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July 31, 2004

'Nomah' No More

Nomar.
Nomar.
Nomar.
Nomar.
Nomar.
Nomar.

"'Nomah' No More"
Posted by Dan at 11:58 PM | Referenced URL's | Comments (2)


Leave no footprint, only lunch specials

You Thai Now.

Thai Restaurateur: You need job? I have job for you. You take these. [hands Bart a stack of menus] You hang Thai menu on door. I get more business. Send daughters to small liberal arts college. Swarthmore, maybe Sarah Lawrence. Call professors by first name. Ha—dynamite!
Bart: Hang 'em on the door. Got it.
...
Thai Restaurateur: You quitter! [sing-song] Quitter boy! Quitter boy!
Bart: I'm sorry.
Thai Restaurateur: Now restaurant fail. Children go to state college. Serious students powerless against drunken jockocracy. Baseball hats everywhere.

"Leave no footprint, only lunch specials"
Posted by Dan at 11:08 PM | Referenced URL's | Comments (0)



July 28, 2004

Vik Muniz v. Yves Klein

Yves Klein: Venus BleueWith Vision 9 on Friday the 9th, Chicago's CADA galleries uttered a collective "eh..." as they sent us slip-sliding into summer siesta season on the back of the annual cavalcade of group shows. Among these is The Weakest Link, a pretty decent affair at Alan Koppel through August 27th. Aside from the usual abundance of Edward Lipski's black sculpture and a heavy dose of photos (Arbus, Sander, Evans, Sugimoto, et alia), Koppel presents a nifty pair of works in Yves Klein's Venus Bleue and Vik Muniz's After Yves Klein (from Pictures of Color).

Vik Muniz: After Yves Klein (from Pictures of Color)Klein's blue Venus of course radiates with his trademark (rather, patented) International Klein Blue. The Muniz piece, characteristic of his vampiric tendencies, gleans its substance from its reference to Klein's. I do like some of Muniz's work, but this piece just lacks the perceptual punch that characterizes his best stuff. Indeed, the limitations of conceptual cleverness could hardly be more aptly illustrated.

For his part, Yves Klein was certainly nothing if not a consummate clever boy. Yet anytime I view one of the proto-Conceptualist's IKB works I can't help but feel, if nothing else, that there is sincerity in his claim that color is "materialized sensibility," that his blue is indeed the pure color of space, "without dimensions." Muniz simply latches onto the notion of trademarked color, however, and responds with a flat Cibachrome image (a three-color process) of a grid of tiled swatches of Pantone Blue 072 U and Pantone Reflex Blue U (proprietary spot colors), ostensibly as a representation of Klein's IKB (a patented ultramarine formulation), unable to in any respect do justice to the intensity of Klein's color and thus the power bearing forth his concept. Whether this is because of a simple lack of sensitivity or if it is due to the shift across proprietary color models (and whether this was the 'point'), I couldn't say. But, while such questions may (in a very limited way) be thought-provoking in themselves, I do know that in any estimation Vik's photo just ain't all that electric. And so he misses half the story.

Yves Klein: IKB Patent (#63471)

"Vik Muniz v. Yves Klein"
Posted by Dan at 01:36 PM | Referenced URL's | Comments (0)


Obama

(Barack.)

I'll resist the urge to gush.

Earlier in the evening the pundits marveled at Obama's "meteoric rise" to party prominence. Why a keynote address from this Illinois state senator who just four months ago was the minority underdog with meager funding in a seven-way primary race? Could he possibly live up to the hype and expectations?

Anyone who watched the man's phenomenal speech last night knows. (The networks preempted programming around here to broadcast it—everywhere else, it seems, Big Brother 5 aired as scheduled.) Everyone seems to think, at least for the moment, that this "skinny kid with a funny name" is the real deal.

Others' gushing (truly deserved):

Kos
Atrios
Sully
Pandagon
Left Coaster
Matthew Gross
Gadflyer I (Sean Aday)
Gadflyer II (Charlton McIlwain)
Liberal Oasis
Electablog
Kicking Ass
MyDD
Greater Democracy

Then Ramsin Canon at Gapers Block has to up and spoil the fun, reminding us that "The Messiah is Human."

Update: Josh Marshall on Barack's impressive rhetorical force.

Update: Even ESPN's Daily Quickie Bandwagon gets into the act [via comment at ArchPundit]:

WHO'S GOT THE MOMENTUM ...
Cards P Jason Marquis: Runs off 8th straight W; who knew?
Gary Sheffield: 400 HR (but apparently 400 is the new 300)
Barack Obama: Dem or GOPer, you have to hear that speech...

Watch the speech here.

"Obama"
Posted by Dan at 04:12 AM | Referenced URL's | Comments (0)



July 20, 2004

More on Criticism... Hannum, Relyea, Husby

Isn't it lovely when things just converge? Continuing on the topic of the Crisis of Criticism, I offer a couple things I've stumbled upon (and returned to) recently...

Rifling through a bag of mine (still packed from my recent East Coast safari) I pulled out a copy of Coterie, another critical venue for the semi-ubiquitous Terence J. Hannum (not to sell the other three Coterie founders/editors short), who kicks off this second issue of the new rag thusly:

Maybe it was a year ago, maybe a bit more, when criticism was the bemoaned topic. [I guess I'm behind the curve.] Bemoaned for its lack: of presence, of judgement, of PR, of frequency and of overall criticality. I always took it as the final passing tremors of the collective realization that New Art Examiner wasn't coming back. The status of criticism, specifically in Chicago, has begun to improve through a variety of attempts..., even to be replaced by the current sparse gripes about a lack of collectors. Though these gripes about collectors want art writing to be PR for art selling. At least those motives are clear. Motives that permit and encourage a roll [sic] for the critic to reiterate gallery/museum press releases in complete collusion never exercising an agency (or effort for that matter) but allowing their verbiage to serve as conduits for PR. In writing about art description is a given. Judgement is expected. Duh. Context on the other hand, not to forget relevance and/or irrelevance (Note: There is immense power in obsolescence.), are what begin to set art criticism apart from art reviewing. Yes, there are differences between an art review and art criticism and we hope that at their best Coterie's writings can open a dialogue toward productive forms of criticism.

While I don't put much faith in neological semantic distinctions, I think Hannum's opposition of 'reviews' and 'criticism' offers a servicable pair of terms, the one designating something everyday, pragmatic and participatory, the other something rigorous and ambitious, perhaps even committed. We need not denigrate the former in the service of the latter. Ideally, there is room (and a need) for both, though I suppose the practical possibility of this is another matter.

Similarly serendipitous: At last Thursday's ThreeWalls salon on the topic of independent curating, someone made mention of a show Lane Relyea curated (though apparently he disapproves of the term, speaking of neological semantics) at the Pond, "Allover and At Once." The exhibition, I gather, was based on a four-part essay published in X-Tra. (Read an excerpt here or various selections posted by blogger Dennis Hollingsworth here; order back issues here, $30 for all of volume 6 (issues 1-4) which will also get you Christine Wertheim's response to Relyea in issue 3—my copies are en route.) Though I hadn't seen the show myself, this sent me back to panel-house to review this response to Relyea by Steven Husby, which I remembered reading back in March (and which, as it should happen, was reprinted in the second issue of Coterie, mentioned above).

More on Husby below. First, a bit of Relyea's take on the crisis of criticism (or at least what I can gather from the limited excerpts available online). He locates it, in part, in the infinite extensions and deferrals of postmodern textuality and in the spectacle of commerce:

The pervasive sense that artworks rely on chains of explanation residing outside themselves, that they are a sub-species of theory, that they depend for their legibility and legitimacy on discourse, that they are most fully revealed in books and magazines, in the dual-slide-projector lectures of classrooms and artist talks, in informed discussions among artworld insiders, did much to erode conviction in the single, framed, all-there-at-once image. The readymade was made to exemplify this: that meaning in art is contingent, it comes after the fact and from outside in the form of a caption, a framing language, or a framing institution and ideology. But what happens to such meanings, and to discourse itself, when contextual determinants are in turn exploded, when every context reveals itself to be just another text, when framing institutions merge, diversify, cross-merchandize, when all disciplines feather into one another, when every caption is constructed from an information glut that can be endlessly edited, reorganized, manipulated, spun? Captions and contexts have lost all credibility, and the dissolution of these and every other frame has given rise to an infinitely landscaped situation, an awareness of only pure flow. Hence perhaps the popularity of landscaped, interior-décor art, big installations and video projections and other types of spread-out work. Every era has a dominant art that other forms imitate, to paraphrase Greenberg.
It could be argued that discourse, as it has become a dominant medium, the chosen medium of the transnational art world, has been subjected to the same skepticism leveled against more traditional mediums like painting in the '60s. There are of course different levels of discourse, different ways it functions: there's the ideal of critical, rational public debate as described by Jurgen Habermas; there's Michel Foucault's model of discourse as the enforcement of disciplinary regimes; and there's Pierre Bourdieu's idea of discourse, which is perhaps most permeated by class, social prestige and market forces. Discourse as criticism, as power, as value. If today discourse has become disenchanted, belief has drained away only from the first two of the three levels; what remains is discourse as the circulation and enactment of social status, prestige and symbolic capital. The waning importance of October and the new priorities established at Artforum indicate as much; if we no longer believe in discourse as criticism, we also can't afford to believe in its policing of disciplinary borders. In purely market terms, even discourse has proven not "expanded" or "horizontally spread" enough. Its requirement that members of the field stay abreast of terminologies and topics, that they read up and be in the know, has proven too exclusive. Today, what has replaced the gatekeeping of discourse is the all-pervasiveness of art stardom, the allover reach of celebrity. Art continues its expansion by embracing celebrity as the spectacle's lowest common denominator.

No comment except to highlight his observation regarding the skepticism that now greets discourse and to add to this my suggestion that this skepticism is itself discursive, perhaps rendering this critical impasse that much more difficult.

Onward, then, to Husby's response. We recognize first the accusation of nostalgia:

Within a self proclaimed dialectic there is something perverse in expressing nostalgia for a previous stage of criticality. To do so demonstrates not only a desire for the previous successes, but also a desire for the previous state of affairs that gave those triumphs their ground.

To Relyea's claims of a crisis of uncertainty, Husby replies, "But for whom is this uncertainty a crisis? We are urged to believe that the critic's crisis is our own. And in a sense it is, if we as artists and participants are not reflective." While I have my reservations about Lyotard, on whom this essay leans heavily, Husby does offer a pleasant antidote to overwrought Chicken Little rhetoric. Above all, he questions Relyea's desire for a more stable frame of reference.

Relyea rails against the unholy workings of an "experience economy" slackening our ability to locate and evaluate objects of aesthetic and moral intervention. Tying the expanded field of postmodernism with an emerging totalitarian hegemony, he suggests we ought to identify an apparent freedom from ideological constraints in contemporary practice with the lack of freedom imposed by such constraints under totalitarianism, or rather, what's proposed as it's more seductively coercive double, post industrial capitalism.
Against this backdrop there is currently no shortage of criticism devoted to the subject of its own retreat in recent years. Relyea concedes as much, liberally citing the recent critical revisions of both Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, who's work for October played an instrumental role in bringing about the changes in the conceptual framing of art that led to this supposed impasse. Relyea argues that "we need a compelling discourse on art today...We need a discourse capable of framing art..." (emphasis on compelling is mine) A discourse, he adds "that provides it with an adequately ambitious context." But why "compelling" discourse? Criticism synthesizes work for discourse, for better or for worse. But I would argue that the work of artists and critics already has a context well before the critic utters a single word.
...
On the one hand we get a demand that criticism rise to it's 'proper' function as a kind of control of the work, and on the other we get the paradoxical command that art be disruptive and incommensurable. But if we accept Foster's demand of art then we must also allow for work that is disruptive of the grounds of criticism. Certainly such work already inhabits the canon, if the canon must be appealed to; Newman's sublime, Kosuth's reconceptualization of Art as the invention of new concepts of art, Reinhardt's absurdly negative pronouncements and almost invisible paintings, Guston's rejection of modernist purity. And we find the same spirit of disobedience and disruptive presentation of the Other in more recent work as well, in Roni Horn's poetic constructions and installations, Martin Kippenberger's seemingly amoral and anti-totalizing performances of self.
What is promoted by Relyea and others is nothing short of a harmonic convergence of theory and practice. But what is not spoken of enough is that it is already occurring, shifting the site of authorship away from professional critics and isolated artists towards makers engaged in dialogue with writers and other producers. What this criticism seeks is a novel but obedient art, in other words nothing so novel that it can't be cornered. The problem for these critics is that no frame, including their own, can convincingly compel conviction to the exclusion of the others. In 1966 Michael Fried asserted that to be a modernist was to live life as few are inclined to live it - in a constant state of moral alertness, in a world in which one could never be certain that one was making the right decision. And now under the banner of moral alertness we are told that it is essential that we harness our creativity to the resistance Capital. But there is more to resist than that, and there's more to goodness than resistance.

"More on Criticism... Hannum, Relyea, Husby"
Posted by Dan at 02:44 AM | Referenced URL's | Comments (4)



July 16, 2004

Before Kurtz

Abstract Dynamics links to the FBI's files on Picasso, released via FOIA and moderately redacted.

"Before Kurtz"
Posted by Dan at 01:11 PM | Referenced URL's | Comments (0)


More Cribbed Elkins

In response to my post on James Elkins' What Happened to Art Criticism?: Timothy Quigley, Sally McKay, Marja-Leena Rathje. I'm honestly surprised that a incomplete glorified book report would strike any kind of nerve. I certainly hope I've done Elkins justice.

Jennifer McMackon, commenting at Sally's blog, has it right: "If you're wondering what is happening to art criticism you need look no further than this. What Happened to Art Criticism by James Elkins is a tiny paperback less than 85 pages reading. The 'essay' on Iconoduel contains more of Elkin's quotations word for word than commentary by Dan himself! Why not read the Elkins?" Indeed, give it a read. After all, my summary only covers pages 57-80. (Though, I hasten to add again, the essay is not without its problems and missed opportunities.)

Rathje also links to MAN's interviews with Jerry Saltz, which is interesting considering Elkins' use of Saltz as the prime example of the "positionless position" and "theory of theorylessness," refering to (at Saltz's suggestion) the Saltz essay Tyler links to.

In response to Timothy Quigley's feeling that Elkins "dismisses any attempts to build on past critical traditions as hopelessly 'nostalgic'," I can only say that, if that's the impression my summary gave, a bit of refinement is in order.

I really doubt that Elkins would advocate the view that an absolute break with the past is in order. Though he gets awfully close to that line when questioning historical criticism's relevance to contemporary issues, I feel that he offers nothing but respect for the necessity of the common space and language carried forward through the legacies of tradition. I can say for certain that he would reject any argument for ignorance thereof.

I'll grope for a few examples.

He quotes with approval Annette Michelson's description (from an article on Pauline Kael) of Umberto Eco's theoretical grounding—of (this is Michelson) "Eco's conviction and Kael's denial (both were veterans of journalistic practice for a general audience) that the infusion and support of an evolving body of theoretical effort will work to the advantage of communication."

Michelson again:

I want, then, to say that Kael's intransigent resistance to the theorization of the subject of her life's work progressively inhibited her ability to account for film's impact in terms other than those of taste and distaste, expressed with increasing vehemence. To have continued to write into the '90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that she ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale.

Earlier, on the topic of Arthur Danto's continuing critical career after the killing of art, Elkins argues that

Danto's art criticism is illegible because it is not possible to read it as he requests, as if he were just playing out a pluralist game, offering one opinion in a cacophony of incommensurable voices... He claims, in effect, that art-critical references to practices before 1963 can work without implying they are about historical references: but the only way such references can be understood as references (and what else would they be?) is by being about historical works and meanings. They are empty without historical anchors, because there is no way to read them.

Elkins' trouble with conservatives of Kramer's ilk is less their appeal to tradition than their determined lack of engagement with contemporaneity. Retreating from all that is great in contemporary art, "life at the Kramer Hilton—it is Gore Vidal's phrase, and it is irresistible—is insulated from the rude shocks and lowland fogs of the actual art world."

My principle problems with Elkins' argument fall where he fails to really argue anything at all. As I wrote earlier, he fails to explicitly offer an argument against the minimal demand that criticism "become more theoretical" (Unworkable Cure #4). He also fails to advance a solid or clear case against Cure #7, that "at least a critic should occasionally take a stand or have a position." This is, to my eye, among the most common remedies on offer these days and, as he devotes over half of the 24 pages in question to discussion of this one proposal, Elkins clearly views it as either the most crucial or the most difficult to deal with. Yet, though I've read this section forward and backward a number of times, I have found little to persuade me from continuing to see this as at least a minimally operative demand.

Ultimately, however, it's fairly clear to me (though perhaps this is my bias peeking through my reading) that Elkins would quite agree with Professor Quigley's formula, that we must work "through the past and into a practice that's adequate to one's contemporary experience." In fact, this seems the main thrust of his argument. Elkins' way through the muddle, however, is not through drastic and self-conscious reforms (which he would argue merely try to replay the past without regard to the contemporary situation) but through historical reflection on how we got here (a natural position for an art historian, to be sure) and engagement with every bit of discourse out there at the moment:

...all that is required is that everyone read everything. Each writer, no matter what their place and purpose, should have an endless bibliography, and know every pertinent issue and claim. We should all read until our eyes are bleary, and we should read both ambitiously—making sure we've come to terms with Greenberg, or Adorns—and also indiscriminately—finding work that might ordinarily escape us... The hydra [of contemporary art criticism] may have seven heads, or seventeen thousand: but it is speaking with all of them, and each one needs to be heard if we are to take the measure of modern art.

"More Cribbed Elkins"
Posted by Dan at 05:28 AM | Referenced URL's | Comments (7)



July 14, 2004

Summer Salons in the City

The Vision 9 Tuesday night art talks' focus on collecting not floating your boat? For those in search of more critical fare, ThreeWalls is initiating a quarterly series of salons, beginning tomorrow evening, branded as ThreeWallsSALONS. On tap for this inaugural summer series:

Thursday, July 15, 2004
Just a little to the left: The Rise of Independent Curatorial Practice in Chicago
While some unincorporated exhibition spaces in Chicago have recently closed or transformed into commercially salient galleries, a curious number of these spaces have also reformatted themselves into houseless ephemeral projects, poster campaigns and occasional curatorial entities. Also prevalent are individuals and teams organizing exhibitions without maintaining a site. What changes from curating outside professional or ad hoc curatorial models? What, if any, other roles do this new breed of independent curators hold within an artistic context and what are the implications of holding multiple roles? What precedents and roadblocks do the growth in curatorial power and the embrace of curatorial strategies by artists that characterized some art of the 1990s have on this practice? Respondants include Britton Bertran, David Coyle, Sandra Dillon, Kristen VanDeventer and Melanie Schiff.


Thursday July 22, 2004

Unicorns, Rainbows and the Care Bare Stare: The Prevalence of Fantastic Doodling, Utopian Overtures, Sentimental Nostalgia in Recent Art
A seemingly cheerful optimism can be located among many recent exhibitions of artwork shown or displayed in Chicago. Full-spectrum palettes, dreamy texts, an interest in fantasy and science fiction genres, a difficult-to-place invocation of a 1960' s and 70's style sunny idealism and the preeminence of drawings on paper characterize this trend. This energy can be seen, in part, in exhibitions of the last year such as the "Eric Lebofsky, Josh Mannis, William J. O'Brien" at 1/Quarterly, "Welcome to Wonderland" at 1R Galley, and "Realm of the Lair" at Joymore as well as many others. Why the interest in these practices today? To what extent are these images tethered to an underlying politic that their apparently ideological antecedents were? How much sincerity is carried in the perfunctory craft that many of these seemingly quickly made doodles exemplify? Respondants include: Howard Fonda, Michelle Grabner and John Parot.

Rounding it out will be a presentation by current Threewalls Artist-in-Residence David Noonan on Thursday, July 29 and an open discussion/wrap-up session on Thursday, August 5.

7:30 pm at ThreeWalls Gallery, 119 North Peoria #2A (doors open at 7).

Or perhaps you're an artist in search of some critical feedback. Well, grab that bag of Screaming Yellow Zonkers and join the CAC for an artists' salon and critique at Izzo/Jones tomorrow evening (July 15) and then again Wednesday, August 18. "Join us for great networking, great art and voluntary critiques in a laid-back atmosphere. Bring snacks or drinks to share, and, optionally, 3 - 5 slides of your artwork for discussion."

7 pm at Izzo/Jones Arena for the Arts, 1806 W. Cuyler.

"Summer Salons in the City"
Posted by Dan at 03:06 PM | Referenced URL's | Comments (0)


Asleep at the Helm

As my writing and reading habits go hand in hand, I haven't been a good boy in terms of keeping up with my blog reading lately. Checking in with Electric Skin (brought to us by one Cinque Hicks), I see my harangue against Art Papers' glowing review of Kerry James Marshall's current traveling exhibition is a July feature. This ought to give me an opportunity to re-read the thing myself.

In the meantime... I was skimming some glossies at the Chicago-Main Newsstand recently and ran into some more praise for the show (though I can't recall where). Nevertheless, and for the sake of balance, the little bit I could scrounge up from a bit of Googling: Joseph Tabet at panel-house (which I linked to in the orignal post and where, for what it's worth, I received an amen corner shout out from someone called Dr. Steve), Michael O'Sullivan in the Washington Post, Dan Tranberg at angle and Glenn McNatt in the Baltimore Sun via the Google cache.

Update 7/25, via Electric Skin: Glenn Dixon in the Washington Post.

"Asleep at the Helm"
Posted by Dan at 01:59 AM | Referenced URL's | Comments (0)



July 10, 2004

James Elkins on Our Moribund Critical Discourse

I recently digested SAIC art history smarty James Elkins' What Happened to Art Criticism? from Prickly Paradigm Press, a problematic and at times messy essay (but one that is also thought provoking and often dead right). Of particular interest to me was Elkins' refutation of several proposed solutions to contemporary art criticism's woes. After detailing the sad state of criticism, rather than setting forth a bold program to set things right or offering directions toward the way out he admits to the intractable difficulty of such a task (being a historian he "can afford to step back, and ponder other people's motives for change"):

It is tempting to try to escape the fog of current art criticism and run out into the clear air of certainty. Of course, everyone has their own idea about where that clear air might be found... I think things are more difficult. The very idea of finding something wrong with the current state of criticism is itself historically determined. Why should October have a roundtable discussion on criticism, a kind of writing it has largely refrained from publishing, in the fall of 2001? Why does a text with the title What Happened to Art Criticism? [that is, Elkins' text] appear in autumn 2003? It is important to understand why a problem comes to the surface at a given point in time, because we all ride the currents of historical thinking of which we're only intermittently aware. Thinking about the reasons for various calls for the reform of criticism helps reveal that the proposed solutions tend to be born from nostalgia for specific moments in the past.

And so Elkins proceeds to dissect and dismiss "Seven Unworkable Cures" for the undeniable ills of contemporary art criticism. Flirting with copyrights, I summarize these dismissals here, primarily in his own words and without argument, commentary or speculation on my part...

Elkins first dispatches with the notion that criticism "should be reformed by returning it to a golden age of apolitical formalist rigor" (a position represented in Elkins' example by Hilton Kramer) and rather efficiently at that, holding that "Kramer's polemic is driven by nostalgia. He wants things the way he imagines they once were, and that is not a plausible model for contemporary criticism."

To those that lament that criticism "lacks a strong voice" (exemplified here by Quentin Bell's desire for "a critic who can be a 'censor' and 'apologist for the contemporary scene...'") he simply notes that

the history of criticism shows that many, perhaps most, decades since Vasari have lacked a strong critical voice. Criticism was weak and dispersed before Winckelmann, as Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann has shown. It was weak after Diderot, as Michael Fried has argued. After Baudelaire there were many interesting critics, among them Theophile Thore, Ernest Chesneau, Jules Castagnary, Edmond Duranty, Felix Feneon or Albert Aurier, but none have been as important for modernism as Baudelaire. Criticism was arguably weak again before Bloomsbury, and again before Greenberg. It doesn't reflect poorly on us that we have no prophet at the moment. Bell's complaint is another instance of a nostalgia for something past.

To those who hold that criticism "needs systematic concepts and rules" Elkins responds that, far from a rational or systematically coherent discourse

art criticism has long been a mongrel among academic pursuits, borrowing whatever it needed from other fields (the sublime and the beautiful, of judgment and imitation, of the gaze and the spectacle). It has never been a matter of the consistent application of philosophic concepts, and there is little sense in hoping that it ever will be.

From there we can backpedal and simply offer that it "must become more theoretical." Elkins admits the appeal of the notion that

it is crucial to be part of the same reservoir of concepts and theoretical tools as the rest of the generation, even if they only enter into the work in the form of unused capital. I would find it difficult to argue against this: it is not dogmatic, and it isn't propped up by nostalgia for some earlier state of perfect passion and eloquence.

And so he doesn't argue, only promising to get back to this one later. He never really does in any explicit way, but I suppose his extended take on "Unworkable Cure" #7 below (the even weaker idea that "a critic should occasionally take a stand or have a position") does bring to bear some criticism against this view.

Next on the block, and in a similar vein, is the October crew's view that criticism "needs to be serious, complex, and rigorous," a notion Elkins deals with thusly:

Calls for a return to criticism that is serious, complex and rigorous are indebted to the model provided by Artforum and its descendents. That means, in turn, that it is important to ask whether it makes sense to revive those particular senses of commitment, verifiability, and intellectualism. It seems to me the only defensible answer is that such values are no longer a good fit for art at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Metaphors of intellectual labor, of difficulty, of challenge recur in Artforum discussions, beginning with Greenberg: when it is good the work is dry, hard, obdurate and irrefragable...it is not easy to imagine how those values can be transposed to the present, and even if they were, it is not easy to picture how useful they would be.

Some (notably here, Rosalind Krauss) feel that criticism "should become a reflection on judgments, not a parading of judgments," hence the traditions of the reception history ("in which the object of study is the ideas people once held about art," thus properly art historical, not critical) and its ideologically committed brother, institutional critique.

The problem that faces both institutional critique and reception history is the present. We live in it, we make judgments in it. When we judge contemporary art, we engage concepts that we believe in—there is no other way to judge... If a figure like Greenberg has already receded far enough into the past such that his discourse is an object of historical analysis, that means concepts at play in contemporary art are entirely unrelated to his. If they aren't—if Greenberg's senses of words like "flatness," "abstraction," "kitsch," and "avant-garde" are still echoing in the present—then the evaluation of contemporary art becomes extremely problematic. How, after all, is it possible to judge a work using criteria that are no longer believable, that belong to another time? When concepts all belong to past writers, criticism becomes chronicle, and judgment becomes meditation on past judgment. The present is immersed in history, and finally drowns in it.

It is not that Elkins does not find institutional critique or reception histories useful, even for the purposes of criticism and judgment rather than history, but that such evaluation at a remove cannot alone suffice for the consideration of contemporary work, that as "a prescription for art criticism, the turn to reflection on judgment is still ill-resolved, especially when its aim is to replace art criticism."

Finally we winnow our way down to the ultimate, minimal and fundamentally diluted prescription that "a critic should occasionally take a stand or have a position." This ellicits the longest (as well as the messiest and most poorly resolved) response from Elkins, so it appears that he sees in this suggestion the heart of the matter. This argument "seems sensible, and even inevitable: it is a minimal demand. It is, however, exactly what is most in contention in contemporary criticism." Specifically, he argues, 'taking a stand' or 'having a position' are far more problematic notions than such a weak formulation might suggest. Contrasting Jerry Saltz (whose only position is one of an impossible positionlessness) and Michael Fried (whose strong and consistent position is described, like Greenberg's, as not a matter of personal choice or agreement but of recognition or allegiance on account of conviction compelled by evident quality—"a position that is both reasoned... and passionate to the point of being irrevocable"), Elkins finds their diametrically opposed approaches ill-suited as prescriptions for the reformation of criticism. "Clearly, if art criticism is to be reformed by requiring critics to take definite positions, they cannot be the kinds of positions Fried exemplifies because those can't be taken: and if criticism is to go on without positions, it cannot go the way Saltz goes without running into the problem of not having positions."

There is a lot of treacherous ground between the kind of unwanted convictions that possessed Greenberg, and the positionless position—the theory of theorylessness—espoused by Saltz... Art critics who do not seem to have positions can end up having them anyway, when the sum total of many judgments seem to point in one direction... Positionlessness finds its limit, however, when the writing itself implies there should be a position. A critic who recoils from theories may fall prey to an autoimmune reaction when his own criticism implies that he does in fact have a position. On the other hand, a ferociously strong position or Theory of Everything limits discourse with other critics and historians, and in Greenberg's case it even seems to have limited his articulation of the genesis of his own preferences. Clearly, it is dubious at best to reform art criticism by requiring art critics to have positions: it leads back along an uneven path toward a kind of commitment so ferocious even the person who held it, Greenberg, described it as a force outside himself. It's not that the opposite is best—it's that positions are not things to which a person can return.


"My moral is simple: no reform comes without the severe penalties of anachronism and historical naivete." Ultimately, Elkins doesn't "think it is necessarily a good idea to reform criticism: what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment, and the attraction of description" (that is, the appeal of descriptive criticism, so prevalent now, as opposed to the fiery polemics of a century ago). So it appears that, if I can hazard a bit of commentary at the end here, the attractiveness of detached description extends to the critique of criticism (and, for that matter, to that critical criticism's wholesale regurgitation on some jerk's weblog).

This seems wholly appropriate as, at a point in the ebb and flow of the history of a discourse at which we encounter the sort of knowing self-awareness that now characterizes our discourse (by virtue of triumphs both theoretical and historical), the reserved, descriptive passivity of the reception history has become normative and virtually inescapable. Equally inevitable is the paralyzation of judgment that follows, where we anticipate our judgments' failings even before we utter a word.

Likewise for contemporary art where, in the shadow of a "golden age" and as aware of our predecessors' faults as we are of our own, only a hubristic fool would aspire to the heights they once eyed. The way "out" is not to be found through more theorization or through critical refinement. Self-conscious theorization is precisely what led us here. (Not to be too fatalistic.)

"James Elkins on Our Moribund Critical Discourse"
Posted by Dan at 03:24 AM | Referenced URL's | Comments (3)