This is a book project, probably, or maybe just a series of class notes. It's a work in progress: these aren't completed blog entries, but drafts for chapters that I am continuously revisiting. All comments welcome, either here or on Facebook or via my website.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments


Part One

1 The space between interesting writing and art history

2 The space between interesting writing and visual studies

3 The space between interesting writing and art theory

A manifesto, of sorts

Part Two

The idea of exemplary writing in art history

Rosalind Krauss

T.J. Clark

Alexander Nemerov

Benjamin Binstock

10 Leo Steinberg

(Others possibly to come, as the project develops: 11 Anne Wagner, 12 Griselda Pollock, 13 Michael Fried, 14 Tom Mitchell)

15 The French poststructural model

16 Salvador Dalí

17 Jean Louis Schefer

18 Hélène Cixous

19 Gilles Deleuze

(Others possibly to come, as the project develops: 20 Hubert Damisch, 21 Jacques Derrida, 22 Francis Ponge in "The Power of Language")

23 Artworks in Fiction: DeLillo, Proust

Part Three
Theories and Institutions

24 Critical Theory, Criticism, Criticality, Critique, Kritik

25 What is an Essay?

26 Where is Nonfiction Taught?


27 Conclusion to the Project, In the Form of a Presentation


This collection of texts, with its question for a title, is part of a larger project on the history, theory, and possibilities of writing that includes images.

By "writing," in the wider project, I generally mean fiction (modernist, experimental, conceptual, unclassifiable) but also nonfiction (including some art history, art criticism, cultural criticism, visual studies, and art theory).

By "images" I mean principally photographs (but also charts, diagrams, maps, photocopies, and other graphics) and sometimes drawings and paintings.

The larger project is therefore meant to be about all writing that includes images, and especially novels and experimental fiction with photographs in the text. That larger theme surrounds the topic of these chapters, which are focused on the narrower subject of experimental writing on fine art, and especially writing that presents itself as art history. The idea is to try to lead from the specifics of art history out into wider spheres, and eventually into any writing (fiction included) that uses images (which aren't necessarily art). In all this, writing has center stage.

What is Interesting Writing in Art History? and its surrounding project, called Writing with Images, are both exercises in criticism. They are also meant to be practical, because I am trying to open this field for myself, for my own writing. I hope these chapters can be useful to others who write, necessarily, differently.


All of this material has been written online, and I am grateful to the readers on Facebook (in my experience most of them are engaged and often pertinent and challenging, and only a small percentage are out to advertise themselves, bluster, grandstand, or do any of the other crazy things people do on social media), Twitter (where brevity is a great censor), and on my website and Online readers of online drafts are thanked in the text, in this fashion: "Reading a draft of this chapter, Joseph Post wrote that..." The text is therefore crowd-sourced, and it has also developed in the conventional way, as a product of readings in the seminars I teach in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute.

Related material appears in “Das Ende des Schreibens über Kunst,” interview with Ruedi Widmer, in Laienherrschaft: 18 Exkurse zum Verhlältnis von Künsten und Medien (Berlin: Diaphenes, 2014), 71–85. My own vita is here.


Introduction: What is "Interesting Writing"?

In this project several words get asked to do some work they don't usually do. For example it is necessary to try to say, even if only provisionally, what sorts of writing present themselves as "interesting" in this context. Especially in the art world, "interesting," is a stereotypically, famously useless word, because it may mean either a principled avoidance of aesthetic judgment (that is how Donald Judd used it) or an unprincipled avoidance of the responsibility of judgment. There are several sources for the problems of the use of "interesting." It's discussed in Art Critiques: A Guide; in Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic; and in Sianne Ngai's The Zany, The Cute, and the Interesting. 

In this project, "interesting" means avant-garde or otherwise innovative in relation to some tradition—initially, that will be forms of contemporary art history. Sometimes I also mean "interesting" to denote "experimental," as in postmodern and contemporary experimental writing. (The term "experimental" is nearly as problematic as "interesting"; it is discussed in the companion project to this one, Writing with Images.) The important thing is that the writing in question knows itself to be in an unusual relation to what ever is taken to be normative or expected writing practice in the discipline, genre, or mode in question—again, initially that will be art history. There has to be a feeling of resistance or discontent: something that is being departed from, a practice that seems inadequate for some reason. The writers I consider are either thinking about what might be the best future or optimal form for the discipline, or else they are not proposing their work be counted as disciplinary art history. I will work on those characterizations as I go: for the moment I just want to register the essential quality of dissatisfaction or distance. I think the same can be said for experimental writing when the qualifier "interesting" is applied to contemporary conceptual writing, flarf, constrained writing, language poetry, spam lit, code writing, or intentionally "unoriginal" writing: each of those practices presents itself as different from some other practice that is taken as normative.

Hence a crucial criterion for the texts I consider here is that they attempt to diverge from some specifiable prior or existing practice of art historical writing. This criterion is meant to exclude two kinds of writing in and around art history that otherwise might be pertinent: first, writing that is normative or unremarkable or does not present itself as anything other than clear and eloquent (examples can be found in any art history journal, such as The Art Bulletin); second, writing that is non-normative but not in relation to any specifiable model or practice (this happens, for example, in artist's books that take art as their subject matter). The first of those exclusions will be apparent enough in all the selections I make in this project. The second is more problematic, I think, because it means I will usually not be looking at the very large field of artist's books—but that is an issue for the second project, "writing with images."

"Interesting" is a critical judgment made against a certain history. The impetus to write with attention to the words, the writer's voice, the narrative, the form, the rhetoric, and the possibilities of language does not come from a generalized ambition. It springs, for me, from two historically determined sources: the conviction, since poststructuralism, that writing engulfs all our best attempts at rigor, objectivity, and control; and a growing awareness, on my part, of an unsettling gulf between writing's sad closeted existence in disciplines such as art history, and its flourishing life in contemporary fiction, theory, and literary criticism.

Chapter 1

The Space Between Interesting Writing and Art History

I have in mind three frames for this project. Each one centers on a text I wrote for some other occasion. Looking back on these scattered writings, I am surprised to see that they align very accurately, as if I had had this project in mind all along. (It's not a very comfortable feeling, because it also means that much of that earlier work was to one side of an unnoticed, or at least undeveloped, central theme. It took me a long time to recognize that theme.)

I am hoping that beginning with excerpts will not seem too indulgent; I have certainly been put off by authors who quote themselves. Each of the three texts I will be revisiting here had specific purposes in relation to art history, theory, and criticism, and it matters that the general idea of "writing with images" began in such contexts. Still, if you would like to begin with the thing itself, stripped of the problems that generated it, please go straight to chapter 4.

Each of these three excerpts concerns a gap between established forms of writing on art and what could, in different ways, be called interesting writing. The first gap is between writing and art history. The second is the smaller, but just as treacherous gap between interesting writing and visual studies; and the third is about the positive gulf between writing and art theory, aesthetics, and philosophy.

The seed of this project, and my first try at articulating a space between art history and interesting writing, was in the opening and closing pages from the book Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: On Art History as Writing (1997, reprinted 2000). That was, or is, a long and oddly assembled inquiry into art historical writing. 

That book's introduction sets up the complaint. Then I reproduce the book's final page in its entirety.

1. Preface to the Routledge paperback edition (2000)

The book you’re holding is a strange introduction to art history. Strange because it fails to round up the usual suspects like social art history, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction, or postcolonial theory. Strange, too, because it omits some of the leading work in the discipline. It may need more of an introduction than I first gave it, so I am adding a few words here of encouragement and apology.

The three basic arguments of the book can be put succinctly. First, I am dissatisfied with the usual way of learning the discipline, in which students study parts of some theory (say Lacanian psychoanalysis) whenever it seems helpful for interpreting the art that interests them. That practice leads to monographs that read like tours of different theories: a little linguistics from Jakobsen, then some semiotics from Saussure or Barthes, an anthropological account of liminality or hybridity, and perhaps some reference to performative speech acts. This is exaggerating a little, but not much: it has become normal in art history to move from one interpretive model to another. Various names of drift in and out of the writing: Benjamin, Warburg, Riegl, Badiou, Foucault, Rancière, Deleuze. In a sense, that state of affairs is unobjectionable—after all, it serves the practical goal of finding the best words to describe the art.

Behind this successful practice is a simple assumption, which I think should be deeply troubling: that it is possible to tell which theories are appropriate, and to know how and when they should be applied. I doubt that the motives or methods of interpretation are as well controlled as is often thought. That is the reason I avoid expositing individual theories in this book. The idea is to stop applying theories, or even studying them, and look at the whole discipline more abstractly. I want to ask: What tells me that I have found an optimal way to interpret a work? Do I know why I am attracted to this theory, or that one? It strikes me art historians are confident about these questions, and one purpose of this book is to reflect on that confidence until it disappears.

The second theme enlarges the first: I want to argue that much of art history (and not just the manipulation of theories) is not entirely conscious. Most of this book is a meditation on the ways art historians meander among the works, only half in control of the discipline that leads them. Thinking about art and history is like daydreaming: we drift in and out of awareness of what we’re doing. Sometimes it may be clear what impels me to write a certain passage: other days, I have very little idea why a certain theory rings true, or a certain phrase sounds right. This book is a compendium of reasons why art historians are not in full control, and in that respect it runs strongly against the grain of contemporary theorizing, which remains rational and confident in the face of any number of post-structuralist accounts of the breakdown of intentionality and perfect rationality. Some readers of the first printing of this book thought it was unnecessarily pessimistic and anti-logical. For me, those aren’t bad things: I am half asleep when I look at art, and when I try to write about history. That’s the maziness of it, the lovely hopelessness of ever understanding my reactions to art outside of art history.

The third and last theme is the most important, and it is the reason I am happy to see this book reprinted, even with all its unresolved conundra and odd backwaters. In the end, art history is a kind of writing. It has its blindnesses and its moments of control just like any other writing, and it expresses the lives and the thoughts of its writers just as much as any fiction. Normally art historians don’t think about the writing as writing, because it seems more important to convey the facts of the past that are being recovered and displayed for the present. Yet there is no way around it: what we write, as art historians—as academics of any sort—expresses who we are. By not thinking too much about the expressive dimension of our writing, we end up writing poorly. From a writer’s point of view, the writing in a typical art history journal might seem beautiful, but it probably also sounds dry and emotionally distant. In other words—to put it as directly as I can—to an outsider art history will often seem like bad writing, concocted by someone uninterested in the writer’s self, and unaware of the writer’s voice. Some contemporary art historians are at work on this problem, but the recent interest in first-person writing has only made matters worse, because it has injected an unmodulated confessional voice into a setting where it just doesn’t fit. Good writing, as the rarity of good writers attests, is harder than that.

Does this matter? Well, it doesn’t if the only purpose of writing art history is to learn about the past. But if you ask yourself what you are actually producing, what you are spending your life making, then it starts to matter more than anything else. I’ve said this as strongly as I can in the last page of this book, and I still think that page is worth the price of admission. The rest is a thicket of problems that can have no clear solutions: if they were clear, they wouldn’t be art history.

2. Envoi, on our dry texts

It would be wrong to conclude without underscoring the unimportance of all this.

To say that what art historians and other academics write is rarely read outside a community of like-minded scholars, is to say that it will be forgotten forever. The books we write—most emphatically including this one—are consigned to dust from the instant they appear. Some, which will never be read, turn to dust in our hands, even before they are printed. Each year there are tens of thousands of dissertations in the humanities, and even seminal texts are lost in fifty years’ time. Scholarship, as Derrida says, is dangerously “biodegradable.”

Thinking about the differences between the kinds of writing that go under names such as art history, visual theory, methodology, and historiography, I have been led toward a way of considering the texts that is, in important respects, alien to all of them. In general terms, the readings in this book approach art historical writing as if it were expressive in intent.

What I have wanted to know is how the writing stands up as writing, as what is uninformatively called imaginative or creative writing—as if a principal purpose of art historical writing were to act on a reader as a novel, a short story, or a poem, rather than as a source of information. In doing so I have tried to read the texts in a fuller way, and cast some light on the nature of their relation to one another; but I have also been motivated by some ideas about the value of scholarly writing in general. The conviction on which this book is built is that in the end all the questions we customarily ask ourselves regarding the choice of theories and theorists, methods and methodologies, evidence, interpretation, and the constitution of the discipline are swept aside by what we actually produce. Our writing is our testament, it is what matters about what we do. And if that is the case, then our writing must be understood as an expressive endeavor, one that speaks for us and for our contemporary situation. To me art history is in a certain sense an arbitrary profession, since I tend to use it to explore my own thoughts, and to learn about myself. An object is always also a mirror of what I want to see, and of how I understand myself.

What this commonplace helps us remember is that even though our texts afford some challenging puzzles, academic writing may be inexpressive and in the end uninteresting because it is chosen by people who do not wish their writing to compete on a higher level. There has always been truth in Nietzsche’s descriptions of scholars (“the herd animal in the realm of knowledge,” and so forth) and in those terms, art historical writing may be a fitting expressive vehicle: a kind of writing that is highly evolved to complement and maintain a certain kind of life.

Our texts appear as history, as facts, as discoveries, as stories, even sometimes as truths, and they function in all of those capacities—but they are also our way of recording who we are. We need to begin to think about how our quizzical, convoluted, dry and distant writing tells the story of our lives.


Those two excerpts from Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: On Art History as Writing, written now about 15 years ago, can stand almost as they are to express what I think is missing from art history. Today I wouldn't say art history is necessarily "distant" and "dry," although it often is. But it remains every bit as true that art historians pick and assemble theorists and theories without paying attention to how they have been chosen or how they work together. And that, in turn, is only possible when the historian isn't paying attention to the writing itself, to its voice, its coherence, or its expressive content. Art history remains, in that sense, very much unconscious.

In art history there is an intermittent interest in writing, and an intermittent awareness that in poststructuralism, writing cannot be adequately understood as a utilitarian vehicle for the articulation of historical thought. But writing on writing in art history has tended to be local (regarding qualities attributed to the writing of individual art historians), disciplinary (involving judgments about whether certain writers can usefully be considered primarily as art historians), or abstract (regarding the importance of writing, in general, in poststructuralism since Barthes). At the same time, art history as a discipline remains oblivious of the state of contemporary literary theory, so art historical discussions of writing tend to be conceptually and analytically impoverished, and to depend on old-fashioned criteria of literary style and taste.

Writing in art history is constrained four times over:

1. By disciplinary habits, expectations, and protocols about art historical narrative, argument, evidence, and citation. These aren't uniform: they differ from one publication to the next, and they change from one decade to the next; but they exert a strong influence on the field. Every young art historian knows what kinds of narratives might be acceptable to The Art Bulletin or October.

2. By the disciplinary agreement that writing is optimal when it is clear, serviceable, economical, direct, persuasive, and adequate to its subject. What Cicero called narratio or infinum, the “plain style,” is the default ideal for art history and much of the humanities. Clarity, Hermogenes’s term sapheneia, is the principal goal. (In effect art history and visual studies also admit the “middle style,” aequabile, whose purpose is to please, but not the “high style,” supra, whose purpose is to move the reader.)

3. By the disciplinary consensus that rhetorical properties of writing, such as metaphor, allegory, apostrophe, repetition, are understood to be potentially useful or pertinent, but not central or essential. Rhetoric, in general, is imagined as an ornament on writing. (There is a link here with art criticism, which sometimes imagines itself as unconstrained by academic concerns: in art criticism, too, informational, plain style writing is imagined as a base, on which rhetoric is built.)

4. By the disciplinary custom of limiting moments of expressive writing. Tone, address, style, manner, mood, voice, diction, authorial self-reference, the lyric, and metanarrative are intermittently encouraged in graduate students' writing, but only within the bounds of proper disciplinary interests.

Outside of these constraints, and outside the art historical constraint of writing about fine art, there is the unexplored territory of writing in general, as it has been theorized in literary criticism since modernism began, and in poststructuralism since the 1960s.

Reading a draft of this text, Karen Schiff wondered what the goal of abandoning conventions might be, other than the pleasure of writing. My interest is in what might have to happen in order for art history and its neighboring disciplines to take writing as seriously as it has been taken since Barthes, Derrida, De Man, Altieri, Conley, Culler, Perloff, and many other critics and theorists. What I have in mind is a critique of  art history's senses of writing, and how it presents writing to itself. In general, and with many exceptions, art historical writing remains dry, timid, affectively distant, conservative, and often inadequate to the very works it wants to address: and part of the reason for that failure of writing is a reticence about writing itself. The principal goal for writing outside certain conventions is to engage writing, and therefore the condition of the humanities in the twenty-first century, more fully. A secondary goal, which would not be mine, would be to capture more historical meaning for art history.

Chapter 2

The Space Between Interesting Writing and Visual Studies

The second starting point for this project was a gap between interesting writing and visual studies. This excerpt from Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction is the last entry in a list called “Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult.” The passage turns on the strange position occupied by John Berger, who is a model and precedent for much of what visual studies has become.

The Challenge of Writing Ambitiously

What can I say on this last subject that has not been said before by every scholar to herself, or deliberately left unsaid by every academic who thinks of writing as an effect of politics, or repressed by every historian who wants to imagine that writing is the transparent vehicle of truth? Nothing new, except that it is seldom a good idea to try not to think about what ambitious writing means in your field. Ambition, for lack of an easier and more manageable word, is essential to a visual studies that is committed to being less easy. 

When it comes time to write an article or a book, think concertedly about the kind of writing you hope to produce. There is no penalty for paying attention to writing itself, and often there is a reward: what you write will be read more widely. 

Here is an example to indicate how under-theorized the problem of good writing in visual studies has become. In my experience a surprisingly wide range of people who study art history and visual culture name John Berger as an important inspiration. I have been told so by scholars who specialize in such different fields as performance art, the semiotics of cubism, and the history of design. Berger seems to have become a patron saint of social art history and visual culture to a degree that social art historians such as Frederick Antal or Arnold Hauser never did. 

What makes this strange is that no art historian or specialist in visual culture writes anything like Berger… Why don’t the many people who have taken inspiration from Berger’s Ways of Seeing and About Looking also take on board any of the kinds of writing that he practices? 

I can think of two answers, both somewhat depressing. Most of us do not think of ourselves as poets and novelists, and therefore we excuse ourselves from experimentation; and most of us have, at one time, wanted tenure, and tenure requires propriety. Here is how I would put the question that I think remains when these two inadequate answers are set aside: given that academic social art history and visual culture has found Berger’s message about the politics and gender of seeing so fruitful, what kind of elaboration of his position has allowed contemporary scholars to avoid Berger’s conviction that the writer’s voice is never irrelevant, that gender and politics require the writer to involve the writing? 

A few people working on visual studies do take the writer’s voice seriously—so few I can count them on one hand: the sometimes brilliantly incoherent Jean-Louis Schefer, the ecstatic and unpredictable Joanna Frueh, the kaleidoscopic and confessional Hélène Cixous, the slightly paranoid, inconsistent, and often inspiring Dave Hickey. (That’s paranoid about what academics think, inconsistent about his desire to ignore them, and inspiring for people trying to.) Writers like these do not form a set—although by coincidence Hickey and Frueh taught in the two largest cities in Nevada—and that testifies to the rarity and difficulty of genuinely experimental writing. Most art historians and visual theorists interested in the writing and the writer’s voice keep their experiments narrow and safe, so that academic work is well separated from poetry, reverie, and fiction…

That is all that I think is worth saying about writing ambitiously. If you are a student or a scholar, writing is what you do. It can only make sense to do it absolutely as well as you are able. 


I wrote the original version of that passage in 2003, and I think it’s still true. Only today I would put it more strongly. There is no discourse in the field of visual studies regarding writing. The field includes a fair amount of experimental writing (for example in The Visual Culture Reader) but no one has said how writing might work in visual studies: the discourse on writing in visual studies is even more impoverished than it is in art history.  

This is a second starting point for this project: art history has an impoverished sense of what constitutes good writing, but visual studies has no visible sense of writing at all. Visual studies has spent very little time considering writing; despite the overlaps between visual studies and experimental forms of nonfiction, the fields of visual culture, Bildwissenschaft, and visual studies are effectively naïve about writing. And yet at the same time visual studies intermittently claims to possess a new sense of how images work with texts, how they “theorize” or “argue,” and how art history has failed to acknowledge those properties—there's more on this in Theorizing Visual Studies. In this context I just want to register the paucity of literary criticism in visual studies.

Chapter 3

The Space Between Interesting Writing and Art Theory

The third starting point is the book What Photography Is, which is a reply to Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida; I had the idea that in order to respond fully to Barthes's book, it would be necessary to take writing as seriously as he did. What that means, to me, is that the writing should risk overwhelming the argument: Barthes was bereft, and he knew his thoughts about his mother were flooding his thoughts about photography. When he was writing Camera Lucida, he was also thinking about writing a novel—or at least pondering what such an enterprise might be like. In Camera Lucida, writing is unchained from many academic protocols and linked to undependable conditions: it is bound to doubt, and entangled with mourning. I tried, in a different way, to do the same.

1. From the Introduction

There is career and community, and then, for me, there are also sources of visual pleasure and fascination that just do not fit with current critical discourse. It’s like Freud’s division of desires into “love” and “work.” I see that for many of my colleagues, there is a fairly good match between the things they love about visual art and the writing they produce as scholars. For me, love and work have finally been coming apart. It’s not a divorce, exactly: I still spend most of my time writing as an academic, contributing to books like Photography Theory. But increasingly I find that it matters a great deal to resist the tremendous tidal pull of academic discourse, to recover and nourish the things I have seen and felt on my own.

So many scholars are overwhelmed by the oceans of words that well up from the past, by the intoxicating sharpness of academia, by the occasionally riveting language of scholarship, by the glow of hard-won approval. They come to forget that they are not writing about what it is in art that gives them pleasure, that transfixes them, that makes them speechless. Or they think they are, but what they are producing is books that only other scholars read, where moments of encounter are braced by hard argument or safely cosseted in soft footnotes. That kind of writing can produce rewarding careers, but not books that speak beyond the conference circuit. It is dangerously easy to live a full academic career, imagining that your writing expresses your best thoughts about art, when in the end it never really has.

What matters in scholarship is research, argument, persuasion, and originality, and those ideals make it easy to spend your entire working life without thinking of your own voice. I know that almost nothing in this book can be justified as scholarship, or even as criticism, but it is what I want to write because it is what I have seen for myself.

2. It occurred to me that despite my promises to attend to writing at the possible expense of argument, my book had proposed a number of things about photography and hadn't been undermined by the attention I had paid to writing. This is from the end of the book:

I find I am starting to talk again about Barthes’s claims, and not his writing. I suppose that I should be content not being able to tell if the acid of writing has entirely perforated this book, eating away its claims about photography, or even if it is the same sort of acid that seeps through Camera Lucida, weakening its stability, undermining its logic.

At least I have tried to see what it might look like, just for me, just with this one subject, if we take our allegiance to the poststructural critique of truth, writing, and philosophy as seriously as we say we do, and actually write something that forgets to behave itself, that fails to be dependable, that isn’t good scholarship, but that tries to remember that even the most determinedly erudite and well-researched monograph is only writing.


Despite these passages, and my best attempts to let writing have its say even over photography, reviews and responses to this book were all about its claims. The book is full of claims, but it is also about writing, and what it means to try to mix strong affect and an openness about writing with the intention to argue about something as specific as photography. Art theory, I think, needs to consider the dissonance between its interest in truth and its model of writing.

This list, leading from art history to visual studies and art theory, could be expanded to include art criticism, artspeak, and artwriting in general. In some art criticism there's an extreme contrast between the experimental nature of the writing and the lack of discussion about writing. It's as if there's an unwritten rule in art criticism: experimental writing is what's needed to move beyond academic models, but any discussion of the modes of experimentation would be academic.

Good writing in art criticism is often portrayed as mainly a matter of avoiding academic clichés, jargon, or International Art English. Sympathetic discussions of IAE tended to share the authors' assumption that jargon—in the sense of technical language, ambiguity, and intricate sentence constructions—is avoidable. But Adorno and other difficult writers are part of the historical reception of art, and so their concepts, and in some cases their imprecision about their concepts, cannot be simply avoided in the name of clarity or some undefined sense of good writing. There is much to agree with in Alix Rule and David Levine's argument, for example the "semantic unmooring" of IAE, and its propensity to be what they call "pornographic." But speaking seriously about art in the twenty-first century does involve coming to terms with the inheritance of the Frankfurt School, phenomenology, and other discourses that necessarily, structurally, involve complexities of the kind that lead Rule and Levine to conclude that the writing has unnecessarily departed from some norms of clarity or logic. "One might object," as Michael Warner does, "that the need for unfamiliar thought is not the same as the need for unfamiliar language," and one might also want to agree with Judith Butler that "the apparent clarity of common sense is corrupt with ideology." (Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 2002, p. 132.) 

At times some obscurity of the kind Rule and Levine describe is necessary and appropriate; many other times it isn't. A discussion of Adorno or Benjamin has to involve concepts and language that may appear to some readers as unnecessary, mannered, obscure or obscurantist, academic, or "pornographic." But good writing is itself impoverished when it is imagined as the opposite to some construction such as IAE. What matters about writing is much broader than what is contained in debates about jargon or academic styles.

Like art history and visual studies, the practices of art theory, art criticism, artspeak, and general forms of artwriting all share a lack of serious attention to style, manner, mode, voice, rhetoric, and other nameable elements of the study of writing. The subject I'm hoping to address here is not the exclusive province of university-based practices.

Chapter 4

A Manifesto, of Sorts

In order to pay full attention to writing, and let it find its voice as the grounding condition of meaning, it is necessary to be open to giving up the hope of constraining writing to serve art historical interests. The self-imposed protocols of art history extend beyond the ones I listed in chapter 1, because they depend on deeper interests: art history is a form of historical writing, so the writing must appear as history; and it is a branch of the humanities, so the writing must appear as nonfiction. But writing, in its general sense, does not observe those distinctions, so I think it is necessary to be open to the possibility that the writing might place both history and the construction of facts in jeopardy. Otherwise any experiment in "interesting writing" on art will still be limited by these deeper assumptions about writing, history, and nonfiction in the humanities.

I would like to see what writing looks like, how it acts and feels, what it can do, when it begins from disciplines like art history, visual studies, art theory, and other practices, and then tries, more or less systematically, to disregard the protocols of of those practices. I am not interested in writing that is polemical about these points, but writing that is careless about them: writing that is free to disregard them, to not notice them, to not feel the pull of academic proprieties.

These are the four kinds of unforced acts of abandonment I would like to explore. The first two are the subject of this project:

1. Relinquish disciplinary ideas about images in writing, as in the four points in chapter 1.

2. Relinquish the interest in writing texts that present themselves as art history or visual studies.

What remains, for me, is the idea of writing on images and, in the end, perhaps not even on images, but alongside images, with images. That is the most general condition of art history, visual studies, art theory, and art criticism, but it is also a wider subject because it includes fiction that uses images, and images that aren't art. The second two, which follow (I hope) from the first, are the subject of the following project, Writing with Images:

3. Relinquish the interest in writing nonfiction.

4. Relinquish the disciplinary interest in writing about art.

What is Interesting Writing in Art History? was born from a dissatisfaction with some existing forms of writing, so it is partly polemical in intent. Still, it's more a personal position than a prescriptive one. It's a matter of attending to the general conditions of what we do—subject of the larger project that comes after, or rather surrounds, this one. Similarly writing that might be fiction or some mixed form is the general condition that gives meaning and focus to writing that understands itself as nonfiction.

What I have in mind is an openness to writing, and what I want to avoid are habits and expectations that present themselves as ways to write optimal art history, theory, or criticism, but are in effect ways of keeping the danger and potential of writing at bay.

Chapter 5

The Idea of Exemplary Writing in Art History

It would be delightful to begin with a canonical text, one that everyone agrees is exemplary of the best of writing in art history. But that isn't possible. At some point in the late 1950s in North America, Erwin Panofsky's English-language style seems to have been taken as exemplary, and I have heard the same said about E.H. Gombrich in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the name that came up most in connection with good or admirable writing in art history was probably Michael Baxandall's. (That's him in the photograph—it's almost the only modest-looking photo of any of these historians on the internet.) Even today, Baxandall may be one of the least often criticized of art historians; I only know one very mild critique of his work. But his style—a mixture of English academic prose and public-school conversational cadences—is hardly typical of the discipline. It is a significant style, in the sense that his narrative manner allows him the subtleties and intentional ambiguities that are taken as integral to his argument. But his manner wouldn't be a productive starting point.

Another candidate, a half-generation older, is Leo Steinberg, and I contemplated opening this account with him. He is a model for what any of us might achieve if we pay a certain kind of attention to writing: but it is not the kind that most of art historians want to pay. (See the fuller account in chapter 10.) I also could have started with Griselda Pollock or other art historians who experimented with personal authorial voices, in the wake of both feminism and deconstruction; but those texts now seem more of their time, and writing influenced by feminisms—including Pollock's—has moved in different directions. (See chapter 12.)

When I posted a draft of this chapter on Facebook in 2013, I got many more suggestions: Sydney Freedberg, Anthony Blunt, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, E.H. Gombrich, Daniel Arasse, Clement Greenberg, John Berger, Svetlana Alpers, Georges Didi-Huberman, Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann, Thierry de Duve, David Summers, Lucy Lippard, Hal Foster, George Kubler, and Frederic Schwartz. For me they conjure disparate ideas of the discipline, and some seem parts of art history's past. Clark, for example, would sigh at the mention of Freedberg and Blunt, and people who admire Didi-Huberman might scratch their heads over the idea that Kaufmann is a writer in that sense. The Facebook discussion reminded me that there is another question, which I would put in the past tense: what has counted as good writing in art history? My interest here is not only in what counts, now and for the next generation, as plausible models of good writing, but also what is actually emulated. Few of the people on this list are being studied by young art historians as models, and that is why I haven't focused on their work.

In short, there were many choices. My decision to open with a text of Rosalind Krauss is partly an attempt to side-step the problem of finding, or needing to characterize, what "good writing" might be, or has been, in art history. I have the feeling that Krauss's writing is as often criticized as it is emulated, and that it is seldom simply praised. But the writing she and others did remains deeply influential—"deeply" in the sense that many art historians trained in North America and Europe practice modes of writing that are indebted, sometimes indirectly and often unintentionally, to the model provided by the first decade of the journal October. This oblique, always qualified, frequently unconscious influence is pervasive in art history. I want to open with texts that are within the discipline's sense of itself, and by that criterion, Krauss is arguably as central as several others.

Speaking about writing in art history…

Before I begin, it may be prudent to say what it means to read for the writing when the writing is done in the name of a discipline like art history, visual studies, or the philosophy of at. There is precious little writing in philosophy on what writing styles mean, and what they do to the philosophy. I like the novel Wittgenstein's Mistress as a way to think about what it means that Wittgenstein's philosophy once existed as notes, even though Wittgenstein scholars write in complete essays. And I learned from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe something about what it means that Heidegger's prose is so calm, so stentorian. A short but interesting bibliography could be compiled of such books, but nothing of the kind has happened in art history, theory, or criticism, and even in philosophy, those few texts are shouted down by the discipline as a whole.

So the first thing that needs to be said about what it means to talk about writing in art history (or the other fields where writing's purpose is to say something about art) is that the talk is treason. Or more charitably, perhaps just irrelevant. Good writing, in for writers who want to say something about art and also have their work read as art history, theory, or criticism, is simply clear writing. At Williams College in 2011, I got to know Paul Park, a genre novelist in the English Department who was teaching a mandatory course on writing for art history graduate students. His mandate, and his interest, was clear writing: concise, parsimonious, logical prose that said what the students needed to say in the simplest and most forceful manner. In a sense Park was teaching Ciceronian plain style. There's that discourse in art history—that good writing is fairly unornamented—and then there's the idea that good writing is an unexpected bonus, a delightful ornament on scholarship, which can make reading more of a pleasure and help the author convince her readers.

Part of talking about writing in art history, theory, and criticism is therefore indulgence: writing is what people think about when they can, when they have leisure time, but it's not a required subject. Another part of talking about writing is the plain style and its companions in classical rhetoric: direct speech, reasonably free of jargon, which pays attention to its argument. Both of these operate in university seminars, sometimes in succession, sometimes in opposition.

I have in mind both those ways of thinking about art historical writing, and two others. The third is a way of critiquing writing that pays attention the way one pays attention to a novel, a poem, or any other work of serious literature. This is close reading: attending to voice, pace, style, manner, word choice. Being patient and demanding about how the writing becomes expressive, how its message finds its form. Here I would want to apply the full arsenal of literary criticism from Empson to De Man, from Derrida to Perloff. This is an inherently unfair thing to do to writing that hasn't been made for that kind of reading, but my criterion will always be that whatever is said about style, manner, and voice has to be connected to what the scholar meant to communicate. In other words: no carping about writing unless the writer's choices have a nameable effect on what is being argued. In that way close reading, no matter how unusual it is in art history, is pertinent.

The fourth kind of reading is radical, and I will not be doing much of it, but it is presupposed in each of these three strategies. This is reading nonfiction as if it is fiction. It is probably not yet possible to do that with Krauss's texts: they are still close to us in time, and their themes and dramatis personae are still largely our own. But a time will come, as it does for all writers, when Krauss's concerns are more about her than about Picasso or Duchamp, and then her writing will exist as writing. Perhaps it is time to begin thinking about that possibility.

… and the use value of these readings

And so it is also important to say that only some of these readings might be of use to students or practitioners of art history. If you're an art historian, and you feel your writing might be too full of jargon, then you might find it helpful to think about the plain style, and about clarity. Or if you're an art historian interested in what counts, in the discipline, as good writing, then you could possibly find pointers, or directions to avoid, in the writing of Alex Nemerov and others.

The questions for such a reading are: what can art history do to make contact with twenty-first century writing? How, by what means, does disciplinary art history continue to sequester and control writing? What is omitted when art history pays only nominal attention to its own medium?

Most of what I have to say in these pages won't be helpful for any particular future art history, because it is aimed in a different direction. Looking at even the most adventurous art historical writing is like looking back in time. Art history—and, of course, academia in general—isn't the place where writing is finding new voices. And looking at writing means looking past content: in short, it means not caring what might be true about artworks, and that probably isn't a promising starting point for new scholarship.

If this project does have a use value for the discipline, I hope it is something more general: art history—and, I mean to say, humanities and social sciences in general—can only become more interesting, more challenging to itself and to its readers if its own medium becomes an object of full attention.

The potential danger of reading too much of this project

Having taught this material for several years now, I find that it produces an uncanny effect on my ordinary reading. It's not an especially pleasant effect, and it has actually begun to hamper my capacity to take art history as seriously as I once did. It is this: if you read a text, any text, with full attention to the way it is written, you will find yourself thinking about the author's or narrator's voice, tone, and mood. The writer of In Search of Lost Time, as he is implied by the book itself, is supernaturally patient--he manages things over the span of 3,600 pages--calm, rational, almost pathologically reflective, and suffused with nostalgia that makes most of our memories simpleminded by comparison. And so on: every strong novelist expresses herself, and the mood, the tone, of her writing is one of the things we grow to love, even if we know we cannot read through the novel to the novelist, even if reading a biography of the novelist doesn't help, even if the difference between the author and her narrator is impossible to disentangle. These are commonplaces.

But if you read art history, theory, or criticism in this way, what do you find? What I discover is that the author's voice is often unpleasant. What he or she really cares about, what makes the author or narrator passionate, is the desire to demonstrate how knowledgeable she is, and if she has a passion it is to own her subject in such a way that no other author can have interpretive power over her. This isn't true of all art historical writing, and a love of the artworks and artists does sometimes drive the prose. But much more often the writing expresses the author's or narrator's intense concentration on professional prestige.

The feeling of art historical texts is often this sort of ambition, mixed with fear or anxiety about embarrassment or mistakes. Scholars have remarked on Panofsky's calm, Olympian tone, at least in his English-language writings, and it has been said that tone served to project cultural mastery, and that such a style is no longer appropriate or persuasive. Yet contemporary art historians have their own versions: for example the cool hyper-accuracy of writing in the Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte or The Art Bulletin, or the projection of mastery of theory in some essays in October.

In this way much of art history has been poisoned for me. When I pick up the latest issue of a journal, or leaf through the latest offerings from Yale or California, I am initially interested by the subjects the authors describe, but soon I find myself put off by the unremitting narrowness, the thin emotional range, the frantic construction of complexity, the abject dependence and simultaneous anxiety about authority, and the author's perfect obliviousness to such questions of feeling, tone, voice, mood, and expression--all the things Nietzsche diagnosed in scholars 130 years ago. In the end, when writing is in question, this is what is wrong with art history and other humanities: they are bad writing, written by people who do not realize that what they write expresses their own lives.

Chapter 6


Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious

Beginning in the late 1970s, two traits of Rosalind Krauss's writing (and the writing of others around her, including some who were included in the opening years of October) were repeatedly noted by historians and critics: the apparently unprecedented density of different arguments within a single text, and the unexpected appearances of a number of theoretical and methodological sources presented in succession. Those two traits came to be noticed differently in the 1990s and afterward, and that has led to differing ways of reading her texts, and to divergent senses of what counts as writing, voice, narrative, and argument in her works—and by extension, in the ongoing influence of the writing associated with October in the years on either side of 1980.

I'll open with some thoughts on the ways that reading habits may have changed, and then turn to chapter 5 of The Optical Unconscious.

The density of different arguments: methodological sources in Krauss's earlier writing

In an event in Chicago in 2010, which became the book Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-AestheticHal Foster reviewed several texts from his 1980 book The Anti-Aesthetic. He led a seminar in which we read Krauss along with Craig Owens's "The Allegorical Impulse." During the conversation a question arose about how closely such texts could be read. They seemed "jumpy," moving without warning from one topic, one methodology, to another. Here is an excerpt:

James Elkins: What struck me reading was the question of his awareness of those jumps. The margins of my copy are annotated “illegitimate conclusion” (when he asserts that “the paradigm for the allegorical work is thus the palimpsest”), “unnecessary move” (the idea that “allegory becomes the model for all commentary”), “wildly unconnected” (the move from allegory as appropriation to appropriations in contemporary art). Some of these discontinuities are willed or hypothetical. Others, it seems to me, are not proposed as such, and I can’t distinguish the two. On page 71, for example, Owens says that the impermanence of site-specific work “suggests” photography has “allegorical potential.” That “suggestion” excludes the reader and so at that moment the essay declares either a logic that readers won’t be sharing, or an obliviousness to justification that is itself baffling. 
Hal Foster: Those texts that concern Owens came to him, came to most of us, without context and simultaneously. They were put in play together, not processed, and connected to artistic practices, which were often also various. Sometimes it made for a killer punch, sometimes for a witches’ brew. But it did get lots of people—artists, critics, curators, students—thinking. This is a typical early October essay in the sense that it moves less by argumentation than by juxtaposition. In a way it performs its object: it is an allegorical text, too. From start to finish the text is read through other texts.… You also have to remember how young these people were. Craig was twenty-nine when he wrote this amazing text, as a sometime graduate student but also as a public critic.

Given what Foster notes, it's interesting that essays like "The Allegorical Impulse," and others in Foster's collection The Anti-Aesthetic and in the first years of October, are read carefully and slowly in graduate seminars, with a close interest in what is taken to be their methods and references. The seminar in 2010, which was attended by about thirty scholars, didn't want to read that way, and instead we ended up talking about the political moment, the youthfulness of the writers, and their sense of discovery and exhilaration. That seems sensible to me, in that it was true to the historical context of the 1980s. But it was at odds with the kinds of pedagogy that have made writing by Krauss and others so influential in the academy in the twenty-first century: texts like Owens's are taken to be dense and challenging, and not at all the unmanaged products of accumulated insights collaged from different discourses, or the allegories of their own subjects. It's the close reading of Krauss, and not the wider cultural reading that Foster recalled in the Chicago seminar, that matters for the discipline now, because that sort of reading is what helps articulate the current worldwide dissemination of echoes and emulations of October, which in turn supports and articulates a certain practice of art history.

The protocol of reading, from a twenty-first century student's point of view, would be something like this: pay attention even to small points, and mark unexpected turns. Emulate the surprising theory sources, and the depth of research those sources required. From this perspective an unacceptable text would be one that chooses its single theorist, someone already well known, and applies her ideas systematically. Or a scholar who builds a linear argument, in the manner I was taught when I first arrived in graduate school: first describe your artwork, then say what's known about it, and then apply your own reading. Formal analysis, iconography, social context: any list of strategies is itself inadequate, just by virtue of being a list. The current privileging of subtlety, complexity, and what Leo Steinberg called ambilogies (managed tiers of ambiguity) depends on an anachronistic application of close reading to texts that were assembled, and read, differently.

What Krauss, Owens, Crimp, Foster, and others were doing around 1980—the moment of the Anti-Aesthetic, and four years into the publication of October—was more experimental, fragmentary, provisional. The new writing also drew on an unexpected range of theoretical references, and so what counted as authority shifted from the sure deployment of well-known methods to the unpredictable allusion to relatively unknown theoretical models.

Complexity of styles and methodological sources in The Optical Unconscious

The fifth chapter of The Optical Unconscious has the echoes of those early strategies and interests. Almost twenty years after the inception of October, and well into the dissemination of her style throughout North American and Anglophone art history, Krauss's way of writing had become experimental in different senses. Some of the early unpredictability had condensed into a personal manner or method. In the fifth chapter of The Optical Unconscious elements of the kaleidoscopic show of theories remain, for instance midway through the text when three pages take us from Hélène Parmelin's meditations on painting and the weather to a modernist critique of linear perspective, then to a resumé of Husserl's ideas of consciousness, to Derrida's critique of them, and on to Max Ernst (pp. 212-5). The chapter also registers some of the 1980's interest in undiscovered theorists and theories, especially the appearance of Jean-François Lyotard, who was known to Anglophone readers for his essays on the sublime, but not for his theories of the unconscious "matrix," which were in the book Discours, figure (1971)—a book that remained untranslated until 2010.

(Discours, figure was a kind of "secret source" to Francophone art historians like Norman Bryson throughout the 1980s. Its belated translation has had, I think, a minimal effect: it came twenty years too late. I don't know any younger scholars who have read it as a source in the way Krauss and Bryson did. Mary Lydon, one of the translators of the 2010 edition, told me at one point she'd been working on the translation for twenty-five years, and considered it fundamentally untranslatable. The matrix and pulse continued to serve Krauss as her best and deepest model for the non-rational alternates to rationalist modernisms. More on that subject in the book On Pictures and the Words that Fail Them.)

The kaleidoscopic early style is also on display in the chapter's elaborately convoluted opening, which is about 1960's "intellectuals in Paris" watching wrestling on television. This opening page systematically inverts her argument, beginning with the last things, and deferring the first, requiring readers to do the re-assembling.

Here for reference is the logical sequence, which is almost the opposite of the order in which the ideas are set out:
(1) Who needs permission (who is his own authority) for watching something as "vulgar" as wrestling on television?
(2) Barthes might have been the permission the "intellectuals in Paris" needed,
(3) or he might might not have been
(4) Barthes had said wrestling was not vulgar, and so
(5) he may have influenced the intellectuals, and
(6) caused them to try watching wrestling on television,
(7) and may have thought of Scapin while they watched, and
(8) this is significant because Picasso watched too
Note there is no claim that Picasso knew anything of Barthes or the "intellectuals in Paris." What kind of work does such an elaborate opening do? Does it concentrate Krauss's authority in a way that a more linear exposition might not? Or is it more a matter of preparing the reader for the kinds of hypothetical and theoretical associations that she will permit herself later in the chapter?

The chapter as a whole is clearly a product of the early 1990s, partly because it has a simple large-scale structure: it alternates passages in roman and in italics in order to represent strands of modernism (personified by the late Picasso) and postmodernism (personified by its progenitors, Ernst and Duchamp).

The key conceptualization in the chapter is provided by Lyotard's concept of the matrix—which Krauss develops in other chapters into the concept of the pulse, and which she repeated in the book Formless; the matrix and pulse are both ways of naming irregular or failed repetitions or structures. Because of this it makes sense that the A:B:A:B structure should itself break down, because otherwise the chapter would be proposing itself as a modernist form, even though the theoretical content, from Lyotard, is paradigmatically postmodern. The A:B:A:B alternation does in fact break down in the argument that Picasso's use of sketch books as flip books is a form of "opening" onto whatever is "behind the picture" (pp. 229-30). In this way the chapter enacts its theme, and form fits content.

Or seems to: there are other things happening in the text that break up what I take to be Krauss's intention to have content interact with, or speak alongside, form. Those other things have to do with the way the chapter works as writing: how the author's voice is developed, how fiction writing is represented in the chapter, and how the illustrations are arranged. I will consider each in turn.

The authorial voice 

First there's the device of quoting Picasso scholars as a single anonymous authority. The phrase she uses is "the art historian," as in "the art historian discusses the sketches" (p. 226). The endnotes reveal she is citing a half-dozen different art historians, but readers are meant to think that is not significant, because there are no endnote numbers in the text. This form of citation produces a distance between her book and the discipline of art history, and it is not easy to know how to understand that distance.

An implication is that all art historians, and also the discipline of art history as a whole, are modernist: that's the conclusion that I think has to be drawn from the contexts in which she cites "the art historian." But because these passages characterize a discipline, and not a person, they also produce her own text as a discipline comprised of one book. This is not the kind of conclusion I can imagine Krauss wanting her readers to draw, but it is written into the forms of her reference. It makes The Optical Unconscious into something other than a single-authored book, but it leaves unsaid how its author achieved her distance from what "the art historian" writes, or what the nature of that distance is, other than a sum of specific references to Barthes, Lyotard, Husserl, and Derrida—which it cannot be, since they are only summoned to explain phenomena the author locates in the images and texts of the period.

The disciplinary distance of the narrator is also made problematic by the unsurpassable degree of self-awareness she assigns to her own voice. I prefer to read this without considering affect: I am uninterested, in this context, in how omniscient she appears, or how that works for readers studying art history. What matters here is that a fully self-aware narrator is unusual in writing—fiction writing—because it can alienate the reader. (Several literary theorists have noted that an "omniscient narrator" is actually rare in novels: usually the narrator's knowledge is "focalized," as Gérard Genette said, on a person or group.)

Claims of self-awareness come out in several ways: the obliviousness and orthodoxy of Picasso's friends, contrasted with the canniness of Lyotard reading Freud or Derrida reading Husserl; the repeated themes of superior awareness (the "Parisian intellectuals" and Barthes; Lyotard's insight into Freud; Derrida's insight into Husserl); and in artistically significant self-awareness on the part of people like Ernst. At one point, writing about an anaglyphic illusion of the sort Ernst admired, Krauss implies seven implied levels of awareness:

1. The illusion itself, which the audience found thrilling (they were absorbed, unaware)
2. The anaglyphic mechanism that produced that effect
3. The illustration showing it in the popular science magazine
4. That journal's awareness its audience and their appreciation for understanding such things
5. Ernst's awareness of the journal's awareness
6. Krauss's awareness of Ernst's awareness of the journal's awareness, and
7. Krauss's and Ernst's awareness of the relation between the anaglyphic device and desire (p. 209)

These half-hidden narratives about awareness produce an authorial voice that understands by awareness. In writer's terms, it's a difficult bridge to cross: we are asked to find our way from the position of a plausible reader, who doesn't know most of this material, to a narrator who knows all of it. This isn't only a move that increases authority, as it is likely to be experienced by a reader who is an art historian: it's a move that sequesters narrative itself, because it prohibits the kinds of imaginative relationships between writer and reader that inform most writing. The references to "the art historian" place her outside disciplines (she also proposes herself as being outside philosophy, but I will not demonstrate that here); and the thematic of lack of awareness and hyper-awareness of self place her outside of history—history is, after all, the very medium of incomplete self-awareness.

How fiction writing is represented

Second, the chapter has a number of written passages, by which I mean prose that is intended to conjure places, moods, and states of mind, and which is incompletely anchored to verifiable facts. At times Krauss's writing is close to historical novels in its tone and its distance from historical fact. Such passages are clearly intended to be experienced as writerly, but it is difficult to pin down what sort of writing is being mimicked or emulated.

Occasionally she is successfully poetic—there is Picasso in his enormous house, "surrounded by a wild mulch of objects" (p. 198). But often the prose is workable or unobjectionable, more like an inventory of things that could possibly be verified (some of which are mentioned in the endnotes). And sometimes her writing is poor, like a student's—"the grand pneumatic tumescence of an invented classicism" could be good in a hyperbolic context, but it is stranded at the end of a classicizing paragraph (p. 198). There are places where the writing is apparently emulating mid-twentieth century fiction, especially Hemingway. In one place Parmelin is made to think "Under the flaming sun the sea is molten, a bucking sheet of metal, its surface radiating waves of heat" (p. 210). In other places the writing seems to be a parody of Irving Stone—another plausible "vulgar" mid-twentieth century source.

This is the genre of the historical novel: we are inside the witness's mind, reading details that are not in the historical record. It's a treacherous genre, traditionally just outside of proper scholarship. (There's a spectacular review by E.H. Gombrich of Simon Schama's book on Rembrandt, in which Gombrich shows just how much, and how histrionically, Schama invented. It's the historian's prerogative to make that kind of critique in the name of the facts.) What is Krauss attempting here? Is she trying for adequately descriptive passages that can conjure Parmelin's unconscious modernism? Is she also trying, intermittently, to parody the kinds of mid-20th c. modernist fiction that were the approximate counterparts of Picasso's life?

Questions like these can arise only when an author shows a lack of awareness or interest in opportunities to become more fully a writer, the kind who could develop voices and motivations, and control the production and parody of different styles. Some things about writing (fiction, in this case historical fiction) are harnessed and made to serve the argument about modernism and postmodernism; others seem to be invisible to the writer, for reasons that aren't clear.

Bringing unscholarly, "irrelevant," unquantifiable facts and images into the narrative is a traditional move in some historical writing, especially the often populist genre of historical novels; "the art historian" might say such writing is licensed provided it ultimately serves a legitimate historical purpose. But this is from an art historical point of view: considered as writing, the elaborated and imagined passages on Parmelin and Ernst feel uneven and unsure of their tone.

What counts, then, in this text, as writing? I think it is mostly a matter of structure. The collage-style juxtaposition of voices and theoretical sources derives not only from Barthes (and his well-known critiques of Michelin, Balzac, Hugo, and others), but from the "new novel" and writers like Robbe-Grillet. In other words "writing" is nonlinear narrative, metanarrative (which fits the themes of accelerating self-awareness), unexpected transitions (what Robbe-Grillet called "chafing"), structural fragmentation and realignment, and anti-bourgeois narrative forms.

(As partial proof of this I'd take the repeated descriptions of Clement Greenberg in chapter 6 of The Optical Unconscious: one description is repeated several times with minor changes. But those changes are not expressive, as a fiction writer might want them to be, and they don't seem to be rule-bound, as they would be in an Oulipo text or a conceptual piece of "inexpressive writing" à la Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith. The changes in the description of Greenberg from one passage to the next seem desultory, ineffective, and nearly random, as if Krauss thought of developing different descriptions and then changed her mind. What matters seems to be the form, and perhaps partly the small annoyance of noticing the many uninteresting word substitutions from one repetition to the next.)

Writing is a theme in chapter 5, but only parts of writing: the full possibilities of writing—developing, inventing, and projecting modes, manners, and styles—is unaccountably absent. Their lack is unaccountable because the authorial voice, which posits and praises full self-awareness, should encompass modernist and postmodernist writing as well. Writing, in a fuller sense, is oddly truncated, abbreviated, or confined.

Reading a draft of this analysis, which I posed online, the art historian Benjamin Lima suggested that Krauss's book has "an implicit narrative" of "the heroic critic" who vanquishes "ignorance," and that it works in parallel with another narrative, of "the heroic artist" who "can conquer ignorance with radical or advanced work." Lima concluded that "readers need stories, and stories need heroes. Krauss provides both, but many of her followers don't grasp this and are bored." If I read Lima's point simply, drained of the affective force of the personifications, it helps bring the ideally omniscient author's voice together with the occlusions of what counts as writing. The aspects of the text that I said remain unaccountable could be partly explained by the force of one theme (the unapproachably self-aware authorial voice) on the other (the sense of writing, which is compressed and truncated to make room for that voice). In terms of the discipline, Lima is right: Krauss's books—and especially this one, which is unusually experimental in regard to writing—are vehicles for moving her mode of oppositional thinking into territories of writing that are usually uninhabited by narrative ("stories") and identifiable voices ("heroes"). But the result is, from the point of view of fiction, deformed or abbreviated in its sense both of voice and writing.

How the illustrations are arranged

The illustrations produce an effect that disrupts the narrative in ways the author seems not to notice. The pictures come in pairs, on pages without text but with large-font captions that are quotations from the text. (I am reproducing two sets of pairs here.) Krauss may have gotten the idea for that format from Barthes's Camera Lucida; it produces an unscholarly, associative effect, because the appearance of an illustration asks the reader to stop reading, consider the quotation-caption, and then, if the reader has the interest or patience, flip to the page that's indicated and see the original context.

Sometimes the quotation / captions are to text on previous pages, and then the reader's task is to consider the relation between the caption and the illustration, and then the relation between that caption and illustration and the ones it's paired with. Reading attentively and thoroughly becomes a matter of periodically interrupting linear reading for sometimes unrewarding, often fairly random, tours back and forth through the pages surrounding the paired illustrations.

My own experience is that these tours repeatedly demonstrate Krauss did not always plan or control the position of her illustrations, so I find myself wondering why it seemed sufficient to pair a very carefully staged text with a less carefully staged layout. At first I thought that the matrix or the pulse was being rehearsed in the semi-randomness of the placement of the pictures, but then I decided the inconsistent control of placement was an uninteresting form of randomness, and I stopped caring about it or reading the captions so assiduously. The placement and captioning of the images is much less careful than the ordering of the text, and that difference is hard to understand.

Reading a draft of this material, the artist Tom McGlynn offered this insight: Krauss's "optical unconscious," he wrote, "may have felt the images as too competitive with her own figurative language, which seems to have a conflicted relationship (maybe repressed) with its own allusive powers. This is a confusion I often feel with her writing. Informe as mask." It's always possible: I'm not sure in this case, where the arrangement might have been a more passive, less inflected kind of carelessness.


The Optical Unconscious was daring as art theory, criticism, and history. The stark contrast between roman and italic fonts dramatizes and enacts the chapter's theme, and even breaks down, toward the end, in accord with Lyotard (the principal theorist's) claims.

But the chapter has an uneasy relation to writing in a wider sense. Krauss gives herself, by implication, an authorial voice outside of disciplines and history, which forecloses many narrative possibilities; she plays with writing in a poststructural manner, but the text does not understand writing as a theme in itself; and the formatting of her illustrations reveals a strange lack of care about a theme that should be central.

The book is an interesting example of how writing in the broad sense, theorized by Barthes and others—whose conceptualizations were admired, in several texts, by Krauss—, had to be truncated in order to continue serving the verist ambitions of historical writing, and how that truncation itself had to remain untheorized.

2014, revised 2016

Chapter 7


T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death

The first thing to be said about this book is that it can't possibly be adequate to read it as an investigation of the way a painting changes through time. The book's just too intelligent, and does too many things, for that to be simply true. It is what Clark announces as his theme, and critics have taken him at his word, but the book also has other purposes and leads in other directions. The subtitle is the better guide here. I take it that "writing," in a capacious and political sense, is what's at stake here. 

The narrator's voice

Voice, in this book, is several worlds away from what happens in Krauss's book, but there is a thread of similarity. Here, again, readers are kept at a certain distance. I don't think this is at all purposeful on Clark's part—really, it's the opposite. But it happens nevertheless. Right at the outset, we're introduced to a reluctant author, who hadn't imagined his project as a book, who hasn't studied Poussin in any systematic way. That same potentially sympathetic figure then happens to remember "his favorite line" of Poussin's in the original French (p. 3).

For me the end of the book's opening gambit that readers might see along with its narrator is a passage on p. 30, in which Clark says, parenthetically, "(Remember Chantelou's room with the Sacraments, each behind its separate curtain.)" I am an art historian, and I do have an unsteady memory of a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago in which we considered Chantelou's collection. I bet most art historians don't have that memory, and clearly no one outside art history will. Only graduate art historians who specialize in the 17th century will be sure to have such a memory, and Clark's gesture here closes off the possibility that he is writing with us: in fact, as the book develops and the politics becomes explicit, it's clear he is writing in "reactive," mode, mainly against us, at least in so far as we embody the desperate state of image culture that characterizes the present.

I confess that I came late to this book, because I had been teaching and reading Clark's Farewell to an Idea for years (I have two copies, both with margins entirely filled), and when The Sight of Death appeared, Poussin seemed to be just the wrong subject to raise questions about politics and current culture. Poussin: one of the canonical dead white males, subject of august, now unread monographs by scholars like Anthony Blunt, and rum interventions by writers like David Carrier. And Poussin, ideal carrier of some of Clark's less sympathetic ruminations, in Farewell to an Idea, about aristocracy and the intellectual life. Clark's style in Farewell to an Idea was untrammeled by editorial corrections, and even after many re-readings I had difficulty with some choices of image and diction that seemed plummy or precious. ("Fruity," as someone I know said: that was rude, but somehow not out of bounds.) So when I opened this book and saw poems with lines like "People like him have stepped into the same river twice" (a coy, intellectualizing allusion to Heraclitus), I thought I might wait.

Clark raises this sort of question once in The Sight of Death, when he exclaims impatiently about readers who might think his book, and his choice of artwork, is "elitist" (p. 122). I wouldn't call an interest in Poussin "nostalgic or elitist," but I would call it infelicitous. The very people Clark needs to confront about their culture of "image clarity, image flow, image depth, and image density," and the image's supposed hegemony (which goes hand in glove with the thinness of the "cladding" of the visual on the verbal, p. 176)—those very people are the ones who will not read a book on Poussin. Clark really does miss the shape of the cultural distance involved: perhaps he needs to spend more time in minor educational institutions. 

I mention all this because it goes to the question of the book's voice. It's intimate—I can hear him mumbling to himself in the Getty, just as he hears Philippe de Champaigne's "quiet voice in the shut-down rooms" in Chantelou's chateau (p. 73). But it is also distant and reserved in ways that are not entirely justified by the book's content and purpose. Reading this book in seminar, some students wondered why he didn't say more about the circumstances of his seeing. Weather gets a look in, and there are many mentions of the lights in the museum. But the Getty—I was there the winter Clark was writing this—is a particular and peculiar place, and Clark was living two minutes' walk from the museum. Surely other things that happened on those days, even if they were only moods or stray comments by "Anne" (his wife, who is mentioned in the text but not the index), could have been just as germane to the narrative. There were self-imposed rules in the making of this diary, or book, and that is natural: but those rules are not easy to guess. It's an authorial voice that keeps its privacy, which is also entirely appropriate and understandable: but what counts as private, and what public, is not at all clear, and that creates another obstacle to understanding both the voice and the project. My best guess about why some things are omitted is that Clark was feeling the residue of disciplinary expectations. I hope that isn't true, but if it isn't then the book itself offers no further explanation, and that itself is a flaw—especially in an author who says that he wanted even his books on the 19th c. to be read as "historical allegories" about the present (p. 185).

A word about the poems. The first, "Landscape with a Calm," strikes an intentionally informal, almost desultory tone. The poems are all inheritors of Larkin, Kavanagh, Lowell, and others (with pinches of O'Hara), so they present themselves as both spontaneous and carefully composed—in general emulation, I take it, of the Poussin paintings. Because Clark says at one point that he thinks that ideally, poems are better at addressing visual art than prose (poetry "would be the highest form of criticism," p. 53), it is necessary to ask what qualities, however muted by the poems' admitted shortcomings, might pertain to them as poetry that would give them the edge over prose. For me at least that answer is terribly unclear, and its unclarity undermines my sense of Clark's serious purpose. Could poems contribute a different sense of imagined voices? Synesthesic images? Sentence fragments? If Clark had said more about this, I would have been more likely to follow him further into the more speculative passages in his diaries.

The book, considered as a book

By which I mean the book as an object: its trim size, its layout, the way a reader goes from text to images and back. It is clear that Clark had some interaction with a design person at Yale University Press, but it's also fairly clear there were limits both to what the press could accommodate, and to what Clark may have been interested in pursuing. 

The book is full of helpful repetitions of details of the paintings. Sometimes the registration of reference to image is perfect: when you turn the page from 19 to 20, the phrase "similar cluster of buildings" greets your eye in the form of a detail. Other times it seems Clark decided to show one detail ("ten grazing goats," on p. 28) over some other ("look at the drawing," which isn't visible, also on p. 28). Often, inevitably, details aren't in the right places, or don't show the right bits. There are indications that he did not want readers to think of this book as a designed, formatted object in its own right: it's meant to be a sufficient window on his mediations, not an object whose formatting leads to new meanings. From my point of view—thinking of the history of writing with images, and given that this entire book is about specific encounters with images, which took place under specific lighting conditions—that is unfortunate more than it is inevitable.

One sign that the book is not presented to us as an object in its own right, whose successes and failures of layout are to the point of its argument, is a mention on p. 15 of "light on the rump of the horse drinking from the washhouse trough." The illustration on the opposite page does have that rump, but exactly at the edge of the frame. That is expeditious but also funny, and the humor of it isn't mentioned or repeated: it's just a small sign that formatting is not in itself taken to be capable of generating new meanings. Similarly the first detail that cannot be checked in an illustration is Clark's assertion that there are seventeen figures in Landscape with a Calm (p. 17). In an ordinary art historical text, that would be a hint to the reader that it's time to go consult the original artwork; here, the tally seems a bit stranded among the many call-outs that can be checked against the reproductions.

The book does have call-outs, but only the ones Clark really needed. Most images are uselessly, and pedantically, captioned "Detail of Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake" and so forth. I can well imagine the habits of the university press, and the supposedly incontrovertible rules of the copyright holders, that made these captions possible. Mainly, and at heart, the book is a continuous narrative that flows around uncaptioned images—my informal definition for the project of which this text is a part.

What is ekphrasis here?

Much of this book is ekphrastic, inch by inch description and pointing, and pondering that activity is one of the book's preoccupations and also, it turns out, one of its motivations—possibly even a stronger one than seeing how meanings develop through time. This is idiosyncratic ekphrasis, to say the least of it.

One oddity is that it continuously risks veering into endless inventory. Ekphrastic decriptions quickly reach the point where phrases like "the goat confronting the goatherd's dog, or the general randomness or variousness of the other goats" make a reader think that eventually there will be a passage dissecting that "general randomness" into something much more articulate. (And in a way there is: "goats," meaning roughly things that aren't theories, are one thing he finds missing in Louis Marin's account of the painting.)

And before I go on, it may be worth pondering what the smallest features are that can capture Clark's attention, or—to turn the question somewhat—what is the longest he is willing to work at explaining something small. That goes to the elements, as it were, of his ekphrases: what composes the painting, in the end? There are a couple of clues in the book. First, there are the details so small Clark announces them as end-points of seeing. A line of ripples can be seen "bisecting" the reflections of the legs of the sheep," for example (p. 63). At one point he wonders why the reflection of the rightmost tower of the citadel seems slanted. "Somehow," he says, the tower "seems tilted" (p. 34). He doesn't return to that, or solve it. And it is a mighty small problem. I think it can be solved: it has to do with the relative shortness of the reflection, which deprives the tower of its vertical sides. But it is good to know there are limits, both of patience and atomization: they set the terms for what counts as description, and what the painting is built out of.

The ekphrases question themselves at every turn. That is because one of Clark's main concerns is to show that writing can't put images into words—that "writing on art is almost never convincing," never finds an optimal tone or the right words—but that it does have specifiable responsibilities along those lines (p. 36). It needs to show its inadequacy, and then propose that inadequacy as politics. It needs, first, to be "light as a feather, fast as free association, exact and heavy as a fingerprint" (p. 52). An initial move is to say explicitly that pictures are not logical propositions (pp. 19, 27) or theories (p. 84). More positive is the assertion that ekphrases, or written accounts in general, should "mimic the kind of movement involved" in constructing a painting, for example "the hovering and going to and fro" p. 84).

(At this moment Clark is very close to Michael Fried, in his claim about "the structure of beholding" in Courbet's Burial at Ornans—that claim being that good art history should replicate the forms, the "structures," or beholding. There's more on that in Our Beautiful Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing.)

Ekphrasis is embattled in this book most fundamentally because all descriptions must be at least slightly off, slightly infelicitous, and that failure is exactly what needs to be demonstrated. Indeed, the paintings "are the argument" (p. 49), and "the pictures are the beliefs" rather than illustrations, concocted at unreliable removes, of "Poussin's idea of landscape," "his Stoicism, and so forth" (p. 30). This inbuilt, unavoidable, supremely difficult difference between building images and building words is at the heart both of the book's politics and of its limitation as an act of imaginative seeing: more on that in the last section.

What, or where, is art history?

Clark admits at one point that he doesn't read much art history. "I read so little and give up on so much," he says, because he tends to demand that the writing change his ideas about the art (p. 53). T
here is plenty of art history in this book, including careful looks at Félibien, Denis Mahon, and some others, but the charge he lays against himself is often said about him. Farewell to an Idea was often criticized for being made in a world of its author's own, apart from the recent scholarship.

This kind of distance makes it interesting to ask what counts as art history, and also how this book might count for, or to, art history. It is in several ways outside the discipline, facing away. For instance in the several preambles that get the book started, there are a surprising number of mentions of "meaningless" details. That is reasonable both given the book's diaristic structure—he's just getting started seeing the paintings—and also its theme of how images find words. So these mentions of "meaningless" passages of painting are justified by their unique context, but for that reason not useful for art history. They are supported by their unreproducible context.

Here is one more thought on Clark's relation to art history. It's a stray thought, because it responds only to a few passages in the book. I wonder what might plausibly be said about the relation between this book and art criticism. I ask that because in all the 250 pages of indefatigable rumination, there is almost no criticism. When it occurs it really stands out: on pp. 57, Clark mentions some small details in the treatment of trees and bushes in the foreground of Landscape with a Calm that are not "successful," but other than that he is out to learn from Poussin and from his own efforts at seeing and writing about it. But doesn't that kind of emulation, which takes the art as exemplary, go at odds with the book's political agenda? I can't answer this because there isn't enough evidence, but I would be surprised if it turned out Clark did not have extensive, well elaborated thoughts on all the ways the Poussin paintings fail (in their context, in their frames, as representations, as political theories, in detail, as sequences). I don't doubt that he could write another book with a trenchant critique of Poussin's project both in the 17th century and for our own century. He's omitted all of that in favor of a patient search for what the painting can still say and do. But why wouldn't a deeper doubt, a more critical pose, have actually strengthened the book's politics, not least by demonstrating an even more patient kind of seeing, on that has to overcome many more doubts? It's the nearly total absence of concerted criticism of Poussin that brings this book closest to art history, and furthest from criticism—and I would like to say also from politics.

Making paintings

Here I need to be cranky. This book approaches the feeling and experience of making a painting like Poussin's—by which I mean a Western, post-Renaissance, pre-modern painting, one with a deliberately and incrementally constructed form—more closely than almost any other book in art history. Clark's attempts to write what he perceives as Poussin's methods and his habits into his prose, into his themes, is really exemplary. But for a person who has painted anything resembling Poussin's paintings, or to someone like me who has a special interest in the ways that art history traditionally fails to build the bridges that could connect scholarship to making, The Sight of Death is repeatedly incrementally frustrating.

I haven't made a special project of making paintings like Poussin's, whatever that would mean. But a number of years ago, I immersed myself in Poussin, and I painted two landscapes—small ones, on panels—that came out of the swim of my experiences with his work. I don't think they exist anymore, but if they did, they would be embarrassing: not because of a lack of technique, I think, but because they would appear to someone who knows Poussin as pastiches, with every passage—every tree and cloud, each sapling and hill and rivulet and field—deriving in an obvious manner from some specific passage in Poussin. That is how my two paintings assembled themselves in my mind as I worked. They are as far from interesting artworks as I can imagine. But I have exact memories of each form in each painting, and my memories of those quotations and collages continue to influence my experience of Poussin: that is because making paintings is an experience whose detail and intensity cannot be matched by any writing. I learned an enormous amount about my seeing, and about Poussin, from those paintings.

Over the years I have kept my interest in the lack of relation between making and the field of art history. There is an unpublished paper on Academia called "Why Art Historians Should Learn to Paint." When I taught a semester at Berkeley, I got the museum rules changed so I could bring students into a basement room and let them try copying paintings. I was disappointed, then, that Tim Clark wasn't interested in visiting our class, even though we were copying Hans Hofmann paintings and he was writing and lecturing about Hofmann at the time for Farewell to an Idea.

All that needs mentioning because of what I want to say about what Clark does in this book when he comes to mention Poussin's method. Sometimes he just asserts Poussin's "surprise" and "delight" at "the sorts of equivalent a brush moving in pigment can throw up," and there I have no objection (p. 30). It's unproblematic to say that the citadel and far shore in Landscape with a Calm "are a wonderful miniaturized version of a kind of world-making—a deliberately multipartite, almost modular building of spaces" (p. 32).

But in other passages he gets something wrong about the tone or purpose or meaning of what he conjectures Poussin did in paint. It doesn't sound right to say the washhouse in Landscape with a Calm is an example of Poussin's "deliberate puzzles" (p. 34) or that it is "gaming with the very idea of clarity" (p. 56). It seems more reasonable to say the washhouse's ambiguities and spatial irresolutions are results of attempts to soften the impression of the building, which had probably been constructed, perhaps not entirely logically but in "modular" fashion, from invented and remembered parts. Nor does it sound accurate to say that the far meadow in Landscape with a Calm shows us Poussin "wants to show us" two kinds of seeing, "what both kinds are, and how the truth emerges from the to and fro between them" (p. 60). I just can't square my experience, or my sense of painting's processes, with the idea that the artist was trying to demonstrate something as logical as that—or for that matter that "demonstrate" or even "show" are the right words in a context like this.

Puzzles are something of an addiction among art historians, even for Clark whose sensitivity to that sort of intellectual challenge is as high as they come. (This is my argument in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity. And Clark does say he wants language on art to be like "thickenings… of a thought process, not reversals or paradoxes," p. 54.)

A painter, or someone who has pertinent experience, would not be likely to agree with Clark when he says "I seem almost to be setting myself the task of recapitulating in words every move in Poussin's process of manufacture" (p. 42). Hardly, a painter wold say, and the approximation should be striking. Similarly when Clark presents himself as being in danger of working like the painter, or a painter, his imaginary viewer (the "painter-beholder," as Michael Fried would call him) can be fairly distant from what a painter might think. "Time and again," he writes, in a passage that continues the one I just quoted, "I imagine a viewer asking what Poussin could have thought was the point of this degree of barely perceptible detail" (p. 43). But surely only art historians would ask, or think of asking, a question like that, and Clark's polemic point here—imagining such a viewer "especially now, in our current state of image production"—is weak because he himself asks versions of this questions throughout the book: he only tries to answer carefully.

These sorts of descriptions, in which Poussin is imagined as posing problems, puzzles, or deliberate ambiguities, sound to me as misdescriptions: the effect of careful adjustments, with the mind firmly fixed on the painting's construction, can be passages that appear as puzzles. The difference between those two moments, of making and matching as Gombrich said, is crucial in an account that cares about the mismatch.

And, finally, it's worth saying that Clark's account sounds to me as if it misses the pleasures of these various accomplishments in a way that painters, and I think Poussin, wouldn't have. Speaking of the screen of trees at the left of Landscape with a Calm, Clark writes that "in these conditions one sees that the leaves are a complex membrane, sometimes opaque and sometimes semi-transparent, sometimes absorbent and sometimes reflective, through which light pushes irresistibly" (p. 89). When you paint passages like this, over partly completed backgrounds that are full of light, there can be a tremendous pleasure, which can vary precisely as the form of the screen varies. I wonder what an articulation of such a pleasure might have contributed to Clark's account. The big mid-distance screen of trees in Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake is another case, equally variegated, and so is the birch trees that take up so much space at the right of Landscape with a Calm. Perhaps one way toward this experience would be to imagine the construction of the painting that much more exactly (mechanically): the entire sky wasn't painted when those trees he mentions went in, but some was, and the unseen portions of the sky were effectively created by the act of screening them: something a non-painter can certainly study, and something that certainly helps link the reception with the making. 

PS. To Tim Clark, if he ever finds this

Tim, I assume this posting is safely hidden away from you, deep in the world of "image clarity, image flow, image depth, and image density." But if you happen to be sent it, please take it as a sort of unedited diary entry: it exists on the internet, where even drafts too malformed for diaries—not to mentioned edited diaries—can work, hopefully, differently than texts in books. After this material has been out a while, and I have registered people's suggestions, it may grow into something readable in a more normal sense.