Hans Arp and El Lissitzky, The “isms” of art (1924)

Monoskop recently posted a scan of El Lissitzky and Hans [Jean] Arp’s Kunstismen (1924), translated roughly as The “Isms” of Art. It is reproduced here in its entirety, page by page, or in
full-text pdf format.

The original text runs in three parallel columns separated by thick dividers, very much in a constructivist style. Each column is in a different language: first German, then French, then English. Originally, I was planning on pasting the text from these in the body of the post. But I decided against it because, upon further examination, the translations are simply awful. German might have been a natural second language for Lissitzky; French and English were clearly not his strong points.

So instead, I’m posting an article that came out shortly afterward by the Hungarian art critic Ernő [sometimes Germanized as Ernst] Kállai, translated by John Bátki. Kállai’s work is not well known in the Anglophone world, though I did rely on one of his articles fairly extensively in an article on architectural photography. Here he summarizes the rapid succession of “isms” in art from 1914-1924 and astutely observes that this period ferment was then drawing to a close.

The twilight of ideologies

Ernő [Ernst] Kállai
“Ideológiák alkonya”
365 (April 20, 1925)

Translated from the original Hungarian by John Bátki.
Between Two Worlds: Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

Kunst kommt von Können. [Art comes from ability.]

The saying is very old and a commonplace, and has even acquired some ill repute; still, it is high time we pay heed to it and, more important, put it to use.

The age of ferment, of “-isms,” is over. The possibilities of creative work have become endless, but at the same time all paths have become obstructed by the barbed wire barriers of ideologies and programs. It takes a man indeed to try and fight one’s way from beginning to end, across this horrible cacophony of concepts. Not that all of these theoretical skirmishes, manifestoes, and conclusions for the record were not indispensable for the evolution of ideas, or were incomprehensible. Even the wildest flights of pathos, the most doctrinaire stylistic catechisms had their own merit. It was all part of the ferment caused by Impressionism, and the infighting of the various expressive, destructive, and constructive schools.

But all of this turmoil is now finally over. Our awareness of the diverse possibilities has at last been clarified, so that today we are witnessing a time of professional consolidation and absorption in objective, expert work. This holds true for the entire front: the areas of political, tendentious art and Proletkult as well as those of Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Neoclassicism, and Neorealism — and also in criticism. The most extreme, most exacting measure of individual vocation and achievement is that which is being employed by each and every school or camp toward its own. The process of selection has begun, and its sole essential guiding principle is this: what is the artist capable of accomplishing in his own field, through his own particular means and message.

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Hal Foster’s critical turn

There’s a good review by Jeffrey Petts over at the low-key online publication Marx and Philosophy of Hal Foster’s excellent The Art-Architecture Complex (2011). Currently I’m writing a double-review of Foster’s book along with another very good book, Gevork Hartoonian’s recent Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique (2013) for the LA Review of Books. Petts covers all the major points of Foster’s study with clarity and concision; I especially appreciate the way he elucidates the connection with Kenneth Frampton’s advocacy of “critical regionalism.” Indeed, the opposition between image and building, the visual and the tactile, the scenographic and the tectonic — frames the entire discussion. (Same goes for Hartoonian, incidentally).

But one thing I’m really grateful to Petts’ review for was its reference to criticisms Foster has recently leveled against the post-Marxist philosopher and aesthetic theorist Jacques Rancière. He cites an November 2013 review Foster wrote of Rancière’s Aisthesis, just translated into English by Zakir Paul and published by Verso. You can read that review in PDF form here. Rancière has been enthusiastically embraced by art critics and practitioners alike for too long. It’s high time that he be properly critiqued. And so below I am reproducing an article Foster wrote in December 2012 for The Brooklyn Rail on “post-critical” theory, focusing on Rancière and the French philosopher Bruno Latour. This represents Foster’s latest move away from his earlier promotion of aesthetic postmodernism in The Anti-Aesthetic (1981), a collection of essays he edited.


Hal Foster
Brooklyn Rail

Critical theory took a serious beating during the culture wars of the 1980s and the 1990s, and the 2000s were only worse. Under Bush the demand for affirmation was all but total, and today there is little space for critique even in the universities and the museums. Bullied by conservative commentators, most academics no longer stress the importance of critical thinking for an engaged citizenry, and, dependent on corporate sponsors, most curators no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of advanced art. Indeed, the sheer out-of-date-ness of criticism in an art world that couldn’t care less seems evident enough. Yet what are the options on offer? Celebrating beauty? Affirming affect? Hoping for a “redistribution of the sensible”? Trusting in “the general intellect”? The post-critical condition is supposed to release us from our straightjackets (historical, theoretical, and political), yet for the most part it has abetted a relativism that has little to do with pluralism.

How did we arrive at the point where critique is so broadly dismissed? Over the years most of the charges have concerned the positioning of the critic. First, there was a rejection of judgment, of the moral right presumed in critical evaluation. Then, there was a refusal of authority, of the political privilege that allows the critic to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Finally, there was skepticism about distance, about the cultural separation from the very conditions that the critic purports to examine. “Criticism is a matter of correct distancing,” Benjamin wrote in One-Way Street (1928). “It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.” How much more urgent is this pressing today? Continue reading