Friday, May 14, 2004

things you don't care about, part 2

The context of no context.

In my earlier rant about Kirk Varnedoe, I called his approach to art anti-intellectual. This was imprecise. Gopnik wrote, lazily, that Varnedoe was exciting because of his unwillingness to consider the context of an artwork. [That this is simply untrue is proven by the High & Low show the two collaborated on]. It is, I am willing to admit, important for art historians to be able to do this, to look at an artwork however defined as a purely aesthetic object sui generis, and nothing more. However, regardless of claims to the contrary, modernist criticism at least since Greenberg has not limited itself to this (ulimately rather boring) operation, but has in fact needed to grasp at the straw of visual context, in the form of the traditional genealogy of style and schools, and a succession of geniuses who transcend the work of their predecessors. This kind of contextualizing is both obvious and necessary, and it was Gopnik's denial of its existence that was particularly irritating. It is also worth noting that the Hegelian triumphalism of such narratives is a pesuasive argument for a stiff dose of the theory Gopnik dismisses so casually.

It gets worse. The anti-intellectualism metastasizes into the desire to stop the analysis there, as if the total context of the object's production is irrelevant. No matter that no one really does this, especially Gopnik, whose feeble attempts to connect "art" and "society" are all too familiar. This affectation is partly a product of abstraction, which seems to defy contextualization, and also of the analysis of contemporary art, which seems to require none. But its inherent absurdity is revealed when applied to less obvious objects, as in Peter Schjeldahl's review of the Met's Byzantium show in the latest New Yorker, which begins inauspiciously with his astonishment at this

sentiment from Constantinople's grand duke, Loukas Notaras: 'It would be better to see the turban of the Turks in the center of the City than the Latin mitre.'
He is forced to explain away his confusion by reference to a "vast blind spot in common historical knowledge," by which he means, simply, "I have no idea what I am looking at." His solution, sensibly, is to summarize the historical information he gleaned from the catalog, but he has nothing to say about the art. Highlights include further astonishment at the size of the catalog's bibliography -- 34 pages! and in small type -- and the "exciting revelation... that Byzantine decay fuelled the Renaissance."

The point isn't to single out Schjeldahl, who is not a horrible critic, for his ignorance, however shocking it may be. The point is that ignorance precludes analysis. If you don't know what you're talking about, you can have nothing to say. And knowing what you're talking about, if you want to look at anything more difficult than Frank Stella, requires a consideration of the context, which is to say history. To deny this is dumb. But to do a shitty job of it while attacking the idea that you need to do it the first place, that is anti-intellectual and reactionary, and it pisses me off.

related Byatt review:

She can't help reminding us that she is far more erudite than most of us... but that really doesn't matter...
This is clearly going to get worse before it gets better. No, wait: it's only going to get worse.

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