Magazine article Artforum International

Precarious: Hal Foster on the Art of the Decade

Magazine article Artforum International

Precarious: Hal Foster on the Art of the Decade

Article excerpt

NO CONCEPT COMPREHENDS THE ART OF THE PAST DECADE, but there is a condition that this art has shared, and it is a precarious one. Almost any litany of the machinations of the last ten years will evoke this state of uncertainty: a stolen presidential election; the attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror; the deception of the Iraq war and the debacle of the occupation; Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and rendition to torture camps; another problematic presidential election; Katrina; the scapegoating of immigrants; the health-care crisis; the ecological disaster; the financial house of cards ... For all the discussion of "failed states" elsewhere, our own government came to operate, routinely and destructively, out of bounds. It is little wonder that the concept of the "state of exception" (developed by Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt) was revived, that this state once again appeared to be (as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940) "not the exception but the rule," and that, as a consequence, the camp seems to have become (as Giorgio Agamben asserted in 1994) "the new biopolitical nomos [principle] of the planet." (1)

Perhaps our political bond--whether we call it the social contract or the symbolic order--is always more tenuous than we think; certainly it was precarious long before 2000. Prior to Bush and Blair, Reagan and Thatcher led the charge of neoliberalism with the battle cry "There is no such thing as society," targeting the most vulnerable (the underclass, gays and lesbians, immigrants) in ways that made their lives even more precarious. Over the past decade, this condition became all but pervasive, and it is this heightened insecurity that much art has attempted to manifest, even to exacerbate. This social instability is redoubled by an artistic instability, as the work at issue here foregrounds its own schismatic condition, its own lack of shared meanings, methods, or motivations. Paradoxically, then, precariousness seems almost constitutive of much art, yet sometimes in a manner that transforms this debilitating affliction into a compelling appeal. (2)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Again, this situation is not entirely new. "The true and most important function of the avant-garde," Clement Greenberg wrote seventy years ago in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," was "to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence." In his view, the proper path was to push the media of art to "the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point," a project now long since abandoned. (3) However, in a revision of Greenberg nearly thirty years ago, T. J. Clark argued that such "self-definition" was in fact inseparable from "practices of negation" produced precisely out of "relativities and contradictions," with negation understood here as "an attempt to capture the lack of consistent and repeatable meanings in the culture--to capture the lack and make it over into form." (4) In the art I have in mind, negation is still wrested from relativities and contradictions, but not as a making over of formlessness into form. On the contrary, it is concerned with letting this formlessness be, as it were, so that it might evoke, as directly as possible, both the "confusion" of ruling elites and the "violence" of global capital. As might be expected, this mimesis of the precarious is often staged in performative installations, and among recent projects the following have remained most vivid for me. (5)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In early 2005, Robert Gober presented an untitled installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in which we were ushered into the aftermath of 9/11 as though into a dream made up equally of forlorn objects of everyday life and nasty bits of American kitsch. The orderly presentation of handmade ready-mades here--a priestly frock neatly folded on a bare plywood board, pristine pieces of beeswax fruit in a crystal bowl, faux-petrified planks of wood produced in bronze, beeswax body parts perversely conjoined, and so on--was at once forensic, like so much evidence laid out in a police warehouse-cwra-morgue, and ritualistic, for the rows of these sea-changed tokens also evoked the aisles of a church. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.