Book Review: Chris Kraus, Where Art Belongs (Semiotext(e), 2011)

Chris Kraus’s
Where Art Belongs (Semiotext(e), 2011)

Much wind continues to be leaked about the demise of criticism as a high art form, and a lot of it, sadly, rings true. It can be attributed to a general lowering of standards that occurred throughout the Bush Years, when the rich once again (as in the Reagan Years) found themselves in the position of having more money than they knew what to do with, and the market took over in a free-for-all orgy that saw plenty of art mediocrities and their assorted hangers-on get rich really quick. Art critics, whose main role by definition has always been to give an opinion, suddenly found that the only position available to them in this new economy was to serve as PR hacks, verbally hoisting up whomever the market had determined was hot at any particular moment. For many enterprising “writers” (I hesitate to use a term that debases the profession when discussing these people), there would be no problem, as they generally had similar educational backgrounds to the artists whose work they were describing, and could thus be relied upon to contextualize excremental output in an impressively daunting manner. One could even go so far as to suggest that they weren’t being dishonest in lionizing artists that were at best negligible in significance, as there are many individuals, particularly in academia, who have impressive intellectual and publishing credentials but simply lack taste.

On the other hand, the Bush Years saw the opening of a new field of endeavor, mainly in the United States and Great Britain, that has come to be known as art writing. For those curious and perceptive enough to recognize it, this has been the next great evolution in a field that is commonly lambasted as moribund. This niche is largely populated by writers coming from, to use academic jargon, creative writing (that is, poetry and fiction), writers whose primary concern isn’t necessarily art but life, or rather, writers who practice writing as an art form, and are thus unable to see the supposed boundaries between art and life, practice and criticism. As Chris Kraus notes in her new book, Where Art Belongs, “In the 21st century, art writing plays the same role as magazine fiction did for mid-20th century writers like Philip K. Dick and Chester Himes. It offers a badly paid livelihood.”

Kraus should know. She’s been at the crest of this momentum since 1997, when her first novel, I Love Dick, was published, an ahead-of-its-time sculpture-in-words that blended the 19th century roman à clef with gossip and art theory and criticism, shining a new light on the possibilities of narrative integrity. In her subsequent books—Aliens and Anorexia, Video Green, and Torpor—Kraus was among the first to demonstrate that fiction could be criticism, and vice versa—or that we needn’t bother confining writing in these categorical boxes at all.

Of course, there is always the worry among artists—whose work, after all, is purported to be the subject addressed by this writing—that the writing will overshadow the artwork. This is a subject brilliantly dissected by Kraus, in a typically roundabout way, in her essay on the Bernadette Corporation, which features prominently in this collection. In 2009, the Bernadette Corporation confused their art world colleagues by exhibiting an epic poem as the primary installation in their show at Greene Naftali in New York. Not only did they have the audacity to call a poem a work of art, they treated it as a unique work, framing it in the gallery where visitors had to stand and read it—there were no photocopies available, no publication, no online posting. Of course, this serves as a canny parallel to what so many working in the domain of art writing have been doing—including, arguably, Bernadette Corporation themselves, who also collectively authored the conventionally published novel Reena Spaulings.

What Where Art Belongs shows us, actually, is what art writing can do—a form of criticism that is not about a thing, but is that thing, living in consanguinity with the art object or artist through which it bases itself at any particular moment. The book showcases its author’s gift for formal ambition (one essay, “Untreated Strangeness,” addresses three seemingly unrelated artists in separate sections—Jorge Pardo, Naomi Fisher, and George Porcari—thus forcing the reader to forge her own connections), as well as a poetic sensibility rooted in a phenomenology of perception that refuses criticism’s traditional limitations of sovereignty; it’s a world where, after reading a description of a Nam June Paik video, one might come across the following paragraph:

The college dorm building I live in here in Chicago is managed by Wackenhut Prisons. The tough, middle-aged black female guards in the lobby wear the tight navy blue trousers and shirts of police officers. Each guard wears a shiny aluminum badge with the company logo—a triangular hut, shaped like the dollar-bill pyramid—over her left breast pocket. Wacken-hut. Whacking off in the hut? There’s a cheap calendar hung up over the guard desk that shows an American flag superimposed over dreamy American grain fields.

Where Art Belongs indicates that at least one type of art still belongs between two bound covers. 

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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