Concept of Originality in the Avant-garde

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How does Krauss call into question the concept of originality in the Avant-garde? Is her argument convincing?

In her text The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Krauss dissects the meaning behind originality. She calls into question the semiotic and representational symbolism of ‘origin’ in order to debunk what she calls the ‘myth of originality’ pertaining to the Avant-Garde. In this essay, I will explore how Krauss makes her dismantling of originality convincing and will attempt to present her structural analysis of grids, discussing her claims of grids being a checkpoint of modernism. By developing these two points, I will then provide the implications of Krauss’s post-structuralist reading of modernism and the Avant-Garde.

The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths introduces us to Krauss developing a structured argument that attempts to debunk originality. Krauss addresses the historical Avant-Garde and offers a scathing critique that re-evaluates postmodern art theory and demonstrates a turn to a post-structuralist critique instead. She uses the word “parable”[1] to claim that the Avant-Garde is laden with the idea of art being emanated from the individual’s soul, or that self-creation is at the very centre of the artworks. This dependence on the idea of authenticity, truth and the individual, is often central to Avant-Garde discourse. Krauss attempts to dismantle the reification of the self-origin and determines that it is only safe from contamination because it possesses a kind of “originary naiveté” [2]. She declares that “When we are no longer children, we are already dead” [3], and notes a temporal link between originality and authenticity. By referencing modernist artists such as Auguste Rodin, she dauntlessly dismantles the relationship between art and revelatory originality; cleverly subverting the Avant-Garde’s notion of biographic, emotional and existential reification. She reveals Rodin’s sculptures to be mimetic and mechanical in form, calling into question a false presentation of authenticity. Krauss reveals the notion of “the authorial mark of emotion” [4] as a façade, noting the ideas of Walter Benjamin: “…authenticity empties out as a notion (meaning a belief or a desire for something) as one approaches those mediums which are inherently multiple” [5]. Benjamin successfully argues the philosophically rooted point that to assume that there is an authentic or original version, makes no logical sense. In both Krauss’s and Benjamin’s view, authenticity is no longer a relevant criterion for evaluating artistic production. Benjamin also argues that in order to remove the idea of an authentic original, actually enables emancipation from ritual and religiosity; something that Krauss observes as a key feature of a break in modernism and the Avant-Garde. Both Krauss and Benjamin see this as vital for the emancipation of the artworks: “…for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual”.[6]

In relation to Saussurean semiotics, Krauss determines that it is crucial to read context from the content. Saussure’s theories were radically revised and adapted by post-structuralism, which focussed on the notion of semiotics revealing that nothing about language is stable and fixed. For post-structuralists, signification relies on an ever-shifting system of “slipping signifiers”[7] and most crucially for Krauss’s developing thesis, the only way signification can happen is in relation to an entire system of signs. The most important factor that Krauss focusses on is “the systematic play of difference” [8] between the signs in a system. In her text, In The Name of Picasso, she draws upon elements of Picasso’s collages and establishes that his work stands as a meditation on the process of signification itself. She uses examples of Picasso’s work, that shows the relationship between the signs (within his collages) and displays how this style of work presents a fundamental visual-rift with modernism. Krauss denied all scholarly theories that attempted to link the material content of Picasso’s collages to the social context. She manages to separate Picasso’s stylistic developments in Cubism/collage as referents of theoretical problems that are internal to art, instead of the referents within Picasso’s work displaying biographical or social implications. Krauss uses Picasso’s work to initiate the problematized view of representation within modernism and deems his collages as an early signifier of post-modern values. 

In her most famous thesis, Grids, Krauss declared that the grid acts as a break-through moment, announcing grids as a vital referent to the “modernity of modern art”[9]. She provides a visual example of the figure of the grid and its symbolic nature in order to display her argument against originality. Noting several structural properties which make the grid “inherently susceptible to vanguard appropriation”[10], the grid according to Krauss promoted a silence, and she even goes as far as to say that it expresses a refusal of speech:

 “…the equilibrium of the grid and its lack of hierarchy, of centre, of inflection emphasises not only its anti-referential character but more important its hostility to narrative”[11].

In doing so, the grid becomes impervious to both time and incident; not permitting a projection of language into the domain of the visual, and therefore equalling out as silence. Krauss presumes that the grid is the literal material grounds of the beginning, claiming its likeness to a ground zero, in that it provides a sense of artistic newness and becomes the foreground of any artist expression:

 ”The grid becomes emblematic of sheer disinterestedness of the work of art, its absolute purposelessness, from which it derived the promise of its own autonomy. The grid allowed this autonomy to be born into the space that was left from Avant-Garde art which was a space of aesthetic purity and freedom.”[12]

In noting the contradiction between the enlightenment metanarrative that is prominent in modernist artworks, Krauss declares the physical structure of the grid to be essential, as it pertains a materialist contradiction between modernisms values of science and of those that maintained the repressed nature of originality:

 “…therefore, although the grid is certainly not a story, it is a structure, and one, moreover, that allows a contradiction between the values of science and those of spiritualism to maintain themselves within the consciousness of modernism, or rather its unconscious, as something repressed.” [13]

By pinpointing the grid as a key moment in showing a break in modernisms mythic discourse, Krauss determines the grid to be an indispensable moment in silencing modernisms complex narrative. In order to explain this further, she claims that the time before modernism is non-contingent and becomes silenced to create an “exclusive visuality”[14]. In ignoring the ‘true’ nature of the visual sign (its indeterminacy) as well as the artwork itself (its formal nature), Krauss ascertains the “systematic play of difference”[15]. The grid, therefore, becomes central in rejecting all historical contingency thus, proving her reading of context from content. Krauss’s account demonstrates modernisms fictitious materialism and uses the analysis of grids to perform a “will to silence, hostility to literature, to narrative to discourse”[16]. Tracing the origins of the ‘myth’ within modernist grids, Krauss stated that: “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that behind every twentieth-century grid there lies… a symbolist window parading in the guise of a treatise on optics”[17]

One of the few implications that come from agreeing with Krauss’s argument is the problematic use of Saussurean semiotics to decipher the context directly from the content of a visual movement. She seems to get lost when focussing on the discourse and narrative behind the concept of originality and ends up in a rather paradoxical position. Krauss’s discourse behind the break-in modernism to post-modernism results in an endless interplay of surfaces which leaves originality only existing due to enlightenment metanarratives. By declaring a post-modern desire to silence modernisms biographic referents and reification of the material original, artworks result in being a Baudrillardrian concept of simulacra. Baudrillard states that we are now removed from the binary which sets up a copy and original; there are only copies of copies. In fact, if we are to agree with Krauss’s assumption of originality being a myth, the copy itself becomes teleological and supposedly infinite. We are then left in an artistically post-modern void. We might also consider what actual use-value and clarity are gained from the acceptance that authenticity is a farce? The notion of reifying the copy surely fails to render the arts with a fresh new historical consciousness and instead deems art-makers to an empty gulf of copy after copy. For Krauss, art becomes far removed from the immediate claims of feeling or even physical interaction, which in turn, would demote the political and revolutionary art that stimulates important conversation and action.

Another implication that comes from Krauss’s reliance on the grid (one that is even noted by her) is the visual notion of the grid symbolising the checkpoint of modernity. She attributes the grid to having liberating, emancipatory values whilst also investigating the grid being restrictive and likening it to a cage:

 “…and just as the grid is a stereotype that is constantly being paradoxically re- discovered, it is, as a further paradox, a prison in which the caged artist feels at liberty. For what is striking about the grid is that while it is most effective as a badge of freedom, it is extremely restrictive in the actual exercise of freedom.”  [18]

Krauss quite obscurely presumes the grid as the contextual material in which artists have displayed as a checkpoint of modernity. If this assumption is true, we are then left with a very restricted view of art. One of the key examples that Krauss uses is Sherrie Levine’s Photographs of Reproductions of Photographs. Krauss makes a claim that Levine’s work: “…visually and explicitly deconstructs the modernist notion of origin, her effort cannot be seen as an extension of modernism. It is, as the discourse of the copy, postmodernist.”[19] In Levine appropriating the notion of a copy, she is placed into the postmodern art world, one that exists through copies of copies. The progression and radical potential of art for Krauss become limited, as it is now reduced to a robotic submission to a lack of authenticity. Her aim in analysing the material conditions in which the works of art actually represent formally becomes very restricted in what effect art has on the public. Krauss initiates an infinite dead-end in artworks. By this, I mean that Krauss’s break in modernity is a goal that avoids appeal to the intentions of the artist and subverts the viewer to a system of representations instead; simply leaving us with an art world filled with works that represent copies. It could be argued in opposition to Krauss’s infinity of copies, that artists such as Barnett Newman, are able to dismiss the idea of a temporal and teleological focus within art making, denoting the ‘present’ and the ineffable. Newman focusses his works on the notion of the present and ‘now’ which dismisses the idea of form being structurally influenced by prior artworks. The work is abstracted and relies on the present and expression, to claim a title of originality and authenticity. The description of the Newman’s artworks demands that there is no space for a new visuality, as the ‘new’ doesn’t exist and the ‘past’ is also dismissed, leaving us in a zone of authenticity because this form of artwork denies a temporal structure. For Krauss, her argument also leads to a similarly restrictive result. There are no new ways of analysing art, meaning that the structure of the grid will always denote a lack of authenticity and deems the viewers and art world with a caged perception of what ‘new’ artworks claim to do. 

For Krauss, in order for art to survive and continue, the absence of the origin is vital. Although through noting its absence, the origin is not a truth, it is just a symbolism in which the narrative and visual structure of the Avant-Garde and modernity can be built upon. By highlighting terms such as singularity, authenticity, uniqueness-these descriptors are all fully dependent on the originary moment of which this surface is both the empirical and the semiological instance. From this perspective, we can see that modernism and the Avant-Garde are functions within the discourse of originality. The discourse behind originality serves a much wider expanse of aesthetics and has fundamental socio-political context. Krauss is, therefore, claiming that originality is put into place and is a mythological discourse within the art world that is fuelled by many different institutions—not just restricted circle of professional art-making:

 “The theme of originality, encompassing as it does the notions of authenticity, originals, and origins, is the shared discursive practice of the museum, the historian, and the maker of art. And throughout the nineteenth century, all of these institutions were connected, together, to find the mark, the warrant, the certification of the original.” [20]

Although the discursive practices are claimed as many, they actually all address a geographic commonality. The art-world is most prominent within the western sphere and this makes Krauss’s argument only truly applicable to the discourse and narrative that is embedded within a particular art canon. Her argument fails to address a larger or universal philosophy and is limited to the confines of western discourse; what about all the other “art” that exists outside of this context? Her argument becomes restrictive in terms of what this argument is ‘successful’ in critiquing and the huge scale of whom it fails to represent.

To conclude, I have attempted to give a clear summation of the Krauss’s convincing endeavour to demythologise originality within the Avant-Garde. Using her analysis of grids as the checkpoint of modernity and her encounter with Saussure’s semiotics to debunk the myth of originality, Krauss’s account is undeniably essential to critical art theory and somewhat revolutionary in achieving a post-structuralist perspective. As mentioned above, Krauss’s use of semiotics to analyse visual material does churn up some implications, and I have attempted to outline this. Although limited in terms of word count, I have tried to point to the problem of the reification of the copy which leads the art world to reside in a vacuous postmodern society. I have also attempted to point out the limitations of Krauss’s argument, in that it is only truly applicable to artworks within the canonical western art sphere which leads to a dismissal of many other artworks and art-forms.

Bibliography:

  • Arendt, Hannah. Walter Benjamin. Visual Culture: The Reader, 1999.
  • Foster, et al, Hal. The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the “Informe” and the Abject. October 67, 1994.
  • Krauss, Rosalind E. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. MIT Press, 1986.
  • Krauss, Rosalind. Grids. October, vol. 9, JSTOR, 1979.
  • Krauss, Rosalind. In the Name of Picasso. October, vol. 16, JSTOR, 1981
  • McNamara, Andrew. Between Flux and Certitude: The Grid in AvantGarde Utopian Thought. Art History 15.1, 1992.

[1] Rosalind E. Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths,” MIT Press, (1986): 6.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 41.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin.” Visual Culture: The Reader, (1999): 72.

[7] Hal, Foster, et al. “The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the “Informe” and the Abject.” October 67 (1994): 3-21.

[8] Rosalind, Krauss, “In the Name of Picasso.” October, vol. 16, JSTOR. (1981): 5–22.

[9] Rosalind, Krauss. “Grids.” October, vol. 9, JSTOR. (1979): 1.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Andrew McNamara. “Between Flux and Certitude: The Grid in Avant‐Garde Utopian Thought.” Art History 15.1 (1992): 60-79.

[12] Krauss, Grids, 7.

[13] Ibid., 55.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Krauss, In the Name of Picasso, 27.

[16] Krauss, Grids, 7.

[17] Krauss, In the Name of Picasso, 59.

[18]Krauss,The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 9.

[19] Ibid.,19.

[20] Ibid., 66.

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