Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (MIT Press, 2003)
Contemporary visual art is often slick and narcissistic, and bears a disturbing resemblance to sophisticated advertising and music videos. Ugo Rondinone’s coolly smoldering, slow-motion videos might well be promoting a new line of perfume, and Pipilotti Rist’s hallucinatory work, which was featured on an immense screen hovering over Times Square, evokes fashion shoots and designer clothes for sassy, hipster girls. The emotionally distant, grotesquely erotic nudes by painters like Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, rather than troubling the representation of the female figure, weirdly affirm and take pleasure in its status as a fetishized commodity. The art of Rondinone, Rist, Yuskavage, and Currin, and one might add Matthew Barney’s wildly operatic films as well, has a fin de siècle decadence which eschews the politics in favor of luxuriantly over-refined and perhaps cynical aestheticism. In sharp contrast, the Neo-Avantgarde artists of the 1960s and ’70s mounted an analytical critique of the nature of art making and of art objects in an increasingly commodified society, and also of the compromising institutional context in which cutting-edge art is exhibited. Benjamin Buchloh’s weighty, 600-page tome, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, centrally focuses on Neo-Avantgarde artists like Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, James Coleman, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, and David Lamelas, artists whose work is driven by an aesthetic and institutional critique, and yet which resists the total reduction of art to linguistic propositions promoted by conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth.
A professor of art history at Barnard College/Columbia University and editor of the journal October, Buchloh’s eye is formally acute, but his methodology is anti-formalist and involves probing the relationship between art and its social, political, and economic context. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry’s deepest premise is that a work of art is vital only if it is critically attuned both to the historical moment and to its position in the ongoing history of aesthetic discourse, and thus Buchloh often relegates artists and practice to the realm of the decadent, obsolete, and reactionary. This is most readily apparent in Buchloh’s essay on Joseph Beuys, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for A Critique,” written in response to Beuys’s Guggenheim retrospective of 1980. Beuys was essentially a religious artist, and his work is intended to be redemptive and transcendent. Whereas Robert Morris’s experiments with formlessness are in dialogue exclusively with the history of art, Beuys’s felt sculptures and fat chairs are allegorical memory pieces rooted in trauma. In addition, Beuys’s allusive, idiosyncratic drawings, at once highly personal and tragic, point toward a primal relationship to a landscape poisoned by the Second World War. Even though Buchloh insinuates that Beuys was a liar and a crypto-Futurist fascist, what he most strongly resents in Beuys’s work is the fact that it is at once personal, inward, and transcendent, categories Buchloh believes to have been rendered erroneous in the twentieth century. In a broadly dismissive paragraph, Buchloh writes,
“Obviously, it is possible to ignore or reject the basic scientific steps that have been taken in twentieth century science, such as Freudian psychoanalysis or de Saussure’s linguistic and semiotic concepts (to give only the two most prominent examples that Beuys does reject). It is also possible to reject or ignore crucial epistemological changes that have occurred in one’s own field of discourse, for example the consequences of Duchamp’s work for art in the second half of the 20th century. But again, such infantile behavior, closing one’s eyes and disavowing phenomena apparently threatening one’s existence in order to make disappear, is of very limited success.”
Yet the idea that the writings of Freud and de Saussure form part of a body of assumed knowledge that only an “infantile” 20th century visual artist would ignore sounds patently absurd, especially since works of art are meant to resonate meanings for a beholder, not assert demonstrable, scientific truths. And while Duchamp’s clever, paradoxical querying of the boundaries of art has had an inestimable impact, it is hard to see it as yielding a definitive epistemological change, as though there were only one discourse in 20th century art, as though art were a science with a stable, agreed-upon method. What this view suggests is that Buchloh’s conception of history and of historical context is disturbingly narrow and homogeneous, and leaves little room for private, subjective experience.
Needless to say, Buchloh is on much stronger ground when writing about artists who share his assumptions and whose work, extending Duchamp’s legacy, deconstructs the classical art object and implicitly critiques the institutional context in which art is exhibited. In “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture,” Buchloh links Asher’s restrained installations to problems raised by Minimalist sculptors like Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd. While Minimalist sculpture overtly insists upon the materiality and specificity of its objects, and rejects the sublime, transcendent opticality of Clement Greenberg’s and Michael Fried’s aesthetic, even context sensitive work like Andre’s copper floor pieces and Flavin’s neon light sculptures are perceptually autonomous. Asher’s installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1979, in which he removed aluminum panels from the museum façade and mounted them on the wall inside, limits itself to materials specific to the architectural space of the exhibition itself. “Rigorously denying spatial and temporal transcendence,” Buchloh writes, “Asher’s works are constituted first of all within their own spatial, institutional context, the museum; and they become the performative articulation of actually given historical time, the allocated exhibition period itself.” In the essay “Daniel Buren’s Les Couleurs/Les Formes,” Buchloh similarly suggests that Buren’s Les Couleurs: Sculptures (1977), striped flags mounted atop buildings in Paris and visible from tourist telescopes at the Centre Pompidou, are attempts at “solving one of the most crucial problems in 20th century art: the dialectic between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value.” Alluding to both stripe painting and jingoistic national flags, not shown in a museum but rather visibile from a museum that is itself a monument to capitalist state’s appropriation of aesthetic modernism, Buren’s Les Couleurs, like Asher’s installations, tread a delicate line between austere formalism and almost Dadaist institutional critique. And for Buchloh, this is one of the positions available to the contemporary artist. “Inasmuch as any work of art becomes increasingly superfluous under the conditions of total reification because it has lost its function of a critical reflection of social reality,” Buchloh writes, “it approaches a state of either mere objecthood or mere aesthetic voluntarism, i.e. decoration.”
In addition to Buchloh’s thorough account of the development of postwar European art in “Plenty or Nothing: From Yves Klein’s Le Vide to Arman’s Le Plein,” the two crucial essays in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry are “Marcel Broodthaers: Open Letters, Industrial Poems” and “Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason.” Whereas Michael Asher and Daniel Buren, as well as Dan Graham, emerged from Minimalism, Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke should be associated with the political radical anti-aesthetic of Fluxus and Situationism. Originally a poet, Broodthaers came to visual art late, and most of his work is fueled by language. In the series Pense-Bête (1963-64), Broodthaers collaged chromatic squares over the text of poems from his final published book, and then he embedded copies of the book in plaster on a wooden pedestal. In “Telephone” (1969) and “Enfants Non Admis” (1969), as well as in his ongoing chef d’oeuvre, Musee d’Art Moderne, Broodthaers printed announcements and eccentric poem texts (“I am a signal, I I I I I,” “Object Metal Spirit Object Metal Spirit”) onto vacuum-formed plastic plaques, creating works that hover between texts and readymades. According to Buchloh, Broodthaers’s work is directed against the “inherently mythological nature of art production with its constantly renewed claims to provide innovation and pleasure, while actually prohibiting recognition of its own restrictions” and “the visual object’s false specialization, at the condition of the work of as commodity, as much as at its inherent cultural function of providing ideological affirmation and class legitimation.” What Buchloh misses, unfortunately, is the ironical, quirky, and playful aspect of Broodthaers’s work. Hans Haacke’s most significant projects from the early 1970s onward typically involve the revelation of political contradictions in the exhibition of works of art. In the unrealized Manet-PROJECT ‘74 (1974), for example, an original Manet was to be shown alongside the sordid history of its ownership, which included Hitler’s Minister of Economics, and in “Voici Alcan” (1983), Haacke combined the slick logo of Alcan, a company which provided aluminum products to the South African police and military, with posters of operas Alcan sponsored as well as images of the dead South African activist Stephen Biko. Haacke’s work is blunt and ironical, and refuses anything like aesthetic pleasure. Against the complaint that Haacke’s work is visually uninteresting and purely informational, Buchloh claims that the notion of sensuality in art relies on a pernicious Romantic idea of creativity as well as on “obsolete and inaccessible forms of knowledge and techniques for producing meaning.” The exemplary value of Broodthaer’s and Haacke’s work for Buchloh is in the way it at once develops a critique of the nature of art initiated by Duchamp’s readymades, while engaging the problematic nature of the exhibition of so-called high art in a capitalist society in which such works are turned into mere commodities. Broodthaers’s strategy was to be aloof, elusive, and ironical; Haacke’s was and is to be embarrassingly in-your-face.
Throughout Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, Buchloh aggressively insists that art which is personal, expressive, and appeals to sensory experience ultimately serves to legitimate state and institutional ideology. “Abandoned modes of perception (and aesthetic production),” Buchloh writes, “seem to linger around in history like deserted tools of a formerly potent force, ready to be reintroduced at any given moment by the artists who voluntarily accept the limitations of being nothing but the blind instruments and timely executors of a reactionary legacy.” The subjectivity and sensuality of, say, Willem de Kooning’s gorgeous, meditative abstractions of the 1970s, or of Sandro Clemente’s drawings in tempera and ink, are obsolete because the conception of the autonomous individual upon which they are based has been rendered irrelevant in our media-saturated, mass capitalist society. Buchloh takes for granted that the value and relevance of art today consists in its “critical reflection of social reality,” and yet the impact of works as diverse as Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” David Lamelas’s video installations, or Richard Serra’s thrown lead pieces is not to be found in their social dimensions, but in the eccentric ways they infiltrate the inner life of the viewer: the fugitive associations they give rise to, the fantasies and reflections they set in motion. The idea that there are abandoned modes of perception and art making, and that the enduring presence of such modes is inevitably reactionary, entails a simple and linear conception of the history of both perception and art. Meyer Schapiro famously argued that even arts as distant as Romanesque relief sculpture and Medieval manuscript illumination exhibit aesthetic concerns familiar to the modern eye, and this at least means that your ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking have not wholly changed. Indeed, many 20th century artists have effectively used and transformed the idioms and techniques of earlier art—think of Picasso’s imitations of Ingres, Soutine’s gruesome reworking of Chardin, Dubuffet’s fascination with Roman wall painting, Morandi’s insistent return to the geometric clarities of pre-impressionist still lifes, and, more recently, Shahzia Sikander’s adaptation of medieval near-eastern manuscript illumination—all of which suggest that modes of perception and making are not so much abandoned, like false scientific theories, as compounded and complicated. The weaknesses of Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry stem from Buchloh’s narrow and even naïve conception of subjectivity, politics, and history. I finished the book thinking that the most politically transgressive and liberating art is that which, like Forrest Bess’s gnostic visions or Yayoi Kusama’s scary infinity nets, is undertaken for urgent, personal reason, irrespective of historical context much less aesthetic discourse.
I began this essay by commenting that much of prominent art of the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century has been apolitical and uncritical of its relationship to what has become an astonishingly sophisticated, all-consuming commodity culture. In many cases, this may be just ruthless careerism, but in the best instances it represents a rejection of the Neo-Avantgarde’s narrow, puritanical, and anxiously self-referential aesthetic, and the liberated sense that art is not bound by a specific historical teleology and can be made to embody a complex set of ideas, emotions, and sensations: compared with Sarah Sze’s crazy lyrical assemblage, Hans Haacke’s installation at the most recent Whitney Biennial was turgid and lifeless. The critical sensibility of Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry often sounds as dated as the high Modernist sermons reprinted in Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood, and with good reason; whereas Fried, following Clement Greenberg, theorized pure painting, Buchloh seeks a form of ambivalent political purity in art that is equally stifling to imagination. Nonetheless, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry is valuable if only for the vastly erudite way in which it raises questions that are troubling, urgent, and unanswered. How is it possible to make independent works of art when such works are instantaneously absorbed into the broader community culture? How can works of art achieve depth of freedom when the institutional conditions under which they are exhibited are compromised and repressive? Can a work of art be experienced in a way that separates it from its political and economic context? Is it possible for art to appeal to the senses and inner life, ignoring the broader social context? Unlike the crude and often-ignorant didacticism of political art in the early 1990s, the Neo-Avantgarde was subtle and deeply conscious of the dialectic between history and the history of art. I should also add that Buchloh is not invariably programmatic: Neo-Avantgarde And Culture Industry contains fine essays of the sadly underappreciated French artists Simon Hantaï and Jacques Villeglé, as well as one on Gerhardt Richter.