Hal Foster: The Art Architecture Complex

By Coles, Alex | Art Monthly, May 2012 | Go to article overview
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Hal Foster: The Art Architecture Complex


Coles, Alex, Art Monthly


Hal Foster's previous book to step beyond his field of expertise--Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes), 2002--received a poor response in the design world. One reviewer, in the graphic design magazine Emigre, even bemoaned: 'The paucity of context or specificity in Foster's critique of design is only surpassed by its stunning lack of originality. Once again, design as "scapegoat" is seen as so vacuously amoral and apolitical that capitalism, mass media, and globalisation (etc) have harnessed its mesmerising emptiness to dupe an unsuspecting, uncritical (innocent?) public into duplicitous submission.'

True to the reviewer's central complaint, Foster probably never even read the review. Closer to home, during the Q&A session to launch Design and Crime, an audience member at London's ICA asked Foster about the book's design (which clearly broke from the design of his previous books with MIT, with its studied typographical cover and use of colour images). In reply, Foster emphasised how his text was simply laid out by an anonymous designer; to pay particular attention to the book's design--even though it took design as its very subject--was evidently a mistake in Foster's eyes. And this from an academic who played a fundamental role in founding Zone Books and commissioning the uber graphic designer Bruce Mau to completely style the new publishing venture.

It is therefore no surprise to find that the fundamental problems of Design and Crime also pertain to The Art-Architecture Complex. That they are less acute is surely because of a historical logic: ever since the founding of the discipline of art history in the late 19th century, art and architecture have, following in Heinrich Wolfflin's heavy footsteps, both been continually ranked above design by art historians. By ascribing the architect with more critical agency than the designer, Foster repeats the received hierarchy of the disciplines within the critical canon. Had he instead pursued the interdisciplinary methodology of Wolfflin's contemporary Alois Riegl, the results would surely have been quite different. As it is, at least architecture is not used as a scapegoat for all that Foster perceives to be wrong with contemporary visual and spatial culture.

But while Foster does at least perceive architecture to be a noble enough discipline worthy of his analytical gaze, it nevertheless does not come off well in The Art-Architecture Complex. For the most part, this is for the same reason that design faltered in the earlier book: Foster evidently has only a limited grasp of his subject. As a result, nowhere in the book's 300-odd pages is the promise of its title really delivered.

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