April 9, 2005
The following has been stewing in the Crock Pot since Jonathan Jones' Guardian review of Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (a new art historical tome from October's Gang of Four—Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Benjamin HD Buchloh and Yve-Alain Bois) first bounced around here and there a couple weeks ago (thanks to a link at ArtsJournal).
(If it appears overly strident or otherwise ridiculous, I ask you to bear in mind that it was mostly hashed out around 3 and 4 am, with only gap-filling and minor edits for the sake of coherency performed over lunch today. And preemptive apologies for the title, which came to me as I brushed my teeth this morning and is about the best I can manage at the moment—oh, the unmatched creativity of fatigue!)
While I relish a good Krauss-drubbing as much as the next guy, something about the laudatory reactions to this piece really rubbed me the wrong way.
To wit, while it's probably not fair to call Tyler Green's reaction true anti-intellectualism, in its reductive sentiment "Against theory" it does bear a whiff of the stuff. And whatever this rhetorical call to arms from the comments at artblog.net amounts to:
This is the enemy, folks. If you really love art as a vehicle of joy, exultation and the best we have to give to ourselves, watch out. Like freedom, the price of true art is eternal vigilance
it's a far cry from constructive.
Jones, for his part, does offer a number of substantive criticisms on which I'd hoped to expand in a post that still sits in semi-draft form on the hard drive. (See Modern Kicks for some thoughts along these lines.) More positive reflection will have to wait, however, as I'm having trouble holding back the negativity after reading the latest attack on the book, an LA Times op-ed from Frank Whitford (via MAN).
Whitford, who, like Jones, hails from across the pond (where the bashing of all things Tate is all but a genre unto itself and a national pastime at that), also penned a straight-up review of the book for his home paper, in which he asks:
Why is it impossible to imagine a painting by Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook hanging in the Tate? Donít expect an answer here to this disturbing conundrum.
Not being familiar with the work in question, this is a "conundrum" I'm not about to touch, but do take a look and take it for what you will.
That notwithstanding, here's how it goes in the LA Times piece:
Art critics used to be the butt of cruel jokes. Among other things, they were compared to eunuchs in a harem—watching rather than doing. Nor could they write clearly and entertainingly about what others were getting up to. Notoriously, the critics' stock in trade was prose clouded by imprecise gush or impenetrable jargon.
Times have changed. Everyone can understand Robert Hughes (see his latest book, "Goya"). And art criticism can't be that devalued an activity if the likes of John Updike, James Fenton and Margaret Drabble (to say nothing of Tom Wolfe) are now so determined to practice it. In fact, the problem is not with art criticism but with art history. [ed: this ought to buck up those of us who worried that criticism might be in crisis]
Too many art historians at American and European universities prefer to think that a work of art comes into being only when it attracts the attention of an art historian [ed: beware of tautology] or theoretician. It's significant that the New York critic and champion of Color Field painting, Clement Greenberg, is mentioned more often in the index of the recent, much trumpeted "Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism" (by multiple authors, published by Thames & Hudson) than is Henri Matisse. And the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard gets considerably more space in the same substantial volume than the British painter Francis Bacon.
That they devote such space to the unremarkable Baudrillard is regrettable, if unsurprising considering the influence of his language in media arts. Still, I do think our British friends probably overestimate the overall importance of Bacon, who I find rather unconvincing as a benchmark of critical attention here.
That said, I can certainly imagine the October folks going more than a bit overboard in assigning historical importance to theorists and critics. Indeed, I find it a bit disconcerting to read the following from a more genial piece on the book from the Isles:
Although the historians stress that Art Since 1900 is not 'an October book', devotees will recognise a certain signature: theorists are given as much prominence as artists, and increasingly so as the century wears on.
Especially so considering the authors' prominent positions within the history they seek to trace; especially so in light of this mostly earnest exchange from the end of their interview:
What happens next? If they're pessimistic about art practice, what about art theory? What are their best students doing?
'They want to do dissertations on moments in which we were participants,' Foster replies.
'Yes,' says Krauss. 'Like Interfunktionen, Benjamin's magazine.'
'For our students, we are part of historical record!' exclaims Bois.
So as far as Greenberg vs. Matisse is concerned, Whitford's point is taken. By the same token, a peek at the index of this text on the Italian Renaissance finds Vasari rating more mentions than Giotto, and I seriously doubt it's for his paintings. (It seems this problem is bigger than even Whitford thought.)
It should be pointed out, of course, that the authors of Art Since 1900 are just as much in the business of presenting a history of thought as they are of offering a litany of exemplary works, and that even discussions of the works ought to necessarily touch on the bodies of theory.
(As an aside, If we pause to consider Tom Wolfe's contributions to art criticism, let it serve as a reminder that the one-time standard-bearers of Modern orthodoxy—Greenberg, Steinberg and Rosenberg, not to mention (yes, friends) Hilton Kramer—and the art they championed were themselves once subject to strikingly similar critiques.)
Onward, to the standard invocation of hilarious pomo jargon:
That book is representative of innumerable academic art texts, many of them on prescribed reading lists at respectable universities. All the books are characterized by the worst kind of mumbo jumbo. Their authors "foreground" issues. They talk about "hierarchical canonicity," "hegemonic media apparatus" and of "terms like 'parergon,' 'supplement,' 'difference' and 'remark' " that "grounded new artistic practice in the wake of modernism." (Don't bother to read it again; it still won't be intelligible.)
Well, shit... You take the specialized vocabulary of a discipline, quote it out of context and marvel at its unintelligibility. Bravo. What, though, is so damned outlandish about "foregrounding" an issue or discussing the hierarchies of a canon? Ditto the grounding of artistic practices since Modernism. Is this really the haughty mumbo jumbo that keeps you up nights, Frank?
One of those French philosophers is Jacques Derrida, who, thanks to his deconstructive method, claimed to know more about a piece of writing than the author did. (By the way, if we can't trust what a writer says, how can we trust Derrida?) Many of today's art historians similarly assume that they understand a painting, a sculpture or an installation more fully than its creator ever could.
I find Derrida just as utterly worthless as most reasonable people do, but I think it's a serious misinterpretation of the man to suggest that he felt anyone could ultimately "know" anything about a piece of writing. Isn't the standard talking point against Jacques that he writes off meaning entirely? But this easy swipe at the Frenchman mostly serves as lead-in to a very unfair oversimplification of the notion that critics and historians are capable of illuminating aspects of a work which an artist or author may not have been cognizant of—which, by the by, is something I find incredibly reasonable and which is, I believe, rooted in the very foundational notions behind the discipline of history.
Following on the heels of that, I'm not sure what straw man this salvo is fired at:
Verbal diarrhea like this wouldn't matter if academic art historians gave the impression that they used their eyes, and if the emphasis they placed on theory weren't at the expense of what might be called the sharp-end of art history. I mean the study of works of art as objects, asking how and for what place and purpose they were made, what the artist intended them to mean, and how they relate to other works of the same and other periods.
but I've always felt that if the writers and theorists in question are not as concerned with the object before them as many (indeed, as I) would like, it's in part because they are concerned with context—often, though not strictly, historical—to a fault. So just what is he talking about here?
The only points that register any hits in my eyes come in Whitford's closing paragraph, and there only by virtue of his slipping casually from discussing the proper concerns of Modern and contemporary art to those of another era entirely:
Art history graduates can bore you rigid with talk about Derrida, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, but few can tell you about the carpentry employed in a 14th century Sienese altarpiece. Nor can they explain why tempera produces different pictorial effects than oils. Few can compare Titian's "Death of Acteon" with its source, Ovid's "Metamorphosis." Fewer still are trained to produce a catalogue raisonné, the basic compilation of an artist's works and history. And how many can follow the argument that the "Madonna of the Pinks"—coveted by the Getty Museum but still in the London National Gallery—is truly by Raphael rather than a copy of a lost original?
First off, I have to throw a flag on the dig at Merleau-Ponty. Did you really have to drag Maurice through this particular mud, Mr. Whitford, or are you just running out of Frenchmen to flog? Though I think Merleau-Ponty (especially in his earlier iteration) pulls more weight in the domain of consciousness studies than he ever has in the realm of art (could be wrong), I'm still not going to sit here silently while you get all up in his business.
Beyond this and setting aside the fact that, though a revival of connoisseurship may be a necessary thing for art history, it will not alone suffice and is hardly incompatible with other methods or critical orientations (but haven't we been here before?), it is utterly beyond me how the construction techniques behind a quattrocento altarpiece should have more bearing on history or criticism of 20th century art than, say, Freud.
(Anyone interested in the process for preparing wood panels with traditional gesso, by the way, can email me for my generalized and limited understanding of it. Better yet, meet my friend Cennino.)
As I suggested above, I'm no fan of Rosalind Krauss or Hal Foster. In fact I'm almost constitutionally averse to them. And I, too, often find the excesses of arch pomo theory to be at times excruciatingly obtuse. I find Derrida to be of little or no use, Baudrillard is original only in his immoderacy of vision and his untrammeled embrace of futility, Debord and Lyotard carry with them far too much of an aura of iconophobia for my tastes and Lacan's punning leaves me totally cold.
And it's true that in the past around these parts I have indulged my own fair share of hostility towards art theory in general, whether opining that nowhere "do we find conjecture swallowed as evidence more readily than we do within the domains of art, criticism and theory", objecting to "the stunning ability of contemporary theory-cum-criticism to conjure accomplishment out of thin air on the back of a handful of critical truisms" as the result of "artspeak... released from the objective constraints of observation and the material object", or bemoaning the "institutional shibboleths" of shoddy artist's statements that obscure good art or the irony of the revolutionary pretensions of the institutional avant-garde.
I would frankly be all too happy to see a discourse more firmly recentered around the material object and think the notion of 'art as criticality' is both horribly overplayed and seriously wrong-headed. There's plenty of devalued jargon, too, that could probably be done away with with minimal real loss. And I would certainly prefer it if we could abandon once and for all the iconoclastic strictures against the appeal and efficacy of images or the dangers of body and materiality (would that it were possible!).
So, all that said, am I being inconsistent when I now suggest that this 688-page expression of the October vision of a century of art deserves more than glibly triumphalist contrarianism? I hope not, because, in spite of misgivings I may have with particular veins of theory and thought, I think there's far more to it (even narrowing our consideration or definition of big-T Theory to the most obnoxious and overwrought of the lot) than just self-satisfied vampires groping for relevance. And yes, Virginia, people actually do read this stuff.
Above all, I say, let us at the very least give these writers and thinkers credit for the earnestness with which I sincerely believe they engage their subject and welcome anything worthwhile they might bring to the table. There's the bathwater... and then there's the baby.
Posted by Dan at 01:59 PM
Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism—Hal Foster, et al.
Artblog.net: final ludicrous monument
ArtsJournal Visual Arts: Daily Arts News—Art History As A Theory
Bert Christensen's CyberSpace Gallery: Paintings by Jack Vettriano
Guardian: Avant-garde for all—Gaby Wood
Guardian: Lost in a labyrinth of theory —Jonathan Jones
Iconoduel: Addressing a Deficit of Dorking—'Plus...'
Iconoduel: Gallery Briefing
Iconoduel: I Want to Jam it With You
Iconoduel: James Elkins on Our Moribund Critical Discourse
Iconoduel: Kerry James Marshall on the Move
Iconoduel: More Cribbed Elkins
Iconoduel: On the Air
Iconoduel: Our Institutional Revolutionary Party
Italian Renaissance Art—Laurie Adams
LATimes: Art Experts, Deconstructed—Frank Whitford
MIT Press: October
Modern Art Notes: Against theory
Modern Art Notes: Flav(in)-o-rama
Modern Art Notes: LAT hates theory too
Modern Kicks: book larnin'
Notebook: Il Libro dell' Arte—Sixth Section
Official Beryl Cook site
The Painted Word (Forward and Epilogue)—Tom Wolfe
Times Online: Art: Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism—Reviewed by Frank Whitford