Selective Memories

Claire Bishop on “Art Since 1900” at Tate Modern


Left: The crowd at Tate Modern. Right: Panelists Hal Foster, Mark Godfrey, Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, and Briony Fer.

The lurid green cover of Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism has been haunting art historians since the end of last week. A formidable new textbook, with over a hundred short essays that add up to nothing less than a “comprehensive history of the art of the twentieth century” (as publishers Thames & Hudson put it), is set to strain our bookshelves. The four October heavies—Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, and Yve-Alain Bois—arrived in Britain to promote their tome, first at the Association of Art Historians’ annual shindig in Bristol and then in a panel discussion at Tate Modern. In between the two launches, the publishers threw a plush dinner for the authors and Britain’s intelligentsia at the Orrery, Sir Terence Conran’s chi-chi joint in Marylebone.

The Tate event was strictly demarcated into pre- and post-1945 sessions, mirroring the structure of the book. The first featured a subdued Krauss and an ebullient Bois, joined by former Krauss student Mignon Nixon (Courtauld Institute) and chaired by Adrian Rifkin (Middlesex University). Rifkin began with a rococo meditation on the book’s intriguing anachronisms (e.g., Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” appearing under the year entry for 1945) and then segued into an audience-pleasing protest against the authors’ inclusion of Sam Taylor-Wood. Krauss seemed nonplussed by Rifkin’s comments and responded tersely. Bois was more forthcoming, happily waxing about the book’s “kaleidoscopic grid” structure. When asked if they’d had to do much research, Krauss replied (totally straight): “I didn’t learn anything from writing this book. . . . Yve-Alain did.” Ever chipper, Bois confessed that he had dreaded research that fell outside his usual purview (particularly the bits about Trotsky and the Partisan Review) but wound up rather enjoying it.

This was all moderately interesting, but way too promotional: A metadiscussion that hovered around the book instead of elucidating its implications for art history. The spectators (starstruck students, the Frieze office, Antony Gormley, me) failed to ask lively questions—until one audience member pointedly read out the advertised copy for the talk, which promised a discussion of the fate of modernism and modern art history. A round of applause followed. Krauss bit back by declaring that she wasn’t saying farewell to modernism just yet, and Bois admitted he didn’t believe in postmodernism. The fireworks finally arrived when someone from the Open University asked if the book was meant as a riposte to the OU’s own textbooks on twentieth-century art. Krauss tried to unravel their different understandings of modernism and theory and the implications of each for pedagogy but concluded: “Those OU books are inept and confusing, voilà!” The session finished up with an assessment of how important it is that the fab four are also critics. Krauss: “My conviction that Richard Serra is the greatest living artist affects my art history.” Bois gave an ironic thumbs-up to the audience—voilà indeed.

Session two featured Hal Foster and Benjamin “Heavy Duty” Buchloh, who were joined by curator Frances Morris (Tate), art historian Briony Fer (University College London), and moderator Mark Godfrey (Slade School of Fine Art). Godfrey asked if—in the light of contemporary art’s multidisciplinary inclinations—the book signaled the impending obsolescence of the type of art history it represented. Buchloh—wonderfully full of Frankfurt School gloom—allowed that the book is indeed a desperate shoring-up of art history against a “postcapitalist, protofascist society.” Foster—always keen to find historical continuities—argued that this problem wasn’t any worse than the issues early twentieth-century artists and historians were forced to confront when faced with new technologies.

Godfrey also observed that the reach of contemporary art was now geographically far wider than the scope of the book. A lame discussion of biennials followed, hampered by the fact that none of the participants seemed to have traveled beyond Documenta and Venice, and then things really began to run out of steam. Buchloh pronounced: “I feel the fatigue of the panel, and the fatigue of the book at the end was similar.”

After five hours of discussion, we all felt that way. But the significance of Art Since 1900 can’t be underestimated: Psychoanalysis and poststructuralism are now inescapable methodologies that must be taken on board by mainstream art history. The book embodies how most of us see art, at least up to 1980. (After this date the selections are more partial and ignore key figures too maverick or sexy for October’s taste: Goldin, Kabakov, Kawara, Eliasson.) The book also signals the making official of oppositional art history—hinted by the “landmark” status announced on the back cover in a tombstone font. There’s always something a bit melancholic about such a moment; maybe that’s why I’m looking forward to the backlash.