Bret Schneider & Omair Hussain
Platypus Review 22 | April 2010
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.” 35 critics and historians attempted to answer to the problems implied in this observation. The following interview originally appeared in Platypus Review 22.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading