Interpreting Contemporary Art


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And Bryson is right to underline the irony that 'official art history', which characteristically insists on dis- cussion of the work within a defined historical context, is thus engaged in denying a critical context to the art of the contemporary period - or at least not seeking to provide one. Richard Wollheim has also pointed out the curious divergence, in this respect, from other modes of discourse on art, which do not so exclusively cultivate the historical paradigm: Standardly we do not call the objective study of an art the history of that art.

We call it criticism. We talk of literary criticism, of musical criticism, of dance criticism. What then is a special feature of the visual arts, something which must be over and above the general way in which all the arts are connected with a tradition, and which has, allegedly, the consequence that, if we are to understand painting, or sculpture, or graphic art, we must reach an historical understanding of them?

Interpreting Contemporary Art : Stephen Bann :

I do not know, and, given the small progress that art-history has made in explaining the visual arts, I am inclined to think that the belief that there is such a feature is itself something that needs historical explanation: it is an historical accident. Wollheim, who is discussing not only Giovanni Bellini and Ingres but also De Kooning in his lectures on 'Painting as an Art', takes the view that we can discover things about a work by looking long and hard at it, and the transcription of these findings into words is not an essentially different process whether the work dates from a few years ago, or a few centuries.

Bryson, in his editorial remarks, points to a culture in which the different modes of writing about the visual arts are not so rigidly compartment- alized by institutional protocol. The French critic, whether or not he considers himself a historian, participates in a 'broader intellectual horizon' than his Anglo-Saxon counterpart. A distinction of this kind can appear too absolute. The case of Michael Fried is relevant, perhaps, as a counter-example.

Here is a writer and academic who began as a distinguished critic of contemporary art, in the tradition of Greenberg, and progressively deepened his historical know- ledge and his overall grasp of the theory of visual representation until Manet, David, Chardin, Courbet and many others were incorporated in a macro-historical argument which still maintained its relevance to the crucial critical distinctions of the early writings.

For both Fried and Damisch, one senses, the vivid response to the art of their own period is not in any way a dispensable luxury or a distraction from sober scholarship. It is a way of focusing on the genealogy of the present, since the contemporary work properly anatomized and scrutinized broadcasts its history no less surely than a living cell reveals the genetic code to an attentive scientist.

Yet in spite of the case of Fried, Bryson is right in giving the French phenomenon its due weight. It would be hard indeed to find in the English-speaking world the equivalent of a young art historian like Georges Didi-Huberman, whose remarkable and sustained work on the Christian tradition of representation has generated, by a process which seems only too gracefully appropriate, a special interest in some of the most rewarding of contemporary artists and an ability to demonstrate his creative ideas as a curator of exhibitions. In this collection, however, Yve-Alain Bois is able to demonstrate brilliantly that the investigation of the work of a contemporary artist is at the same time a deconstruction and a reconstruction of a complex historical process.

But he prefers to consider them as initiating a 'dialogue between the sphere of art and the world at large'. Like Damisch and Didi-Huberman both his colleagues, at one stage, in the group around the French magazine Macula , Bois recognizes that the criticism of art, at the present day, inevitably brings with it the history not merely of art, but of the history of art.

What he calls the 'crisis of the modernist paradigm' entails a fresh look at the dialectical relationship between the art work and the discourses which have been used to validate it historically. The work itself can be envisaged, pre-eminently, as a testing of the limits of 'museability'. So the French critical mode, as Bryson identifies it in Calligram, is an important paradigm for many of the contributors to this volume. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Paris has simply recovered, in the realm of writing on art, the hegemony which it once possessed as the pre- eminent centre of modernist painting.

In art as in life, interpretation matters

For one thing, the French approach if we may generalize in this way for a moment has already been integrated to a certain extent in the historical development of other critical schools. In Britain, for example, the immensely influential aesthetic criticism of Ruskin and Pater, whose effect can be gauged in the all-encompassing prose of Proust, met with a temporary reversal when critics of the next generation like Fry and Bell tried to purify their perceptions and strip them of any element extraneous to the recognition of pure form. Fry and Bell were accused of judging all art, and particularly that of their native country, by the standards of French Modernism.

Their successor, Adrian Stokes, can be seen as having effected an ambitious synthesis between the formalist approach, with its minute attention to painterly values and its cult of Cezanne, and an aesthetic criticism revivified and given new exegetic power by the incorporation of the concepts of Kleinian psychoanalysis.


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Richard Wollheim, whose questioning of the division between art history and criticism has already been endorsed here, owes much of the confidence with which he pursues a psychoanalytically based art criticism to the example of Stokes. The same could be said for our contributor David Carrier, who has not abandoned Stokes's cherished project of finding a resonant accord between the best contemporary work and the great paintings of the Renaissance tradition. Art criticism in the United States has had to rely, no doubt, on more shallow roots.


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  • The reason why none of our contributors would align themselves with the critical positions of Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg is probably a simple one. Both of these critics, in spite of their deep divergences of theory and tone, are inevitably spokesmen for the New York School at the time when it was laying claim to the same primacy in the world of contemporary art as Paris had effectively possessed from the s until the S.

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    Yet, criticism now has to be written - as all our contributors would surely agree - from a position where neither Paris nor New York can be seen as the unquestioned centre. This does not mean that centres, in the plural, no longer exist: the cultural world of Jannis Kounellis as explored here involves the implicit dialogue between centres, Rome and Byzantium, Rome and Vienna, as well as the effects of the artist's practical decision to make his home in the old imperial capital. But it does mean that some of the most interesting challenges for the contemporary critic emerge not at the centre, or centres, but at the margin.

    Wystan Curnow's essay on Colin McCahon, the New Zealand painter, is a comprehensive investigation of the issue of marginality, in its different nuances of significance, and it convincingly establishes McCahon's claim to be a modernist artist of real importance, rather than a provincial seen through the eyes of the 'New York viewer'. To confine this discussion to the competing claims of Paris and New York, or indeed to the reaction of the 'margins' against the 'centre', would, however, be a further mistake. As it happens, only one of these essays focuses on a European, that is to say non-British, artist: the Greek- born, Italian by adoption Jannis Kounellis.

    The significant development of German art in the last two decades is not directly noted. But what is noteworthy - and what forms another modification of the French paradigm - is the importance which German aesthetics and the German philosophical tradition have come to occupy in the critical approaches of a number of our contributors.

    It is perhaps no accident that, in the period when such artists as Beuys, Richter and Baselitz were acquiring their reputation, German writing on art was also being restored to a place which it had temporarily lost in the postwar period. Significant pointers from the s would be a series of translations, such as Rilke's essay on Rodin with an introduction by the British sculptor William Tucker , which was published in , and Gadamer's collected essays, The Relevance of the Beautiful, which appeared in the same year. Heidegger, were reflected and refracted in the aesthetic writings of jacques Derrida is no less significant, and argues against any facile polarization between the German and the French schools.

    Nevertheless, it is worth noting that not a few of our contributors have felt the need to return to German ideas at their source: David Reason invokes Hegel and Nietzsche as well as the Ftankfurt School in his characterization of the critic's role, while Michael Newman brings Heidegger as well as Wittgenstein into his assessment of the place of the art work in the world. Yve-Alain Bois uses Nietzsche's ideas on history, as well as the persuasive views of the art historian Alois Riegl on the cult of the monument, to explain how the abstract relief achieves a critical distance from the contemporary scene.

    These brief references will be enough to show that our contributors do not minimize the critic's task. Their aim is to integrate the art object within the wider horizons of historical and philosophical discourse. At the same time, David Reason is quite right to insist that criticism should be seen as 'a kind of tactical diversion whose goal is to exhaust words'. So a lot depends on the tactics; a lot depends on precisely where the diversion goes. It would be fair to say that most of these essays exhibit the structure, if not of a diversion, at least of a digression.

    The very incommensurability of a single work or group of works and a single piece of writing on that work comes starkly home to us - how could we ever expect to pay attention to a visual work for the same time as we take to read the piece of writing, and with the same mode of attention? Consequently, the strategy must be to organize our means of departing from the work, with the proviso that we are likely to be brought back to it, perhaps suddenly, so that we see its unexpected side.

    But this is not just an arbitrary process of defamiliarization. The point is that the work is always, already, implicated in the discourses which have constituted it. It is part of the discursive formation which is history of art and which comprises the lengthy evolution of the detached, framed picture from its original architectural placement or a comparable process in the case of sculpture, as Michael Newman points out in relation to Rilke's com- ments on Rodin. It is part of the discursive formation which is history of philosophy, in so far as the very process of perception has been mediated by philosophical categories, from Kant and Hegel to the phenomenolog- ists.

    The individual work is the thread which can elicit a whole structure of thought and feeling: the trick is to work such a slender connection without overloading it. It is up to the reader to judge how far this aim has been successful. It signals, as we have noted, a convergence between the concerns of art history and contemporary criticism which is not an isolated or unimportant phenomenon. And, perhaps as an inevitable result of this broader historical perspective, it betrays a certain irritation with the critical strategies which have most vociferously competed for attention over the last few years.

    David Carrier cites the fashionable view that 'art in the s [was] involved in a kind of endlessly prolonged Postmodern- ist end-game' and detects a certain complacency that lies behind this apparently bleak and radical view. Paul Smith refers to the tendency of Postmodern artists to offer not so much 'a hermeneutic puzzle to be solved' as 'a reified process of labour whose meaning might not exist at all as an object to be deciphered for its statement or message or position, but only as a set of relations'.

    His comparison between Salle and Lemieux, however, implies a rupture in this practice, with Lemieux returning to the 'specificity of the look' - 'bringing back the possibility of reverie and meditation to the spectator's experience of the art work'. In a similar way, Yve-Alain Bois excoriates the 'yuppie punk artists' of the last decade and the cynical ideology which supported them, putting forward Susan Smith's work as a 'guerilla archaeology' to combat the mindless slogans of apocalypse. All this amounts, if not to a programme, at least to a shared orientation.

    It can also be found in those contributors who are less centrally concerned with deflating the bubble of Postmodernism but whose choice of artist itself demonstrates a kindred stance: Marcelin Pleynet examining the career of one of the most long-lived and pro- ductive of American modernist painters and, moreover, giving special attention to his encounter with the 'otherness' of modernist writing; David Moos and Rainer Crone making a plea for the ontological self- sufficiency of painting, in connection with an American artist who has defied the repeated warnings of the 'death' of the genre David Carrier's chosen painter has had a similar ability to survive the repeated tolling of the funeral bell.

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