Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book Review. James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? Prickly Paradigm Press (November 1, 2003)

BOOK: What Happened to Art Criticism? by James Elkins. Paperback: 100 pages. Publisher: Prickly Paradigm Press (November 1, 2003). Language: English. ISBN: 0972819630

James Elkins is a professor at the School of the Art, Institute of Chicago, a famous figure in the field of art history, art criticism, and the studies of visual culture in general. He is the author of numerous publications which include, for example, such books as The Domain of Images (Cornell University Press, 1999), How to Use Your Eyes (New York: Routledge, 2000), Why Art Cannot be Taught (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Elkins started as an author of works dedicated to Renaissance art exclusively. But later he went deeply to such a new discipline as visual studies which can be roughly described as a social theory of visuality, focusing on questions of what is made visible, who sees what, how seeing, knowing and power are interrelated. Elkins calls theory of images and non-art images as the areas of his special interest.

Unlike other authors who devoted themselves to visual studies, Elkins catches his readers by clear, bright and at the same time very provocative writing. He asks simple direct questions, like for example ‘What is visual culture?’ or ‘What do courses on visual studies teach?’, and these questions simply explode the discipline. It becomes obvious that regardless a bulk of books and courses on the subject nobody gives a clear definition of it. Scholars regard visual studies as undefinable by nature because they are interdisciplinary and new. But this is not an excuse. Of course, Elkins does not try to do the work for all academics involved in visual studies and give, eventually, the best definition. He understands his role as to give ‘a kind of confusion about the level of confusion’, i.e. to point out the problem, to explain the essence of the problem, in a sense to have a courage to say. Isn’t it not enough? And of course it is impossible not to mention here Elkins’s contribution to the elaboration of one of the key concepts of visual and cultural studies – the concept of ‘visual literacy’.

The book What Happened to Art Criticism is not an exception to Elkins’s style. Published as a separate book it was intended, however, to be a part of the bigger project Failure in the Twentieth-Century Painting.

The first chapter ‘Art Criticism: Writing Without Readers’ can be regarded as an empirical introduction to the further theoretical reflection. It is a bright description of a new phenomenon which equilibrates between art criticism and mass culture in contemporary world. Or, to say it in other words, this phenomenon is the point where such big domains as art criticism and mass culture meet finally. It is what we see and hold in our hands everyday if we are at least a bit interested in art and culture: booklets, catalogues, exhibition brochures, glossy art magazines, newspapers with short reviews on art events. These objects are everywhere. But as it usually happens with elements of mass culture, we hardly notice them. And only due to the intellectuals who not only point to these phenomena but also analyze them scrupulously, we finally draw our own attention to them also.

Every gallery, even the tiniest one, tries to print a brochure about the exhibition. A brochure contains not only pictures but also a text. We can even say that the priority is given to a text. A text can be something from brief notes about the author to a long essay. What is the purpose of these brochures? How are they used? Who are the authors and who are the readers? These are the questions that Elkins wants to answer. And the general conclusion to which he comes in this chapter is that we all use these brochures but we never take them seriously. What is the most surprising is that even art critics never regard these brochures as something valuable. In other words, we consume exhibition brochures, but we never put their texts in academic sphere, we never give them even a chance to be mentioned in academic writing.

After posing this problem, Elkins goes to the second chapter entitled ‘How Unified is Art Criticism?’ The purpose of the chapter is to give a description of major forms of art criticism that exist nowadays: ‘academic treatise’, ‘cultural criticism’, ‘conservative harangue’, ‘philosopher’s essay’, ‘descriptive art criticism’, ‘poetic art criticism’, and of course ‘catalog essay’. Elkins calls it ‘a hydra, fitted with the traditional seven heads’.

The third chapter ‘Seven Unworkable Cures” describes the current attempts (there are again seven of them) to regulate the field of art criticism through suggestion of rules, norms, recommendations. Elkins underlines that all they are historically determined: “Thinking about the reasons for various calls for the reform of criticism helps reveal that the proposed solutions tend to be born from nostalgia for specific moments in the past”. The solutions are the following: 1) criticism should be reformed by the returning it to a golden age of apolitical formalist rigor; 2) criticism should show its a strong voice; 3) criticism needs systematic concepts and rules; 4) criticism must become more theoretical; 5) criticism needs to be serious, complex, and rigorous; 6) criticism should become a reflection on judgments, not the parading of judgments; 7) at least a critic should occasionally take a stand or have a position.

The last chapter “Envoi: What’s Good” turns out to be an unexpected epilogue: always skeptical James Elkins decides to give his own recommendations to art critics, proposes his own way of reformation for the domain of criticism and shares his hopes and believes. It starts with an emotional example about a person whose name is Peter Schjedahl and who was a very bad art critic: “I found him entirely exasperating in his persistent unwillingness to make clear judgments or to collate his thoughts from one column to the next, and I was often disappointed by what I took to be his insouciance about all judgment—a carelessness I thought he justified, between the lines, as the best part of postmodernism.” Later Peter Schjedahl improved successfully and wrote a ‘brilliant essay’ entitled ‘Surrealism: Desire Unbound”. Thus Elkins underlines that the improvement is possible, that if the determination is present even a journalistic article can be developed to a qualitative art criticism. Elkins invites all critics to follow Schjedahl’s example: to give ambition judgments in their texts, to include the reflection about the judgment itself, and to count art history. On the other hand, honorable high-level art critics should also turn their faces towards exhibition brochures and glossy magazines, start reading them seriously and start citing them in their academic work. In his final words Elkins reaches the peak of imperative voice: “…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 Adorno—and also indiscriminately—finding work that might ordinarily escape us. Some art critics avoid academia because they think it’s stuffy and irrelevant, but that is just silly. (There is no other word.) And it is just as silly for art historians to spurn contemporary art criticism. The hydra 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.”

When I started to read, the purpose of the book sounded to me as an attempt of a sociological research. However, Elkins preferred another way of writing. The book is full of examples from his own life, descriptions of his personal experience and subjective attitudes. On the one hand, this can truly lower the status of the book: it turns out to be an essayistic, literary, but not scientific writing. On the other hand, personal examples and stories fascinate the readers, put them into the context much faster and deeper, generate the feeling of trust. We follow the events described by the author, know about his emotions – his surprise, disappointment, anger – and finally we start to empathize, perceive the problem as our own.

Elkins’s sincere wonder about the nature of the text in exhibition brochures made me remember my own experience of the encounter with this phenomenon. Some years ago I became interested in Belarusian photography. I started to visit exhibitions, meet and talk with photographers, and of course read everything that concerned the subject. As there is still not any book or research on Belarusian photography, I concentrated on the exhibition reviews. I found these reviews on the web-sites of the photogalleries, in newspaper archives, in art journals. There were a lot of them. But unfortunately I found out that it was absolutely useless to read them: they gave no precise information about photography in Belarus, no history details, facts, evaluation, or any comparisons to Polish, Lithuanian, or Russian art. All what they contained was a brief description of the exhibition and a lot of references to philosophy and especially to French poststructuralism. Some of these reviews were a kind of poetic play of words: it was impossible to find there any single argument, any clear understandable idea. While reading them, I had an impression that they were written not for readers, not to transmit an idea, but just to ‘fill in the space’, just to produce something written but not necessary readable. During the exhibition this review is put on the wall as an integral part of the art space. Then this text is sent to a newspaper or a magazine where it appears as a ‘pure sign’ of the even.

I consider the investigation of the phenomenon of exhibition brochures as the main value of the book What Happened to Art Criticism. However, the focus of the book is made not on the brochures themselves but on the way how the brochures are used, how they are treated first of all by the academia. And this focus inevitably raises the problem of the Western standards of academic writing. Academic writing is one of the most intriguing themes for me as a Belarusian scholar. Nor at school, nor in the university I never had such a subject as ‘Academic Writing’. Nobody taught us how to write academic papers. We just started to write guiding ourselves by some general rules like necessity to make quotations, include bibliography, etc. And only later I get to know that in the West there is such a discipline as academic writing, that it is an integral part of the curriculum of any educational institution, that it covers a huge spectrum of activities, from ‘critical reading’ and ‘note taking’ to the standards of writing a research paper. Academic writing is a number of rules which everybody has to follow in order to be an academic. For instance if we take such theme as evaluation of the sources, we will learn that it is strongly recommended to use ‘reputable’ sources, i.e the articles and books which publisher and author are well-known and respected in the community. That is why art criticism forms a circle: high-level critics cite high-level critics, there is no possibility and will to look at other, less ‘reputable’ sources as brochures. The book by Elkins strives thus to shake some rigid regulations of academic writing.

His style is also a form of ‘struggle’. In many cases he hardly cares about the evidence of his arguments. The weakest here is the second chapter. He starts with the classification of current art criticism and distinguishes seven forms of it. But he does not make any attempt to support this step with any kind of reasonable explanation. He writes: “I don’t mean that these are the hydra’s only heads, or that the heads couldn’t be renumbered for other purposes… The seven heads swerve and blur together, and sometimes it seems there are many more, or else just one conglomerate Babel. Yet often enough the combined practice of art criticism can be imagined as seven—or so—separate practices. At least it seems useful to me to picture it that way”. That means that even in classifications he gives no more than a subjective opinions and assumptions. This endless mentioning of his own experience is understandable, of course, because Elkins is an art critic and his book is an observation made from within the field. A kind of participant observation. But there is obvious lack of grounding for a lot of statements. As for instance “Few people read catalogue essay with concerted critical attention” – no explanation why he comes to this conclusion, what makes him think that people behave like this. As there are no answers of such kind of questions, the book What happened to Art Criticism becomes a very subjective description of the problem.

Then, his description of these ‘hydra’s heads’ is very superficial. Elkins does not give definitions of the forms of criticism. The borders between the forms are very fragile. If we take a book or an article, it will be difficult to apply Elkins’s classification in order to clarify what kind of criticism is in front of us. If we want to know the specificity of cultural criticism (according to Elkins’s classification) and we read the corresponding part of the chapter, we will see the following definition: “By cultural criticism I mean the avalanche of magazine and newspaper criticism that includes art, but does not present itself as art criticism. Writers of this kind prefer to sound off-the-cuff, clever and hip, disabused and jaded, ironic and distanced”. Then we will be invited to read a long commentary upon the writing style of somebody called Janis Demkiw who was chosen by Elkins as a representative of the whole field of cultural studies. This writing sample is rather poor, and Elkins is absolutely right in his dissatisfaction of this form of criticism where “fine art is like those stubborn floury lumps in a powdered soup mix: they just won’t dissolve, but it’s OK anyway because they taste good”. However, it is not understandable why this Janis Demkiw received such a close attention while such ‘big’ names in the field of cultural studies as Nicolas Mirzoeff and Victor Burgin were hardly mentioned.

I would put this book to the domain of essayistic writing. By this I mean that it gives a bright description of current ‘hot’ problems, provides a huge amount of examples and anecdotes, written in fascinating and easy-to-follow manner. However, all the assumptions that were made in the book stay on the level of assumptions. We can’t use them as something more or less objective, and we have always refer to Elkins: like “In Elkins’s opinion…”.

1 comment:

CAP said...

I agree with everything you’ve said about Elkins, Svetlana. In fact I would urge several deeper, more severe criticisms, but allow me firstly to say how impressive and welcome it is to read a thoughtful review of these issues from a non-English speaker, from a part of the world often overlooked or scorned.

Unfortunately I have no Russian, so you must excuse a comment from a native English-speaker, unable to match your languages.

It seems to me Elkins makes unfair, even naïve demands upon his discipline of visual studies, although often his concerns are more narrowly directed to art history. Controversies, schools and factions abound in any discipline - art or science - so major differences over scope, standards, syllabus and methods are hardly unusual, on the contrary, rather to be expected. At best, one deals in overlaps of interest, temporary and frail consensus. If you were to attend an international or even national conference in any academic discipline, this stark divergence of interests quickly becomes apparent (and amusing). So a claim for greater coherence to a discipline is unlikely to do more than diminish its adherents and practice. To settle for ‘a kind of confusion, about the level of confusion’ as a considered response, frankly seems unhelpful, in any case.

The real problem is that Elkins straddles the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand he wants to explain art in terms of a wider study – visual culture – and this, presumably according to a theory of society or culture, whereby art functions as essentially a social symptom. This approach eventually analyses art into constituent materials, techniques, opportunities and markets, traces iconography or iconology (an ideology, perhaps) and effectively dissolves art as a distinct practice. It is integrated so far into underlying social practices, it is actually indistinguishable.

On the other hand (or horn) Elkins maintains the distinction. He wants art separate from the rest of visual culture but struggles to find terms for this, since his social or cultural theory has in fact dismantled these in laying bare a broader explanation. This is a familiar, even traditional dispute, usually conducted between the art historian and the social historian. One believes art transcends society, the other that society transcends art. In vernacular terms, who swallows whom? I doubt Elkins contribution here will prove convincing, much less conclusive.

His attempt to analyse the state of art criticism suffers from this conflict of loyalties. In particular his understanding of a formal or technical analysis of painting shows no awareness of the source or heritage in art history that fuels this approach. The formalism of 20th century critics from Clive Bell to Clement Greenberg and many others derives from 19th century German art historians like Wölfflin and Riegl and an idealist philosophy. This is a large part of the appeal of formalism – in that formalist criticism announces a close relation with art history in identifying style and originality. But Elkins has no time for such telling detail. For all the breadth of his interests, he sacrifices as much in depth.

If one is to ‘read everything’ then the lesson would seem to be that it is only to be read lightly.

This is true, even when studying recent art. His remarks concerning catalogue essays or accompanying publications for example, hold that they are selectively ignored, unless delivering prestige. This is hardly remarkable. Even scholars pick and choose their sources, as indicated above, are deeply partisan. They may bargain for an obscure source with an important insight against a prominent one advertising an unappealing philosophy. Moreover, the practice is longstanding, yet subject to revision. Specialists in say, French 19th century art now scrutinise all sorts of minor publications and pamphlets when researching Daumier or Van Gogh, for example.

Finally, no critic can read everything or see everything before writing. None aspires to have the last word (who would do themselves out of a job that way?) The array of criticism or commentary now may be far greater than before, but this is not to say it does its job any better or worse than previously. We pick, as usual, between competing views, on painting, art, society, politics, philosophy. Elkins lack of focus does not make the choice any easier or better.