Hal Foster is perhaps the world’s most important art critic. A professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University, Foster was a founding editor of Zone magazine and books. He writes regularly for October (which he co-edits), Artforum and the London Review of Books. He is also the author of numerous books, including The Return of the Real (1996), Recodings (1985), The Art-Architecture Complex (2011), his latest, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, was published in late 2015 to wide acclaim. On a trip to London in October 2015, Foster visited the Tank offices to talk about his newest work.
Interview: Masoud Golsorkhi
Masoud Golsorkhi At the beginning of your book you quote Leo Steinberg talking about the critic as the “generator of the cliché”. Could you say a little more about your chapter headings? In many ways they are familiar features of curatorial language, but you mention that you have a long history with many of them.
Hal Foster There are five terms, some of which I helped to define, others not, but critical language is a collaborative project – I disagree with Steinberg on that score. The terms are: abject, archival, mimetic, precarious and post-critical. They are not as strong as paradigms; some are strategies, while others are predicaments and certainly the post-critical is a predicament in my view. I propose them because I think art and criticism require discursive debate in order to be pertinent and progressive and right now the contemporary version of both is given over to a static relativism, which is one part a Babel of different languages and one part a “diversity” of market offerings. That is not good for art or criticism.
MG I’m really struck by the “emergency” in the title. What do you mean by using the term?
HF I mean it first in a technical sense, the state in which laws are suspended, the definition given to us by [the German political theorist] Carl Schmitt. But I also mean it in a colloquial sense, a condition of chaotic confusion, as when today, well into a period of neoliberalism, the powers that be do not play by the rules, whether these are understood in financial, political or social terms.
MG Destruction is the rule, isn’t it?
HF Often, and it’s not even creative destruction. But my book is a more specific intervention – it’s about art and criticism of the last 25 years or so. When the Berlin Wall came down and Tiananmen Square erupted, there seemed to be new possibilities, but it doesn’t look that way now. I wanted to think about how artists and critics and others have responded to a period that, especially after 9/11, seems to be one emergency after another. I start circa 1989, which was the height of the AIDS epidemic and a real attack on the social contract. You experienced this here a bit before us, with Thatcher, but Reagan was no weak link as far as neoliberalism goes.
That shift changed the position of artists and critics. Previously, in the dispensation of postmodernism, everything seemed to be an image or a text. Suddenly, that no longer made much sense: the real, the traumatic real, had returned. Especially in relation to AIDS, this took the form of the diseased body – the damaged body became a figure of the damaged body politic. That’s why I begin the book with a discussion of the idea of “the abject”. I turn then to a discussion of “the archival”, which speaks to a renewed interest in history, to a turn away from another prime characteristic of neoliberal capitalism – its sheer presentism. And I go on from there.
This is just the beginning of a larger project for me. I believe the avant-garde of the 20th century needs to be rethought in terms of emergency. So my next book will follow the avant-garde after the Second World War and a subsequent book will look at the avant-garde after the First World War. But for some reason it seemed important to begin with the present.
MG Following the Star Wars tradition…
HF Back to the future…
MG Yes, do prequels afterwards. The place and the impact of the market was mentioned almost in your first sentence. How central has that been to the way the art market itself achieves so much?
HF Well, that’s the story of contemporary art that one receives everywhere else – that’s the dominant idea of contemporary art for the proverbial person on the street. It’s all to do with the market; it’s just a matter of flashy commodities and celebrities. God knows the market is important to shifts in contemporary art, but that’s not a story I needed to tell.
The deregulation of culture, the annexation of culture by commerce and finance, is structural and it has changed art dramatically. Certainly it has changed its institutions – just look at the museums. It has also changed the discourse about art. As long as there’s market enough, many artists are happy to let one another go, without much discussion, let alone contestation: if you don’t disturb me, I won’t disturb you. That kind of market relativism is not good for any progressive culture.
So yes, the story of the market is extremely important; it affects what I have to say, too. But it’s a real problem if that becomes the only story; that way lies cynicism. There is art that interests me that’s cynical, even nihilistic, in relation to the market. But I am more interested in art that proposes a “positive barbarism” rather than a market nihilism. I think it’s important to hold the two apart, though they are often close enough. On the nihilistic side you have an artist like Jeff Koons and on the barbaric side an artist like Isa Genzken. They both see the world around them as so much commodity glut, so much junk space, but they treat it very differently.
MG So the market isn’t an elephant in the room for you?
HF Yes, but again, it’s a known factor and it’s not the only thing in the room.
MG It’s interesting that you take 1989 as your starting point. There seems to be a lot of positivity about the idea of the 1989 generation as one of a brave new world. Is that something you had in mind?
HF Yes, initially 1989 seemed to be a moment of new possibilities, a new world order. And no doubt this allowed for openings to other practices, other cultures. But that opening was soon enough captured by the market. You have to see every present dialectically if possible: it’s the best of times and the worst of times, all the time. For this book it was the bad that needed to be stressed.
I am of a generation that was continuous with the generation of the 1960s and the avant-gardes, both artistic and critical, that interested me were the ones that continued the various projects of the 1960s by other means. By the end of 1980s, the energies released in the 1960s were largely exhausted. A capitalist nihilism began to emerge in art at that point. That’s how I read the YBAs, for example. Maybe in retrospect, artists like Damien Hirst will be taken to have acted out, some of the new conditions of neoliberalism – in terms of market, in terms of celebrity, in terms of shock as the ultimate commodity. There is a real point there that shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.
MG Is their knowingness part of the fact that you’re cold towards them? Because they were deliberately engaged in being cynical?
HF That’s what I mean by the distinction between capitalist nihilism and positive barbarism. In the early 1930s Walter Benjamin wrote, enigmatically, that modernism teaches us to outlive civilisation if need be, that it teaches a positive barbarism. It takes a bad thing and makes it worse and there is a critical dimension in this mimetic exacerbation of the conditions around us – that is in part what my book is about. Capitalist nihilism foregoes that version of criticality.
What you just said about knowingness is the very definition of cynical reason.
“I know that the Tories or the Republicans want to undo what’s important to me about social institutions and national institutes, but... ”
MG You’ll take their money anyway?
HF Yes. Many of us go along, fall in line, cynically. It’s a condition of structural ambivalence. Now there is a vestige of knowledge in cynicism; that is a point that a theorist like Paolo Virno makes: to be dismissive you have to have knowledge to dismiss. So there might be ways to recoup cynicism in part.
In one chapter of the book I push back against [the French philosopher] Jacques Rancière who argues that art purporting to be critical is in fact only cynical because it preaches to the choir. That is true, but only to a limited extent and that argument has its own problems, for it supports anyone and everyone who would prefer just to be done with criticism, with criticality, with any oppositionality whatsoever.
MG I wanted to ask you about how you see the role of the critic today in the wider social sphere?
HF The public sphere cannot be assumed. In the first instance the critic is a person who advocates for such publicness, who insists on discourse and debate.
One of the attacks on the critic that Rancière and [the French historian] Bruno Latour make is that the critic feels that he or she has the authority not only to evaluate but to enlighten, to demystify, to defetishise – that, in the end, the critic is intent on smashing all idols. My sense of the critic was never one who simply demystifies. [The Belgian theorist] Paul de Man once said that we are demystified by works of art, that we don’t demystify them. I believe that too. We are brought to a new sense of things by artworks; we don’t bring that sense to them. My project is always to find the concept in the artwork, to extract it and to develop it in my own terms, not to project a philosophy or impose a theory. I do say in the introduction to my book that it’s too early to historicise art of the last 25 years, but its not too early to theorise it and that’s what I attempt to begin to do – that is why I offer the terms I do.
For me, criticism is always bound up with history and theory. The three have to be put to work together, because if you do criticism without any historical perspective it doesn’t have any grounding and if you do history without any critical point, it doesn’t have any purchase on the present, and, finally, if you do either one without a philosophical framework you are adrift conceptually. So ideally there is a triangulation.
MG The final chapter of the book, or coda, deals with what you term the “institutionalisation of performance”. Could you tell us a little about that? What are the problems of this curatorial tendency to see art as “alive” or “dead”? And how does this relate to what you’ve written about “the creative self”?
HF Here I ask why there is such a premium put on performance and process in contemporary art, especially in the museum – restagings of historical happenings, dances and other events. One answer I offer is the desire for presence in an otherwise hyper-mediated age. Museum officials seem to think that this is necessary in order to stay relevant to a culture that so values the here and now, which is odd given that the strength of the museum is precisely to attend to very different theres and thens. But what exactly is this “liveness” that is so vaunted? My suspicion is that it is the cultural version of the self-actualisation that our neoliberal economy asks – demands – of each of us all the time: to perform, to enact our own status, our own value, as human capital.
The museum today wants to reanimate art and to reactivate viewers. What is the problem here? It presumes that historical art is somehow dead, inert, when it is not – if it appears so, it is our own fault, our own lack of historical imagination or it is because the viewers are somehow passive, also inert, which is not the case either. Why do these institutions sell out to the culture at large and why do they condescend to us? Those are some of the questions that conclude my book.
MG You dedicate the book to the independent spaces that manage to incubate alternative approaches, thinking, art, in these metropolises of neoliberalism. What do you see as their role and do you see the potential for some sort of positive change within these spaces?
HF Our given terms of critique – commodification, spectacle and the like – too often totalise the present. This is not to say that the market is not everywhere – it is – or that distraction is not valued above all else – it is, too. But there are still other forces, other spaces, other experiences, that art affords. [The artist] Carl Andre used to say, “Culture is what is done to us. Art is what we do.” I think art remains a site of such discontent, of such pushback, or, perhaps better, a place of hiding in plain sight. That is what I value in the many alternative venues to which I dedicate my book. They carry on despite everything and they are not romantic about it: they don’t believe in an outside, but rather open up cracks on the inside, which they make available to the rest of us. I call it Spielraum – elbow space, running room. §
Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, published by Verso, is out now.