PRINT October 1995


WHEN, ABOUT A DECADE AGO now, I started to make my way from academic philosophy to art writing, the book of the time that most impressed me was Richard Shiff’s Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (1984). Cézanne’s paintings have been so much discussed, Shiff argued, that we cannot really see them apart from the commentary on them. And since the way commentary is understood depends upon the interests of the interpreter, the interpretation of writing on paintings inevitably becomes “an end in itself.”

In posing this philosophical problem, Shiff, an epistemologist of art history, was a true disciple of Nietzsche. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing,’” Nietzsche wrote; “the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” The more such “eyes” Cézanne’s commentators provide, the more we will know about his art. Nietzsche’s perspectivism here was part and parcel of his radical critique of religion, so it surprises me at times when Shiff, in his recent work, occasionally develops his epistemology in the context of Walter Benjamin’s quasi-theological ways of thinking. What once seemed merely fragmentary, Benjamin thought, will, when viewed from some future perspective (the Last Judgment, or—Marx’s equivalent—the end of history), reveal its true nature. Because Benjamin was also a materialist, Shiff finds it natural to present this idea in very physical terms: Benjamin, he says, thought he could “activate two statements by contiguity, placing them in contact, each inflecting the other.”

Here Shiff also describes his own writing. If a painting once was shocking, then a valuable perspective on it is provided by a commentary re-creating the shock that its once-original contiguities have lost in repetition. The historian’s task, Shiff has argued in “On Criticism Handling History,” is to construct a history that is “perspectivist or anamorphic since the position of the teller (or viewer) is figured into the account.” If our position today in relation to Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, or Barnett Newman, for example, differs from that of earlier commentators, then Shiff’s commentaries on those artists make the once-shocking effects of their works visible from our historical perspective.

When such anamorphic representations create juxtapositions not visible until they are presented, are these connections found by a writer who is merely observing the world as it is—or, rather, could they be that writer’s creation? The question is hard to answer. “Every painting,” Shiff has argued, “has both iconic and indexical features, for it both looks like something else and is the trace of some ‘figuring agent.’” A text, similarly, may possess both iconic appeal to “public, external authority” and an indexical basis in “personal experience.”

In his publications, Shiff, a scholar of Modernism, has focused on historical issues. But since no art historian of his generation has concerns more relevant to us working critics, my own until-this-moment-secret hope is that eventually he will take up writing art criticism. Voices offering reliably skeptical perspectives are much needed in our art world._

David Carrier


HISTORIANS MAY SEEM TO act as critics—they’re as willing to pass judgment as the next person—but there is a difference. It’s the business of historians to gather new information, or, if lacking that degree of industriousness, at least to become versed in the documentation assembled by others. So historians’ interpretations tend to be guided by an array of whatever passes for fact at the moment. This gives their reckonings the aura of objectivity, as they appear to articulate conditions beyond the limited realm of each writer’s own identity, personal interests, and immediate esthetic responses.

Always tenuous, such professional authority has now been thoroughly compromised. For better or worse, art historians today are acknowledging the arbitrary nature of their data, even to the point that they trust more to the rhetorical order of theory than to the orderly “facts” of recorded history. Like philosophy, theory can claim a certain global logic; yet it also retains local subjectivity by being identified with the particular stance and constructive effort of its writer/creator. A fact, in contrast, seems to belong to everyone, regardless of the politics of its finder. When interest in differentiating among subjectivities and identities (including gender and ethnicity) exceeds the concern for common property and collective agreement, universal “fact” loses its cachet.

Does the difference between what is subjectively plausible and what is objectively verifiable matter? Not necessarily, for whenever a guiding theory flows quickly and compellingly enough, it carries along the factual elements of its argument like a flood of debris; a few contrary facts don’t divert a torrent of implication. Recognizing that, historians feel justified in borrowing documentation from luminaries such as Walter Benjamin, with no attempt to verify the alien writer’s sources. Benjamin created a massive file of curious notes and rather disjoined bits of information, posthumously published as he left them. If it happens that he made some honest mistakes while copying at the Bibliothèque Nationale during the 1920s and ’30s, or if he scrambled a reference or two, a remarkable number of academic studies of the ’80s and ’90s will have duplicated his errors. But they will suffer only if someone cares to inspect the construction. It’s not that the accuracy of Benjamin’s data isn’t important enough to be checked, but that the enthusiasm for his work today has less to do with the documentary material he assembled than with his style of organizing, interpreting, and reorienting it.

Just as Benjamin combined bits of information from what others regarded as incompatible sources, so today’s critics and historians quote diverse bits of Benjamin—both his fragmentary library notes and his abstruse philosophical statements—with little regard for the rhetorical differences or for the environment of the production of his various texts. Everything is simply there to be used: documentation and theory join in a reconfiguration of words, which becomes a new criticism and a new history. Barriers between the various academic and literary genres erode.

Like many others who have noted this effect of convergence and leveling, I associate it with what has become for us—at least during the postwar decades—customary critical practice, as much an aspect of life under late Modernism as under post-Modernism. Some view this practice as enriching the collective culture, others as devaluing its finest distinctions. Compare the fact that critical theorists, philosophers, and estheticians contribute their rarefied thoughts to Artforum along with writers on current art and popular culture, who often choose a thoroughly journalistic style. Both types of submission seem proper. In an increasingly familiar turnabout, writers restate themes from popular culture in academic jargon, while abstract philosophical problems acquire their solutions in the modulations of a subculture or the passing cliches of an exhibition season. The writer’s style is no longer dictated by the nature of the issues confronted, just as the critic’s social affairs no longer demand a wardrobe of proper dress. In both forms of fashion, rules are relaxed and nearly anything goes (or perhaps the operative ideological restraints simply become less detectable). For the historian, this means that narratives of events and explanations of cause and effect are merely stories to be told, set in a language that satisfies the writer’s own needs and desires while at the same time being calculated to attract and hold the reader’s attention.

It wasn’t by chance that I used the case of Benjamin to illustrate how historians and critics combine different orders of discourse. Benjamin’s critical practice crossed numerous disciplinary boundaries. More than that, he developed the notion that history itself is a chance configuration. (This is where you actually find “chance”: not in your thoughts and actions—which are “arbitrary”—but in history.) According to Benjamin, consciousness of history occurs with the sudden juxtaposition of two discontinuous events, one in a present moment, the other belonging to a past, each giving meaning and fulfillment to its new-found semblance. Until the present moment of juxtaposition, the past event remains incomplete, its implications unrealized: the present gives to the past a form it otherwise lacks. Yet the present requires some fragment of the past to provide its own direction. Nothing compels any particular configuration of present and past to be seen for what it has the power to reveal—meaning in history is indeed chancy. To succeed as a critic is to become adept at recognizing, manipulating, and appropriating potentially meaningful discursive convergences. To the extent that historians differ from critics, they succeed by recomposing critical insight and invention (theirs or others’) so that it appears as the most natural order; that is, historians make criticism and theory over into history, and even “fact.”

The chance and the arbitrary. The word “arbitrary” refers at its core to discretionary judgment, as opposed to judgment fixed by law. The word drifts to connote subjective preference, and then drifts farther to connote caprice and chance. Why chance? Because the judgments of others so often seem, as we say, “arbitrary”—alien and inscrutable to us, someone else having made the critical determination.

As a historian, I’m drawn to the chance illuminations that arbitrary sequences of documents provide. I take the judgmental statements of others and arrange them in a form appropriate to me. In the process, various cultural expressions seem to combine into plausible argument. I sometimes call this “analogy,” because it involves a set of discrete elements, distilled from an array of “facts,” creating resemblances that in turn imply sequences, evolutions, oppositions, and reactions. For example, by arranging a few documents arbitrarily—that is, according to my judgments—I might convince myself (and perhaps others) that the practice of painting, initially resistant to industrialization, eventually came to confirm the intangible and somewhat mystifying quality of technical refinement associated with advanced industrial products. Remember that this kind of historical “fact” would itself be indicated by an intangible chance configuration of documents, data, or events. Whether such a factual construction would correspond to “real” conditions, determined or observed by some alternative means, is yet another issue, a kind of translation and verification problem arising in the disjunction of one mode of investigation from another.

Let me elaborate by citing three documents, respecting their given chronological order. About a century ago, the popular French novelist Octave Mirbeau—intimate friend of Monet, champion of Cézanne, first owner of Van Gogh’s famous Irises—composed a set of “critical reflections” on art in his time. In a short essay of 1892 entitled “To Be a Painter!,” Mirbeau piled irony on irony, first in the speculation that painting would bring about the kind of social reorganization that radical anarchists were seeking through civil disobedience and acts of violence. Further, he wasn’t thinking of the radical artists he admired—Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh—but of rank amateurs. For the proletarian laborer, who, increasingly oppressed by industry and state management, would seek social liberation through esthetic fulfillment, taking up painting would amount to revolt. Painting, already the bourgeois businessman’s remedy for the anxieties of modern life, had become such a popular activity that Mirbeau could foresee workers of every kind abandoning their tasks: “The miner is weary of digging for coal, the baker is sick of his oven, the petty bureaucrat has had enough of his desk. . . . They all want to paint.” This, according to Mirbeau, himself an amateur who stole moments from his profession of writing in which to paint, was the “age of oil”—linseed, not petroleum. In another 50 years—which would make it the 1940s—“everyone,” women as much as men, “will be a painter.”

At the time he wrote “To Be a Painter!,” Mirbeau is unlikely to have known of the Douanier Rousseau, already living out the critic’s historical fantasy. In 1885, Rousseau had taken early retirement from his minor post at the customs office, converting himself from dedicated Sunday painter to the full-time artist we appreciate today. Yet in Mirbeau’s terms Rousseau wouldn’t be an “artist,” only a “painter.” There were too many modern “painters” for genuine “artists” to tolerate, or for posterity to need as reflections of the values of a culture: “Twenty artists are enough to immortalize the great epochs of art,” Mirbeau remarked. Practiced to excess, painting was reducing itself to a base level: it had already become mediocre, platitudinous, flat.

Oddly enough, as if by historical chance, there is a connection, a resemblance, an analogy, between Mirbeau’s sense of social and cultural flatness and Clement Greenberg’s pictorial flatness. Without relying on some kind of metaphor, linguistic quirk, or vague social symbolism, it can be argued that the one flatness entails the other. This is not just a question of one and the same word referring to a lack of social and cultural differentiation as well as to a lack of visual and tactile depth. Listen to what Greenberg argued in 1946 while reviewing Rousseau, the artiste-peintre who fulfilled Mirbeau’s prophecy before the fact. I’ve condensed the passage, but the words are Greenberg’s:

That which modern art asserts in principle—the superiority of the medium over whatever it figures, thus the inviolable flatness of the picture plane—this expresses our society’s growing impotence to organize experience in any other terms than those of the concrete sensation, immediate return, tangible datum. Rousseau’s flat, direct, almost crass colors, contours, and modeling gave to many painters the first real impression they ever got of what life, reduced to solely empirical considerations and without the deception (but also protection) of faith in anything, looks like in art.

Greenberg is claiming that a principled visual directness, which inhibits all thematic elaboration, induces perceptual experience consistent with life in a materialistic society.

Rousseau’s “crass” flatness may actually result from his peculiar combination of intellectual, esthetic, and emotional limitations, for, as Greenberg puts it, this painter suffered lifelong “derangement,” gradually becoming “psychotic.” The popular acceptance of Rousseau’s painting, however, is a different matter, a reflection of the character of his posterity—a 20th-century public that has its own limitations (perhaps its own mass psychosis). This is the same society Mirbeau foresaw as a result of a general leveling linked not only to industrialization but also to a revolutionary cadre of “painters” who, in the name of individual expression, were inadvertently creating a mass culture of art. The Greenberg/Mirbeau public is pragmatic and positivistic, efficient and direct to a fault (just like industry). It wants only the most tangible effects, the “immediate return.” Unprecedented pictorial flatness provides the desired ready access, requiring no imaginative probing, no deep visual investigation.

Take Mirbeau’s musings on the social implications of painting, couple them with Greenberg’s trenchant review of Rousseau (to which the critic’s famous “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” could easily be added), and who then gets to play center stage in a Modernist history of art? An odd collection of emotional outsiders. Fate can only seem kind to the reputations of “deranged” and “psychotic” painters whose eccentricities release them from the usual professional restraints. This certainly applies beyond the case of Rousseau. Quizzically, Greenberg observes that among the pioneers of Modernism, “Cézanne too was a little balmy, not to mention Van Gogh.” It required the art of a group of “mental cases. . . to cut through to the ultimate truth” of contemporary life—its baseness.

Where does the historian proceed from here, that is, from the “fact” that through his chance encounter with Rousseau, Greenberg’s thoughts on Modernist pictorial reduction fulfilled or completed Mirbeau’s thoughts on the ironies of artistic and social revolution? Follow the given leads and find another suggestive document, one that confirms what you already suspect. Here’s a lead. Mirbeau’s 1892 essay offers a terminal prediction: 50 years hence, by the 1940s, not only will “everyone” be a painter, but “artists” (who are not “everyone”) will have ceased to paint, choosing to return to the common labors of industrialized society. They will be found working in the mines as well as in the city, where they will be seen “gluing advertising posters along the boulevards.”

Does the judgment of history confirm Mirbeau’s vision? Greenberg’s observation of “flatness” realizes or materializes much of the historical narrative Mirbeau was fashioning. That same narrative is also realized by the actions of 20th-century painters who brought “art” to “life,” restoring art’s vitality. Among them: Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists, and the “neo-Dadaist” Europeans and Americans of the 1950s and ’60s, those who pushed the act of painting beyond its conventional formal limits by making art from ordinary objects and daily occupations. Mirbeau, this is to say, appears to have foreseen the early Robert Rauschenberg, Italian arte povera, and the French décollagistes (worker-artists roaming the boulevards, removing torn and faded posters others once affixed, converting advertising’s remains into art’s raw material), not to mention a host of more recent examples from James Rosenquist to Barbara Kruger and Dennis Adams.

By the testimony of the third document in my sequence, one that concerns modern advertising, Mirbeau and his text imply still more. In 1962—70 years post-Mirbeau, a Benjaminian distance suited to the chance appearance of meaningful historical configurations—Art in America published a brief commentary on “art and industry,” which juxtaposed a sculpture by Louise Nevelson and a nearly contemporaneous Railway Express advertisement exhibiting imagery inspired by Nevelson’s manner of construction. Art in America noted that in the ad’s photograph, “Products shipped by the express company replace the intricate elements of the Nevelson work.” Because this is a case of industry appropriating art, it matters little whether the art in question was created in resistance to industry, in response to a modern public’s materialistic wants, or by one of artistic Modernism’s “mental cases.” The “fact” that art here serves industry so readily, with little apparent strain, might trigger the suspicion that art and industry have reached a certain rapprochement, that what art represents to society is similar to what industry represents. Why else would the union and the reciprocity seem as natural, as ideologically acceptable, as Art in America’s layout makes them appear? The commentary quotes a publicist at the Museum of Modern Art to the effect that abstract art is particularly suited to representing the “excellence” of products of advanced industry, especially when their essential quality is “practically invisible.” The prime example is electronics. So art advertises by estheticizing the anesthetic—the tasteless, odorless, and colorless—the “invisible.” Abstract art and industry are joined in exchange by an invisible and intangible quality they seem to share.

Through his closing allusion to advertising and the artist, Mirbeau now appears to foresee the simulacrum. I don’t mean that he actually predicted our present interest in the play of dematerialized cultural signs, but rather that this interest (reinforced by my own chance encounter with the 1962 document) urges just such an arbitrary understanding of the 19th-century critic’s writing. By juxtaposing art and industry, the Art in America commentary calls forth an intangible quality that is presumed to be found in both, but that may be in neither, existing only through the differential play of signification. Industry (Mirbeau), art (Greenberg), and advertising (Art in America): each discovers in one or the other the source of its own value—whether positive or negative—despite the “fact” that none has inherent value or can hold value in place.

This has been a history of Modernist practice in arbitrary miniature. There are numerous—indeed, there must be innumerable—associations I have either failed to discern or not bothered to detail. History goes on and on. We make it, but we also let it be the judge. Is it the writer—or history—that arbitrates the given case? The critic in every writer will be able to decide, arbitrarily.

Richard Shiff