Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 2008
Richard Shiff Doubt Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts. New York: Routledge, 2007. 216 pp.; 18 b/w ills. Paper $17.95 (9780415973090)

The “doubt” of the title of this short but very interesting book is meant to be applied to art history. In Richard Shiff’s view, art historians and critics too often erect abstract systems on a partial apprehension of aspects of the artwork. He is as critical of interpretations that float somewhere above the particulars of an artwork as he is with those that do not admit exceptions to their own posited rules. For example, with respect to the ideas of Rosalind Krauss, he observes that “a differential or ‘critical’ term loses its efficacy . . . when we designate it as the correct term under all conditions, rather than as the more beneficial term under specified conditions” (22). The stress on the “specified conditions” indicates Shiff’s attentiveness to particulars, to the concrete features of individual works. In its most extreme formulation, this can lead to the position that each work is a special case, and that no general classifications are possible. I might incline to this view myself, but Shiff refuses all such absolutes, always remembering to doubt. He complicates his temperamental preference for the concrete particular with a respect for the agency of the artist—what might be called formalist criticism with a dose of biography. In this book, Shiff moves from an advocacy of doubt in art history to a discussion of artists for whom doubt played a productive role in their work, such as Willem de Kooning and Paul Cézanne. At this point, the ideas become very rich.

Developed from a series of lectures organized by James Elkins at University College, Cork, Ireland, the book is one from a series called Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts. Despite the anodyne title, it seems like quite a polemical undertaking, and if Shiff’s contribution is any indication, a worthy one. The format includes a seminar or roundtable discussion following the main text. At the end of this one of the participants, Francis Halsall, raises precisely the question of the relation of Shiff’s “theory” of modernism and postmodernism to the work that he discusses: “It seems to me that [you] attempt to reconcile . . . a model of criticism or mode of writing and . . . the object that the model negotiates. But just what does it mean to have the logic of description be adequate to experience? . . . Are you ultimately, in your writings, involved in an aesthetic act?” To this Shiff replies, “Probably . . . yes” (157).

There is no doubt that Shiff has a position, and it is an attractive one. It is also quite distinct within art history today. That is not to say that he is the only one who holds it, just that it has something of an antithetical character—it does not conform. But the decorum of art history has always been its attentiveness to and respect for the particulars of the object, so in one sense it is not that original; the important distinctions, as always, are qualitative. One might suggest that superior art history has a mimetic relation to its object, and that essentially artistic quality is located, as it must be, in the scholar’s writing. Shiff has a predilection for lapidary statements, often at the end of a paragraph. “The conditions of intellectual exchange may have been better in the years before” (62). Sometimes he seems to try to see how short a complete sentence can be: “Well, maybe not” (57). “This can be done” (113). The effect is to stop the reader in her or his tracks, to prevent the eager mind from rushing ahead to a conclusion, or a series of conclusions. It is a demonstration in words of a way to look at art—to be ready always to stop and see where you are and what you have before you—but it also strongly recalls the critic Donald Judd.

I am wary of overemphasizing the point, but evidently Shiff has been moved by both Judd’s art and his writing, and of course understands how the two together form a coherent position. In the book he admits that in his youth he “developed an interest in all aspects of art, not only the physical, feeling side of art making, but also the reasoning side. . . . I enjoyed the feel of handling materials. I also liked the feel of theorizing” (36). We may expect his theorizing to have a “hands-on” character, to be grounded in the concrete, but more than that to have something of the quality of art, that is to say of something that becomes real only in the doing. Shiff demonstrates that habits of seeing can become habits of thinking and talking, but, more importantly, likewise styles of seeing. Surely this is what we can expect the best art history to be—a spontaneously mimetic response to the object. Yet since Shiff is a scholar and not primarily an artist, his feelings have to be translated into insights that can be encapsulated in words, and so it is his same highly principled doubt that blocks complete identification with art. Shiff says that, “I would be satisfied if we would stop conflating the history of the criticism and theory of art with the history of making art” (131).

I feel that this is one of the crucial statements in the book, but what exactly does it mean? In context it suggests that art historians project categories (modernism and postmodernism, for example) onto the material evidence that then tell us less about art than about intellectual fashions. In that case there may well be a “real” art history, constituted by art itself, lying somewhere outside of art history as it is practiced, and accessible to those willing to stop and see it. But it also may be that Shiff is not at all interested in the kind of art history I describe. Might not the best art history accomplish precisely that conflation he abhors? Does not the tracking of Shiff’s sensibility constitute an art history, or isn’t that at least what he aspires to? In any case, of what use is the discipline if its own history is not also the real history of art? Perhaps all these questions reduce to one—does not the viewer play some role in the “making” of art? But then we must distinguish viewers, and notice a certain kind of talented viewer whose mind can move with the work at which she or he is looking, can take on its shape. There is no escape from qualitative distinctions, between artists and between critics, so even the criticism of criticism is a kind of aesthetic judgment.

Although Shiff is very interested in painting, including figures such as De Kooning and Barnett Newman, his spontaneous identification is with something that tends to be understood as coming later, a practice that included both making and writing, and that starts from a rejection of Newman’s famous dismissal of ornithology. Judd may be the crucial figure for Shiff, but there were many artist/writers of roughly the same generation in whom he does not seem to have the same interest—Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, etc. The sticking point seems to be painting itself; and in this respect Shiff follows convention, perhaps unknowingly, namely the widespread belief that painting is a specially valuable yet historically marginalized category of art. However, his treatment of De Kooning and Newman has the effect of proving their relevance in a period when painting has supposedly been rendered obsolete. He shows that the problems their work raises and the ways that they address them already assume that nexus of thinking and making normally associated with postmodernism. But, then, maybe the opposite is also true—that painting is less absent from the mainstream of art after 1970 than generally assumed.

Whatever the limits of Shiff’s position, his constant application of doubt is exemplary. The most important case study in the book revolves around Clement Greenberg’s discussion of the Douanier Rousseau. This little-remarked episode in Greenberg’s development is perhaps the critic’s most Adornian moment. He aligns concrete features of the artist’s work with the social surround in a plausible, illuminating, and not at all reductive way; in fact the argument has a close resemblance to Adorno’s famous characterization of the piano technique of Rachmaninoff, a simple classic of immanent critique. But the kicker in Shiff’s discussion is that Greenberg’s reading of Rousseau opens a critique of Shiff’s own materialism. Though Shiff may follow Judd in his almost positivist stress on the material facts of the work, he understands what is lost as well as gained by such a stance, and he is able to contextualize it, to see it within social history, but not without a salutary doubt of his own clairvoyance.

Overall, Doubt is a major contribution, both to art history and to the history of art history. Shiff’s empathy with art and artists, his subtle and intricate understanding of how thought and making are intertwined, means that it could be a contribution to contemporary practice as well.

Robert Linsley
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo