reede, oktoober 15, 2010

Interview with James Elkins, vol 1

KTKDK presented: "Intensive graduate seminar: Art, art history and visual studies: contemporary problems and concepts of research and writing"
20. - 22. September 2010
Prof. James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago


On one very gloomy morning (wind+rain), during mr. Elkins`s 3-day stay in Tallinn, we went walking to Tallinn Zoo, 3 graduate students and James Elkins. Mr. Elkins had special interest to animal movement patterns, that he wanted to observe, but unfortunately we didn`t see almost any animals or in fact, we didn't see anything remarkably interesting at all. But afterward we did this interview. Plus another one - more about art criticism - which will get published here soon too. Extracted version of this interview vol 1 is published at local cultural weekly Sirp (and Elkins is there the cover star of this week!). Questions and photos by Maarin Murky.

This isn't your first visit to Tallinn – can you tell a little bit when was the previous time and in what matters were you here?
It was about three years ago and it was Peeter Linnap from Tartu who invited me. I didn't know where Tartu was, I came from some long trip and I came in late at night and Peeter picked me up and said that we are going to drive to Tartu. I was thinking it will take something like 15 minutes! (laughs) So I was in Tartu for couple of days, met people at academy. Time I spent in Tallinn was only day and a half, Heie Treier was the person who showed me around. At this time there was big controversy about this memorial and now I see this big ugly monument is ready on Freedom square! It`s very fascistic. It`s a little bit rocky and reminds this constructivist monument other side of the square (Independency Clocks by Leonhard Lapin – MMurky). So it`s very unlucky monument, most of the people would think it belongs to the Third Reich, it looks like a Nazi monument.

Yes, we all have also noticed that problem. Except our government.
Žižek would say that your government knew exactly what it was doing.

I don't want to think further this line! Lets go back to academy-field! When you were mapping current state of Kunstwissenschaft, then you pointed out that there isn't many texts written about how this discipline operates, how is it doing what it is doing etc. This kind of self-reflectiveness is more widely common among scientists for example?
Yes, comparison is very true compared to science. There is enormous amount of literature trying to describe what makes science scientific. There is philosophy of science and history of science, arguments about what constitutes as hypothesis, as an experiment, falsifications etc. Karl Popper for example and all that stuff has existed for long time. Even in other humanities there is this kind of literature - literary criticism and -philosophy has lots of discussion what would comprise as interesting reading, theories of close reading for example what I'm interested in. There is active debates in art science but in art history – there is almost nothing, only around 6-7 papers written about this. Longer is one essay from Oskar Bätschmann and a book by David Carrier called „Principles of Art History Writing“. But this book is very eccentric in relation to discipline too, so very few people read that. He also says himself in this book that he knows that whats he is doing is unusual.
Most art historians don't want to think that their discipline has any useful rules. That would take away from freedom that you need to interpret any artwork, artworks are all different etc, it would be kind of dogma.
There is of course in and outside of art history literature about individual methods – semiotics, psychoanalysis etc. What is missing is mega theory, larger theory, an account how do you move from one theory to another and under what circumstances you choose theories. How do you know Jaques Lacan is right person for you to use? There is no meta theory like that. That's why art history is in state that art historian writes that „now I finished with my semiotic interpretation and now I will use ethnological interpretation“. That's the problem.

So Kunstwissenshaft has kind of disadvantage among other disciplines?
It depends how do you use this word. If you use it in terms of iconography, then it is, and method, more or less discussed, more or less defined – then you don't have those issues.

You pointed out comparative analogy between 4 fields: Kunstwissenschaft: art history : : Bildwissenschaft: visual studies. Could you open this a bit more?
Kunstwissenschaft in some of its older senses is identified with Panofsky`s style and iconography, so it is kind of a prehistory to contemporary art history in two senses: first, it is still one of the methods that is used, and second, because it`s the progenitor of what people say we are all decent. Bildwissenschaft is much more recent, but now people like Horst Bredekamp in Berlin are claiming that it has been around much longer, from the beginning of century and he is identifying people like Alois Riegl and Aby Warburg who were using this already. So now there is this sense that there was thing called Bildwissenschaft earlier as 20th century, so it is taken as some sort of predecessor of visual studies. I actually don`t think it`s so important issue, although I'm lecturing about it. Just interesting is how people who are in visual studies, they know that they are doing something what hasn't been around for long time and they feel they need deeper history so they keep inventing different genealogies for themselves.
But yes, more important here is Kunstwissenschaft`s relation to visual studies. What is happening right now is studies of mass media and advertising are threatening art history. And only reason why those people in visual studies need to look back in history is because they are coming in university space where art history is accepted discipline.

In your lecture you also mentioned art history melting into visual studies?
This is what is happening worldwide right now. One reason why I keep getting invitations to lecture is that I'm being asked to be a doctor to come and save art history department because they feel threatened by visual studies. (laughs) This has been going on like 15 years or so. Every time university starts offering courses on something like television people will go there and not to analyzing Michelangelo. Sooner or later it will be crises. And even aside from all those academic questions what philosopher do you prefer, where does the history of your discipline go – aside from those, what most people look today is TV not Michelangelo. So whole cultural heritage art history represents is under threat. And in addition to that are academic battles over methodology issues and art history is loosing. It can be either good thing – Michelangelo could be used in interesting new ways or it`s a horrible thing because next generation don't know anything about old churches for example.

So you personally see this process as tragedy or new possibilities opening up or?
Its both. Art history still has most thorough articulated set of possibilities for interpreting art than any other discipline. But if art history would be forgotten, because everyone like Žižek then that's a problem. It`s a historical loss. One of the examples I like to use with this is woman who writes art criticism in Toronto, she wrote this lovely newspaper piece that talks about how they came with their friends late at night out of club and passed by art museum which had Henry Moore sculpture in front of it and they noticed someone has crashed the car onto it – it had little bit of white paint on it and oil on the street. So she wrote about this in her art magazine column, which is about visual culture criticism. But she doesn't care about Henry Moore, she even doesn't care if its scratched, its just a funny thing that got oil on it. This is the attitude art historians get nightmares about.

More about Bildwissenschaft - what fascinates you most about Bildwissenschaft, its totality? In sense that if you rethink concept of image, it also means redefinitions of all concepts involved – language, perception etc. So it means creating a new filed.
Again there are two answers. Bildwissenschaft as German term is a name for certain practice in German speaking practice and in Scandinavia, but it`s not known in the rest of the world. In North-America Bildwissenschaft is basically unknown, in English speaking countries most texts are not published; same for Spanish speaking countries. So Bildwissenschaft is complected and it means different things in different contexts, but all in all still it`s small. For example in China where they have visual studies (named in China's terms of course) they take students out to historical sites so they could appreciate them. It has nothing to do with visual studies and Bildwissenschaft. So this is one answer.
The other answer is that if you rethink concept of visual you definitely rethink all other concepts in art history. It has required lots of work in order that art history would stretch itself to encompass performance art etc, whatever has happened during last four decades. So visual studies is even beyond those. You need to use language of advertising etc but you also need to think and invent what images are in general. And for example I'm interested in images in science so you have to go more broadly than this even.
But visual studies and Bildwissenschaft are not really doing their work, most work is being done in philosophy.

In discussion about Bildwissenschaft and also about Western – non-Western connections you are asserting that we shouldn't leave problematic concepts/or historically dominated trajectories out – like does post-colonialism, which focuses mores „on the other side“. So challenge seems to be in expanding, not excluding concepts?
I can give you double answer again.
You know by the way there are philosophers who have obsession about certain numbers, like Hegel was all about three, and I have decided that Jacques Ranciere, everybody love now, has always answers in fours and I think I read somewhere that Lacan said that subconscious can read pass six.
Yes, so there is two issues here. About post-colonial and that's a pity we haven't spoken much about this – Estonia is paradigmatic post-colonial, it`s been repeatedly post-colonial, all these theories should match perfectly. Post-colonial writing is predominant way for people who want to address specific local art practices around the world. If you are looking for Birma modernism articles on that you see that most of them are written during last 10-15 years by post-colonialist theorists. There is art history but most articles are about post-colonial. Post-colonial theory is all about identity construction, national, regional, local, glocal, so post-colonial theory isn't aimed to art objects in terms of their art content. That's the big problem for art history and art criticism, it`s like mixing oil and water – you can do it, but if you leave them to be, oil and water separate so you have two discourse again.
The other issue here is linked to book I just finished – „Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History“. It`s a full-length study of Western art historical appreciation of Chinese landscape painting. First art historians went there and made those big eurocentric claims, most famous one that China never had Renaissance, so they never became modern. They were keeping saying that Han dynasty is Modernist and the Quin dynasty is Baroque and things like that. Then they became aware of that and they stopped doing that, but then there was long period of where art historians still permit themselves to use criteria for those periods, but not period names. Like Ming dynasty period artists are „dynamic“, which is Baroque criteria. So the point of my book is that people become more and more sensitive trying to adapt what they know what they recognize to be Western, they try to avoid everything they can identify as Western projection but they can never finish this active avoidance because underlying motifs of studying are Western, art history structures are Western. Art history hasn't come into terms with that that sensitivity cant solve this problem.

So I have eccentric definition of non-Western – art practice is non-Western if art history book that is written in this area requires references to Paris, Rome, London, New York in order to tell their story. Poland in that sense is non-Western, Estonia is definitely non-Western. This way of thinking has direct effect on pedagogy, because when you become a teacher how do you present this material without making references? How far can you go – can you do without talking about Duchamp? So if you can, then paradoxically you are Western, because all machinery of art history is Western. So if you can relay on Other narrative then you are Western, not some kind of other exotic non-Western.
One of the most common ways has been adding new qualities. I think best example is Czech Cubism, and what makes Czech Cubism different from Picasso in late 20-30s, is that they add „spirituality“. But this is just inaccurate, scholars will say immediately that there is spiritualism – whatever that is – in Picasso's work too!

You propose eight ways what to do with artists, who are locally significant, but fall out of map of dominating understanding of modernist art. What from those do you see as most potential?
Again there is two answers. In terms of potential the best possibility would be uniting discourse with theory. But in the end it is lots of false solutions, because it differs the questions of scientific work. For me the best solution I have thought is – and I'm imagining this book, which I mentioned I cant finish writing, something like „Painting from 1900-2000“ – that every chapter in this book would start with page long glossary, everything used in this chapter. Example could be Chilean Cubism, which is very good example of modernist culture that had no Cubism. So if you talk about Cubism in Chile you can`t mean very much. So my best solution so far would be to ask the readers to suspend their disbelief to the length of the chapter that they know what these terms mean. To suspend their disbelief that Cubism could mean nothing but a formal arrangement. Because if you don't do something to rework those mental concepts then I think everything is inaccurate from the beginning.

One of your filed of interest is non-Western and Western understandings and (mutual) dealings with art history, it`s basic concepts or what could be something like art history in different context. For me it seemed that there is sense of hopelessness in your writing about possibility to overcome this deep „lost-in-translation“ gap.
Yes, it`s pretty hopeless (laughs). You really don't see happening use of non-Western concepts or methods. I would actually like to make interview with Krista Kodres that if she had all the students she ever wanted and they all were brilliant students and in 20 years – what would happen. If you get 20 Estonian PhD every year, all publishing, in 20 years you would have 400 art historians and thousands of pages texts – what would it be? Would that be Estonia as new theory capital to where people would come to study new amazing theories? Or would it be Estonia as equal player in the field of the most advanced application of theories like Jacques Ranciere reading? Or would it be some unforeseeable new richer kind of art history that everyone want to read? It`s not clear to me where the integration of theory leads. So yeah, quite pessimistic, why not.

Do art historians need theory and what is the relation between art history and theory?
The straightforward answer is that you don't need to know that you are using theory in order to be using theory. Especially very traditional art historians who do nothing but identify saints and their legends, of course they have theory too. This is somethings post-structuralism has taught us that there is no such thing as text without theory. So really the question is that would art history texts be more interesting or perhaps more truthful or relevant if the author NAMES the theory. There is no easy answer, but the simplest answer is that trivial; weather or not the person names the theory or not. And it even may be trivial that art historians notice that they have a theory. There is this kind of architecture historian we used to call pillar and post historian – most possible conservative historian type who goes and measures pillars and posts. But of course there is theory there too – that theory is positivist theory that goes back to 19. century German theories.
So most responsible answer to your question is, that no, it doesn't matter, because theory is always in the work.
Then, slightly different answer would be also no, it also doesn't matter, but in this case because it`s often a fiction that you can control a theory. Often theory is superficial in order what is being tried to interpret, so mentioning Jaques Lacan isn't always necessary, because argument can precede without it. Or the other possibility is that historian is not in control of theory, so they are just using a little part of it or another part so it is not actually example of the theory. In Chicago where I teach I like to make distinction about learning Lacan as you would do in art history or how you would do in universities other departments. The use of terms is so different. So in that sense theory is also not important because it`s not controlled.
All of that is on one side. On the other side are arguments why theory is important, that has more to do with international community. If you don't engage some name of theory to your text which has something to do with local theory, then people from different contexts don't have particular reason to read your text. Unless they visit Tallinn, then they of course read the texts. But if they are not visiting and not studying Estonian art then only reason they have to read your text is that you might have interesting use of the theory. So theory is extremely important for international communities. So from my point of view it would be the only very important reason why theory is important.

What are your reflections about Estonian art historian community you have met here? You also collected all the seminar participants abstracts about their research and gave individual feedback to those.
I think it`s fairly typical for smaller or medium sized countries. Lot of your education (and I'm just basing this on my tiny little experience, reading few pieces of articles translated into English) is about objects, I don't want to use word conservative way, because it`s meaningless in this context, but traditional object-based education. And then you come to certain level, there comes a question how to incorporate the theory. So theory comes to you from outside. This is of course changing now.
The opposite would be in large countries and universities that by the time you finish your college degree you already had maybe three years when you have seen artworks through theory. There is lot of courses where you first read Foucault and then discover Velasquez`s „Las Meninas“, not the other way around. The book I wrote on this subject („Our beautiful, dry, and distant texts: art history as writing“) I draw a distinction about normal art history and what`s being called a theory. I just call it „normal“ because statistical average shows that most of the journals are not about theory. So in this book I argue that not only normal art history is suffused with theory in a normal post-structuralist thinking of text but it actually has – because it`s older – more expectations, protocols etc than theory texts. In that sense theory texts are more simple. Sometimes I get into discussion with people who write theory texts and they say they could write „this conservative way“ too but I think no, actually you couldn't. You are not capable for that because there are rules for that and they come with long experience. These texts are often very rich, and I'm using this term spider web here. The most primitive spiders just make a line and wait insects to get stuck in there. If they get better they build those irregular webs you can see on basement. And as evolution progress then in the middle of web would come little platform and most evolved spiders built symmetrical webs. Irregular web is like normal art history – no clear structure, no clear direction, but in there often is some kind of platform that keeps you interested as a reader. Complexity of artwork is all around you and complexity of text is all around you it`s very immerse if you are fly – you are in big trouble. But the opposite to that is contemporary art theory driven art history text, which has beautiful symmetry, but complexity of historical situation is often missing.

Connections between art historian communities worldwide – it`s also demonstrating gap between Western and non-Western? Also concerning for example your coming here as star of international art historian/art theorist community? How to really connect during those kind of shortly – timed situations when clearly we here are happy that person like you has found time?
Let`s start an anti-theory-colonialist movement! To stop large colonial invasions of people in search of theory, exotic art examples or even of people like me in search of international examples too, sometimes there is good reasons to stay local!

2 kommentaari:

Anonüümne ütles ...

nüüd ühendaski ära, et Jaan Lüsi on Jacques Lacan

lassebosse ütles ...

It is interesting how Estonia, I guess the whole postsoviet New Europe seems to make Western theoreticians a bit shaky and baffled. Suggesting postcolonialism as the next main discursive tool for us is as if saying we should first of all research about our subalternity, set political aims at the top and forget about the rest for the time being. I would say it is a bit more tricky than that. And to begin with the above mentioned, I would say there is a colonial attitude hidden in the suggestion itself.