Letter to the Editor

Response to Yves Alain Bois

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Bookforum, May 1998

Yve-Alain Bois complains that my review of Rosalind Krauss’s Picasso Papers is “somewhat tepid,” an odd epithet, given that I refer to the central chapter (which takes up more than half the book) as “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “wholly persuasive” in its revisionist argument about the curious turn Picasso’s “modernism” takes in the teens and twenties. Bois evidently feels that I have been insufficiently attentive to Krauss’s theoretical framework: “that there is no historical work without a theoretical standpoint,” he reminds us, “is something that is undoubtedly hard to grasp in this country, dominated as it is by empiricism and positivism.”

Not only is the slur on the U.S. here quite unnecessary (what is the evidence that our critics are less theoretically inclined than those in other countries?), but the fact is that my caveats about Krauss’s first two shorter chapters had to do with precisely the opposite situation: I found them somewhat undertheorized, their application of Adorno and Bakhtin respectively being less successful than the complex and subtle formal/ psychological readings of “Picasso / Pastiche.” In the case of Adorno, for example, the issue is not whether Krauss fully accepts Adorno’s defense of Schoenberg’s high modernism but that Adorno’s clear-cut dichotomy between Stravinsky and Schoenberg seems to be taken as a given.

The Bakhtin case is more complicated. Bois assumes that my criticism of Krauss’s discussion of dialogism in Picasso’s collage–a discussion written in response to Patricia Leighten’s earlier Bakhtinian reading of Picasso– “implies that Leighten’s gross distortion is to be vindicated.” It implies no such thing. Leighten takes the voice of the various newspaper fragments used in collage to represent Picasso’s own voice: “the news items accumulate to project an image of French politics as venal, power-mongering, and posing a crazy threat to all those values of humanitiy and civilization that Picasso’s work had always embraced.” Krauss quite rightly objects to this reductive ideological reading. But her own claim that we cannot know “who speaks” in these polyphonic, dialogic collages is not much more convincing than Leighten’s account of “re-monologizing.” The “voice” of a given newspaper fragment–say a stock-market report–is, so Krauss argues, played off against any number of other collage pieces, signifying “voices” that quite literally undercut one another. And she discusses, as she has in her earlier essays on Picasso, the ambivalence of figure/ground relationships or the fact that a “black rectangle that elongates the blue plane of the violin’s face to produce the solid opacity of its neck is also coerced by an abutting white shape to read as the transparency of shadow.” And so on.

The problem here is that image (or cited newspaper headline) is not equivalent to discourse. A collage can have a great deal of formal and structural indeterminacy and ambivalence (e.g., the figure/ground oscillation) and yet bear witness to its author’s “monologic” control. Indeed, Bahktin is not talking about fragmentation and the interplay of contradictory images but, as Krauss herself notes, citing Problems of Dostoievsky’s Poetics,” “a plurality of consciousnesses with equal rights and each with its own words.” Dialogism is not a matter of juxtaposing different voices, as in the case of Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres”–a brilliant lyric but one that Bakhtin himself would surely have judged to be monologic so far as the poet’s own value system is concerned–but of allowing opposing psychological and philosophical perspectives to coexist. In short, a form of negative capability, a way of being no one would particularly attribute to Picasso or to Apollinaire.

“Will no one,” Bois concludes plaintively, “say it [Picasso Papers] is beautifully written?” I don’t know about “no one” since Bois is, I take it, objecting not to all reviews of Picasso Papers, but only to mine. Since he has raised the issue, however, I shall respond. Presumably “beautifully written” refers especially to the rhetorical flourishes of Chapter 2, “The Circulation of the Sign,” with its repetition of “Who speaks? “Who tells this story?” and its serial response on the order of “At first they seem to cycle through the crystal space like so many radiant facets of an absent jewel,” or “At first they circulate through the crystalline space, its whiteness their ‘medium’. . . .” If I find these bravura passages less than “beautiful,” it may well be that I am suspicious of their faux-naif irresolution. Krauss, after all, is a critic who emphatically does know “Who speaks. . .,” whether in a given stock market report, whose fragments are collaged onto a canvas, or in the “classical” Portrait of Jean Cocteau in Uniform. And it is her own authoritative theory of modernism– her superb understanding of historical change, formal articulation, and psychological reaction– rather than her adaptation of Adorno or Bakhtin or even Freud, that is finally so compelling.


Marjorie Perloff