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A contemporary diagnosis – without the ability to criticize?

What Comes after Farce: Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle
Forfatter: Hal Foster
Forlag: Verso (USA)
ART / Is there no longer anything of revealing or distorting?


How should the critical contemporary respond to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016? This is what the American art historian and critic Hal Foster asks in his new book, What Comes after Farce. The choice of Trump was, after all, a cross-border moment where a clown was elected to the most powerful office in the world.

What does art do when the world has become farcelike? Trump is a tasteless, self-indulgent wrestling impresario, a figure from the most trashed reality TV, a racist construction speculator. In short, a fool. If there was a remnant of rationality left in politics, it disappeared when Trump took over from Obama. Politics became a joke. It was a Dadaist upheaval. If modern art has been one long self-criticism of Euro-modernity, its norms, conventions and self-celebration, then the rug was pulled from under the feet of art with Trump. There is no longer anything to reveal or distort. It makes no sense to catch Trump in a lie, nor is there any point in vilifying him or ridiculing him, he has already done that himself a long time ago. He is, as Foster notes, beyond both shame and truth. In this way, Trump posed a challenge to traditional ideas about criticism and critical art. What do you stand for, when the provocation aesthetics of the avant-garde are overtaken by political events, when entertainment and politics merge into a bad joke?

A global upper class

Foster's book What Comes after Farce, which collects reviews and shorter texts written over the past 15 years, is a contemporary diagnosis, where contemporary art is the prism. Foster tries to use art as a tool to analyze the new farcical times we live in, and also to say a little – very tentatively – about what might come after. As he writes, the farce was originally a satirical interlude in a serious sacred setting plays in the Middle Ages. Perhaps Trump was such an intermediary, Foster hopes. But it is not so easy for the increasingly older art critic, who broke through in the early 1980s as one of the most important standard-bearers for representation-critical postmodern art. In the 1990s, Foster was decisive for the rewriting of the history of avant-garde art with his idea of ​​repetition as difference – where post-war so-called neo-avant-gardes such as pop art and minimalism made visible and expanded inter-war avant-garde movements such as dada and surrealism. But it's as if Foster's critical postmodern vocabulary doesn't quite work anymore. He is of course trying to come to terms with Trump and the world where it makes sense to elect Trump as president, but it is clearly difficult. Foster does not really contribute to the analysis of Trump and the return of late fascism.

The farce was originally a satirical interlude in serious sacred plays in the Middle Ages
- perhaps Trump was such an intermediary.

He discusses the philosophers Jacques Derrida about rascals, and Giorgio agamben about a state of emergency, but it does not amount to much more than a few loose reservations, which do not really function as a basis for other proposals for the analysis of the present. Foster has more to say about contemporary art, but even there it is not so easy.

Art is under pressure from two sides. On the one hand, we have Trump and the dissolution of any reference to facts and universals, and on the other hand, we have contemporary art as a playground for a global plutocratic upper class, which invests in art and travels around the world to art fairs and vernissages. Foster writes brilliantly about the spectacular turn in contemporary art, where museums and biennales fight for the attention of a global upper class, for whom contemporary art is an integral part of a hyper-aestheticized lifestyle on an equal footing with fashion, design and gastronomy. But it is difficult for Foster to find out how to criticize this situation. The emperor has no clothes on, and it makes no difference. It no longer makes sense to expose or shift the institution's rules and norms any longer. Institutional criticismone seems to be kaput, writes Foster. It is serious. Foster has always supported the institutional crisis, but it seems to have completely lost the last critical force it still had in the 1990s.

Jeff Koons

The problem for Foster is that he would like to have a critical art, but it should not be too political. The ideal is an art that critically mimics, but also criticizes, late capitalist reality. The problem is simply that the conditions of possibility for such art seem to have disappeared. There is nothing left but the mime.

Foster discusses different strategies, but can't really find anyone who can take up the challenge. He writes well about Jeff Koons, which is described as a transitional figure towards the complete abandonment of any critical dimension in art. The question is, does Koons only mimic consumer culture or is there a difference? Is he sincere or is he being ironic when he has a stainless steel plastic rabbit made and places it on a podium? Is it a critical exhibition of the acting community and all its visual goods or is it the final fusion of art with the commodity culture of late capitalism? Foster is not really superconscious; Koons cannot be a model, he is always too integrated into the institution.

Hito Steyrl and Trevor Paglen

Then there is more to be had from artists such as Milestone Steyrl og Trevor Paglen, who are engaged in what Foster calls a media "agnotology", where they investigate, "how we do not know and how we are prevented from gaining knowledge". Paglen and Steyrl both attempt to open the military-industrial-entertainment complex's black box and examine contemporary visual culture and all its electronic images. These are produced beyond human intervention, but with the aim of managing, controlling and monitoring human behaviour. Paglen photographs secret military installations and thus contributes to a mapping of the operational non-public image sphere. Steyrl's video installations are less concerned with finding and revealing non-public images than with trying to intensify the contradictions that characterize the acting community's abundance of images. It is not about producing resistance images, but about becoming a bad image or spam. These are the best examples of critical art Foster can find. But he is not completely over-conscious. What should we use Paglen's mapping for, and isn't Steyrl's strategy legitimately cynical?

Hito Steyrl: In Free Fall, video still, 2010


A liquidation of the institutions

What Comes after Farce is interesting as a discussion of a situation where contemporary art seems to have lost the ability to criticize. Foster never really comes to any conclusions about his investigations, but he is markedly less optimistic than he has been in the past. The formally experimental, institution-critical art he is interested in no longer seems to be problematizing, but is now seamlessly part of the institution, if it has not just ended up as staffage for haute couture, like Claire Fontaine for Christian Dior's summer show in February 2020. And institutional art Of course, nothing can stand up to the reactionary movements, which are pressing in politically. So right now it seems that contemporary art is not much help. If we zoom out a little from Foster's postmodern analysis, however, we can see other possibilities. Foster mentions en passant the various attempts to open up the art institution for another, more political use, such as Occupy Museums and Liberate Tate. But he does nothing out of them. Such activist civil society mobilizations, where artists and art workers demand systemic changes to the art institution, are otherwise important, especially if they are associated with a more radical resistance outside the institution, where the goal is not simply other institutional procedures, but a dismantling of the institutions. There is much that speaks for a movement from an institutionally sanctioned subtle critique of institutions to a radical oppositionality on its way out of the institution.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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