Readings For April 18th

Posted: April 16, 2019 in Readings

These essays, by the living legend Rosalind Krauss, are insanely difficult. But it is impossible to overestimate their influence. Please just give them the old ‘college try’. I will do my very best on Wednesday to become a woman and explain them to you in terms you can understand. I guarantee it will be a wild ride. Good luck!


Rosalind Krauss is, without visible rival, the most influential American art writer since Clement Greenberg. Together with her colleagues at October, the journal she co-founded, she has played a key role in the introduction of French theory into the American art world. In the 1960s, though first a follower of Greenberg, she was inspired by her readings of French structuralist and post-structuralist materials, revolted against her mentor’s formalism, and developed a succession of radically original styles of art history writing.

Rosalind E. Krauss
Art History – Columbia University

“The Originality of The Avant-Garde” (1979)
“Sculpture in The Expanded Field” (1985)
“The Motivation of The Sign” (1992)

(this last essay is optional!)

Auguste Rodin
The Three Shades (1886)
  1. Abby Citterman says:

    In “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” I was fascinated by her distinguishing between art and logic, art and monument. Never would I try to assert that a monument lacks artistry, so I suppose I’m puzzled by her description that monument failing to be logical is what cements its place as art. The “negative condition” being something sought after and desirable, this sense of homelessness, within the realm of modern art as it solidifies the kind of abstractness that defines the style. Sculptures’ only sense of belonging is intrinsic, an inseparable and autonomous relationship with their bases rather than their physical location. That makes sense to me, but I do not understand how that would support her previous assertion, as monuments fail to be monuments when they exist in various locations other than that of its origin. If this is to be sought after, isn’t the former to be, as well? It wouldn’t be a failure, but rather a goal?

    • This reading is really difficult. If you’ve gotten even this far through it, good for you!

      Anyhow, Krauss is certainly not beyond calling certain objects widely considered masterpieces, to be in fact failures. Her discussion increases in difficulty as her language gets increasingly technical. This difficulty is increased by Krauss’s broad erudition; she seems to have read virtually everything. Her writing – which is generally considered a massive critical breakthrough – is called philosophical art criticism. Numerous careers, both artistic and critical, were launched as a result of Krauss’s extremely informed and shrewd observations. However, so abstruse did her arguments become, that many persons, such as Roger Kimball, accused her of being lost in the stratosphere and having no sensitivity for actual art whatsoever.

      I will do my best in class to explain Krauss’s logic. Most famously, she draws upon models developed in the theory of math and cultural anthropology to explain how the field of creative options at any given moment in history (or in different parts of the world) is strictly delimited by a deep cultural logic. Key artists emerging in the 1960s and working in various mediums, she argues, may have appeared to throw any previous sense caution or limitation to the wind and, in the spirit of the day, created in any old way they wanted because the ‘Dark Ages’ of modernist formal experimentation were over! Using the most sophisticated means at her disposa, and using them in true guerilla mode – subversive, fast, and furious – Krauss attempt to show that these new artists were in fact high ‘motivated’. That is to say, their seemingly ‘free’ acts of creativity were powerfully determined by a deep and inflexible cultural logic. If monuments stop appearing at a given moment in history, it is not because any consciously chose to stop making them. Rather, the cultural logic has undergone a major structural transformative such that monuments no longer made sense. Meanwhile, this same transformation would have brought about conditions under which a need form of art, the sculpture, suddenly became possible. While Krauss will certainly educe empirical evidence (actual works of art) to support her claim, she nevertheless does rely – to the bewilderment and/or outrage of many – upon an enormous amount of warranting. This we see in her continuous reference psychoanalysis, philosophy, mathematics, economics, experimental psychology, and other highly abstract disciplines. As for empirical evidence she does import, many of these examples represent what might be called ‘liminal’ cases, deliberately chosen for the position that occupy between the old paradigm and the new one. Precisely because they conform to the logic of neither, Krauss refers to them as failures. The ‘masterpieces’ of Rodin are the most striking examples of such failures, no matter how much certain persons may be outraged by the assertion. This is hardly to say these works are not interesting. Quite the contrary, in fact, they greatly assist us in identifying major discontinuities in the historical record. But this again raises the issue of excessive abstraction. Is Krauss uses theory to explain art in ways that reveal it anew to us and truly expand our capacity to understand and appreciate it? Or, is she really just using various works of art as a means of justifying her rarified (though highly polemical) speculations? Answering these questions responsibly will depend not only on a reader’s personal inclinations, but also quite fundamentally on a reader’s capacity to read and understand Krauss at all – hardly an easy undertaking.

      In growing numbers, small armies of Krauss fanatics have arising over the last two so decades, who thump her books like Bibles and use her words to threaten any of the powers the be. However, it remains uncertain how well these fanatics actually understand their messiah, and whether their liberator has not in fact become the new master.

      All this stuff is highly challenging to comprehend and fascinating to observe. For the record, I absolutely love it – even if that makes me weird. Thanks for giving it a real try!

  2. Tasia McConkie says:

    I enjoyed reading “The Originality of The Avant-Garde” and how the author adds to Benjamin’s discussion about authenticity. However, especially through the beginning, I found myself struggling to define the difference between Benjamin’s ‘aura’ and Krauss’ ‘style’ if there is one. Krauss mentions how one can use ‘old chemical compounds’ to age a print to its original. This statement, I assume, complicates Benjamin’s view on how the aura of a piece is its ‘presence in time and space’. Instead, Krauss mentions that the ‘style’ of a piece shows its fraudulent through the example of the casting of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Viewers know that this piece cannot by an original since Rodin died in 1918: the casting was not made in the same time period. I guess I am still trying to define the difference if there is any.

    • Hey, this is a great observation, and one that had not occurred to me. You definitely get to the heart of the matter. Refers to the absolute uniqueness and irreproducibility of an authentic work of art. It is precisely what we lose when we replace handcraft with mechanical reproduction, as machine, while they can be extremely precise, have no sensibility, no capacity for ‘touch’. Here, I refer back to Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”, and her contention that the most difficult thing to comprehend about any historical period is not its practices or idea, but rather its unique sensibility – the knack it has for whimsically mixing and matching textures, are using a brush with this or that degree of rigidity or lassitude. These represent automatic and unconscious choices reflective of an entire culture and not at all the deliberate action of any individual. Such characteristics escape ordinary human perception, as they occur in the realm Benjamin called the ‘optical unconscious’, and they can only be detected through meticulous connoisseurship. It is this sort of meticulous study which will reveal the many minute and unthinking choices which expose the date of manufacture and allow scholars to determine if a given work of art is authentic or fake. It’s this line of thought which runs through Krauss’s mind as she watches the the fresh casting of the newest masterpieces of an artist who had been dead for over half a century. But it’s also this initial line of questioning which Krauss herself begins to doubt in her continued reflection on mechanical reproduction. The essay in question seems to reveal Krauss at a major tipping point in her own intellectual career, a tipping point over which she will carry with her entire profession. This is – for those who have the necessary resources to appreciate it – very exciting stuff.

  3. Sevin Park says:

    In the second reading, Krauss says, “The logic of sculpture is inseparable from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation.” Because of this statement, I’m guessing Krauss would oppose Nochlin’s disapproval of monuments. To Nochlin, monuments represent greatness, something she is against. To Krauss, a sculpture is like a celebratory monument. Does this difference sound accurate?

    • This is a very appropriate observation. I would have to answer your question by saying that Krauss and Nochlin are playing do very different games and caught up in two very different sets of concerns. Nochlin, perhaps vaguely in line with Brecht, sees art, for all she loves it, primarily as a medium of social interaction. This borne out by her deep appreciation for the very humane and egalitarian portraits emerging from the cooperation of painter Alice Neel and her various sitters. The painting is a record of a social encounter and interaction. Krauss, on the other hand, if not much interested in individuals persons or how art might say anything about anyone’s personality or biography. Art, for Krauss, has, at is were, a life and destiny of its own, one which will play, for rigorously logical and demonstrable reason, irrespective of the intentions of the individuals who produce it. It’s for this reason that many detractors consider Krauss to be infuriatingly, even dangerously abstract, impersonal (despite her direct personal attacks on others), and totalitarian. Krauss utterly and aggressively attacks the most basic assumptions regarding the nature and function of art. It is not in the least any means of personal expression. As for monuments, Nochlin does not like them because the are part of a heroic ideology which aggrandizes certain key individuals over others, a values lofty deeds and ideas over everyday life. Monumentality, a purely historical and politically invested mentality, must go. For Krauss, on the other hand, monuments are neither good or bad. They are simply a genre of art which a certain inescapable culture logic produced at a certain moment in history. We need to do anything to make monumentality go away, because its day – for rigorously logical and demonstrable reasons – is now permanently over.

  4. Nick Fontaine says:

    Krauss brings up the paradox of originality. Although the avante garde felt their work reflected their own unique character and style, Krauss states that the grid can only be repeated. She coins this term as the fiction of originality, or as others call it the opaqueness. Krauss represents T.S. Elliot’s ideas in the power of tradition. Artists draw inspiration from the past and express themselves through new mediums and technology, not necessarily purely unique art.

    • I think you may have made this comment before class. I hope my remarks today were helpful. I’ll say a bit more, at the risk of redundancy.

      It does seem to me now that Krauss disagrees with Eliot, who promotes a gradual and progressive view of the history of art. While the basic range of human feeling does not change, the look of art does change. Contemporary artists must draw upon the best art from the past, breathe new life into it according to what is possible under the present social and technoligical conditions, and thus carry the torch of Humanity forward. This is an example of a fairly conservative high modernism. Although Eliot opposes the word tradition to history, this view is entirely in line with the kind of genealogical research and tree-building Krauss rejects.

      Krauss, as should be clear now, opposes the myth of continuous progress. Change certainly does take place, but it is not the revolutionary result of great men possessed of big ideas and the genius to make them realities – the Napoleonic view condemned by Nochlin. Nor is change the gradual result of a continuous collective effort – the view Nochlin promotes. Rather, profound changes happen rather suddenly and not because of any conscious human initiative, individual or collective. Rather ‘structural transformations’ are determined for reasons inherent to the structure itself. While many edgy persons will love to see this sort of cultural anthropology topple the pride and the monuments of the high and mighty, others will feel this new approach is even more elitist than the older, and it comes at too high a price – our belief in individual expression and initiative.

      I’ll let students decide for themselves how they feel about this battle of ideas.

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