TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1997

CRITICAL REFLECTIONS

IT DID NOT TAKE LONG to remember the first time I met Benjamin Buchloh. It was in 1980, at a conference organized during the Biennale de Paris by something as incongruous as the Office Franco-Allemande de la Jeunesse. Unflappably, Buchloh was reading his impressive “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture” to an audience who probably had little idea of Modernism, much less Asher’s work (I, for one, had not heard much about the latter). I was flabbergasted by Buchloh’s cool passion and tight logic: against the then-total lack of seriousness in French art criticism, it felt razor sharp. I also remember strongly disagreeing with some of his assertions, which, I thought, were far too predicated on a linear conception of history. At the postconference chitchat, Buchloh easily won the debate: against the ethical imperative of historical necessity, I had at my disposal only the one, far less inclusive, of structural necessity.
 
The dialogue was resumed upon my move to the United States, when I absorbed his vast writings. Several essays stood out. “Formalism and Historicity” (1977) proposed a new synopsis of postwar art in which not only the then-almost-forgotten French décollagistes and Piero Manzoni but also Marcel Broodthaers and Gerhard Richter would emerge as major figures. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression” (1981), published in October, to which Buchloh would contribute some of his most potent texts, linked the neo-Romantic ideology of the “return to painting,” pushed by the international market of the period, to the conservative “return to order” of the ’20s and ’30s, which had signaled the demise of the historical avant-gardes. “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriations and Montage in Contemporary Art” (1982)—my first exposure to artists like Louise Lawler and Martha Rosler—shed much light on the proliferating mess then called “postmodernism” by discriminating between its reactionary majority and its “Brechtian vein.”
 
In these essays (and many others), I was impressed by Buchloh’s knack at articulating a historical situation to contextualize his analysis, making the singular work the final term of a complex process. Above all, I have been struck by the sense of urgency pervading his texts, by their insistence on setting the record straight, on discriminating between invention and its travesty, on revisiting our roots: our understanding of the present, our fate, depends on it. During the superficial ’80s, Buchloh’s essays on Russian Constructivism, on Warhol, on Richter, on Conceptual art, demonstrated for art history and criticism what the Russian Formalists and Roland Barthes had proved in literary criticism: that social history (Marxism) and formalism (Structuralism) were compatible. Indeed, Buchloh’s writings underline the fact that, in the stratified object that constitutes a work of art, it is at the level of form and process that we can best decipher the ideological mediation that leads to the sociopolitical field.
 
Confronted with the dogmatism of various Marxist accounts (especially Peter Burger’s), Buchloh’s historicism has gradually loosened. But if he is less diffident now about his own surprising pleasures (such as Brice Marden’s work of the past ten years, for which we share an interest), Buchloh’s remains an inflexible critique of the dulling of aesthetic experiences and practices by the culture industry. The present text, though cast as a striking farewell, is no different. Toward the end, it cites artists whose work addresses and resists the global commodification, “none of them [being] quite free of a certain dimension of desperation.” But was it Adorno who suggested that true hope is only possible in moments of total despair—otherwise there are only expectations? Buchloh’s work is the rare analysis that can help us negotiate the difficult mourning of Modernism’s utopia without falling into the trap of cynicism.
 
Yve-Alain Bois

WHEN A CLASS NEARS its terminal point in history, Marx once mused, it tends to mistake its own end for the end of the world. When art critics reach the end of their historical line, they tend to mistake the failure of their prognostic identifications or lack of comprehension of present practices for the end of art (most notoriously, Michael Fried’s withdrawal from criticism on the heels of insisting that Anthony Caro, Larry Poons, and Jules Olitski would emerge as the most important artists of the second half of the century). Here then is one more such case and voice, publicly on record: declaring from the vantage point of a critic who has been engaged with a relatively limited set of artistic positions and practices that what has come into sight as a distinct possibility is, if not the end of art, then the end of these historically determined definitions of artistic practice and with them the end of their protagonists and institutions. These practices had been defined within a model of critical resistance and radical negativity; the protagonists had perceived themselves as inextricably linked to yet indisputably opposed to the culture industry; and the institutions had taken seriously their historically defined functions of providing a critical space of exemption, if not opposition, within the bourgeois public sphere—that is, sites for the development and preservation of aesthetic and historical knowledge in forms of exchange and communication that were neither immediately nor entirely subjected to ideological instrumentalization or economic interests. The farewell to it all seems easier than expected, even though, admittedly, the end arrived much sooner than anticipated.

Trained (even fixated) to think as a social contextualist, I begin with the very pages in which this statement appears, since by turning them we find most of the evidence needed for the case to be made. Predicted with gloom in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment, cited since then almost ritualistically by artists, critics, and theoreticians as though the invocation could perhaps still ward off the inevitable, it has become indisputable that the sphere of social production traditionally called “avant-garde art” and the one called, since 1947, the “culture industry” have performed a successful merger. One force that fused them is fashion.

The fashion of the 1966 art season was fashion (no more cultural “others,” no more identity politics, not even gender politics), and the conditions are as tautological as they sound. One cumbersome definition of fashion could be the following: the rapid and relatively facile construction of a mirage of subjectivity through objects supplied by an industry designing identity substitutes according to cycles of repetition-compulsion transformed into production. Another definition, contradicting the first one, could be that fashion is a sign system, serving attempts to articulate and situate the subversive self, in which subjects deploy and display objects against dominant rules of taste and convention so as to position themselves with regard to both the immediate past and the present.

Both definitions—the vapid menace of the first and the empty promise of the second—have been integral to defining the thresholds of avant-garde and modernist culture since Baudelaire, as is well known. The thresholds, that is, not the core. What had irreconcilably divided avant-garde practice and fashion production had been the radical aesthetic, social, and political character of the former. It had been exemplary in both its mnemonic functions and utopian bent, both in its ravaging criticism (while judging the present against the standards of history) as well as in its anticipated promises (while judging the present against the standards of imagined possibilities). And it had been exemplary in its presumption of an integrally public and collective dimension of practice that would separate the aesthetic subject from private interests as much as from individual privilege in its rehearsal of imaginary models of a collectively accessible experience of real autonomy and self-determination.

Art-world fashions, by contrast, present a conclusive and compelling logic of their own: from identity politics to the even narrower restriction of gender politics, straight down to the final installment as fashion politics, in which, through the delusion that identity can be produced, constructed according to the configuration of objects, cultural production becomes absolutely equivalent to fashion production at the core. The misunderstanding and misuse of poststructuralist theory played only a small part in this delusion: both the conceptualizing of identity as a performative category and the foregrounding of the linguistic signifier in identity's production promised an exemption if not an escape from social class and political institutions that was only too welcome in American culture, where politics since the ’70s has been increasingly written out of public history by total inscription onto the private self. This condition constitutes one of the criteria necessary for the definition of the anomic; nowhere can the collective conditions of anomie be studied in a more advanced state—and nowhere are they more collectively enforced—than in the United States.

What is most obviously lacking in the timeworn definition of the “personal as the political” is the insight that “the public” has become an increasingly controlled and regulated space and that the insistent, politically disabling deflection of artistic practice onto the domain of private experience itself is of course part of the effects of that regulatory rerouting.

Here then are three examples of contemporary public culture (or rather its travesties), from different contexts and spheres (but easily multiplied), all of which illustrate the irreversible consequences emerging when a critical avant-garde recedes from operating within public discourse and its institutions. The first example is taken from the sphere of artistic production; the second comes from that of curatorial politics; and the third is from the sphere of public art and architecture.

When Calvin Klein opened his flagship store on Madison Avenue last year, embellished with furniture designed by the late Donald Judd, one could still wonder what the notorious anarchist Judd might have said, if heard in Klein's court. As it was, only the furniture could speak and it repeated what it had said all along: take avant-garde products from the Bauhaus and De Stijl context, deceive yourself that you can remain solely engaged in the perpetuation of timeless and transhistorical functional beauty, and what you end up with is luxurious gadgetry and fetishized avant-garde design to tease jaded consumers back into a store through an aristocratic austerity campaign. Dan Flavin, however, unlike his late friend and Minimalist colleague, did have a choice as to whether to submit fluorescent sculptures to the corporation that spectacularizes Minimalism to generate the new distinction of the consumption of austerity. Flavin of course accepted. (I wonder whether my original assessment, that Flavin’s Minimalism posed a resistance to corporate culture, was ever justified at any point in its history of endless repetitions, or whether the very avant-garde model underlying his work was ever anything but pure affirmation.)

My second example is the recent (and first) Biennale di Firenze, curated by Germano Celant and Ingrid Sischy. Given both curators’ outstanding record as bellwethers, we have no doubt that their seamless fusion of Acconci and Alaïa, of Goncharova and Gucci, of avant-garde and fashion industry as indivisible and ultimately continuous fields of human enterprise, will set the standards of things as they already are. It has become fairly obvious that the apparel and fashion industries have acquired ever greater powers over the processes of subjectivation (it’s no wonder that models outdo movie and television stars not only in their visibility, but also in their capacity to increase the gross national product). Inevitably then, in order to perpetuate its project of fashion subjection, the fashion industry is more desperately in need of the work of artists than ever to supply the mythical epiphanies of what the subject might have been under radically different conditions.

My third example is in a sense the most comical and trivial one, yet in its scandalous and cynical provincialism it also typifies best what one could recognize as “culture” after the final erosion of its public dimension and its critical standards. When Philip Johnson, the Leni Riefenstahl of corporate architecture, recently proposed the installation of a sculpture of his own design at Lincoln Center identified by its author under the preposterous title Monument to Post-Euclidean Space and now presented as Time Sculpture (a de facto longterm contract of endorsement between the architect and the Movado Watch Corporation, whose logo will soon be shining prominently from the monument to tell the opera-going masses for whom the bell tolls), virtually no architects, artists, or critics could be heard alerting us to the potential conflict of interest between public sculpture and corporate-endorsement contracts—much less to the fraudulence of the architectural entrepreneur posing as sculpteur.

Corporate power is irresistibly attracted to cultural figures and practices that fuse fashion and artistic production. Those figures have emerged and disappeared with increasing frequency in the post-Warhol art world, a corroboration of the very strategies of a systematic destruction of the public dimension of the aesthetic and the political dimension of subjectivity that corporations themselves perform on a daily basis. Corporations perceive the reduction of aesthetic experience to a fashion correlative (on the part of its authors and spectators alike) as a confirmation of the success of their own incessant agenda. They are profoundly at odds with a liberal-democratic and bourgeois definition of culture as a complex process of public subject formation, a process that, despite the increasing globalization of enterprise and technology, paradoxically remains individually, regionally, and nationally specific. This process is inscribed into existing histories of the social and the individual forms of experience at a particular time and place. Corporate sponsors are inevitably opposed to the support, preservation, and continuation of precisely those cultural practices that are inherently difficult and hermetic, that require from their spectators and readers standards and commitment, and that are inevitably oppositional in their political implications.

But it is not just the corporations that envision culture as a global tool of advertisement and symbolic exchange. Museum directors themselves increasingly want to and must make the museum itself perform as a multinational corporation. Thomas Krens’ vision of a Guggenheim in every country is of course only the most manifest form of the profound disintegration of the concept of culture in the hands of one of its foremost managers. Krens, like so many others in the museum world, has become part of a generation that “squandered its poets” in pursuit of global art-world visibility, but one that also transfigured the institution of the museum itself from its once seemingly secure space in the bourgeois public sphere (where it was envisioned as operating like a university, an archive, a library) into a premier site of advanced spectacle culture.

The squandered culture of New York comprises figures like Hollis Frampton and Yvonne Rainer; Simone Forti, George Maciunas, George Brecht, and the Fluxus artists; and many others: What have the institutions of the public sphere under corporate control done in the last ten years to support the continuation of these artists’ work or the preservation of their increasingly fragile and ephemeral archives and to make their work accessible to scholarly and nonscholarly audiences alike?

I often think of the day when the Guggenheim will finally close down for dearth of exhibition ideas or because fashion magnate Hugo Boss (and more recently media giant Deutsche Telekom) had decided to shift or discontinue corporate support. Then, without the cultural clutter of “Africa” and “Abstraction” or “Mediascape” and “Koons,” the Guggenheim could remain open as an architectural monument without exhibitions (as its architect probably envisioned it anyway). It could become one of the truly great twentieth-century testimonies to the failed idea of the museum as a site of democratic civility and of the bourgeois public sphere, where a class constructed and preserved its own visuality and cultural self-consciousness, outside corporate state power and the state of corporations.

In the meantime, the options for cultural production remain manifold and complicated, and it seems none of them will be quite free of a certain dimension of desperation. One example is the counterterrorist intervention in public urban space by an anonymous group of Berlin artists who, around the ninetieth birthday celebrations of Philip Johnson, used a chain saw to carve out the master’s ear from his larger-than-life billboard depiction, erected as an advertisement for the monstrosity he will soon deliver to the city of his early political passions. In a farcical repetition of ’60s terrorism, the group mailed a videotape of the ear to German television stations, demanding release from the building in exchange for the return of the ear. Another example is the work of Raymond Pettibon, who, with the primitive means of drawing and handwriting, has emerged as a figure of Baudelairean dimensions in what probably has been—in terms of its world rule of media industries and ecological devastation—the capital of the twentieth century without most of us even wanting to realize it. A third example, emerging from the same city of Los Angeles, is the recent work of Allan Sekula, attempting what most everyone gave up on long ago, or more likely never even considered: namely, to construct concrete instances of the possibility of cultural production within a renewed definition of the politics of the public sphere. Sekula’s work provides access to an understanding of the regionally specific conditions of labor under global management that the myths of the postmodern and postindustrial age mask so successfully. Or an artist like James Coleman, who emerged from the secluded if not hermetic geopolitical history of Ireland to provide us with reflections on the present conditions of subject formation and cultural production in the hegemonic centers, proposing the dialectics of the extreme particularity of the mnemonic function of art as a last resistance against the universal law of spectacle.

Were it not for figures like these, it would be even easier to envisage, in the spirit of Valéry, the end of our notions of a relatively autonomous, public avant-garde culture altogether and move on to the immediacy of the Internet—undoubtedly the biggest blow to artistic conventions since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades or the rise of television. If the claim that all types of communities of competent speakers could in fact find unrestricted access to self-articulation, to the exchange of knowledge and of communication, were true, then the traditional promise (and actual deficiencies) of artistic practices to speak for others before others could speak for themselves might have been supplanted. Then, the dream of the avant-gardes to construct actual spaces and instances of self-determination, in dialectic negation of myth, magic, and cult, would have become an electronic reality, and we could look back in mourning at the disappearance of that reality’s material obstacles and historical resistances.