Doubt by Richard Shiff
203 pages. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
by Matthew Levy
Doubt may at first seem a peculiar subject for an entry in a book series entitled Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts.* To doubt is to enter into a state of skepticism, distrust, and uncertainty—hardly grounds for a theoretical edifice. Yet doubt is both the title and connective tissue for this wide ranging and briskly paced book by Richard Shiff. Instead of a systematic and comprehensive account of modernism and postmodernism, Shiff offers an extended meditation on the vicissitudes of art making and art writing in the modern era. Doubt serves double duty in this enterprise. In the first section, “Pragmatic Doubt,” it represents a force of resistance constitutive of the encounter between a critic’s language and a work of art’s obdurate and ineffable materiality. In the second section, “Existential Doubt,” it functions as a point of entry into artists’ working processes, enabling a form of critical writing that is sympathetic towards the subjective and arbitrary nature of the creative act.
Shiff opens with an anecdote about Robert Irwin’s refusal to have his work reproduced in a 1965 Artforum article, due to photographic representation’s inability to convey his works’ material plenitude. In Shiff’s terms, Irwin refused to allow his work to proliferate into “self-difference,” which he describes as a semiological process in which photographic or linguistic representations generate meanings that are spatially and temporally removed from one’s unique, physical experience with a work of art. The incommensurability of language and objects is a common enough trope in methodological writing in the visual arts. For Shiff, this epistemological divide makes art writing inherently arbitrary, determined by the author’s subjective judgments and the doubts that motivate them. In Shiff's estimation, many critics today write in bad faith, paying lip service to authorial subjectivity while simultaneously using apodictic rhetoric.
While he does not claim to write from a position of greater critical self-awareness than anyone else, Shiff does make an effort to theorize cognitive modes that resist self-differing. He defines “tacit knowledge” as embodied thought not transparent to the intellect, and associates it with Willem de Kooning’s instinctive understanding of artistic materials. Shiff identifies a second, related form of cognition that he calls “intuition”—a kind of deductive “fast thinking” whose logic cannot be articulated—and cites as an example Donald Judd’s ability to devise perceptually unitary forms that maximize visual complexity. Shiff’s willingness to think within the creative process is a tonic. While it may be highly unfashionable, discussing artists' intentions is no more problematic than the currently popular critical practice of sacrificing the unique particularities of a work of art to preexisting intellectual concepts and paradigms.
The interest in process and intention informs the book’s second half, which is divided into four case studies on Barnett Newman, de Kooning, Paul Cézanne and Henri Rousseau. In each, Shiff situates the artist’s practice in relation to modernity’s critical and historical pressures. He considers the four example artists to be active agents in these negotiations, not naïve pawns of prevailing cultural ideologies or benighted makers unaware of the consequences of their own works. For example, the reader learns how Newman came to see unanticipated “prophetic” content in his seminal Onement I (1948); content that would form the basis of an art suited to the post-War period. In the following section, de Kooning becomes Newman’s antipode, an artist who intentionally throws obstacles in the way of his own technical facility and his critics’ self-differing interpretations in order to create an art predicated on “slipping.”
In the work of all four of these artists, Shiff sees a type of materialism, a preoccupation with the concrete data of sensory experience. He argues that this artistic materialism was a “homeopathic” remedy to the materialism of modern consumer society, but that the audience was unprepared to receive it without the mediation of metaphor or allusion. If Doubt offers a “theory of modernism,” if only of a particular strain, it is in this stimulating notion of homeopathy, which Shiff regrettably leaves underdeveloped. If modernist art relates homeopathically to modern culture—treating like with like—who is to say that it might not compound rather than alleviate its symptoms? Furthermore, what value does a therapy have for those unprepared to receive it? And if they were able to receive it, would it hold any therapeutic value at all? If modernism is an illness, as Shiff seems to imply, the reader is left wondering who is the patient and who, if anyone, has the cure.
* This series is edited by James Elkins. Previous installments have been by Elkins, Master Narratives and Their Discontents (2005), and Stephen Bann, Ways Around Modernism (2006).
Matthew L. Levy is a doctoral candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.