PRINT February 1991


In the pages of this continuing series, Artforum invites a range of critics and theorists to articulate what they see as the role and responsibilities of art criticism today.

POST-MODERNIST ART IS decadent, not because it is a falling off or away—which is what “decadence” means etymologically—from Modernism, but because it signals the marginalization of all styles, past and present. The idea of any art as more central than any other is anathema in today’s art world, which is so anxiously sensitive to the artistic rights of the “other,” so eager to give anything a fair hearing, that all assertions of centrality are immediately stomped on as authoritarian hyperbole. But the decadence of post-Modernism means more than the laissez-faire of pluralism or multiculturalism. More subtly, it means the end of the debate between the old and the new that inaugurated consciousness of being modern. Both the old masters and the Modernist masters are now reified as post-Modern masters. That is, they are reduced to instances of a general art rhetoric. They lose all particularity of time and place—and of being and meaning—and become simply pieces in a perpetual chess-game of art.

It is a game in which no piece can ever take—dominate—another, except in heuristic make-believe, and in which every piece has the same power of movement: every piece is king, with the same royal significance. There are no pawns, for the post-Modernist art game denies any hierarchy. That is why it is not clear how to win the game. Yet the criteria of criticism depend on a sense of hierarchy, which may—must—be debated, but is inevitable, in practice if not in theory. Choices are made, and preferences emerge. The post-Modernist point seems to be not to win the art game with a style of one’s own, but to bring as many passé pieces of style as possible into play in a single work—this is the new way of being outré—as though the rules of a new game might emerge out of their interplay.

More subtly, one of the meanings of post-Modernism is that no art can ever again be modern in the sense of modishly new, definitive of our “nowness.” To be modern initially meant to refuse to define oneself by old authority—to insist that one could define oneself on one’s own terms. The old world no longer exists, after all; why look to it to understand the modern self? To be modern meant to try to look freshly, without presuppositions, at the world one was born into and the self one had. In a sense, all modern artists are like either Francis Bacon or René Descartes, 17th-century thinkers who claimed respectively to observe the world with empirical freshness and to uncover, unaided, a self fundamental to itself. In the Modernist movement, both world and self came to exist experimentally, that is, as hypotheses for which there was no final proof. Thus art relinquished the security of the traditional, absolute sense of world and self, and was free to take the risks of being modern. Shrugging off the past—Modernism is one of those revolutionary moments when the past seems overwhelming and must be dismissed as irrelevant—art could unapologetically find new methods of being and meaning. It could even aspire to make being seem all of meaning, or meaning adequate to being, producing works that seemed triumphantly immediate, definitive of the present—pure presence, truly modern and fresh.

All of this is by way of describing what I mean by decadence, which I see not as a “bad” state transitional from a “good” one, but as inevitable in a complex civilization, which offers as many choices as possible to as many of its members as care to accept them. Decadence complicates and makes life difficult; it is the antithesis of any sort of fundamentalism, which simplifies and makes life easy. Decadence is not the time between gods (the centers)—the time when the old fundamentalism is dead and the new one waits to be born—but a desperately divine moment in itself. No doubt the sense of decadence is a feeling rather than a truth, but then no truth exists without a feeling. As Freud said, even the most psychotic feeling about the world—including the art world, I might add—has more than a grain of objective truth to it.

The feeling of decadence is significant whenever and wherever it occurs—and it has occurred frequently throughout history (whether it is deplored as a loss of moral potency or valued as a "proof’ of unique creativity)—because it indicates that those who experience it are sharply critical of the world. Indeed, they are skeptical of the world to the extent of implying not only that its products are unsatisfying but that they can never be satisfying. To experience an art scene as decadent is to give up expectation of significant satisfaction from art, which may be taken seriously as an objective cultural symptom, but is not expected to support and enhance anyone’s subjective sense of self.

The critic must wonder, then, why artworks are needed, if in fact they are. Their disappointing character eventually makes one question one’s desire for art in general. Unsatisfied, desire turns away from the object in which it has invested so much. This is not a philistine loss of interest because art is not instantly, sensuously gratifying, but the result of an experience of art as failing to afford the subtlest emotional gratifications, especially the sense of significant self. Post-Modern art may finally come to seem nothing but a method for the infinite deferral of gratification. From this perspective of radical dissatisfaction, it begins to look like a subtle force for the social control of feeling, an ingenious instrument of subjective conformity—a new way of stifling the sense of being a subject.

A critic working in a post-Modern art scene cannot help but experience its products as decadent, for they present themselves fascistically, as it were—overobjectified and undersubjectified. They seem reified to the point of no human return. Like a Potemkin village, they put on a good front, but are uninhabitable. They are the flattened relics of an indifferent socialization process, and cannot help but evoke a decadent response—matter-of-fact acknowledgment and subjective disapproval.

In these post-Modern days, the critic is necessarily as decadent as the art. Unlike the art, however, the critic also manifests a counterdecadent tendency, at least if he or she is truly troubled about the art of the time. If critics are really dissatisfied with art, if it makes no subjective sense to them, then they are ultimately faced with the choice of either abandoning it or trying to dereify it. In practice, this means renewing their desire for it—finding a subjective raison d’être for it, a subjective reason for investing mind and heart in it. I believe that every significant modern critic, from Diderot and Baudelaire to Harold Rosenberg and on, has been subliminally informed by a sense of the decadence of the art of the time, and by a desire to resist it. Critics are frustrated perceivers, but within that frustration they renew their faith in art as a whole, and they make a decision to desire.

The modern is inherently frustrating, for the moment art makes it concrete, describing its process in seemingly quintessential form, it seems to be reified. To name the present, after all, is to undermine its presentness, to suggest its spuriousness. When Diderot elevates Vernet, then, or Baudelaire elevates Delacroix, or Apollinaire elevates Picasso, or Roger Fry elevates Cézanne, or Clement Greenberg elevates Jules Olitski, or Rosenberg elevates Arshile Gorky, he is declaring that this artist’s works are inherently desirable and satisfying in contrast to the undesirable, frustrating, decadent scene in which they are made. They save the scene from itself. To each critic, all the other art products in the scene are reifications of a general idea of art rather than renewed particularizations of it. The critic is declaring that the work of the artist he or she advocates is not based on a fetishized concept of art derived from its past history but is a fresh affirmation of art’s being, a fresh modernization of it. Since the beginning of modernity, the critic has always tried to determine what is modern within a scene that always seems decadent—post-Modern. Post-Modernism has been around since the beginning of Modernism, which in a sense was a response to a post-Modern sort of decadence.

Such critical decisions invariably redifferentiate—and, worse yet, hierarchically reorder—the reified art scene. But the fact of the matter is that the ice of reification that is broken by the critic’s desire quickly closes over the churning sea of art that criticism reveals beneath it. The sinking feeling of decadence returns. It is an eternal return, for the works of even the most truly modern artist eventually turn into pillars of salt—reduce into reified moments of immediacy. Sooner or later they fail desire, losing their sense of nowness and modernity. They lose presence and face. Modernism and post-Modernism exist in a cannibalistic dialectic: the latter invariably consumes the former, with increasing eagerness and rapidity. As the spectacle of art replacing art continues, the critic comes to realize that by its nature the modern is impossible to specify. It has no core. Every hard-won critical description fades into the oblivion of a reification—becomes post-Modern. Why trouble to develop a “fundamentally” new stylistic sense or “definition” of modernity when it will quickly come to seem beside the point?

Critics of decadence are in a strange position: they are no longer clear whether they are fighting, with their desire, for an art that will articulate the modern with a new sense of fundamentality, or whether they are fighting against the post-Modernizing process. But decadence seems inevitable whatever they do; every theoretical revitalization of an art seems, paradoxically, to hasten its post-Modernization. Even subjective justifications of post-Modern art meant to remodernize it seem no more than delaying actions, stays of execution.

The only way out of this pessimistic situation is for the critic to practice a peculiar promiscuity. It’s not that one must respond enthusiastically to the decadent pluralism of the art scene. One must, however, differentiate one’s desire in the face of the short-lived satisfaction of entropic post-Modern art. The critic realizes that the opposed extremes of either total dissatisfaction with art or ecstatic, fundamentalist commitment to the “true” art are avoidable if one accepts the transience of every critical remodernization of art—every relation to art. One neither overcommits nor undercommits oneself to an art, but individuates one’s desire in a way appropriate to it.

Implicitly, the critic’s desire remains limitless, while seeming limited—as limited as the art. Desire’s rediscovery of the limits of the object of desire save it from total bankruptcy. The critic is aided by the feeling that he or she is sidestepping the dialectic of decadence and rejuvenation. In fact, of course, the critic continues to participate in its operation. But the illusion of eluding it is psychologically necessary, and serves the basic concern of protecting the critic from deep and complete dissatisfaction. My critic turns on its head Nietzsche’s Dionysian assertion that art’s purpose is to keep desire alive, and thereby to keep strong the will to live: it seems that the purpose of desire is to make an art seem uncannily alive, for however short a term. Such perpetual reinvestment in art is a necessity of life and, no doubt, of art.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His most recent book is Alex Katz at Night (Harry N. Abrams), and he is the editor of a new series of books on contemporary criticism to be published by Cambridge University Press.