Frida Viktoria Sandström

Frida Viktoria Sandström

PhD fellow

The Critics’ Critics

In focus of this dissertation is a conjunctural specific critique of art criticism undertaken by critics and artists between 1955 and 1975, in USA and Italy. This criticism is formulated and enacted against a formalist critical subjectivity which they are embodying and simultaneously expressing a polemic standpoint against. I discuss this double-bind by focussing on three subjects: Italian art critic and separatist feminist Carla Lonzi, (1931–1982) American cultural critic and lesbian activist Jill Johnston (1931–2009) and American-German artist and philosopher Adrian Piper (1948–). Central for all three is the abandonment, negation, or sabotage of formalist critical subjectivity. They undertake this sabotage by making this subject – themselves – the object of critique, while simultaneously immersing their presupposed autonomy into the heteronomous social context in which they live. Therefore, the self-reflection of these three critics and artists questions its own conditions of possibility and along with it, the concepts of art, criticism, and identity writ large.

The dissertation borrows its title in progress, The Critic’s Critics, from a column in the countercultural American journal Village Voice, "Critic's Critics" written by Jill Johnston in 1965. In this column, Johnston expresses some of the problems internal to art criticism as well as to democratic citizenship, that she experiences in New York. By borrowing this title, I situate my method of investigation in this conjunctural specific problem internal to formalist art criticism, as expressed by Johnston, as well as by Carla Lonzi and Adrian Piper around the same time. Central to all these critic’s critics is that they manifest their ‘refusals’ toward formalism between 1968 and 1970, with a culmination in 1969. These refusals are set into play by means of the three figures turning the formalism that they embody, as critics and conceptual artists, against its objective form, which in different way punctuate or distort its presupposed forms of representation. During the process of ‘punctuation’ they can subjectify beyond the limits of the formal, in terms of gender, sexuality and race. In writing, all three subjects develop critiques or negations of formalist criticism as much as of social struggle, which make them subjects rather than objects of a theoretical discussion, which they also stress themselves and which consequently puts the very subject of research – myself – to the test. 

I discuss the activities of the three figures in question as social critiques of representation, by departing from notions used by the three figures themselves: Jill Johnston’s disintegration, Carla Lonzi’s deculturalization and Adrian Piper’s object (in Fred Moten’s terms, an objection and in Jill Johnston’s terms an ‘object lesson’). All notions bring me to the research question: what is a critique of criticism? Who are the critics' critics? My hypothesis is that a critique of criticism does not abandon its subjects, but rather critiques their presupposed forms of representation, socially. Hence, the conjunctural specific social critique of the three figures can be understood to point out a crisis of representation in 1969, not very dissimilar from the one that we are experiencing today. By highlighting this crisis, I wish to put the very form of subjectivity that research like this presupposes to the test, along with the historical material with which I engage.

Historically, the conjunctural specific context of USA and Western Europe in 1969 is understood as part of a historical specific moment between May 1968 and the oil crisis of 1970. This period also saw a heated debate on the relation between theory and praxis, both in critical theory, in art practice, and in revolutionary struggle. This debate includes relations of gender, sexuality and race overseen by both contexts – and by most research on the period – and pointed out and opposed by the Johnston, Lonzi and Piper. Hence, along with formalist aesthetics and the concept of identity, the social relations imposed by the modern concept of art are put to the test. Theoretically, I envision Adorno’s two folded concept of art as social criticism, and turn it against itself to manifest how the gendered, and racialized social relations upon which criticism depends in the first place are refused and rearranged by Johnston, Lonzi and Piper. I tentatively call this the double character of the critic. As made clear above, the theoretical framework is developed around the literature engaged with by the subjects themselves, and around concepts in motion in this context. Besides the dialectics of theory and practice, this demands a rethinking of 'social critique' in the context of aesthetics. This rethinking is undertaken to enhence a social critique of aesthetic representation, which I argue to be in crisis in the context and period, what Johnston, Lonzi and Piper clearly points out. By reading their activities in light of this crisis, we might understand the similar crisis in which we are now, a little better. 

Central references and dialogue partners are Shulamith Firestone, Lee Lozano, Stella Standford, David Lloyd, Hortense Spillers, Kevin Floyd, Peter Drucker, ME O’Brien, Sophie Lewis, Fumi Okiji, Franz Fanon, W.E.B du Bois, Leo Steinberg, Stuart Martin, Peter Osborne, Christine Ross, Chris Arthur, Etienne Balibar, Sianne Ngai, Josefine Wikström, Marie Louise Krogh and many others.

The thesis has been presented in the following parts:

–"A sensuous reversal of consciousness: Carla Lonzi's deculturation of history," at “Time and History in the Age of Capital Seventh Annual Conference of the Danish Society for Marxist Studies,” 6-7 October 2022.

“Is an Insurrectionary Critique Possible,” at "Resistance," Nordic Society of Aesthetics’ annual congress, June 2022

“Art and Identity. Piper’s Negative Critique,” at "The Intellectual Aftermath," The 53rd AICA International Congress, November 2021.   

“The Disintegration of Art Criticism,” at Art - What is it good for? Education, mediation, criticism at Linnaeus University, August 2020 and Aesthetic Relations, University of Copenhagen, January 2021

– Paper presentation at Philosophy Graduate Conference: “Afterlives of the Transcendental – Critiques and Actuality,” 4 June 2021. Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, London. Ref. Peter Osborne.

– Paper presentation at Sandbjerg Seminar 2020: Rhythm: Affect, Technology, Aesthetics. University of Copenhagen and Southern University of Denmark, April 13–15 2021. Ref. Anders Engberg-Pedersen.


“The disintegration of autonomy: Jill Johnston’s anti-criticism,” in Feminism and the Frankfurt School (Brill)

“Carla Lonzis kritik af repræsentation,” antologi om marxistisk feminisme (Klim)

I am supervised by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen. 2021-2022 I was a visiting research student at Center for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston university, London, supervised by Peter Osborne. 

As part of and anlongside this research, I have, together with James Day, Fredrik Svensk and Mikkel Bolt, and i collaboration with Art as Forum, arranged two symposia on the subject of art criticism: "The promise and compulsion of art criticism’s universalism," 2020, and "The subject of art criticism’s universalism," 2021. 

I have planned and taught the 15 ECTS MA course "Culture as mediation of indifference, or the modern crisis of representation," at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, spring 2021

Outside of my academic engagement I work as a writer and critic, and since 2015, I am a contributing editor at Paletten Art Journal. 2020 I edited the online special issue "Editorial meeting – A Gathering Towards a Critique of the Contemporary," in collaboration with Matthew Rana and Patrik Haggren.

I write art criticism for Artforum, and am published in contexts such as, Critique d’Art, Afterall, ArtAgenda, Mousse, Frieze, e-flux Journal, Art Papers, Camera Austria, Kunstkritikk, Dagens Nyheter and Aftonbladet kultur. 2015 I was the editor of the anthology KROPPSFUNKTION (Stockholm: 2015).

As a guest teacher and lecturer in Contemporary Art and Dance Theory, I have been teaching at The Royal Academy of Art, Copenhagen, Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, Konstfack - University of Arts Craft and Design, Gerlesborg School of Fine Art, Linköping University, DOCH - Stockholm University of the Arts and at Akademin Valand. 

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