[-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 62, Issue 4
jhaber at haberarts.com
Thu Jan 7 01:00:25 EST 2010
I'm hearing a couple of points stressed by everyone here. One addresses
notions of the arts as something "pure," separated by other than
esthetic motives and distinct in form or content from the rest of
culture and society. This notion is wrong and harmful, and the
pejorative and disturbing connotations of complicity should not obscure
that. Second, the 20th-century Marxist thinkers who introduced the
critique of complicity need not be seen as intending to fall into the
This is valuable, but I still think that it overlooks something. I'm
embarrassed to return to my own version of a critical history, since you
all clearly didn't find it interesting. But bear with me.
I singled out a second wave of developments in critical theory, starting
around 1970, rather than the earlier period. Consider four reasons.
First, it represents a development of critical theory (an increasing
buzz word) that more explicitly addresses the "fine arts" and art
institutions. While, for example, that short reader edited by Hal
Foster, "The Anti-Esthetic," included Habermas with his framework of
communicative action beyond art, other changes in the air included the
rest of the October editors in the domain of contemporary art, T. J.
Clarke and others in art history, feminism, and media studies (yes,
thankfully including "Sweet Dreams"). In mainstream American
philosophy, there's a parallel in the institutional definition of art.
This trend continues ever since.
Second, rightly or wrongly, critical theory foregrounded the very attack
on purity as never before. That includes ideological purity associated
with Benjamin, formal purity associated with Adorno, and idealism
associated with Lukacs, regardless of their motives.
Third, critical theory reacted to the realities on the ground. Art had
seen Greenberg's assault on kitsch and Kantian influence, although I'll
admit to having finished the third critique without quite understanding
it! It had seen the "triumph" of American painting and the change from
the "imaginary museum" to the very real post-Hoving museum.
Last and most important, it resonated with artists. Artists developed
new approaches to appropriation, feminism, new media, neo-expressionism,
and even earlier Fluxus, to name just a few.
However, all this was what I'll call B.C.: before Chelsea. One could
talk of an institutional and economic nexus, but one galleries still lay
further downtown, and one could visit pretty much all of them
comfortably in a day. Although Pollock, say, had made the national
magazine, the shift to celebrity artists like the YBA, star architects
for museums, the assimilation of alternative museums by major one,
globalization and the price boom were all still to come.
On the one hand, this makes critical theory look even more pertinent,
even prescient. On the other hand, art's success escapes the critique.
Contemporary art at its most disturbing has continued to reject
"purity," with larger and larger multimedia installations, like New
Year's in Times Square. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
In the abstract at least, and in museums, I'm left deeply pessimistic in
a way that much of this thread is, I think, not handling. I just happen
to be at Duke University this week, where the Nasher Museum is a largely
empty tribute to family money. In galleries, though, I often come away
elated. There is still a break with "purity" that opens possibilities
without pandering. One can see it in a revival of abstract painting
that is not all that abstract, as well as wonderful multimedia and
photography projects. Still, it's not as if these efforts disrupt the
system, fail to reflect it, or miss being absorbed by it.
All that's why I felt it helpful to introduce the slippery approaches of
post-structuralism. I'm not wedded to them. I'm more political and
formal myself. For me, irony is still a term with the meanings it had
in New Criticism! However, these approaches, like indeed good old
irony, describe how art by its nature slips out from its apparent or
intended closed structures. That describes what went wrong, but also
offers grounds for admiration and hope.
Thanks for bearing with such a long, spontaneous draft. I was composing
it in my head in the middle of the night.
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