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Interview with Hal Foster

HAL FOSTER’S WORK FOLLOWS in the tradition of the modernist art critic-historian, a public intellectual whose reflection on, and synthesis of, contemporary culture is informed by a deep commitment to history and its writing. His influence is considerable, reaching well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of modern and contemporary art into architecture, literature, and critical theory – all arenas in which Foster is an authority. His formidable powers of analysis and explication are deployed, more often than not, in the service of disruption and destabilisation, and his work is as polarising as it is revelatory. Foster was one of the key critics in the 1980s debate over postmodern art, for example, a debate that turned on redeployments of historical art practice, principally appropriation, and made fierce by art’s role in the culture wars and the inflating art market.

 

Intellectually formed in the heady theory days of late 70s New York, Foster has spent his career exploring the power, promise, and limits of critique. His art historical writing covers the bifurcated twentieth century, focusing acutely on pre-war avant-garde practice and its recuperation in the decades after World War II. Psychoanalysis looms large in his writing. Nevertheless, there is no dogma in Foster’s approach. While his sympathies are decidedly Marxist, and key passages from Freud, Bataille, and Lacan are recurring touchstones, critical theory is always for him both methodology and object of history. As he says in The Return of the Real (1996), ‘when it comes to critical theory, I have the interest of a second-generation initiate, not the zeal of a first generation convert. With this slight distance I attempt to treat critical theory not only as a conceptual tool but as a symbolic, even symptomatic form.’

 

In addition to his art historical writing (Compulsive Beauty (1993), Design and Crime (2002), Prosthetic Gods (2004), The Art-Architecture Complex (2011), Bad New Days (forthcoming, 2015)), Foster is a regular contributor to ArtforumThe London Review of Books, and October, where he has been an editor since 1991. Editorial work – some of which we discuss in this interview – has a prominent role in his cultural analysis. A notable example, The Anti-Aesthetic, his first edited volume, mapped the uncharted terrain of postmodern thought, and has since become required reading for students of postmodernism in any discipline. I was one such student, and was fortunate to have Foster as my graduate adviser at Princeton University, where he is the Townsend Martin, Class of 1917, Professor of Art and Archaeology. This interview took place as a tracked-changes document exchanged via email – the same format we employed for my dissertation drafts a few months earlier. Foster and I were both between Princeton and New York when the interview took place, but this seemed the most appropriate method (among other things, it allowed him to continue to correct my punctuation).

 

Q

The White Review

— What’s the difference between art criticism and contemporary art history?

A

Hal Foster

— Contemporary art history is now a field of its own, but it remains an oxymoronic category. When does a practice become a ‘thing of the past’ and for whom? Appropriation art, the work of my generation, isn’t a historical object for me, yet it is for others. In my view it’s a mistake to historicise art prematurely: you never know what the present will drag back in (witness the old performances re-enacted in museums today). In a roundup on ‘the contemporary’ I assembled several years back, Richard Meyer relayed several questions to his students that remain pertinent: ‘Why are you studying Art History if what you really want is to write about the current moment? Where are the archival and research materials on which you will draw – in the files of a commercial gallery, in a drawer in the artist’s studio, in the works of art themselves, in a series of interviews that you intend to conduct with the artist, in a theoretical paradigm that you plan to apply to the work, or in an ideological critique of the current moment? What distinguishes your practice as a contemporary art historian from that of an art critic? And how does the history of art matter to the works you plan to write about and to the scholarly contribution you hope to make?’

Q

The White Review

— Can you explain what ‘critical’ means today? Can you parse the ‘critical’ in ‘critical theory’, ‘critical art’ and ‘art criticism’?

A

Hal Foster

— Mostly it means what it has since Kant: reflexive thinking about what different forms of inquiry can and can’t do, including forms of art. Sometimes, however, that inquiry turns into prescription, and the attention to form becomes formalist; ideology critique is then a crucial corrective. Yet that critique has its problems too, such as its arrogance about its own authority, and so it has to be questioned in turn. As indeed it was – by deconstruction, discourse analysis, the refusal of power in feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory, and so on. This story is familiar enough; I rehearse it here simply to underscore that critique is always incomplete: it remains a project, and that project remains, as in the Greek root krinein, to separate and to decide, to articulate and to judge. In different ways that project is active in all theory, criticism and art worth the name; in large part it is what makes us modern, and it can’t be wished away.

Q

The White Review

— What kind of future do you think art history – your art history – anticipates?
A

Hal Foster

— Serious art anticipates the future as much as it reflects the present. By the same token serious art history is driven by the present as much as it is informed by the past. That is to say, ‘my’ art history takes its cue, in part, from contemporary practice: for example, twenty-five years ago feminist art concerned with sexual difference led me to think again about the sexual unconscious of surrealist representations, and our extended period of emergency today prompts me to look back on the twentieth-century avant-garde at times of political crisis, particularly in the aftermaths of the two world wars (that is my long-term project now). Such work has value as history, I hope, but it is also a small offering to the present and the future. Another pittance is the criticism I do – as thoughtful a witnessing as I can muster of the contemporary practice that interests me (‘thoughtful’ is not opposed to ‘partial, passionate and political’).
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


CHRIS REITZ is Assistant Professor of Critical and Curatorial Studies and Gallery Director at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville. He has written for Texte Zur Kunst, N+1, and Art-Agenda, and has contributed to exhibition catalogues on subjects ranging from Kosovar video art to the work of Santiago Sierra.



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