Monday, July 12, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 1/4): Killing Modernism

Anne Truitt, Southern Elegy (1964), Rosalind Krauss, Incomplete Klein Group Diagram (1979)

At the Sculpture Center’s panel, Expanded. Exploded, Collapsed? held this past April in celebration of the 31st anniversary of Rosalind Krauss's essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field (I did not ask, but one wonders what they will do for the 53rd jubilee), the sculptor Josiah McElheny playfully quoted some anonymous snark (almost certainly Michael Fried) as saying, “We all just discovered Klein groups at the time, we thought the essay was just to show she knew how to use them.” Never mind how dismissive this is of Krauss’s intellect; it ignores how effective Krauss’s use of the Kline group diagram was. The curator Fionn Meade's introduction to the panel focused on what was left out of the the Field (civil rights as monument, the Judson Group as sculpture, Joseph Beuys as persona non grata) but made clear that even thirty years later the Expanded Field, no matter how imperfect, remains a "hinge" between the modern and postmodern. Krauss's diagram of the Expanded Field was machine built to kill and bury Modernism:
It seems fairly clear that this permission (or pressure) to think the expanded field was felt by a number of artists at about the same time, roughly between the years 1968 and 1970... had entered a situation the logical conditions of which can no longer be described as modernist. In order to name this historical rupture and the structural transformation of the cultural field that characterizes it, one must have recourse to another term. The one already in use in other areas of criticism is postmodernism. There seems no reason not to use it.

Gabriel Orozco, Black Kites (1997); Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (1972)

In his essay, Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism, Michael Newman notes that, "A definition for postmodernism depends on how modernism is defined. Confusion arises because ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ are used as both aesthetic categories and terms for cultural phenomena which coincide with epochs of history." Krauss was importing the form of the Klein group diagram from the humanities. Beyond illustrating her immediate argument about art, the diagram indicated, as a theorist,  she was concerned with a postmodernism in its broader sense. In his essay Postmodernism And Consumer Society, Fredric R. Jameson explains "the other areas of criticism" Krauss was referring to: 
Today, increasingly, we have a kind of writing simply called "theory" which is all or none of those things at once. This new kind of discourse, generally associated with France and so - called French theory, is becoming widespread and marks the end of philosophy as such. Is the work of Michel Foucault, for example, to be called philosophy, history, social theory or political science? It's undecidable, as they say nowadays; and I will suggest that such "theoretical discourse" is also to be numbered among the manifestations of postmodernism.
Newman notes that "Modernity has been understood as the period of modernization; and postmodernity as the period of consumer society within corporate capitalism; the period of fundamental changes; or as the period of the loss of legitimation by the great narratives of Enlightenment." The Klein group makes Krauss's position clear, but clarity does not mean simplistic or obvious. As a theorist she is an unambiguous "hinge" on to a postmodernism as Newman describes it; postmodernism in its broadest sense. She was allying herself with the theoretical discourse that Jameson says was emerging at that time. The modernism she was setting out to bury was theoretical discourse that had entered WWII as a utopian project to rebuild the world from the ground up, and emerged from the War as an institutional program to rebuild the world from the ground up.
Fionn Meade was correct to the inadequacy of Krauss's Expanded Field however. At best it is a deeply limited description of "artistic practices" (Krauss's term). That is because while she was she was staking the broadest possible territory for herself as a theorist, she was simultaneously taking aim at a very narrow definition of modernism.  She was attacking the modernism of Clement Greenberg, as formulated in his essay Modernist Painting.
Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy (1967); Fredric Jameson, The Concept of Utopia (2005)

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