Richard Shiff is the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art History at the University of Texas-Austin, and the author of Doubt (Routledge, 2008). Katy Siegel, who earned her Ph.D. with Shiff, is an associate professor of art history at Hunter College, and a contributing editor at Artforum.
Katy Siegel (Rail): To begin at the beginning, people might be surprised that your roots are in social history, that you studied at Yale with Robert Herbert, the American historian of Impressionism. To what extent did that experience affect your own work, which is not recognized as conventional social history?
Richard Shiff: Robert Herbert was a great teacher for all kinds of students. He was versatile in his own work, and with others he was never dogmatic. He let students operate according to their own inclinations. I probably wasn’t his typical student, but there were certainly others who didn’t fit the profile of the social historian as it was developing at that time (the 1960s and ‘70s), guided as much by Bob as by anyone else. I came to Yale expecting to continue my fledgling work in history of architecture but became more involved with discussions of painting, in part because I was doing a lot of painting myself. As an interpreter, I wondered what could be done with a medium like painting, which had such a long history behind it. The marking of surfaces has always seemed basic to human survival—a fundamental form of communication not only to others but to oneself. You can study painting—or rather, mark-making—on the level of infantile expression as well as through semiology, sociology, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, whatever. Bob Herbert had a really good eye for painting and a curious, roving mind, and I appreciated those qualities; they established what seemed like a natural teacher‑student connection.
At first I wasn’t particularly interested in the social history of art, but Bob made it interesting. It eventually came out in my work in what I once called an iconography of style and technique, meaning that, as an art historian, you could discuss the social implications of what the painter pictured, but you could also discuss the social implications of how the painter chose to picture it—with what kind of mark, what kind of color. The nature of the mark said something about the general attitude or psychological disposition of the mark-maker, with implications as to the type of society that would value, or at least tolerate, this type of individual. In Bob’s own work, questioning of this kind might be most evident in the connection he made between the look of spontaneity and laissez-faire capitalism.
Rail: How, if at all, does your work engage a social history?
Shiff: I tended to interpret technical differences as corresponding to temperamental differences, with the different personality types having different values in relation to a particular social ideology. So a society that might prefer to regard each of its members as a distinctive individual, as opposed to a cipher within a homogenous group, might also prefer a painter who distorted or violated anatomy and perspective to one who followed the existing rule. This is a very ordinary, rather shopworn example that I’ve just invoked. To cite a more challenging case: Why should we be interested in the way that Jasper Johns, in his later work, reverses, inverts, mirrors, and flops various pictorial images and patterns? Johns is one of a number of important living artists who have resisted settling into a pattern of understanding. It’s hard to define where he stands if you confine yourself to existing categories. This is true even now, regardless of how familiar Johns’s imagery is as Johns’s own. You have to take what he does as it comes. I think he resists categorization because he himself is not guided by categories or concepts. He thinks in the way that he senses—or in the way that most people use their senses but not their minds. To put it a little too reductively, thinking and seeing are the same for him. He can see or think the difference between a form and its mirror image because he isn’t dependent on the concept of the mirror. He sees that any particular mirror image is more than that, that it feels more than that—it has its own emotional valence. I suspect that by painting still another picture after each picture, Johns is able to think about what he feels.
Whenever I’m dealing with an individual artist—and especially with living artists—I try to define what social value the rest of us might draw from the example of the particular artist’s work. This is both a critic’s problem and a historian’s problem because you need some historical perspective to get specific, to keep from being too impressionistic about the social situation that the work seems to address. In the case of Peter Doig, whom I wrote about for the recent Tate exhibition, you need to know something about his attitude toward the various environments in which he’s lived, which affect his memory, a remarkably fluid and variable memory. He identifies his paintings with a sense of place, but his places are multiple. His art has something to say about a kind of geographical displacement that so many of us experience now. I also recently did a catalog essay on Marlene Dumas [for the upcoming LAMOCA/MOMA show], a kind of “displaced” person as well. By translating photographic imagery into the techniques of painting, Dumas manages to put moral and emotional seriousness back into journalistic clichés of sex and violence, which she renders in an ambiguous way, both shocking and comical. These are examples of art that interests me because its moral and emotional values don’t come readymade. Nor is the oddness of this art present just for the sake of appearing odd.
Rail: Your first and perhaps most significant single project was your book on Cézanne. For years after its publication, you were known primarily as a historian of nineteenth‑century art, and you continue today to publish extensively on the subject. When did you begin to write about more recent subjects, including mid-century and still more contemporary art?
Shiff: In a way, I was always writing about contemporary art. Some early theoretical essays used living artists as their examples. Chuck Close figured in an essay of the late 1970s on the creativity of making things, which, modified, became the conclusion to the Cézanne book, but lacking the part about Close. Essays devoted to the works of living or recently deceased artists—as opposed to theoretical essays in which the same works might serve as cases to demonstrate a point—began in the late 1980s with writings on the abstract expressionists, as well as on figures of the next generation, such as Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. Close himself reappeared in several of my essays of the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the context of discussing tensions between painting and photography, as well as between analog and digital procedures and between vector and raster systems. These various theoretical discussions were driven by the example of the artist’s work. This engagement with contemporary art has only increased over the years. I haven’t lost any of my involvement with nineteenth-century art, but in terms of page count, it’s probably true that the ratio some years ago tipped in favor of the later period.
Rail: What are the issues at stake when a historian becomes a critic? Reading your essay about using art criticism to build a historical narrative, “On Criticism Handling History,” was the thing that made me want to be an art historian, but now the formula seems more pressing when reversed. So many historians have begun to dabble in the contemporary, but oddly don’t seem to bring historical skill or perspectives to the task.
Shiff: If my writing on living artists has a distinctive character, it would be for two reasons (no doubt shared with at least some other writers, but probably not many)—first, I’ve always got the long view of history in mind and probably see better than most of my peers that a great deal of what goes on now isn’t particularly unprecedented or innovative (the nineteenth century had its share of people who took a postmodernist stance toward the fundamentals of modernist practice—for every true believer, there was an ironic deconstructionist, but they didn’t have the word then). At the same time, I would fault many of my contemporaries for romanticizing the present by seeing it through moments of past history. They either understand the past era better, or, more likely, have simply romanticized it by identifying it with a figure they wish were right beside them in the present time. Walter Benjamin is a critical writer I myself admire for his remarkable acumen, but I wouldn’t apply his politics to the politics of our own time—it won’t work.
Rail: I am very interested in what you say about the way your peers think about the past and see the present through romantic versions of certain past moments. This seems particularly true about 1968. Could you talk a bit about that?
Shiff: The ideas of 1960s radical groups will not work now, so we have to be careful about how much we romanticize 1968. Yet, because significant elements of the social structures associated with modernity may not have changed all that much over the past two hundred years, understanding art of a century ago or two centuries ago helps us to discern what’s truly different about now and what isn’t. I don’t need to translate our time now into the Paris of 1914, the Berlin of 1939, or the Paris of 1968 just to function as a historically sensitive critic. Some of my peers seem to be in the habit of transposing historical moments, oversimplifying what they see as the social and political crises of the relatively recent past. They seem to think that history repeats itself. I don’t.
Rail: People are still talking about the “failure of utopia” and the “disappointments of modernism” as if events of the ‘20s and ‘30s are still uppermost in the minds of thirty-year-old artists. How do we connect our history to the past without mistaking it for the present? Do we in fact need to connect to the past?
Shiff: It seems pointless to note the failure to attain some kind of social utopia if the critic does no more than denounce the implied utopian promises of certain forms of art. Those promises tended to be made by critical interpreters more than by artists, so, at the very least, let’s not hold the artists and their art responsible for political fantasies that were the creation of the writers who were promoting the art. And, of course, a technique or an image that had a certain connotative value in the past may have a very different one now. A critic ought to be sufficiently sensitive to history to identify which aspects of traditional practice are being resisted, ignored, or actively discarded. Do techniques, subjects, and aesthetic attitudes change because the needs they once served no longer exist, or do they change because of an overriding ideological principle, such as (obviously) change for the sake of change? This can be a fruitful path of questioning but you can’t proceed down it if you have little understanding of the dynamics of past art within its own society. At the same time, it would be wrong-headed to slight Roy Lichtenstein for failing to treat popular imagery with the same breadth of social concerns that we might detect much more readily in Courbet or Manet or Gauguin. A more interesting investigation might ask why it was important for Lichtenstein and many other prominent late-twentieth-century artists to give so much attention to the graphic structuring of images. I would be tempted to argue that there was a social need for someone—it turned out to be a number of painters—to probe Ben-Day dots, half‑tone, color separation, and the like, showing how graphic techniques affect the world of images and, beyond the image, the human imagination. Some art is little more than a narcissistic reflection on the artist, but a lot of art performs a kind of social investigation. It may be that, collectively, the photographically-based representational painters (and sculptors, too) of recent decades have performed a level of critique of photography and video imagery that these dominant image technologies could not have accomplished on their own. To pursue this possibility, I would want to study how one representational medium can interfere with and undermine the credibility of another. There would be innumerable historical cases of competition between media that could be invoked as a way of developing suggestive perspectives on this kind of question.
Rail: How does this emphasis on interpretive dilemmas relate to the theme of your new book?
Shiff: In the book that ended up being titled Doubt—where the focus falls primarily on Judd, Newman, de Kooning, Cézanne, and Rousseau—I settled on doubt as the attitude to explore for at least two reasons: not only did I perceive varieties of doubt in the artists in question, but I also perceived that my application of a conceptual framework for the art necessitated doubt on my part. Doubt is like a blur or a left‑over reserve—a hole in the argument or interpretation. The areas of doubt prove to be the most interesting areas to probe. In Doubt, I identified four syndromes to differentiate modes of artist‑and‑critic interaction. I suppose I could call it artist-and-critic interference (analogous to the mutual interference of media). Doubt itself is one of these modes. The other three are prophecy, projection, and paranoia. Each of the other three could be regarded as a variation on doubt.
As for change itself—well, it either occurs at moments of doubt, or it produces moments of doubt. I tend to think that technological changes have affected societies as well as the arts within them more than other types of changes, although the art market has grown astronomically (probably because art is such a good hedge investment), and the establishment of this little economic niche may not be affected by technological change particularly directly. Artists now seem quite comfortable about making gobs of money (which they deserve), so perhaps the myth of the starving artist has finally ceased to provide an effective social model. The starving bohemian had creative privacy because he or she was neglected. Today, major artists buy their privacy with their money, like an industrialist or a retiring movie star.
Rail: In some of your earlier work you delineate thought not in terms of these rhetorical tropes—doubt, prophecy, projection, and paranoia—but in terms of different positions: artist, critic, historian.
Shiff: If we have to distinguish artists from critics, we would do it this way: artists are the believers, critics are the doubters. Societies as we have known them profit from the activities of both. Presumably, the woman in a de Kooning painting is mostly a fantasy figure: no specific model but a model nevertheless, or perhaps simply the residue of a material practice, which the artist can believe in as a kind of realization of desire, erotic but not necessarily sexual. Despite being certain of his capacity for creation, de Kooning was one of our culture’s greatest doubters. So this was an artist with a strong “critical” component. If an artist can be “critical,” can a critic be “artistic”? A critical writer who was in essence dogmatic would be a critic whose critical capacities threatened to be overrun by artistic impulses (beliefs strong enough to exclude valid, competing beliefs). A critic who would make a firm distinction between modernist and postmodernist practices would have had his or her vision clouded by “artistic” dogma.
The “historian,” a third personality type, has his or her own version of dogmatism—the blind faith in objectivity. But our culture doesn’t produce very many people of this kind, at least not in the art-criticism-history realm of creative, intellectual and emotional work. So the real struggle is between the faith of the “artist” type and the skepticism of the “critic” type. It’s good for artists to be “artists”—not so good for critics to be “artists.” If they both have too much faith in themselves, then blind faith is going to encounter blind faith, even if it’s faith in your ability to establish critical distance from your own ideology—which today is a common intellectual fantasy. We ought to know better if only because of the poststructuralist theory of the 1960s and ‘70s. Poststructuralism seems to go in one ear and out the other. Most everyone learned it in class, but few act as if they were paying attention. Even the critics who sometimes cite poststructuralist theory want to be right—in fact, they insist on it—and they want to establish their identity. It would be more of a rewarding exercise for a critic to assume that the artist is always right, and take it from there, and see what happens. Lose a little identity working on the job.
Rail: Since you’ve raised the question of theory, let me just observe that a lot of your writing makes use of what has come to be known as theory. Particularly in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, you cited a number of theorists, including Deleuze, Ricoeur, etc. And yet you also reveal a strong opposition to “theory” in your work on American artists like Judd, with whom you seem to be in great sympathy, and in recent work like “To Risk Not Naming.” What do you see as the pitfalls of theory?
Shiff: The problem with theory is that it often does little more than provide terms of generalization, as when we dismiss a view because we classify it as “Cartesian” or “patriarchal” or dismiss an argument because we classify it as “idealist” or “dialectical.” We let the classification make our decision, rather than asking whether the view or the argument is getting a job done regardless of its likely classification. Theory itself performs a service when it generates an alternative understanding of a situation that would otherwise lack intellectual and emotional rewards for its critical investigator. Not long ago I came upon a useful distinction made by Richard Wollheim, and I’ve used it in two or three essays. He argued that the particularities of experience are things we can believe (because they’re sufficiently concrete), whereas the generalizations of theory yield no more than things to be imagined, not things to be believed. We get into intellectual trouble when we begin to believe what we theorize. Theorizations are hypotheses to be tested—they’re pragmatic guesses, often guesses quite in the dark. Belief in your own theory eliminates the capacity to doubt. Even a theory of indeterminacy becomes too determined if you believe it to the exclusion of everything else. Experiencing indeterminacy is a much more convincing moment (though perhaps a rarer one) than theorizing indeterminacy.
Rail: Could you talk a bit about the development of theory in art writing of the past 30 years or so, from your participatory vantage point?
Shiff: I always had an interest in theory, and philosophy was one of several fields with which I experimented in college. I was probably more of a common‑language, analytical type as an undergraduate, then became more involved with Continental philosophy as a graduate student and assistant professor. Like so many other Americans, I quickly developed a liking for Derrida and de Man during the late 1970s. Perhaps some social historian will some day explain why so many Americans liked Derrida so much at pretty much the same moment—I somehow think it was a bit more than just a fashion—it lasted too long for that—longer than Situationism or Maoism, for example. At any rate, I didn’t want to invoke the work of the poststructuralists except in support of very specific types of argumentation. I didn’t want my own research to be driven by a set of concepts that were merely the going intellectual trend. It isn’t easy to prevent this fashion-element from taking over, colonizing your mental work. Even if the more serious readers recognize that it’s more than a fashion, it will begin to feel like a fashion. Sometimes you have to resolve to resist your own intellectual tendencies. You can decide arbitrarily to move to the side of what attracts you and attracts most everyone else. A simple but effective strategy is to look for alternative sources of philosophical or theoretical stimulation, sources that answer the same need. No body of thought is so original that you won’t find something like it somewhere else (or maybe our ingrained habit of thinking analogically causes us to think so). An alternative—Peirce instead of, say, Deleuze—will help you avoid falling into one of the patterns of authoritative argumentation that, for better or worse, identifies your generation.
It’s easier to have a personal reading of a text when it’s one that few of your peers are reading. Peirce isn’t obscure, but some of the parts of Peirce that seem most interesting to me are rarely used. I sometimes take a book from my library shelf at random and let it inspire the next stage of an unfinished essay. Any writing can be useful in this way, especially if it’s good writing; any theoretical concept, removed from its intended context of use, is likely to provoke a profitable turn in imagination and reasoning. If I wanted to give this method a theoretical identity, I would call it “tychic,” with allusions to both Peirce and Lacan. The tychic element is the chance element, the luck in a turn of thought, whether good fortune or bad fortune. Peirce argued that intuitive thinking took a good turn more than it took a bad turn, but there was no rational, statistical reason that this should have been so. For Lacan, our subjectivity and entry into the symbolic order depends on chance events and associations (just as it did for the ancients, who believed that personal fate was determined by the chance temporal and spatial coordinates of birth). The books in my library are as much arranged by time and space as they are by subject matter or the alphabet. The destabilized arrangement encourages stray thoughts to interrupt a developing pattern—it’s like an outside party introducing a healthy moment of doubt into an argument by asking a somewhat irrelevant question. Since there’s nothing inherently useful about this kind of occurrence, the challenge is to make it useful. The method proves itself pragmatically, experientially—it works. It keeps you from developing too many intellectual habits. You avoid formulaic answers to interpretive questions.
Rail: Could you talk about your own position, and whether it has changed/changes with different topics and conditions?
Shiff: When I’m writing about individual artists, I try to follow their lead with regard to settling on a type of theory or attitude toward theory that would be consistent with their beliefs and preferences. It’s the artist‑is‑always‑right notion that I’ve already mentioned. To some extent, in Doubt I’m discussing what happened in a number of cases of critics who admired the artists they wrote about but didn’t necessarily think those artists understood themselves or their positions in their culture. Perhaps, on my own part, I regard each artist as a tychic element from which I receive my identity as a critic. That is, I have to mold my writing to aspects of their character rather than try to convert them into me. Now, I’m sure I do some of the latter as well as the former, but let’s say that I’m at least trying to do the former, which I think can be a productive critical exercise, whether ultimately successful or not. If an artist tries to feel the wood or the metal or the paper or the graphite, I try to feel the artist feeling the wood, and so forth.
Rail: This book makes explicit the tacit argument you have been having with Rosalind Krauss and her followers for many years. Can you explain the basis of your disagreement, and why it is felt so strongly? What, if any, has been the effect of her dominance of the field of academic criticism and on art-making more generally?
Shiff: Bear in mind that I had what you might call a brief for the Doubt book. I was supposed to say something about the current state of criticism. My two predecessors in the series, James Elkins and Stephen Bann, featured Rosalind Krauss’s writing as representative of the dominant mode of approach to recent art, though they didn’t go into great detail about this. There’s no reason not to use the most prominent figure to indicate the status quo. More specifically, in Doubt I used Krauss’s writing as an example of certain pitfalls in contemporary criticism not because her writing is irredeemably bad but because it’s become the model for so many others who write, as Krauss does, on the more academic end of critical practice. This type of writing develops certain patterns of language that I think are self‑deceiving. Or perhaps I should say self‑confusing—or at the least, likely to confuse others without the compensation of edifying them. Confusion is sometimes productive, sometimes just confusing. Krauss’s type of writing often conceptualizes to excess but indicates hardly any agency to go with it, at times none at all. You wonder who is doing what to whom, let alone why. The conceptualized description is sometimes biographical or anecdotal, yet still leaves the reader with little hint of human motivation and the need for moral choice. Are the works of art affecting everyone who encounters them, or only certain people with certain predispositions? Are they affecting only the critic who’s doing the writing?
Krauss’s writing expresses very little doubt as to the aptness of its terms. So, politically—that is, as a model of conduct or ductus—it’s troublesome. It’s too quick to categorize; it reduces critical antagonists to caricatures. Perhaps that’s just the legacy of 1950s and ‘60s structuralism (as opposed to the poststructuralism that followed), but, for all the structuralist categorizing, I don’t perceive the same patterns of rigidity in, say, Roland Barthes. It’s a difference between a style of writing that opens the discourse and one that closes it—an anti-ideological mode versus an ideological mode. Having said all this, I should repeat that I took Krauss’s writing as an accomplished representative of something larger, in the way that you might take Clive Bell if you wanted to critique a hard‑core formalism of the earlier twentieth century. If her work were less influential, I might have chosen a different source and my predecessors might have also. There are many writers who have not bought into this kind of analysis by conceptualization—you yourself, for example.
Rail: If this is the way the project’s institutional origin framed Krauss, how does it frame you?
Shiff: The Doubt project was first a set of lectures at the University of Cork (Ireland) and the publication includes a seminar discussion among faculty that followed there. Most of the participants characterized me as a phenomenologist, which is alright with me, because, after all, phenomenology is not about concepts—it’s about how things feel. But this designation is so broad that I should identify the part of phenomenological investigation that seems most relevant to what’s been going on in a lot of recent art. I’m referring to the way that vision has been modeled on the experience of touch. It’s a common perception that when you touch something you feel that you’re being touched back. You have this feeling even when the object of touch is inanimate (the object resists the skin that touches it so you have a passive feeling as well as an active feeling). If we conceive vision in this way, we realize that it’s not just other eyes that look back at us but anything that we can see must be looking back at us, leading us, seducing us, into silent dialogue. We feel that we’re being seen by objects in the same way that our hand is affected by touching an object (if the object is cold, say, then the hand gets cold). It’s because of this hand-oriented reciprocity of vision that we can talk about subject-object relations as a two-way operation and can apply a kind of Lacanian analysis to our experience of things: any dumb thing can provide us with a sense of our own subjectivity. So if a dumb object can do this, then a carefully crafted object that we’ve actually touched by making or modeling it (while simultaneously looking at it) does this kind of subject-object thing in spades.
Rail: One recent theme of yours is modest, yet has seismic potential if taken seriously: that art doesn’t always get the criticism that it deserves. This is not a version of the current cliché that art criticism is no good, but a more fundamental complaint that the two forms of production—one supposedly created to illuminate the other—just don’t match up. Could you talk a little bit about this, in both specific and broad implications? I assume it could go anywhere from a particular artist misunderstood by a particular critic to someone or something being out of sync with critical fashion, to the whole mode of criticism as it’s currently structured not being suited to really engaging art on its terms.
Shiff: A quick example for the sake of specificity: when Merleau‑Ponty wrote his famous essay “Cézanne’s Doubt,” he chose a suitable enough subject in Cézanne, yet he could have selected a much more committed doubter. The better artist for Merleau‑Ponty’s purposes would have been de Kooning. But, of course, Merleau‑Ponty would not have known of de Kooning in 1945 when he wrote the essay (and furthermore, de Kooning was not French, therefore not as good an example for a French writer at the end of the war). Significantly, however, Merleau‑Ponty and de Kooning happened to be pretty much the same age. De Kooning, such a great doubter, should have been the natural model for Merleau‑Ponty’s thinking; but because people who belong to the same generation run on parallel tracks, it takes a belated, retrospective account to recognize this. Merleau‑Ponty could find his contemporary vision anachronistically in Cézanne, but couldn’t find it in de Kooning where, ironically, it was far more evident.
The language of crisis makes critics seem out of touch with reality—a mild form of paranoia. Here, I’m referring again to the more academic end of critical practice—writers for the more intellectually ambitious art magazines, the art historical and humanities journals, and the various outlets for analysis of visual culture. The critics are forever in crisis over concepts—Is painting dead? Is the postmodern really the modern? How can we gender this or that?—while all around the world is burning. If we were to talk less about a crisis of whatever, then it would be easier to perceive how critics and artists often talk past each other. As their professional responsibility, it should be the critics who adjudicate and remedy the situation, not the artists. Criticism is a kind of mediation—it bridges discourses. If I perceive in Baselitz a certain embrace of Romantic, experiential values, then I need to explain—if only to myself, because I’m the one who has had the somewhat puzzling realization—how Baselitz’s very contemporary engagement with visual expression connects to tradition without loss of its particularly contemporary mode of agency. There’s nothing archaic or nostalgic about Baselitz’s art, yet it often looks behind itself, underneath itself. It would be unproductive to slot this artist into the fashion for reworking old themes with irony, even though he’s been making what he calls “Remix” pictures for the past two or three years, and there’s a lot of irony in them. Baselitz is not just replaying old cultural themes with a new twist. In his case, it has a lot to do with his personal history, and his personal history has a lot to do with the twentieth‑century history of East and West Germany, East and West as cultural syndromes, and the reaction of a deeply anti‑ideological type to multiple ideological pressures. The typical American viewer seems to have a hard time relating to Baselitz’s art, not knowing whether to take it as skilled or clumsy, or as comical or tragic, wanting to attach concepts to it. But categorizing it as “German” or “postmodern” or “Romantic” are mere deflections that do little toward explaining how it’s been affecting its viewers.
If I perceive in Barnett Newman, Donald Judd, Bridget Riley, and Richard Serra—these four are the subjects of “To Risk Not Naming,” which you mentioned a moment ago—if I perceive what looks like their common concern for art that resists familiar critical conceptualization, the last thing I should do is to provide the missing theorization. It would not only not be theirs, it would also undercut the effect of their art.
Rail: This seems to answer what might have been my final question: what matters now, what is worth caring about—how can we relate art to the burning world?
Shiff: One thing worth doing is to explain our cultural hunger for experience that escapes conceptualization—hunger for an art that, even if retaining ideologically charged forms, removes their ideological identity, returning them from the world of cultural habit and rote memory to the world of sensation and emotion, to feeling.