own reading of this figure as an agent who, plucking out his desire for absolute understanding, embraces instead knowledge as techne. The significance of this becomes clear when Beech aligns critique with Donald Davidson’s (un)definition of truth. In short, destabilizing our conventional definitions is indispensable to resisting critique's definition and by extension institutionalization. For Beech, keeping critique in a state of suspension frustrates its co-option. In the face of this destablization, techne provides a way of enacting critique through practice because practice, asserts the author, is where the real “will” of critique resides. She concludes: “The question that remains for this type of Nietzschean-style pragmatism is how we settle arguments about these beliefs and actions, but as I have hoped to show here, it is not about institutionalization, but instead of defining the agency of critique it only defines its end” (71).

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