Modernity and Complicity
A Conversation with Johanna Drucker
JM: Let’s talk about complicity.
JD: Not the first word usually associated with modernity. But the conjunction of modernity and complicity had become a focal point for each of us independently. I had been thinking about this conjunction within modern visual art, particularly among American modernists such as Winslow Homer, Philip Evergood, and Thomas Hart Benton, because of their relation to popular culture. Because I’ve been so struck by the exclusion of American art from the critical paradigms that grew in the soil of European modernism. I came up against the impasse that that critical tradition meets in facing contemporary art’s relation to the culture industry. The premises of opposition and radical criticality foundational to that tradition felt utterly inadequate as a framework for understanding contemporary artists and their work. The concept of complicity began to take shape in response. But you arrived at this idea from your work within the tradition of Romanticism, English poetry, and in particular, Rossetti—didn’t you?
JM: Actually, Rossetti came as a way to see through the immediate contradictions—though he also illustrates the issues in a distinctive way. The problem appeared many years ago when I was reading some American poets in the ‘60s, in particular Berryman, Dugan, Sexton, and Plath. The poets of a savage god, as Alvarez called them at the time.1 I’d grown up under the influence of certain Romantic ideologies, not least of all the Late Romantic ideology of “radical critique.”
JD: I think that the concept of radical critique is the crux of the