BY David Pagel in Frieze | 09 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 30

Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts, 1986­1993

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Cambridge University Press

BY David Pagel in Frieze | 09 SEP 96

Intellectual acuity and hedonistic abandon come together in Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's powerful critique of conservative thinking, whether found in right-wing assaults on avant-garde culture or left-wing attempts to subjugate the body to political expedients.

Unlike much writing inspired by Continental philosophy, Gilbert-Rolfe's is free of the dumb, American impulse to use French theory as a tool to get the job done, once and for all. Such production-based and utility-oriented endeavours (which presume that thought works like a pipe-wrench), form the background against which Beyond Piety works. Constantly at war with the Puritan desire for simple directness, Gilbert-Rolfe's secular materialism never forces the nitty gritty vicissitudes of lived experience to conform to preconceived theories. His writing thus makes a place for complexity ­ for embodied perceptions that are often nonsensical and frivolous, but also singular and thrilling, when shot through with the pleasures and terrors of beauty.

Painting, especially that which does not seek to represent things, plays a major role in Gilbert-Rolfe's effort to loosen rationality's grip on thought's movement. An erotic rather than moral discourse ensues as he moves through a series of increasingly refined, crystalline distinctions until the capacity to distinguish ­ say between a line and a void ­ completely disintegrates, leaving readers suspended in a moment that cannot be explained away historically.

Gilbert-Rolfe's account of this inarticulate counter-history begins in the first two essays, 'Edouard Manet and the Pleasure Problematic' and 'The Impressionist Revolution and Duchamp's Myopia'. In struggling to make room for pleasure, the first falters because it allows historicism to set the terms of its argument. The second, however, is a dazzling analysis of Camille Pissaro's La Place du Théâtre Français (1898), in which Impressionism's repressed radicality is celebrated: 'Pissarro sees a promise in the world spread across the windowpane. [ ... ] A fountain, a newsstand, the dispersal and integration of the populace in tandem with its formal separation into bus and cab, bright and drab, the arrival of the country in the city as the purveyors of food. Base and superstructure, food and print, pushcart and newsstand, meet through the medium of bright colour, an impressionist anarchism, a nihilist assault on the monochrome positivism of the bourgeoisie'. Linking this cacophony of embodied perceptions to Duchamp's flip dismissal of retinal art, Gilbert-Rolfe argues that Conceptualism is indebted to a hopelessly old-fashioned idea of mind, especially in the way this style has been enshrined in the works of Jasper Johns, Sherrie Levine and Jeff Koons.

The most explicitly theoretical essay, 'Vision's Resistance to Language', demarcates the limits of language, particularly where sight exceeds them: 'I should like to propose that sight knows only surprise or recognition. One either sees something one has seen before or one does not. Language, obliged to turn things into ideas before it can see them all, knows only recognition, albeit a recognition which can come as a surprise. Language always knows surprise in terms of a shock of recognition rather than a cognitive shock'. Art's power lies in its looks, not in the words that go along with it. The two essays 'The Price of Goodness' and 'Baudrillard's Aestheticism and the Art World's Politics' flesh out this fact, demonstrating that, where art is concerned, historians do not have the last word. As a group, these three essays should be required reading in every art school: they present unassailable arguments against received ideas currently dominating the art world. At the same time that Gilbert-Rolfe demolishes contemporary art's sacred cows, he makes persuasive arguments for the importance of works by such artists as John Baldessari, Sarah Charlesworth, Moira Dryer, Roni Horn, Robert Irwin and Haim Steinbach.

Turning to the world of high fashion, Gilbert-Rolfe finds a realm where the beauty, pleasure and lack of utility that once inhabited art now reside. 'The Beach Party and the Parties of Power', 'Hey Baby, Where'd You Get That Hat?' and 'Fashion's Revenge' look to fashion as a vivid counter-example, not, like Artforum, to take the theatrics of this industry as a basis for bloodless (if breathless) analysis, but as a challenge to the paucity of beauty in contemporary art: 'The suppression of pleasure in the interests of reality which unites the Victorianism of the new left to that of the Victorians... cannot survive vision, that delight in scopophilia, presentation, provocation, allure which fashion's periodic representation of the body makes possible. Fashion is the revenge of the present on good ideas...'. With unstinting rigour and biting humour, Beyond Piety takes aim at all the types of thinking that are insufficiently self-critical, wherever they reside on the political spectrum.