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July 16, 2004

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

Comments

Thank you for continuing the discussion further! Art criticism to this depth has never been my strength, but I like to read and point to what others have to say...the beauty of blogging, isn't it!? From my own limited view of today's art criticism, it seems that most of it is descriptive and non-judgmental, or at its worst a lot of "artspeak", ie. the critics writing for other critics.

Posted by: Marja-Leena on July 16, 2004 at 10:10 AM

Thanks for the update and for pointing us to Sally McKay's site where there's an extensive response to a Toronto panel on criticism held in March. I'm glad to see there's so much interest and look forward to further discussion. Now I'm off to read Elkins' book...

Posted by: tq on July 17, 2004 at 09:16 AM

Thank you thank you for all this analysis. I recently read with interest the "art tussell" thread you linked ( http://www.artblog.net/?name=2004-06-16-09-02-hope) to earlier regarding John Link's somewhat bitter essay on 'novelty art.' It seems that there is a plaintive (though often misdirected) call for criteria these days... people fed up with the anything-goes-style fallout of postmodernism, looking for a basis on which to form judgements again. (Or, more irritating, bemoaning the fact that others don't form judgements.) But, as everyone seems to be pointing out, we can't travel back in time and re-adopt the art criteria of yore. So we're stuck with muddling around together in a somewhat egalitarian stew, looking for direction. I am an art writer of the descriptive variety, on the Pauline Kael end of the scale. But I still read and need art theory, art history, art criticism because that's how I know that I am participating in culture, and not just spewing out random, quizzical thoughts. Descriptive criticism can key into current theory, in a way that is faster, more participatory and less self-conscious than constructing a platform from which to pass judgement. But that doesn't mean that rigour is tossed out, nor communal trends, nor careful use of language, nor aspirations for cultural meaning beyond the moment of descriptive gratification. Its a very very interesting time, as we are finally growing out of the nihilistic aspects of postmodernism. I'd venture that we curmudgeonly art mavens are picking up the new types of analytic tool we've all been constructing this past 20 years, and looking at how to really start putting them to use.

Posted by: sally on July 17, 2004 at 09:31 AM

Hi Dan,
Thanks for both your disemmination and your
commentary. I've been thinking about the end bits of each of your posts on this subject. In each, art criticism appears as an overwhelmingly dense shadow (as James Elkins himself said, "perhaps a hydra with seven heads, or seventeen thousand") and in the case of your first post, it's a shadow that breathes a paralyzing self consciousness into anyone who dares to contribute. Would you attribute this shadow to - a Frankfurt School style of proposition wherein history is a burden? Is the tg's "reign of pluralism" a symptom of the speed of the arrival of the future served up by technology ?

Posted by: simpleposie on July 17, 2004 at 11:23 AM

Hi Dan,
Thanks for both your disemmination and your
commentary. I've been thinking about the end bits of each of your posts on this subject. In each, art criticism appears as an overwhelmingly dense shadow (as James Elkins himself said, "perhaps a hydra with seven heads, or seventeen thousand") and in the case of your first post, it's a shadow that breathes a paralyzing self consciousness into anyone who dares to contribute. Would you attribute this shadow to - a Frankfurt School style of proposition wherein history is a burden? Is tg's "reign of pluralism" a symptom of the speed of the arrival of the future served up by technology ?

Posted by: simpleposie on July 17, 2004 at 11:26 AM

I've just finished reading Elkins' essay and sympathize with Dan's frustration. It comes off as a highly opinionated early draft without bibliographic references or notes, which makes it difficult to assess. In the end [80], he seems to advocate either a hermeneutics of contemporary critical practice ("what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment"), or an explanatory approach to the question why critics prefer description over "ambitious", "reflective" criticism that "is important enough to count as history" [84f].

Interesting that he does not include an extremely thoughtful essay by Michael Brenson, former NYTimes art critic, entitled "Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis of Journalistic Criticism". Brenson's piece is included in Maurice Berger's anthology _The Crisis of Criticism_, NY: The New Press, 1998. He argues that art journalism has an important role to play in shaping social and cultural life. Contemporary criticism has retreated from its responsibility by failing to offer and defend critical judgments about art and the institutions and public programs that support it. Anyone interested in the discussion would benefit from a close reading of Brenson's essay and attention to his critical practice.

Posted by: tq on July 21, 2004 at 01:03 PM

Anyone who's read this far ought to read Tim Quigley's post on the topic here, which expands on his comment above.

There he provides a link to the Brenson essay he mentinoned, Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis in Journalistic Criticism.

Update: Sally McKay weighs in separately on Brenson.

Posted by: Dan on July 21, 2004 at 05:02 PM



Referenced in this post:

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
Simpleposie