Do you envy Hal Foster? Sometimes I do. Not for his admirably lucid art criticism nor for his spectacular academic career. No, I envy him for his ability to make out the Zeitgeist. His famous anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Bay Press, 1983) successfully collected very varied writers, including Edward Said, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Rosalind Krauss, and Fredric Jameson. And diverse artists: Barbara Kruger; Sherrie Levine; and Cindy Sherman to name three. As Foster correctly stated, what identified these writers and artists was their shared opposition to modernism.
To identify the Zeitgeist you need to look at a noisy, crowded scene and identify the shared features of the thinking and art that matter. Arthur Danto did that when he argued that Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) marked the inauguration of post-historical art history. And recently Terry Smith has done the same, with his multicultural redefinition of contemporary art (Contemporary Art: World Currents, Prentice Hall, 2011). To read the Zeitgeist you must be a connoisseur of history, generalizing recklessly, making perhaps initially implausible-seeming claims using limited evidence. When Virginia Woolf famously said, “on or around December 1910, human character changed,” she identified the prophetic aspect of such claims.
In the 1980s, most New York artists were not making anti-aesthetic art. And yet, Foster’s reading was legitimately influential, for it provided a way of structuring thinking about contemporary art. How quickly history changes! For some time now the art world hasn’t spoken much about postmodernism. Very quickly, when the spirit moves on, an account of the Zeitgeist becomes of interest only to older people or cultural historians.
But this look backward may help younger readers understand why I now find myself asking: How has our period style changed? I’m not interested in academic discussion of whatever comes after postmodernism. What concerns me, rather, is the changed nature of the art system and art writing.
When Denis Diderot wrote about the Salons on the eve of the French Revolution, there was a felt need for critical guides to the paintings of the art stars of the day. Their works are vastly different from those in our Carnegie Internationals and Venice Biennales, of course, but the system in which art critics provide commentaries for the larger public remains unchanged. Foster and his colleagues at October and we at Hyperallergic often play that role.
Art writing is an essentially social activity. It’s no accident that Diderot was the author of a classic dialogue, Rameau’s Nephew. You go to the gallery or museum with friends and collectively find an adequate vocabulary for what you are seeing. People may have ideas different from yours, and so you need to be persuasive. Even if you are alone there, imagining what others will say enriches your solitary reflections. It’s no accident that the commercial gallery and the public art museum belong to the public sphere, that space in which free discussion is possible.
As Foster has written recently, “criticism is essential to the public sphere [. . .] In some ways criticism is this sphere in operation” (Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, Verso, 2015). Eleven years ago, at a large conference in Beijing which both Foster and I attended, we were taken to a studio. When I expressed admiration for the works, he remarked, “I see that we have different criteria.” That very brief exchange, which caused me to have second thoughts, was a perfect example of how criticism functions.
Those social occasions have disappeared. Of course you can go online and consult friends or the literature. What’s changed, still, is our process of looking. A painter I admire contrasts the activity of Paul Cézanne — who looked at his motif, then at his canvas, back and forth — with the making of an abstraction, in which the painting is the artist’s subject and object, both in one.
Analogously, whereas being in the gallery or museum involved a three-way relationship, you, your (actual or potential) companions, and the art, now there is just a two-way relationship between you and what’s on the internet. What’s changed is “the psychic address of the image” — its implied relationship to a viewer.
That quoted phrase comes from a classic account of the Zeitgeist, Leo Steinberg’s “Other Criteria” ( Oxford, 1972). His founding discussion of postmodern painting argued that, for Robert Rauschenberg and other contemporary artists, the picture plane is not the Old Masters’ window on the world, but a horizontally oriented surface, a flatbed. “I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.” Like the old masterworks, Rauschenberg’s flatbeds are hung on the museum wall. But their psychic address is different.
Just now there’s been another shift in the psychic address of visual art. Until these very unusual times, whether we were looking at an old master window or a postmodern flatbed, we stood in a gallery space where other people might be present. But when we see that same art, whatever its orientation, on the internet, we look at it alone before our computer, even if other people are in the room alongside us. This is not a change in the kinds of artifacts we view, but in the psychic address of art, its relationship to its audience.
Foster and his postmodernists invoked a binary opposition between approved artists, who expressed the Zeitgeist, and all others. (Not accidentally, his favored journal was named October, after the Eisenstein film about the Soviet Revolution.) In identifying the way in which the experience of all art has now changed, I don’t make any political claims. Not yet. Unlike Foster, I present an admittedly sketchy account without offering a discussion of its larger ramifications, which as yet I don’t understand.
Foster’s Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency updates his account of The Anti-Aesthetic. Here, in my judgment, whatever interest these commentaries may hold as art history of the immediate present, they don’t add up to an account of the present Zeitgeist. And the limitations, failure if you will, of a gifted writer are revealing. Defining the anti-aesthetic by its opposition to modernism, like the older contrast between the avant-garde work and Salon painting, was a binary that ceased to make sense once anti-modernism was taken up by the museums.
And just as the disappearance of Soviet Socialism meant that the political world was remapped, so this development, in which the art world embraced its critics, has left the situation unsettled. “The deepening inroads of art into non-art,” Steinberg wrote, leaves “the old stand-by criteria to rule an eroding plain.” How then will the present sudden change in the psychic address of visual art change our critical criteria? That important question remains, as yet, unanswered.