against pluralism

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By Hal Foster. Complete essay.

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  • Against Pluralism

    Art exists today in a state of pluralism: no style or even rnode ofart is dominant and no critical position is orthodox. Yet this stateis also a position, ald this position is also an alibi. As a generalcondition pluralism tends to nbsorb argument

    - which is not to say

    that it does not promote antagonism of all sorts. One can onlybegin out of a discontent with this status quo: for in a pluralist stateart and criticisrn tend to be dispersed and so rendered irnpotent.Minor deviation is allowed only in order to resist radical change,and it is this subtle conformism that one must challenge. My mo-tive here is simple: to insist that pluralism is a problern, to specifythat it is a conditioned one subject to change, and to point to theneed for cogent criticism.

    Pluralism is not a recent condition. In 1955 Lionel Tiilling couldbemoan the "legitimation ol'the subversive"' in a plur:rlist univer-sity, and in 1964 Herbert Marcuse could even condemn pluralismas a new totalitarianisrn."2 Yet the visual arts are a special case: inthe '50s abstract expressionism seemed monolithic, and in the'60sthe visual arts had an order that American culture otherwisel:rcked. In the '60s self-criticism centered these arts radically. In(schematic) retrospect the major art and criticism of the periodconstitute a highly ethical, rigorously logical enterprise that setout to expunge impurity and contradiction. . . only to incite themas countertactics. For if minimalism was the apogee of modernism,it was also its negation.

    Robert Morris. 1-Bor (open), 196213

  • SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

    Late modernism was literally corrupted -

    broken up. Its self_critical impulse was retained, but its ethical tone was rejected.This rejection led to an estheticism of the non- or antiartistic. sucha reaction (much conceptual art is representative) allowed for manvnew modes of art: hybrid, ephemeral, site-speciffc, textual. It als;fostered an "institutional theory" of art

    - namely, that art is what

    institutional authority (e.g., the museum) says it is. This theorvpushed art into a paradoxical position: for if it was true that muchart could be seen as art only uithin the museum, it was also truethat much art (often the same) was criticalolfthe m'seum

    - specifi-

    cally, of the way the museum defined art in terms of an autonomoushistory and contained it within a museological space. But thisimpasse was only apparent; and art continued to be made bothagainst the institutional theory and in its name.

    The problem of context was only part of a greater problem: thevery nature of art. Late-modernist critics (clement Greenbergpreeminent among them) held that each art had one nature _ oneset of givens

    - and that the imperative of each was to reveal its

    essence, expunge the extraneous. such an esthetic was reflectedin art that was pure and centered (i.e., one did reflexive paintingor sculpture, nothing else). Against these norms new imperativessoon arose: the perverse and the marginal were privileged. (Appar_ent in early happenings, such attitudes were crucial to early pe._formance art.)At first extremely tactical, these imperatives in timebecame all but conventional as the anti-resthetic forms were re-couped in repetition and as "alternative" spaces were rendered in_stitutional. Thus, what was initiated as a displacement of specificart forms led to a dispersal of art in general

    - a dispersal that

    becarne the first condition of pluralism.In practical terms pluralism is difficult to diagnose, yet two

    factors are important indices. o'e is an art market confident incontemporary art as an investment

    - a market that, recently

    starved by "ephemeral" modes (e.g., conceptual, process, site_specific art), is again ravenous for "tirneless" art (read: painting_especially, image painting-sculpture and art photography). iheother index is the profusio' of art schools

    - schools io ,rrr*"ro.r,

    a'd isorate as to be "::'.:';:;;1'::.,,"te a new academy!-or the market to be open to many styles, the strict criteria of late

    modernism had to be dismissed. Similarly, for art schools to multi-ply so, the strict definition of art forms had to break down. In the'70s these conditions came to prevail, and it is no accident that acrisis in criticism, ensuant upon the breakdown of American for-rnalism, occurred then too. In its wake we have had much advocacybut no theory with any collective consent. And strangely, few art-ists or even critics seem to feel the lack ofcogent discourse

    - which

    is perhaps the signal of the concession to pluralism'

    A State of Grace?As a term, pluralism signifies no art specifically. Rather, it is a situ-ation that grants a kind of equivalence; art of many sorts is madeto seem more or less equal

    -,equally (un)important. Art becomesan arena not of dialectical dialogue but of vested interests, of li-censed sects: in lieu of culture we have cults. The result is an ec-centricity that leads, in art as in politics, to a new conformity:pluralism as an institution.

    Posed as a freedom to choose, the pluralist position plays rightinto the ideology of the "free market"; it also conceives art asnatural, when both art and freedom consist entirely of conven-tions. To disregard this conventionality is dangerous: art seen asnatural will also be seen as free of "unnatural" constraints (historyand politics in particular), in which case it will become truly auton-omous-i.e., merely irrelevant. Indeed, the freedom of art todayis announced by sorne as the "end ofideology" and the "end ofthedialectic"

    - an announcement that, however uaive, makes this

    ideology all the more devious.'' In effect, the demise of one style(e.g., minimalism)' or one type of criticism (e.g., fbrmalism) oreven one period (e.g., late modernism) tends to be mistaken forthe death of all such formulations. Such a death is vital to pluralism:for with ideology and dialectic somehow slain, we enter a state thatseerns like grace, a state that allows, extraordinarily, for all styles -

    14 15

  • SICNS AND SYMPTOMS

    i. r.., plrrralisrn. Such innocence in the face of history implies a seri-orrs rnistrrrrstrual of the historicity of art and society. It also impliesrr lirilrrrr, o1' criticism.

    Wlrcrr fi>rmalism prevailed, art tended to be self-critical. Thoughit wirs seldom regarded in historical or political context, it was atkrast analytical in attitude. When formalism fell, even this attitudewas largely lost. Free before of other discourses, art now seemedIiee of its own discourse. And soon it appeared that all criticism,ol)ce so crucial to art practice (think of Harold Rosenberg and ab-stract expressionism, Michael Fried and color-field painting, Rosa-Iind Krauss and site-specific art), had lost its cogency. Obviously acritical art

    - one that radically revises the conventions of a given

    art form-is not the imperative that it once was. We are free-ofwhat, we think we know But where are we left? The present inart has a strange form, at once full ancl empty, ancl a strange tense,a sort of neo-now moment of "arridre-avant-gardism." Many artistsborrow promiscuously from both historical and modern art. Butthese references rarely engage the source

    -

    let alone the present -

    deeply. And the typical artist is often "foot-loose in time, cultureand metaphor":5 a dilettante because he thinks that, as he enter-tains the past, he is beyond the exigency of the present; a duncebecause he assumes a delusion; and a dangling man because histor-ical moment

    - our present problernatic is lost.

    Modern art engaged historical forms, often in order to decon-struct them. Our new art tends to assume historical forms

    - out of

    context and reified. Parodic or straight, these quotations plead forthe importance, even the traditional status, of the new art. Incertain quarters this is seen as a "return to history"; but it is in f,rcta profoundly ahistorical enterprise, and the result is often ":rsthet-ic pleasure as false consciousness, or vice versa."n

    This "return to history" is ahistorical for three reasons: the con-text of history is disregarded, its continuum is disavowed, and con-flictual forms of art and modes of production are falsely resolvedin pastiche. Neither the specificity of the past nor the necessity ofthe present is heeded. Such a disregard makes the return /o historyalso seem to be a liberation from history. And today many artistsdo feel that, free of history, they are able to use it as they wish.

    TGAINST PLURALISM

    Yet, almost self-evidently, an art form is specific: its meaning ispart and parcel ofits period and cannot be transposed innocently.To see other Tteriods as mirrors of our own is to turn history intonarcissism; to see other stgles as open to our own is to turn historyinto a dream. But such is the dream of the pluralist: he seems tosleepwalk in the museum.

    To be unaware of historical or social limits is not to be free ofthem; one is all the more subjected. Yet in much art today the lib-eration from history and society is effected by a turn to the self- asif the self were not informed by history, as if it were still opposedas a term to society. This is an old plaint: the turn of the individualinward, the retreat from politics to psychology. As a strategy inmodern art, extreme subjectivity uas critical once: with the sur-realists, say, or even the abstract expressionists. It is not so now.Repressively allowed, such subjectivity is the norm: it is not tacti-cal; indeed, it may be worse than innocuous. So it is that thefreedom of art today is

    .forced (both false and compelled): a willfulnaivet6 that rnasquerades as joui,ssance, a promiscuity miscon-ceived as pleasure. Marcuse noted how the old tactics of (sexual)li

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