Down and Dirty: Art History as Desublimation

By Adler, Daniel | Art Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Down and Dirty: Art History as Desublimation


Adler, Daniel, Art Journal


Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss. Formless: A User's Guide. New York: Zone, 1997.304 pp., many color and b/w ills. $35.

Since the mid-970s, Rosalind E. Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, professors of art history at Columbia University and Harvard University respectively, have provided crucial, ongoing critiques of the ideological effects of Greenbergian narratives of high modernism. Following an aged, though still widely applicable, definition of the ideological, the art historian T. J. Clark observes that this concept may be conceived broadly as a fixed pattern of imagery and belief that seems obligatory because it presents "constructed and disputable meanings as if they were hardly meanings at all, but, rather, forms inherent in the world-out-there which the observer is privileged to intuit directly." He continues: "ideology is a set of limits to discourse; a set of resistances, repetitions, kinds of circularity. It is that which closes speech against consciousness of itself as production, as process, as practice, as subsistence and contingency."'

Krauss and Bois organized the exhibition "L'informe: mode d'emploi," presented at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the spring of 1996. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue can and should be read as a radical critique of a range of ideological formations associated with the history of high modernism and the categories of traditional art criticism and scholarship, as well as the basic impulse toward categorization in general. The authors, Bois and Krauss, want to claim as the key impetus for this critical project the writings of Georges Bataille, a critic, poet, and philosopher of the Surrealist movement. In addition, they also wish to argue against those readers of Bataille who have de-emphasized the performative aspect of his thought.2 The translated edition of the catalogue, Formless: A User's Guide, provides an English-speaking audience with an important and accessible resource for those wishing to come to terms with the relevance of Bataille for the ongoing (and increasingly widespread) revisionist examinations of the filthy underside(s) of our Western modernist heritage.

Nevertheless, I would argue that this well-illustrated and designed book will not function for many of its readers as the impetus to radical ideological critique for which it was originally intended. That is, the authors are determined to destabilize some of high modernism's mythological structures by exposing their constructed and disputable nature-such as those related to the separation and hierarchization of artistic media-but the programmatic and repetitious aspects of many of the book's brief (and easily digestible) entries may encourage its reception within a naturalized context of its own associated with a remarkably fixed pattern of imagery and belief.

Much of the actual content and format of Fornless: A User's Guide does effectively demonstrate and enact-relentlessly, with regard to a vast and extremely diverse assortment of historical moments, artworks, and theoretical voices-the "operation" of informe in many provocative ways.3 "Operation" is the most crucial of a series of terms adopted from Bataille by Krauss and Bois, who persist throughout their text in using such unusual designations to further underscore their efforts to disrupt fixed and seemingly obligatory patterns identified with modernist categorical frameworks. In his introduction to the book, Bois discusses the (non)category of operation as being a "desublimatory act of aggression" (13) that requires an exposure to "base" substances which, like spit (to take an example that has acquired exemplary status for Bataille readers) resist classification because of their (anti)qualities, such as inconsistency, indefinite contours, and imprecise coloration. The desublimatory act is directed against the bourgeois subject's expectations of the experience of coherent, bounded, and unified forms that can be organized, for instance, as distinct artistic media or in terms of some kind of taxonomic stylistic schema. …

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