Marx to Sharks: Thomas Crow on the Art-Historical '80S. (Writing the '80S)

Article excerpt

AT THE ONSET OF THE 1980s, I HAD AN EXPERIENCE AS a teacher that presaged--or so I came to see in retrospect--much of what would happen as a consequence of "the new art history" over the course of the decade, particularly as that untidy intellectual pursuit came to play a part in the contemporary practice of art.

I had spent a term instructing an undergraduate class in the latest analytical frameworks for interpreting modern-life painting in later-nineteenth-century Paris. Thanks to the then-recent work of Robert L. Herbert and T.J. Clark (not to mention the revived writings of Meyer Schapiro from the late 1930s), Impressionism no longer passed only for a pure art of light and air, optical naturalism and coloristic intensity applied to a gamut of otherwise ordinary subjects. Just a little cataloguing of Impressionist subject matter had proved the inadequacy of this venerable and comforting view, however indelibly imprinted on the taste of collectors, the lectures of docents, and the marketing of calendars.

Why was it that this group of painters, arguably the first coherent avant-garde, concentrated almost exclusively on the spaces of newly organized leisure, scenes where demarcated free time was packaged into "experiences" of sport, tourism, shopping, and entertainment? The aquatic resort or dazzling shopping street offered its version of reality as a collection of apparently uncomposed and disconnected surface sensations. The wedge driven between sensation and judgment was never the invention of artists but had been engineered by burgeoning commercial forces to appear as the more natural and liberated moments of an individual's life. The emerging patterns of leisure-time consumption provided the invisible frame that made fragmentary and distracted cognition cohere as the very image of pleasure. (I)

An elementary understanding of this concept required American students to wrestle with the unfamiliar issue of social class, even to use the term "bourgeoisie" in a sentence as an objective historical term. Simply put, the modern consumer economy began as an enterprise limited to those with the free time and ready cash to occupy the new spaces of organized leisure. And they were expensive. The new department stores--at once the encyclopedias and ritual temples of consumption--grew spectacularly by supplying the newly affluent with the necessary material equipment and, by their practices of sales and promotion, effective instruction in the intangible requirements of this novel sphere of existence.

Even to think in these terms of course entailed conjuring the forbidden spirit of Marx--poisonous heresy to an established hierarchy of troglodytic art historians bereft of higher intellectual culture. My group of unprejudiced undergraduates, however, could easily travel where most art-history professionals could not, and my most striking feedback from the student side came in a conversation with a graduating senior. Her keenest ambition had been to work as a buyer for a chain of upmarket department stores. In her job interview, she rehearsed precisely this critical-historical account of the nineteenthcentury origins of the department store and its surrounding culture of consumption--and found herself hired on the spot.

IT STRUCK ME AT THE TIME THAT MY STUDENT'S CANNY use of the course content was a surer sign of learning than the customary moralizing critique of consumerism as manipulated false consciousness. And I hadn't really grasped until then how easy it was simply to subject that Left position to a kind of reverse engineering: Diagnosis of some putative malady can simply be turned around to generate a recipe for its successful reproduction. Indeed, such a reversal, in the absence of any foreseeable change in the economic status quo, would constitute the surer empirical confirmation of that diagnosis.

The wave of appropriationist and simulationist tactics that crested in the mid-'8os appears in hindsight as the outcome of the same kind of thinking. …