April 27th, 2019

pinhole camera

Richard Shiff - Writing about Contemporary Art course

I begin with a distinction drawn by the art historian and theorist Richard Shiff in an essay called 'Figuration' between three interpretative attitudes that correspond to the figures of the artist, the critic and the historian, and so to the practices of art, criticism and history: art is the mode of belief, commitment and overt expressiveness; criticism (which includes theory) is the mode of doubt and irony; history is the mode of observation and dispassionate judgment. (Shiff, 1996: 325) Shiff thought that each of these attitudes were not found separately in the figures of the artist, critic or historian, but rather that all three were present in each figure, the character of which was only determined according to an emphasis on one or the other.  Furthermore, these attitudes did not necessarily correspond to actually existing artists, critics or historians.  Depending on intellectual history and conventions, the attitude of an historian, for example, could be predominantly 'artistic', if this historian wrote expressively or explicitly from their own point of view.  Similarly, the attitude of an artist could be predominantly 'critical', if this artist's work functioned in the mode of irony, revealing the conventional character of artistic expressionism, for example.   Shiff's artist-critic-historian schema provides a useful way in for thinking through the possible interpretative attitudes that might arise when an artist is asked to produce a theoretical commentary on their own work. 

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