As the Fall semester begins and we welcome back the returning and new art students ready to create art and think critically about it, I’ve begun reading Hal Foster’s latest book Art, Criticism, Emergency. Foster’s writing is essential in its ability to concentrate attention on exactly what the writer wishes to talk to us about. Essential in that he finds the narrowest possible passageway to the truth.
He divides the work of the early 21st century into four spaces: abject, archival, mimetic and precarious. In the conclusion titled In Praise of Actuality, I question why did art swerve into the abject? What were the triggers that led to an “emergency” of art?
To Foster, it is because of the unending state of trauma that we find ourselves in; the unstable terrain of contemporary culture. Not unlike the post-war statement of Theodor Adorno (“To write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.”) artists follow a similar path to take refuge in “the real.” Never forget, always remember. As we observe the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the remembrance of that day becomes actual. It is a performative event, grounded in architecture, technology, and images, a contemporary spectacle of trauma reenactment that is almost inseparable from its relationship to contemporary art. Similar to the way the Holocaust has been reenacted through artfully arranged, narrative museum installations and dramatic architectural spaces, which bring to mind the work of Christian Boltanski or Anselm Kiefer.
This synthesis of remembrance and art reminds me of two great exhibitions I viewed this past summer in New York. One was the interdisciplinary oeuvre of Lazlo Maholy Nagy, an artist known for his connection to the Bauhaus made films, paintings, photography and work in all the spaces in between, integrating art and technology. Equally powerful was the exhibition of West Coast artist Bruce Conner, someone who had a fluid and generous idea about the boundaries of disciplinary practice. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s in San Francisco Connor was a strong influence on my understanding of the possibilities of art, as he welcomed the experimental and evaded definitive media and style.
As we experience the trauma of the real in early 21st century art, I have been considering this art as a gesture of generosity. It is a constant paring down, minimalism to that which is essential, even if it manifests as post-modern spectacle. Essential is relative. Generosity can be private or public, it can be intimate or spectacular, but I find myself drawn over and over to artists whose work has within its generous core. Such work inspires generosity and generosity inspires such work.
Chair of Art