[-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 62, Issue 4

John Haber 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 
first trap.

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.

John Haber

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