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.

RK: I think a lot of first generation feminists are deeply disturbed that while they had certain skills and commitments to literary texts, they realize that their students and certainly the students of their students don't have the same knowledge or skills. And then these feminists are wondering what the point of the critique is anymore. So, this unease that I'm expressing is not unique to me or to a few people; I think it's fairly wide spread.

SR: I would contend that feeling is shared by students, too.

RK: I think that students are particularly bored by the "paranoid scenarios." I suppose Harvard students are really voracious for learning and the problem with "paranoid scenarios" is that once you've said it, it's very hard to develop very much. It just gets repetitive. I mean once you expose patriarchy then what? Any way, I know this is all very shocking stuff, but...

SR: Actually I don't think that it is very shocking, because the comment you just made about first generation feminists worrying that their students wouldn't have the tools or the commitment, but a feminist scenario, comes across a lot in your work. In terms of feminism, I'm thinking of your book on the photographer Cindy Sherman, because you not only identify the feminist scenario, what is being signified, but you ask how it's being signified...

RK: Well that's what I mean by a skill.

SR: Right, for me it seems extremely important that as students we learn to take that kind of skill and apply it to unpacking images and objects as opposed to just throwing a theory or scenario onto them. There's something about working not necessarily just from the inside out, but at least establishing a dialogue in both directions.

RK: Well, that's exactly what I mean.

SR: Thinking back to your comments on Pollock as a historically benighted subject, I'm interested to know about your new work on Picasso. In your essay "In the Name of Picasso," you're obviously very concerned with that overly biographical, benighted subject approach.

RK: Yes, Picasso is obviously the focus of an incredible biography industry. Picasso as a subject seems never to end as a fascination maybe not for your generation, but for an older generation. And what's interesting to me is that this Picasso, who after all did do something pretty great--cubism--immediately afterward begins to do something which many people would normally feel is not really great: namely a whole career as a pasticheur. So after cubism he becomes this super imitator of Ingres, Corot, Renoir, Poussin.

Of course then there's a kind of irony that he's the center of this biographical fascination, and yet he is working at leeching away the substance of a unified subject. So, for me Picasso poses the interesting art historical problem of what counts as an explanation, I've come up with an explanation I would call symptomatic, which has more to do with the structure of what happened. A symptom is about a kind of conversion of something that's internal which then interacts with something external to coalesce in a certain kind of formation.

SR: Talking about this reminds me of last summer's "Picasso and Portraiture" show at MoMA, which was organized around Picasso's biography and almost completely ignored the issue of style. Although this approach seems out of place in the contemporary critical climate, I wonder if it develops from a real practical need for a narrative structure, similar to an undergraduate's desire for a chronological art history survey. Maybe the public coming to MoMA would find this narrative easier to deal with than a show that grappled with a more complex issue like style. Do you think that this kind of biographical approach could be in any way productive?

RK: I have found the Picasso biography industry incredibly damaging, because it diverts one's attention from much more important issues. And pastiche seems to me to be one, especially when dealing with the role of pastiche in postmodernism and our contemporary experience of culture. Given that, to ignore the issue of pastiche or to write it off and say the great master can take whatever he wants and use it as grist for his mill simply ignores a real and pressing problem.

SR: The issue of Picasso's stylistic appropriation and contemporary post modernism seems especially appropriate to your work, given your past writing and October's theorizing of post modernism and visual practice in the eighties. I'm interested to know, however, if you still see a place for critical writing on really contemporary art in October.

RK: For October to deal with contemporary visual practice, we need young writers. The time when October was most plugged into contemporary visual practice was during the early eighties. In a sense you could say that there was a certain generation of critic connecting with a certain generation of contemporary practice.

Believe me, I don't know what the issues are. I mean I known what the issues are for me, and I think I have something to say about issues of contemporary culture, but an emerging generation of artists needs its own generation of critics. One of the functions of the magazine then is to make a context for that new generation of writers.

SR: By saying that a new generation of artists will need a new generation of critics, do you think that in any way undermines the art historical method that you and people like Yve-Alian Bois have pioneered? To me, you way of working is so useful in the sense that it is about really analyzing an object and applying very precise visual tools to unpack it and discover how it signifies. And in that sense, this methodology would seem somehow completely impervious to generational differences.

RK: Well to be very specific, a project I'm starting to work on now has to do with what we could call the "post medium" age. By this I mean that conceptual art, installation art, and a great deal of what happened in the eighties was about dismantling the idea of medium, although there was also a sort of reactionary backlash in the eighties to try to resurrect old media like painting, sculpture etc. Recently, I've just done a long essay on the Irish artist James Coleman, and one of the points of that essay was how he has done something that I would call" inventing a medium," in his case based on the very low-life, commercial support of the slide tape.

Now, I think there's something fundamentally different between inventing a medium and dismantling a medium, which I mentioned earlier. I am deeply opposed to the idea of resurrecting painting and sculpture, so inventing a medium seems to me a crucial problem, and it's not unrelated to what we talked about earlier in terms of the real value of the discipline. But still, we could hardly call James Coleman or even Jeff Wall young artists since they both emerged in the '70s. So what I'm really saying is that I think most critics have about twenty years when they are out there on the barricades and have a kind of intuitive connection to new work. I no longer have an intuitive connection to very very new work, and I believe that it should be younger artists and younger critics who deal with that work.

SR: So while you're interested in certain aspects of new work, you may not have an intuitive connection to it. Does it mean that at a certain point a kind of cultural, or in this case, age-specific analysis takes precedence over a more formal approach?

RK: Let's go back to the Coleman thing. James Coleman is an Irish artist and a great deal of the criticism and writing on him has been from the point of view of post-colonial theory...

SR: So you can separate the issues of his Irish cultural significance and his pioneering of a new medium?

RK: Yes, I have actually said to him that I'm not going to analyze his work from that point of view. A lot of references in his work are to the Irish literary revival, Irish politics, and Irish history. That is the thing that has grabbed the attention of many writers who have slotted him into post-colonial discourse. Now I think that's very interesting, but the result is that this other thing in Coleman has never been talked about. We don't have to have a beauty contest here and say which method is to be privileged in relationship to Coleman, but I would be disingenuous if I didn't say that I believe something very essential and specific to Coleman's work was to be gotten by talking about the visual medium.

SR: I think that's exactly what I was getting at. It's really helpful if you break it down into the Irish, or in some cases generational analysis and talking about the medium. It seems similar again to your work on Cindy Sherman, where we could say that Laura Mulvey throws on a feminist reading and you ask more specifically how that functions within Sherman's work, how her photographs signify or come to a feminist stance.

RK: Of course you have to be aware of all of those other possibilities, because clearly Cindy Sherman herself is reading Laura Mulvey and knows all about that material and is programming a lot of it into her work. But she's also programming other things, just a James Coleman isn't sitting there in Dublin for nothing. He's totally aware. For instance, he lived in a house in Montjoy Square, which is the square that was the setting for Synge's The Plow and the Stars. I'm not sure of this, actually. We are now treading on my area of deep ignorance...

SR: That's O.K., we can leave Montjoy Square for the Irish critics.llene PerimanROSALIND KRAUSS at Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Alumni Day.