April 9, 2010

Am reading Hal Foster’s Recordings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (1985; repr. New Press, 1999), on Jeffrey Schrader’s recommendation from about two years ago. I’ve read other Foster criticism with appreciation, but this seems to cut to the quick, being relevant 25 years after it was first published.

From the opening essay “Against Pluralism”:

“When formalism prevailed, art tended to be self-critical. Though it was seldom regarded in historical or political context, it was at least analytical in context. When formalism fell, even this attitude was largely lost. [. . .] The present in art has a strange form, at once full and empty, and a strange tense, a sort of neo-now moment of ‘arriere-avant-gardism.’ Many artists borrow promiscuously from both historical and modern art. But these references rarely engage the source – let alone the present – deeply. And the typical artist is often ‘foot-loose in time, culture and metaphor’: a dilettante because he thinks that, as he entertains the past, he is beyond the exigency of the present; a dunce because he assumes a delusion; and a dangling man because historical moment – our present problematic –is lost” (16).

This is doubly apparent in a lot of the work of contemporary Chinese artists, who come straight out of the Academy wanting only to brand themselves and their output. They emulate the style over substance school of the likes of Liu Ye (who had a piece sell at auction this week for $2.45 mil) rather than artists engaged with the historical and current social tension like Ai Weiwei and Qiu Zhijie (


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