Critique Conscious and Unconscious: Listening to the Barbarous Language of Art and Design

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Abstract

This article addresses two linked questions. The first question is, ‘Is there an art school critique?’ The second question is, ‘How is the possibility of an art school critique bound up with the characteristics of art and design speech?’ In addressing these questions, I identify a ‘barbarous’ aspect to speech in art and design that produces the persistent problem of a division of language, manifest in current divisions of theory and practice. I trace the origins of this barbarism to the historical inclusion of art and design within the signifying structure of an educational metaphor, which bound the utilitarian wish for a bourgeois ‘revolution’ in pedagogy to the social relations of nineteenth-century capital. One of the radical possibilities introduced by this wish for a pedagogical revolution, was the potential for a specific form of ‘art school critique’. It is the failure to sustain this critical position within the contract between the art school and commodity capital, that has determined the subsequent fate of art school critique. I locate the high watermark and the fall of a specifically art school critique to the same moment, namely the brief and antagonistic encounter with capital and commerce adopted by Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave in their so-called ‘Chamber of Horrors’ exhibiting ‘Correct Principles of Taste’ at Marlborough House in 1852. The significance of Cole's ‘Chamber of Horrors’ is that of a moment of critical antagonism that was not repeated, because the relationship of the art school to commerce, capital and the commodity evolved differently from that moment on. Precisely because it was not repeated, we are compelled to remember this critical moment in a dissimulated form, through the inertia and deadlock of theory and practice.

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