The Reusable Past

John Haber
in New York City

Rosalind E. Krauss: The Originality of the Avant-Garde

"What would it look like not to repress the concept of the copy?" Well, obviously, not very much different. Which is how we know it is a copy. Or do we?

The question, from Rosalind E. Krauss, comes at the pivotal moment in her essay "The Originality of the Avant-Garde." Krauss has observed freshly made casts of The Gates of Hell in a Rodin retrospective. Auguste Rodin is dead, and yet she has seen new Rodins. They lead her to see the copy, the inauthentic, as the long-repressed underside of Modernism.Auguste Rodin's Balzac (Museum of Modern Art, 1897) Fortunately, postmodern artists have already begun to turn from "repression" to "play." They "demythologize...aesthetic purity and freedom" and "watch it splintering into endless replication."

To ask that we revalue copies is to question how art relates to the past, its past and ours. In fine-art traditions, skill was attained by study of past masters. In our century too, fine art has been pillaged, but quite often along with commercial culture. Theft has served the avant-garde agenda of making art and the world anew.

I shall argue that Krauss's notion of the copy is the wrong way to phrase modernist and postmodern appropriations. It tries hard to use the past and to rebel against it, but it ends up by doing neither one. (Krauss, with her usual insight, revisits many tough questions in dialogue with three co-authors, for a textbook on modern art, Art Since 1900.)

This essay will examine how well Krauss's challenge describes Modernism. I shall also contrast her answer with that of two valuable philosophers of art, Arthur C. Danto and Nelson A. Goodman. They had already found the threat of the copy lurking behind late-modern art. I then compare their fears with neo-Pop's fiercer attacks on art and commerce. It may turn out that all four lie too safely within modernist traditions, and I look for suitably postmodern ways to stop worrying about whether I have myself escaped.

If I am to leave my worries about originality behind, I do not wish to burden this essay with footnotes. I freely admit, however, to running down my sources.


Krauss describes late modernist painting as obsessed with "the originary surface of the picture frame." Even Minimalism and Pop Art, she argues, maintain the fiction of a bare canvas awaiting the artist's special mark. Both forms may have pretended to debunk the jargon of authenticity, but the true break is yet to come.

Authenticity and the science of deduction

Krauss cites the grid behind many works of the 1960s. These works share a deductive geometry, a rule. For Sol Lewitt, the text of the rule is even part of the work. Presumably such art, like any other formal deduction, needs no basis in history or in fact. It seems to come entirely out of the artist's head. In that sense, it is totally original.

Paul Benaceref, the chair of Princeton's philosophy department, has described late-modern thinking in much the same way. As he said in an interview, philosophers have problems much like scientists. They need not recapitulate the confused attempts of the past in order to make progress solving them. He sounds remarkably like Clement Greenberg on painterly rigor: "Modernist art belongs to the same historical and cultural tendency as modern science."

Krauss does not discuss Abstract Expressionism here, even when authenticating Jackson Pollock has become a business, but her essay is haunted by it. Her history of art demands a break with the past, and it refuses to accept predecessors who may have tried to force one by the sheer strength of talent and ego. For those great painters, as Harold Rosenberg wrote, suddenly the canvas became "an arena for action." They thought they could take the fate of each painting into their own hands.

In that gesture, they refused to be bound by any past art. In words taken from Wallace Stevens, Rosenberg said that Barnett Newman wished

To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute.

Modernism, then, proposed art as expressive breakthrough and then formal deduction. Against both, she sets a still-unrealized future. The break was foretold in the dizzying contortions of a multiple from Auguste Rodin. It finally comes with the slippery violations of Sherrie Levine's copies after photographer Edward Weston. One might also mention Sturtevant.

Art as science and the color copier

This announcement of a new esthetic vision should sound at least a little suspicious, like a new theory of art and vision. Late in the same volume, Krauss will praise Richard Serra for being "utterly distinct." Yet her essay, after all, has cast doubt on the very idea of an avant-garde. Perhaps it has missed some of the point of older visions as well.

Levine commits herself to demystification, perhaps the most "originary" gesture of all, and demystification of a privileged realm of fine art at that. Krauss has staked her provocative ground in the best modernist utopia—collective imagination of a freer future. In now-familiar rhetoric of a brave new future, the old standards no longer count: as the saying goes, it's all the same.

Similarly, for Krauss the past literally looks the same, whether in the hands of Rodin's curators or under Levine's lens: "watching the newest Gates being cast, we want to call out, Fraud." Those casts as teaching tools in older museums, contrary to Alan Wallach, may in fact have helped certify the value of modern museums.

If so, it may also look less than liberating. It might lead to nothing more than indifference. I have myself turned my back to the sculpture garden in boredom at having seen "that" Rodin before. Or worse, it might look much the same as before. Because Krauss too casually conflates copying and plagiarism, she fails to note that our notion of "authorship" stems from books, an endlessly reproducible art form. No wonder even popular art has its aura. Cries of fraud have been used before anyhow, mostly to deride art that will not fit into greeting cards.

More frighteningly still, Krauss's use of the past holds out an ideal of what economists call perfect circulation. As art objects become interchangeable, they turn into model commodities, suspiciously like the inflated art markets of the 1980s—when, in fact, Krauss was writing. We shift from the seller's market of the connoisseur's eye to the buyer's market of multiple copies.

Seeing beyond authenticity is not the same as attaining a fresh historical consciousness. The "perfect copy" even sounds commercial and bureaucratic, like an ad for better color copiers or a technologist's dream of the paperless office.

Dismemberment of things past

Part of Krauss's dilemma was also her inspiration: her modernist precursors are not so easily trapped by academic cliches of the last decades. They had anticipated their copiers. Weston's works are prints. He staked his deliberate observations on the glowing, silvery outside of urban culture and the metallic silver inside of an inherently reproducible medium.

Deductive geometry, too, whether bold or subtle and whether Frank Stella or Agnes Martin, meant that every gesture can easily be reproduced. There is no original site for a Lewitt, no quick way to tell a color-field abstraction from a copy. To turn to another side of Minimalism, fluorescent lights from Dan Flavin may seem more like an artist's trademark, perhaps because they are solid objects. Yet the objects are mechanical, reproducible, even store bought. Moreover, his work can be located neither in mechanics of the materials nor in the shimmering space surrounding the viewer. Walter Benjamin wrote of "the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction." With Flavin, Carl Andre, and so many others like him, the whole idea of what constitutes mechanics or reproduction breaks down.

The story of the preceding decade is no clearer. It is only in poor critical memory that the drama of authenticity repressed the scandal of Pop Art. Rosenberg celebrated Claes Oldenburg along with Newman, and he had the foresight to reproduce Roy Lichtenstein's 1963 canvas Image Duplicator. Rosenberg saw the interest of copying. He even foresaw that it could be "academic modernism," a label that talented younger artists struggle against.

Greenberg's ideal artists were not artistic idealists either. In the very essay I have cited, he treats convergence between science and art, if also perhaps the dominance of one over the over, as a cultural trend with logical consequences, not the other way around. Not incidentally, he called his influential book Art and Culture.

Krauss enacts a story about reduplication, but a different story than her own. As she cites her predecessors, their meaning is changed from her context. Like modernist collage, her style at its best is an earnest, playful appropriation that transforms meanings. At its worst, unfortunately, her essay denies them outright.

Citation as reproduction

In truth, Modernism never failed to reflect on the reproduction or the art world. Without missing a beat, it pursued Manet's infuriating citation of Titian into collage and Dada.

Abstract Expressionism plays with citing itself. Think of its practice of naming works in series, like Number One or the de Kooning women. Think of the drip, which is a way of returning to an image and defacing it, rather than originating one. In one de Kooning, a necklace casually repeats the woman's line of teeth. It alludes to everyday reproductions, such as advertisements for dentures, and to pre-Western sculpture. Even its obvious misogyny is close to parody; it takes up both the mouth and art as a kind of Freudian vagina, and it settles for neither anxiety nor cheer. Whatever its originality, it is about duplication, transformation, and multiplication of meanings.

As in this example, Modernism always preferred quotation to copying, and the distinction matters. For centuries, copying the Old Masters and copying nature had gone hand in hand. Both had signified deference, to art as institution and to God. With the elimination of both senses of the copy, art could become a matter of traditions rather than institutions. The art world could be a matter for parody rather than privilege, because art was now just another part of life.

As newly independent experience, art had to fulfill the same demands that philosophers like Edmund Husserl associated with human consciousness—self-reflection and changeability. As Virginia Woolf said, "Nothing is only one thing." Critics pursued multiple ambiguity. In "Two Aspects of Language," Roman Jakobson gave metonymy its place alongside metaphor. Metaphors stand for something out there, but metonymy stands for what comes afterward in speech. Jakobson was elevating the sequential flow of thought.

The unusable past

Like Krauss, I too want to see Pop artists and Levine as neither routine travesties of Abstract Expressionism nor staid academics. To do that, we must press further the conflict between art and its institutions.

Krauss's essay describes the problem of artists and critics trying to break with ahistoricity and the past. That is why it has continued resonance. Her problem is that she cannot be sure whether her interpretation reinvigorates Modernism or sets it aside for good. Somehow, the past has become more remote and less useful the more closely it is cited.


"The Originality of the Avant-Garde" neglects the precise way in which Modernism plays with the copy. It must also forget the lessons of earlier critics and philosophers, who had already worried that Pop Art and formalism run the risk of mindless copying. I shall look next at two tremendous worriers. Arthur C. Danto and Nelson A. Goodman worry their way, in fact, to very different views of art's power as an institution.

The banality of the copy

Institutions die hard. If Modernism was to retain a capacity for self-reflection, it would have to reflect on them too.

Meanwhile, however, the center of art production had moved from Europe to America. In the old world, nineteenth-century institutions appeared to die from irrelevance and inefficiency. Here they will perish, if at all, only from the Marxist diagnosis of overly great success. The new American painters, the generation that today's critics so associate with rigidity and power, had to live as never before with art become institution and commodity. Critics therefore had to question again the copy and the art world.

An essay by Arthur C. Danto, in fact called "The Artworld," saw the questions as linked. Danto wrote about "Fountain," Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal, but he was really responding to the shock of Warhol's Brillo boxes. In his essay, and more carefully in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto puzzled over how we ever manage to recognize Minimalism, geometric abstraction, and Pop Art as art. His musings even inspired a whole second career for the philosopher, as a sparkling critic for The Nation.

If Modernism had from the first been about making art into life (rather than the other way around), Abstract Expressionism had encouraged blowing the banal up to poster size. Now the results became hard to tell apart from what Danto called "ordinary things." Another analytic philosopher less well known to today's critics, Nelson A. Goodman, independently pursued the same question in Languages of Art and other books.

Both writers in effect asked whether two objects could be as indiscernible as original and perfect copy, yet only one be taken up by art institutions. The work of art might be just another colored mark on the wall, or it might look all too much like a commercial product. Formalism and Pop Art, both at the time anything but banal, seemed equally at risk.

Danto and Goodman were raising the very issues Krauss supposes modernists to have neglected. They also point to a close association between a bogey of contemporary critics, formalism, and the neo-Dada of the same period. If early Modernism had been an age of citation, in late Modernism, the period of an erased de Kooning, the copy really did come into its own.

Art as foster child

Danto concluded that neither resemblance to the world nor, conversely, uniqueness can stand as a criterion for a successful work of art. Rather, an object is or is not art by virtue of being adopted as art. Its adoption, he argued further, depends on our willingness to see it as meaningful—as referring to something. If Keats described art as a foster child of silence, now it could be adopted only once it (and its parents) learn to talk. Art, Danto is saying then, permits of interpretation as ordinary things do not.

The meaningfulness of art is not a trivial inference. It convinced other writers, among them George Dickie, to develop Danto's idea into an "institutional theory of art." If art works must be adopted, somebody must get to run the orphanage and to be the foster parents. For each such privilege, there have to be social criteria.

Goodman, meanwhile, focused instead on the critical eye. He too worried about close resemblances, but he noted that identity hinges on what differences we allow ourselves to grasp. As a number of philosophers had already written, there is no such thing as "pure observation." Seeing depends on an active, shaping consciousness: we understand and interpret what we see in terms of what we know. Convention may keep seeing and knowing apart, but only tentatively. They are still constantly tested against one another. Once again, interpretation is inevitable.

Once we see a work as a painting, Goodman pointed out, it turns out not to be nearly the same as that other mark on canvas. We do need to read and study, as Danto noted, but not just to get the latest word on who counts as an artist. Our aim, rather, is to notice new things about the art.

Conversely, once we learn to look, our notion of what counts as art will often change, too. So will what counts as different works of art. When art's foster parents let us come over to play with the kids, we keep on learning, and we may never know for sure whom we might end up taking home.

Taking meaning where you find it

These philosophers find meaning in every work of art. They find it in different places, however. Goodman, Danto might well say, attributes to all art an inexhaustible sensitivity to nuance. He demands repleteness that no one—neither the artist nor the most creative viewer—would ever seek. Those Warhol Brillo boxes, Danto admits, are handmade plywood sculpture rather than manufactured cardboard, but that cannot account for their status as art. If we take into account only what matters to their meaning, they remain indiscernible from the store-bought items.

Danto, Goodman might reply, is begging the question. Why refer to the interpretation and status of the object as if they are somehow given in advance of looking? Consider the nearly smooth, white canvases of Robert Ryman. Has any admirer thought them indistinguishable from paint samples—or from each other? Has anyone, for that matter, been so stupid as to open one of those Brillo boxes to clean the kitchen?

There may well be indistinguishable works somewhere. Still, Goodman might continue, such problem children are best seen not as a separate case, but as the limit of a continuum of less and less essential differences. Only academic theory could suggest differently. We are perfectly entitled to reject some visual or sensible distinction as irrelevant, but not without first forming a judgment about the art. Late in his career, Andy Warhol literally did exhibit soup cans, right from the store, but most viewers find them decidedly weaker art than his early paintings and sculpture of the same thing. Our judgments can cut deeper yet, whatever Andy Warhol might say: when past critics of Modernism said that its distinctions do not matter, they usually decided not to call it art at all.

Even in these limiting cases, we can insist that differences have been critical. The trick is to focus on entire installations, including the all-too-discernible gallery, rather than on individual objects. The art work becomes a performance piece. It was, after all, not Minimalism alone but Pop Art and its concern for content that later led to performance.

Either way, art is better than authentic

I believe Goodman emerges the winner, but I do not think we should press it—at least quite yet. He and Danto are best seen as twin sides of the great modernist urge to understand and to look. Notice in my imagined exchanges what they have in common: each accuses the other of idealizing and neglecting valid meanings without really looking first.

We saw that Danto never had to look around for art fitting a tidily pre-formed theory. Art came to him, demanding new ideas. Goodman too was describing the experience of puzzlement, wonder, and delight of a real gallery goer, the experience we still face with a mute field of color by Newman, Ryman, or Brice Marden. I remember quite well my own nervousness as I learned to look more slowly, and I wonder if this baffling, irritating art ever came easily to anyone, even future postmodern critics. The best audience for art has learned always to argue with its teachers, whether artists or scholars. With Modernism, here was art itching for a good fight.

Close touch with practical criticism also distinguishes Danto's and Goodman's theories from traditional views. Before them, if one had asked whether a copy of a work could be as good as the original, one would have had to listen to alleged matters of definition. Sometimes art was held to be the art object, plain as day, in which case only what we see can count. Sometimes it was said to be a vehicle of expression, in which case the origin of the work holds the key. In one case, indiscernibles must be artistically identical, by definition. In the other, no copy could do the original justice.

Danto and Goodman are instead asking us to validate meanings by looking. Are the two objects just as good out in the real world, Danto is saying? And Goodman adds, are they really even indiscernible? For both, strictly speaking, there are no copies of a work of art.

Holding onto meaning for dear life . . .

Danto and Goodman offer two sides of a moment in time. The first represents Pop Art at its most savage, the other abstraction at its most contemplative. In real life, no work is so extreme. On one hand, Lichtenstein quickly starts to take the pretensions of oversized brushstrokes as a challenge as well as a joke. Conversely, abstraction as formalism converts viewers into part of an installation. Jasper Johns ultimately became the finest artist of his time by falling some mysterious place in-between, as he still does in his late Regrets.

Even the truly indiscernible starts to mutate under our eyes, the surface of Fountain taking on overtones of polished sculpture. When Duchamp leaves a urinal uncharacteristically clean, he offers a niche for the absence of the holy. Visual nuance and its interpretation may or may not be useful, but we can never be sure without looking first.

. . . And losing it again in the copy

Both philosophers distinguish art from mere copies out here in the world. Like Krauss, they see Modernism as uneasily suppressing the copy. They differ from Krauss, however, chiefly in seeing that suppression as productive of meaning. The trouble with Krauss is that she loses access to the immediate past and its meanings. The trouble with Danto and Goodman today is that we can no longer take those meanings for granted.

Canaletto's Venice, Danto writes, is "magical" because it is "the city, raised to self-consciousness." What would a modern city look like without a center, of consciousness or anything else? I can imagine something beyond Vermeer's View of Delft or a Pieter Saerendam church interior. I can imagine something like the whole world as art's "alternative space."

Modern art always located its authenticity in something outside the artist—institutions, viewers, collage, or colored brushstrokes. In proper existentialist fashion, artistic identity lay in the Other. The problem is hardly the death of individualism. In our culture, the individual is constantly celebrated, whether as overburdened taxpayer, satisfied consumer, or self-made celebrity. The problem is defining the social consensus productive of meanings.

In the face of such sweeping attacks on our political foundations, affirming or denying the copy may be quite beside the point. There may be no clear single mode of reproduction. The proliferation of objects in recent art therefore has often become a political gesture.

Krauss, Danto, and Goodman do all agree on one thing: their roots still lie in academic formalism. Many recent attempts to escape expressionism and formalism seek firmer touch with "the real world," meaning politics. Overtly political artists, as well as artists who draw on popular culture for techniques and imagery, pose a stark alternative between traditional art institutions and the world, between capitulation and recapitulation. They ask us to face much the same problem that Krauss ignores: the past is lost to use as soon as it is cited and reproduced.

The struggle of artists to be politically correct recalls Krauss, in her desperation to empty the past of its associations rather than continue its transformation. It suggests why her appeal to the copy is so pallid a revolt. Many artists have ceased caring whether they achieve resemblances. They are screaming too loud. Krauss used Serra to analyze "sculpture's expanded field." Artists themselves find sculpture's field seemed cramped to the point of oppressive.

They also show why her essay is so timely. In their light, Danto's or Goodman's comfort with the institutions of late Modernism sounds quaint or downright alarming. The arguments of the two are far more rigorous than Krauss's, but they depend on properties of art that we can no longer take for granted. Let us invite them both to visit a gallery now.

Danto and Goodman come to Soho

Danto and Goodman promote the subtleties they find in late modern art. It is a happy confluence of interests. Danto looks after the art installation, while Goodman takes care of the work. One lets the artist and the gallery do the talking. The other lets the art speak for itself. In either case, the most skeptical viewer had better be paying very close attention. The only trouble is that this makes them sound suspiciously like savvy dealers, just when art started to be, literally, a big deal. A traditional art historian might distinguish an original from copies, so as to certify the former. Now Danto and Goodman reverse that priority, to elevate the not-quite copy, but the end is the same—another fine-art object.

Danto and Goodman also both rely on the tools of the tradition. Danto appeals to the art world itself to distinguish works, and that reminds us of how documentation is used established provenance. It also recalls how a wall plaque gives art the authority of the museum. Goodman's eye is that of the connoisseur.

Danto and Goodman take for granted that the problem is acceptance into the art world. Neither questions the value of that acceptance. Popular culture comes up only as something art is not. Both also compare object and copy side by side, as if created yesterday. Or perhaps art and everyday experience alike are supposed to have existed since the dawn of time. At best Danto allows art to go about "expressing the interior of a cultural period." If copying makes a statement about the past, we never hear it. If artists live in exile, they do not get to play.

Is it too easy to dismiss them both. Do they necessarily share in the economic structure of the art world? We saw that they do so by reversing its terms, indeed by putting its tools into the hands of every viewer. And they do so knowingly.

Yet any concern with fine distinctions can sound suspiciously dated in a time of slashing gestures. And any concern with new uses of the past sounds pathetic amid a harsh indifference to traditions. If we are to escape the perplexity I have found in Krauss, we may need a different kind of art history. I have already tried to hint at it in mixing philosophical argument, art criticism, and personal confession. Is that the same as the postmodern criticism that revels in mass culture along with art-world jargon? To see, let us turn to it for another view of Krauss's dilemma.


If Krauss's ideals sometimes seem less distinct from Modernism than she lets on, so indeed are her tastes. She refers to material reproduction, but the world that most embodies it, popular culture, seems to leave her cold. Her ideal adversaries are not a representational painter and a neo-Pop artist, say, but formalists at heart.

For many critics, however, accepting popular culture gives a new interpretation to her ideal of a historical break. If desperation has led some artists to reenact the social rituals they fear and despise, they were only echoing strategies found in some of the best postmodern art criticism. Again we do not have far to look for the unsettling combination of stern politics and despair at political impact. But do they make her sense of the past any more realistic?

The Present Tense and the Tense Present

We can begin with the very titles, from Fredric Jameson on the iron "logic of late capitalism" to Krauss's critique of "avant-garde myths." A language of "logic" and "myths" might call to mind Marxism and Modernism again. Both, after all, urge us to understand the past and to see right through the present. Now, however, that language has been turned against itself, so that the very idea of demystification seems hopelessly naive.

A deservedly influential essay by Hal Foster is in much the same spirit. Foster starts by offering a distinction between a radical and a merely complacent Postmodernism. He ends by questioning the pretense of any radical disjuncture.

Another writer, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, provides a telling example. As she solemnly points out, even Sherrie Levine began to enjoy her works as art objects. Levine was soon forced to engage the decorative surfaces of modernist painting. From that moment on, she could neither break with tradition nor draw on its meanings. Levine's dilemma, Solomon-Godeau goes on to explain, reminds us of Lichtenstein's increasingly elegant painting. His large-scale works could not maintain their cool distance from art history. Copying art works cannot reclaim them or their varied associations, but it necessarily returns us to their values and institutions.

Eternal vigilance at the movies

It should not be surprising, then, if the effort to escape from old restraints demanded a little escapism. As an alternative to art institutions, many on both left and right feel safer wallowing in pop culture. It is almost as if fine art had not been doing just that for at least a century.

The revolution will not be televised, but it may yet be made into a miniseries. That way it can reach viewers who, unlike me and maybe a few others, can afford cable. For examples, take an interesting volume on art and politics, Universal Abandon? Its editor, Andrew Ross, includes Jameson sharing his love for "Gramscian" hotel lobbies. The idols range from Bruce Springsteen to Crocodile Dundee.

Mass culture, however exhilarating, has no better claim to escape its institutions than high-culture favorites like Frank Stella. Can these writers actually have visited, much less enjoyed, Vegas? It cannot accept those institutions with fuller understanding of the price to be paid. Market forces obviously shape the popular culture dearest to me or the editors of Social Text. In fact, those forces dwarf the entire art world, much as the Museum of Modern Art towers over the pretzel vendor across the street. And the critics recognize that. The result is again a mixture of urgency and lowered expectations.

No wonder these critics spend much of their time wondering whether their fellow writers have given in—and in reinforcing a shared language. I could not help noticing, for instance, the "nearly everyone agrees" in Stanley Aronowitz's contribution to Ross's selection, meaning no doubt everyone but conservatives, liberals, Marxists, and other ideologues. As in many works of art, embrace of popular culture does not necessarily imply greater receptivity to a mass audience. Those who wondered just before whether Gramsci might not be the architecture critic for Time need not apply. Ironically, high art long ago had found a receptive public willing to bear with its nasty lectures. It already had the relationship to its audience that for theorists of low art is still a dream.

I do not mean quite the same thing as neoconservatives, who write as if art and philosophy should not demand intellect or erudition. I mean instead that we should recognize the force of those demands and the commitments they imply. Even when Foster calls, sensibly and modestly, for artists and critics to account for social context, it can easily sound like old-fashioned cries of eternal vigilance. "In the face of a culture of reaction on all sides," he quite fairly comments, "a practice of resistance is needed."

Putting the Pop back in culture

For both artists and critics, the past has become unusable. It is not just that the past is rotten. Every critic is entitled to think that. In another turn of the screw, I agree. Rather, the past is too efficient. Once we open a dialogue, cries of the excluded will be drowned.

Art acknowledges the weight of politics, institutions, and history upon the personal, the immediate, and the expressive. The best critics of art do so too, but they fear the former and privilege the latter. In insisting on the historical, we reject attempts to appropriate and transform our immediate history. If everything is institutionally determined, there can be little allowance for free play with canons. At best, we can look to the old world, somewhat more safely, for cultural artifacts or fashionable styles. Modernism is something that must be banished and that keeps returning—in spades.


Advocates of the copy and commercial culture hold out the utopia of a broader tradition. It would be art with room for excluded voices. In reality, the art world might well never again be a utopia. We now have only art worlds, in the plural, anxiously fighting sharp internal divisions. Every copy makes a vulgar comment, if only on copyright laws.

In the midst of the fight, great art may not always be fine art. It will, however, remain avant-garde, whether it will or no. We can best reaffirm its defiance by dispensing with an easy opposition between the shock of the new and the critical study of the past. In the same way, we stop choosing between copying and originality or between high and low. We have only tactics of appropriation and transformation.

A recap

So where are we? I argued that Krauss is wrong to see Modernism as damagingly preoccupied with authenticity. I suggested that reversing the terms, so as to favor the copy, is yet another dead end. It does not show how artists have long tried to exert self-criticism while opening our eyes to the world and its crushing institutions. I observed that her arguments had been anticipated by Danto and Goodman, who show that we are usually mistaken even to talk about copies. And I claimed that all three are obsessed with an independent fine-art tradition.

That tradition, I continued, is less and less relevant to the theory and practice of art today. Indeed, it may never have been of much concern to this century. Finally, I asserted that many contemporary practitioners share Krauss's uneasy rejection of the past. By simply reversing terms of high and low art, they, too, risk cutting themselves off from the art institutions and public they hope to revolutionize.

I have no easy alternative, no guaranteed way to transcend my own commitments. This essay has been about the dependence of originality—in art and criticism—on multiple identities and conflicting social constructions. I freely acknowledge mine. I am white, male, heterosexual, Jewish when anyone but me questions it, wrapped up in artspeak, immersed in pre-modernist traditions, far leftist except where my ego and desire help confuse the issue. I believe that we need to reopen the question of creation and history in a way that tries a lot less hard to abuse and transcend them both.

I also have no desire to tell artists what to do. They will muddle their way through with as much inspiration and courage as ever. Western arts might have reached the end of their glory, like painting in eighteenth-century Amsterdam. They might be ready to flourish anew under the influence of cultures that they had denied. None of that is for me to say, and the course taken by artists necessarily will alter the art criticism we get and need. I am asking how we, as viewers and critics, might understand the art we have.

Revolution without reversals

Some picture an avant-garde without any decisive break. If we pretend to achieve one, we fail, and we still lose touch with everything we hoped to understand and to change. Yet it is no help to reverse priorities and see only a continuous grand tradition. We end up with turgid art histories in which Impressionism vanishes into back rooms of the Salon. Jürgen Habermas's description of modernity, "an unfinished project," has the same futile ring, at least until young artists can see modernity as less final, less enlightened, and less monolithic. He sounds a little too much like Trotsky's excuse for Bolshevism—the demand for a "permanent revolution."

A call for continual renewal can sound pretty lame. Discontinuities really do come, but they come of their own accord, building on history without either using or reversing its terms. Making a revolution is like finding a new language. It may be an old story, but it is no more or less "authentic" for that.

We have lost Modernism's easy faith in socially constructed meanings. Yet we can still find fresh meanings in social constructions. Of course, there are copies. There is just no such thing as "the copy." Copying in art school, casting a sculpture, printing a Weston, and extending a quilted pattern can all take place. Only each act at a distinct time and place tells its own story—about what it copied, about itself, and about us.

The reproduction can affirm and analyze a genre, as when Gerhard Richter reexplores abstraction. It can displace the old boundaries entirely, as when recent abstractions by Stella or Joan Snyder become decorative. In the hands of Pat Steir, Jennifer Bartlett, and Jenny Holzer, folk and industrial images lose any trace of a function. Sherrie Levine too can now be seen as confronting the past, in the person of Edward Weston. Weston, now appearing explicitly as male authority, long held title to prints that he himself may never have made. Meanwhile, earlier bastions of "authenticity" and expression, such as Edvard Munch, made one kind of print represent the style of another.

This feminist interpretation also helps explain Levine's method. To meet Krauss's criteria, she could have re-photographed Weston's sites, elevating student over master. She could have photocopied Weston's prints or exhibited them under her own name, putting piracy in place of production. Instead she photographed the prints themselves, turning Weston's tool of creation, the embodiment of his male gaze and inspiration, against him. Imagine what she could have done with the first photographs, which left no paper prints.

Placing Levine's act within a historical interchange even suggests her limitations. We now can ask whether the elements of her art adequately support its intended meaning. Is anything in the prints sufficiently suggestive of the gender dichotomy they raise, or does the installation not come across just a little too smug and forgettable? Regardless of what we conclude, turning from copy to transformation enlarges our response. To deny the relevance of the copy is to affirm the insidious pressure of our histories.

Another history of Modernism

We can start dealing again with Modernism, which long abandoned the old oppositions. We can see the essential gesture of great modern art not as copying or creation from nothing, but as a sometimes brutal defacement. It cuts across institutions like graffiti running across a wall. It disturbs simple narratives of realism and formalism with the persistent force of the unconscious. It recycles long-dead images with the earnestness of an environmentalist, the pristine care of an undertaker, and the savage humor of a B movie. It takes the strange smiles on Picasso's women—or those of de Kooning and Cindy Sherman—neither high nor low—as our own, only ready to dissolve into blood.

Critics are bringing the insular rhetoric of high art to commercial forms. Conversely, we need to bring the heat of politics and low forms to discussions of Modernism. We can react to the opaque surface of a Johns target not for its supposed flatness, but for being truly "in your face." My poor attempt here at talking dirty notwithstanding, art need not therefore be aggressive or sexist. That target confronts us merely by its silent resistance. To take up arms against it—to draw a real bow and arrow—would be a crime.

If ideas both inside and outside the art worlds will supply the heat, we should value most art that helps keep the heat on. It is not necessarily going to dispense with the visual finesse of abstraction. Language, even a new language, depends for its form and meanings on articulating small differences. I think that Levine's and Lichtenstein's undermining of fine art actually became sharper as they grew to accommodate its beauty.

Levine has filled a room with grand pianos, smooth and dark as these beautiful instruments—and fine furniture—deserve. On each piano rested a sculpted head after Brancusi, its soft whites against the black lid, one ear suggestively lying toward its sound board. The installation evoked woman as the artist's muse, as allegory of art rather than its maker, and, like high modern art, as an expensive possession.

The best new art is, however, probably going to look a lot less smooth than Johns or a Steinway after all. Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri, two postwar Italian artists, quite literally have practiced slash and burn, bit we can ask whether they are not giving the damage more of a veneer than they think. We thank them—and move on.

Think back on the Rodins that first troubled Krauss. We need not see copies of stale models. We should remember a disconcerting space of endlessly twisting, proliferating bodies. We can then ask what copying has changed. As part of any sculptor's task, a casting thrusts the work into the public eye. A recasting does that continually, multiplying its demands. It shifts the focus from mastery of anatomy as the ever-finer development of skill to an excess of body parts, like a plane wreck.

Is that twisting, as in pre-postmodern histories, still a kind of realism, a greater sensitivity to spatial construction, or an expression of human need? Fine. The avant-garde is merely the continued twist of the knife.

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Rosalind E. Krauss's essay contributes the title to her collection The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (The MIT Press, 1985). Arthur C. Danto's "The Artworld" was a paper delivered in 1965 to the American Philosophical Association, and it became the germ of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Harvard University Press, 1981). Nelson A. Goodman's Languages of Art (Hackett, 1976) is supported by his numerous books on epistemology, notably Ways of Worldmaking (Hackett, 1978).

The interview with Paul Benaceref appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1993. Other classic representatives of Modernism cited include Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Beacon Press, 1961), and Harold Rosenberg, The De-definition of Art (Collier Books, 1972), although their greatest defenses of Abstract Expressionism appeared elsewhere. I quoted Greenberg's "Modernist Painting," which ran in the journal Art & Literature (Spring, 1963) and has often been reprinted. Roman Jakobson's "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances," was a contribution to Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language (Mouton, 1956). It is best known through its frequent use by structuralist critics, including Jakobson himself.

Hal Foster's most widely read essay may well remain his editor's preface to The Anti-Esthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Bay Press, 1983), which also contains the quote from Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity—An Incomplete Project." Foster's impressive books since then include The Return of the Real and, with Krauss and other editors of October, the textbook Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. The quote from Fredric Jameson all but frames his Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The other postmodern critics cited contributed to Universal Abandon? (University of Minnesota Press, 1988), edited by Andrew Ross.

Foster anticipated some of my criticism of Krauss in "Re: Post"; this essay is reprinted along with an early version of hers—plus contributions from others of the critical mafia mentioned here—in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (Godine, 1984), edited by Brian Wallis. Feminist responses to Levine also predate me; an example is Whitney Chadwick's in Women, Art, and Society (Thames & Hudson, 1993).


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