The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

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FEB 2014 Issue
Critics Page

Of Mice and Ghosts

Reading the prospectus for this issue’s Critics Page brought to mind a passage by Erwin Panofsky that a good friend is fond of quoting:

It has rightly been said that theory, if not received at the door of an empirical discipline, comes in through the chimney like a ghost and upsets the furniture. But it is no less true that history, if not received at the door of a theoretical discipline dealing with the same set of phenomena, creeps into the cellar like a horde of mice and undermines the groundwork.1 

Written over 70 years ago, Panofsky’s metaphor of unsettled domesticity remains an eloquent reminder that even when we think we might be done with theory, theory is never done us with us. Nonetheless, Joachim’s suggestion that there has been a shift in the relationship between theory and the visual arts certainly resonates. When teaching the writings of Clement Greenberg in a M.F.A. critical practice seminar not long ago, I listened in disbelief as my students asked me how these texts could possibly be relevant to contemporary art. Indeed, the patriarch of American modernism failed to register with them even as a source for their own Oedipal revolts. I confess to feeling like something of a dinosaur as I explained the concept of medium specificity to a generational cohort that seamlessly and unrepentantly slips between painting, installation, video, and performance and views distinctions between art and mass culture as specious. Other points in the semester demonstrated that certain theoretical positions once entrenched as critical orthodoxy have lost their poignancy. For example, to artists who view YouTube as a perfectly viable medium for art’s dissemination, the insights contained in Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” were greeted with a collective, “Duh.”

Related changes can be observed in recent art criticism and art history. Grant Kester has persuasively critiqued theory’s conventional application in contemporary art writing, describing it as “a straightforward exegesis, in which a given theory, reduced to a set of notional principles, is simply juxtaposed with a given work of art, as if their sheer coexistence within the space of the essay constitutes meaningful evidence of their analytic co-relevance.”2 In Kester’s assessment, theory has been reduced to a kind of trans-historical, trans-cultural utility kit, ready to be applied to any and all forms of artistic production and whose success at unlocking the mysteries of the visual is taken to be preordained. Such an approach pays little mind to the specific conditions from which a given theoretical discourse originates or how the work of art might resist or complicate the theoretical directives that have been foisted upon it. For Kester, the result is an intellectually diminished form of art criticism, “in which primary importance is assigned to the ability to explicate theoretical texts in more simple or accessible terms than those in which they were originally conveyed.”3 This view is no doubt a simplification that more accurately characterizes graduate seminar writing than the best theoretical criticism. Furthermore, we should remember that all forms of art writing—even formal analysis—have their own discursive substructures whose “analytic co-relevance” to the work of art is accepted as self-evident. Nonetheless, I found myself nodding vigorously as I read Kester’s bracing call to consider how theory can fail to take the true measure of a work of art.

Joshua Shannon, in his otherwise laudatory review of Hal Foster’s The First Pop Age (Princeton University Press), shares Kester’s reservations about the exegetical approach to theory. Commenting on Foster’s application of the writings of Siegfried Kracauer to the art of Gerhard Richter, he writes:

Foster is brilliant … to connect Richter’s art to Kracauer’s critique of the image-world, but he is not scrupulous or specific enough in showing us how the paintings enact this critique … This leaves me fearing that the idea here really belongs more to Kracauer than to Richter and, even then, more to the artist’s words than to his paintings. More important, if Richter’s work indeed serves chiefly to reenact Kracauer’s critique, then we are left wondering whether, in the end, we really need the art or the art historian.4

Like Kester, Shannon believes that art neither can nor should be subsumed by theory without remainder, and he raises the significant question of the division of labor between artist, theorist, and art historian. Is art history’s task merely finding the right theory that “speaks” for the silent art object, or can it illuminate a set of cultural conditions by triangulating between theory and art in a manner that respects the ambiguities and ambivalences intrinsic to visual expression?

I believe that the points I have outlined here—however cursorily—point to the possibility of a generational shift in art’s relationship to theory. Younger artists see no reason to be beholden to a theoretical edifice codified well before they were even born. And art writers are becoming more sensitive to the ways in which works of art can articulate their own theoretical positions that do not depend on the imprimatur of an extrinsic written corpus for their legibility. While in some quarters these developments might signal a loss of intellectual rigor, my hope is that they reflect a kind of disciplinary rebalancing, part of the ongoing task of keeping the house of art free of mice and ghosts.


  1. Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 22.
  2. Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,” e-flux 50 (December 2013).
  3. 3   Ibid.
  4. Joshua Shannon, “We Are Pop People,” review of The First Pop Age, by Hal Foster, Art Journal 71, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 121.


Matthew L. Levy

MATTHEW L. LEVY is an assistant professor of art history at Penn State, Erie. His essay “David Novros’s Painted Places” was recently published in the catalogue for Novros’s current exhibition organized by the Museum Wiesbaden and Museum Kurhaus Kleve.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues