The Limits of the ‘Form Review’

This staging of ‘dialogue’ can be encapsulated in the following assertion: the ‘Form Review’ functions as the theatrical presentation of both the idea that something ‘ought to happen more’ (namely ‘dialogue’) and the immediate ‘resolution’ of the necessity of ‘increased dialogue’ by the reviews themselves.

Readers of the St. Claire are by now familiar with the section titled ‘Form Review.’ The constitutive function of these reviews is, according to the editors, the ‘attempt to increase dialogue within art journalism and highlight the subjectivity of a traditional exhibition review (my emphasis).’ In light of this, one could initially state that the central operation of the ‘Form Review’ is quantitative (to ‘increase’). That said, where does this impulse for quantitative expansion leave the expression ‘dialogue’? If ‘expansion’ is the initial function of the review, then the import of dialogue, and in a strong sense, the St. Claire as a whole, constitutes the qualitative impulse. What the deployment of the expression ‘dialogue’ suggests is the attempt to effectuate something that is generated only when differing reflections and ideas come into contact. This inference is not without some justification. Recall that the St. Claire identifies its central ‘ethos’ in the following way: ‘Everyday we work to bring bodies together and tongues to talk. Through conversation, collaboration…The St. Claire is here to bring the art players of Philadelphia face-to-face; mind-to-mind.’ To put it more directly: the idea behind ‘increasing dialogue’ is to cultivate a critical and, as the editors of the St. Claire like to put it, ‘engaged’ artistic environment.

With this in mind, I would like to posit the following straightforward question: does the ‘Form Review’ stay faithful to this underlying ethos? Does it indeed function as a conduit through which increased – qualitative more than quantitative – ‘dialogue’ is generated, or does it rather paradoxically produce (unwillingly) the very opposite of what it sets out to do?

The problem at the heart of this question is the meaning of ‘dialogue.’ It is not entirely clear whether ‘dialogue’ is grasped, within the context of the St. Claire, as either a process (the method or way discourse unfolds) in which something other than dialogue is produced as its result (the ‘end’ or ‘purpose’ of the process that emerges when the process is disrupted); or whether dialogue is itself the result from whence the process is retroactively rendered intelligible (we make sense of dialogue as a process precisely because it is given as a fixed and meaningful term). In a certain sense, the journal equivocally vacillates from one understanding to the other: on the one hand, ‘dialogue’ is the result of the theoretical, collaborative and creative labours of the journal (‘every day we work to bring bodies together and tongues to talk.’); and on the other hand, dialogue is the process through which ‘faces’ and ‘minds’ are collected. This equivocation of the identity of ‘dialogue’ is reflected and played out in two distinctive ways in the ‘Form Review’: (1) in the form of the staging of ‘dialogue’ and (2) in its instrumentalized assumption.*

The formal structure of the review (how it is ‘set up’ if you will) indicates a clear ‘dialogical’ (if one can use this term more loosely – which is to say, without consciously reflecting on its theoretical legacy) process in that it is based on a ‘question and answer’ form, that is to say, a prototypical structure of social discourse in which one asks and the other responds. The formal structure is that of an ‘interview’ of sorts. The ‘dialogical’ aspect of the review then is based on the presupposition that the ‘question and answer’ form is prototypically – or, archetypically – discursive. This aspect is perhaps not mobilized in the ‘Form Review’ as the most accomplished dialogical form, but it is certainly employed as a model that reflects the meaning of ‘dialogue’, thus signalling a certain pre-critical assumption of the meaning itself. With this prototypical-archetypical structure of discussion in the context of the ‘Form Review’ we have, I believe, the exaggerated staging of the appearance of ‘dialogue’. This staging of ‘dialogue’ can be encapsulated in the following assertion: the ‘Form Review’ functions as the theatrical presentation of both the idea that something ‘ought to happen more’ (namely ‘dialogue’) and the immediate ‘resolution’ of the necessity of ‘increased dialogue’ by the reviews themselves. With this staging comes the rehearsed repetition of the reviews presupposed assumptions and pre-established resolutions (that the questions posed in the review are the same at all times underscores this ‘rehearsed’ aspect).

This mode of ‘resolution’ effectively instrumentalizes the review (turning it into a ‘ready-made’ schema that always achieves what it sets out to do), thus abrogating critical self-reflection on the assumed function. This instrumentalization is brought into sharper relief when one considers that the ‘Form Review’ consciously presents itself, as was noted above, as ‘[highlighting] the subjectivity of a traditional exhibition review.’ What is illuminated in the ‘Form Review’ then is what is always already illuminated in ‘traditional exhibition’ reviews (it is not entirely clear why the ‘traditional’ dimension of exhibition reviews requires highlighting). I say ‘always already’ because the identity of ‘traditional’ reviews is mobilized in the ‘Form Review’ as self-evident, thus ‘already’ fully comprehended and assimilated (no justification needs to be made for something that is self-evident). The effect of this illumination is the endless reproduction of what is ‘traditional’ in exhibition reviews (as if the assumed subjective essence of reviews was in and of itself a non-issue, one that can be easily bypassed and ignored). The problem with this ‘endless reproduction’ is the following: it ratifies – either openly or tacitly – the status quo of the dominant idea of artistic ‘engagement’ in a decidedly caricatured form, rendering obsolete the germs for the possibility of actually ‘examining and engaging our immediate art communities’ as the editors state (what does the ‘engagement’ of the St. Claire amount to if it consists of a pre-critical continuation of what already exists – which of course is the infinite proliferation of markedly non-critical forms of ‘engagement’?). Put another way: endless reproduction of what already exists simply reproduces the dominant cultural order of the annihilation of the dynamic of discursive antagonism in the process of elaborating objective claims, giving way instead to a pluralist multiplication of infinite subjective opinions.

It is in this twofold sense – (1) theatricalization of a ‘prototypical’ structure of dialogue and (2) instrumentalization of the function of the appearance of ‘dialogue’ through self-arrogation of subjective opinion – that the ‘Form Review’ yields precisely the very opposite of what it sets out to achieve. That is to say: the ‘Form Review’ decreases the qualitative nature of dialogue by insisting on a quantitative increase that results in the clinical smoothing over of forms of discursive friction in the interest of self-affirmative expansion.

(*Of course, the issue of the inter-permeation of dialogue as process and result is left outstanding in our reflections here. That said, the following rhetorical point could be made: would not a process that is itself identical to the result constitute a closed and problematic tautology in which what ‘dialogue’ produces or activates is nothing but itself as what already exists [a process that is itself already the ‘result’ would pacify the tense distinction between ‘process’ and ‘result’ since they are posited as identical]? This tautological reproduction of dialogue in and for itself – for its ‘own sake’ [to use the modernist maxim reflected herein] – dissolves the actual antagonistic dynamic of discourse and dialogue.)

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