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Hal Foster in praise of dead art

In an excerpt from his new book, the art historian discusses the return of performance and process in contemporary art

by Hal Foster  |  18 September 2015
Hal Foster in praise of dead art
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010. Photo: Andrew Russeth
The following excerpt is adapted from the art historian Hal Foster’s new book, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, out now from Verso.

Over the last decade art museums have restaged many performances and dances, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. Not quite live, not quite dead, these re-enactments have introduced a zombie time into these institutions. Sometimes this hybrid temporality, neither present nor past, takes on a gray tonality, not unlike that of the old photographs on which the re-enactments are often based, and like these photos the events seem both real and unreal, documentary and fictive. Sometimes, too, the spaces that are proposed to present this undead art are imagined as gray: along with the white cube for painting and sculpture and the black box for projected-image art, “gray boxes” are envisioned to maintain such work in this state of suspended animation.

The institutionalization of experimental performance and dance can be seen negatively as the recuperation of alternative practices or positively as the recovery of lost events; like independent film, performance and dance have come to the art museum both for audience exposure and out of economic necessity. Yet this does not explain the sudden embrace of live events in institutions otherwise dedicated to inanimate art. During the recent boom in new museums, the architect Rem Koolhaas remarked that, since there is not enough past to go around, its tokens can only rise in value. Today, it seems, there is not enough present to go around: for reasons that are obvious in a hyper-mediated age, it is in great demand too, as is anything that feels like presence.

One reason performance has returned as an almost automatic good is its promise of presence. It seems to be totally open to its audience: its making is one with its experiencing. Such transparency was a goal of various avant-gardes, both pre-war and post-war, and nowhere more so than in process art in the 1960s. Like performance, process is back with us too; yet, today as then, this making-manifest of materials and actions in the work can render its purpose more opaque to the viewer, not more transparent.

Solo For Violin Polishing, performed by the Fluxus artist George Brecht in New York, 1964. Photo by George Maciunas
Solo For Violin Polishing, performed by the Fluxus artist George Brecht in New York, 1964. Photo by George Maciunas
Another reason performance is embraced is that, like process, it is said to activate the viewer, especially when a process—an action or a gesture—is performed. The assumption is that to leave a work undone is to prompt the viewer to complete it, and yet this attitude can easily become an excuse not to execute fully. A work that appears unfinished hardly ensures that the viewer will be engaged; indifference is perhaps a more likely result. In any case, such informality tends to discourage sustained aesthetic or critical attention: we are likely to pass over the work quickly because its maker seems to have done the same prior to us, or because quick effect seems to be what was intended in the first place. Two further assumptions are no less dubious. The first is that the viewer is somehow passive to begin with, which need not be the case at all, and the second is that a finished work in the traditional sense cannot activate the viewer as effectively, which is also false.

Might it be that the critique of authorship as authority has done its job too well? When Marcel Duchamp insisted on the importance of the beholder in “the creative act” and Roland Barthes celebrated “the death of the author”, they did so to challenge the dominance of two positions above all: the formalist idea of the artwork understood as a closed system of significance (this was the central principle of the New Criticism of the time) and the popular idea of the artist as the fount of all meaning (a residue of Romanticism that is lodged deep in most of us).

Those ideas are hardly dominant today; on the contrary, notions of the “indeterminacy” of the work, as advocated by John Cage in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and strategies for the participation of the viewer, as pioneered by such movements as Neo-Concretism and Fluxus in the same period, are privileged in art practice and art history alike. Disdained not long ago, they are now prized. That is a good thing, but it is less so if we become oblivious to what motivated indeterminacy and participation in the first instance, or if we become blind to how these qualities might be valued in art today precisely because they are devalued elsewh ere in society (indeterminacy reduced by big data, for example, and participation diminished in democracies overtaken by oligarchies).

Activation has become an end, not a means. Today museums cannot seem to leave us alone; they prompt and program us as many of us do our children. As in the culture at large, communication and connectivity are promoted, almost enforced, for their own sake. This activation helps to validate the museum, to overseers and onlookers alike, as relevant, vital, or simply busy. Yet, more than the viewer, it is the museum that the museum seeks to activate. However, this only confirms the negative image that some of its detractors have long had of it: that aesthetic contemplation is boring and that historical understanding is elitist; that the museum is a mausoleum. Just as the viewer must be deemed passive in order to be activated, so a work of art and art museum alike must be deemed lifeless so that they can be reanimated.

This ideology, which is so central to modern discourse on the art museum, is an assault on art history “as a humanistic discipline,” the mission of which, Erwin Panofsky wrote 75 years ago, is to “enliven what otherwise would remain dead.” Here the proper retort to the contemporary assault comes from the art historian Amy Knight Powell: “Neither institution nor individual can restore life to an object that never had it. The promiscuity of the work of art—its return, reiteration, and perpetuation beyond its original moment—is the surest sign it never lived.”

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin, Class of 1917, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

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