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Critique in the Media, Art and within Society reflects our Culture - The Search for the next Generation of Academics

04/20/2016 In most people, the word “critique” bodes no positive association. Conversely, the term “culture” does. The expression “cultures of critique” links them together and is the topic of a new DFG research training group, which will begin work at Leuphana in October 2016. The university is currently advertising twelve doctoral assistant positions, as well as one post doc. The research group is dedicated to prominent cases from the fields of artistic, media and social criticism, said the Speaker, Prof. Dr. Beate Söntgen, professor for history of art in the interview.

Ms Söntgen, please tell me how a person becomes a critic.
An important prerequisite for critique is self-reflection, ie a form of self-questioning. But critique also requires the ability to make distinctions. On the one hand, the person needs to distance themselves from the subject, on the other hand s/he has to ask themselves how s/he is involved in the object, which s/he wants to review.

Is critique thus a typically human phenomenon?
I would say yes. Classical philosophy would also give a clearly affirmative answer to that question. Reason, which is considered a prerequisite for criticism, is deemed to be a specifically human capacity. However, recent theories attribute the power to act and even critical potential, for example about the actor-network theory to animals or inanimate objects. The extent to which one has to reconsider criticism in the face of such considerations will be an important issue in our research group.

Is critique just a means of influencing the environment or do we use it to position ourselves?
The impulse to act, the desire to change something, is almost always present when we apply critique to something. But a narcissistic motivation also plays a major role. When I practice critique, I consider something from a distance, and dissociate myself from it, in order to review it. This means assuming a "superior Position". This is what criticism has been accused of in the philosophical discussion of the phenomenon since the 1960s, and which intensified in the 1990s.

What questions related to the subject of critique appeal to you as an art historian?
Art critique is an early form of critique; it originated at the same time as modern critique in 18th century Europe. Critique has been a driving force for the development of the modern subject, where art critique is an important tool. In art critique, one encounters an artistic view of the world, which can also be critical in itself already, then one encounters oneself as a sensual and reflective subject, which possesses the capacity for self-observation. Contemporary art is now explicitly claiming to be also able to express critique, which, for me, renders the critique issue even more exciting.

Is art the little sister of critique? Are they similar and do they have the same origin?
In many cases, one might describe Arts, also from a historical point of view, as a form of critique. Since the 1960s, artistic practices have increasingly considered themselves as expressing critique. Art had always had the potential to criticise, because pictures are never clear, but they shimmer and are subject to interpretation; they were even able to indirectly address their purchaser. Social critique is also found in many images, like for example, in the 19th century with Gustave Courbet, the early 20th century with George Grosz or with our contemporary Andrea Fraser.

Other artists, who are not considered as critical, still depict situations which are problematic, such as the impressionist Auguste Renoir. His depictions of young amorous couples in parks convey a harmonious effect. However, these young, working women often came from the countryside; they had been seduced, but were not married, which meant they were excluded from society. Today, it is no longer possible to see these images with the same eyes if one knows nothing about the social stratification of the 19th century, and one thinks the view is idyllic. However, the decisive difference to contemporary art is: This is not an overt critic of social injustices of his time.

Are there more creatives or more critics?
First, I would say: Good critics are also creative. But if I would nevertheless make a distinction, I would say that, fortunately, there are many more creatives than critics.

Is it possible to make a map of the cultures of critique? Is there, then, a European, an American or a Swabian culture of critique?
That's a good question. The first phase of the work of our research group will focus on Europe. Critique has its origins in countries such as Britain, France and Germany, and there the characteristics are very different. In France, for example, the language used in the review is much more light-hearted. The European forms of critique have influenced American ones, if only for the simple reason that the United States results from European colonisation. Then again, the contrasting character of the United States enabled the formation of other forms of critique. For reasons pertaining to the history of scholarship, applicants to the Research Training Group are still relatively unfamiliar with [critique] from other continents. In a future phase of the Research Training Group, we plan to dedicate ourselves to the consequences of globalisation. In this respect, digital media play an equally important role as different political establishments and their consequences, for example censorship.

What influences do social media have on the cultures of critique? Are the boundaries on the map now being blurred?
They stimulate a prodigious exchange of ideas and forms of critique! In some countries, such as China, social media are under scrutiny, or even banned, for voiced criticism. Nevertheless, new forms of expression across national borders are currently arising. This is an important topic of the Research Training Group, in particular, but not only, in the area of social critique.

Apart from you, more academics are involved in the DFG programme. From what perspective do they consider the cultures of critique? 
There is a total of ten co-applicants, ten other Leuphana professors who come from very different disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. Mr Hörl, the Deputy Speaker, for example, is a philosopher and professor of media culture. The mixture of disciplines proved very productive in the preparatory phase already.

Basically, it can be said that art and media critique are self-reflective, to such an extent that they sometimes forget their subject. Social critique, however, takes the object of critique seriously, but forgets that it relies on a medium in which critique is expressed and that the message is also a mould. A common feature of all three lies in the realization that a democracy cannot function without critique. Critique is of substantial importance for civil society – as well as an important subject of research for the Leuphana.

What young researchers of natural sciences are you looking to hire for the Research Training Group? What special abilities and interests should they bring?
In particular, theoretical curiosity and readiness for interdisciplinary exchange. Then a bit of appetite for risk and a great passion for critique as a phenomenon.

We want an international and intellectually diverse group!

“At the beginning was the word”. Is there objection at the end?
No (laughs).

Prof. Dr. Beate Söntgen
Scharnhorststr. 1, C5.409
21335 Lüneburg
Fon +49.4131.677-1696

The interview was conducted by Dörte Krahn, University Communication. News can be send to