Old Radical Truths: Hal Foster’s Theory of Art Criticism

Old Radical Truths: Hal Foster’s Theory of Art Criticism

Old Radical Truths: Hal Foster’s Theory of Art Criticism

His latest collection is energized by his engagement with sociopolitical trends, but it’s not clear what scope this leaves him to show the art he writes about as anything more than symptomatic.


It wasn’t predictable, when Hal Foster entered the art scene in the 1980s, that he’d make his mark as a fluently readable critic covering the beat. He seemed destined then for the knottier realms of high theory, but it’s the jobbing critic we encounter in his latest book, What Comes After Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle. Foster first became known as the editor of the 1983 anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, which did much to introduce art audiences to a range of cultural theorists, from postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard and Marxists thinkers such as Fredric Jameson to postcolonial theory through Edward Said, mixing their reflections with writings by critics associated with the journal October, where he would soon become an editor. When I found my way to art just a little bit later, The Anti-Aesthetic was required reading. I assumed Foster was some distinguished academic; only later did I realize he was barely older than I was and, far from being part of the professoriate, was a staffer at Art in America.

Motivating Foster in 1983 was the desire to separate a good from a bad postmodernism, or as he put it, “a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction.” But in the collection of his own essays published two years later, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, he worried that art would be reduced “to a homogeneity in which real differences are reclaimed as so many minor deviations and in which freedom is reduced to so many isolated gestures.” Could the sheep of reaction really be distinguished from the goats of resistance as easily as he’d imagined? Stylistically, the differences were all too obvious between, say, the photographically oriented practices of the “Pictures” artists—Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman—and others of whom he approved, artists who treat “the public space, social representation or artistic language in which he or she intervenes as both a target and a weapon,” and neo-expressionist painters like Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer, who were anathematized as regressive, turning familiar art-historical tropes into kitsch. But Foster’s attempt to compartmentalize their cultural politics seemed to founder under the pressure of the historical identity he had to acknowledge they shared. In the face of this quandary, he called for an effort not to salvage the old truths, either of modernism or of the traditional European culture it had infiltrated, but rather, in a curious formulation, “to invent new truths, or more precisely, to reinvent old truths radically.”

It’s a nice question, how to tell the difference between the same old truth and a reinvented one. Could you make out the difference between Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Pierre Menard’s? The distinction seems to be in the eye of the beholder. In swiping at the so-called neo-expressionism of Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia, among others, Foster made the visceral nature of his aversion clear. Their work evoked something icky and almost unmentionable: “Coprophilia is not just a motif here; it is embedded in the very aesthetic of this art—an aesthetic that regards history simply as style, as so much fecal stuff to mess with.” Foster was quick to insist that it wasn’t the shit that bothered him, just that the two Italian painters seemed to be using it merely to play-act the old game of épater les bourgeois. But it was the “fecal” aesthetic he dwelt on. And in such a performance of subversion, he complained, “the artist poses as the Defiler of Civilization—never the critic of any specific social order or political regime.” But the same charge could as easily have been turned against his own preferred artists, who likewise mostly attacked, at least in his account, abstractions like “a metaphysical order based on opposed terms” (Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin) and an idea of the image as something “riven with (conflicted) motives” and whose interpretations, “far from neutral, use these motives ideologically” (Sherrie Levine).

Foster even summarized with apparent approval Richard Prince’s indulgent, noncritical stance toward the advertising imagery appropriated in his work: “He does this not to expose the manipulations therein…but to catch seduction in the act, to savor his own fascination with such images—even as they manipulate him via insinuated desire.” This forfeiture of control, of critical distance, is just what Foster found so reprehensible in neo-expressionism. What’s the difference? It’s hard not to notice that most of the artists Foster likes in Recodings use photography as their primary medium, while many of those he dislikes make paintings. Can it really be that paint just seems too messy, “so much fecal stuff,” and reminds him of getting his hands dirty? People sometimes need to do a lot of sophisticated thinking to rationalize their visceral responses.

That was 35 years ago, when Foster was just 30. Since then he’s completed a PhD in art history with a dissertation on surrealism (later the subject of his 1993 book Compulsive Beauty) and enjoyed a garlanded academic career, briefly teaching at Cornell before returning to his alma mater, Princeton, in 1997, where he’s been settled ever since. But he has not detached himself from the contemporary scene as a result. In 2000 he began contributing regularly to the London Review of Books, mainly reporting on exhibitions in New York. Even more than in the 1980s, he is intent on the idea not of theory or history but of criticism—citing it not only in the subtitle of his new book but also in the one just previous to it, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (2015). And he’s still intent on old truths reconceived radically, proclaiming in Bad New Days, almost nostalgically, “I keep faith with the old idea of an avant-garde.” I can’t help but think of the abstract painter first encountering the work of Jasper Johns, who (according to the critic Leo Steinberg) said disconsolately, “I am still involved with the dream.” Foster’s dream is of an avant-garde neither purely transgressive nor entirely utopian, whose task is rather “to trace fractures that already exist” in order “to pressure them further.”

Tracing and pressuring sound like neither visual nor cognitive activities but haptic ones. Foster wants an art he can be in touch with and that will, in turn, put him in touch with reality, with things as they are—and to give them a push that might affect some kind of reconfiguration. It’s a diagnostic attitude but not without hope of intervention. Perhaps that’s why his new book, organized in three parts, begins with a group of pieces (under the rubric “Terror and Transgression”) that focus less on art as such than on its reactivity to the general culture and its images—and especially to the kitschy rhetoric of our politics and what Richard Hofstadter famously called “paranoid style,” to the reduction of human beings to “bare life,” as Giorgio Agamben called the person withdrawn from the protection of the law.

Only then, having established how “our emotional environment is poor and dangerous,” in the words of the artist duo Claire Fontaine, does he aim to show (again quoting their words) how “artistic work can’t change it, but it can transcribe it.” He does this first in a section titled “Plutocracy and Display,” on what can roughly be called gallery art—focusing on curators and museums and paintings and sculpture by practitioners like Jeff Koons and Kerry James Marshall—and then in the final part of the book on, mostly, media art: film and video and the like by Harun Farocki, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, and others. That last section is called “Media and Fiction”—fiction being mentioned in part, I suppose, to justify the inclusion here of a marvelous essay that just barely seems to fit in, on the novelist William Gaddis, but which Foster was right to squeeze in because its vim and erudite enthusiasm cast a warming glow over the whole book. In all, there are 18 brief essays—“bulletins,” as Foster calls them, “drafted over the last fifteen years, a period punctuated by the financial crisis of 2008 and the perpetual catastrophe that is Trump.”

Foster’s writing is energized by his oppositional engagement with the sociopolitical trends of the time, but it’s not clear what scope this leaves him to understand the art he writes about as anything more than symptomatic. He begins with the problem of how to memorialize traumatic events—specifically, the attacks of September 11, 2001, though the terms of the discussion inevitably recall debates around the memorialization of the Shoah. Objects in photographs by Francesc Torres of remains from Ground Zero “seem both significant and meaningless, auratic and empty”—a description that also made me think of Christian Boltanski’s installations with piles of old clothes and his photographs of anonymous faces from concentration camps. In Foster’s eyes, this kind of auratic emptiness betrays an “oppressive sublimity,” a turn to the sacred that can never be benign. I share his distrust of this aesthetic strategy but not because of a presumption that the sacred or sublime are in themselves illegitimate; if Foster is convinced they are, then I wish he had made at least the beginnings of an argument about this rather than simply using “sacred” and “sublime” as cuss words. It’s only because the experiences such words point to can be so powerful that they can be used so manipulatively—but a life in which they have been abolished would be one of utter social and emotional poverty.

One name for an art that stokes powerful feelings in order to manipulate people is “kitsch.” Foster has an eye for political kitsch, such as the recurrence during the second Gulf War of the yellow ribbon symbol that had previously been promoted during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979: a symbol urging support, as Foster says, “less for any troops than for an administration whose adventures were hardly in their best interest.” But I don’t think he fully acknowledges just how deep the currents of kitsch might run once you start to trace them. Are any of us immune? He approvingly quotes a famous passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

What Foster notices no more than Kundera did is that this reflective structure, that of self-consciousness itself, is hardly limited to positive, fuzzy, feel-good sentiments. We can become self-indulgent in nursing our revulsion and resentment, too—for instance, our disgust at a president who acts, in Foster’s words (alluding to Freud), “as a throwback primal father (the bully-in-chief),” and at the “legions of white guys who want to be his apprentices.” This feeling of repugnance is immediate, but then there might come a reflexive moment: How good it is to be moved by repugnance at all this, the bien-pensant liberal might think, and to thereby find oneself among those who see through the illusion, who know better than to aspire to follow the tinpot dictator.

A pharisaical self-congratulation on being part of the righteous remnant is what might be called the kitsch of political critique. Foster, I hasten to add, is no more prone to this fault than any of us are. But when, as in much of the first part of What Comes After Farce?, Foster is working more in the vein of punditry than of criticism strictly speaking, the temptation becomes all the more irresistible, and perhaps that’s why all the rhetoric of trauma and transgression (which is the rhetoric of expressionism, I should add, despite a younger Foster’s damning critique of expressionist art) leads only to anodyne pronouncements such as “We should not let bad actors get a free pass where they should be most held to account…in the political realm,” a formulation hardly more incisive than the urge to “support our troops” or even Kundera’s “idiotic tautology ‘Long live life!’”

Artists often get their most trenchant effects by playing on the edge of kitsch. As alert as he is to kitsch’s manifestations in public discourse, Foster’s spirit of seriousness sometimes leads him to overlook the way art flirts with it. Typical is an essay on Paul Chan’s recent sculptures using tubular balloon-like forms animated by electric fans. “One moment they look like human figures,” as Foster says, “and the next like garbage bags caught in the wind.” Chan calls these works “breathers,” and Foster offers a perceptive commentary teasing out the artist’s references to classical philosophy but also flags a possible topical reference to the killing of Eric Garner. (If he were writing today, he might mention Covid-19 and our desperate need for respirators.) What Foster doesn’t discuss is the fact that Chan’s sculptures are made the more poignant by the fact that they could easily be dismissed as flimflam or gimmickry—they appear, after all, to be little more than customized versions of those “air dancers” or “tube men” familiar to anyone who has driven down a state highway lined with retail outlets. The snappy, unpredictable movements of these air-activated figures are reliably attention-grabbing. Every used-car dealer seems to have one.

Clement Greenberg once observed that kitsch is “essentially its own salesman,” and no less could be said of Chan’s tube people. Is there anything more to such flailing figures than their noticeability? Is their literal emptiness also a void of significance? There’s a great vulnerability in what Foster describes as an “image, never fixed in meaning,” that is “reanimated by each present that conjures it up.” But he never makes it clear why one image rather than another comes to be reanimated. I’d say it’s the very undecidability of the work that creates its emotional impact, by shaking one’s confidence both in the object itself as a vehicle of communication and in one’s own responses to it. While he seems to believe that an affective response to art is somehow distinct from a qualitative or critical one, it’s precisely the poignancy of the almost-empty, almost-kitsch artwork that gives it its critical as well as its emotional impact.

A shrewder and, dare I say, more affecting analysis of the art/kitsch interface can be found in Foster’s essay on Claire Fontaine, a “readymade artist” (though I would have said just the opposite, an invented artist) who is the creation of Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill. Their work is very insider-ish, often made by giving small but significant twists to the work of other artists—Foster mentions Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Richard Prince as examples of their targets. Like Chan’s breathers, Claire Fontaine as a fictional creation has, as Foster says, an “empty center,” being a sort of brand (at one remove, since the name comes from that of a French stationery company) more than an artist. Yet Foster—who refers to Claire Fontaine as “her” rather than “them”—very definitely treats the duo as a single artist or at least an author, quoting extensively from their writings and interviews more than analyzing the objects they exhibit. But with good reason, as the pair explain: “Words are in charge of bringing the spectator to the metaphysical wasteland” that is the subject of their work, which shuttles unpredictably between cynicism and protest, with “rhetorical shortcuts” to “a mutiny to come”—thus a merely rhetorical mutiny. And some of Claire Fontaine’s work has a cutting wit that renders its own impasse with stunning imagistic precision. Foster identifies one example: Change (2006) is a set of American quarters that have been transformed by being fitted with little crescent-shaped box-cutter blades As Foster points out, it’s a kind of cedilla, the diacritical mark that shifts the sound value of the French letter C from hard to soft. But it speaks of revolution (Foster might have cited the proletarian hammer and sickle), though it also evokes, as he says, death’s scythe. The pun in the title bears out, but is the change hopeful or horrifying? E pluribus unum—out of many meanings, one object.

Claire Fontaine’s work, like that of many of the artists Foster appreciates, functions semiotically—it appeals to the mind without much of a detour through the senses. His interpretations of such works are lucid. But the limits of his approach become more apparent when he discusses artists whose work has an intellectual significance that is inextricably tied to its sensorial richness. He commends Kerry James Marshall for producing paintings in which there are art-historical references aplenty, although they are “mostly subtextual in the work and subliminal in the viewer.” But the referential dimension is practically all he talks about, leaving the reader to wonder how he feels about what’s happened through the painting of the painting. Foster doesn’t convey that in Marshall’s work, the “how” of it is wonderful, and it’s because his paintings give so much pleasure that the real intellectual complexities Foster rightly sees in them matter so much.

What’s curious is that while Foster’s indifference to the affective and sensual side of art imposes considerable limitations on his interpretations of particular works, it hardly makes his writing less attractive. The clarity of his prose is satisfying in itself, and while he hardly spares his learning, he displays it lightly and clearly. While I was reading What Comes After Farce? I felt that I was in the hands of one of the most skillful critics at work today. But afterward I had to reflect on the fact that his relationship to art is so one-sided. That hardly prevents me from enjoying or learning from his essays. But I do suspect that, like the art of Claire Fontaine, his writing, for all that it insists on the idea of the common or the commonplace, is ultimately for insiders. He quotes Claire Fontaine: “Art deals with desires and poses the question of pleasure in an impertinent way.” But in the book as a whole, weighed down as it is, understandably enough, by “the ambient nihilism of the neoliberal order,” pleasure is only ever mentioned in quotation marks.

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