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Under Blue Cup

by Rosalind E. Krauss
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
200 pp., illus. 60 col.  Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01613-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Although the starting point of this book, the author's efforts to recover short term memory after the temporary brain damage caused by a ruptured aneurysm, may seem very highly anecdotal, Under Blue Cup is without any doubt one of the most important publications on medium theory since Krauss's own (and very critical) study on the 'post medium condition' ('A Voyage on the North Sea'. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, Thames and Hudson, 1999). The therapy used to help the author recover her washed out memory made her aware of the fundamental relationship between medium, materiality, time and self - a relationship that she considers basically lost in the kind of art that came after Modernism, i.e. the art symbolized by the white cube paradigm of museal presentation and display, focused on the materiality of the medium-specific object. Postmodernism and beyond, which Krauss refers to with the help of the black cube model, focuses instead on the experience of a dynamic subject and its primary form of existence is post medium installation art.

The notion of medium is key in any understanding of Modern art, whatever the meaning and scope one may give to this notion. It is based on the conviction that real art (for there are also non-artistic uses of a medium that are called kitsch, a term launched by Clement Greenberg on which Krauss will come in detail) is a particular way of interacting with the specific properties of a certain material support and a certain number of material devices (oil on canvas, for instance). Yet the problem of medium, which any serious artist has to cope with, has been jeopardized by its narrow-minded, simplistically materialist use by the very critic who has been paramount in the momentary success of medium-specific theory, namely Clement Greenberg, both Krauss's model and anti-model: her model given Greenberg's rejection of all non-medium-specific art or kitsch; her anti-model given Greenberg's craving for a purely formalist definition of specificity according to the material parameters of support and devices.

To this view of medium and medium-specificity, Krauss opposes a more complex vision, less teleological (contrary to Greenberg, she does not believe that the goal of an artistic medium is to discover its own specificity, i.e. to progressively abandon all non-medium-specific aspects) and more complex. In this regard, Krauss's basic reference is the work by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose work on cinema (The World Viewed, Cambridge University Press, 1979), introduced an approach of medium as automatism, a notion that for Cavell may replace the worn-out notion of medium, and perhaps also that of genre. But what is an automatism? Mainly the attempt (and, if successful, the achievement) to invent a new rule for the use of a certain 'technical support' (in Krauss's terminology, since Cavell circumscribes the automatism in terms of automatic coupling of sign type, support, and content, but the basic idea remains of course the same). However, the major revolution of the shift from medium to automatism is not just a terminological, but a conceptual one. Contrary to Greenberg et al., Cavell's reinterpretation of medium-specificity as automatism supersedes any essentialist or transhistorical fixation. The rule(s) that define(s) an automatism are open to reinterpretation: a real artist is capable of redefining the automatism, either by inventing a new use of a given 'technical support' (this is for instance what happens when painters shift from figuration to abstraction) or by using a new one (new types of paint or canvas can give birth to new ways of painting, for example). [1]

In Krauss's rereading of Cavell, it is the temporal dimension of medium, automatism, and art that comes to the fore, more particularly the dialectic relationship between memory and forgetting. Here, the main antagonist is McLuhan's media theory, with its strong teleological and non-materialist undertones, and the main innovation (and this is, in my eyes, a real Copernican revolution) put forward by Krauss in this regard is not only the emphasis on the medium's materiality (which cannot be freely or seamlessly remediated by newer and stronger media, as in McLuhan's view), but also and most importantly her radically structuralist reinterpretation of the tension between old and new. For Krauss, the temporal dimension of a medium (or an automatism, or a genre, or art tout court: after all, it is not the terminology that matters most) cannot be reduced to the eternal chain of old and new, of old becoming new, new becoming old, etc., but should take into account that the rules at the heart of any medium use are always at the crossroads of memory and forgetting: Memory, because a rule must bear witness to previous ways of using a medium; Forgetting, because a rule can fall prey to fossilization and must therefore be open to medium innovation and invention, yet always within the limits of the medium's materiality (if not, it no longer possible to set up new rules). The definition of a medium in terms of memory versus forgetting is a real paradigm shift in our thinking of what a medium is, and can be compared with Krauss's seminal article on 'Sculpture in the expanded field' [2], where she had managed to reconceptualize the dizzying chaos of artistic practices that were no longer recognizable as sculpture with the help of the basic opposition, further elaborated in the form of a semiotic square, between 'architecture' versus 'landscape' (sculpture, in such a perspective, is then defined as non-architecture + non-landscape). Moreover, this relationship of memory and forgetting is not simply a matter of juxtaposition, of adding-up the old and the new: each artist must permanently reenact (i.e. confirm) and invent (i.e. supersede, reject, transform) the medium, yet not in the linear perspective that may be mechanically inferred from the terms old and new. In art, it can be revolutionary to go back, if this allows for the invention of new rules, new automatisms, new medium uses. Corollarily, it can prove profoundly reactionary and meaningless to leap into the so-called new and the so-called future, if the new and the future forsake the fundamental tension between memory and forgetting.

This 'forgetting' is what characterizes for Krauss the regime of post-medium art, which she had already identified in previous publications as the new art regime produced by 'three things': the postminimalist dematerialization of the art object, the conceptualist emphasis on the verbal definition of the art object, the worldwide success of Duchamp's the readymade (the common feature of these 'three things' beings the war against materiality in art). In Under The Blue Cup she adds to other nemeses: deconstruction, whose critique of identity is broadened into a critique of medium-specificity, and the whole range of artistic practices that foreground no longer the object but the subject's free-floating experience of situations (Nicolas Bourriaud's relational aesthetics, Catherine David's anti-white cube curatorship of Documenta X, the political moralism killing the pleasure of the object, and installation art in general are here the main enemies). For Krauss, postmedium art, which forsakes the work with the object's materiality and the history that goes along, does no longer engage with a medium's history. It is therefore no longer a real medium, and proves incapable of building new rules, new automatisms, and new forms of art.

Just as in 'A Voyage on the North Sea'. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, where she succeeded in proposing an anticonceptualist  i.e. anti-post medium) reinterpretation of one of the major figures of conceptual art, Marcel Broodthaers, Rosalind Krauss offers in Under Blue Cup typically Modernist, i.e. medium-specific rereadings of works and authors that critical peer pressure may partially label as post medium artists, but whose basic attitude is, according to Krauss, deeply committed to the medium's materiality as well as to the medium's automatisms and rules (which are not essential or transhistorical features, but aspects and uses to be discovered trough the hands-on experiments of the artist). The most speaking example of those studied by Krauss, may be Ed Ruscha, whose work is analyzed as the medium-specific 'figuring forth' of a new technical support' of the... car. Ruscha's work exposes what it can mean today to 'drive' and to make sense of being an artist who produces his work not just while driving, but by driving and inventing thus totally new ways of seeing totally new objects. Other major examples in the book are William Kentridge and James Coleman and, to a lesser extent, Sophie Calle or Harun Farocki.

Under Blue Cup is a book whose importance cannot be overstated. A synthesis of Krauss' life-long commitment to medium theory, it is both a thorough discussion with other voices and tendencies in the field and a passionate struggle with contemporary art in the making (yet not from the viewpoint of what is fashionable today: postcolonial studies and institutional critique). Both elements, theory and practice, are however inextricably intertwined: Krauss judges the art being made today in light of her medium theory, while rethinking this theory under the creative pressure of the best that is being made today. Under Blue Cup offers a welcome break with both the political rigor of most critical theory and the theoretical indifference of many cultural industries oriented studies of participatory and convergent media practices. Its exceptionally challenging stances and hypotheses must now be confronted with parallel  but not necessarily similar views, such as for instance WJT Mitchell's attempts to reread McLuhan in a more medium-specific way, [3] or Diarmuid Costello's reflections on the ongoing dialogue between Stanly Cavell and Michael Fried. [4] What tomorrow's medium theory will be is of course impossible to foresee in detail, but it is impossible to imagine that Under Blue Cup will not play a key role in it.

References:

[1] For a more detailed discussion of Cavell's ideas on automatism, see my article "Le roman-photo : média singulier, média au singulier ?”, in Sociétés et représentation ("La croisée des médias"), N° 10, 2000, pp.51-59. Similar ideas are defended by my Belgian colleague Philippe Marion, who has coined the notion of medium genius ("médiagénie"), whose actual meaning is very close to what Cavell signifies by automatism.

[2] October, Vol. 8, 1979, pp. 30-44.

[3] "There Are No Visual Media", in Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 4 no. 2, 2005, pp.  257-266.

[4] 'On the Very Idea of a "Specific" Medium: Michael Fried and Stanley Cavell on Painting and Photography as Arts,' Critical Inquiry, 34:2, Winter 2008, pp. 274-312; see also his forthcoming article: 'Automat, Automatic, Automatism: Rosalind Krauss and Stanley Cavell on Photography and the "Photographically Dependent" Arts', forthcoming in Critical Inquiry 38:4 Summer 2012.


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