Posts Tagged ‘obsolescence’


Getting Muddy: Revisiting Rosalind Krauss’ “Nostalgie de la Boue”

September 20, 2007

I’d like to open with a story of sorts – about my first encounter with postmodernism (though it was more than fifteen years before I heard the word) when I was a child growing up in the London suburbs. My grandparents, active in the local Music and Drama Society, had taken me, twice, to see their friends and acquaintances perform Tom Stoppard’s one-act the Real Inspector Hound. My initial response of naive confusion when two of the audience members, talking with rude volume, revealed themselves to be theatre critics, was compounded as they berated the actors from their seats and later strode onto the stage itself and became inseparable from the drama, finally becoming victims in the Agatha Christie-like play they are supposed to be reviewing. But it was funny – if you haven’t seen any of his plays, Stoppard has Wilde’s talent with farce and wit, and often manages to fold in parody (though here it is at the expense of characterization) – and humor is a sure draw for children, so I opted for a second night of it to avoid an encounter with the dragon babysitter. This time I could anticipate and compensate for the vertigo of watching the superimposition of roles. I remember distinctly wondering if I was now allowed to go on stage, too?

One of the things that inspired me to start this project was rereading Rosalind Krauss’ essay “Nostalgie de la Boue” from the journal October’s Spring 1991 issue. As it brings up a number of threads (nostalgia, camp, obsolescence) that feed into thinking about my love of decay, I want to run through it here.

First, some fast background on the author (itself a loaded term) and October. Krauss was a rising star in art criticism, when, in 1976, she left that most prestigious and intellectual of magazines, Artforum, to found October. 1991 saw her at the height of her powers, about to accept a tenured position at Columbia, watching her revolution become the academy.October, a paper journal issued quarterly, was named for the Eisenstein film that celebrates the Russian Revolution while simultaneously practicing film theory past the point that the Bolshevik leaders could tolerate. With a non-doctrinaire focus on “small r” revolutionary art theory/practice, the journal reasserts the relevance of the historical avant garde (the cascade of early twentieth century movements, artists, critics, and manifestos) by building what we would now call a remix of poststructuralism, contemporary art, and a historicized take on the early modernists. Its success marked the rise of the academic mode of art theory and a separation from the rocket of the 1980’s art market that crashed a decade later.

The instigation for Krauss’ essay is the famous show “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” at New York MOMA, that brought graffiti and other expressions of popular culture into the Museum’s hallowed halls, causing a minor uproar in 1990.

In the show’s catalog, the agents of MOMA put down Surrealism and its focus on the unconscious as “meaningless”, dissing it with the phrase “nostalgie de la boue” which the catalog says involves “a yearning to wallow in what is seen as low and filthy”. The expression, which literally translates from French as “nostalgia of the mud”, is, oddly, not used in France, but has a life and meaning only among English speakers. The same dubious phrase shows up being used by Andrew Ross, a famous Cultural Studies critic to dismiss the historical avant garde as not being seriously engaged with popular culture — they weren’t really hip, they were just slumming. In both cases, nostalgia is invoked to disqualify their targets as worthy of serious consideration; however, as Krauss points out, nostalgia ends up as the main relationship to the past that their stories use. It becomes crucial. In all this we need to remember that Krauss is a big fan of historical context, partly a Marxist influence via earlier critics like Walter Benjamin and partly through the New Historicism that arose from the writings of Michel Foucault.

Then she invites us to consider a few of the tenets of Cultural Studies: 1) that consumption (and we’re talking ideas here, not hamburgers) is not a mirror of production – meaning that you can’t say that there is a monolithic culture machine out there cranking out images and programs which we all consume like sheep; rather, 2) that consumers are critical users who can rewrite and remake culture (though the MOMA curators prefer to see it more in terms of distinct subcultures rather than individual users). Oddly, though, with all this cross-pollination among equal subcultures, it always seems to be the High Art crowd, be they Pop artists, Surrealists, or Cubists, who are gaining inspiration from waning elements of popular culture, and not the other way round.

Now comes the first major conclusion. Krauss says that MOMA is implicitly claiming that “high art’s creative consumption of popular culture is…nostalgia” and gives lots of examples. Then she points out that Ross identifies the same instinct for popular culture on its way out as camp, and camp is really nothing more than an ironic posture within nostalgia. For Ross (and Krauss), “camp taste works, then, as a peculiar celebration of marks of disempowerment within a media or commodity culture” that arise because components are becoming obsolete. Acknowledging and celebrating this cycle in the end denies the whole premise of modernist culture here: that taste is universal and timeless. So creative nostalgia ends up being a crucial postmodern tactic.

Her second conclusion is to find something rotten in the underpinnings of the whole series of arguments. If this form of cultural recycling (taking the outmoded and remaking it into what is cool) can allow consumers to cut themselves free of the realm of production, then what kind of sense does it make to talk about production vs. consumption? Are they two separate spheres anymore?

This last point is really irritating to me because it makes one generalization – it’s too messy to make clear distinctions anymore – where a number of useful threads could be teased out: the separation is alive in what economists call consumer goods (a factory in China makes a toaster, I buy a toaster); the separation is strong in broadcast culture (CNN or Sony Pictures don’t take a lot of input from me); the separation is complicated within the networks of service industries (as a graphic designer, am I producing or consuming images?); and finally within remix culture, like Wikipedia or YouTube, or zero-sum shopping, like buying/selling used toys or vintage clothes on EBay, the distinction becomes nearly meaningless. Notice anything about that continuum? There’s that transition from big money to no money. And a shift from a one-way to a circular mode of consumption. This circularity and recycling isn’t the same as the 1960’s get-out-of-the-rat-race-and-become-self-sufficient ethic because the former still had that modernist obsession with purity and simplicity, while the latter embraces ambiguity and complexity, providing points for personal intervention in the cycle.

Which brings me back to The Real Inspector Hound: it was exactly the outmodedness of the Agatha Christie drama that allowed me to want to step on the stage myself: not to passively participate, but to help remake it.

For those of you with access to JSTOR, the online journal archive, Nostalgie de la Boue can be found here.