July 16, 2004
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."
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
Artforum: Eco and Narcissus—Annette Michelson
Artnet: Learning on the Job—Jerry Saltz
Asymptote: What Happened to Art Criticism?
Iconoduel: James Elkins on Our Moribund Critical Discourse
James Elkins: What Happened to Art Criticism?
Marja-Leena Rathje: Art Criticism
Modern Art Notes: A chat with Jerry Saltz, part one
Modern Art Notes: A chat with Jerry Saltz, part two
Sally McKay: 7-15-2004 10:43am