PRINT March 1982


It is not the passion (whether of objects or subjects) for substances that speaks in fetishism, it is the passion for the code, which, by governing both objects and subjects, and by subordinating them to itself, delivers them up to abstract manipulation. This is the fundamental articulation of the ideological process: not in the projection of alienated consciousness into various superstructures, but in the generalization at all levels of a structural code.
—Jean Baudrillard, Fetishism and Ideology, 1981

ALL CULTURAL PRACTICE APPROPRIATES ALIEN or exotic, peripheral or obsolete elements of discourse into its changing idioms. The motivations and criteria of selection for appropriation are intricately connected with the essential driving forces of each culture’s dynamics, and they can range from the crudest motives of imperialist appropriation of foreign (cultural) wealth to the subtle practices of historic and scientific exploration. In esthetic practice appropriation can result from an authentic desire to question the historical validity of a local, contemporary code by referencing it to a different set of codes such as previous styles, heterogeneous iconic sources, or to different modes of production and reception. Appropriation of historical models can be motivated by a desire to establish continuity and tradition and a fiction of identity, as much as it can originate from a wish to attain universal mastery of all codification systems.

In its most fickle but most powerful version, in the discourse of fashion, appropriation as a strategy of commodity innovation reveals its quintessential function: to grant a semblance of historical identity through ritualized consumption. Each act of appropriation is a promise of transformation: Each act of acquisition anticipates the supposed transubstantiation. But instead it generates and perpetuates reification—the malaise that appropriation promises to cure. The social behavior of the contemporary individual, defining itself in the gridlock of depoliticized consumption and consumerized politics, finds its mirror in the model of the contemporary neo-avant-garde artist.

Restricted by postwar Modernism to an artistic practice that was cut off from sociopolitical practice and the production of use value, the artist was condemned to produce exchange value, and a contemporary work’s capacity to generate exchange value has become the ultimate gauge of its esthetic validity. The question of style in much emerging contemporary painting involves a kind of secret pact between the producers and their audience to accept the historical limitations imposed upon them and to abide by them in a futile repetition of symbolic liberation. This pact of style implies the tacit understanding that, for a period of time, a very limited and precisely defined set of operations on the signifier is accessible and permitted. All other activities, different or deviant, are temporarily excluded from public perception and suffer defeat before they can acquire cultural standing.

The Modernist artist’s isolation from sociopolitical practice has been framed and legitimized in such ideological concepts as esthetic autonomy and formalism. It has been continually assaulted from within esthetic practice itself by artists who have appropriated production procedures and materials, iconic references and modes of reception from the domain of so-called “low” culture or “mass” culture, introducing them into the discourse of “high” culture. The range of historical and geographical provinces—from which the elements required for the generation of a particular cultural coding system are extracted—changes as rapidly as the avant-garde’s need for innovative appropriation. A case in point is the shift from the late 19th century interest in Japonisme to the Cubists’ discovery of Art Nègre and then to the Surrealists’ subsequent uncovering of yet another terrain of authentic primitivism, i.e. children’s art and art brut. From faux bois to faux naïf, one could discover in each historical instance of appropriation as much disguise as revelation. High art posed as low art; sophisticated academic erudition posed as primary, unmediated expression; exchange value posed as use value; contemporaneity (and exposure to very specific current ideological pressure) appeared in the guise of universality and timelessness. Every time that the avant-garde, within the framework of high culture, appropriates elements from the discourses of low, folk, or mass culture, it publicly denounces the elitist isolation and the obsolescence of its inherited production procedures. Yet ultimately each such instance of “bridging the gap,” because it remains within the context of art, reaffirms the stability of the division. Each act of cultural appropriation therefore constructs a simulacrum of a double negation, denying the validity of the individual creative impulse and of the notion of genuine original production and denying equally the relevance of the specific instance and function of the work’s own practice. When Marcel Duchamp appropriated an industrially produced, quotidian object in order to define the cognitive and epistemological status of the esthetic object, the prophetic voice of Guillaume Apollinaire rightfully hailed him as the one artist who might possibly reconcile art and the people in the 20th century.

However, this original productivist dimension in Duchamp’s work—the symbolic substitution of use-value objects for esthetic/exchange value—was ultimately lost in the work’s acculturation process. The Ready-Made was reduced to an esthetic-philosophical speculation on the ontological and epistemological status of objects that function as semantic elements within an esthetic utterance. Almost fifty years later, within the origins of American Pop art, similar issues were addressed and the same contradictions became apparent. When Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol introduced mechanically produced, “found” imagery into the high-art discourse of painting by technological procedures of reproduction such as the dye transfer process and silkscreen printing, gestural identity and originality of expression were repudiated. The procedures that had concretized notions of creative invention and individual productivity in the preceding decade were negated in the mechanical construction of the painting. Yet, within the subsequent acculturation process, these works acquired a historical “meaning” that inverted their original intentions entirely. They became the artistic masterpieces and icons of a decade that established new viability for the practice of high art in general and the procedure of painting in particular. This occurred despite their radical assault on the isolation of high-art discourse, their critique of the rarefied, auratic status imposed on objects when they acquire exchange value, and their denunciation of the obsolescence of constructs originating from the conditions of this isolated social practice.

Each act of appropriation therefore inevitably constructs a simulacrum of a double position, distinguishing high culture from low culture, exchange value from use value, the individual from the social. It perpetuates the separation of various cultural practices and reaffirms the isolation of individual producers from the collective interests of the society within which they operate. It widens the gap that it set out to bridge, it creates the commodity that it set out to abolish. By becoming the property of the “cultural” it prevents the political from becoming real. Politically committed producers become singularized and classified as “political” artists, in opposition to “formally” oriented artists or “self”- and “expression”-oriented artists.

Thus each act of appropriation seems to reinstitute and reaffirm precisely those contradictions that it set out to eliminate. Disguise, mimicry, and parody are the rhetorical modes within which the esthetic self justifies its failure to negate both subjectified, private practice as a possible substitute for collective practice, and the objectifying discourse of high art which interrupts the process of true individuation. Parodistic appropriation reveals the split situation of the individual in contemporary artistic practice. The individual must claim the constitution of the self in original primary utterances, while being painfully aware of the degree of determination necessary to inscribe the utterance into dominant conventions and rules of codification; reigning signifying practice must be subverted and its deconstruction placed in a distribution system (the market), a circulation form (the commodity), and a cultural legitimization system (the institutions of art). All these double binds cancel out the effect of avant-garde interference within the signifying practice and turn it into a renewed legitimization of the ruling-power structure. Parodistic appropriation anticipates the failure of the attempt to subvert the ruling codification and allies itself in advance with the powers that will ultimately make its deconstructive efforts abort in cultural success. Its seemingly radical denial of authorship, in fact, proposes a voluntary submission to and passive acceptance of the hierarchical ordering systems, division of labor, and the alienation that results from the work’s reification as a commodity. It remains to determine whether those who pursue strategies of parodistic appropriation know in advance that they will come out on top in the game of self-denial, once they have been processed through the rules of cultural industry, or whether their apparent negation of subjectivity and authorship is ultimately not a device to encourage passive acceptance of the limitations that the ideological molds of society hold for its subjects.

The diversity and range of modes of appropriation were already evident in the first decade of this century, when the original avant-garde confronted the implications of the mass-produced object and its impact on the conception and execution of the aura-tic, singular work. If we compare Duchamp’s introduction of use-value objects into the sphere of exhibition/exchange value with the drawings and paintings of Francis Picabia’s mechanical period, the former seems at first glance to be far more radical and consequential. Picabia’s parodistic appropriation of the drawing style of engineering plans and diagrams makes the linear, individual drawing gesture appear to be the blueprint of an alien conception which cancels out the presence of the artistic author; yet this parody remains entirely on the surface of the pictorial construct and within the confines of Modernist avant-garde practice. From its very inception, Picabia’s ultimately conservative work limited itself to the dialectical juxtaposition of parodistic mimicry with the libidinal reification which operates within the signifying system alone. On the other hand, it is Duchamp’s radicality that seemingly breaches the confines of Modernist esthetic practice by actually exchanging the individually crafted or painted simulacrum for the real mass-produced object in actual space. Paradoxically it is the radicality of this solution—a petit bourgeois radicality, as Daniel Buren once called it—that obliterates the ideological framework that determines the manipulation of the code. In other words, the presumed autonomy of the signifying practice of high art is, eventually, institutionalized both culturally and socially in the museum. Picabia’s position, which remains within the conventions and delimitations of the discourse while manipulating the codes in a parodistic fashion, is now once again the more potentially successful and comfortable position for artists to assume.

As a mode of ultimate complicity and secret reconciliation, a mode in which the victim identifies itself voluntarily with its defeat in reality (in spite of its seemingly demolishing victory over the oppressor by laughter), parody not only generates a higher degree of analytical precision because it limits itself to operations upon the signifying system, but also a higher degree of historical authenticity, because it seems to take sides with the ruling order (it bathes in ideology, as Louis Althusser put it). Its opposite, a position that denies the exclusive validity of the system and that insists upon the necessity of transgressing the historical limitations in order to establish a dialectical relationship with realities existing outside of high-art practice (such as Duchamp’s Ready-Made concept, Productivist art, the theory of factography, and recent contemporary strategies focusing on the introduction of political and critical practice into esthetic discussion), has consistently faced a dilemma: whether or not to ignore the very conditions of reification which the framework imposes upon the practice. Despite the apparent radicality and actual critical negation that this work provides, it most often fails to enter the circuit of distribution, the modes of viewing and reading established and maintained by institutions and audience alike, and ultimately, in as much as all these are integral parts of high-art practice, fails to change the practice of art.

What does it mean, therefore, when a cultural center that for thirty years has almost programmatically ignored and rejected contemporary art on the European continent suddenly “discovers” the “indigenous” cultural products of its satellites and recycles them into its present-day cultural life? Is it historical justice that. makes the current American interest in European (specifically Italian and German) painting discover the cultural autonomy of the overseas provinces? Or does the crafty manipulation of expertise in traditional modes of meaning construction, usually attributed to Europe, revalidate and authenticate the “discovery” of local representational painting? If warranty is needed for the authenticity of historically obsolete practices within an advanced context (cultural or sociopolitical) one may be found in “exoticism,” the model-structure by which a language appropriates elements from a foreign or ancient language to recognize and rationalize its own atavisms. It is symptomatic of these situations that the proper criteria of evaluation belonging to the cultural standards of the appropriator, as well as those inherent in the language of the colonialized culture, are not recognized or respected. The primary function of this model is not to document the existence of alien rituals, rules, or practices, but to cast the local atavism into a historical or alien form, to make the local product more “authentic” and therefore more valuable. It is therefore not surprising that, in the present “discovery” of German painting by the American market, neither are the criteria of quality that have been developed within the North American context itself applied, nor are the artists who have been “discovered” the ones who actually played a significant role in artistic production in Europe during the ’60s and ’70s.

It is necessary, therefore, to introduce into the current (re)discovery of early ’60s German neo-Expressionist painters of minor interest (if we can call the vigor of momentary needs of taste and fashion minor) a figure whose body of work from the ’60s and early ’70s is far more consequential for actual pictorial thinking and production and demonstrates a far more complex understanding of Modernist European and German art of those two decades. Sigmar Polke is an artist from the historical and geographical provinces of picture production. His work emerged in a situation marked by a lack of understanding and neglect of its proper historical sources, and one that therefore had to open itself all the more to the dominance of American art. The early ’60s in West Germany were, perhaps, comparable to the current situation in New York—if, however, for opposite reasons. The impact of Dada and Duchamp, the positions of the Constructivists and Productivists, were not recognized and reinterpreted in the German context until the advent of Fluxus activities, embodied in such figures as George Maciunas. In a letter to Tomas Schmit, Maciunas wrote:

The goals of Fluxus are social (not esthetic). Ideologically, they relate to those of the LEF group in 1929 in the Soviet Union and they aim at the gradual elimination of the fine arts. Therefore, Fluxus is strictly against the art object as a disfunctional commodity whose only purpose is to be sold and to support the artist. At best, it can have a temporary pedagogical function and clarify how superfluous art is and how superfluous ultimately it is itself. . . . Secondly, Fluxus is against art as a medium and vehicle for the artist’s ego; the applied arts must express objective problems which have to be solved, not the artist’s individuality or ego. Therefore, Fluxus has a tendency toward the spirit of the collective, toward anonymity and anti-individualism. . . .

The present situation, in contrast, is marked by disillusionment and skepticism toward that very same Modernist tradition. If the first situation was one of naiveté, then the second is one of cynicism. The configurations of the early beginnings of the postwar neoavant-garde’s practices and the conclusion of the current neo-avant-garde which “stirs in the thickets of long ago” (in Walter Benjamin’s phrase) seem to have congruent features but come from different directions. Still, both situations—the amazement that accompanied the discovery of Modernism and now, twenty years later, the cynical rejection and disbelief of it—use parody as an appropriate rhetorical mode for replying to and denouncing the claims of a dominant Modernist ideology that lacks credibility and validity today.

In the late ’50s, when Polke, who was born in 1941, studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts (after leaving East Germany in 1953), West Germany was a cultural wasteland. The viable indigenous activities of the Weimar Republic had yet to be unearthed from the rubble of the various local mimicries of post-Surrealist automatist painting. German variations of tachism and informel painting dominated the academies, and the market’s attention was split between imports from the old avant-garde center, Paris, and the newly emerging domination of the New York School. Avant-garde culture was a foreign language whose speakers had French (Italian at best) or American names. This vacuum of authentic Modernism, an ideal province for the importation of neo-avant-garde art, generated visual strategies of parody and appropriation which gazed at the legacy of Modernism from the outside while adapting to its linguistic standards through quotation. The first exhibition that Polke participated in took place in a rented butcher shop in Düsseldorf in 1963, and grouped him with three other artists. One of them, then a close friend of Polke’s, was Gerhard Richter, who has since become known as a key figure in the ironical deconstruction of painting by painting itself. From the very beginning Polke and Richter systematically opposed the in authentic attempts of neo-Expressionist painters (who also began working and exhibiting in the early ’60s) to establish a local or national continuity of painting, but one that ignored those major developments in 20th century art production since Expressionism that were just about to be discovered by the postwar period.

Polke and Richter, representing the second generation of the postwar neo-avant-garde in Europe (if we consider Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni to be in the first), adopted strategies of appropriation, quotation, and parody in a manner that was similar to that of the generation of American artists that rediscovered these strategies as part of a more general understanding of the implications of the works of the Dadaists. Labeled Pop artists, the generation of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol faced up to the same historical dilemma as the European neo-avant-garde did. This set of problems was not entirely different from the questions of the original avant-garde in the 1915–25 period: the blatant contradictions between the conditions of mass culture and high culture; the extraordinary impact of technical processes of reproduction on the notion of the unique, auratic work; and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the isolated, elitist practices of high art production and its ultimate powerlessness. In addition they had to contend with the extraordinary increase in visual manipulation which the rise of advertising and photography, cinema, and television had brought about. The utopian, naive hopes for a possible reconciliation of the two spheres which had inspired the writings of the Russian Productivists and the Surrealists as well as the theoretical reflections of Walter Benjamin (who was indebted to both) could no longer be maintained after the war and the newly established neo-avant-garde faced new conditions.

It was no surprise, then, that within such a seemingly hermetically secured system of product propaganda and ideological stratification the manipulation of visual signifiers—if they related to objects of reality at all—was performed with an attitude of camp and melancholy, parody and indifference, resignation and indulgence. At the same time, a deeply rooted skepticism toward the validity of the continued production of isolated, high-art activities marked the attitude and statements of this generation. When, for example, Lichtenstein talks about his interest in the iconography of the comic strip and Richter talks about his interest in the iconography of amateur photography, they both refer to those aspects of their sources that seem to protect their own artistic production from being prematurely identified with high-art practice. Criticism of such strategies as ultimately reaffirming mass-cultural manipulation, and glamorizing collective alienation falls short of asking the crucial critical questions these strategies raise and fails to recognize the actual place of these strategies within the tradition of 20th century art. Such criticism likewise fails to take into account the context of Modernist traditions as authentic historical conditions which must be evaluated before art’s transgression of its own codes can be discussed. Moreover, this criticism fails to realize that these contextual exigencies are not imposed by the convention of the Modernist paradigm alone, but that it is specifically the fetishization of the Modernist signifier which requires that art operations be carried out only within the context of art practice. It is, therefore, not accidental that in the early to mid-’60s artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol in the United States used, interchangeably, iconic representations of fetishes of consumption from low culture as well as fetishes from the catalogue of mechanically reproduced works of high art.The same holds true for such European artists of the mid-to-late ’60s as Marcel Broodthaers and Richter, and, in an almost programmatic, parodistic fashion, Polke.

Artists such as Richter and Polke in Germany at that time chose the programmatic stance of what they called “Capitalist Realism.”The nature of this stance was exhibited most poignantly during Richter and Konrad Lueg’s Demonstration for Capitalist Realism in Düsseldorf in 1965, when for several hours the two artists placed themselves as living sculptures, in comfortable chairs on pedestals, in the furniture showroom of a department store. Broodthaers’ statement that “all art is reification,” emphasized the inescapable dialectic of Western European and American art practice, which wants to initiate a material transformation of both signifier and signified, but which ends up as a commodified cultural object. The artists on display among the furniture/objects of the department store epitomize this historical dilemma, which continues from Duchamp right into the present. In Polke’s work of that period this dialectic is concretized in the constant juxtaposition of iconic appropriations from low culture and stylistic appropriations from the signifying practices of high culture. In his large group of “dot” paintings, produced between 1963 and 1969, Polke introduced mechanically generated iconic schemes (found photographs, representing stereotypes of perception). This imposed on the artist iconic, chromatic, and compositional ordering principles of a rigid, predetermined nature, and enabled him to refrain from almost all “creative” decisions. Yet this apparently totalitarian determination of the iconic representation was negated by its actual construction and manual execution in the painting. As in Jasper Johns’ flag paintings and Lichtenstein’s and Richter’s paintings of the early ’60s (and in stark contrast to Warhol’s production procedures) each pictorial unit is meticulously executed and critical balance is maintained between the mechanically mass-reproduced icons and the individually crafted brush stroke juxtaposing reified code and subversive codification. In much of this work, from Rauschenberg to Polke, the very nature of the procedure of manufacturing individual visual signs denies its own validity as a process of individuation by limiting itself to a tightly controlled painterly exercise.

On the other hand, in a group of cloth paintings that Polke produced during the same period all of these principles are inverted. Whereas in the “dot” paintings the particularization of the constituent elements of the visual signifier decomposed the found figure into a molecular field, the “cloth” paintings introduced found materials (black velvet, fake leopard skin, bed sheets, cheap chinoiserie silk) as supports. Super imposed on grounds of delirious bad taste we then find gestures of Modernist painting emptied, made futile by parodistic repetition.In these paintings expressive and constructive gestures, as well as the self-referential brush stroke and the belabored denotative contours of iconic representation are often arbitrarily placed side by side, becoming abbreviations of historical obsolescence and incompetence. They are reminiscent of the involuntary parodistic accumulation of pictorial styles in late Kandinsky or in early Abstract Expressionist biomorphic work, in which automatism and construction were juggled.

It might be worth while to remember at this point that these were strategies that Picabia had fully developed. We see succeeding sets of parodistic appropriations in the various phases of his oeuvre: the carbon-copy icons of his mechanical period, and the contour fixations of art historical references in his “transparency” series of the mid-’20s, (when he traced the authoritarian tendencies of neoclassicism), followed by his mimetic rendition of pornographic imagery from cinematic or product propaganda sources all through the ’30s and into the early ’40s. By that point Picabia’s production had been overtaken by a compulsive return to representation, the reduction of the visual construct and of perceptual apprehension to isolated scopic acts of identifying and repeating outlined prefigurations. This process mirrored the fascist violation of political life, in which Picabia participated as an artist in a most ambiguous manner.

Nowadays the esthetic neutralization of the political conflict between high culture and mass culture generates the demeaning pleasures of camp appropriations. Bad taste and black velvet are used as supposedly subversive antidotes to the elitist isolation of bourgeois easel painting and its infralinguistic family disputes. Yet camp ultimately sides with paternal law, as do all discursive practices that attempt to resolve the conflict of domination by disguising their actual oppositional historical identity through mockery of the ruling order. As in fashion, that “tiger’s leap into the past that happens in an arena which is commanded by the ruling class,” the manipulation of a code in terms of style never leads to the transgression of the code. The concept of style, as a successful implantation of an individualized linguistic idiom into a public language at a particular historical moment, seems to resolve the problem of individuation within the confines of a given tradition and therefore functions as a promise of individuation while it in fact seals off the process. Successfully entering the symbolic order of the esthetic language and its conventions, a given style is instantly recognized, commodified, and imitated. But the highly overdetermined language conventions of Modernist art practice allow for only a limited number of meaning operations within Modernism’s framework; among them are appropriation and quotation, parody and mimicry. Appropriation of style functions as an arbitrary but strictly delineated gesture of a symbolic subversion of the original code of the style. To remain recognizable or to be deciphered as parody, the simulacrum has to follow the outline of the code and must ultimately remain within its limits. However, the relationship between the two structures of codification juxtaposed in a parody can vary from tautological to dialectical, and the mode of quotation established with the object which quotes from them can range from undulating, ornamental paraphrase to a negation of the validity of the coding convention itself.

As said before, a given style is the tacit ideological handshake between an author and the institutions which control the definition and distribution of cultural meaning. Thus style as the very model of individual identity ends up being a tool for producing instant cultural manipulation and therefore alienation. The rigor with which a culture has to protect its hierarchical order and privileges determines the degree to which its art will be stylized and the range of stylistic options that will be admissible. The cynical quotation of the historical limitations of a particular stylistic practice today functions as a reassurance of the validity of that practice. Much parodistic appropriation of style denies the speaker’s presence and his or her role in attempting to reveal the obsolescence of the discourse. This parodistic speech borders on style only to negate style’s validity. Parody of style, however, is not a reliable position. Its ambiguity and balance can be tilted at any moment, and it can turn from subversive mimicry to obedience. The mode of parody denies the notion of individuality as private property that the practice of style in much other contemporary art production seems to suggest. In fact, parodistic appropriation might ultimately deny the validity of art practice as individuation altogether.

The historical place of Polke’s work is therefore (as was that of the late Picabia) at a juncture: that of a time when the credibility of Modernism is in shambles and its failure and obsolescence have become all too obvious. But this failure is dictated by the violence of political and economic conditions, not by individual or esthetic circumstances. If we look at parody from the outside, from a perspective that has left behind the field of petty Modernist quirks and jokes which are reduplicated with each generation that spirals along the circles of the cul-de-sac of Modernism, then its work looks clownish, enslaved, and despondent, it appears to be lost in desuetude. If we look at parody from the inside, however, it seems to perform liberation with subversive vigor—which it receives from the obstinacy of politics—by éclat, it seems to battle successfully against the haunting spirits of false consciousness that the socio-cultural practice of visual-meaning production, once rightfully called “Modernist art,” nowadays releases. What it fails to claim is the historical option of a perspective that looks at Modernism from the outside, one that insists on reconciling both the individual’s constitution in language and ideology and a foundation in material production and political consciousness.

Benjamin H.D. Buchloh writes art criticism. He is presently teaching at the California Institute of the Arts and is editor of the Nova Scotia Series.