Recovering Radicalism

Dave Beech on critical art after Postmodernism

We are living in a protracted period of reassessment for radical politics and critical art. Postmodernists leapt ahead of the process by baldly pronouncing the end of history and the death of the Avant Garde. Now, with postmodern theory and postmodern art a declining force, the reassessment of radicalism is showing signs of recovery.

Critical art was theoretically condemned when Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan dominated the intellectual terrain of the art world. Squeezed out by the eclipse of the real on one side and the historical integration of the Avant Garde on the other, critical art was no longer feasible within postmodernist terms. What price critical art when, as Baudrillard put it, the image ‘bears no relation to reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum’. When postmodern art occupied the territory of critical art, all that appeared was a profusion of images drawn from a radical lexicon that had been emptied of radical charge. Consider, for instance, the Scottish painters, who used social realist techniques to depict romanticised scenes of the everyday, or the appropriationists, who deployed the readymade affirmatively, without avant-garde bite. Postmodernists often used images, techniques and other elements of art’s critical traditions but only once they had been reduced to signs, codes or sets of known protocols. Postmodernism traded in art’s radical history only at its retail value, so to speak.

Neo-Geo painting was, perhaps, the apogee of the postmodern denial of critical art, presenting abstraction as nothing more than various exercises in style, technique, taste, decoration and semiotics. This recoding of an erstwhile critical art as simply an image-reservoir seemed sophisticated and informed at the time. Critical art taken more seriously than this was thought to be impossible, unsavoury and self-deluding. ‘Rebellion has become method, criticism has become rhetoric, transgression has become ceremony’, wrote Luc Ferry, expressing precisely the key postmodern objection to critical art. The argument was not that a specific kind of critical art had been negated by its incorporation by the market and by art’s institutions; the very possibility, the very idea of a critical art had been lost. Neo-Geo was a typically profane response to the postmodernist block on radicalism, repackaging one of the high points of modernist radicalism as its opposite: not shocking but familiar, not critical but empty, and not autonomous but decorative.

Baudrillard led the way on the postmodernist dismissal of critical art and of political critique in general. For him, oppositional and critical positions were always already accounted for by the prevailing society. In fact, critical thinking, he argued, serves merely to sustain that which it opposes. ‘These days when all critical radicalism has become pointless, when all negativity is resolved in a world that pretends to be fulfilled,’ he wrote, ‘what is left but to return things to their enigmatic ground zero?’ End-games and other forms of knowing complicity therefore replaced outdated avant-garde strategies of opposition and critique. This was the background to the conceptual inflation of irony, play and ecstasy in Postmodernism. Hence, Baudrillard announced: ‘There is something stupid in the current forms of truth and objectivity, from which a superior irony must give us leave.’

Postmodernism either rejected criticality outright or found it lurking within irony, enigma and ambiguity, or what Charles Jencks called ‘double-coding’. So critical art was also spurned because postmodern art typically regarded its key practices – pastiche, irony, eclecticism, simulacra, pluralism and intertextuality – as already critical, albeit indirectly. But this lack of directness was itself seen as an ethical gain. Postmodernists believed that their key critical values – undecideability, the end of meta-narratives, the eclipse of the referent, and so on – were superior to what had previously been advocated by critical art. Craig Owens, for instance, one of the leading postmodern art writers, advocated postmodernist undecideability as politically preferable to older versions of politics found in political, critical, radical or engaged art. Postmodernism was a ‘crisis of cultural authority’, he argued, deliberately implying that this crisis questioned the authority of the critical tradition as well as the dominant culture. Postmodernism, he said, ‘claims no universal authority and seeks to undermine all such claims’. Here, of course, he was drawing a line between Postmodernism and Marxism, which based its claims to political hegemony on the status of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’. At the same time, Owens was closing down the opportunity for any kind of politics beyond local, temporary disputes organised around identity. This was a world with no space – and no time – for critical art.

For postmodernists like Owens, critical art had always been too universalising, too authoritative, too sure of itself. Its demise was therefore welcome. This is why, for Postmodernism, which was characterised by the coexistence of different codes and cultures, pluralism was regarded as eroding the ground of authority and power rather than simply taking it over. The critical is valued within Postmodernism only when it simultaneously sabotages the very possibility of certainty in critical judgement. And it was this model that was subsequently taken up by institutional critique in the late 80s and early 90s. This was a decidedly postmodern version of the critical in art in so far as it restricted itself to art as a system. Critical art remoulded as art critical only of art. The retreat from the world called for by the postmodernist eclipse of the real and history is re-enacted by institutional critique rather than challenged by it. Institutional critique adheres to the values of Postmodernism understood by Owens as a culture located at the end of western sovereignty, in the wake of masculinist authority, subversive of high art’s dominance and dissatisfied with Marxism’s monopoly on the resistance to the established order.

For Fredric Jameson, however, the political analysis of Postmodernism was far less comforting than Owens’ victory over authoritarianism would suggest. His essay ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, published in New Left Review in 1984, proposed that Postmodernism be read as the cultural expression of late capitalism. This ‘extraordinarily demoralising and depressing’ new economic order ‘is the “moment of truth” of postmodernism’, he said. And he matched the formal features of Postmodernism directly with the experience of post-industrial society. For instance, the coexistence of different cultures, for Jameson, was best understood not as a new kind of ethical commitment but as the cultural effect of a now fully established multinational capitalism. Fragmentation, pluralism, spatial disorientation and temporal collapse, likewise, are qualities of postmodern art that can best be seen by Jameson as qualities primarily of global capitalism. Or, to shift from an economic analysis to a political one, as Perry Anderson has said, ‘postmodernism emerged from the constellation of a déclassé ruling order, a mediatized technology and a monochrome politics’. Hence, the ‘positive moral evaluation of postmodernism’, Jameson says, ‘is surely unacceptable’.

Jameson’s analysis of Postmodernism extends the tradition of western Marxism, following György Lukács, who argued that the textual fragmentation of modernist literature was the cultural upshot of capitalist alienation, and echoing Theodor Adorno, who wrote that art’s autonomy could not be disentangled from the commodity form. Jameson sees the historical shift from Modernism to Postmodernism as indexed to the shift from classical to late capitalism, that is to say from industrialism to post-industrialism. The shift from a rationalised productivist Fordism to a consumerist post-Fordist service economy is the true measure of Postmodernism’s eclecticism, pastiche and love of difference, of its free-play of the signifier and loss of meaning. Postmodernism, in this sense, is an accurate expression of the new experiences brought about by late capitalism, but only – and this cannot be underestimated – if we accept that there is no alternative. Not accepting this bleakly depoliticising assessment, Jameson ends his essay by proposing that the question of a critical art has to be left open: ‘The new political art – if it is indeed possible at all – will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object – the world space of multinational capital – at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.’

In his early book Postmodernism, Politics and Art, published in 1990, John Roberts took up where Jameson left off, insisting that ‘new forces, new possibilities, new lines of resistance continue to be opened up’ for what he called ‘critical postmodernism’. He recognised that most postmodernist artists celebrate the erosion of critical art as a liberation and that conservative Postmodernism withdraws from ‘direct ideological confrontation’. Nevertheless, Roberts refused to dismiss Postmodernism as uncritical. Rather he developed a ‘radical reading of postmodernism’ that does not ‘retreat from the complexities of contemporary art’s production and consumption’ (as reactionary retro-modernism did). If Jameson had inserted Postmodernism into the structures of late capitalism, Roberts inserted the various forms of resistance to late capitalism into postmodernist art itself. Focusing on artists who were developing critical art out of the legacies of a wide range of conceptualist and post-conceptualist practices, Roberts successfully identified a sizeable and significant grouping of artists who fit the bill. Critical Postmodernism was not only possible but, in the hands of artists such as Terry Atkinson, Art & Language, Susan Hiller, Rasheed Araeen and Jo Spence, it was, in Britain at least, the best art being produced in the 80s.

Roberts was right to argue that the theoretical and material underpinnings of Postmodernism did not rule out a critical variant, but this truth alone cannot resist the sheer force of the opposition to it. Critical art had to be abolished by postmodernists during that period when Thatcher and Reagan headed up a triumphant right-wing attempt to crush all oppositions and alternatives. Their victory was not inevitable, nor, when it came, was it total and therefore Roberts took the correct position by holding out for a critical art during the period of its commercial, intellectual and institutional eclipse. However, hope for a critical variant of Postmodernism took another blow with the advent of young British art. Young British art hit the art world with a level of enthusiasm for commerce and the media that would embarrass even the most depoliticised 80s postmodernist. Suddenly, yBa jettisoned every last trace of a critical tradition that remained within Postmodernism, diluting its claims for difference and diversity into a commercial and cultural free-for-all. As ever, there were several individuals within or around the official tendency who made critical works and critical claims for art, but the tide was going the other way. Whatever potential for critical art there was in yBa or in the work of its antagonists, such as the artists who congregated around the art collective Bank, the 90s was the decade not of the reinvigoration of critical art but the revival of beauty, the rise and rise of the biennale, and the celebration of conviviality.

But in the last few years, art has become more engaged, more directly political and more critical. At the same time, writers on art have increasingly discussed, defended and theorised the new art on account of its engagement and critique. Politics has not taken centre stage in the contemporary art world but the intellectual conditions under which engaged and critical art is practised today has improved. The postmodern embargo on the critical in art seems to have lost its force. Artists such as Liam Gillick and Carey Young, whose works have always had a politicised seam, are now more likely to be criticised for a lack of political content rather than an excess of it. It may feel to them that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but if the pressure today is for contemporary artists to engage more, then this amounts to an improved situation for them. Not that the defence of such art is always made on critical grounds. There is, in fact, a great deal of what Raymond Williams would call ‘residual’ discourse about contemporary critical art. Indeed, Nicolas Bourriaud, who has championed Gillick, Young and other critical artists (and is the curator of this summer’s Tate Triennial), remains, on close reading, surprisingly committed to postmodernist values.

Bourriaud does not simply rehash the familiar gestures of postmodernist theory; any celebration of eclecticism, pluralism and pastiche today would be worthless. Nevertheless, Bourriaud’s postmodernist enthusiasms come through time and again: ‘the new is no longer a criterion’, ‘unlike an object that is closed in on itself by the intervention of style and a signature, present-day art shows that form only exists in the encounter’, ‘present-day art is roundly taking on and taking up the legacy of 20th century avant-gardes, while at the same time challenging their dogmatism and their teleological doctrines’. His definition of the artist as a ‘semionaut’ is clearly indebted to postmodernist conceptions of signifying practices. Moreover this reworking of Postmodernism within relational aesthetics does not let up when Bourriaud addresses the question of a critical art: ‘Any stance that is “directly” critical of society is futile,’ he writes.

Following Jameson I would argue that relationality, conviviality and postproduction are best understood as being rooted in and expressions of a post-industrial, consumerist service economy. Bourriaud’s subscription to a postmodernist micropolitics is the driving force behind his advocacy of open sociality and the open artwork. His opposition to opposition and dismissal of militancy, and therefore his rejection of critical art, is bound up with a postmodernist sensitivity to otherness that never quite manages to become a fully fledged politics. It is exactly at this point that Claire Bishop takes issue with Bourriaud’s position. Whereas Bourriaud’s writing emphasises and favours art that lays out forms of immanent togetherness, Bishop’s writing emphasises and favours art that reveals real antagonisms within its social and cultural exchanges. Bishop’s critique of Bourriaud has opened up questions of the political substance of relational art by asking for an antagonistic (ie political) rather than convivial (ie ethical) account of art’s social relations.

Bishop, drawing on Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Rancière, argues that relational art is not political enough to claim, as it does, that it is democratic. Taking Ernesto Laclau and Mouffe’s agonistic theory of democracy as her model, she argues that Bourriaud’s open sociality falls short of the basic requirements of democracy. Neither writer calls for a critical art but I want to suggest that one of the ways that we might think of the difference between them is that Bourriaud’s limitations are due to his incipient Postmodernism; the very thought of a critical art that Bishop opens up is made possible by overcoming the traces of Postmodernism’s critique of critique that remain present in Bourriaud’s writing. And this difference is explained in terms that distinguish her position from the classic Postmodernism espoused by Bourriaud in a challenging reference to exactly that critical tradition that Postmodernism routinely ridiculed. ‘The best examples of socially collaborative art’, she argues, ‘have a closer relationship to avant-garde theatre, performance, or architectural theory.’

The difference that I am drawing out here between Bishop and Bourriaud, in terms of Postmodernism’s critique of critique and the subsequent politicised critique of Postmodernism, is not to be understood simply as a chance encounter between two contemporary writers on art. This rivalry is playing itself out all over academia, the humanities and art. With allegiances transferred from Baudrillard, Lyotard and other postmodern theorists to the likes of Alain Badiou, Rancière, Slavoj Zizek and Mouffe – all committed to the possibility of social change – the space for rethinking critique has reopened. The philosophical and political ground has changed and one of the clearest ways of reflecting on this shift is through the analysis of the question of critique. Richard Noble’s attempt to think through various models of critical art, a typology that has been taken up by Mouffe in her theory of art’s role within counter-hegemonic struggle, signals a change in the fortunes of critical art after Postmodernism. Under these transformed conditions – after the postmodern abolition of critique has lost its force – emerges the possibility of a critical art that can become everything that Postmodernism said it could never be: thinkable, feasible and urgent.

Dave Beech is an artist in the collective Freee.

First published in Art Monthly 323: February 2009.

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