Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 29, 2010
Janet Wolff The Aesthetics of Uncertainty New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 200 pp.; 20 ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780231140966)

With this welcome volume, Janet Wolff, author of a number of studies bringing an expanded sociological perspective to the study of the visual arts, delivers a salutary reminder of a fact often sensed but rarely articulated: the uncertain, the indirect, and the oblique are especially at home in our contemporary context of artistic creation and interpretation, and we would do well to investigate them for what they are in and of themselves, rather than seeing them merely as obstacles to be gotten beyond in pursuit of something more perceptually stable and, we too easily think, epistemologically worthy.

Wolff begins by building a bridge between the realms of moral and political philosophy and the study of the arts, suggesting that in a world of fluid identities, of illusory (and dangerous, as in the case of religious claims) certainties, and where the rhetoric of dogmatic rigidity too often gets misperceived as moral strength, we need to cultivate a newly articulated awareness of “the respectability of doubt” (4). Wolff mentions the regrettable consequences of such misperception in recent politics (it was actually a danger of which Aristotle warned in his ethical writings), and she sees the direct analogue operating in a mode of visual interpretation that would pursue un-self-questioningly the identification of context-transcending universal criteria for judgment. The deepest value of The Aesthetics of Uncertainty is that it shows, in nuanced detail, the circumstantially seated character of the criteria for interpretation and evaluation as they reside within particular contexts of artistic creation, presentation, and appreciation. And within those webs of relational interconnections (where artifact, thought, and word are indissolubly interwoven), experiences of doubt, reconsideration, indirection, marginality, incompleteness—in a word, uncertainty—emerge in critical and creative practices in ways that not only describe them, but in fact can in some cases be constitutive of them. Wolff shows this in admirably intricate readings of paintings by Gwen John, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Morris Louis, Ben Shahn, Cyril Reade, and, most impressively, R. B. Kitaj (she is particularly good on Kitaj’s portrait of the art historian Michael Podro titled The Jewish Rider [1984–85], and on his enigmatic If Not, Not [1975–76]). And in doing so, Wolff also shows that one settled presumption—that political art is by its nature under an obligation to disrupt, or indeed combat, any aesthetic pleasure taken in beauty—is in need of serious rethinking.

The taking of pleasure in beauty, Wolff argues, is not to reintroduce concepts of timeless beauty that would (were such a thing possible) answer the claim of universal value. In this part of her project, she embarks from Arthur Danto’s telling observation that the distinctive kind of beauty one finds in Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793) is “internal beauty”, i.e., beauty that is at once essential to the meaning of the work and that is (as is evident in this case) not antithetical to political action (18); Danto rightly sees a similar trait in Robert Motherwell’s Elegies for the Spanish Republic. The core of Wolff’s point here (and one that gives direction to the rest of the book) is just this: it is not invariably wrong (one needs to consider the intricacies of the particular case) “to provide aesthetic pleasure in the face of moral or political wrongs” (18). There is, it must be said, an issue lurking in the depths here that Wolff, in this concise study, does not address at the length required given the importance of the question to her overall project (but again to her credit she clearly sees it): is it always wrong to aestheticize that which is indisputably politically objectionable? (She has a nice phrase here about the danger of anesthetizing the viewer by aestheticizing the political.) Her answer is bracingly—if, again, too—brief: in particular cases it may simply be the undeniable fact of the case that the experience of beauty itself offers an otherwise unavailable opportunity for absorbed social or political reflection, and thus also the subsequent political action that would stem from such politically inflected encounters with visual beauty. In making this point, Wolff is extraordinarily sensitive to, and shows the way out of, the false dichotomy that would place contextual detail on one side and (what we think of as) genuine context-transcending legitimation of interpretation and judgment on the other. Wolff sees clearly that if we want such legitimation it will only be in, and not above, such contexts of creation and interpretation. Reasoned dialogue about artistic meaning and interpretation, for Wolff, indeed takes place exclusively within, and never above (at the altitude of meta-narratives concerning artistic truth, admissible content, the anti-aesthetic, etc.), the contexts of aesthetic inquiry.

But even these claims are too high above the ground for her practice-based sociological sensibility, and so she descends, specifically to the case of English art of the early twentieth century (primarily of the Bloomsbury group). Wolff is of course not alone in showing a heightened sensitivity to the force of inclusion and exclusion that an overarching narrative can exert, but she does display a distinctive ability to show this power in the finest detail. She also insightfully discusses the Franco-centric narrative developed of post-war modernism in New York (and primarily the Museum of Modern Art), and how that narrative relegated English art to the periphery. She also shows how the presumption in the United States that only modernist art can truly accommodate the deeper needs of modern experience quickly led to the prominence of those associated with the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz (e.g., Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove), the Precisionists (e.g., Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth), and a few select others (e.g., Stuart Davis). But given the power of that overarching master-narrative, even these few were still regarded as second-tier imitations or derivatives of the real thing in France, i.e., some American art of that period was good precisely because it reinforced an imported aesthetic. From this perspective—one that is working from the presupposition that a single set of uniform evaluative criteria will properly function across differences of time and place—the significant and real achievement of English art of that period will only look small, local, parochial, and (in its seemingly anti-modern insistence on the value of figuration) willfully detached from what the grand narrative instructs are the major movements of the era.

It is what Wolff does at precisely this juncture that is distinctive and provocative: she sees clearly that many—indeed a whole generation—upon recognizing the politically objectionable power of such narratives of art’s teleological development moved swiftly (and far too swiftly, she convincingly claims) to embrace a criteriological relativism conjoined to an ahistorical perspective protective of the autonomy of every style, phase, region, culture, and so forth. This led interpretation in the direction of a set of polemically defined presuppositions antithetical to those of transhistorical and transcontextual criteria; now each form of art could be seen on its own terms. Wolff realizes what was gained by that, but she also understands—again just here is where this book takes its major step—what was lost, i.e., the ability, the opportunity, to develop what she calls a “dialogical” aesthetic of a kind that, while maintaining a healthy respect for difference, speaks not only within but also across such divides. Considering the English art she has in focus here, one might say that those who espoused the aesthetics of relativism simply concluded that there are autonomous systems of value such that no comparison of English with French art would be so much as possible, much less valid, and any hierarchy of canon would only perpetuate the pernicious myth of transcontextual criteria.

But Wolff’s proposed dialogical model “would be able to go further than this and consider the possibilities of cross-cultural aesthetic evaluation” (38), and it would do so not by showing any deference to any contingently dominant aesthetic, but by initiating “dialogue based on recognition of the social production of that aesthetic,” and “the criteria for judgment would be made explicit, whether formal (composition, line and color, innovation), extrinsic (content), or more subjective (beauty, connotation, pleasure)” (38). One might reasonably wonder whether the phrase “more subjective” does more than she intends to reinstate the very relativist model she is explicitly moving beyond, but that is a quibble for another day. In any case, it is important to note here that her dialogic approach is anything but reductionist: it is certainly not (to which she is here again impressively sensitive) sociologically reductive, i.e., the means and circumstances of the production of the work, like the characteristics of its formal design or like its representational content or internal beauty, are an important part of the story to be told. No single aspect, on her view, constitutes the heart of the matter. And with this in mind, she now turns in a still more detailed way to the close readings of English artists showing, fascinatingly, how the critical language attending the last major exhibition of Bloomsbury painters still houses and perpetuates, in some cases quite subtly, the hierarchy of the MoMA meta-narrative and its positioning of English art, and how that painting, in and of itself, quietly but insistently fights back. Her writing on the School of London further makes the case: Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach are not only, not without significant loss, reducible to, “postwar inheritors of the central European traditions of, respectively, Neue Sachlichkeit and Expressionism” (116).

There is far too much detail in her discussion—absorbing, illuminating detail of a kind that makes her larger point and shows her dialogic approach in action—to adequately cover here, but no discussion of this book would be complete without at least a mention of her treatment of the issue above concerning the dangers of aestheticizing the political as they are worked out in connection with paintings of the Holocaust. Visual pleasure, it might too readily seem, negates atrocity (Paul Celan rejected his own poem “Death Fugue” because of this, and Sartre worried about painting a concentration camp as if it were a compote for the same reason). But Wolff is to an extent aligned, as she notes, with the much discussed “return to beauty” of the late twentieth century, but her consistency is with those who “got the point” (71) of the anti-aesthetic and understood why, in 1975, it seemed fitting for Laura Mulvey to proclaim that beauty must be destroyed; in other words, Wolff’s position has nothing of sentimental and naïve nostalgia in it. Wolff also sides with some helpful remarks made by Kathleen Marie Higgins (e.g., that political action has much to learn from beauty; that it allows a perspective of distance from our ordinary priorities and thus encourages reflection prior to action; that it inculcates a receptive condition within which we can discern and solidify our own moral and political insights), by Howard Caygill (on the distinction between beauty as a consolation and beauty as a mark of presence, a distinction that he develops from Walter Benjamin), and most of all by the artists that showed what these observations say (Louis, Shahn, and here again particularly, Kitaj). Wolff’s aesthetic of uncertainty, and what she resonantly calls an “allusive realism” (68), does not pretend that representational content is transparent, that matters are simpler than they are, that indirection, complexity, and layered nuance are all secondary to what might appear to be of first importance (where what that is will be predetermined by the meta-narrative in play), and that the connotations awakened by something as complex as a work of art will be merely subjective accretions that would only obscure what is mistakenly conceived to be the true work.

To my mind, the most powerful passage in the book—both powerful as part of her argument, and powerful as a moving description of a deep and layered work of art—is found in her words on Cyril Reade’s 1995 installation-sculpture, Minyan. Ten oak chairs, arranged in a circle, are placed on scraps of charred timber, all contained inside a tall circular fence of steel posts (cell bars?), with no exit and no respite from the erosion of the weather and from the inevitable decay of aging. A minyan, Wolff says, is a quorum of ten required by Jewish law for any public worship. Wolff sees in this remarkable work Jewish tradition, absence and loss (the chairs are empty, and hauntingly so), a sense of community, a record of exclusion and separation, inhumane imprisonment, remnants of ritual in juxtaposition to remnants of destruction (as she shows, these are simultaneously powerful positive and negative references to burning, as layered into one sculptural material); but she also sees the beauty of the work’s construction and of its materials, the elegance of its composition, the distinctive combination of a sense of gravity, of external constraint, and the defiant autonomy and dignity of the minyan, the beauty (and changing seasons) of its outdoor setting, an elegiac quality that does not stop at the consolatory, and much more. It is art of the Holocaust that a rich, and richly informed, dialogue brings to life, a dialogue that will never confuse the dogmatism of illusory certainty with true moral strength.

Garry L. Hagberg
James H. Ottaway Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics, Bard College