PRINT December 2002

Books: Best of 2002

the best books of the year

Linda Nochlin

Two books very different in approach and subject matter stand out this year: Richard Meyer’s Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford University Press) and Georges Didi-Huberman’s L’Image survivante: Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg (Editions de Minuit). Meyer deftly combines a close reading of individual works and intelligent social and political synthesis. Outlaw Representation not only sheds light on such important figures as Paul Cadmus, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe but demonstrates the remarkable role that censorship—whether governmental, unofficial, or self-imposed—has played in shaping those careers and the formal language of the art concerned. Meyer also understands the term homosexual as a complex and ever changing one, not a simple label. Didi-Huberman’s book, at first glance a forbidding scholarly tome, is anything but. Not that it doesn’t involve an impressive amount of research, but the ideas and interpretation are what really count here: the author’s idiosyncratic, brilliantly illuminating approach to the work of an equally challenging precursor, Aby Warburg. It is a great read, and one hopes it will be expertly translated as soon as possible.

Yve-Alain Bois

This year the book I most enjoyed reading—and am still savoring, because it’s to be tasted in little sips, like a great wine—is Ed Ruscha’s Leave Any Information at the Signal (MIT Press), a collection of the artist’s writings and interviews. With the book’s cleverly understated physical appearance—it looks like it belongs in the “do-it-yourself home repair” genre—and its huh? title, to use a favorite Ruscha phrase, you are immediately plunged into the artist’s peculiar sense of humor, a unique blend of laconic pessimism and down-to-earth humility. In many ways he occupies a position today similar to that of Duchamp a half century ago (and like the old fox he constantly denies being the moralist that he is). One of my favorite pearls in the book is the quip, “Look, I’m just another member of the food chain.” Another gem is Ruscha’s 1972 dream of the “Information Man” telling the artist about the fate of his books once they have left the warehouse (“only 171 are placed face up with nothing covering them . . . seven have been used as swatters to kill small insects such as flies and mosquitoes,” etc.): “Wouldn’t it be nice,” Ruscha asks, “to know these things?” Throughout, Ruscha gently mocks as a vainglorious illusion the idea that art might play a political role. The only thing he wants to do, he writes, is induce a bit of “head-scratching.” In the context of the lamentable spectacle offered today by our politicians, this ploy might be the best antidote.

Christopher S. Wood

Published in French exactly thirty years ago, Hubert Damisch’s A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (Stanford University Press) is something like a theoretical handbook, spare and elegant, to the European painting system established in the Renaissance and dismantled in the twentieth century. Damisch shows how the pictograph “cloud,” at the moment of its appearance in the works of Mantegna and Correggio, came to designate everything that the new painting system failed to grasp or failed to acknowledge: mystical experience, the aleatory, the infinite, the void, formless form. The cloud also pointed to the concealed mechanisms—connotation, “seeing-in,” theatrical engineering—that made pictorial representation possible in the first place. The book has been read by too few American art historians. But here it is, finally, in Janet Lloyd’s translation, none too soon but also, I hope, not too late. The structuralist and hyperstructuralist analytical apparatus seems only more durable, flexible—and useful—as time passes.

David Reed

Several years ago I enjoyed reading Thomas Crow’s Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (Yale University Press, 1995). Since then I have come across a number of other books by art historians investigating the same period: Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation by Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Thames & Hudson, 1997) and Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (Yale University Press, 1999). This year brought the publication of Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby (Yale University Press). Thoughtfully innovative, these authors apply a high degree of scholarship and insight to dialogues on sexuality, race, and politics in painting. Because it’s often difficult to articulate how politics and sexuality are intertwined in painting, it’s especially exciting to see how, in these books, specific analysis of formal properties and historical context can clarify and illuminate these issues.

Anne M. Wagner

Open Miwon Kwon’s One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (MIT Press) at the middle, and chances are you will expose its conceptual center: the spread where Serra’s Tilted Arc faces off against John Ahearn’s South Bronx portrait wall, the sculpted mural called Back to School. The contrast weighs up what matters to each of these sculptors and their ambitions for the public sphere. Site, scale, accessibility, viewers—all are in the balance, all helped to seal these artists’ controversial public fates. And those fates in turn have fed the good faith/bad faith process that more recently has produced and hindered the possibilities open to public art. What makes this book so strong is the steady course it plots through the inevitable polemical rapids. Kwon does not take sides or pull punches; she has no heroes; she weighs the evidence. She asks how the demand for publicness operates; she spells out how and when it fails. And wonder of wonders, she is as ambitious as she is unpretentious: How many writers are able to bring that off? The result is a book that actually dwells in the world and redescribes it, as indeed does art.

Michael Warner

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is an anthropologist whose field study has concerned an aboriginal group at a small place called Belyuen, in northern Australia. Rather unusually for an anthropologist, she has maintained her relationships there for some eighteen years and is closely involved in shepherding local land claims through the Australian court system. Since the landmark Mabo decision of 1992, some branches of the Australian state have made a version of multiculturalism into official policy, creating a kind of laboratory for studying the consequences of the multicultural vision. The verdict here is not reassuring. In The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (Duke University Press), Povinelli shows how the new politics of difference has created an unlivable situation for the very people who are supposed to be its beneficiaries. The title aptly suggests her argument: Multiculturalism, often called “the politics of recognition,” has the sort of unintended consequences described by Hegel as the “cunning of reason.” The ethical and political desire to recognize the other renews the very colonial structures of power it is supposed to correct, forcing aboriginal peoples to meet standards of authentic otherness in order to win land and state support. Unlike many writers who are eager to make a critique of liberalism, Povinelli does not strike facile postures of moral superiority. She shows that the problems stem not from the failures of multicultural policy but precisely from what makes it admirable: its strong ethical sense of obligation toward people who are different. There are technical arguments here, with powerful revisionary consequences for anthropological theory, but the book should be compelling to anyone interested in the contemporary impasse of liberalism.

Tacita Dean

Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a true feat of the imagination. Written as though it were an autobiography or an act of catharsis for the central character, Cal, the book traces a rogue chromosome passing through three generations of a Greek family. Eugenides plots this genetic journey from Turkey to Detroit, through war and immigration and a half century of changes, to third-generation Greeks who have been assimilated into the American way of life, before the genes’ final stop in Cal. Born a hermaphrodite, she is raised as a girl and remains unknowing until puberty brings a painful realization. It is not easy to inhabit both stages of her life with such insight and tenderness, but Eugenides does so with great skill and affection. Middlesex is a true odyssey, one that took the author eight years to write. You feel the long period of thought and invention in the richness of its descriptions, and even though Cal’s story covers several decades, the novel is in no hurry. Middlesex is a great book, and I felt bereft of its company when I’d finished it.

John Rajchman

In the series of overlapping essays that make up Politics and the Other Scene (Verso), Etienne Balibar continues the attempt to rethink and reinvent politics “after Marx” on which he embarked in his Masses, Classes, Ideas (Routledge, 1994). Against the background of a growing global crisis in what he calls the “nationalsocial state” of welfare and warfare as the basic horizon of our political possibilities, he tries to work out first, a concept of “active” or “agnostic” citizenship no longer restricted to the nation-state and capable of dealing with the problems of those that fall outside its aegis, especially with respect to Europe; second, a concept of borders (within and without) as a nonpolitical condition of politics; third, a concept of extreme “violence” linked to “ideality” as a question irreducible to the great strategies of social transformation and instituted rights, which requires a new kind of politics, a new conception of “civility.” In the current situation, in which questions of war and peace combine with a sense of the lost opportunities for a radical-democratic politics to emerge in 1989, after the cold war, these ample philosophical reflections acquire a renewed urgency.

Carlos Basualdo

As Brazilian artist Tunga has said, Brazil was multicultural from its very beginnings; the rest of the world has become so only recently. Hyperbolic as the statement is, it carries some truth, as modernity in the South American country has always centered on a complex attempt to define a national identity in a place originally constituted by the influence of West African, Portuguese, and native cultures. The picture was only further complicated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the strong tide of European immigration that brought Italians, Germans, and Eastern Europeans to the new world. Christopher Dunn’s Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (University of North Carolina Press) traces the avatars of this fascinating search for a cultural identity in a multiethnic, multicultural nation amid the emergence of a mass market and under the harsh conditions of military dictatorship. The book focuses on Tropicália, an interdisciplinary cultural movement whose impact on Brazilian culture was profound. In the latter part of the ’60s, inspired by the formulations of Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade four decades earlier, a group of musicians, filmmakers, artists, and writers set out to redefine “Brazilianness” as an open concept. Dunn’s study is most comprehensive in describing Tropicália as a musical phenomenon (the protagonists include international stars like Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, and Gilberto Gil) but provides the reader with all the proper clues to understanding the period as a whole. He succeeds in telling us about a past that paradoxically feels like our future.