Perpetual Inventory by Rosalind E. Krauss

by Richard Elliott

28 April 2010


Wrestling with Rosalind Krauss

cover art

Perpetual Inventory

Rosalind E. Krauss

(MIT Press)
US: Mar 2010

Rosalind Krauss, a professor at Columbia University for the past two decades, has been a prominent art critic since the mid-‘60s, when she joined the staff at Artforum. In 1976 she left that journal to found October magazine with fellow critic Annette Michelson. Both women, along with the other members of the editorial board, also oversee MIT’s October Books imprint, in which Perpetual Inventory appears.

“Perpetual inventory” is what Krauss says a critic must constantly be engaged in, a taking-stock of one’s previous work, changes in opinion, and critical (re)assessments. But the phrase also summons the idea of cataloging and compiling: inventory not as process but as thing. This book thus collects a variety of Krauss’s work—mostly previously published, but also some unpublished pieces—from the 1960s to the 2000s. As an anthology, it acts as a sequel to an earlier collection, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985).

The constant theme of this work, for Krauss, is an attempt to deal with the claims made for what she calls “the post-medium condition”. By this is meant the condition in which art finds itself following the “victory” (an unfortunate one, In Krauss’ opinion) of conceptual art and other contemporary practices that have severed the meaning of art from the specificity of the medium in which it is created. When artistic practice concerns itself more with the projection of ideas about what it could do rather than the actual manifestation of its ideas, so the argument goes, it loses its vital originality, becoming instead just one more set of vague evasions of master narratives.

In the most explicit statement of her desire to critique this process, Krauss wishes to “wrestle new mediums to the mat of specificity”. What she means by this wrestling is not entirely clear to begin with because the early stages of the book, where we might reasonably expect such a manifesto to be outlined, are teasing rather than explanatory. A number of the pieces placed in the first part of the book are either frustratingly short, and thus never fully deliver on their arguments, or written in a rather intimidating style. Here, Krauss’s desire to wrestle the work she analyses to the mat of specificity seems to be let down by her own writing. Such a writing would require a greater clarity of expression; too often, Krauss’s writing seems marred by its own opaqueness.

Yet I hesitate before asserting this further, because I am equally suspicious of the tendency to dismiss “difficult” writing for the sake of its complexity or the demands it makes on the reader. I am especially suspicious of such dismissals when they are accompanied by an attack on theory that suggests theory has nothing to do with or say to everyday life. Dismissal walks hand in hand with the desire to dumb down.

So, if Krauss is not to be dismissed because of her difficulty, she should perhaps be appraised on the extent to which she engages her readers with her chosen subjects. This, really, is where some of the early entries are disappointing. There is just not enough here to encourage engagement. For us to really have a sense of her response to the post-medium condition, we would need more information about what “post-medium” artists were doing and what they, and contemporary art critics, were saying. Krauss assumes we know all this already, that we’ve read the criticism in question, both hers and that of others. Perhaps it’s a fair assumption, but she can’t truly believe it given that she offers little nudges by way of the introductions to the book’s various sections; if we need these contextual reminders, perhaps we need more explanation.

Some of the pieces are texts that originally accompanied exhibitions and so function as attempts to find connections between works bound together by a specific event. Because the attempt at connection is thus tied to the contingencies of the event, the transposition of the pieces is not always successful. One initially wonders what they are contributing to the book other than the population of the inventory. On these occasions, the specificity of and relationships between the mediums involved (exhibition catalogs, art journal essays, introductions to other books) might have been given greater consideration. What it means for the reader is that the pieces really need to be read in isolation so that the expectations and raisons d’être set up by one do not lead to confusion on beginning the next.

Once this lesson is absorbed, things improve dramatically. Readers can then enjoy the sheer variety of the work that Krauss considers. A piece on video art from the inaugural issue of October describes the work of Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and Joan Jonas, while looking to Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan for theories in a prescient move that calls to mind Laura Mulvey’s contemporaneous work on cinema and gaze. Serra, as sculptor, is returned to in two other essays. An essay on the animated films of William Kentridge serves as a fascinating introduction to this South African artist, while also offering brilliant insights into animation itself. “Michel, Bataille et Moi” argues for an approach to the work of Joan Miró that acknowledges the importance of sexual imagery in the Catalan artist’s work rather than one that merely reiterates its “childlike” or “spontaneous” qualities.

In “The Motivation of the Sign”, Krauss uses a long running debate about Picasso’s and Braque’s respective roles in the founding of cubism to engage in a discussion of semiotics and Bakhtinian theory. It’s a fascinating exercise and one that reveals Krauss as a constant recruiter of new allies in her exploration of the specificity of the medium (here, Picasso’s use of collage by way of Mallarmé‘s and Apollinaire’s poetry and Debussy’s music).

By the end of its sixth and final section—entitled “The Subject of the Sign”—it is clear that Perpetual Inventory should be approached in the manner of the published works of one of its strongest influences, Roland Barthes. Although Barthes published monographs, he is best known in the Anglophone world as a brilliant, poetic essayist whose work is available in a number of wonderful collections. These collections arguably work best as perpetual inventories to be visited as and when necessary rather than read in one go. Krauss’s collection will happily fulfill a similar role.

Krauss, it might be argued, is not dealing with the everyday but rather trading in the cultural capital of the rarified worlds of contemporary art and art criticism. Not for her, it might be said, the bringing to bear of cultural and critical theory on the arena of the popular. And yet, what Krauss demands of the art she analyses is that it open itself to a scrutiny that it can respond to and not merely evade. This is a demand for honesty and for a straight-talking that is thoroughly grounded in the everyday. The authenticity of art, for Krauss, resides in its ability to be true to its medium and, though she never explicitly states this, therefore true to the people. Perhaps this is the reason that some of the strongest pieces here are those written about works which are either literally grounded in the earth or more figuratively grounded in the experience of cultural trauma.

Reading Krauss in this more positive light suggests that the density of her prose be read not, to return to my earlier point, as an inability to clarify, but rather as another set of demands made on the reader: the demand for rigorous reading, for critical thought, a counterdemand for evidence for the arguments Krauss herself is making. Such a reading would be underlined by noting Krauss’s obvious debt to Barthes, who, in his “Death of the Author”, famously placed the burden and responsibility of meaning-making on the reader. This burden—also, we should note, this great liberating possibility—is that of the critic.

Krauss is writing about herself as much as she is writing about William Kentridge or Christian Marclay or Joan Miró. During an excellent essay on Cy Twombly, in which she sides with Barthes’s interpretation of the artist’s work against “all the others”, she asks: “To what degree is it our responsibility to make an independent reading of an artist’s work, acknowledging that while an artist may a good interpreter of his or her own production, it does not follow that he or she will be its best one?”

The rigor Krauss demands of her artists and her readers is one she also demands of herself. Hence the inter-chapter commentaries/reminiscences, the jacket photograph of a young Krauss at her typewriter, and the placing of a quotation of Clement Greenberg on the rear of the book: “Spare me smart Jewish girls with their typewriters”. Whether Krauss has lived up to the demands she has placed on herself should, then, rightfully be determined by her readers and critics.

On the evidence of this collection, it would seem that Krauss is at her strongest when she is giving writerly readings of her subjects’ work rather than when she is asserting herself as author. Barthes, who understood this predicament profoundly, never wanted to do away with authors; rather, he wanted the author’s uniqueness to come through in the writing, to manifest itself in the text such that the text became all and the author became, if not invisible, then at least the most translucent of veils beyond which the text could shine in all the glory of its medium.

Barthes’s own writing was, subsequently, luminous, moving from an early rigor to a late beauty which spoke its truth not via the clear exposition of theories, but in the lucid flash of fragments. Jorge Luis Borges, whom it is always interesting to read alongside Barthes, said on more than one occasion that he wished to be remembered as a reader rather than a writer. He was also attuned to the medium-like nature of language itself, noting, with regard to translation, how the English and Spanish languages were different ways of organizing reality.

Krauss, who has experience of the translucency of translation (she translated Barthes’s lecture course on The Neutral, the introduction to which is included in this collection), reaches the transcendent authoriality of such readers when her perpetual inventory retains its focus on the ways that different artistic mediums organize reality. And this book does indeed offer up evidence for an insistence on the text and the reader’s involvement with the text.

At the culmination of these essays it becomes clear that Krauss has offered an inventory of herself in her readings, even as she forsakes biographical readings of other artists. Given this, perhaps the shortage of information at the beginning of the book is a necessary disorientation, a reminder to focus on the text rather than the author. The only problem with this, as artists and authors know all too well, is that the practice of dissemination does not do away with the necessity of or desire for an authorial signature.

Perpetual Inventory


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