In the introduction to Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (1985), a collection of his writings from the early 1980s, Hal Foster boldly proclaimed his intention "to seek out new political connections and make new cultural maps," thus creating "a critical intervention in a complex (generally reactionary) present." A fiercely analytic anti-idealist dedicated to Marx and Freud, the twin towers of materialist thought for the 20th century, Foster was then not a theorist per se so much as a theory wrangler. He saw himself as an activist and an intellectual infighter writing against the evil empire of capitalism. Scorning pluralism and most art of the early '80s, and using terms like "resistance," "tactics," "positions" and "strategies," he projected an infectiously militant, iconoclastic fervor.
For anyone who still subscribed to some version of Romantic Idealism—myself included—those essays were a shock. And, for better or worse, Foster's language and thinking (along with that of fellow firebrands Craig Owens and Douglas Crimp) supplied much of the critical soundtrack for a generation of brainy pop-conceptual artists, including Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Peter Halley, Allan McCollum, Jeff Koons and many, many others.
Much has changed since then. Over two decades, Foster's kind of theory-based, ideologically tendentious criticism replaced Greenbergian formalism as the default mode in academe. (Heaven knows how many students have been schooled in postmodernist theory by Foster's exceptionally serviceable 1983 volume The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, an anthology of writings by Jean Baudrillard, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, Rosalind Krauss and Edward Said, among others.) Today's art is routinely valued according to its adversarial or ameliorative sociopolitical intentions. The faux-commodity and the simulated commercial photograph, both championed by Foster and his colleagues, turned into postmodernist clichés; institutional critique became ubiquitous in galleries and museums without actually undermining any institutions.
Now 56, Foster himself is a professor in Princeton University's department of art and archeology and the author of a multitude of books that revisit modernist subjects, always with an eye for the genuinely avant-garde. He also collaborated with Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss (a co-founder of the journal October and the supervisor of his PhD thesis on Surrealism) to produce Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-Modernism, Postmodernism (2005), a massive tome surveying 20th-century art.
Since his rise to academic eminence, however, there has been considerable push-back against theory-driven critique, and not only by conservatives. This has not gone unnoticed by Foster. In his preface to The Art-Architecture Complex, one of two books he published last year, he writes a curiously defeated-sounding apology:
I understand the fatigue that many feel with the negativity of critique, its presumption of authority, its sheer out-of-date-ness in a world-that-couldn't-care-less, but it still beats the shallowness of flip opinion and the passivity of cynical reason, not to mention the other options on offer. (In lieu of criticality comes what exactly-beauty? affect? celebration? any other pills to pop?) One sometimes becomes a critic or a historian for the same reason that one often becomes an artist or an architect-out of a discontent with the status-quo and a desire for alternatives. There are no alternatives without critique.
Be that as it may, The Art-Architecture Complex is not as critical as its title's echo of Eisenhower's paranoia-inducing meme "the military-industrial complex" would lead you to expect. A loosely connected compendium of Foster's essays on the careers of several big-name architects, on trends in museum building and on a handful of Minimalist artists, the book has the mellifluous, rarely arousing tone of a university lecture series.
Writing on Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, and Diller + Scofidio, among others, Foster parses such topics as function versus spectacle, the myth of transparency in glassy buildings, and the fetishism of materials, detailing and exposed infrastructure. He alludes to the symbolic, propagandistic service that giant, gleaming, futuristic buildings provide for their corporate clients. This is all instructive for readers not well-informed about contemporary architecture, but if you are hoping that Foster might expose some nefarious convergence of wealth and power behind today's hyperbolic architectural practices, you will be disappointed.
Foster's star artist is Richard Serra. The book's final chapter is a collegial dialogue between himself and Serra, while an earlier chapter, "Sculpture Remade," provides often eloquent descriptive analysis of Serra's practice. On the experience of the artist's labyrinthine, walk-in works of rolled steel, Foster observes:
It can seem that each new step produces not only a new space and a new sculpture, but even a new body. Sometimes, as the walls pinch, one feels the weight of the piece press down; but then, as the walls open up again, this weight is eased-it appears to be funneled up and away. Suddenly both body and structure feel almost weightless, and again even more so with the spirals, as they seem to spin more smoothly, more rapidly, as one walks through them.
By contrast to all kinds of new-fangled art and architecture in which arbitrary, often computer-generated forms distract, decenter and disorient, Serra's work "allows the complexity of experience to be sensuously retained, not futuristically flattened."
Serra may well deserve Foster's appreciation as an artist, but he also acts as a highly effective manager of a complex business that produces extraordinarily big and expensive objects whose social utility is hard to discern. It seems odd to me that a Marxist critic would not look into how and why such an enterprise works so successfully. Where does the money come from and where does it go? What is the system of power, wealth, patronage and industry that supports such a career? Granted, investigative journalism is not Foster's job. But at least he could frame tougher questions and lay out a more illuminating context than he does here.
The First Pop Age is a more focused book. Each of its five chapters addresses a different artist-Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Ed Ruscha—and a particular thesis connects them. Foster argues that Pop art responded to a new kind of middle-class subjectivity arising in the 1950s: a form of consciousness constituted by consumerism and by the mass media's relentless transformation of almost all human concerns into free-floating signifiers.
The affectless paintings of soup cans and celebrities by Warhol, of balls of string and romance—comic panels by Lichtenstein and of fragmented, eroticized automobiles by Hamilton: these evoke characters with little inner life, who find emotional sustenance, meaning and excitement in shiny new products, television, Hollywood movies, glossy magazines and scurrilous tabloids. Painterly style separated from personal expressive urgency in Richter's puzzlingly diversified output, like generic language floating free from any specific mind in Ruscha's paintings, also implies a subject without a core.
In Foster's view, the unmoored, disintegrated Pop self is dazed and confused by the intense, ephemeral visual forms that, in effect, generated that very self in the first place. Pop art "underscore[s] the sheer difficulty of our status as homo imago, the great strain of achieving and sustaining coherent images of self and other at all."
Pop artists themselves, however, found a way to rise above the fray and become a new, more self-aware kind of subject. They learned "to treat the artistic image as a mimetic probe to explore this given matrix of cultural languages-to take apart the clichés of celebrity and commodity, to see how they work (that is, how they have transformed personhood and objecthood alike), and to put them back together with differences that (as Lichtenstein once put it) do not appear ‘great' but might yet be ‘crucial.'"
Foster is keen to justify painting as a vehicle of critique: just when it seemed to be "overturned" both in popular and avant-garde culture, "painting returned, in the most impressive examples of Pop, almost as a meta-art, able to assimilate some media effects and to reflect on others precisely because of its relative distance from them." I don't doubt that painting can perform critique in this way. But, I wonder, is that all there is?
Foster repeatedly refers to a thesis derived from Marxist thinker Louis Althusser, paraphrasing it as "ideology proposes imaginary resolutions to real contradictions." From this premise issues a certain logic: Most people are entranced by fantasies generated by mass culture. Fantasy deflects attention away from the real, material conditions of their lives. Bad artists make people more deluded by creating distracting, seductive spectacles. Good artists direct attention toward real circumstances and instructively demonstrate critical thinking about how dominant ideologies obscure the real. Working in tandem with good artists, good critics "unmask" or "deconstruct" delusional fantasy in order to reveal the world as it really is.
This explains Foster's distrust of the imaginative, the affective, the putatively beautiful and spiritual in art, for these all too easily can lend themselves to the beguiling purposes of advertisers, demagogues and dictators. But this approach begs a question: to whom is it given to know the really real? Have we not learned that "reality" is something we collectively create, each contributing one way or another to a tolerable consensus? And if we don't like the reality we have, should we not enlist imagination, emotion, beauty, transcendental intuitions and utopian aspirations toward envisioning and possibly engendering a better reality?
This is not to say we don't need the kind of deconstructive critique that Foster proffers. If anything, we need more of his probing analysis and polemical rage against the machine. (With these two books, I think he is coasting.) But if art is only to resist the miserable status quo, then it is locked in a lose-lose struggle that has no end. We need a bigger picture, and for that a more expansive critical imagination. This is a challenge
I wish Foster would rise to.
KEN JOHNSON writes regularly for the New York Times.