Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books: The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind Krauss

I've never been fond of Picasso; a few of his early blue paintings are pleasing enough, and for a brief moment, when I was writing a short paper on Les Demoiselles d'Avingnon, I became somewhat infatuated with that painting. Similarly, when editing a friend's paper on Guernica, I looked long and hard enough at that picture to find myself attracted to parts of it. But, on the whole, Picasso, for me, is a cold, unfeeling artist, and a shape-shifter more out of necessity than innovation, as each of his so-called styles is really another failed experiment.

In fact, the only treatment of Picasso that I've ever found remotely compelling is from the children's cartoonAnimaniacs, in episode 45 of the first season, in which the three cat/dog siblings barge in on the morose artist in his studio, insisting on a game of Pictionary. Somewhat against his will, they begin to play, but his classical drawing of a guitar isn't recognizable to them. "That's not a guitar!" they whine petulantly; "That's a guitar!" and scribble up a cubist confusion of the stringed instrument. This goes on and on, until Picasso's dealer walks in them and finds the Animaniac's drawings. Mistaking them for Picasso's own, he determines that they are genius, and snatches them all up to hang in his gallery.

Aside from being terribly entertaining television (quite the oxymoron, if you know me), this scenario is brilliant in its comfortable acknowledgment that cubism is just some crazy, experimental bullshit. Enter Rosalind Krauss*, whose Picasso Papers examine only two periods of the artist's career: cubism and the pseudo-return to classical drawing (which she calls pastiche). Krauss' main thrust, though it takes some excavating to suss it out, appears to be that cubism was a genuine form of artistic expression, but the post-cubist return to classical drawing, a pattern of pastiche in which the artist made copies of figurative paintings and photographs in the style of the French neo-classicist portraitist Ingres, was fraudulent, a psychoanalytic reaction against the mechanization of art (brought about by the camera and popularized by Picabia) in which his hand nevertheless behaved mechanically. Krauss uses the unwieldy Freudian concept of "reaction-formation" to express this, adding to her academic stone soup a healthy dose of Andre Gide, including a lengthy expanse on his stories of gold coin counterfeiters, a dollop of Dostoevsky by way of Mikhail Bakhtin, a pinch each of Adorno and Derrida, and other various, unrelated references, just to spice things up.

What stands out, though, is not so much her insistence on academic name-dropping, for that is unfortunately standard issue in these sorts of texts, but her complete inability to understand the artistic process, the artist's creative mind, and the simple legibility of a work of art. Loathe to admit that a drawing could be anything so simple as a drawing—a doodle, a sketch, a study—she insists that every stroke made by Picasso is an intentioned stroke, which mode of thinking enables misreading after misreading (truly, over-reading) of collages and drawings which to me, being raised by an artist and knowing a few others, are very clearly just a mode of artistic play, experimentation, and questioning. Of course, Guernica is the product of years of studied work, not the spontaneous jouissance (to use one of the academy's favorite ridiculous words) of a genius, but these minor sketches and portraits, which Krauss studies as if they were made with an equal amount of intention, are actually no more than exercises, the fiddling around of a hand and mind idle between projects, and engaged in playful conversation with artists and intellectuals both contemporary and bygone.

I'm no fan of the generally backward views of The New Criterion, but in one of its old issues, Roger Kimball wrote a piece entitled "Feeling Sorry For Rosalind Krauss," in which he laments the academic's inability to truly see and thus feel works of art. Of another of her books, he writes, "Few books claiming to deal with art can be more optically unconscious than The Optical Unconscious." As I'm no where near as facile a writer as Kimbell, I will quote him again in wholehearted agreement: "Here is a woman who has devoted her professional life to art and ideas, but who clearly has no feeling for art, and for whom ideas are ghostly playthings utterly cut off from reality. . . Why, she must wonder, do other people seem to care so much about art and beauty when to her it is all an arid, narcissistic battleground? It is pathetic, really. Her writing and ideas are pernicious, but one cannot help feeling sorry for Rosalind Krauss."

*full disclosure: I took a graduate-level seminar with her at Columbia and she gave me the only C I've ever received in my life. If you think that means I have a bone to pick, and that my thoughts on her book are therefore biased, fine.

1 comment:

Syber said...

An interesting article.