Beyond the more obviously symbolic overtones of 1984, the year may be remembered in the an world as that in which a debate, resulting from the loss of public funding for American art critics, revealed deep fis ures and contradictions in contemporarv an criticism as a whole.


Beyond the more obviously symbolic overtones of 1984, the year

may be remembered in the an world as that in which a debate, resulting from the loss of public funding for American art critics, revealed deep fis ures and contradictions in contemporarv an criticism as a whole. Many traditional critics -writers for The 1\’ew York Times. Newsweek, and New York magazine. for example-publicly confessed to doubts about the intellectual wonh of criticism owing to it5 supplemental position, subservient to the primary creative activity of the a,1is1. At the same tirnc, ncoconscrvative critics seized the opportunity to insist, once again. that contemporary criticism is too political and that rnos1 art critics arc “opposed to just about every policy of the United tates except the one that put money in their own pockets.” 1 In this paradoxical climate-where some see an criticism as having too much power while others find it impotent­ it is hardly surprising that many observers, especially in the growing audience for an, should find this a period of panicular crisis in art criticism.

The picture we get-of a connicted, two-sided debate-is 1101 altogether ac­ curate, however. For if we examine closely the apparent contradiction, we find that both arguments stem from the same, fundamentally modernist, premise: that criticism could :ind should be value-free. In other words, the single argu­ ment is that an criticism fulfills its purpose best when it keeps its place, when it confines itself to the elucidation and evaluation of high art. In this way, an and a,1 criticism form a mutually supportive closed circuit, cloistered from the exigencies of ocial reality. By denying criticism an interest or leverage in social, economic, or political structures (particularly those in which art circulates), these arguments act as a kind of moral smokescreen, self-righteously rejecting alternate forms of critici rn, but also masking the real political service their own criticism provides both through noninterference and through the promotion of prevailing values. Any purported failure of criticism then is only its failure 10 conform to these standards and expectations of modernist an criticism.

Thi supposedly apolitical stance of traditional or modernist a,1 criticism, Ll1en, is in fact political in what it represses. On Ll·,e other hand, in much recent writing, the political and social function of all kinds of criticism is acknowl-

Art After


What’s Wrong With This Picture1

An Introduction BRIA WALLIS

Hans Haacke. Taking Stock /unfinish ‘ 205.7 x ed) 19x B3-l9B4. 011 on17.8 cm). canvas, i n a(Photo· wooden gold-leaf 5 x 81 x (241.3· Zind frame, 9man remont; r

IF courtesy John Weber Gallery)

1. Hilton Kramer, “Criticism endowed: reflections on o debacle,” 77,e New Criterion

2, no. 3 (1 ovembcr 1983): ‘I.

Introduction xi




explor-ed edrred and cntJCS · · ·1 1a· ve a ctivel)’ the


use of criticism as a positive means 0 ‘ • · . . . . . . . ·

for social cnt1que an d c I 1 miue . o · It is this a vowed social respons1hrl11y for art and

. . · . . or the essays . 111 this volume.

. . . . . th at 1· 1es at ti 1e hemt . Tl11s 1nt.rrve11110111st cntJC1sm . . . .

cntJcrs. . m, as rt · · rs o rt e n called , repr-esents a sh arp break w1d1 thr prnnanly . . . .

and idealist pretentions or modernrst cnt1c1srn. formalist

. un d erstan dm g or contemporary ait and criticism is necessarily bound upAny . ·

� ·th a co�m “d tI·on or modernism , for modern1s111 .1s the cultural standard . . 1s. which even today governs our conception or what. art Modernism was the which its great dream of indust1ial capitalism, an idealistic ideology placrd faith ·

m progress and sought to create a new order. A self-consciously experimental . . movement covering well over a century, modernism encompasses a ple111tude

or positions. In the present context, ho ever, 111oc�ernisrn is wken w refer not w _ to the terms or this historical program 111 its d1vers11y, 11or 1s 1t seen 111 terms of its original historical context, but rather as the aestheticized 111od(‘rnism which has becidert at our doorstep: modernism as an institution. Today modernism is exhausted; its once provocative or outrageous products lie entombed in the cultural institutions they once threatened and of


ended. Picasso. Joyce, Law­ rence, Brecht, Pollock, and Saitre are our contempornry classics. The rapid assimilation or these once-transgressive modernists, the reduction of their work to academic studies, has at the same time made newer art forms a11d activities, which do not. conform to mainstream 1hodernist canons, ·seem 111argi11al or unimportant. Now, not only is the avam-garde no longer radical, though its forms continue to he reproduced and simulated for an overextended art mar­ ket, but in a final irony, modernism ·has become the official culture, the aesthetic haven or neoconservativcs.

2· Clement Crecnberg, “Modernist Painting,” Arts Yearbook, no. 4 (1961): 48.

Brian Wallls xii

such as that o.f the abstract ..expressionists, or later tJiat of Morris.Louis and Kenneth 1oland.

In this way, modernism was const.antly bound to its own formally reduc- . Live system. Transgression or critique could take place only within the rcrms of artistic creation already established. Stylistic change in this medium-spccifi(.­ system was ba ed primarily on technical i1inovation, and progress was identi­

.fied with advancements in technique which increased the degree of pure. aesthetic pleasure. Factors determining the nature and causes of culwral pro­ duction were limited. in criticism. to specifically artistic ones. Modernism mar­ ginalized the issue of artistic motivations or interests outside the art systcrn, denying that artworks were themselves bound by a web of connections LO specific historical and social contexts. Indeed, in the aesthetic economy of modernism. the amount of pure pleasure provided by a work of art was often gauged by how effectively rhat work separated itself from the ‘·real.. world LO provide an imaginary space of ideal reflection. One principal attirudr. which the essays in this book contest. is this tendency of modernism to posit artworks as the product of an autonomous. disengaged form of labor and consumption, freed from normal social commerce by virtue of their status as objects designed exclusively for visual pleasure.

The central purpose of art and art criticism since the early 1960s has been the dismantling of the monolythic myth of modernism and the dissolution of its oppressive progression of great ideas and great masters. As the leading cultural products of late modernism-abstract expressionism, the nouveau roman, existentialism, avant-garde film, New Criticism-were gradually set aside, they were replaced by ai1 forms and critical models which specifically countered the ideals of modernism. Pop a11., for instance, deliberately accepted as its subject matter the low-culture, tabloid images rejected disdainfully by modernisri ; similarly, minimalism exaggerated hyperbolically the formalist codes of late


modernism, creating spare but “theatrical” works. Subsequent artistic production, tJ1roughout the late 1960s and 1970s, defiamly deviated from the clearly defined aesthetic categories of modernism. There were signifi­ cant crossovers between art and music, film and performance, sculpture and architecture, painting and popular culture. This gradual shift or mutation in the rigidly structured forms of modernist art has led not to another style, but to a fullv transformed conception of a1t founded on alternate critical premises.

Today our understanding of modernist art is shaped by the systematic ·critical theory which was applied t0 its history by Clement c�eenberg and his followers. In a series or eloquent and highly persuasive essays published from the 1930s to the 1960s, Greenberg argued that the terms or modernist art practice were objectively verifiable, that they conformed to ce11.ain immutable laws. In this sense he·saw modernism as the rulfillment or the promise of the Enlightenment in which rational determinations governed the parceling of all disciplines, all fields or knowledge, into discrete areas of competence-tJ1is applied to science, philosophy, history, as well as art. In all fields the mark of achievement, the attainment of high quality, was determined by self-criticism, selr-definition, and elimination of elements from otJier disciplines. As Green­ berg wrote, “The essence of modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize· the discipline itself-not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in ·its area of competence.” 2

In painting, for example, the inherent qualities or the medium-identified by Greenberg as_ color, natness, edge, scale-formed the basis for determinations of quality. Characteristics considered extrinsic, particularly literary or theatrical qualities such as narrative,


realism, description subject matter or drama were reg rded as detrimental and constituted i�purities. Logi�lly, Cr�nberg favored an art or expression and form, one exemplified by abstract painting,

Indigenous u·ansformations in American ait and criticism in the 1970s were fueled by the introduction of new u·anslations of European critical theory, particularly the works of the Frankfurt School, Roland Barthes, Michel- Fou­ cault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Cominental feminist theory, and British film. theory. This extensive body of and theoretical work, responding to the breakdown of modernist discourse in litera11• theo1)’, psychoanalysis, and the social sciences, shifted attention away from the mas­ terworks toward the operations of modernism itself, and from the established divisions or traditional culture toward an imerdisciplinary examination of the dynamics of representation. Specifically, this work studied the function of cultural myths in representation, the construction of representation in social systems,.and tJie perpetuation and function of these syste(lls through represen­ tation. In film studies, for example, the critique or tJ1e Hollywood film system

Introduction xiii




courses are governed by the biases of any critical process and, in assuming the authority to enact distinctions, initiate their own limitations and exclusions based on particular interests.

There are of course many forms of representation; art forms a single, highly visible example. In the wildest sense, representations are those artificial (though seemingly immutable) constructions through which we apprehend the world: conceptual representations such as images, languages, definitions; which include and construct more social representations such as race and gender. Although such constuctions often depend on a material form in the real world, representations constantly are posed as natural “facts” and their misl�ding plenitude obscures our apprehension of reality. Our access to reality is mediated by a gauze of representation. What is fragile about this oppressive contract is that the representational model we employ (and which cannot be avoided) is based on a critical selectivity-defining, naming, ordering, classify­ ing, cataloguing. categorizing-1hat is just as arbitrary as that in Borges’ ency­ clopedia. Two implications immediately arise: first, that the founding act of representation involves an assumption of authority in the process of segregation, accumulation. selection, and confinement; and second, that critical theOI)’ might provide a key to understanding and countering certain negative effects of representation. For criticism addresses the fact that while the rational surface of representation-the name or image-is always calm and whole, it covers the act of representing which necessarily involves a violent decontextualization. 3 In Boland Banhcs’ words, ‘·Hepresentations are formations, but they are also deformations.”

Considered in social terms, representation stands for the interests of power. Consciously or unconsciously, all institutionalized forms of representa­ tion certify corresponding institutions of power. As Louis Althusser demon­ su·ated, this power may be encoded subliminally in the iconography of communication, as well as in the anonymous evaluations which consu-uct the “ideological state apparatuses” of the family, religion, law, culture, and nation­ ality. Typical cultural representations, such as newspaper photographs, films, advertisements, popular fiction, and art, carry such ideologically charged mes­ sages. Advertisements, for example, depict pa1ticular mythologies or stereotyp­ ical ideals of “tl1e good life.” And while no one would deny that advertisements purposefully embody the ideological projections of the particular class whose interests they perpetuate, the point is that all cultural representations function this way, including representations of gender, class, and race. Such designa­ tions are inevitably hierarchical in the manner by which they privilege one element over another, in the ways they direct and dominate. Therefore, it is not that representations possess an inherent ideological content, but that they carry out an ideological function in determining the production of meaning.

If we acknowledge this system of inclusion and exclusion, and reject the implication (which Borges’ stor)’ lampoons) that any system of representation can be successfully unifying and totalizing, tl1en it follows that there may exist

3. Edward Said, “In the Shadow of the West,” wedge, nos. 7-8 (Winter-Spring

1985}: 4.




Brian Wallis xiv

by the British film journal Screen (exemplified by Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), followed precisely these lines.

By focusing on the wider issue of representation (of which a11 fom1s a part), artists and critics sought to, first, undercut the authority of certain dominant representations (especially as they emanated from the media through photography), and, second, to begin to construct representations which would be less confining and oppressive (in part by providing a space for the viewer, in pa11 through si ng ifying its own position and affiliations). This critique of representation forms the centerpiece of an alliance of theoretical and critical positions which have examined and influenced the a11 of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to underlying the restructuring of much recent art, issues of representation in society provide the focus for the critical approaches in this book. Therefore, a somewha1 greater analysis of the function of repre­ sentation is warranted at this point.

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage. all the familiar landmarks of my thought-our thought. the thought that bears the stamp of our age an.d our geographx-breaking up all the ordered smfaces and aft lite planes with which we are accustomed lo lame the wild prof11sio11 of e.risti11g things. and continuing long afterwards to disturb and tltreoten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same one! the Other. ‘nns possoge quole.s a ‘certain Chinese encyclopeclio’ in which it is written that ·animols are divided into: (o) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tome, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens. (j) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the pre.sent classification, (r) frenzied, (;) innumerable, (k) drawn with a veryfine came/hair brush, ({) et cetera, (m) having just broken the waler pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. ‘In the wonderment of tlus loxonom_y, the thing we apprehend in one great leop, the tlzing that, bx means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibilit)’ of thinking that.

-Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

In his introduction to The Order of Things in 1966, Michel Foucault identified Borges’ storyaof the Chinese encyclopedia as an all ory which pointedly sug­_ gests the lrmrts of representation. The irony of Borges’


allegory centers on his demonstration that such classifications, such representations-the “landmarks of our thought”-are themselves fictional and contradictory constructions. The name, the genre, the category, the image, are all ways of circumscribing brandies of knowledge by initially isolating ce11ain elements of similitude and

�aking tha� the criteria for differentiation. Foucault’s laughter underscores hrs recogmt10n that the cultural codes we live by, the orders of discourse we follow, all manners of representation-are not natural and secure but are arbitrW1′. and historically determined; they are, therefore, subject t� critique _ and rev1s1on. Moreover, being critically formulated, such systems and dis-




within any system not only margins which may serve as sites for ·esist, nce, but _ ‘. �also whole fields or communities of interest wluch mrght be mhab1ted and

inviaorated. The recognition that the critique of representation necessarily wkes as i: object those types of cultural constructions (images, ideolog cs, sy bols)! m with which art traditionally deals, suggests that a,1 and artmakmg 1111gln be one effective site for such ·critical intervention. From this point of view, 1he issue is less how art criticism can best serve art than how a rt can serve as a fruitful realm for critical and theoretical activity. This gives 10 art criticism a responsibility and a political potential it is often denied (what the anis1 \’ictor Burgin refers to as “the politics of representation,” as opposed lo 1he “repre­ sentation of politics”). Fu11her, it shows the way to a more general critical practice which, surrounding and playing off art, might place in broader circu­ lation an important body of issues and ideas.

Rather than simply ridiculing the ideal of determinate meaning. theen, Foucault’s laughter underscores the potential of cultural criticism to challenge the fixed not.ions of representation. This new criticism would reexamine repre­ sentation as a discourse, analyzing 1he way it produces and enforces knowledge (the institutions and operations which ensure its circulation), making clear how such knowledge is legitimated, and ini1ia1.i11g a less exclusive anJ more gener­ ative means for interpreting the products of our culture. There is no possibility of operating outside the confinements of representation; rt11hcr-as i uggestcd in much of the criticism in this volume-die strategy is to work against such systems from within. to create new possibilities. \ This book, then, comprises a kind of argument. In contras1 to the narrowly stylistic and ostensibly apolitical theories of modernist criticism, the essays in this book insist on a variety of rigorous, interdisciplinary approaches, using economic, psychoanalytic, literary, and sociological theories to establish specific connections between art and social opera1jons. This argument accepts as a historical determinant the waning validity of modernism as a radical endeavor and proposes in its wake a more heterogeneous set of options and strategies to operate as a “working definition” of what a11 can be and how it can function critically. (How art criticism functions in this expanded field of art activity forms the subtext of this argument.) The main lines of this polemic emerge d1rough clusters of essays which specifically address one another or each con­ tribute to the dialogue on a particular issue.

Ii I\

Three ve11, different essays in the first section of the book raise three fundamental formal issues which signal the break with modernist aesthetics: the so-called “death of the author” (Borges); the importance of originality and innovation in the construction of the “aura,” desirability, and value of the modernist art work (Krauss); and the displacement of the production of mean­ ing from the artist to the reception or “completion” of the work by the viewer (Acker). Discounting these former linchpins of aesthetic production has in a certain sense liberated contemporary artists from modernist constraints. Yet, at the same time, there persist vestiges of modernist practice and ideology, in many respects anachronistic, which complicate the critical issues. The terms of this struggle between the still-dominant modernism and its critical opposition

are charted in the various short histories of painting (Hughes), film (Hober­ man), photography (Solomon-G-Odeau), and criticism (Kelly), contained in the chapter entitled “Dismantling Modernism.”+

Current, somewhat frantic,· attempts by the a,1 market lo salvage the commercial products of the collapsed modernist project arc epitomized by the present, peculiarly vaunted status of painting as a preferred medium. Benjamin Buchloh sees in this revival of figurative expressionistic painting an echo of 1he reactionary rcvi,,al of traditional craftsmanship and subject maller in European painting of the 1920s. Donald Kuspil and Thomas Lawson, on the other hand, both argue for the continued validity of painting as a radical endeavor, though their arguments proceed along different paths. Kuspit contends that 1ew Ger­ man Painting retains a radical capacity to serve as a public exorcism of personal or national trauma. Law on. accepting the central, privileged position of paint­ ing in the arl system. argues for it as the most visible and cxpediem site for critical intervention.

As a cultural term. pos1modernism has been used to describe everything from a broad cultural shift (coinciding with postindustrialism) lo new directions in rock music. ince in a broad sense postmodernist critical practices underlie all the essays in this book. the section ·’Theorizing Postmodernism” focuses rad1cr narrowh- on the original definitions of that Lenn in relation lo recent an. To a great extent these definitions depend on a literary source, panicularly Roland Barlhcs’ theory of the text and, more broadly, poststructuralism. Hal Foster’s essay provides an excellent introduction to the ways in which several an critics used these theories 10 interpret the shifting attitudes of artists in the late 1970s. Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens, in pa11icular, argue 1hal works of a,1 function like 1cxts in tha1 they facilita1e the active response of the viewer. As with allegorical fragment . the viewer must fill in, add lo, build upon suggestive clemems in the text supplying extraneous historical, personal, and social rcrcrences, rather than, as in modernism, transporting himself to the special world and time of the artist’s original production.

This tendency 10 read all cultural products as “texts” has led to consid­ erations of the structure and function of representation outside of high art. Elements of popular culture-anathema to modernist critics such as Greenberg -are regarded as equally fruitful objects of critical investigation as painting and sculpture. Thus Fredric Jameson’s investigations of the subgenrcs of science fiction and detective stories as bearers of contemporary ideologies, or Jonathan Crary’s recognition in General Hospital of a digitized interchangeability of characters, do more d1an describe 1he mechanisms of the media, they attempt to deconstruct and expose their contradictor)’ codes.

Jean Baudrillard has suggested that these media-derived represenwtions arc more real to us today than reality. Or, at least, that certain forms of imager)’ and narrative strategies in the media, having no basis in fact, have warped our definition of and access to material reality. Today no action, no feeling, no

i. “Dismantling modernism” echoes the title of Allan Sckula’s seminal essay, “Dis­

mantling Modernism, Reinventing Document a’)’ ( ‘otcs on the Politics of Hepresentation),”

Ma.isadwsells Review 19, no. 4 (Winter 1978): 859-883.

Brlaa Wallis xvi Introduction xvii



thought we own has not been preformed by a �housand movies, commercials, television sitcoms, or magazine articles. Our society, supersaturated with mfor­ mation and images, not only has no need for individuality, it no longer owns such a concept.

As the technical means for producing or distributing mass-media repre­ sentations becomes increasingly remote from the individual, the need for a critical understanding of the network and institutions which produce such images becomes even more important. In this respect Walter Benjamin’s essay provides a still-timely model for how the artist miglit funCLion politically through changing the forms of artistic production, particularly by effective use of preexisting mass media forms of photojournalism, promotion. and distribu­ tion. As Benjamin establishes a direct, functional relationship between the context and distribution of photographic images and the interests of capital, Martha Rosier extends this project in her own essay examining the contempo­ rary a11 world institutions which govern the production, critical assessment, and circulation of photographs as art. Lucy Lippard adopts a more ovenly militant activist response to specific social and political situations, especially in relation to overtly unequal distributions of social and political power.

A rigorous questioning of such hierarchical condition is central to current feminist theory and to its contribution to the analysis of the social function of representations. Today feminist critiques of representation and power address a number of issues which have not been examined elsewhere with equal force or clarity: t:he repositioning of the subject in relation to power (Acker, Foucault, Mulvey); the ability to reread and question inherited knowledge (Mulvey, Penley); the understanding that power is knowledge and knowledge power (Linker, Foucault); and ultimately the rejection of logic and representation themselves as demonstrably patriarchal concepts (Acker, Linker).

Inasmuch as any anthology is retrospective in character, this book is in a productive way backward-looking, providing a summing-up of several, by now established directions in recent criticism. This approach, however, inevi­ tably harbors its own exclusions and foreshortens consideration of issues which only now appear on the horizon. The exclusions are of great concern not only for what has been left out, but’ also for what has not been written (a serious study of black culture in relation to the institutionalized art world, for instance) -or what will never be written given present institutional practices. With these limitations in mind, we can make further demands on future criticism: to explore the specific economic motivations and impingements on the institutions of the art world-museums, galleries, publications, critics themselves; to examine the methods by which specific racial, social, and ethnic groups are marginalized, their interests and images stereotyped or suppressed; to address particular audiences for art and criticism and establish new means of distribu­ tions to meet such audiences; to consider how certain issues elude representa­ tion or are assimilated into conventional modes of representation (images of work, poverty, history, nature, for example); and, finally, given the invisible im�rialism of global information networks, to retain access to the apparatus of image production, but also to insist on access to criticism of the system itself.

Brian Wallis xviii


Image / Author / Critique

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