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An interview with Hal Foster

Is the funeral for the wrong corpse?

Bret Schneider and Omair Hussain

Platypus Review 22 | April 2010

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Hal Foster is a prominent critic and art historian who contributes regularly to Artforum, New Left Review, and The Nation. He is also an editor of October. In the fall of 2009, he sent out a questionnaire to 70 critics and curators, asking them what “contemporary” means today. Foster notes that the term “contemporary” is not new, but that What is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment.”[1] 35 critics and historians attempted to answer to the problems implied in this observation.

Bret Schneider: About the What Is Contemporary? survey that appeared in the journal October this past fall—I am interested to learn your motives in surveying critics and curators in this way, i.e. by questionaire. It seems to imply some bewilderment, or maybe even discontent with the recent heterogeneity of contemporary art. What was at stake for you in this questionnaire?

Hal Foster: Perhaps it was fueled by discontent, but bewilderment also played a part. For my generation contemporary art seemed to have a special purchase on the present; the sense that art is an index of the moment appears lost in today’s profusion of practices. That is a source of discontent for me. As for bewilderment, well, that could just be another name for ignorance.

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Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, a major work of the Russian avant-garde, at the “Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10” in Petrograd in 1915.

Of course, any present is made up of many presents. One of the definitions of contemporary is not that we are all in the same time, but that many times coexist at once. We live in a plurality of moments, and I am ill at ease with the relativism that such a temporality implies. There used to be a way in which contemporary art was still connected to prior art as well as to its own moment. That, too, does not seem to be powerfully the case anymore. This is why I framed the questions in the survey around two models that appear dysfunctional now: modernism/postmodernism and avant-garde/ neo-avant-garde. This framing was also an avowal of my relative distance from contemporary art, which is odd for a person who, for a long time, was active as a critic.

Omair Hussain: I am interested in the discussion of times when contemporary art was seemingly a more acute expression of its contemporary moment, but also understood itself as expressing and reflecting upon an entire history of art making. If, by contrast, contemporary art today can be characterized as both pluralistic and lacking in historical awareness, how do you perceive the relationship between these two attributes? Is contemporary plurality antithetical to historical consciousness?

HF: One excellent response to the survey speaks to this question. Kelly Baum, a young curator at Princeton, argues that the heterogeneity of art today actually performs the greater heterogeneity found in the social field at large. Rather than chaotic, then, it represents the dispersal that characterizes societal relations today. In this view plurality does not invalidate contemporary art as an index of the present but guarantees it. This take is interesting, but it is also a little sophistical—and it gives art too much of a pass.

What drew me to contemporary art originally was the way it seemed both to engage the historical field and to access the contemporary moment. Art history suggested that if you could follow a line, say, from the 19th century to the present, you might grasp the very trajectory of history. That was an illusion, of course, but a powerful one; it was an ego trip, too, to imagine you could surf the dialectic in this manner. Yet it made for a historical consciousness on the part of particular artists and critics that is not so evident today. The terms have changed, and the October questionnaire was a way to get at how the old terms no longer function, and to see what new terms might be taken up in their place.

BS: Why did you not ask any artists to participate in the “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’”? What was the significance of asking only critics and curators? Do you think that this domain is where the problems of contemporary art are best addressed, and if so, why, considering the current interest in decentralizing art discourse? What does the lack of response from curators express?

HF: I did not ask artists because I felt it was not their problem really—that it bore more heavily on critics, historians, and curators. At first I was puzzled as to why more curators did not respond. It is likely this silence speaks to an anxiety in institutions dedicated to contemporary art, but I can only guess. Certainly in the discipline of art history the contemporary is putting great pressure not just on the modern field but also on other fields. If you are trained in traditional Chinese or Indian art history, say, you might think that contemporary art, with the great pull of the market, has distorted your field.

BS: Could you clarify the ways in which art of the past had a purchase on its own historical moment? This implies that there was some sort of cohesive promise or at least some guiding principles. If there was once a promise of contemporary art, what was it?

HF: By the late 1930s, with Stalinism in particular, there was the sense that radical innovation in society was thwarted, but that it might be continued elsewhere, in the realm of culture—“to keep culture moving” is how Clement Greenberg put it in 1939. It’s an idea that comes out of the disappointments of 1917, out of a long history of the failure of radical politics in the 20th century. In this way the Trotskyist notion of “permanent revolution” was displaced onto advanced art, and in large part it kept the idea of the avant-garde alive in the postwar period (Michael Fried argued this point in 1965). If the political seemed to be thwarted somehow, maybe the idea could be preserved within the sphere of the artistic. Yet even in that formulation there was already a reactive, or at least a conservative, displacement from politics to art.

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Robert Smithson’s monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located on the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Built of black basalt rocks and earth from the site, the artist created a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that stretches out counter-clockwise into the water.

BS: There has been a lot of theorization about the avant-garde being a project committed to breaking down the barriers between art and life. Do you see this characterization as valid, and if so, what have been effects of that project?

HF: That idea that the avant-garde aimed to break down the division between art and life was never my understanding, at least as far as most movements were concerned. That is an idea that critics like Peter Bürger supported, but it is just not specific enough.

BS: You called it a “romanticized” view somewhere.

HF: Yes. Nevertheless, it is not untrue for some avant-gardes. Certainly there was a desublimation of art in Dada, but its effects were very ambiguous. Did it produce a politicization of art or an aestheticization of much else? That is the old question, and I cannot answer definitively. Later, if a breakdown of the division between art and life did occur, it occurred in the interests of the culture industry, not of anything else. That recuperation, too, is an old story now, and for a long time artists have developed other projects in its wake.

OH: Yet I think the problem is raised anew by new social art practices and relational aesthetics, art practices that are still very much concerned with the breakdown of boundaries between art and the everyday. How do you understand the curious persistence of that mission within contemporary art today? If that project is continued, what do you foresee as the repercussions for art as a specific genre of production?

HF: My sense is that one cannot decide once and for all between artistic autonomy and social embeddedness. It is a tension that should persist. Sometimes I am on the side of Adorno, and sometimes I am opposed. It depends on the situation. To me that is not opportunistic, it is simply being responsive. Even if the autonomy of art is always only semi-autonomy, it is important to insist on. Otherwise art becomes instrumental, which is problematic even if that means it is an instrument in the hands of progressive artists.

One thing that strikes me about relational art is that it treats art spaces like a last refuge of the social—as if social interaction had become so difficult or so depleted elsewhere that it could only happen in the vacated spaces of art. It was such a sad take on the state of sociability at large. I also felt that, for all its worthy attempt to work against the spectacular basis of contemporary art, there was a way in which it posed participation as a spectacle of its own. I suppose I am more interested in practices that use art as a guise or ruse for other practices altogether, such as pedagogy, say, or politics.

BS: It seems like there has been a return to Adorno in your recent writing. For instance, in your essay “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,”[2] you begin with an Adorno quotation that posits the uncertainty of the existence of art, and continually recall Adorno throughout the essay, replacing “philosophy” with “art” when quoting his famous line from Negative Dialectics, “philosophy lives on because the moment of its realization has been missed.” Have you made a return to Adorno in your recent writing? If so, what pressures of the contemporary moment is that a reaction or response to?

HF: My first edited book was The Anti-Aesthetic (1983), which was explicitly anti-Adornian. As it was concerned to posit a “postmodernism of resistance,” it was mostly Gramscian in its view of cultural politics. That was right for its moment, but as the interdisciplinarity of postmodernism became routine, the attack on autonomy became counterproductive. Most of the relevant institutions, from the academy to the art museums, absorbed the blows and gave them back with redoubled force. At that point it was important to insist on disciplinary difference again. All these positions are time-sensitive and site-specific. Again, it is not opportunistic to move from position to position; it is often necessary—and sometimes dogmatic not to do so.

BS: To return to this non-art aspect of recent artist talks, and supplementary discourse—what you suggest in your book The Return of the Real, is this neo-avant-garde shift from addressing “intrinsic” concerns within art to confronting the “discursive” problems of art. In the absence of a cohesive avant-garde or neo-avant-garde, can this confrontation take place? If the neo-avant-garde has somehow “run into the ground” can there still be a persistence of this kind of shift from intrinsic concerns to discursive problems?

HF: I think there can be, but the connection to prior attempts to make these articulations has become attenuated, and that makes it all the more difficult. My concern here might be dismissed as merely territorial—that is, I care about these prior attempts because I am an art historian. It might have little or no bearing on contemporary practice; for the most part that is not how work is generated today. For a while in the 1990s and 2000s many artists returned to certain moments in the 1960s and the 1970s; there was an attempt to establish a further “neo” relation to that neo-avant-garde. But that seems faded now. Ultimately what concerns me is that if we do not have some terms in common for contemporary art, it is hard to determine what is at stake and of value in it. That is as directly as I can put the problem.

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Thomas Hirschhorn’s Hotel Democrscy installed at “Art Unlimited” in Art Basel in 2003.

BS: If the contemporary moment is disconnected from the history of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde, where do you locate the breaking point? Would you attribute it to the moment in the 1960s when Debord and the Situationists deliberately attempted to break with modernism?

HF: That was part of it. Obviously, Debord broke with the artistic side of the avant-garde project, but his moment could allow such a gesture. As the 1960s developed, there was an immense expansion in art, one that provoked Adorno’s worry about the end of art. Think of the heterogeneity of an artist like Robert Smithson alone: It is only articulate against the foil of a rigid idea of what counts as art. Smithson had such a foil. Do artists now? Perhaps it might not matter anymore if work has a historical connection. Maybe that is just no longer the point. But, if so, consider what is lost. Not so long ago art not only “made it new” but also made things count, or made the attempt to count. Art was conceived as an intervention, one that might revalue other interventions too. The goal was to be radical in terms of history as well. If that ambition has faded, that to me is a loss.

BS: What is your interest in Dada? On the one hand, you acknowledge that the contemporary moment is both largely disconnected and uninterested in the history of modern art. Yet, in your writing, you seek to return particular modernist moments, like Dada.

HF: Maybe this contradicts what I just said. There is a Dada spirit in some work today, if you think about artists like Thomas Hirschhorn and Isa Genzken. In part, they have led me to look back again at Dada. But I do not see their work as “neo-Dada.”

BS: Can this connection be characterized by recent styles of “the unmonumental” and is that problematic?

HF: Is it already a style? Too bad. Shows like “The Unmonumental” at the New Museum throw a lot of different work together. Some is indeed neo-Dada, but some is not. Again, some is Dadaist in spirit in this sense: it practices a mimesis, an exacerbation, of the awful conditions of capitalist society, as a form of critique. Historically, it has to do with Hugo Ball far more than Duchamp or Fluxus.

BS: I was curious about whether or not artists like Isa Genzken or Thomas Hirschhorn self-identify in this vein of “unmonumental” or neo-Dada. There is a general reception of this art today that frames the work as a polemic against the purported monumental qualities of modernism. This polemic seems to project sweeping and vague notions of a grand narrative onto modernism. But that projection seems to be in opposition to your view of modernism, a view that does not perceive modernism simply as a unified, cohesive movement.

HF: Yes. For me it is a mistake—an old postmodernist mistake—to monumentalize or to totalize modernism. And sometimes these artists do that. Genzken does it, for example, in her work on the Bauhaus. But as an artist she is not obliged to be historically precise. Hirschhorn, on the other hand, is clear about his commitments—not just his political commitments but also his artistic commitments.

BS: In “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,” you discuss Rosalind Krauss’s idea that postmodern art incorporated modernist art and “trumped” it at the same time. You go on to suggest that today postmodern art is being trumped in turn. In what ways is postmodern art being trumped? By what?

HF: This is what I had in mind when I said postmodernism has become routine. In the first moment, postmodernism’s attempt to reach out beyond given forms and disciplines was progressive in all kinds of ways, and in her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” Krauss provided one map of these moves. (It was a particular map, a structuralist grid; it was unconcerned with historical process or social connection.) What happened is that over time those moves became routine. To move into the space of architecture, for example, became easy, almost automatic, even decorative. In short, the expanded field imploded, and artists had to reposition.

OH: I wonder if you perceive any relationship between a once-radical gesture become routine and the nature of the initial gesture itself. Was there something about the way in which these artists of the 1960s attempted to break with modernism that could be seen as consequential to the ineffectuality of postmodernism? Or does its failure lies outside of the control of artists?

HF: That is a good question and a difficult one. It is incumbent on artists to anticipate as much as possible how their work will be received and positioned. But, after a certain point, it is not in their control to do so. Could one have foreseen that interdisciplinarity would become routine? Maybe not. Did Daniel Buren have to become a decorator? No. And so on.

OH: Yet there seems to be a qualitatively different type of rupture in that moment than in previous modernist moments. With formal innovation serving as the primary project of the modernist avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde was often concerned with the institutions of art. Is there a relationship between the neo-avant-garde’s rejection of modernism’s formal concerns in favor of institutional concerns and the falling out of that project today? In retrospect, what have been the successes and failures of the neo-avant-garde project? When we look back on “Sculpture in The Expanded Field” from the culture industry which has absorbed and routinized it, did this ideology clarify previous “missed” moments like modernism, for example, or dismiss them ?

HF: My distinction between an avant-garde focus on conventions and a neo-avant-garde focus on institutions was too neat. Conventions both imply and require institutions, and if you change forms radically enough, as the Russians did a century ago, you also change institutions. Of course, the avant-garde moment was one of revolutionary change at large, in a way that, arguably, the neo-avant-garde moment was not.

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Hugo Ball reciting sound poetry in cubist costume at Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich in 1917.

I still find helpful an old essay by the historian Perry Anderson that discusses the conditions of the historical avant-garde. First, there was a rigid academy to be resisted. Then there was a technological transformation to be addressed. Finally, there was a socialist revolution to be engaged. In his account—it is schematic—they drove the historical avant-garde, in its many varieties, in the moment of World War I. For the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s those conditions no longer obtained, but new ones provided an analogous context nonetheless. If there was not an art academy to resist, there was a mass-media culture to contest. If there was not a second industrial revolution to address, there was a post-industrial transformation to consider. And if there was not a socialist revolution to engage, there were struggles of other kinds to join somehow—postcolonial, racial, sexual. These forces persist, and the need to develop forms and institutions accordingly also persists. So, in principle, the avant-garde project should be alive and well. Why does it not seem so? Is it my myopia—or is it blocked by other forces? Probably both.

BS: You speak of a kind of historical trajectory, with the shift from the avant-garde to the neo-avant-garde marked by a shift in objects of reaction and resistance. How do you understand the contemporary moment in relationship to this trajectory? What are the “objects of resistance and reaction” for contemporary art? Are artists reacting to or cohesively resisting anything? Is an organized resistance or reaction still important for an art in the culture industry?

HF: In The Anti-Aesthetic I argued that there was a shift from the transgressive to a resistant model of the avant-garde. Maybe that language needs to be revised. For several years now there has been talk about the post-critical, but I do not buy it. The young artists and critics I know are very concerned with critical projects. They simply approach the critical in different ways.

On the one hand, it is a moment to insist again on the semi-autonomy of art as a basis of critique, and to find, in art making, models of subjectivity and sociality that are blotted out elsewhere in the culture. That seems crucial to me: There are sensuous and cognitive experiences that art still allows and that screen culture does not. On that score, then, art now and art forever. On the other hand, one might argue that all this does not matter anymore, that all that is left to art is to use art as a disguise or ruse with which to do other things—to be activists or educators or hackers or whatever. That argument makes sense to me too. And no doubt there are positions in-between. But unless young artists, critics, and curators develop the terms for these options, nothing much will be developed at either extreme or in the positions of mediation in-between.

OH: In reference to the two poles you have established— art as the sensual and cognitive, and art as disguise for activism and participation—does the latter endanger the former?

HF: Of course they challenge each other. That is part of the point! But they are the terms of a debate at least, if they could be made precise. It is not to decide one way or the other, it is to develop each position agonistically. That is a debate that is needed, it seems to me.

BS: What is suggested here is that maybe the current social climate is so changed that it cannot allow for the radical systemic rethinking for which avant-garde art was pivotal. But, conversely, I also get the impression that through your writing you would not be writing about Dada if you did not think that maybe this situation is not so much different…that maybe it is actually a lot less changed than we think it is? What are the possibilities for art to have a purchase on the present? How far removed are we from the historical possibilities presented by past avant-gardes?

HF: It is easy to make claims about the end of this, that, and the other thing. That kind of nondialectical dialectic is very seductive because it is, weirdly, very triumphal in its defeatism. Certainly, innovative art, if not radical art, is not as central to the society as it once was, but that does not mean the project is kaput. The forces of amnesia have not won out altogether! I do not think this project is dead, by any means. I would not continue to do what I do if I did. There are art practices that do have effects beyond the art world. I think there are exhibitions that have effects that cannot be anticipated. It is what artists want to make of those historical episodes, if anything at all.

Another opposition we talked about that seems really crucial is, to what extent is it important for contemporary art to be reflexive historically, to draw on the past, and to transform the past. I think either position could be argued right now. It should be argued right now. And if these debates could be articulate enough, there will be effects. Not only in art, but elsewhere.

BS: Yet, in “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,” you also characterize the contemporary moment as having a ghostly or spectral quality. What is your interest in this spectral aspect and why are past moments still “living on” and open to interpretation by today’s artists?

HF: My interest in the spectral is not a melancholic lament about the end of art. It is to suggest that, rather than fixate on stories of rupture and death, we think about other narratives, ones of living on or after, of creative aftermath. For me the spectral has the force of the revenant, the figure that returns to surprise, even to haunt. I am very interested in the afterlives of the modern, as art historians like Aby Warburg were interested in the afterlives of the classical. That was what was at stake in the essay. It was not to say, “Oh, dead body, how sad.” It was to say, “Wow, this dead body is not so dead. It is alive in ways we do not recognize.”

BS: In response to what you characterize as “an allergy” to grand narratives, in “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,” you suggest that maybe we should not simply dismiss grand narratives, that perhaps they contain something necessary. What is significant to you about grand narratives? What about this moment expresses a need to return to broader historical purview, or at least reevaluations?

HF: The polemic against grand narratives became a doxa of the postmodern. But I think Habermas was largely right in his debate with Lyotard: There are values in the project of modernity that should not be thrown out altogether. Certainly narratives are oppressive when they are only grand. But we all need stories to make sense of what we do. There is no project without a story that situates our actions. Finally, as Jameson argues, postmodernism is not the end of narrative: It is a new chapter in the grandest of all modern narratives, the history of capitalism.

BS: Has the project of replacing a paradigm of grand narratives with one of more local, specialized, micropolitics proved itself to be equally ineffective in dealing with the present as a failure of previous hopes in the history of capitalism?

HF: I do not know, but I do not think so. I think the microalternative is only problematic when it becomes so micro that it is atomistic in an identitarian way and lacks any articulate connection to other stories, other projects, other struggles. But I do not think that is necessarily the case. How that is made articulate in art criticism or history seems to be a really important project. To do that in the space of the contemporary, which is more and more vast every day, or so it seems, is very difficult to do. I think, to go back to form-discourse-institution connection—that would be an extraordinary project for a collective, or for a school to entertain, to really sit down and work through some of these questions seriously. |P


[1]. Hal Foster for the Editors, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’” OCTOBER 130 (Fall 2009), 3–124.

[2]. Hal Foster, “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,” in Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes) (London: Verso, 2003), 123–144.

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