The Foundations of Criticism: The Case of October

Noortje de Leij | University of Amsterdam | supervisors: Mia Lerm-Hayes & Johan Hartle

As Modernist ideals of authenticity, autonomy and aesthetic purity gradually unraveled from the 1960s onwards, artistic discourse paradigmatically shifted its attention to the socio-political and economic realities that lie at the basis of art and its institutional systems. An implicit preposition that followed from art’s imbrication with larger socio-political structures was that art might also play a role in changing, or unveiling, this broader context. In par with these developments, art criticism increasingly developed into a site for social critique and a means for investigating the possibilities of political change. One particularly influential strand of this turn to a politically aware art criticism consolidated in the 1976 journal for art theory and criticism October––allusively named after Sergei Eisenstein’s film October about the October revolution. October intervened within its own historical moment by developing a theoretically informed approach that merged art criticism with critical theory and focused on art’s ‘critical potential’––drawing most importantly upon the traditions of post-structuralist thought and the Frankfurt School. While it is hard to underestimate October’s influence on our current understanding of the politics of critique within the global reception and evaluation of art, there have been few attempts to systematically evaluate October’s intellectual narrative. This PhD project will research the theoretical and historical grounds upon which the October discourse was developed. What, in other words, are the implicit art-philosophical claims for the October group’s premise that that art can––and should––be critical? As such, this research will contribute a crucial aspect to the broader project of establishing a genealogy and critique of radical art criticism and socio-politically informed aesthetic debate since the 1970s.