Deconstructing the Deconstructionists

5
James Elkins

James Elkins behind the table.

A Morning Spent at the Clark Symposium on Art, Theory, and the Critique of Ideology, 1975-1995

This Saturday I met artist Ashley Cooper at the Clark.  She had left her home in Cooperstown at six in the morning to get there on time.  We are both fans of James Elkins, who was listed as one of the participants in the Symposium, but not one of the presenters.  We weren’t ten minutes into the proceedings before it became obvious that we would not be hearing much from Elkins that day.  You see, the presenters were all about “the word” and Elkins is all about the object, the thing, the stuff and how we see it, know it, experience it, and replicate it. He is not so much about theorizing about it.  At least that is my read of him. He has graduate degrees in both painting and art history and a Phd in art history. But the man knows how to talk about painting and he especially knows how to talk to artists about painting.

As one speaker after the other peppered their talks with the names of the French philosophers Derrida, Foucault and Ranciere, I rolled my eyes. With the possible exception of Foucault, these guys are impenetrable in French and don’t improve upon translation.  In case you doubt me, read this:

Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive (the a of différance indicates this indecision as concerns activity and passivity, that which cannot be governed by or distributed between the terms of this opposition) production of the intervals without which the “full” terms would not signify, would not function.

“Derrida in an interview with Julia Kristeva” in “Positions p.28”[52] [Wikipedia]

I remember being at a cocktail once filled with academics, and as I listened to them carefully I discerned their manner of appearing as though they knew something, when, in fact, they were revealing no knowledge of the subject at all.  I will pass the method on to you, in case you ever find yourself cornered in a similar situation. The formula goes like this:

First, say the name of a writer (philosopher, artist, poet), then pause, then name a book (article, work, poem) by said person, then grunt, then nod.

That’s it.  Done.  It will certainly get you through an academic party and might even get you through graduate school.

I am sure that for the cognoscenti (a term Clement Greenberg was fond of) thought that this was a marvelous symposium that undoubtedly was even better during the afternoon session that I was unable to attend.  But for me, if I wasn’t going to be able to hear James Elkins speak, I’d rather watch paint dry.

For those interested, here are my notes from the symposium:

. . . cultural wars. . . status of avant-garde . . . perpetual innovation. . . facts are made up . . . prisoners of language. . . sword of criticism to criticism itself . . . social critique . . . new spirit of capitalism . . . artistic types . . . post-ology . . . get closer to facts . . . protect and care . . . destruction and reparation . . . Lenin . . . enlightened knowledge . . . cognoscenti . . .  fatal mistake . . . misadventures of critical thought . . .critical art . . . build awareness of domination . . . discover signs of capital . . . Marx and Freud . . . anti-fetishists . . . fetishists . . . rhetorical coils . . . hermeneutics . . . passive spectator . . . redistribution of the sensible . . . opiate of the art world . . .self regarding posture . . . Latour . . .ethics of generosity . . . object treated as quasi-subject . . . phenomenological experience . . .seeing oneself seeing. . . what is the meaning of art . . . paradigmatic post-modernist . . . code upon code . . . factual basis of the text based system . . . mythic totality and stasis . . . arts greatest virtue . . . destroy old values while constructing new ones . . . display . . . valuation . . . circulation . . . empty canvases . . . future potentials . . . what has happened to art history is geography . . . ideological dialectic . .  . a contested field . . . thinking about thinking . . . recognizing the locality of one’s own position . . .  mechanical criticism . . . we are making up our own text . . . often useless . . . counter intuitive formulations . . . inadequacy of objects . . . withdrawn from the real . . .not an either/or choice . . . one function of the critique is to get rid of the fetishism of the object . . . the productivity of failure . . . notion of collapse into opposites  . . .  failure of identity . . . isolate post-structuralist core . . . intellectual work is projecting utopia . . . as we posit the death of the author . . .

Books by James Elkins:

Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at IndieBound.org

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  1. joe mcaleer
    joe mcaleer04-24-2012

    leslie. always interesting blog. i’m going to get a few of his books. thanks.

    • Leslie Parke
      Leslie Parke04-24-2012

      Joe, I particularly liked what he wrote about a student’s experience of copying a Monet in his book “What Painting Is”. I think you will find his work thought provoking.

      • joe mcaleer
        joe mcaleer04-25-2012

        i’ll check it out, although i suspect the student probably commented that it was a difficult task, never realizing something seemingly simple, was virtually impossible to duplicate. (just an lifelong art educator’s opinion)

        • Leslie Parke
          Leslie Parke04-25-2012

          Joe, What was really interesting is that the student was pushed to continue until they “got there” — found what was rally necessary to get the same paint quality, etc. But you are right about how deceptively difficult it was.

    • Azam
      Azam12-11-2012

      Jen & Zues. Wow. Just wow. Beautiful and emotional. Loved the way you weorkd in the 16mm film. Very subtle, but still impactful. Can’t wait to see what you two produce next!

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