Monday, July 19, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 4/4): Rosalind Krauss is Dead

Valerie Jaudon, Yazoo City (1975); Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1963); Valerie Jaudon, installation photo (1977)

The feminist art historian Anna Chave is critical of Michel Foucault's idea of power and it is not hard to imagine why. For most of history, in most peoples minds power has been almost wholly associated with the masculine - up to and including Chaves own historic moment. For instance, in his widely read 1972 book Ways of Seeing, John Berger began an essay on the female nude in the European oil painting tradition as follows: 
According to usage an convention which are at last being questioned but by no means been overcome, the social presence of woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence... By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her... One might simplify by saying men act and women appear. Men Look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
Judging by his tone, Berger seems to have sincerely believed he was outside the "usage and convention" he was commenting on, but all the same he comes across as very much a man of his time, when he writes, "If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated by others. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake."
Bergers ideas are in no way unique, or even particularly onerous for the times. These sorts of assumptions were standard, unquestioned elements within theories of art. In their 1978 essayArt Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture, the artists (and feminists) Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon musterd pages of quotes from "various scholars, critics, and artists, most of whom," according to Chave, "have occupied authoritative positions in the hierarchies of modernism," and by doing so Kazloff and Jaudon were "underscoring the bias-laden subtexts of the cited texts." Chave wrote that in a catalog essay about Jaudon's painting. Chave went on to explain that unlike manny other feminists Jaudon wasn't done with the authoritative modernist language of abstraction:
Historically abstract art has proven a notably unstable, if not necessarily ineffectual, site of conveying political messages. By virtue of the intrinsic ambiguity or indeterminacy of its referents, it is highly vulnerable to "misreading" and cooptation. That foible od abstraction, among others, propelled many feminists to turn away from it towards visual modes more amenable to polemic... But polemical modes have their limitations too, and in Jaudon's view, making an abstract painting means the opposite of staying mute; it means "a chance to speak" to "have my say" in a way that may contribute to "turning things around."
I admire Chave not because she was able to construct a convincing alternative to power (the "nurturance" she suggests is not at all convincing). Chave's essay is so compelling because of, not despite, her fierce criticism of minimalism, she attributes abstract art with a greater capacity for power, than any of the Modernists she and her contemporaries were speaking against. 
Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth, J-L Prieur, Destruction of of the Louis IV Monument (1792), Rachel Whiteread, Inverted Plinth (2001)

The value of feminist critique; it's utility, should not be measured against a goal of a utopia free of hierarchy or relations of power. Expectations that high can (and have) only lead to disappointment. To "minimize domination" may sound far less radical, but as Gail Collins makes clear in her book, When Everything Changed, the seemingly modest shifts of the last 50 years have amounted to monumental change
They had not remade the world the way the revolutionaries had hoped. But they had created a world their female ancestors did not even have the opportunity to imagine.
Before Chave, minimalist and post-minimalist art was written about almost exclusively in the terms set by and for modern art (most often as a some sort of generalized abstract encounter), these readings provided little meaning or utility for the art beyond providing a 'visual pause' within the otherwise hectic environment of commercialized spaces of so-called late-capitalism (has always seemed optimistic to say "late" - we could be dead center or even at the earliest moments for all we know). Chave was an outlier. She accused minimalist art of "perpetrating a kind of cultural terrorism, forcing viewers into the role of victim, a role that may or may not bring with it a moment of revelation depending on the viewer’s prior experience with victimization." Clearly that is damning and even violent criticism, but it amounts to a far more active and energetic reading than any that procede it. What Chave's feminist critique of minimalism makes clear is that art is a material expression of the relationships between people - it is a kind of power. 

Chave's feminist critique was truly radical; touching on the "deeper set of questions" Rosalind Krauss had pledged to address within the expanded field of her postmodernism. Krauss's Klein group diagram elegantly visualized a moment in time, but she had promised "something more than mapping" Krauss had offered to tackle "the problem of explanation," to attend to the "root cause - the conditions of possibility - that brought about the shift into postmodernism" Krauss's Field never got close because her diagram lacked a third axis which would have forced her to interrogate the vertical question of power, but also to dig down and expose the deeper hidden roots. Because Krauss's aim was to undue Modernist Painting; because she held herself to speaking about art as Greenberg would have it spoken about it, her post-modernism was stillborn. It's no accident no one adopted the positions she mapped out - marked sites, axiomatic structures, site-constructions, and even sculpture as she imagined it - all were sealed terms. Because of her close proximity to the modernism she herself wished to kill, her Expanded Field was a dead letter, sterile ground, dead on arrival. 
Barbara Kruger, No (1985); Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled - Perfect Lovers (1991);  Barbara Kruger, Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981)

When Chave unleashed her critique of minimalism, she was not restrained by the bounded discussion of art as Greenberg would have it spoken of.  Whatever else she was doing; whatever it was she had intended, as she described it, the experience of abstract art is a powerful encounter, writing that:  
The qualities or values they exemplify – unfeelingness and a will to control or dominate – are transparent by virtue of their very ubiquity... the face it projects is society’s blankest, steeliest face; the impersonal face of technology, industry, and commerce; the unyielding face of the father: a face that is usually far more attractively masked... Representing power in such an abrasive, terse and unapologetic way, the work none the less has a chilling effect: this is authority represented as authority does not usually like to represent itself; authority as authoritarian.
Ten years ago I had the opportunity to meet with Chave for a long one on one discussion of her ideas. The question I most wanted to ask was about her feeling towards minimalist art. As a reader I sensed Chave admired and enjoyed the art she was famous for criticizing. Chave was happy that those feeling came through the writing, and admitted her disappointment that most of her readers (both critics and fans) didn't understand her ambivalence. I find Chave's criticism of minimalism convincing and smart, but strongly disagree with the conclusions she comes to about the nature of power in her now canonical essay (its in James Meyer's survey, which is good enough for me). 
Chave agrees with minimalism's partisans that in the simplicity of the art "the very means of art have been isolated and exposed." But because Chave acknowledged power as an element of the encounter, this was more than a pause:
The Minimalists effectually perpetrated violence through their work - violence against the conventions of art and again at the viewer - rather than using their visual language to articulate a more pointed critique of particular kinds or instances of violence...almost everything the public associated with or expected from works of art... The viewer of a Minimalist art object necessarily takes cognizance of all that it lacks by comparison with other art: not only anthropomorphic or natural form, but traces of craftsmanship or touch, signs of inventiveness – qualities that help conjure the aura of a separate specially inspired class of objects.
Chave's essay on Valerie Jaudon, written six years after Minimalism and the Rhetoric of power was first published, ends with a quote from Jane Flax that, while not utopian, offers an insite into how the appearance of power can be judged:

Feminist theories, like other forms of postmodernism, should encourage us to tolerate snd interpret ambivalence, ambiguity, and multiplicity as well as expose the roots of our needs for imposing order and structure no matter how arbitrary and oppressive these needs may be. If we do our work well, reality will appear even more unstable, complex, and disorderly than it does now.
Like Chave's own writing, minimalist and post-minimalist art represents an ambivalence. Domination is often evoked, but at the same time that the means by which it is traditionally communicated are being revealed, striped and discarded. According to Krauss the convention of the plinth was little more than a mediated separation between the sculpture and the viewer, between actual site and representational sign. Likewise, for Chave the conventions of art are "qualities that help conjure the aura of a separate specially inspired class of objects." Richard Serra (an artist Chave is particularly critical of) testified at a hearing (I wonder if he was under oath) about what the convention of the pedestal meant to him:
The historical purpose of placing sculpture on a pedestal was to establish a separation between the sculpture and the viewer. I am interested in creating a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context.
The conventions of art represent thousands of years of historical precedence; of unambiguous separation and imposed mediation. Historically what sculpture has represented - who it speaks for - is the powerful and it is powerless who are being addressed. Traditionally the pedestal marks the separation between rulers and the ruled. Modernity is characterized by an ever increasing informality that Greenberg mistook for progressive formal innovation, that Krauss reformulated as sitelessness, and that Chave mistook as violence against the viewer. All three readings totally obscured the importance of the removal as an act of social flattening.
Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1989); Evert Strobose sculpture being flattened (1983); Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (2006)


  1. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I was introduced to Anna Chave's essay Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power in undergrad by my professor Ann Messner And While I didn't know about the connection between Chave and Jaudon until after the fact, one of the reasons I applied to Hunter for my MFA was that Valerie Jaudon was on faculty. My introduction to art theory was in Jaudon's seminar - she introduced me to the habit of collection quotes (which I know do somewhat obsessively).

  2. John, will you PLEASE teach a class on this?

  3. I can't imagine Columbia would be interested in a Killing Rosalind Krauss seminar. Princeton and MIT are probably not good candidates either. I would give my eye teeth to teach at a CUNY... Its a wonderful idea, but I may need to leave the East Coast to teach this one. Thanks for the enthusiasm Kianga, I'm glad your enjoying the posts.

  4. I guess Lenin statues being pulled down post-Berlin Wall seemed a bit too obvious for the final image? Or perhaps would have confused the matter with a whole other rhetorical scheme ...

    Anyway, it was a great read, thanks.

  5. Its not that Lenin would have been too obvious, its only that the Strobose image fit my purpose - a discussion of a critique of minimalism. It is also one of my favorites images. It is from Dario Gamboni's book "The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution" - as I remember the vandals had written "flatten" on the work. A great photo to go along with a discussion of pedestals as power.