Perpetual Inventory, Rosalind Krauss, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010.

Review first published in MAP Magazine, Issue 21, 2010.

This anthology of essays and reviews by the redoubtable American critic
serves as sequel to the 1986 landmark, Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other
Modernist Myths. In that book Krauss set out to demonstrate that criticism and
art are interesting because of meanings revealed on consideration of their
methods. The intention there was to allow insight from analysis of method to
supersede the meaning of any value expressed in a critic’s poetic judgement of a
particular work. The critic’s role as spirit guide for the private message of
the art maker was much less important to Krauss than what the method of the
critic might bring to the artwork as an open site of discursive potential.

Krauss’s model of criticism in that anthology was shaped by the tenets of
structuralism and poststructuralism. Inasmuch, her project was ambitiously
contra the work of the then dominant historicist and formalist critics,
figureheaded as they were by a Clement Greenberg fast becoming mythologised.

Perpetual Inventory carries forward that project, and makes the same point
about the location of the interest of artworks. This is especially clear in Part
III, ‘Art Criticism’, which comprises short essays written chiefly for Artforum
‘based on the assumption that good work would have to refer, recursively, to the
medium in which it is made’. There is coincidence here with the logic of
Greenberg, but Krauss’s poststructuralist DNA acts as speed-limiter, foreclosing
high velocity telic travel towards art’s complete recursive self-possession.

Krauss’s approach finds favour with contemporary critics who relegate the
idea of artwork as vehicle for private expression and who emphasise instead
structural significance. Jorg Heiser in his recent Things That Matter in
Contemporary Art declares that ‘with works of art it is less about what than
how. Not about the story itself, but about what set the story in motion’.
Krauss, and Heiser, maintain that the work itself as the thing which sets
stories in motion is of continued and crucial importance, at least as valuable
as the poststructuralist methods employed by the critic. This position is
evidenced by Krauss when she explains the motivation behind the book. ‘For the
most part’, she writes, ‘Perpetual Inventory charts my conviction as a critic
that the abandonment of the specific medium spells the death of serious art’.
And for Heiser, similarly, ‘When someone says an artwork is about this or that…
they’ve said next to nothing about its quality as a picture, object, concept,
gesture or act.’

In Perpetual Inventory Krauss argues against the commonplace ‘post-medium’
attitude of neoliberal poststructuralists; those who wish the utter dissolution
of aesthetic mediums, citing as they do the non-specificity of installation art
as the epicentre of regime change. Such disregard for methods centuries and
decades in the making is far too cavalier for Krauss, and many of the inclusions
in this new publication recuperate the importance of what she calls the
‘technical supports’ of artworks. This critical tactic is persuasively advanced
in the reprinted essay on William Kentridge from 2000, in which we come to know
of animation as Kentridge’s particular technical support.

Of course, it is the case that many critics who have adopted
poststructuralist methods of critique to assess the significance of the how of
art have delivered in a voice which can only be heard by initiates – who would
repeat, with no irony, that criticism must avoid at all costs a cosy formalism
and uniform vocabulary. One risk inherent in Krauss’s technical Octoberist
attentiveness to the technical supports of art is the substitution of one
dominant and closed method of analysis with another, notwithstanding the
latter’s manifesto of open reading.

English supercritic Terry Eagleton is on the left-hand side of the same page
as Krauss, and might assist a caution here. Albeit from a slightly different
perspective, Eagleton agrees with Krauss that criticism cannot just be the
practice of divining poetic meaning: ‘It is arguable’, he wrote two years before
Originality of the Avant-Garde, ‘that criticism was only ever significant when
it engaged with more than literary issues’.

For Eagleton, concentration on the methods of criticism is a credible part of
this grand project, for it reveals something in the details of the cultural
foundations of the pontificator and the interlocutor – but the real trick of
good criticism he implied is to see the structures of the technical supports
reflected in both the poetic elements of the work and the wider social arena in
which the work moves, or in which it is restricted.