It is accepted wisdom in the art world today that our species is no longer capable of originality. We’re washed up and have been for about a century. You’d think artists would rebel, like scientists who were told there’s nothing left to discover, and try to prove it wrong. However, to do so would be to condemn yourself as hopelessly antiquated and irrelevant.
But do we know where the idea that originality is dead came from, and is such a damning idea itself immune to challenges? The idea was popularized in the art world by the critic, Rosalind Krauss, and is so sacred and accepted that few dare question it. To do so is to come up against a fire-breathing dragon, a real man-eater. I finally stumbled upon the dragon’s den, decided to confidently stride inside, and found the dragon was just a stuffed carcass. The whole death of originality is bogus, propped up with poor arguments and logical fallacies. Here I will dismember the carcass of Rosalind Krauss’s infamous argument against originality, thus bringing us back to the truth that we humans always have been, and always will be capable of originality, which is why the world is already filled with so much outstanding art. And no, there never was a cut off point after which we lost the ability to do something new and innovative.
These critical theorists are basically saying that we don’t have an imagination. Why else would we not be able to paint or do something new? You will notice how delicately Rosalind Krauss operates to remove the imagination from art, and then declare it imagination-less, without ever using those words. It doesn’t even occur to her to mention the imagination in connection with originality. Or if it did, she didn’t dare. Here she will argue that we never made anything genuinely new, but only ever made copies. Unless we’re a parasite alien species that have taken over the human race, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, then who the hell originated all the art prior to the last century?
Most curiously, in her attempt to say that the avant-garde was not truly original, she is positing herself as at the vanguard of the truly original postmodernism.
Abstruse Language Does Not Equal Profundity
So much of the attack on art is a war of supremacy waged on visual language by written language that this phenomenon needs to be noticed up front.
Let’s not confuse facility with language with profundity of message. Philosophers and critics spend their lives reading and writing, and their sometimes deliberately impenetrable texts do not necessarily signal deep thought. That they are good at writing, and better at it than visual artists in general is a matter of course and entirely predictable. Obscurantist writing may be used to hide a lack of anything solid and meaningful to say to the general public. While such writing is a demonstration of intelligence via virtuoso flourishes wrought in text, the intelligence in question may not have discovered anything really useful to share. The ornate language is in such cases the equivalent of bad music played really loud to lend it power it doesn’t have.
Such wordsmiths use language as to ensnare visual artists in a contextual web in which artists are devalued and wordsmiths are elevated. It’s not entirely unlike a native speaker of English deliberately using sophisticated vocabulary when talking to someone whose first language isn’t English, in order to impress and destabilize them. It reminds me of Mr. Bean showing off his ability to bend all his limbs to their maximal extent in front of someone in a body cast. When it comes to postmodernism and art, we witness the triumph of written/spoken language over visual language. Whoever has the most elaborate and confusing argument wins, and its painters versus wordsmiths in the arena of wordsmiths only. Painters lost.
Postmodern philosophers were first and foremost manipulators of language in an era when manipulators of language themselves declared that the manipulation of language was the creation of reality itself, and there was no reality outside of language. Already ensconced in ivory towers, theorists built pedestals on their roofs, which they alighted on in order to position themselves as demigods changing the course of history by twisting words and inventing new vocabulary for tedious varieties of already extant ideas. Any idea, no matter how bankrupt, became persuasive if wrapped in enough tortuously convoluted language.
I’m reminded of a movie, Leolo, in which there are two brothers who are harassed by a neighborhood bully. One of the brothers decides to take up weightlifting in order to never be subjected to bullying again. He pours cement into buckets to make dumbbells. He straps weights to his feet and lifts them rhythmically while eating dinners, so that no time is lost that can be devoted to securing him against the existential threat of being humiliated by a bully. He becomes massive.
Finally the bully shows up and the encounter we have all been waiting for, sweet vengeance, is at hand. The bully looks scrawnier than ever. He says, “Joe Weider has been good to you”, flexes his own minuscule bicep which the heroic brother looks at with derision, and then expertly punches the hero in the face. Weightlifting, it turns out, didn’t prepare the brother for fighting. Similarly, the verbal acrobatics of postmodernism can sometimes be shot down with a simple observation from the layman or artist. However, as people have already been persuaded by the postmodernists that objectivity is a form of subjectivity, and all is text, this easy defeat of postmodern rhetoric is not believed. Unlike the weightlifter whose defeat was inarguable, the postmodernist has already protected himself with the impenetrable force-field that the inarguable is always arguable, and the best arguer wins according to his own rules. The lie, if argued more elaborately and confusingly is heralded as the truth.
Enter Roaland E. Krauss, word-lifter extraordinaire. Krauss is credited with promoting obscurantist French postmodern thinkers to the art world, and ushering in the reign of postmodernism as the dominant paradigm from which art would henceforward be created and evaluated. Much of her authority, I suspect, comes from people throwing their hands up in the air when confronted with her prose, and just assuming they were bewildered by a superior, almost alien intelligence, and not just someone using language they aren’t familiar with. Here is an example of Krauss writing from her seminal 1979 article, Sculpture in the Expanded Field:
The expansion to which I am referring is called a Klein group when employed mathematically and has various other designations, among them the Piaget group, when used by structuralists involved in mapping operations within the human sciences.* By means of this logical expansion a set of binaries is transformed into a quaternary field which both mirrors the original opposition and at the same time opens it. It becomes a logically expanded field which looks like this:
There’s a footnote explaining this in ways that are not really helpful. None of this appears to go beyond what she’d already said fairly clearly, which is that sculpture had become something or anything which was not a landscape, but was in a landscape, and was not a building, but was in front of it. I suspect this could all be said in a way a child could understand it, if the intent was to make the idea accessible rather than to make it grandiose. What she is saying doesn’t appear to be any more sophisticated than observing that a boy is a person, but not a girl. But, if we can’t understand her graph, or more likely don’t want to invest the time to unravel it, we are expected to defer to the brilliance of Krauss, and meekly accept her conclusions must therefore be true, seeing as she’s a super genius
Her graph is merely the inclusion of a mathematical model into a verbal sphere in order to seem to out-think us by presenting something we can’t easily understand. The same effect can be achieved by introducing Chinese text, which may say something obvious, but if you don’t speak Chinese is impossible to comprehend. She hasn’t added anything to Duchamp’s claim that anything placed in a gallery or museum is art. We could say that anything pressed to vinyl and played on a phonograph is music (at least if it is presumed by the author to be music). The painfully obvious is thus tortured into the indecipherably complex, in the same way that “the cat is pretty” becomes mysterious and profound when presented as: 那只猫很漂亮.
The probable unintentional trick of postmodern thought is to make rather obvious observations into unfathomable articulations in order for them to be less vulnerable, or invulnerable to counter argument. If it turns out that the cat is ugly, it’s much harder to make that argument if your argument that it is pretty is 那只猫很漂亮.
Noam Chomsky, considered America’s greatest linguist in addition to being an infamous political analyst and critic of predatory capitalism, has boldly declared that he can’t understand postmodernist theory, and when he can it isn’t saying anything new or profound. When postmodernism is put in layman’s terms, it becomes as easy to refute as the muscled boy is to punch in the nose, once one overcomes the fear of his imposing, over-inflated physique.
What happens if we filter Rosaland Krauss’ speak into everyday English? Toward the end of her essay on contemporary sculpture, she states:
“I have been insisting that the expanded field of postmodernism occurs at a specific moment in the recent history of art. It is a historical event with a determinant structure. It seems to me extremely important to map that structure and that is what I have begun to do here.”
“The expanded field of postmodernism” = open-ended. “Occurs at a specific moment in the recent history of art” = recently. “A historical event with a determinant structure” = happened. “It seems to me extremely important” = ! “Map that structure” = talk about it. “What I have begun to do here” = I’m saying. Put it all together and we have something like: “I said art has recently become more open-ended!”
The Originality of the Avant Garde, and Other Modernist Myths
Krauss’s article, The Originality of the Avant Garde, and Other Modernist Myths is the source of much of the criticism of the ideas of originality and authenticity that define contemporary art theory. Krauss argues that reproducability undermines originality, and gives as an example Rodin’s Gates of Hell sculptures which were cast into bronze from plaster casts after his death. If his works can be made without his presence, she argues, than this master of originality isn’t original at all! By logical extension, if Rodin isn’t original, neither is Van Gogh, or any other artist. End of story.
But she has only proved that a replica of an original art object is not itself an original art object, which we already knew to begin with. There’s a sleight of hand in which original, meaning a one-of-a-kind art object, is used synonymously with originality. Thus, if there is no one-of-a-kind object, there is no originality. This is simply not the case.
I am always surprised when the most esteemed thinkers didn’t bother to check their ideas by applying them to another example. By her logic books of Shakespeare’s poetry and plays printed after his death prove that there was no originality in his writing the poetry and plays in the first place. Applied to music, the Beatles were not original because people could buy their music via records, which were mass-produced copies. How can a vinyl disc be original music? Easy, the disc is just the way in which the original music is shared. The originality is in the act of creation, the vision, and not the way it is shared. Reproducability is irrelevant.
Krauss further uses a classic straw-man argument to destroy the notion of originality. She claims that by originality Modern artists meant absolute originality, as in not being influenced by anything that went before:
“More than a rejection or dissolution of the past, avant-garde originality is conceived as a literal origin, a beginning from ground zero, a birth.”
Really? So, modern artists thought their art was the equivalent of immaculate conception? That only reminds me of the most ridiculous manifestos, such as by the futurist Marinetti, which I’ve made fun of before. If she wants to argue that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti is a bit of a nutter, she and I can have a cup of tea and biscuits over it. I quote myself from 2013:
If you go back and look at some of the artists’ manifestos of the last century, they are as revolutionary and bleak as the communist ones. When artist F.T. Marinetti declared in his Futurist Manifesto of 1909 that “Here is the very first sunrise on earth! Nothing equals the splendor of its red sword which strikes for the first time in our millennial darkness,” he probably never imagined that such words would be mirrored by the rhetoric of communist tyrants endeavoring to sweep away the past, such as Pol Pot‘s project to clean-slate Cambodia by starting over at the year zero. Such efforts to declare everything that went before worthless, and to plow forward in a new dawn are actually just reflections of an inability to appreciate the complexity and humanity of what went before, kind of like the teenager assuming his or her parents never understood sexual desire.
Significantly, she sites the same comically overstated manifesto, and boldly concludes: “The claims of the avant-garde are precisely these claims to originality.” If that were true, I’d be on her side here, but I think it only applies to the most exaggerated rhetoric issued by avant-garde artists. She’s merely taken the most outrageous manifesto of the last century and then insisted it applies across the board to all modern art.
Did Krauss bother to find out if any other than the most extreme rhetoricians argued this? Let me look up the most obvious example I can think of. I’ll see what Jackson Pollock has to say. Let me Google, Jackson Pollock Interview. One second later, voila. Here’s an interview from 1950:
William Wright: Well, Mr. Pollock, can you tell us how modern art came into being?
Jackson Pollock: …It’s a part of a long tradition dating back with Cezanne, up through the cubists, the post-cubists, to the painting being done today.
W.W.: Then, it’s definitely a product of evolution?
So, Jackson Pollock, perhaps the most famous modernist/avant garde artist of the 20th century absolutely does NOT say his work is a beginning from ground zero, a birth, but rather evolved out of a long tradition going back to Cezanne. Here originality is not the impossible straw-man that Krauss set up, but rather innovation rendered while standing on the shoulders of giants.
She’s simply got to have some evidence to back up her claims. She next argues that avant-garde artists keep reinventing the wheel and calling it novel, or as she put it: “For those for whom art begins in a kind of originary purity, the grid was emblematic of the sheer disinterestedness of the work of art, its absolute purposelessness, from which it derived the promise of its autonomy.” Artists were reinventing not the wheel, but the grid, and for some very uninspiring reasons, apparently.
She goes on:
“Perhaps it is because of this sense of a beginning, a fresh start, a ground zero, that artist after artist has taken up the grid as the medium within which to work, always taking it up as though he were just discovering it, as though the origin he had found by peeling back layer after layer of representation to come at last to this schematized reduction, this graph-paper ground, were his origin, and his finding it an act of originality. Waves of abstract artists “discover” the grid; part of its structure one could say is that in its revelatory character it is always a new, a unique discovery”.
So, in layman’s terms, she argues that when an artist uses squares he thinks he’s the first one in history to reduce imagery to its simplest form. This example, like the Rodin copies, and the Marinetti manifesto, is low-hanging fruit. If we can find someone who actually believes that, we can easily prove them wrong because the grid has been used for thousands of years, and in that case not only is that artist unoriginal, all artists are unoriginal. She makes precisely this argument, in many more words:
We have already seen that the avant-garde artist above all claims originality as his right—his birthright, so to speak. With his own self as the origin of his work, that production will have the same uniqueness as he; the condition of his own singularity will guarantee the originality of what he makes. Having given himself this warrant, he goes on, in the example we are looking at, to enact his originality in the creation of grids. Yet as we have seen, not only is he—artist x, y, or z—not the inventor of the grid, but no one can claim this patent: the copyright expired sometime in antiquity and for many centuries this figure has been in the public domain.
Krauss’s examples strike me as exceptions which she insists are the rule. I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with her examples when presented at face value, but completely disagreeing with the conclusions she makes based on those examples. In this instance, it’s like saying that Madonna lip-synced a live performance [true], therefore no pop singer could sing live [False: Elton John did]. But before we even condemn one artist to thinking using a square is original, as in the first time anyone had done it, I need to see some evidence.
In most instances artists who use a square or grid are simply “going back to the drawing board” and trying to start from the basics.
Krauss doesn’t supply a persuasive quote, but at the time of her article there was no Google. I can back her claim with the posturings of Agnes Martin, who is among the grid painters Krauss mentions. In an interview in 2002 Martin described her inspiration for her first painting:
I was sitting and thinking about innocence. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of innocence of trees. I thought it was quite easy to be innocent if you’re a tree. And into my mind there came a grid, you know. Lines this way and lines that way. And I thought, my goodness, am I supposed to paint that? Nobody will ever think it’s a painting. But at least it’s nonobjective. Completely abstract. So I painted it six feet square. And then I offered it to the Museum of Modern Art, and they took it. My very first painting. There’s no indication or hint about the material world in my painting. No, I don’t paint about the world. Everybody else is painting about the world. That’s enough.
Clearly Martin was in the right place at the right time. How many artists can even fantasize about offering their hundredth painting to MOMA and it being accepted? This was a time to jump on the abstract bandwagon and ride it all the way up onto the sand. Martin believed she was doing something nobody else was doing. She also believed in a kind of essential originality. In a lecture in 1987 she pronounced:
By questioning your own mind, it is possible to have absolutely original thoughts. To have an absolutely original point of view. What you want to find out is what you want and what you do not want. When you give up what you do not want, you take a move forward in life. Your conditioning has taught you to identify with others, their emotions and their needs. I urge you to look to yourself. In our convention, it is particularly difficult for women, but still it has to be done. The purpose of life is to know your true, unconditioned self….
Before we fully denounce Martin, whose work I’ve never been interested in, and whose pronouncements seem quite exceptional, I’d want to look more closely at what she’s saying. In the quote above, original is paired with unconditioned. Here, original is the tabula rasa, or blank slate, and doesn’t necessarily indicate the first time anyone has ever done something. Martin claims to have invented her own religion as well, which she then followed. These are spiritual ideas of originality as in origin as in untarnished. Not only is the meaning of original different, but Martin is a bit of an oddball in not only formulating her own religion, but having the audacity to announce it to the world. She does not typify most artists, most avant-garde artists, or even a slim minority of them. Thus, while I would tentatively agree with Krauss’s argument as applies to Martin, with some caveats (such as what is meant here by original) I would not agree that it, by logical extension, applies to anyone else.
I agree with some of Krauss’ arguments in this area, and have made similar ones myself. I once wrote an article about 10 Abstract Expressionists and the Signature Styles that Killed them. I’d thought it was odd the way artists ended up having a monopoly on this or that technique of abstract painting, after which nobody else could use their technique, and which they also became stuck using only. De Kooning got in early and cornered vigorous brushwork; Pollock used drips; Frankenthaller used stains; Jenkins used spills; Still used patches; Rothko used soft rectangles, and so on. Krauss expresses the same reservation in her description of the career of a grid painter:
Structurally, logically, axiomatically, the grid can only be repeated. And, with an act of repetition or replication as the “original” occasion of its usage within the experience of a given artist, the extended life of the grid in the unfolding progression of his work will be one of still more repetition, as the artist engages in repeated acts of self-imitation. That so many generations of twentieth century artists should have maneuvered themselves into this particular position of paradox—where they are condemned to repeating, as if by compulsion, the logically fraudulent original—is truly compelling.
In other words, once you make your mark as the original grid painter, you’re stuck making grids until you drop. I see this as the curse of the signature style. An artist becomes like a scientist, who once she makes a breakthrough, cannot move on to make another, but is condemned to repeat the same experiment with slight variations in the Twilight Zone. Where I differ from Krauss here is that I don’t agree that because grid painters cannot sustain originality while endlessly repeating themselves, I myself am incapable of any originality, and by originality I mean what Pollock meant, which is adding to or expanding on an already existing phenomenon. I don’t accept that if absolute, uninfluenced, originality doesn’t exist that we can’t, as a species, do anything that hasn’t already been done before. This is as true for art as it is for music, or science.
Sometimes Krauss’s prose is so convoluted and laden with jargon that, as I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, one is tempted to just throw in the towel and agree out of frustration. I don’t ask that you attempt to understand the following, but do read it through once to savor what a load of pretentious postmodern art speak it is:
All those terms – singularity, authenticity, uniqueness, originality, original—depend on the originary moment of which this surface is both the empirical and the semiological instance. If modernism’s domain of pleasure is the space of auto-referentiality, this pleasure dome is erected on the semiological possibility of the pictorial sign as nonrepresentational and nontransparent, so that the signified becomes the redundant condition of a reified signifier. But from our perspective, the one from which we see that the signifier cannot be reified; that its objecthood, its quiddity, is only a fiction; that every signifier is itself the transparent signified of an already-given decision to carve it out as the vehicle of a sign—from this perspective there is no opacity, but only a transparency that opens onto a dizzying fall into a bottomless system of reduplication.
My vocabulary is not bad, but, I had to look up quiddity. It means essence. She could have just said that. What I gain from this paragraph is a lethal does of hypocrisy, in that the author of this infinitely self-referential, gilded gobbledygook is condemning artists for a “dizzying fall into a bottomless system of reduplication”. That characterization applies better to her own text than to any modernist painting I’ve ever seen.
Here Krauss is trying to impress us by imitating the deliberately obtuse writing of the postmodernist philosophers. If you can’t pin down what Krauss said, don’t feel bad, because, as I mentioned before, neither can one of the worlds greatest linguists. This is word salad. I am not going to accept that humans are incapable of originality because of word salad. I reject that I can’t counter her logic because her writing is so convoluted I can’t make sense of it. I mean, come on: the signified becomes the redundant condition of a reified signifier.
I know enough about art history to know a lot of what she’s talking about here is the canvas not as a window into an imaginary world, but as a flat surface. That is a modernist innovation usually credited to Edouard Manet. You can see this development clearly in Pollocks’ paintings, where you can look into them, but you are more inclined to look at them, at an obviously painted surface. There is no illusion of paint representing something else. So, when Krauss writes “the originary moment of which this surface is both the empirical and the semiological instance” I think she is referring to the idea that a painting is both an image and a physical object at the same time, or more gratuitously elaborate, the moment when one sees a painting as both these things at the same time. Auto-referentiality means self-referential. Semiological means symbolic. Reified means making something abstract concrete. A signifier is something like a word, and not what the word addresses, which is the signified. You need a dictionary of linguistics and a lot of curiosity and patience to unravel this rhetoric. It’s one thing to slap one or two buzzwords in a paragraph, in which case we can still get the gist of it, but each additional semiological or auto-referentiality makes the sentences exponentially harder to follow.
Part of her reason for her use of all this jargon is that she slipped some foregone postmodern conclusions in there to bolster her argument – such as that, “the signifier cannot be reified; that its objecthood, its quiddity, is only a fiction”. That gibberish refers to the postmodern tenant that the word (signifier) does not directly refer to a concrete (reified) thing (quiddity/objecthood) outside of itself: in short, there is no reality outside of language. And because postmodernism does not, according to its own logic, refer to anything outside of realities honed in language, you can’t espouse postmodernism other than in postmodernist speak. Further, because postmodernism is philosophy, or theory, it is eminently debatable. Krauss doesn’t present the arguments here for those postmodernist conclusions, but presents them as givens. And they are also givens which are at odds with science (science does not maintain that there is no reality outside of language). It is not very different from someone peppering their text with something like: One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. [Psalm 27:4]. She has included something akin to quasi-religious, pseudo-philosophical conclusions expressed in the language of a religion.
Are we going to find that generations of artists have been told they cannot hope to do anything original merely because Rosalind Krauss, and affiliated theorists, BELIEVED it was impossible, and that belief was couched in conclusions that are incompatible with science? I’m afraid that’s going to be the case.
As I said, I’m not letting her get away with writing a paragraph in metaphoric Chinese as a way to outsmart us. I’m going to defer to Noam Chomsky and dismiss her excessive jargon as unintelligible mash.
Here’s what he had to say about the writing of the postmodernists:
“There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of ‘theory’ that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.”
I’ll spell it out for him: (b) is for bullshit. He continues:
As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out … I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc.
That last sentence of his applies directly to the material I quoted from Krauss. But I’m not going to dismiss Krauss’s arguments merely because she resorted to trying to impress and overwhelm us with specialist vocabulary. I would like to more thoroughly demolish the ideas on which artists’ imaginations have been sterilized.
Krauss wasn’t saying much she hadn’t said already in simpler English. She just distilled it into abstracted, abstruse nonsense, and threw in some quasi-religious postmodern beliefs. I do know, as I said before, it’s about the flat picture plane; that grids are both illusionist and assert flatness; that she believes that the word doesn’t refer to any reality outside of itself; and that there is no real, concrete thing. On top of it she adds that the grid-artists are just repeating themselves while calling each new repetition original. If I missed something, it’s her fault for being so damned pretentious and hiding behind three syllable words. The paragraph was not written to be intelligible, but as a way for her to position herself as a postmodern philosopher in her own right. She ends up, however, merely parroting them by speaking in a new language forged in an alternate vocabulary and tortured grammar.
Krauss devotes several paragraphs to deconstructing Monet. She points out that while people believe that Monet painted his canvases in one sitting, in the open air, he actually worked on several canvases at once, and worked and reworked them in the studio. His originality, she contends, was dependent on the false perception that he made rough marks in immediate reaction to whatever landscape he was observing. She calls this singularity, and if said singularity did not transpire, than the work was not original as promised.
There are two outstanding problems with her thesis here. One is that Monet had worked spontaneously in the open air in the beginning, before adopting more elaborate and successful practices, and could have continued to do so if that was the most important aspect of his art (as opposed to the look of the finished work). Secondly, any serious fan of Monet knows he painted on multiple canvases, which, contrary to her argument, allowed for spontaneous brushwork in direct observation of light. As the light changed, he moved to the next canvas that depicted that time of day, and so on. His fans also know he painted indoors as well, and worked or retouched outdoor scenes indoors, and they still consider his works original.
The important thing was the effect of the result, which was a manifestation of the artist’s vision, and not the process by which it was made. The artist found multiple techniques and solutions, which included using his memory, and making decisions based on aesthetics. Only an ideologue would value his paintings primarily for the process rather than the resultant images and what they communicate. It was always more important that the painting succeeded in capturing or conveying an impression, than that it was the result of an impression. It is the artist’s vision which is comparatively novel, which is all anyone other than a loon on the fringe ever meant original to mean.
Krauss then goes on to champion one of the most dismally boring bodies of work in art history: Sherrie Levine’s re-photographs of photographs from famous photographers, such as Ed Weston. Levine’s work ostensibly deconstructs modernist artists, via critical attack, by revealing they are themselves mere copies, because they borrow poses and compositions from previous art.
Here again we have celebrated thinkers not bothering to apply their little bit of logic to some other example to see if it falls apart, which if they bothered to try, it would. Using Levine’s logic, I could argue that the novels of James Joyce (or Toni Morrison, if I weren’t a politically correct, postmodern solipsist) were influenced by the novels that went before them, and hence were copies, in which case by merely retyping them, I would prove that my own copy was just as good as theirs. In so doing I would credit myself with demolishing any of their claims to having anything of their own to express in their entire lives. Similarly, I could photocopy any musical score and make a similar point. Those practices don’t invalidate anything but themselves.
This is bullshit one-upsmanship of the highest order. Both Levine and Krauss are guilty of the most lamentable and amateur logical blunders, in this case cherry picking evidence to support a foregone conclusion. We need only look at Vincent Van Gogh, who despite his short life was a contemporary of Monet, to see the fallacy of their thinking. Van Gogh, like many artists past and present, openly copied the works of other artists he admired in order to learn from them, including Millet, Delacroix, Daumier, Doré, and even Japanese prints. He credited them and fully acknowledged his indebtedness to them.
Not only is Van Gogh as famous an artist as can be (in which case he would be hard to not take into consideration), anyone who knows anything about his work knows he made lots of copies, and this process helped him to find his own voice and make original images. To make painted copies from which one can learn a great deal is entirely different from taking a photo of a photo, which does not require any of the skills or experience of the original photographer. Because an artist, such as Van Gogh, inarguably made copies and was influenced by other artists –both his contemporaries (Gauguin, Seurat, Pissarro…) and old masters – it doesn’t mean that his other work was no different, and he had no originality. Thus Levine’s attack on modern art, and presumed success in proving they did nothing but plagiarize, because that’s all that she did, is a mere self-indictment showing how far she falls below an artist like Van Gogh.
You may have noticed a trend at one extreme of contemporary art, going back to Duchamp, which is the practice of congratulating yourself as the superior artist because you ostensibly outsmarted painters. The goal is to be smarter, but definitely not to show this higher intelligence in the same medium as painters, but rather in another, unrelated one. Curiously, it only works with visual artists. You can’t just outsmart any other medium with a gesture.
Van Gogh learned from other artists, integrated what he learned, and forged his own original works. It doesn’t follow that because Levine merely copied another artist in the most superficial way, that all artists only do the same. She merely made stale props for a cynically boring and fallacious argument.
But that’s not how Krauss sees it. Levine is a prime example of postmodern art that:
act[s] now to void the basic propositions of modernism, to liquidate them by exposing their fictitious condition. It is thus from a strange new perspective that we look back on the modernist origin and watch it splintering into endless replication.
We are supposed to accept that Ed Weston is unoriginal because Sherrie Levine is unoriginal. When I read art critics, one of my tests is to find out what they actually like. I’m sometimes shocked at how bad their tastes are. In the case of Krauss, Sherrie Levine is about the most dismal artist she could choose as the paragon of what she believes art should be.
Please notice that the importance (and originality) of Levine’s work is entirely encapsulated within deligitimizing someone else’s work, and that it offers you nothing instead. In this tradition of art you get a toilet (OK, urinal), canned shit, an enlarged generically copied Brillo Box, an exquisitely reproduced giant metallic balloon dog, a photograph of a photograph. Each is holding up a kind of nothing. It’s taunting. It’s like a kid having a tantrum. My shit in a can is better than your art! Hey, that can of soup is better than your sculpture! The F’ing toilet is better looking than your art! If you blew up that helium balloon, it would automatically be better than your art! If I put a vacuum cleaner in a glass case it would sell better than your art! If I put a dead fish in a fish tank it would sell better than your art!
Why do they have to be so insulting? Why not make their own kind of art if they don’t like painting. Some do, and do it well. I am a fan of artists such as Roxy Paine or Chris Burden who make captivating work with unconventional means. Chris made the equivalent of the world’s best Hot Wheels for adults, with cars zooming at over 100 mph (or was it 200).
Roxy Paine does all sorts of experimental things including growing things, contraptions that make things, and giant wooden copies of natural environments. I don’t even need to know anything about the piece in the photo below to know I already love it, even just as sculpture.
Even if Burden and Paine owe their careers to the lineage of Duchamp, they did something much more with it. They are offering an alternative to painting, which, I think is fully legitimate. But any legitimacy granted to art merely for ostensibly delegitimizing other art is bankrupt on delivery. To the degree it succeeds, it only succeeds above something illegitimate.
Additionally notice how aggressive Krauss’s language is. She speaks of “critical attack” “voiding” “exposing”, “liquidating” and “splintering”. What a heroic defeat of modernism on the battle field by super geniuses Krauss and Levine. By a mere flick of the wrist, they have, like Neo after he learns to manipulate the Matrix, leveled armies of modern artists while ushering in a strange new perspective. That may be the perspective of relativism, and self-delusion, also known as BS.
Krauss does not appear, for all she purports herself to be, a lover of much art prior to the last half century. She seems to be against it, and in this essay we don’t find out what is so bad about modern, avant-garde artists having the delusion, to the degree it is one, that they were creating original art.
And thus ends the piece of writing that is credited with hammering the nails in the coffin of originality. I am disappointed. I would have hoped for a more worthy adversary, or at least one that was colorful, entertaining, or introduced even a glimmer of humor. This was a sterile, spurious, and mean-spirited attack on genuine art and artists. Am I allowed to feel saddened by this? I see it as pathetic, but I’m saddened not because of that, rather because so much hostility would be directed at artists, and it’s no surprise that the arguments used to support the assault were bankrupt. We had cherry-picking evidence; a central straw-man argument; a sleight of hand; treating highly debatable, anti-science theory as unassailable truth; and posturing with impenetrably pretentious prose.
While it’s true that the artists such as the Abstract Expressionists had some over-inflated rhetoric, at least they had some optimism that they could, with their own volition, create something unique and worthwhile. We got a lot of wonderful paintings out of it. But this brand of over-inflated rhetoric gives us photos of photos in order to shit on art. Folks, this is bullshit, and a rancid pasture pastry at that. I find it anti-art, anti-artist, and anti-human.
There is hope. You see the world through eyes only you have the privilege of seeing through. With some perseverance almost any artistic expression you choose to engage with will inevitably have some stain of your unique vantage on the world. If you pick up a guitar and start singing songs, I’m pretty sure you’ll eventually produce a nugget that is distinctly your own. Just as with science, so it is with art, it takes a while to get out of the corral of the overly familiar and well established, but it certainly can and is being done. Those who say it is impossible are bitter cynics who, not surprisingly, only kick down other people’s sand castles, and do not build their own.
The imagination survives, of course, because it is an intrinsic part of our nature. As long as we have imagination, we can forge new things. This is so painfully obvious that the only way to counter it is with an argument that is obscure, incomprehensible, and ultimately a lie.
Why is it that what is now regarded as the greatest art of the 20th century – a lineage from Duchamp’s urinal, to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, to Koon’s Ballon Dog, to Sherrie Levine’s photos of photos – denies our potential for greatness? Why do we adulate someone who declares “I am a machine” and asserts that there was nothing beneath the surface of his paintings? Why is an object that was not even intended as art – a urinal no less – held by so many as the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century?
That’s some seriously cynical, self-defeating shit, which, nevertheless, positions itself as the truly original, zero ground, birth, and sword thrust in a new red dawn.
Even if the old avant-garde overstated its case, two wrongs don’t make a right, and the latter wrong isn’t even self-aware enough to notice its guilty of precisely the crime it accuses its predecessors of. Further, is Sherrie Levine’s work really new, or just another form of negation, or anti-art?
We were better off with Pollock’s notion that art evolves from a long tradition, with not having a bloody or bloodless revolution in which all that went before is arrogantly dismissed by overly intellectual adolescents who can’t or don’t want to see the bigger picture (in which they are not themselves game changers, but merely adding another branch or twig to an enormous tree stretching back at least 50,000 years). Postmodern ideas can curb the excesses of modernism, and open a back door, but it should not replace it. We are fools to not learn from what worked from our predecessors.
And when something is anti-art, it’s probably just negation and nay-saying, nothing new at all. We’ve always had our kill-joys. We just didn’t used to celebrate them as the most exciting, innovative, and courageous minds.
10 replies on “Inextinguishable Originality: Refuting Rosalind Krauss.”
You dismantled her unintelligible arguments very easily with words I could understand. I do think it is becoming more difficult to come up with new ways of smearing paint on canvas that hasn’t already been done. Do you know Adrian Gehnie? Looks like a Francis Bacon rip off artist but he’s making millions per painting. Do you think their will be a point when painting will be impossible to do something unique from anyone in the past? I know it’s impossible to paint two exact paintings, I’ve tried it a few times and I don’t believe it’s doable. Paintings are like snowflakes each one unique but snowflakes do look an awful lot alike. We’re not there yet, it’s only been 150 years since Cezanne. Call me in about a thousand years but at some point do you think it will be impossible to be original? People will probably still paint landscapes but not in some way no one has ever done before. The idea of the artist I want to be, an ever evolving artist, will be almost impossible. Let alone fine one style of your own. I think we are pretty lucky to come at a time so close to the beginning of modern painting to still have room to grow and actually be real artists.
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Hi Matt. I think people will just keep evolving new subject matter, new techniques, and so on, just as we do in music. It might not be”painting” as in oil on canvas… I do think more people will switch to digital over time, especially as drawing tablets improve and so on. If you have one of the new, super expensive tablets, you can draw directly on the screen. So, traditional and digital will also get closer. Either way, it’s “visual language” art. So the question is whether visual language will ever be tapped out. I think the ancient Egyptians may have asked themselves this same question. I have too many ideas in my own head to think we are going exhaust all possibilities any time soon.
Adrian Ghenie is definitely influenced by Bacon, but I think what he does is different and he definitely throws something else in the mix. I have to look into him more before I can really comment. There are other artists that are more derivative of Bacon. But, Ghenie comes out of the school of Bacon and Van Gogh, which is my old time favorite, so I am going to notice small differences. I sorta’ come out of the same school, but I hope it’s less obvious.
People thought there was nothing left to invent in science a hundred years ago. We just keep evolving and developing.
Yesterday, after writing this article, and all the reading and crap, my eyes were shot so I didn’t feel like making art. So, I starting watching an old Hitchcock movie from 20 years before I was born. Fascinating to just see these people who are long dead alive and living long before I was born. But, they already had so much technology, and yet they would never have imagined a personal computer. When you watch an old Star Trek (original series), the computers are less sophisticated than Windows XP. We just keep going and going.
I hope I live long enough to see some of what we will come up with, if only we could get over our basest inclinations and not destroy ourselves in the process. We seem to be undergoing a major regression right now.
But even when people don’t come up with a new technique or style, they may have individual expression within an already established style. There are great novels that don’t necessarily change the novel structure at all, but they do present a new story.
I thought you might like his work. I am a huge Bacon fan so I like his stuff too, but is there enough of a difference in Ghenie’s work to say he came up with something original? Maybe there is, I haven’t looked at his work that closely. Maybe that’s how the evolution of painting works, just a very small change. Pretty tough at this point to have a Cezanne come along. Your work I would say is much more original, I can see a bunch of influences but none of them take over and say I’m in charge here. You have a feel all your own.
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I think Ghenie definitely has some work that, as you say, is too similar to Bacon. He’s even done work based on Bacon’s pieces based on Van Gogh. And there’s one self-portrait in particular where he has painted himself just as Bacon painted one of his sitters (or, rather, in a close approximation thereof). It made me wonder if one can really abstract a figure in the same way, as if that were a universal sort of abstracting, and not just copying Bacon’s unique iconography.
And, on Instagram, which is where I discover most my new art these days, there are a lot of people who disfigure people’s faces with globs of paint, and any kind of mess you put over a face is perceived as on par with Bacon, even when it’s just swirls of paint with no relation to the figure. Bacon’s portraits actually looked like the sitters. Some painters may be using painterly, expressive, abstraction as a way of not having to deal with anatomy. In other words, there’s a world of difference between Bacon and his followers, which are legion.
Antony Micallef is one of the better ones, but there may be a bit too much of letting the paint do the work for him, and now his work is looking more and more like Glenn Brown (his backgrounds and some little details he’s throwing in, like what look like wild mushrooms on this stalks coming out of people’s heads).
I think there are a lot of painters doing impressive work, but it’s hard (at least for me) to discover them. I just discovered Daniel Richter in the last few months. He’s quite ambitious and outspoken about his art. Then there are all those guys that use more traditional techniques like David Van Gogh, F.Scott Hess, or Todd Schorr. Those guys’ techniques are over the top. Everything Schorr does seems like a riff on Disney, somehow, but, he’s got incredible skill.
Once one does start to find the painters that are working, it’s almost overwhelming dealing with it all.
I just discovered Kerry James Marshall and Mark Bradford. Bradford’s works, aside from the ostensible political content, includes very beautiful abstractions.
I just posted about a Japanese artist, M. Sashie, who I think is rather amazing once one gets into him.
Also, I didn’t remember that you were a huge Bacon fan. That explains so much. On top of it you are a Nolde fan. Well, shit, that means that something about our visual tastes is in the same frequency. Do I have more in common with someone who loves Bacon and Nolde than I do with someone who loves.
Lastly, I really appreciate your saying you see some originality in my work, at least as compared to Ghenie. I tend to think the world sees my art as a series of fails, in which case, if I am going to fail, I should aim to fail spectacularly.
I agree it’s overwhelming when you start looking at all the new artists. I love Daniel Richter, I think I first heard of him from you. Kerry James Marshall is also good. You might like Emma Amos. I read your blog on Sashie, and I do like his work but I think it’s time for him to try something different. 30 paintings with the same idea is plenty.
I read that Picasso said abstraction is a language, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not. At the time I thought he was kind of full of it. Then by accident while I was painting I did an abstract painting that made it click. I’m not an expert but, I was then able to start to read abstraction. I actually don’t think most of the painters who did abstract understood it. They would just abstract everything just to do it. But it’s hard to call BS when you can’t understand it yourself. I have done about 20 paintings that have abstract figures because the composition needs them to be abstract, but not every painting needs to be. And you don’t know until you get going if it’s going to need to be abstracted. I think a lot of artists are writing in cuneiform even though they can’t read it, knowing no one can call BS on them.
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Hi Matt: Interesting thoughts on Picasso. I especially like your idea about artists using cuneiform without understanding it. I defended Dana Schutz, but I don’t really like the way she abstracts figures. But, I haven’t perhaps given her work enough attention. Do you like George Condo. At first I thought he was a joke, but he’s grown on me quite a lot. He’s obviously fully indebted to Picasso and Bacon, with some cartooning thrown in the mix. By me he’s too close to Picasso.
There’s non-representation, and there’s abstraction. The “Abstract Expressionists” were really “Non-representational Expressionists” because there was no imagery being abstracted. I see abstraction as an integration of representation and design. I see this in Van Gogh and Gauguin. Of course it’s in Cezanne, but I’m not really a fan of his Mt. St. Victoire paintings with their endless angles and uneasy combinations of orange and green. If you don’t like that palette of predominantly orange and green, you’re screwed.
Picasso ended up just rejecting naturalistic representation and embracing a non literal representation, which has more to do with the demands of design. This is something that’s not even taught in school, or at least I never had a class dealing with it. We were always just taught how to draw and paint roughly representationally.
I’m trying to work in a level of abstraction into some of my pieces. As you say, it’s not easy. I think to do it really well, one may also need to have a strong grasp of how to work naturalistically, at least for what I’m doing. I’m much more comfortable with the sort of “organic abstraction” (I just made up that term) that Bacon uses. Picasso’s abstraction is very angular. But it works.
Which brings us back to our discussion of whether new imagery is possible. And, while everyone credits Duchamp for opening the window on art, we forget that he gave up on painting because, by his own admission, he had no idea what to do with it [I’ve got quotes to support that]. Picasso opened a different window, which was to say any kind of representation can work, and there doesn’t need to be any fealty to naturalism. This gets obscured because of his own personal work, with its self-glorification, a wet kiss of sexism, and his personal iconography. I think a lot of people don’t really like Picasso the man, and Picasso the man as reflected in his art.
So, you think Sashie needs to pick some new subject matter. Another astute observation. I feel the same way, because, where do you go from giant orbs patrolling ruined landscapes? If his galleries and dealers aren’t forcing him to stick to that theme, I think he can branch out. But there’s this curious idea in your comment, which I think relates an individual’s work to a more universal practice. What can anyone else do if his work is a template?
On the other hand, there’s something funny in this, which is that what he did with those orbs is, I think, much more complex in terms of execution than was anything the Abstract Expressionists were doing, with the possible exception of de Kooning. So, while we might let one artist get away with just dripping paint, without any composition, or need to balance colors other than to start with maybe 4-5 compatibly muted colors… we don’t allow for someone to continue to work in a style that requires a much broader range of skills. As for subject matter, Pollock doesn’t even have any.
I’m glad you like Daniel Richter. The difference between him and Sashie is they are coming out of different traditions. Richter is straight up fine art painting. Sashie is coming out of illustration, perhaps Japanese comics, drafting, and I don’t know what else. He also knows his art history, I think, but his practice, being fully representational, does not take into consideration the innovations of Modernist painters.
I think you and I come out of the same metaphoric religion. We like painterly, expressionist painters. El Greco? Rembrandt? Titian? This may just describe a sort of character type. There’s a word that’s escaping me. Anyway, if someone says their favorite artists are, say, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Franks Stella, and Peter Halley, I’m going to know that they probably aren’t going to like anything I do.
But this all reminds me of the Bee Gees. I’m being funny here, but stick with me. When I was in Jr. High you either liked rock or disco, and disco was “gay”, as in “not cool”. Well, there was no question which side of the fence I fell on. I loved rock and I couldn’t stand disco. But nowadays I have a few Bee Gees songs on in my rotating play-lists, perpetually set on shuffle, and I always love it when the Bee Gees come on. Staying Alive is a great song. I even went back and watched the movie for the first time.
I make a point of listening to all kinds of music until the songs get their hooks in, and I have a chance for my subconscious to get familiar with them. Recently another blogger introduced me to a “thrasher metal” band called Voivod. They are much more experimental and precocious than one would think at first listen. For some reason, even though I love metal, it took a while before I could get into this band, even though my musical tastes are very eclectic now. But now I love the band.
What I’m getting at is that as an artist, I think it’s good to combine or rather integrate a broad range of practices, if possible. A postmodernist would merely combine them in some pastiche, like David Salle does (I like Salle, though, because his paintings seem to work in spite of his beliefs), but I think the greater challenge is to integrate and unify them into a broader vision that has meaning and significance.
George Condo is another artist I owe a thanks to you for introducing me to him. I like his work, not all but a lot of it is very creative. At first he didn’t do much for me either but, like you said he does grow on you. I wouldn’t put either him or Picasso in my starting linep, Charles Bukowski had a poem that he put his favorite writers in a baseball lineup.
I have always felt that the expressionists would have been better termed the abstract expressionists and vice versa. Abstract expressionists are not as far as I’m aware abstracting any thing. Did Rothko have some other shape in mind that he was abstracting? Now if he titled one of them circle I would say ok, that a very abstract circle.
Good point on Satie, why should all of the abstract expressionists get to perfect a signature style and stick with it all their life and he can’t. I just think for me I would get tired of doing the same thing all the time. And he definitely is doing a lot more creatively than most of them. I do need to state that they are some of my favorite artists. Hans Hoffman comes in pretty high on my list.
I do like the Greek, and Rembrandt and Titian, I also like a bunch of Byzantine art. The mosaics especially. I’m going to Italy next spring for 2 weeks and stopping in Ravenna to see them.
I agree with learning as much about as many different artists and styles as possible and then working in your favorite aspects. You don’t want to be playing with too many decks of cards on one painting though. Also I think the broader vision is hard to see sometimes and you just need to do a crap load of works and then go back and see where you’ve been. That helps me to figure out where I’m heading anyway.
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Just a quick note that you picked Hans Hoffman of all the possible choices as a remarkable A.E.. He’s of particular interest because not only did he teacher some of them, but of all of them he used the largest variety of techniques. Possibly because he was one of the first, and came at it broadly, he didn’t get swept up into cornering and branding one aspect of all the possible ways of making non-representational painting. He had the imaginative ability to get a canvas and do whatever the hell he wanted to with it. But, I’m guessing, because he didn’t embrace an easily digestible signature style using limited means, and restrict himself to it, he’s much less popular. Further, he’s a threat to the monopolies of the other artists (or rather the business model and profits of the brands) who did choose one narrow area to work in. From a business perspective, it’s better to have more artists working in more signature styles, than have all artists work in multiple and overlapping styles.
Instead of artists really exploring their mediums, which, I think, would have produced better art, they were sequestered in their narrow areas of specialization. But the simpler the art is to execute, the larger canvas it can be done on, and the more money it can garner.
Notice how big everyone’s paintings are. Some of Schnabel’s paintings were so big he must have had really high ceilings just to produce them. I get HUGE paintings with color field paintings, because there’s the idea of a field of color. But most any art is supposed to be large. Look at how big some of Richter’s paintings are.
It used to be something like Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” was enormous because all their needed to be room for all the details – the equivalent of a 500 page novel. But with A.E. we got 500 page novels with one world on a page.
Working on the computer, I could work several times larger by sheer virtue of having a more powerful computer. Everything else would be the same, it would just be a question of file size, which would of course mean that there was sharp detail when the image was printed out full scale. You can’t just enlarge a small image, or it looks like crap. But that’s the only real difference. So, I could play that game too with a better computer.
Point is that the main reason for paintings being so large is they sell for more. That should not be an primary aesthetic consideration.
One could spend forever discussing art theory, good art / bad art, what is or isn’t art and it would be a total waste of time. Art critics, curators, collectors, gallerists, publishers, academics, and those who make careers at sophistry thrive, like worms in a wet pile of coffee grounds on the fact that it’s addictive and frankly, never-ending.
But talk about artists, why they make art, how they survive, their opinions, their experiences, or what they believe and suddenly the room goes deafeningly silent.
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I think you’re on to something there. It’s a lot more fun to play at lording over all of art than it is to listen to even one artist.
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