Magazine article Artforum International

Farewell to an Identity

Magazine article Artforum International

Farewell to an Identity

Article excerpt

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the hegemonic reality principle that has defined modernity--i.e., the subject position we have traditionally identified as bour-geois--all forms and practices of artistic and political contestation, transgression, and critique appeared at least initially as suspicious, if not deviant or outright antagonistic to that model of subjectivity.

This dialectic of a fully internalized reality principle and a seemingly compulsive desire for a different order, even disorder, was in fact one of the constitutive conditions of modernity and avant-garde culture from the 1860s until the mid-1960s: Artists had throughout that period created imaginary subjects, models of alternative social relations, languages and spaces of difference, concepts of critique and countermemory and of oppositional transgression. These practices pointed toward profoundly different, and often actually possible, alternative models for the cognitive, perceptual, and linguistic structuring of social, sensual, and psychosexual experience. As countermodels, such propositions and strategies were often defined either by taking recourse to subjective or collective negations of existing orders--in primitivizing discourses, for example (from those that privileged the alterity of different geopolitical spaces to those that championed the alterity of unconscious desires)--or by mobilizing techno-scientistic counterdiscourses, emphatically insisting on the fulfillment of the promises of Enlightenment culture, which in the actualities of everyday life were being withheld in an order of instrumentalized proto-totalitarian rationality. Or, in a third model, under the conditions of extreme political duress in the late 1920s, for example, artists claimed direct political agency. They explicitly associated themselves with politically transgressive utopian propositions of non-hierarchically ordered social relations or else engaged in outright oppositional struggles against ideological domination and state control.

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In keeping with this dialectic, all of the strategies that had been initiated by different avant-garde cultures in various geopolitical contexts were met throughout the history of modernity with a whole arsenal of means by which to ignore them or defy them, to control them or defer them, to dismiss them if not liquidate them altogether: Indifference, quarantine, exclusion, marginalization, pathologization, and, finally, co-optation were the most successful operations in response to the political and social challenges of the historical avant-garde. And under certain extreme political conditions of authoritarian state power, if none of these strategies could complete the project of containment, stringent state control and brutal oppression would inevitably ensure the continuity of a fully uncontested hegemony and proto-totalitarian social order.

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The longer we have studied the history of avant-garde culture, the more compelling the insight has become that the horizons and spaces of utopian thought, and the practices of political and artistic transgression, were tolerated within the bourgeois capitalist order only so long as they did not cross these boundaries of discursive and institutional containment (i.e., so long as they ultimately complied with the artistic culture and the conventions of the museum). And what the artists of the late 1960s and early '70s finally formulated more clearly than anybody before was the fact that the museum had to be recognized as the site where, and the social institution wherein, these forms of acceptance through affirmation, of control through cultural canonization, of tolerance through quarantine, of inversion of meaning through the process of acculturation, had been most successfully implemented.

It was shortly after the emergence of the institutional critiques articulated by artists such as Michael Asher and Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke--and nearly contemporaneous with the burgeoning critiques of ideological hegemonies in the artistic practices of Louise Lawler, Martha Rosier, Jenny Holzer, Allan Sekula, and Data Birnbaum--that we also encountered Andy -Warhol's entry "Art Business vs. …

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