Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2004
David Carrier Rosalind Krauss and American Philisophical Art Criticism: From Formalism to Beyond Postmodernism Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. 144 pp. Cloth $95.00 (0275975207)
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In graduate school, a fellow student once told me, “Rosalind Krauss exists for you to react against.” In his recent book, David Carrier assumes a similar stance, portraying Krauss as a critic who is brilliant, provocative, and constantly refining her ideas in order to challenge accepted beliefs. Carrier works from the premise that Krauss’s rise in the post-Greenberg era parallels the rise of American philosophical art criticism, and that the story of both offers insight into the contemporary art world. He states clearly that it is not his intent to gossip about his subject; instead he relies solely on Krauss’s publications to support his thoughts. While this objective is noble, Carrier’s aim of understanding Krauss’s relationship to the art world nevertheless begs for greater consideration of biographical detail than he includes here.

According to Carrier, the philosophical art critic is both a historian and an aesthetician, someone who must straddle the divide between art-historical inquiry and philosophical practice, only to remain misunderstood by peers in both disciplines. Carrier convincingly argues that Krauss’s work, which has been attacked as critically inconsistent, actually reveals a willingness to shift theoretical perspectives; that shift constitutes the clear intellectual development of her beliefs about art. For Carrier, such critical “perspectivalism” is essential for the advancement of Krauss’s ideas, and her appropriation of varied frameworks stems from a philosophical understanding of changes in the nature of art itself. In choosing to focus on Krauss’s career, Carrier says he hopes to acknowledge her contribution to philosophical art criticism, which he argues has undeniably influenced the art world but remains relatively unknown among philosophers.

Carrier traces the development of Krauss’s ideas through four distinct stages of her career, each marked by major texts illustrating a specific critical approach. In chapter 1, he discusses her background as a student of Clement Greenberg. Although initially influenced by her mentor’s formalist modernist approach, Krauss, like other critics in the 1960s, attempted to develop a more politically relevant model of criticism, one that could better explain art that incorporated popular culture and social critique. Writing about October, the Marxist-leaning journal that Krauss helped found in 1976, Carrier rightly credits this shift in critical practice with introducing many of the key academic theories that are fundamental to art discourse today.

In chapter 2, Carrier looks at how Krauss’s books Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: Viking Press, 1977) and The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985) reveal her continued movement away from Greenbergian modernism. He begins this discussion after describing Krauss’s well-known argument with Greenberg over removing paint from David Smith’s sculptures in the artist’s estate. Carrier contends that, after their public dispute over Smith’s work, Krauss had to develop an alternative version of Greenberg’s modernism to assert her own authority. It was this need to separate herself from Greenberg’s theories that led Krauss to write Passages in Modern Sculpture. Carrier notes that although the book maintained the continuity of a modernist tradition, Krauss diverged from Greenberg’s formalist concerns by bringing in new questions about content and the communication of meaning through the public language of modern sculpture.

The anecdote about Smith’s sculptures brings us to one of the most fascinating aspects of Carrier’s study. Throughout his text, he points out that Krauss’s theoretical shifts have often been accompanied by radical breaks in her professional, personal, and critical loyalties. Greenberg remains a significant presence throughout Krauss’s career, functioning at different times as a mentor, a personal adversary, and, symbolically, an oedipal force that must be destroyed in order for her to establish her own critical identity.

The linguistic interests revealed in Passages of Modern Sculpture motivated Krauss in her next book, The Originality of the Avant-Garde, to abandon a historicist approach in favor of structural theory. Carrier suggests this move toward structuralism allowed Krauss to posit an ahistorical definition of art, which clearly severed her past allegiances and asserted the validity of her own critical approach. In his discussion of this book, Carrier once more finds that Krauss’s ideas develop from personal conflict: an argument with scholar Albert Elsen over the value of posthumous castings of Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Krauss, Carrier argues, recognized in their debate the opportunity to discuss the role of authenticity and originality in contemporary art, which led her to depart from modernism and to explore in her subsequent essays primary concerns of postmodernism in art.

In chapter 3, Carrier considers Krauss’s philosophical perspective on art to understand better her ideas about judging art in the postmodern era. He initiates this discussion by comparing Krauss’s beliefs with the theoretical positions of Greenberg and Arthur C. Danto. Krauss is distinguished here for rejecting the notion of artistic essence and concluding that art’s qualities change over time. Carrier also highlights fundamental differences between the approach of art critics and philosophers. This analysis reveals the role of rivalry, dispute, and contentious debate in the art world. Carrier praises Krauss’s ability to use such conflict toward a productive end:

What art critic is not frustrated by disagreement with peers? But for Krauss, disagreement provides the natural starting point for her own positive discussion…. I admire Krauss’s capacity to use creatively what might otherwise seem an inevitable human limitation. Few important intellectuals are as economical…. Making art and writing involves rivalry with one’s master, and in this struggle, the weight of tradition is heavy…. But no one else has pressed these concerns so far in art criticism as Krauss. (72)

Carrier’s remarks further demonstrate that in order to affect how art is understood in culture, the philosophical art critic must convince others that his or her ideas are valid. Human conflict thus becomes an inherent aspect of philosophical art criticism, in clear contrast to the abstract reflections of a philosopher on a given topic. Carrier explains the difference:

Philosophers think it possible to argue about even partisan political matters in impersonal ways. It is the art critic’s aim is [sic] to convince others to see art in their way. Philosophers are concerned with reality, and critics with matters of appearance. The art critic must wrestle with precursors, and so, Krauss’s argument implies, cannot be objective. (82)

Carrier contends that the historicist viewpoint that Krauss assumed in her philosophy of art necessitated revising the modernist narrative to accommodate her ideas. She succeeded in this task with her next book, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), which acknowledged Surrealism’s influence on modern art, an influence typically omitted (repressed) in previous historical accounts. Carrier explains how Krauss used psychological theories associated with Surrealist practice to psychologize ideas first explored in The Originality of the Avant-Garde. In adopting this approach, Krauss inscribed her own ideas into a (new) history of modernism.

In his final chapters, Carrier considers how Krauss continued to develop her ideas based on psychological experience and understanding, as well as her parallel interest in the linguistics and semiotic analysis of Cubism. Because he finds that the former line of thought has greater implications for contemporary art practice, he focuses largely on Krauss’s recent collaboration with Yves-Alain Bois in developing a theory of the formless in art, founded on Georges Bataille’s concept of l’informe. Carrier argues that although this theory offers a clear alternative to modernist formalism and is important to understanding current trends in art, it remains distanced from philosophical practice because it assumes a dramatically different view of human experience, based in psychoanalytical knowledge, which recognizes no distinctions between representation and reality.

Reflecting on the evolution of Krauss’s critical practice leads Carrier to his final thoughts on her intellectual position and philosophical contributions. He concludes that Krauss is an aesthete who remains most interested in the formal and philosophical questions of art. Here Carrier responds to a question he first poses in the book’s preface: Can such a stand be maintained in a postmodernist era, in which purely aesthetic values seem obsolete? Carrier thinks not. He finds that although Krauss’s ability to accept radical changes in societal conventions defining art, she maintains a formalist detachment, which ultimately limits her investigations and findings to the aesthetic realm.

Carrier’s study is limited by his failure to consider more of his subject’s biography. Although he addresses the human interactions informing Krauss’s professional practice, he neglects the important coincidence of her rise to prominence just as feminist concerns were becoming more widespread in art and academic discourse. Krauss notably resisted aligning herself with artists and writers who openly advocated a feminist agenda. This professional decision is revealed most clearly through its significant absence in Krauss’s publications on theory and therefore does not fall within the scope of Carrier’s investigation. Nevertheless, more personal accounts about Krauss frequently mention her estrangement from other notable female voices of the period. Krauss’s antifeminist position is important to Carrier’s case: it reiterates that her interests were aesthetic, not political, and it situates her definitively within a philosophical tradition that has been dominated by men. Probing this distinction in Krauss’s intellectual life might yield greater understanding of the rivalries, conflicts, and personal relationships that have shaped her contribution, as Carrier shows. Inquiry into the impact of gender could provide additional insight not only into Krauss’s career, but also into how art-critical practice and philosophical art criticism might evolve in the future.

Virginia B. Spivey
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of North Carolina, Asheville

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