Accepted Paper:

Formless, Bataille and the re-materialisation of the social  


Vanessa Corby (York St John University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues that conceptual underpinnings of Formless (1996) curated by Yves Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss are problematic. It foregrounds the exhibition's debt to Bataille's 'primitive art' and offers a counter argument via the work of Rauschenberg, and writings of Ingold and Read.

Paper long abstract:

In 1996 Rosalind Krauss and Yves Alain Bois curated Formless, a book and exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (Zone/MIT Press, 1996). Formless is the culmination of Critical and Cultural Theory's assault on Modernism and its historicising imperatives. The exhibition's critical framework mobilised Bataille's performative concepts of 'alteration' and the 'informe'. These ideas, formulated in Bataille's writings on 'Primitive Art' (1955), were indebted to Luqet's 'I'art primitif' (1930) and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Untimely Meditations (1873-6).

Krauss and Bois mobilised Bataille's thinking to bring 'culture down in the world.' In the twentieth century Clement Greenberg's Neo-Kantian preoccupation with art had cast it as an elevating, transcendental experience, bound by reason and the visual. Central to the 'use-value' the formless for Krauss and Bois was 'alteration' through which art 'proceeds', for Bataille, by 'successive destructions'. As a counter measure, therefore, Krauss and Bois' hermeneutic project foregrounded scatological, self-destructive, transgressive and bestial preoccupations with matter that resisted categorization, narrative or interpretation.

This paper argues that Formless' debt to Bataille's aggressive vison of the 'animal' nature of humanity remains highly problematic; violently reinscribing the individualism that has dogged Modernism. Twenty years on this paper reappraises this confluence of anthropology and art history. It returns to the work Rauschenberg, who featured prominently in Formless and, via the writings of Greenberg's contemporary and Modernist advocate British art historian, Herbert Read and Tim Ingold's recent essay 'On human correspondence' (2016) argues instead for the social potential of art's matter.

Panel P069
Confluences of Art History and Anthropology