Being a Good Critic in a Bad World: Hal Foster and the Avant-Garde



The title of Hal Foster’s new book Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency is drawn from an oft-quoted maxim of Bertolt Brecht’s: “Don’t start with the good old days, but the bad new ones.” Contending that the last 25 years have been a period of continuous social crisis—hence the “emergency” of his subtitle—Foster considers what role art and criticism play following the “full dominance of neoliberalism” that has emerged since 1989 and the suspension of the social contract after 9/11. At a moment when the most institutionally hostile practices have been readily embraced, and when art seems given over to ballooning market values, corporate sponsorship, and blockbuster spectacle, is it possible to maintain faith in the idea of an avant-garde—or, for that matter, in the value of critique? However dire the situation may be, Foster insists that the avant-garde is not over, but perhaps more necessary than ever—not in the sense of the heroic historical avant-garde of “radical innovation” or “transgression,” but an avant-garde that is “immanent in a caustic way,” one that “seeks to trace fractures that already exist within a given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.”

The book is structured around a cluster of terms Foster proposes as interpretive models for a consideration of art since 1989: abject, archival, mimetic, precarious, and post-critical. Several of the book’s essays have been previously published—some more than once—and many of the ideas presented here will be familiar to regular readers of Foster’s criticism in October and the London Review of Books. However, the terms he provides are generative ones and, taken together, the essays form a valuable framework for drawing connections between a number of ostensibly dissimilar artistic practices.

As Foster describes, one of the primary themes of the book is an acknowledgment that the preoccupations of postmodernism—whose critical language Foster and his colleagues at October were instrumental in defining—are no longer sufficient for considering contemporary art. In lieu of the critique of representation that was the hallmark of art and criticism of the 1980s, the practices that we might consider avant-garde today—the work of artists like Thomas Hirschhorn, Isa Genzken, Tacita Dean, and Robert Gober—are oriented around a “probing of the real and the historical.”

Another central theme is Foster’s insistence on the value of criticism itself. In his chapter on the post-critical, he cites a number of recent challenges to the idea of criticism and criticality from both the right and the left: its putative irrelevance at a moment when artistic worth and literal market value are treated as one and the same; the neoconservative culture of affirmation that returned with particular force after 9/11; the elitist privilege that gives the critic’s judgment more weight than that of the public.

Most of these objections are swiftly dismissed, but Foster does take up arguments by the philosophers Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière—both of whom have become popular in art circles in recent years—who reject the critic’s “arrogant posture of demystification” as its own form of fetishism; ultimately, Foster maintains that the two fall back on their own circuitous logic in their condemnation of the critic’s aspiration to defetishize or demystify and that the alternatives they propose are noble but naive. (Foster makes clear that he thinks art is no match for governmental and corporate bodies when it comes to Rancière’s “distribution of the sensible.”) “Critique,” he acknowledges, “is never enough: one must intervene in the given, turn it somehow, and take it somewhere else. But this somewhere else is opened up through critique; without critique alternatives do not become readily manifest, let alone strongly motivated.”

Almost all of the essays in Bad New Days were written after 9/11, and much of the work discussed at length is from the last 15 years. One notable exception is the book’s first chapter, “Abject,” in which Foster uses psychoanalytic theory—namely Lacan and Kristeva—to trace a shift in the art of the late 1980s and early 1990s “from the real understood as an effect of representation, as in much postmodernist art, to the real seen as an effect of trauma, as in most abject art,” which tended toward bodily horror, excrement, and disfiguration as a response to the AIDS crisis and the crippled welfare state.

The essay was originally published in 1996 in October as “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic” and again in Foster’s 1996 book Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. By his own admission, its inclusion here is an “unusual decision,” and indeed, the essay sits uncomfortably with the rest. In part this is because the artworks discussed at greatest length, such as the early work of Cindy Sherman, seem distant from those he considers elsewhere in the book, but also because the essay’s tone feels palpably of another moment. The extent of his revisions to the original text is more or less a change of tense—from “In contemporary art and theory there is” to “In the art of the late 1980s and early 1990s there was”—and the result is an essay with a strange temporality of its own. Foster notes that he opted to include it because it introduces the idea of the abject, one of his key terms, but it seems like a missed opportunity to revisit this work, and this term, with the benefit of 30 years hindsight and historical distance. However significant the original essay may be—it is undoubtedly one of the most influential theorizations of these tendencies—surely there is more that can be said about the afterlives of ’90s abject art, or the ways in which the abject does or doesn’t figure in more recent practices.

The second chapter, “Archival,” a version of which was also previously published in October, in 2004, as “An Archival Impulse,” considers the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, Tacita Dean, Joachim Koester, and Sam Durant, artists who take up the role of archivist, recuperating lost or marginal historical events and figures as a “gesture of alternative knowledge or counter memory.” Foster links these practices to a “will to connect what cannot be connected,” in Hirschhorn’s words, an impulse he relates to Freud’s characterization of the paranoiac’s tendency to project private meanings and oblique connections onto a world “ominously drained of all significance.” Foster suggests that such projects contain a utopian core, a move away from a reading of history as merely traumatic toward one in which cultural memory is made productive, marshaled toward the creation of new associations and encounters.

Hirschhorn emerges as something of an exemplary figure in Bad New Days—his work is also the subject of the fourth chapter, “Precarious”—positioned as the artist who best embodies Brecht’s titular mandate; his work is rooted, materially and conceptually, in the precariousness that dominates life in “the capitalist garbage bucket,” a phrase Foster borrows from the artist throughout the book. According to Foster, Hirschhorn’s kiosks, altars, and monuments—temporary, provisional structures, often sited in marginal neighborhoods and devoted to philosophers, artists, and writers like Gramsci, Bataille, and Popova—draw on the language of contemporary mass culture in order to “redirect the passionate investment of the fan into a détournement of cultural value.”

Such a move is both utopian and pragmatic, recognizing the powerful affective sway of immersive contemporary spectacle while maintaining that it might be possible to inspire similar popular interest in figures from radical political and artistic avant-gardes: “Why not Otto Freundlich and Ingeborg Bachmann as an object of devotion, [Hirschhorn] asks, rather than Michael Jackson and Princess Diana?” The value of Hirschhorn’s work for Foster is that it both visualizes the conditions of precarity and suggests a provisional way forward—a strategy, if not a solution as such—in its pursuit of “a non-exclusive public, a public that persists after the demise of the bourgeois public sphere.”

As Foster argues in several of the book’s essays, the post-9/11 landscape, in which the Constitution is inviolable on the matter of gun control, for instance, but dispensable when it comes to civil liberties superseded by the Patriot Act, can be likened to what the German jurist Carl Schmitt called a “state of exception” in the 1920s—a state of emergency so extreme and persistent that the law is not merely “suspended” but “nullified.” In the book’s third chapter, “Mimetic,” Foster addresses the recent work of artists like Robert Gober and Jon Kessler, who have pointedly taken on the “totalitarian kitsch” of the War-on-Terror era, and the oeuvre of Isa Genzken, which he sees as a “performance of the madness of everyday existence under advanced capitalism” that captures the complexity of Germany in the aftermath of reunification.

The precedent for this “mimetic exacerbation”—also seen in the work of artists like Hirschhorn, Rachel Harrison, Jeremy Deller, Ryan Trecartin, and Kara Walker, among others—is Dada, but rather than the Duchampian readymade, the preeminent influence on post-1960s neo-avant-gardes, the lineage Foster points to here is Hugo Ball and the hysterical performances of Zurich Dada. For artists and writers camping out in neutral Switzerland during World War I as the rest of Europe devolved into chaos, the only possible response to the state of exception they faced was “mimetic adaptation to the traumatic conditions around [them],” inflated to the point of parodic excess. The contemporary artists Foster cites adopt a similar strategy, but do so with the means of contemporary culture: “the materials of consumption and infotainment given to them” at a moment when there are few other options.

Though Foster acknowledges the potential pitfalls of an over-identification with the forms and methods of neoliberal capitalism, namely Jeff Koons’s celebratory embrace of shiny junk or the “capitalist nihilism” of Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan, his ultimate conclusion is that “mimetic exacerbation,” if pursued with the requisite critical distance, is the most compelling avant-garde strategy on offer today. It allows artists to open up productive tensions and make contradictions visible. However, he dispenses with the likes of Koons and Hirst too abruptly—they are mentioned only in passing at the chapter’s close—as if the gulf separating their uncritical mimesis of the “capitalist garbage bucket” and the productively dissonant version practiced by the artists he champions should be wholly self-evident.

Foster takes on a more polemical tone in his final chapters, making a case for criticism, as the last bastion of the public sphere, and for criticality in art, which he contrasts with the compensatory impulses of social practice and relational aesthetics. He lucidly outlines the fuzzy logic behind the recent dominance of performance, process, and participation, particularly in their museum-bound forms, works that are largely more self-congratulatory than socially useful in their equation of “unfinished” with “democratic.” Bad New Days ends with a demand for “actuality” over “presence”: art cannot transform society on its own, but what it can do is “take a stand…in a manner that brings together the aesthetic, the cognitive, and the critical in a precise constellation.” For Foster, the artists who constitute the avant-garde of today are the ones who take the formlessness of the “capitalist garbage bucket,” with its undifferentiated proliferation of images and texts, and give it coherent form, making the precarious conditions of contemporary life tangible in a way that might point toward a different future.

Rachel Wetzler is a doctoral candidate in art history at CUNY Graduate Center.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 20 under the title “Being a Good Critic in a Bad World.”

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