Re-Viewing Modernist Criticism – Mary Kelly

[…] In this article, modernism is defined as a determinant discursive field with reference to critical writing since 1945. It is maintained that modernist discourse is produced at the level of the statement, by the specific practices of art criticism, by the art activities implicated in the critic/author’s formulations, and by the institutions which disseminate and disperse the formulations as events. [… ]

The Pictorial Paradigm

In a note to the article ‘Photography and Aesthetics,’ Peter Wollen remarks. ‘The category of “modernism” has increasingly been captured by those who see twentieth-century art primarily in terms of reflexivity and ontological exploration.’ If it is possible to define this capture in other terms as the predominance of a particular discourse within the hierarchy of discourses which constitute modernism as a discursive field, then the effectivity of that discourse can be described more exactly as the production of a norm for pictorial representation which does not necessarily correspond to definite pictures, but rather to a set of general assumptions concerning ‘Modern Art.’ Further, if these assumptions are not seen to be based on the consensus of a homogeneous mass audience of art viewers, but formed within calculated practices of reviewing, publishing, and exhibiting art for a specific public, then the reading of artistic texts is always in some sense subjected to the determining conditions of these practices, crucially those of criticism. [. . .]

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Criticism’s function is to initiate that work which art history eventually accomplishes in the form of the ‘biographic narrative’ that is, as Griselda Pollock describes it ‘the production of an artistic subject for works of art’.  The critic’s dilemma is the production of artistic subjects for works of art at a time when their authenticity (and market value) are still tentative. Modernist criticism became particularly precarious when it concerned the installation of creative purposes behind objects which were recalcitrant to such efforts or even, in the case of some conceptual work, absent altogether.

Greenberg’s writing is often cited as the apodictic core of modernist criticism: but it is far from coherent. Rather, it marks a point of diffraction, of incoherence in that discourse. His particular attention to the materiality of the object allowed a divergence from the ontological norm which was furthered by developments of art practice and which, consequently, required a restatement of modernism’s central themes at a moment when the vacuity of that project was keenly perceived in contrast to the aims and intentions of some of the artists to whom he referred.

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Greenberg’s attempt to establish the objective purposiveness of the art object, to define its particular forms of adaption to definite ends in terms of material substrate, is continually undermined by the exigencies of a subjective judgment of taste. And here an altogether different order of purpose emerges.

The only necessary condition for judging good art is common sense; but for producing good art, genius is required. With reference to Kant’s Critique, genius is the mental disposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art. No definite rule can be given for the products of genius, hence originality is its first property. At this point the modernist discourse emerges as the site of an insistent contradiction which is indicated in Greenberg’s criticism and repeated in the opposing strategies of the institutions of education on the one hand and those of entertainment and art patronage on the other. The former exacts a formal field of knowledge about art, an empirical domain of teachable crafts, while the latter requires a transcendental field of aesthetic experience and reflection founded on the unteachable tenets of genius and originality. During the 1960s artistic practices attempted to repudiate the notions of genius, originality, and taste, by introducing material processes, series, systems, and ideas in place of an art based on self-expression. [. . .]

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[. . .] What is made more explicit, more transparent by the so-called ‘dema-terialization’ of the object, is that the production of authenticity requires more than an author for the object; it exacts the ‘truth’ of the authorial discourse.

By putting himself in circulation, the performance artist parodied the commercial exchange and distribution of an artistic personality in the form of a commodity. Nevertheless, for criticism, performance art initiated an appropriate synthesis of the disparate elements that had fractured the modernist discourse. On the one hand it provided the empirical domain with a universal object -the body, and on the other, to the transcendental field, it brought the incontestable authenticity of the artist’s experience of his own body.

With Lea Vergine’s account of ‘body art,’ . . . criticism seems to subside once again in the direction of ontology. She speaks of ‘the individual obsessed by the obligation to exhibit himself in order to be’. But she is anxious to point out that this move is more than a revival of expressionism. The use of the body in art is not simply a return to origins, ‘the individual is led back to a specific mode of existence.’ Moreover these activities, ‘phenomena’ as she puts it, also document a style of living that remains ‘outside of art.’ The critic finds in the analysis of the artist’s actual experience, the third term which metaphorically grounds the experience of nature (the body) and art (the ). […]

… the authenticity of body art cannot be inscribed at the level of a particular morphology, it must be chiselled into the world in accordance with direct experience. The discourse of the body in art is more than a repetition of the eschatological voices of abstract expressionism; the actual experience of the body fulfills the prophecy of the painted mark. It is also more than a confirmation of the positivist aspirations of the Art of the Real. The art of the ‘real body’ does not pertain to the truth of a visible form, but refers back to its essential content: the irreducible, irrefutable experience of pain. The body, as artistic text, bears the authenticating imprint of pain like a signature; Vergine insists, ‘the experiences we are dealing with are authentic, and they are consequently cruel and painful. Those who are in pain will tell you that they have the right to be taken seriously.’  (It is no longer a question of good art, but of serious artists.) […]

… the specific contribution of feminists in the field of performance has been to pose the question of sexual difference across the discourse of the body in a way which focuses on the construction not of the individual but of the sexed subject. The body is not perceived as the repository of an artistic essence: it is seen as a kind of hermeneutic image. The so-called ‘enigma of femininity’ is formulated as the problem of representation (images of women, how to change them) and then resolved by the discovery of a true identity behind the patriarchal facade. This true identity is ‘the essence in women’ according to Ulrike Rosenbach, who defines feminist art as ‘the elucidation of the woman-artist’s identity; of her body, of her psyche, her feelings, her position in society.’

Clearly the question of the body and the question of sexuality do not necessarily intersect. When they do, for instance in this particular discourse, the body is decentered and it is radically split; positioned; not simply my body, but his body, her body. Here, no third term emerges to salvage a transcendental sameness for aesthetic reflection. Within this system of representation, actual experience merely confirms an irrevocable difference in the field of the other.

Partially because of this intransigence, feminist art has been problematic for criticism; how does the critic authenticate the work of art when the author is sexed and ‘his’ truth no longer universal? Consequently, most of this work has been marginalized by or excluded from the so-called ‘mainstream’ even when the critic’s concerns have included areas such as psychoanalysis . . . Moreover the predominant forms of feminist writing on art continue to counterpose a visible form to a hidden content; excavating a different, but similarly fundamental order of truth – the truth of the woman, her original feminine identity. But in practice what persistently emerges as a result of foregrounding the question of representation, particularly the image, is more in the order of an underlying contradiction than an essential content. The woman artist ‘sees’ her experience as a woman particularly in terms of the ‘feminine position,’ as object of the look, but she must also account for the ‘feeling’ she experiences as the artist, occupying the ‘masculine position’ as subject of the look. The former she defines as the socially prescribed position of the woman, one to be questioned, exorcised, or overthrown . . . , while the implications of the latter (that there can be only one position with regard to active looking and that is masculine) cannot be acknowledged and is construed instead as a kind of psychic truth – a natural, instinctual, preexistent, and essential femininity. Frequently, in the process of its production, the feminist text repudiates its own essentialism and testifies instead to the insistent bisexuality of the drives. It would seem to be a relevant project for feminist criticism to take this further – to examine how that contradiction (the crisis of positionality) is articulated in particular practices and to what extent it demonstrates that masculine and feminine positions are never finally fixed – for the artist, her work, or her public. [. . .]

Following the paradoxical logic of modernism’s demand for objective purposes as well as transcendental truths, avant-garde practices between 1965 and the mid-1970s initiated areas of work that divided the very field of which they were an effect. The potential of that divergence has not been completely realized. First, the materiality of the practice: initially defined in terms of the constraints of a particular medium, it must now be redefined as a specific production of meaning. Secondly, sociality, raised as the question of context, i.e. the gallery system (inside vs. outside), and the commodification of art (object vs. process, action, idea, etc.). This must be reconsidered as the question of institutions, of the conditions which determine the reading of artistic texts and the strategies which would be appropriate for interventions (rather than ‘alternatives’) in that context. Thirdly, sexuality, posed as the problem of images of women and how to change them, must be reformulated as a concern with positionality, with the production of readers as well as authors for artistic texts and crucially, with the sexual overdetermination of meaning which takes place in that process.

The dominant critical practices of that same period have, however, so consistently converged on the traditional vanishing point of the artistic subject, self-possessed and essentially creative, that it is not surprising now to find a certain consolidation of that position in artistic practices themselves, in the return of painterly signifiers and their privileged site – the classical pictorial text. Finally, a further question is raised – why theoretical criticism, with a very different history from that discussed so far, was also unable to sustain the discontinuities in the modernist discourse and develop an accessible critique.

Exhibition and System

Critical writing on art which places emphasis on the analysis of signifying practice rather than on the exhortation or description of artistic auteurs, generally acknowledges that art forms are inscribed within the social context that gives rise to them. Nevertheless, there is a problematic tendency to constitute the pictorial text as the paradigmatic insistence of that inscription in a way which forecloses the question of its institutional placing. The pictorial paradigm constructs the artistic text as both essentially singular and as centrally concerned with the practice of painting; but, as Hubert Damisch has pointed out, when painting is considered at the semiotic level, that is with reference to its internal system, it functions as an epistemological obstacle – an obstacle never surmounted, only prodded by an endless redefinition of the sign or averted altogether by taking the semantic route. 6 Perhaps to some extent this accounts for what appears to be a certain impasse in the area of art criticism when compared, for instance, with developments in film theory.

Critical texts have focused either on analysis of the individual tableau (sometimes an individual artist’s oeuvre) or on the construction of general cultural categories and typologies of art. This work has been both necessary and important. The arguments outlined here are not so much against such contributions as for a reconsideration of what might constitute appropriate terms for the analysis of current practices in art. This reconsideration is prompted firstly by developments within particular practices. Feminist art, for instance, cannot be posed in terms of cultural categories, typologies, or even certain insular forms of textual analysis, precisely because it entails the assessment of political interventions, campaigns, and commitments as well as artistic strategies. In this instance, interpretation is not simply a matter of what can be discovered at the interior of a composition. Secondly, a reconsideration of critical methods is required if one takes account of the specific conditions which determine the organization of artistic texts and their readings at the present time; that is, the temporary exhibition and its associated field of publications – the catalogue, the art book, and the magazine. From this point of view, ‘art’ is never given in the form of individual works but is constructed as a category in relation to a complex configuration of texts.

In terms of analysis, the exhibition system marks a crucial intersection of discourses, practices, and sites which define the institutions of art within a definite social formation. Moreover, it is exactly here, within this inter-textual, inter-discursive network, that the work of art is produced as text.

Rather schematically, it can be said that at one level an exhibition is a discursive practice involving the selection, organization, and evaluation of artistic texts according to a particular genre (the one-person show, the group show, the theme exhibition, the historical survey, and the Annual, Biennial, etc.), displayed in certain types of institutions (museums, galleries), within specific legal structures (contractual agreements, fees, insurance), and preserved by definite material techniques in a number of ways (catalogues, art books, magazines). At another level, an exhibition is a system of meanings – a discourse – which, taken as a complex unit or enunciative field, can be said to constitute a group of statements; the individual works comprising fragments of imaged discourse or utterances which are anchored by the exhibition’s titles, subheadings, and commentary, but at the same time unsettled, exceeded, or dispersed in the process of their articulation as events. [. . .]

The exhibition has a definite substantive duration. In its phenomenal form the installation is subject to the constraints of a definite site, it is only reproducible in a limited sense, but the catalogue remains. It is infinitely reproducible and, moreover, it constitutes the determinant means of institutional control over the continued distribution of works of art. In this context, the absence of a catalogue also becomes significant. Artists generally maintain that the catalogue is more important than the exhibition itself. It gives a particular permanence to temporary events, an authenticity in the form of historical testimony. Together with art books and magazines, exhibition catalogues constitute the predominant forms of receiving and, in a certain sense, possessing images of art. The exhibition remains the privileged mode of reception in terms of the viewer’s access to the ‘original’ work, but far more often the reader’s knowledge of art is based on reproductions in books and magazines. Critical theories of art founded on the notion of artisanal production fail to recognize that these historically specific means of organization, circulation, distribution, not only determine the reception – reading, viewing, reviewing, reworking – of artistic texts, but also have an effect on the signifying practices themselves. [. . .]

Mary Kelly, in Screen, vol. 22, no. 3, London, 1981.

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