Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

The Arts Died with Dada: Roy Harris and the Great Debate About Art

Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree, 1973. Glass, water, shelf and printed text, dimensions vary.  Private Collection
Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree, 1973. Glass, water, shelf and printed text, dimensions vary. Private Collection

Seven years ago in his Prickly Paradigm Press pamphlet, What Happened to Art Criticism, James Elkins claimed that art criticism is in a state of crisis worldwide. The chief marks of this crisis are on the one hand the omnipresence of art writing (academic, essayistic, journalistic,) and on the other its lack of common ground. A sign of this latter is the abandonment of judgment , because to offer a judgment, and to convincingly sustain what’s offered, presupposes the ability to say why something matters or does not. Elkins insist that a simple return to a more judgmental art criticism is unworkable, because necessarily afflicted with “anachronism and historical naivete.” Still he hopes for an ambitious sort of criticism that exhibits three virtues: it would relate contemporary with past artworks; practice a kind of reflexivity in writing and then reflect upon the need for and the limits of its judgments; and it would attempt to take the measure of modern art. Given what Elkins says throughout the book about the conditions under which contemporary art criticism is practiced, this renewed and improved criticism seems unlikely to arise, and the conditions under which it would flourish are not on the horizon. Elkins turns the unlikely into the impossible by further demanding that art writers show intellectual responsibility by reading “everything,” a task unfulfilled by anyone since Milton.

Into the fray comes the distinguished linguist Roy Harris who has published, also with Prickly Pear, his own pamphlet, The Great Debate About Art. Harris takes up Elkins’ diagnosis and places it within the long history of discussing art, claiming, however, that as something worth analyzing and debating, art is over. The arts continue: painters shall paint, sculptors sculpt, and installers install; but the sort of ambitious criticism Elkins urges shall be stillborn. This is not because criticism won’t have works to attach itself to, but because the conditions for criticism mattering are long gone. The arts died with Dada, since which criticism has been a kind of diversion of attention from their absence. Art’s mattering was expressed in the urgent modernist questions: Is this art? Is it good or great art? Can it stand comparison with the great works of the past? But the break with the past renders the debate moot.

Harris’s pamphlet elaborates an account given in a previous book, The Necessity of Artspeak, wherein he insisted that all arts are conceptualized in terms of linguistic categories, but that not all arts are accompanied by incessant chatter. ‘Artspeak’ arises when some of a culture’s arts come to seem gratuitous or lacking an evident function. With modern art’s break with tradition, the “supercategory” of Art became problematic, and the discourse fragmented, as Elkins had argued.

The newer book, if not an obituary, diagnoses a terminal condition: the Great Debate is over. Harris’s prime exhibit is the chatter that surrounds the Turner Prize and the “boringly predictable, carefully orchestrated fuss about the annual winner” (p. 93). He is particularly exercised by a lecture given in 2000 by Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, which hosts the prize, and chairman of the Turner jury, in which Serota championed a work by Michael Craig-Martin, “An Oak Tree” (1973). The work consisted of a glass of tap water on a shelf, accompanied by a text ‘explaining’ that the work is not symbolic because the artist has as a matter of fact changed the glass of water into an oak tree. Serota undertakes a predictable set of verbal gymnastics to explain and justify the work, which Harris takes to illustrate the structure, both deep and incoherent, of contemporary artspeak.

Modern artspeak, according to Harris, was inaugurated by the proclamation of the doctrine of ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ at the very beginning of the 19th Century by the great French political philosopher Benjamin Constant. The problem  (more of a problem for artspeak than for art-making) is that the doctrine is unintelligible: nothing is purely for its own sake. Harris claims that the acceptance of the doctrine produces the modernist obsession with the ontological status of art and of particular artworks. But this questioning is accompanied by an unthematised concern for what sort of language  could address these concerns. With some originality and considerable insight, Harris sees three ways of answering these modern questions: the institutionalist, familiar to readers of Anglo-American philosophy from the writings of George Dickey, who considers the social acts of artworld professionals as conferring the status of art upon otherwise unendowed artifacts; the idiocentric, which claims that artistic status is conferred as the effect of an essentially private recognition of an artifact’s viewer; and the conceptualist, which centers on the claim that an artifact is an artwork if it is or embodies the right sort of idea, a claim that is as commonly held as it is difficult to state intelligibly.

Anyone familiar with discussion of recent art will, I think, recognize these three ways. Harris notes how Serota moves unwittingly among them, as they are sufficiently indeterminate in content and scope to blend unnoticeably: Criag-Martin’s piece is art because displayed in a gallery and approved by Serota (institutionalist); the accompanying writing declares to those who have eyes to read, if not to see, its status as art (idiocentric); and the role of the material is exclusively its use as a vehicle for the idea (conceptualist). Harris does not spare his reader other examples of contemporary artspeak, including the inevitable random quote from Rosalind Krauss, “so bad as to test the limits of comprehension”.

Although it is well and interestingly put, none of this seems to me in the least bit controversial, except in the choice of examples. But Harris also wishes to argue a much larger claim, that speaking not just about ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ but about art as such, is a futile attempt to valorize a set of the world’s artifacts. He claims that ‘art’, like religion, politics, law, and economy, is nothing but a kind of contingent linguistic category of the most general sort, a ‘metacategory’. The point of the use of the category of ‘art’ is to collect otherwise disparate phenomena, the ‘arts’, in order to use them to provide models for analyzing each other, create metaphors for each other (such as “architecture is frozen music”), and to organize discussion about the need for and uses of the arts. Harris interestingly notes that the applied arts are much less discussed than the so-called fine arts, supposedly because the former are more directly and transparently related to the satisfaction of needs. But the metacategory of art has collapsed under the two burdens of attempting to justify something ‘for-its-own-sake’, and of holding together the unsurveyable breadth of the visual arts since Dada. The persistence of the unintelligible trio of justification (institutionalist/idiocentric/conceptualist)  is only ever an increasingly failing attempt at deceiving ourselves into thinking that there is some secure basis of judgment in the diverse contemporary visual arts. Harris suggests that this state is coming to an end, but there is no reason to hope for Elkins-style ambitious criticism: as ‘art’ collapses, artspeak becomes a dialect of a much broader contemporary discourse, ‘mediaspeak’. What were formerly thought of as works of art are now considered (potentially) mass amusements, and what were once art critics will increasingly become servants of the entertainment industry.

There is some truth in this larger story, but many will  balk at the scope of Harris’s diagnosis. One runs into the limits of trying to talk about artspeak without talking about works of visual art as inducing and guiding irreducibly visual (and non- or pre-linguistic) experiences. In a strange chapter of what he calls the art of “I spy,” Harris claims that the basic drive in Western art is to produce a visual image of linguistic items: that table in Van Eyck, for example, looks just like a ‘real’ (that is, linguistically categorized) table. This unappealing and implausible claim is linguistic reductionism with a vengeance, and reads like a very exaggerated distortion of the least durable of the great Ernst Gombrich’s themes, the story of the rise of naturalism in Western art. Oddly, it is the large theme of Harris’s important work in linguistics that language gains whatever meaning it has only in its primary context of use; so on Harris’s own view artspeak should be analyzed in relation to the particular works it aims to elucidate and justify. Craig-Martin’s piece is not untypical of contemporary art, but it is by no means paradigmatic or exhaustive of it. But if, as Harris acknowledges, paintings and sculptures and installations will continue to be made, people will continue to discuss them. But also (and here’s the point missing in Harris’s account) some of these makers will continue to aim to produce works that are, to the maximum, meaningfully and richly self-reflexive; and correlatively the makers and the viewers of the works will continue to evoke in language some sense of these meanings, and to place these works historically. If so, there will be some artspeak that cannot be a type of mediaspeak. Whether this future artspeak is more than a highly marginalized activity, only time, as they say, will tell.

Roy Harris, The Great Debate About Art, 2010. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, ISBN 9780984201006, 130 pages, $12.95