Perpetual Inventory Rosalind E Krauss
MIT Press, 2010, ISBN 0-262-01380-0, £22.95
This anthology of essays and reviews by the redoubtable American critic serves as sequel to the 1986 landmark, Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. In that book Krauss set out to demonstrate that criticism and art are interesting because of meanings revealed on consideration of their methods. The intention there was to allow insight from analysis of method to supersede the meaning of any value expressed in a critic’s poetic judgement of a particular work. The critic’s role as spirit guide for the private message of the art maker was much less important to Krauss than what the method of the critic might bring to the artwork as an open site of discursive potential.
Krauss’s model of criticism in that anthology was shaped by the tenets of structuralism and poststructuralism. In as much, her project was ambitiously contra the work of the then dominant historicist and formalist critics, figureheaded as they were by a Clement Greenberg fast becoming mythologised.
Perpetual Inventory carries forward that project, and makes the same point about the location of the interest of artworks. This is especially clear in Part III, ‘Art Criticism’, which comprises short essays written chiefly for Artforum ‘based on the assumption that good work would have to refer, recursively, to the medium in which it is made’. There is coincidence here with the logic of Greenberg, but Krauss’s poststructuralist DNA acts as speed-limiter, foreclosing high velocity telic travel towards art’s complete recursive self-possession.
Krauss’s approach finds favour with contemporary critics who relegate the idea of artwork as vehicle for private expression and who emphasise instead structural significance. Jorg Heiser in his recent Things That Matter in Contemporary Art declares that ‘with works of art it is less about what than how. Not about the story itself, but about what set the story in motion’.
Krauss, and Heiser, maintain that the work itself as the thing which sets stories in motion is of continued and crucial importance, at least as valuable as the poststructuralist methods employed by the critic. This position is evidenced by Krauss when she explains the motivation behind the book. ‘For the most part’, she writes, ‘Perpetual Inventory charts my conviction as a critic that the abandonment of the specific medium spells the death of serious art’. And for Heiser, similarly, ‘When someone says an artwork is about this or that… they’ve said next to nothing about its quality as a picture, object, concept, gesture or act.’
In Perpetual Inventory Krauss argues against the commonplace ‘post-medium’ attitude of neoliberal poststructuralists; those who wish the utter dissolution of aesthetic mediums, citing as they do the non-specificity of installation art as the epicentre of regime change. Such disregard for methods centuries and decades in the making is far too cavalier for Krauss, and many of the inclusions in this new publication recuperate the importance of what she calls the ‘technical supports’ of artworks. This critical tactic is persuasively advanced in the reprinted essay on William Kentridge from 2000, in which we come to know of animation as Kentridge’s particular technical support.
Of course, it is the case that many critics who have adopted poststructuralist methods of critique to assess the significance of the how of art have delivered in a voice which can only be heard by initiates—who would repeat, with no irony, that criticism must avoid at all costs a cosy formalism and uniform vocabulary. One risk inherent in Krauss’s technical Octoberist attentiveness to the technical supports of art is the substitution of one dominant and closed method of analysis with another, notwithstanding the latter’s manifesto of open reading.
English supercritic Terry Eagleton is on the left-hand side of the same page as Krauss, and might assist a caution here. Albeit from a slightly different perspective, Eagleton agrees with Krauss that criticism cannot just be the practice of divining poetic meaning: ‘It is arguable’, he wrote two years before Originality of the Avant-Garde, ‘that criticism was only ever significant when it engaged with more than literary issues’.
For Eagleton, concentration on the methods of criticism is a credible part of this grand project, for it reveals something in the details of the cultural foundations of the pontificator and the interlocutor—but the real trick of good criticism he implied is to see the structures of the technical supports reflected in both the poetic elements of the work and the wider social arena in which the work moves, or in which it is restricted.
Ken Neil is head of critical studies at Glasgow School of Art