Recovering Radicalism: Dave Beech on Critical Art after Postmodernism

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WE ARE LIVING IN A PROTRACTED PERIOD OF REASSESSMENT FOR RADICAL POLITICS AND CRITICAL ART. Postmodernists leapt ahead of the process by baldly pronouncing the end of history and the death of the Avant Garde. Now, with postmodern theory and postmodern art a declining force, the reassessment of radicalism is showing signs of recovery.

Critical art was theoretically condemned when Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan dominated the intellectual terrain of the art world. Squeezed out by the eclipse of the real on one side and the historical integration of the Avant Garde on the other, critical art was no longer feasible within postmodernist terms. What price critical art when, as Baudrillard put it, the image 'bears no relation to reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum'. When postmodern art occupied the territory of critical art, all that appeared was a profusion of images drawn from a radical lexicon that had been emptied of radical charge. Consider, for instance, the Scottish painters, who used social realist techniques to depict romanticised scenes of the everyday, or the appropriationists, who deployed the readymade affirmatively, without avant-garde bite. Postmodernists often used images, techniques and other elements of art's critical traditions but only once they had been reduced to signs, codes or sets of known protocols. Postmodernism traded in art's radical history only at its retail value, so to speak.

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Neo-Geo painting was, perhaps, the apogee of the postmodern denial of critical art, presenting abstraction as nothing more than various exercises in style, technique, taste, decoration and semiotics. This recoding of an erstwhile critical art as simply an image-reservoir seemed sophisticated and informed at the time. Critical art taken more seriously than this was thought to be impossible, unsavoury and self-deluding. 'Rebellion has become method, criticism has become rhetoric, transgression has become ceremony', wrote Luc Ferry, expressing precisely the key postmodern objection to critical art. The argument was not that a specific kind of critical art had been negated by its incorporation by the market and by art's institutions; the very possibility, the very idea of a critical art had been lost. Neo-Geo was a typically profane response to the postmodernist block on radicalism, repackaging one of the high points of modernist radicalism as its opposite: not shocking but familiar, not critical but empty, and not autonomous but decorative.

Baudrillard led the way on the postmodernist dismissal of critical art and of political critique in general. For him, oppositional and critical positions were always already accounted for by the prevailing society. In fact, critical thinking, he argued, serves merely to sustain that which it opposes. 'These days when all critical radicalism has become pointless, when all negativity is resolved in a world that pretends to be fulfilled,' he wrote, 'what is left but to return things to their enigmatic ground zero?' End-games and other forms of knowing complicity therefore replaced outdated avant-garde strategies of opposition and critique. This was the background to the conceptual inflation of irony, play and ecstasy in Postmodernism. Hence, Baudrillard announced: 'There is something stupid in the current forms of truth and objectivity, from which a superior irony must give us leave.'

Postmodernism either rejected criticality outright or found it lurking within irony, enigma and ambiguity, or what Charles Jencks called 'double-coding'. So critical art was also spurned because postmodern art typically regarded its key practices--pastiche, irony, eclecticism, simulacra, pluralism and intertextuality--as already critical, albeit indirectly. But this lack of directness was itself seen as an ethical gain. Postmodernists believed that their key critical values--undecideability, the end of meta-narratives, the eclipse of the referent, and so on--were superior to what had previously been advocated by critical art. …