PRINT October 1991


THE FORMALIST OR ESTHETIC ERA of art bore within it a little-regarded contradiction: it cherished the idea of change, but put no value on change for its own sake, imagining it instead as a movement toward some kind of end or culmination of history. What wasn’t realized was that if no such conclusion were forthcoming, these endless changes would become mutually trivializing. If a great artistic innovation is only to last a few years or months, what really is the value of it? Shall history be rewritten for such a transient consummation? Are historical periods to become mere fads? In this way the formalists, who intended to affirm the high seriousness of art, ended by diminishing it. The proliferation of terminology to designate supposedly new styles and schools was kept going by a residual formalist habit even after formalism had supposedly ended. It soon became a joke: action painting, Color Field, Hard Edge, Pop art, Op art, Minimal art, Conceptual art, Earth art, Body art, Happenings, performance art, primary shapes, Photorealism, New Image, bad painting, pluralism, neo-Expressionism, simulationism, neo-geo, neo-Conceptualism.

Even in the ’80s, when formalism was busily dissected everywhere, this trivializing impetus continued to gain momentum as an overheated market looked for a new ism every second year or so. By about 1985, the idea that there might be more enduring developments in the history of art had been obscured. As the prefix “neo” suggests, history seemed to have been reduced to absurdity. This loss of faith in the advance of formalist moments reflected a deeper loss of faith in the similarly discredited march of technological moments, which had been the main underpinning of Modernist faith in progress. In this sense, art as previously known has not survived Modernism. Post-Modernism seems to many to have robbed art of its will by relativizing its values, but it seems to me that the problem, if it is one, lies in the lingering traces of formalist ways of thought.

After a long period of unquestioning belief, there is a certain satisfaction in cynicism. It is somehow liberating to see all things as equally trivial (as in certain areas of Greek philosophy Pyrrhonism, for example or in Madhyamika Buddhism). Thus the recent coinage “multiculti,” a mocking term for the general intercultural tendencies in the arts today, can draw a smile from most of us when inflected with the proper wickedness. But the joke is far from trivial, for it reflects a general loss of faith in the importance of art, and a suspicion that what happens in art history has no real importance for anything except the market. Specifically, it casts the group of tendencies linked under the names post-Modernism, globalism, and multiculturalism (all more or less synonyms in this context) as just another passing fad, no more important than neo-geo, say, and no different in scale. Beneath its humor, this tactic serves to disguise a conservative defense, associable with the remnants of formalism, against the threat to the idea of quality that multiculturalism involves, and also against its threat to the idea of art history as a thin linear stream of linked formal sequences. But this defense is shallow in its obvious partisanship. Something of a different scale entirely is happening in multiculturalism, something that transcends the succession of formalist moments and radically shifts their emphasis.

The visual arts have a global social importance today that is quite independent of formalist notions of esthetic presence. A culture’s visual tradition embodies the image it has of itself. Cumulatively, and with crosscurrents, art draws into visibility, from the depths of intuition, a culture’s sense of its identity, and of its value and place in the world. Seen this way, art—or visual expression, or whatever we want to call it—encompasses far more than esthetics. There are times when the issue of identity is muted and the esthetic voice speaks loudest. But not today. Right now the issue of identity has come to the foreground both of culture in general and of the visual in particular. This is not a stylistic fad; it involves the deepest meanings of what we call history.

Viewed from the inside, Western history since the Renaissance has been a step-by-step articulation of a set of shifting yet coherent cultural forms—the working out of the culture’s identity through various sensual and intellectual modes. But viewed from the outside, in a global framework, the same history suggests a very different story, one with two stages. The first is colonialism, which began in the Renaissance (the European enslavement of Africans started in the 15th century) and ended when the colonizing nations began to withdraw from their colonies, mostly in the middle decades of this century. The second stage, which is underway but still young, is the process of decolonialization, meaning not only the literal withdrawal of foreign armies and governments but the long aftermath of cultural readjustment in which the world is presently engaged. Decolonialization is undoubtedly the most significant global event at work today, with countries in both the third world and Eastern Europe struggling to reclaim and reconstruct their ravaged cultural identities.

Multicultural projects in the visual arts are one branch of this historic process. A culture’s visual tradition, when exported, is a kind of ambassador, and visual borrowings and mergings constitute a kind of foreign policy. The intermingling of different cultures’ image banks as part of the postcolonial project is thus a sign of a deeper interpenetration of their identities. This was the inner meaning of ’80s appropriation and quotation and so on, which prepared the way for the multicultural ’90s. The catchphrase “PC,” like “multiculti,” is used to trivialize this development; but the true and serious meaning of the acronym is not so much “politically correct” as “postcolonial.”

In the move away from Modernism (colonialism), of course, post-Modernism (postcolonialism) does not begin with a clean slate. The idea of a historical change that leaves causality behind is a contradiction, since an acausal moment would of necessity be ahistorical. Still, history does suggest the actuality of what Gaston Bachelard and others have called coupures épistérmologiques—epistemological breaks or gaps, moments in which things seem to change with a blinding flash, when the pebbles slowly shifting in the stream suddenly slide into a different shape, clog up the old passage, create new channels past a bottleneck, and spring forward with a momentary sense of freedom.

Part of the global project of decolonialization is a conscious effort—particularly on the part of white Westerners—to understand the image banks of other cultures. This will be no easy matter, since in many societies the inherited views about art and genius and so on have become parts of selfhood as it is felt. Inevitably this adjustment involves ethnic considerations. In the Modernist period, whites saw history as exclusively their own. African, Indian, Chinese, and Amerindian societies were regarded as ahistorical because they weren’t dominated by the need to feel that they were evolving toward some ultimate consummation. Colonialism was justified as a means to drag the supposedly ahistorical into history—at which point non-European peoples were supposed to become gradually more like Europeans, or, more recently, like European-Americans. The otherness of the nonwhite would supposedly go away by being assimilated, as when Native Americans sported bowler hats and monocles in 18th-century American paintings.

In Hegel’s day it seemed that the universal culture into which the ahistorical would be assimilated would be Prussian in style, in Kipling’s mind it was to be English; more recently, many have thought it would be American (moved by, among other things, the McDonaldization of much of the world). But none of these is to be. The white Westerner has been revealed as just another other, with no special claim to being the self against which all are delineated, or the standard to which it is their destiny to assimilate. Increasingly it has become clear that in the emerging global scenario no one cultural form will be enforced on all. Instead, that scenario will take elements from everywhere. It will be one culture made of many cultures, one history made of many histories—a whole made of disunited fragments, with no imperative to unite them. So instead of everyone wearing bowler hats and speaking pidgin English we face peoples clinging to their own heritages, traditions, languages, and styles of selfhood, insisting that they be written into history as themselves, and that their picture of us, with elements we might not relish, be written into that history too. Even more, they demand that they will write the history. Their cultural need, as F. Eboussi Boulaga has put it, is “of being by and for oneself, through the articulation of having and making.”1

From this perspective, what really happened in the art history of the ’80s was not just the demeaning market hysteria that “hyperrealized” the end of formalism and gave the art world a bad name in the culture at large—artworks traded like junk bonds, Van Gogh futures replacing pork bellies in feeding frenzies at venal auction orgies, and so on. It was something far greater, something transcending formal fashions, or containing them within a vaster framework: the opening of the concept of art history to a global scale, and the immanence of the problems and adjustments that will make themselves known because of it—and that are upon us right now.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book, Art and Discontent, was published in May by McPherson & Company, Kingston, N.Y.


1. F. Eboussi Boulaga, La Crise de Muntu, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1977, p. 7.