PRINT February 1997


Raw Deal


To the editor:

In his review of The Return of the Real [“Bürger Helper,” Bookforum], Charles Harrison misrepresents my book with a vengeance. What motivates this vengeance I cannot say; perhaps my omission of artists he has long championed—such as Art & Language—upset him. Harrison is English, I am American, and we are of different generations. I announce my situation as a critic based in New York in the first pages of my book; Harrison never reveals his in his review. Lest his personal positioning (or pique) stand as a public account of my book, let me correct but four of his major misrepresentations.

1. Harrison charges that I subsume art and criticism to cultural studies (I suppose he means the American version). In fact my book is a critique of this surrender, which is announced in the introduction and developed in chapter six. This chapter (“The Artist as Ethnographer”) contests this ethnographic turn in contemporary practice explicitly. Harrison appropriates my critique, then uses it against me.

2. This move sets up his next misrepresentation—that I am content to “shuffle categories” of art on the game board of culture. Here Harrison delivers a very reductive ultimatum: one can either fix on the “intensional (qualitative) terms” of specific artworks (a focus for which he honors Clement Greenberg without any reservation) or play with the “extensional (quantitative) categories” of art in general (a folly for which he condemns Peter Bürger and me). I do indeed question the limits of “intensional” criticism—no reader could miss this point—but I hardly dismiss its historical attention to form. On the contrary, it is I who charges that contemporary practice is often lacking in this regard—another instance of my own critique turned round against me. Yet I also question the limits of “extensional” criticism. Far from a “Bürger Helper,” my book is a sustained critique of the Bürgerian theory of the avant-garde as a simple attack on the institution of art (see in particular chapters one and two: “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?” and “The Crux of Minimalism”). My book thus refuses the constrictive either/or to which Harrison wants to condemn us: it seeks a third way that articulates “intensional” inquiries and “extensional” explorations together, a third practice that develops the specific historicities of art and criticism in the past even as it also pressures the institutional frames of these activities in the present. My book also suggests that the best postwar art and criticism have advanced on this double front as well.

3. It is for this argument that Harrison charges me with historicism, even though this is another object of explicit critique in my book. Above all else The Return of the Real is concerned with basic relations between pre- and postwar avant-gardes and crucial paradigm shifts in art and criticism over the last thirty-five years, again as seen from a specific perspective. As for the first charge, I reverse the Bürgerian historicism of a heroic historical avant-garde that can only issue in a farcical neo-avant-garde. (In chapter seven, “Whatever Happened to Postmodernism?,” I elaborate my countermodel, based on the Freudian notion of “deferred action,” in relation to other historical discourses as well.) As for the second charge, my tracing of paradigms of postwar art and criticism is genealogical, not “teleological.” Does Harrison believe that, practically, pedagogically, and politically, we can somehow do without models of causality, temporality, and narrativity? If so, then we do have a serious argument. But we should debate it rather than indulge, as Harrison does, in name-calling.

4. One of these names is “academic.” Forget, for a moment, that Harrison is also an academic (who makes a living—or is it a killing?—on anthologies of appropriated texts designed as course books); forget, that is, the hypocrisy of his charge. I am interested in two other aspects of this all-too-familiar complaint. First how rote, indeed how academic, it is—this model of a monolithic academy that only “recuperates.” Harrison also charges me with avant-gardism, but nothing is more academically avant-gardist than his universal model of recuperation (not to mention his particular paranoia about “the New York art world”). Second, it is academic in the colloquial sense of the word, that is, detached from actual conflicts in academic and art worlds alike. For example, if Harrison thinks that the uses and abuses of “Duchamp” detailed in my book are “common sense,” then he does not occupy the same universe I do. Who is “academic” here? This academicism allows Harrison to ignore the fact that progressive academics and artists are under massive attack; indeed, he abets this attack with his own smug, anti-intellectual mockery of “arduous work to be done in bookstores and libraries.”

Early on Harrison admits that he has “crudely paraphrased” my book. Crude yes, but not even a paraphrase. If he botches my argument so, how can he pretend to “render explicit” its “foundational assumptions”?

—Hal Foster
New York

Charles Harrison responds:

Foster starts from the assumption that my review was motivated by malign intent, and that had I come clean about my “situation” the nature of the malignancy would have been revealed. In fact I had good reason to welcome his book, on grounds I made clear in my penultimate sentence. It’s a sign of vanity on his part to argue that my criticisms would have been explained had I declared myself as English, as older than him, as an academic, and as associated with Art & Language. The declaration would have seemed to me obtrusive in a review, but I make it unashamedly now. Foster also associates me, however, with a “particular paranoia about the New York art world.” On what grounds? That I stand outside his own concept of “the academy” and represent it as a “body of art critics and art historians for whom New York is the center of the art world,” or that I suggest, in conclusion, that the world in which his examples come to mind is a limited one.

In case the point was missed, I meant to question whether Foster’s examples are altogether adequate to the weight of his argument. Though he misunderstands my point about the canonical status of Duchamp, it is true that I occupy a different universe from him, at least for the purposes of scrutiny of his book. My aim was indeed to offer a reading from outside his universe and thus to test his assumptions and examples for the signs of their contingency. How else could I properly review his work? I do not “accuse” him of avant-gardism, however. I paid tribute to his support of it. Nor did I at any point condemn him for folly, as he claims. My most serious criticism was that his book is lacking in any sense of the resistance that objects conceivable as artistic might present to its own viewpoint and framing powers. These days, that’s hardly damning. By what kind of reading would he have been satisfied? One that departed from the same assumptions as he made, surveyed the same examples, and arrived at the same conclusions? As it is, the sense of outrage and affront conveyed in his response serves to confirm the appropriateness of my criticisms and the validity of my conclusion: that for all the assiduousness of his book and for all the very real merit of its support for the avant-gardes, its perspective is relatively narrow. This criticism notwithstanding, I understood Foster to be more open in his disposition than his response shows him to be. Is it not a sign of something very like paranoia when one is unable to conceive of adverse criticism except as the product of malice?

Foster sets me right on various “misrepresentations” of his book. One possible explanation of these is indeed that my review was ill-inspired. Another more charitable account of my motives might explain the misrepresentations as simple misunderstandings. As I made clear, the book is far from being an easy read. There is a third possible explanation, however. One does not always do what one means to do, nor even what one thinks one has done. The ability to mount a critique of an intellectual tendency is not in itself a guarantee that one is oneself free from that tendency. For instance, Foster sees himself as critical of the tendency for criticism to collapse into cultural studies. I see his work as unwittingly symptomatic of that tendency—though I readily acknowledge that our terms of reference for “cultural studies” may occasionally be different. He sees himself as arguing for “a third way [in criticism] that articulates ‘intensional’ inquiries and ‘extensional’ explorations.” While agreeing that neither emphasis should be allowed to exclude the other—contrary to his quite unjustified assertion that I insist one choose between them—I see him as showing considerable interest in generic typecasting but relatively little practical interest in discrimination between individual works. He offers a critique of Modernist historicism. I suggest that interpreting art-historical cycles on an alternative, Freudian, model is unlikely to lead to freedom from historicism. (And in case the point needs making, to imply that certain consequences follow from the use of any given “models of causality, temporality, or narrativity” is not to suggest that one can do without any models at all.) He is stung by my suggestion that his work is academic. But it is he who identifies himself with a beleaguered academy.

As Foster observes, I am myself vulnerable to whatever opprobrium the term “academic” may be made to bear. Criticism fits where it touches. But I am not impressed by admonishment from those self-styled “progressive academics and artists” who consider themselves to be under “massive attack,” nor do I accept that I abet that attack in any way. That academics and artists are under attack, while it may be both true and regrettable, should not ipso facto render those academics and artists immune to criticism; nor does it follow that all criticism of what they do will be traceable to the same malign agency. It seems that Foster wants to criticize me for failing to show solidarity with him. The terms in which he does so imply that solidarity would amount to unquestioning acceptance. If his very interesting arguments in support of avant-gardes were ethically substantive he could surely recognize that solidarity is undertaken in relation to theories that are both self-inflating and self-deflating. He might also recognize that to criticize someone for failing to show solidarity is a bit empty if one has already ruled out any possible reciprocity a priori.

Foster accuses me of smug anti-intellectual mockery of the “arduous work to be done in bookstores and libraries.” I did not mock that work. I merely picked up on his own suggestion about the amount of learning to be done in face of the “horizontal expansion of art,” and reflected that suggestion back on his text. To be cautious of criticism that smells too much of the lamp is not to be anti-intellectual. On this issue we may both be victims of an editorial excision, though in different ways. My penultimate sentence originally read, “The arguments of The Return of the Real are not to be dismissed—certainly not in any terms that might give solace to the anti-intellectualism of the right.” The editor of the review argued for omission of this sentence on the grounds that no one could conceivably think my review might be taken as supporting an anti-intellectual dismissal of Foster’s book. It seems he was wrong.

One further editorial intervention provides the best prospect of agreement between us. Foster was clearly stung by the jokey title to the review. As an experienced writer himself he might have guessed that that title was not mine. For what it’s worth, I found it demeaning to us both.

Finally, I feel entitled to correct a slur on my own work that Foster makes a part of his response. Among various other publications, I have been responsible (or jointly responsible) for some anthologies—as I believe he has himself. Only one of them was designed as a course book and I have no financial stake in it whatsoever. A second was never expected to do much more than cover its costs, nor did it. The third, Art in Theory 1900–1990, has proved generally useful to teachers and students—as it was intended to be. Two years after publication it began to generate royalties, though these could never furnish a living, let alone a killing, for its coeditor or me. That Art in Theory took a while to go into profit was due to the very considerable sums paid out to the authors of those texts we “appropriated”—Hal Foster’s among them.


To the Editor:

Keith Haring, to the extent he had any reputation in the “art world” (he worried about this with a ceaseless, petty ambition), was overrated [“No Respect,” Bookforum]. It is not that his “expenditure[s] of talent” were ill-advised, it is that he was too much in love with his own talent, however little it may have been. Beginning with a few mediocre ideas—even some mild spontaneity and a healthy guerrilla attitude—he grasped before very long his capacity for endless and mechanical recycling. Proceeding in a rubber-stamp sort of way, he allowed his dancing man and dog to appear on innumerable T-shirt reproductions. Haring criticized others for “not knowing what to paint,” but he knew what to paint all too well.

—Daniel C. Boyer
Milton, Massachusetts