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Formalism's Other History Author(s): Johanna Drucker Source: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78, No. 4 (Dec.

, 1996), pp. 750-751 Published by: College Art Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3046221 . Accessed: 17/09/2013 10:50
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Letters

eliminated from consideration-pass as credible scholarly positions? Does Bois believe I found Yve-Alain Bois's defensive remarks in that the relations of form to the specific social institutions, historical circumstances, and culsupport of his own particular brand of formalism ("Whose Formalism?" Art Bulletin, LXXVII, tural practices in which their signification is no.1, 1996, 9-12) profoundly disturbing. One produced have no relation to the signifying wonders why Bois misrepresents the place of functions themselves? If Bois believes that he formalism and its role within contemporary has isolated the pure "Idea" of modern form art history; why he does a disservice to the as form, doesn't that contradict his own antiidealist arguments? history of formalist-based critical practices; and why he makes an unsupported attack on Collapsing the term "formalism" with the Visual Studies. proper name of Greenberg, or even with Bois begins by dismissing his many critics Greenberg's own varied positions, is of course on the ground that they have not properly a historical distortion, as Bois well knowsunderstood his work and its formalist premthough it serves his purpose of validating his ises. A discussion follows in which formalism particular late 20th-century art-historical apis confined to the single lineage of Clement proach. Formalist methodology originated in the mid-1910s with Russian critics' efforts to Greenberg, Rosalind Krauss, and (oddly, isolate their understanding of poetic form given his pluralistic, social-history approach) and language from historical linguistics and Timothy J. Clark. This exclusive narrowing of the field seems to serve only one purpose: to the methods of the late 19th-century New invalidate any work which does not follow his Grammarians. But from the outset, its practiown party line. But in any field of study of tioners in the Moscow Linguistics Circle and classic or contemporary art, isn't there room the St. Petersburg Opajaz group struggled to and need for a range of arguments? Why remain self-conscious about the historical denigrate the archival work of Patricia Leighaspects of their own work (that method had a ton (though unnamed, she is obviously being history, and that historical circumstances had referred to as "one [who] speaks of Picasso's limiting and defining effects on the possibiliCubist papiers colles" in relation to "this ties and transformations of enduring poetic and prose forms). The difficult problem of artist's highly improbable interest in the Balkan war")? Or that of Serge Guilbaut and the relation between form and ideology, lanin Michael Leja, and a host of others-as guage and culture, art and politics in every Bois's invective against the study "of postwar sense of the word was actively debated. For American painting" in "any analysis of its instance, Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir market and institutions." Though Bois may Mayakovsky (who was involved in the debates of the Moscow Linguistic Circle) took starkly not have use for such material, does his formalism have to be defended at the exopposite views. Shklovsky argued for the idea that "art was always free of life," that it was pense of the value of such work? Leja's discussion of the "Modern Man" myth has "an independent system," and that formalbroadened our understanding of the ways in ism's primary concern was to understand literature (and "literariness") through the which specific art-historical practices intersect with contemporary definitions of human"inseparability of form and meaning."' Mayaism and its discontents to at least as great a kovsky took the position that there should be an attempt to understand and theorize (as degree as Krauss's questioning of the autowell as engage with) the interconnections of graphic trace in the evidently physical, gesthis approach to art with the cultural sphere tural, authorially expressive work of Pollock's of lived social life. By the 1920s this conviclarge drip paintings. Is it really formalism or tion had become so strong among one group methodology which is at stake here? Bois's of theorists, particularly Pavel Medvedev and closed circuit of references evidences increasMikhail Bakhtin, that they formulated a Marxing intolerance of oppositional voices. Bois ist theory of literary production. Their book, seems convinced that he has isolated the fine titled in its English translation The Formal filament of pure theoretical formalism-the Method zn Literary Scholarshzp(Cambridge and internal dialogue ofform's definition of itself. London, 1978), can be taken either as a In the process he has transformed the richly Marxist critique of formalism's limitations heterogeneous field of modernism into a (and hence a dismissal) or, as seems closer to repressive, narrow, tunnel view. In what unithe case, as an attempt to engage formalism verse do such beliefs-that Adolph Gottlieb with Marxism precisely because of the realizaor Clyfford Still (or the truly unmentionable tion that it was only by combining the insights figurative abstractionists Willem de Kooning, into the specific qualities ofliterary/art pracLarry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan) should be

Formalism's Other History

tice with an analysis of the role of art as a cultural practice that the full efficacy of art activity could be assessed. These splits within formalist factions in the 1920s mapped tensions still evident in the field today: the attention to the symbolic orders of discourse as sites in themselves (Osip Brik, Shklovsky, Bois) contrasting with a desire to see the symbolic discourse as inextricably bound to cultural practices (Medvedev, Bakhtin, and in a contemporary frame, Victor Burgin, Irit Rogoff, Amelia Jones, Francis Frascina-the list goes on). Bois's statement that his formalist method is historical because it engages with "what makes any given work of art possible at any given time" is true only if one accepts a very in limited definition of cultural frame-one which art's discursive structures are only metaphorically, rather than literally, engaged with historical and cultural concerns. While understanding Cubist collage in Bois's terms as the "issue of the status of signification in a world where the illusions of unity condoned by the episteme of representation are being dismantled" may be a necessaryaspect of reading this work, it is not a sufficient one-since the world, in fact, is not in the work. It seems essential to understand the ways in which the work is zn the world as well. The conditions of possibility are institutionally mediated; they aren't embodied, autonomously, within the delimited, formal boundaries of the object. There are many aspects of artistic function which can't be accommodated within Bois's narrow practice of formalism. Raymond Williams's classic essay "The Future of Cultural Studies," in The Politzcs of Modernism (London, 1989), contains a lucid account of a countertradition of formalism, one which served as a preliminary model for Cultural Studies. Extending Williams's thoughtful work into a contemporary frame must, of course, take into account the changed conditions of culture-late capitalism and its cultural manifestations, and the place/role/ site/effect of visual art in these very different circumof which I think Bois would stances-all argue can be inferred from the changed "episteme of representation." But how? Which leads me to my final point: Bois's remarks on the topic of Visual Studies. For many art historians, the phantom of Visual its even larger corollary field, Studies-and to be the present Cultural Studies-seems incarnation of all their fears about philistines at the gate, of the desperate need to defend the canon of fine art at all costs from possible contamination. That Cultural Studies carries with it an activist agenda from communities

1. Victor Erlich, Russzan Formalzsm, New Haven/ London, 1965, 66-69, 112-17.

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LETTERS

751

of persons of color, women, and other minority groups is a not-inconsiderable aspect of its identity-nor, probably, of the grounds on which fears within elite enclaves are produced. This is especially true when such work challenges the old modernist and avantgarde ideas that form carries ideological value (or that representation is an adequate site of political engagement). It may (but also may not) be necessary for normative conventions to be destabilized in order to rework relations between hegemony and representation. But that a rhetoric of politics is hardly any politics at all seems not yet to have occurred to those for whom the pointed critiques of Cultural Studies pose such a that of exposing the hypocthreat-possibly risy of those very scholars who took up the mantle of the old avant-garde and its rubrics only to make it a repressive and elitist enterprise. Art historians concerned with the current status of the fine-art image have much to gain from recognizing the ways in which contemporary art practices are circumscribed by the domains examined within Cultural Studies. The image-saturated environment in which fine art continues to have an identity requires a theoretical understanding of the distinctions between images produced in mass media, entertainment, and commercial venues and their ongoing dialogue with contemporary art. The hard-and-fast distinctions so essential to Greenberg's kitsch and Theodor Adorno's culture-industry models no longer if these concepts still function as exist-even cornerstones of outmoded defenses of supposedly avant-garde practices. Artists negotiate the terrain of popular culture with increasing interest and facility. Art historians can (and do) too, and to the mutual benefit of fine arts and critical theory. Again, it is the defensive tone, the blanket dismissal, of fields of inquiry whose intellectual and critical legitimacy has been long proved and accepted in a broader critical community that I find disturbing. It seems to return art' historians to an exclusionary and elitist domain, as if only Mondrian, Matisse, Pollock, and a handful of other artists were of interest, and only an even tinier number of critics producing valid or useful into their work. insights While I have sometimes found Professor Bois's writing useful, and certainly appreciate its creativity and rigor, his work, like that of all the rest of us, represents only one highly limited perspective in a very broad field. If all the work on contemporary art were to disappear save his and that of the writers he sanctions, then our knowledge of and insight into this field would be smaller than the peephole in Duchamp's Etant donnis. And what we would be allowed to look at might be a lot less interesting. Why is someone in so privileged and important an academic position so closed-minded and ungenerous toward the field of contemporary art and the writers of its evolving history?
JOHANNA DRUCKER

Response
I have some difficulty tracking down the "unsupported attack" and "invective" that Professor Drucker seems to have read into my essay. My effort was merely to prize "formalism" away from "Greenberg" by showing: (1) that Greenberg was often idealist (as ideologically generated meaning ["transcendence"] gets in the way of an adequate account of formal procedures); (2) that Greenberg was frequently incapable of an accurate attention to materials; and (3) that because of both of the above, Greenberg was often unable to deal with the historical specificity of a given artist's choices. In other words, I wanted nothing else than to hint that formalism had been given a bad name in being "collapsed with the proper name of Greenberg," thus that it should be reconsidered, and that other models of formalism, far more attentive to the mediated relationship of the work of art with its sociopolitical context, were available.
YVE-ALAIN BOIS

Department of Fine Arts Harvard Universzty Cambrzdge,Mass. 02138

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