24-Hours with Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus’s chipped pink nail polish betrays any assumptions of pompousness that I had about her. Her petite build, bright eyes, and soft voice compel the audience to lean in as she discusses her most recent book Social Practices (2018), an anthology of art criticism, autobiography, fiction, and conversations with friends. Before her public lecture given at the Pacific Northwest College of Art on 24 January 2019, Kraus sat in a room of graduate students to ruminate on the essay that she had chosen from her Social Practices called “A Walk in the Neighborhood” (2005). As the discussion flowed around and through the piece, Kraus shared with our group that the title “social practices” is meant to be ironic. The 26 pieces that comprise the book are a culmination of her musings within the art world for over a decade. They are centered around the flux of the art scenes in urban locations like New York and LA, and collected around a thesis that is critical of the community work done by artists as an extension of their art practice.
“A Walk in the Neighborhood” is paired after the essay “This is Chance,” which recounts the mythic Chance Event in Kraus’s ordinary yet meticulous style infused with Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the desert. “A Walk in the Neighborhood” offsets the mythos of the Los Angeles desert established in “This is Chance,” offering multiple everyday accounts from real artists in LA. These everyday accounts function to dismantle the mythology of success in the urban art world. Moreover, because the featured artists are from the older part of a generation, Kraus also captures their unique perspectives on the change that has occured in the LA art scene over time. She quotes LA artist Daniel Mendel-Black, who claims that the commercial gallery industry in the city is a part of a grander and vacuous system. “Schools produced a lot of artists who were made entirely reliant on institutional structures,” he states, critical of the new generation of artists who are “interested in high-end success” leaving a “wide-open field for the low-end, the middle ground” (49, 51). Kraus craves the grit and the poverty that once fostered the emergence of great artists, and this essay pushes a nostalgia for the hardness of 1970s New York: the womb from which Kraus constructed her notions of art.
Through the conversations in this essay, Kraus pushes the idea that due to the lack of backbone and experience of artists emerging from the MFA machine, the arts in once burgeoning cultural hubs such as LA and New York have become sterilized. Accordingly, Kraus concentrates her essays on artists who live outside of global art metropolitan centers. She writes about artists from places like New Zealand, Germany, and Mexico, because she genuinely believes that these places are where good and interesting contemporary art is being made. The subtext of her assumptions is money, and she wants to give life to the “low-end” and “middle-ground” art that is being produced outside of art’s capitalist institution. I appreciate Kraus’s efforts to highlight non-mainstream artists but am also critical of her desire for grime, grit, low-income, and non-white communities from her white, elite position. While her 2017 After Kathy Acker worked to deglamorize the grit and authenticity of Kathy Acker, an artist who survived on family money and was not in fact "starving," Kraus still seems to follow the logic that struggle is at the core of good creation.
Kraus is talented at making people feel important. As she turns her full body and attention to a student asking a question, she nods vociferously along with them in understanding. Despite her seeming ability to comprehend, Kraus is also very talented at averting any semblance of a straightforward answer. She responds to questions with other questions and namedrops obscure artists and authors instead of expanding on her own ideas. Perhaps for this reason when the topic of gentrification comes up—a topic that she touches upon at length in Social Practices—graduate students were frustrated with her response. Within her essay on LA, Kraus offers five “conditions” necessary for an artist to make good work: “1. Seemingly ineradicable danger; 2. Ongoing threat; 3. Seeing our way to a healthier habitat; 4. Need to act; 5. Seeing the next step” (62). Again, Kraus appears to fetishize the hardship of living in lower-income, shoddy, non-white communities as a means to form the spirit of a good artist. To the question of the problem of gentrification, Kraus responds, “Well artists have to live somewhere, don’t they?”
Kraus’s particular myopia concerning current hot topics such as gentrification can be attributed to her privileged position within culture, one she has held since meeting her ex-husband French theorist Sylvere Lotringer in the early 90s. Emerging from a milieu of intellectual elitism, Kraus’s own subjectivities lead her to make claims like, “art creation should be limited to the making of art objects.” The ethos of Social Practices is skewed by the irony of the title, as Kraus intends to be critical of any art that also functions as a “social practice.” Despite her writing style that surpasses genre divisions, Kraus’s spoken assumptions about what art should be feel rigid and dated.
Kraus’s motions towards non-institutionalized art is key to bringing new and diverse voices to the public conversations around contemporary art. Her project ultimately aims to build more connections and networks. Proof that she is invested in this work can be seen in the content published by independent publishing house Semiotext(e), where Kraus continues to work as a founding co-editor. The polarizing contents of her opinions on topics such as gentrification and the Me Too movement serve only to reinforce the optics of her positionality.
Many students expected Kraus, as a guest lecturer for the Critical Studies program, to offer insights into liberatory and decolonizing practices. She did not have all the answers, but we still have something to learn from her because she still has a lot to teach us. She is a relic of a specific era and movement, representing a system that we as artists and critics must engage with. Radical for her time, her name is marked forever in the feminist canon, as she fully embodied the mantra of making "the personal political." Yet, times have changed and there are updated matras for radical thought and creation. Regardless, engaging with those we do not necessarily agree with is key to forming a comprehensive intellectual and creative practice. As audience members of Kraus then, it was important to listen, to synthesize, and to disagree, because these are the jumping off points we can use for our own critical praxis in the future.
Kraus, Chris. Social Practices. (South Pasadena, Semiotext(e), 2018).