Krauss and the Art of Cultural Controversy

Rosaland Krauss Professor of Art History, Columbia Univ. Editor, October

Rosalind Krauss is one of the most influential and outspoken historians of modern art. After receiving her Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Harvard in 1969, Krauss was one of the firs art historians to use semiotics and post-structuralist semiotics into writing on 20th century art. She is currently the Professor of Art History at Columbia University, and she continues to edit October, a journal of contemporary visual practice and theory, which the cofounded in 1976. This spring, before delivering the keynote address at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Alumni Day, Krauss spoke with a Crimson reporter about the problems with programs like Cultural studies and her new work on Picasso and the 'post-medium" age.

Scott Rothkopf: The first thing I would like to talk about is the state of art history in colleges and universities. I recently read your comments in the January Art News on the new, non-narrative, introductory survey, and you seemed very concerned that students would leave undergraduate art history programs without really knowing how to look. You worried that they would instead have a lot of "paranoid scenarios" in their minds. Unlike Columbia, Harvard has abandoned the chronological survey, which progresses from Egyptian art, to Greek, Roman, Medieval and so on. To what extent do you think that a narrative survey can still be taught?

Rosalind Krauss: I have nothing whatsoever to do with the Columbia survey course, but Columbia is very proud of being one of the places that has never challenged "the canon" and still teaches an introductory survey based on masterpieces. They're sort of flaunting their retrograde credentials. I myself, have taught an introduction to 20th century art in different ways, but most recently around models of representation, because representation itself is so deeply challenged and becomes one of the main problems of various modernist movements. Even so, students seem to need a chronology to perform a kind of cognitive mapping. In order to build that map, there needs to be some kind of really coherent structure, whether it's a totalising system, or a chronology, or some other kind of structure.

But from my point of view, the pleasure of having some sort of relationship to cultural objects means that you have an intricate and rich connection to the details of those objects. Unless you have some kind of close reading relationship to works of art or works of literature, I just don't know where the rest of the cultural analysis is going to get you. So one of the dilemmas for me in working with art history courses that are involve in attacking the canon, often for reasons I'm sympathetic with, is that they might end up scanting the project of really interpreting a work.

SR: I just noticed that you used the phrase "cultural objects." Do you support the idea of these survey courses, or even any courses in an art history department, working with the concept of "visual culture?" For example, Harvard's course Literature and Arts B-10 is called "Introduction to Art and Visual Culture"...

RK: I hate visual culture.

SR: You hate visual culture?

RK: In fact, October magazine, which I coedit and cofounded in 1976, recently did a special issue that was an attack on the visual culture project. Like cultural studies, visual culture is aimed at what we could call pejoratively, abusively, deskilling. Part of that project is to attack the very idea of disciplines which are bound to knowing how to do something, certain skills. Obviously, in French literature you would to be able to read French very well, not just modern French but Medieval French. In art history there are also skills, like connoiseurship, and at least some slight knowledge of conservation.

Once you decide, as does cultural studies, that these disciplines themselves are retrograde, you are bound to attack them in the name of a kind of super discipline for which the original model was comparative literature. When complit started, it required more rather than fewer skills. But when it began to be the center of what now is called theory, it increasingly became an enterprise in which all works are read in English (including the theoretical texts themselves), and it is now a very different project from the original one. And out of that project of comparative literature has come cultural studies which is involved in an attack one disciplines and therefore what I believe to be a massive deskilling of student. I think ultimately (and this is the really paranoid part of it) that many university administrations would like to get rid of the departments. The separate faculties in universities have a great deal of power which the administration would like to usurp.

SR: Well, I understand that a university might want to undermine the power of individual departments to better control them, but I don't really see how that works. It seems to me that most of these changes are being driven by faculty, not the administration.

RK: Although I'm certainly not talking about Harvard, administrations are often very happy to form "programs," like a program in cultural studies, or women's studies. Now you generally think those programs come from the left of the spectrum of possibilities, but they're not always from the left; they're also, as in Medieval studies, from the right. Such programs are not part of the faculty structure, and when the administration pushes to have faculty members head these study programs, those appointments often fall between the faculty or even outside it completely. Then those budgets and those people become directly beholden to the administration. We tend to think of it as a good thing, that it's about a radicalization of the disciplines, that it's been about getting rid of the apparatus that has been the intellectual support for various authoritarian projects. I think that is a self-defeating fiction and I think that it's dangerous.

SR: It really surprises me to hear you say this, because when I think of your writing and the writing in October, it seems that your work may have fostered and supported many of these changes both in art history and even more broadly. This is why I was puzzled by your distaste for the "paranoid scenarios," which I had always thought you were instrumental in bringing to the discipline.

RK: I certainly have been involved in critiquing certain controlling ideas that have been the ways of forming objects of study. For example, the work I've done on Jackson Pollock has been involved in trying to show that to continue to think of Pollock as a biographically contained subject who is a volitional agent is a benighted idea. For me, the only way to think about Pollock is through the sort of force field that was warring over his interpretation. That's an example of a sort of "death of the author" theory, and that's not a "paranoid scenario."

When I say "paranoid scenario," I have certainly participated and even formented various ways of attacking what Michel Foucault called the unities of an epistemological field that work in terms of a set of unified objects. I believe that some of those unified objects dissolve as you begin to look at them. So it's not as though I'm resisting new departures in art historical method, but I suppose I feel very strongly that that kind of critique is powerful and productive when it's conducted within a discipline, when a discipline renews itself. So what I have against "visual studies" is the project of getting rid of the disciplines. People say "film studies, what's that?" or "art history, jene connais pas." That's just forgetting about the fact that there are certain skills involved in both the fabrications of certain objects and the unpacking of those objects.

SR: Well, I think it's important that you clarified the distinction between carrying out your critical project, or any critical project, within a discipline, as opposed to dismantling all the disciplines and regrouping them under a different rubric, like women's studies.