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PRINT July/August 2020

books

REALITY TESTS

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Underpainting), 2018, acrylic and collage on PVC, 84 × 120 × 4".

What Comes After Farce?, by Hal Foster. New York: Verso, 2020. 224 pages.

SURVEYING OUR CULTURAL LANDSCAPE through the prepositional prism of after is hardly a new approach among critics and historians writing on art during the past quarter century. Yet, as articulated in the title of Hal Foster’s new book, the premise is newly intriguing for being tethered to—and eclipsed in blunt rhetorical force by—the sad comedy of “farce.” Here Foster borrows the term from Marx’s famous adage regarding the French bourgeoisie’s willingness in 1851 to cede democratic values to a second Bonaparte emperor some fifty years after the first—a scenario that resonates strongly with our circumstances today, Foster suggests, insofar as Donald Trump’s arrival on the American scene must be understood not as a singularity but rather as another iteration of the authoritarian impulses that originally took root in the wake of 9/11. If “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories now flourish along the banks of the mainstream, they first needed the rich soil fertilized by the nationalist kitsch proffered at the start of the second Iraq war. To bolster his point, Foster cites novelist Milan Kundera’s observation that “in the realm of totalitarian kitsch all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions,” adding that such an epistemology met the fuel of populist affect at the dawn of the 2000s. It should therefore come as no surprise that we find ourselves decades later in the increasingly precarious, enervating, and urgent position of having to pose collectively Foster’s central question in this volume: “How to demystify a hegemonic order that dismisses its own contradictions?”

It’s a poststructuralist trope to look, in desperate moments, at the distant past in order to find a clearer vantage on the present. But in Foster’s volume, such chronological perspective is more compressed, if not paradoxical, as the author surmises a relatively recent history whose figures and language nevertheless feel as though they come from another time (at least in part) by virtue of their familiarity. (Here, it seems, the emergency unfolds in slow motion.) Wanting to take stock of the Bush era at the outset of What Comes After Farce?, for example, Foster immediately turns to the postulations of Giorgio Agamben regarding “bare life”; and, more particularly, he looks to Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception,” whereby the rule of law is suspended ostensibly to preserve its order and reign (whether in matters of domestic or foreign policy). For many readers versed in such theory as it was deployed at the time among political philosophers and in art circles, this resuscitation is apt to seem, at first blush, like déjà vu all over again. But Foster quickly turns to another perspective on such constructions: Eric Santner’s book On Creaturely Life (2006), which subtly recasts the scenario of bare life by embracing a sense of possibility held within the experience of those exposed to “a traumatic dimension of political power.” Assuming the “cringed posture of the creature,” Santner suggests—taking his cues from the literary characters of Kafka and W. G. Sebald, caught ambiguously between human and nonhuman states—we may find “fissures or caesuras in the space of meaning.” While the state of exception and emergency suspends a firm sense of order, precisely this unsettled set of circumstances might create, Foster subsequently proposes, “places of purchase where power can be resisted or at least rethought.”

It’s within this liminal zone of interregnum that the art historian wants to dwell, with respect to both his book’s specific analyses of art and their general tone. Indeed, Foster says, his short essays are intended just as “bulletins.” Formally inspired more by the internet than by the modernist arcade (and offering a low-key turn on modernist aphorism), they are responsive and intentionally unresolved in their queries about potential avenues for critical and collective engagement—leaving things open in their desire to create a path for something other than the familiar, time-tested strategies of excavating Myth or Ideology. After all, in recent years, plenty of doubt has been cast on the efficacy of critique within the domain of art, mostly revolving around the waning of its public sphere. But such a condition is only another instance of art as the canary in the coal mine. Looking beyond critique’s limited scope now, as laid out in Foster’s volume, we can begin to see clearly how our ambiguous yet urgent times require different models and terms of engagement.

In this quest, Foster’s various texts move smartly and broadly across spheres ranging from sculpture and painting to cinema and literature, but most consistently he choreographs a dance between art and the larger culture that is its cradle. The articulation of one always imprints the other. Time and again in this respect, Foster is a pleasure to read for his sweeping statements that are still earned in their matter-of-factness, as when he makes short work of the contemporary art world’s spiraling expansion in tandem with shifting economic structures. For instance, he handily recounts how artists in the early days of Minimalism took disused industrial spaces as their studios, and thus were able to create larger works, which ultimately required larger exhibition venues, which in turn inaugurated an architectural “space race,” wherein buildings themselves became sculptures of a kind. There is always a dialogue between such action and abstraction, economic or otherwise.

Yet most interesting as a critical incursion here is how in essay after essay Foster’s survey of the “interregnum” conjures a kind of twinned vision. Artist Paul Chan’s “Breathers” champion the “spirit of irreconcilability,” for instance, wherein his objects are constantly made and unmade, flickering between figuration and abjection; Jeff Koons’s celebratory sculptures are at once “ironic and unironic” in their ciphering of our bewitched moment in history; and Sarah Sze’s intricate compositions of idiomatic detritus assume a “dual identity,” continually oscillating for viewers between image and object, original and copy. (When it comes to Sze’s work, Foster is willing even to make an allegorical turn, citing Alex Galloway’s perspective on the internet as both “chain of triumph” and “web of ruin” to suggest that her networks of found and made objects are at once utopian and dystopian in conceit.) Nowhere is this binocular perspective so pivotal as in Foster’s extended discussion of Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Under-painting), 2018, a canvas split down the middle to depict two scenes of black students and museum docents discussing paintings whose surfaces are empty but for their initial layers of painted ground. Bringing W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness . . . two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” to bear on Marshall’s split-screen image, Foster makes the case that this pedagogical scene realizes another kind of “caesura” in which a new social arena (if not institution) may, and must, be created. As Foster says, speaking of the painting as a figure of things to come, “In his difficult difference, this traumatic gap, Marshall also suggests an angelic opening, a portal to another way of seeing and being (together).”

Claire Fontaine, P.I.G.S., 2011, matchsticks, plaster wall, concealed corridor, HD-video projection (color, sound, 9 minutes 38 seconds). Installation view, ARTPLAY Design Center, Moscow, 2011. From the Fourth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2011. Photo: Yackov Petchenin.

At this juncture in Foster’s book, one discerns a literary approach to his material, with key words laced among its different chapters, such that each new appearance prompts the recollection of another that came before. (For me, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory came to mind for its collapsing of chronology through the persistent repetition of motifs throughout a lifetime of recollections. But Foster lightly tips his own hand by pointing to emerging modes of artistic production and curation steeped in anachronism, whereby objects receive new meanings according to the changing contexts around them. In some ways, he clearly means for his own texts to be so deceptively explosive.) Nonetheless, a question running through these essays is that of how we may hold Marshall’s portal open when so many forces—often at the mercy or in the service of new technology—are determined to foreclose on such independent avenues for personal experience, both individual and social. When it comes to a sense of such stakes, at the heart of Foster’s survey is the question of the human being navigating this embattled terrain. If there’s a twinning in this vein, it’s between subjecthood and objecthood, something readers of recent art theory may again find somewhat familiar at first. This is especially true when Foster takes stock of practices such as that of Claire Fontaine, the “readymade” artist whose performative counterpoint to the experience economy at the beginning of the 2000s was intended by its creators to serve as a “human strike . . . against the economic, affective, sexual and emotional positions in which subjects are imprisoned.” Once more, however, Foster’s historicizing impulse here makes such practices newly resonant, as he situates them in an artistic genealogy, demonstrating how they’ve created a pathway for other tactics—many utilized for similar aspirations—that have arisen in the intervening decade. In particular, he points to the example of Hito Steyerl and her declaration that people are already readymades of a kind, impacted so indelibly by the technologies around us—“we successfully impersonate a human for a machine,” she says of the common computer user—that our only subversive option may be to embrace, in a marvelous instance of rhetorical jiu-jitsu, our own “thingness.” Instead of resolving any contradiction between our subjectivity as it is trafficked as an object in culture, she wishes to “intensify it,” aiming to create the possibility of turning the machine to other ends.

Both of these artistic examples, however, find precedent in the work of Harun Farocki, whose presence in Foster’s volume is pivotal for clarifying how the imaging of the first Gulf War turned viewers into “war technicians”—with new modes of representation training people in a machinelike vision such that “we can no longer hold human uses of seeing, measuring, and imaging apart from military, industrial, and bureaucratic abuses of such techniques.” The kinds of pictures developed at this juncture, whether by smart missiles or drones, produce a visual field defined no longer by the optical unconscious but by a “visual nonconscious.” Instead of the image extending the reach of the human, as it might have done during the modernist age, the human is displaced and even emptied by virtue of the culture’s comprehensive rationalization.

In conclusion, Foster suggests that this changed landscape makes previous formulations of critique implausible. The task of the critic should no longer be to force to the surface buried truth (the “unconscious”), but instead to introduce some alternative sense of possibility—or, better, to “produce an interruption, a crack or gap, that might allow a different reality to emerge.” The cracks today are all around us. But in a timely way, Foster himself has produced a meta-painting in line with Marshall’s Untitled (Underpainting) or Velázquez’s Las Meninas; he grounds us complexly in a culture reverberating with different modes of representation that are themselves irrevocably bound up with our grasp of reality. And as much as he describes societal conditions as they have accrued in the recent past, he leaves—and even pushes—the door open for those in art, and culture, who wish deeply for what might come next. 

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.