by Cassius Adair
Published by Semiotext(e), 2011 | 160 pages
In her essay “The Complete Poem,” Chris Kraus offers an aside on the plight of her profession: “In the 21st century, art writing plays the same role as magazine fiction did for mid-20th century writers… It offers a badly paid livelihood.” It is a joke at her own expense, a riff on the supposed age-old antithesis between true art and the financial imperatives of our fallen world, maybe even a sly play for a kind of foxhole affiliation with whichever mid-century writer-heroes spring to mind. For Kraus, however―dubbed by The New York Times “one of our smartest and most original [critics] on contemporary art and culture”―self-deprecation of that order verges on facetiousness or bad faith: from her earliest forays into an idiosyncratic practice of “performative philosophy” to her long-running column for Artext, from her work producing the blockbuster 1996 “Chance Event” in the Nevada desert to her forthcoming novel Summer of Hate, Chris Kraus has built a career spanning eras and disciplines. As editor at the influential publishing concern Semiotext(e) and as the author of both novels and non-fiction, she has done as much as any contemporary writer to continually and fruitfully test the distinction between artist and critic, and to transform the rules of the “badly paid livelihood” where she has staked her claim.
Where Art Belongs, her latest volume, is a loose confederation of thoughtful art-crit essays collected and published last year as a part of the eye-catching “Intervention” series from Semiotext(e). Kraus’s own persona and individual preoccupations as an Artist-reflecting-on-Art have always occupied a central position in her work, but these essays find her traversing a broader set of themes and geographies than in her previous collection, 2004’s L.A.-centric Video Green. Though also less explicitly polemic than some of her previous writerly and editorial outings with Semiotext(e), Where Art Belongs nonetheless retains a firm political grounding. And, in fact, it seems more fitting than ever―at a moment when the very notion of critique as a practical writerly comportment is coming under fire in academic and theoretical communities (see Marcus & Best, Latour, etc.)―that Kraus’s prose should derive its primary energy not from the sustained, analytic skepticism of the critical tradition, but rather from a kind of creative resonance, an exploratory non-fictional impulse set loose at the intersection of theory, history, memoir, and reportage. The essays of Where Art Belongs find Kraus in a more expansive relation to her material, drawing upon the form’s more literary valences to complement her wonted clarity and directedness of vision.
If you expect an argument from the pieces in this collection, you may therefore―at first reading―be disappointed; more insistently than in previous works Kraus opts for the case-study over the treatise, the descriptive and personal-empirical over the deductive, interpretive, or polemic. Reading the first essay, a close-range archeology of the Los Angeles collective known as Tiny Creatures (who rose to national prominence and then disintegrated rapidly over a few years in the mid-aughts), I found myself at times wishing that Kraus would either make good on her hints of extrapolating a more aerial “timeless bohemia” from this singular manifestation of youth culture, or otherwise embrace completely the countervailing tendency toward documentary realism and give us some reproductions of the artworks in question. As I read through the collection, however, I began to get into the rhythm of the thing: certain formulations were seen to recur and phrases to subtly transform themselves; concepts born in one essay would reappear sixty pages later clothed anew.
Eventually, the less familiar operations of seriality, juxtaposition, and metonymy rose to the surface. Simply put, the salient contextual fact of Where Art Belongs is that Kraus has spent decades thinking and writing about contemporary art, unfurling long personal and professional acquaintances with some of its major players, and in the end, her writing functions as a kind of lyrical trace of this experience: less an exercise in persuasion, more a slow reformation of readerly consciousness from within. There are occasional moments―a short but oblique journal excerpt on documentarian Louis Malle, for example, penned on the beach in Baja―that one suspects must resonate more within Kraus’s own idiosyncratic mythology than they could for Joe Reader, but for the most part her approach to any given topic is structured by a simple and effective sharing of her long familiarity with the material in question. If you want to know an art critic, walk a decade in her shoes.
One can plainly hear the slow, churning machinations of canon-formation operating in the background of Where Art Belongs. There are intentional callbacks and transpositions, moments in which art phenomena and widely-dispersed chapters of history are re-examined in the context of new or transformed milieux: the conservative backlash against the 2008 Sex Workers Art Tour, for instance, is likened to the witch hunts of three hundred years earlier; contemporary feminism is advised to consider anew the radicalism of such second-wave exploits as the UK magazine Suck! and the confrontational Front Homosexual d’Action Revolutionnaire. Kraus offers new conceptual genealogies as well: Tiny Creatures becomes a reborn Cabaret Voltaire; a chapter entitled “No More Utopias” poignantly renders Elke Krystufek’s attempts to reprise and reinterpret the conceptual South Pacific voyages of Bas Jan Ader and Hermann Pechstein in the context of late capital.
Just as significant as these newly-minted historical linkages, however, are the essays in which Kraus simply lingers over her own personal encounters with contemporary art: her description of Bernadette Corporation’s epic poem A Billion and Change ringing a room of custom vitrines in Chelsea’s Naftali Greene gallery clearly conveys her excitement over what she describes as “the most radical gallery show” she’d seen in years; her beautiful retrospective of Moyra Davey’s recent career and its dual confrontation with the thought of Walter Benjamin, as well as the artist’s own illness, offers persuasive insight into what makes Davey’s idiosyncratic art applicable to a farther-reaching conception of the contemporary. In this sense, the implicit function of Kraus’s writing throughout the collection is one of curation; it is a succinct and welcome guided tour through the endless corridors of recent artistic production with a thinker who enjoys pointing out the things that are just really good, and who can tell us why.
As a self-contained piece of writing, the standout of the collection is her essay “Indelible Video.” Originally commissioned for the Adelaide Festival of Arts, the essay functions as the capstone—and in a sense a theoretical justification—of what Kraus has accomplished in the preceding pages. An unmistakably elegiac thread runs through the entirety of the collection; this is manifested most often in the figures of individual artists and friends still present in memory and influence though no longer living, but “Indelible Video” takes up the idea that modern art itself—as a particular and very contingent configuration of cultural forces—might be at a critical historical crossroads. Kraus’s line of inquiry is not a theoretical appeal to any notion of post-history, nor is it the typical modernist hearkening to an earlier and simpler time; it is, rather, an uncommonly sincere attempt to articulate a functional account of just what exactly it is that art does, accompanied by a reflection on the prevailing conditions under which it simply may no longer be able to do it. To get at this bigger picture, Kraus constructs a history of video art and its pioneering figures, a case-study that begins by tracing the rise and sinuous self-reflexive re-doublings of the medium but that nevertheless opens gradually onto the larger cultural and economic history of the decades that nurtured its growth. Transitioning gracefully from formal to cultural analysis, Kraus explores the ramifications of increasingly interconnected global economic and technological infrastructures—from art school dorms to Wackenhut prisons to the Microsoft campus to Zambia—in terms of a “matrix” of energy and capital that animates both our transnational institutions and our individual lives as consumers. The essay concludes with an extended meditation on the phenomenon of American Apparel as an “anti-brand” and a provocative consideration of the ways in which modern corporations may in fact be uniquely posed to assume some of the cultural functions traditionally associated with art.
In this finely-honed journey from modernism through new media to the subjectivity-bending forces of late capital, Kraus offers not only a persuasive account of where art has been in recent decades, but—by implication—an articulate defense of her own critical practice as well. Another way of registering the revelation of Where Art Belongs—that art in fact keeps making sense even after the modern project has reported back that it is indeed contingencies all the way down—is to say that “Art” as a concept has again become newly new, with the result that the familiar formal and rhetorical tricks of traditional art criticism now signify only weakly, if at all. As an attempt to write novelty from within novelty, then, Where Art Belongs suspends the myth (for neither the first nor the last time) of the objective and disinterested critic and demonstrates a practice of meaning-making that embraces—and makes a strength of—the necessarily personal, limited, contingent, and descriptive modes of engaging honestly with the historical present. And indeed, one of the revelations of modern art practice is that the present needs neither future nor past to animate it: “Utopia,” Kraus writes (in a passage equally applicable to the brand image of American Apparel or the theoretical premise of Occupy Wall Street), “is never the point. Collectivity arranges itself around a desire for something, to produce something, to become something else (and who cares what else?) beyond its individual members.”
While Where Art Belongs is an inspired piece of writing and a good resource for those working in the MFA or art-press world, its dual achievement as curation and concept makes it required reading for any intelligent reader outside the loop who simply wants to check in and see some of the best that contemporary art and art-writing has to offer.
Chris Catanese is a writer and editor living in Durham, NC.