Post-Critical Theory

John Haber
in New York City

But the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.
      — Leon Trotsky and André Breton, Manifesto

Johanna Drucker: Sweet Dreams

Ben Davis: Art Class

Not everyone hates success. Take the art market.

The crowds hurrying to Chelsea for that first Thursday evening in September do not hate it. The owners of the bars, restaurants, and real estate in the neighborhood love it even more. Uncounted others have a stake in it, from collectors keeping the machine going to dealers and artists feeding it. Many times that number wish they had a stake in it. I know I do. Gregory Crewdson's Untitled (Ophelia) (Luhring Augustine, 1998–2002)

Now even a writer or two is willing to defend it. They may not celebrate it exactly, but they think it is time to accept the market as a brute fact. At the very least, they believe, one must accept that artists are a part of it. It drives the creative act, and works of art reflect mass culture or commerce. And I do not mean reflect on it critically. Could the time have come for a post-critical theory?

Johanna Drucker, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and herself an artist, ends Sweet Dreams between pleasure and uncertainty. Ben Davis, an editor at ArtNet, ended his contribution late last summer by demanding action. Both, though, agree that most critics have everything wrong. The myth persists that art is autonomous—that it rises above the "culture industry." When the myth breaks down, it leaves critics wondering if art has a future.

Davis and Drucker suggest instead casting away the myth. They see artists as middle-class professionals, working away in support of the culture industry and its message. Davis finds this liberating for artists, but stifling for everyone else, and he calls on artists to rebel. Drucker sees it as a wellspring of artistic productivity. I shall argue that they both overlook real anxieties—in struggling artists, intelligent audiences, and ordinary citizens alike. To confuse matters further, that very anxiety keeps driving some terrific art, even as the pageantry of galleries and museums begs viewers to forget the whole thing.

Critical industry

Davis and Drucker are right in seeing consensus—or at least a shared battleground. Most critics, including Marxists and post-structuralists, still share such liberal values as irony, detachment, and engagement. They are likely to see art as an alternative to the business of life as usual. They tend to see representation, appropriation, or digital manipulation as strategies for interpreting the world and holding it to account. In the art boom, they see new opportunities, but also a serious threat. Meanwhile, a handful of conservative critics bizarrely imagine markets driven by fancy French theory, which somehow supplies excuses for abandoning aesthetic standards.

Both sides see trouble when anything goes and everything is up for sale. Still, a writer's stake in the market is not just financial. A critic is someone who likes to look at art, and most critics are still having a good time. Jerry Saltz keeps questioning Chelsea's "superparadigm," brilliantly at that, but he has not run out of shows to review or excuses to gush about the New Museum. Even conservatives, when they try to erect a wall between contemporary chaos and dear old modern art, are defending a very recent past.

Of course, critics have a stake in the market, too. Magazines describe it all in full color, even before Richard Prince rephotographs the ads. They discover the latest trend and the latest emerging artist, trying desperately to stay one foot ahead of the Chelsea crowds on the first Thursday in September. Universities are adding courses in mass culture and departments like Drucker's. Does art still have something to do with subjectivity and creative freedom? Well, individual choice, too, is a value associated with consumer society.

In other words, the state of the art is ambivalence. No wonder I keep returning to the same arguments over and over myself. You may think that you have read all this before, and you probably have. Both Davis and Drucker have a similar, telling moment. Davis describes Peter Schjeldahl, who did as much as than anyone to tout art celebrities in the 1990s, at sea at the latest Venice Biennale. Drucker describes the melancholy in T. J. Clarke, the historian who showed early Modernism as an extension of an emerging middle class.

Both Davis and Drucker see all this floundering as blindness. Even the left, they feel, is clinging to the past. Artists, they argue, act petit bourgeois because they are. For Davis, that means contradictions. Like an old-style Marxist (or, for that matter, me), he sees the middle class as torn between ideals and elitism, but also between populism and compromise—like one long epic by Matthew Barney. Drucker writes about art's "complicity," its "active flirtation with the culture of mass production."

Like Marx, too, Davis thinks the point is not to interpret the world but to change it. He demands a "new initiative," to alter "the vast inequality of in the distribution of material—and thus cultural and intellectual—resources in the world." Drucker is more at home in art today, which she finds "materially engaging, viscerally seductive, and visually smart." I think of them as two kinds of dreamers, and they echo my dreams as well. I share their hopes for the future and their giddiness at the mess of the present. But are we all just dreaming?

Artists of the world, unite!

If distrust of the art market represents the first draft of a critique, Ben Davis supplies a sloppy edit. His article rambles, shifts course, and takes quotes for facts. Above all, however, he turns up the snark—a sure sign that this critic of high-falutin' theory is still above it all. So, no doubt, am I.

Davis gets in his digs at criticism, starting with the Frankfurt school. All he has to do is to note that, in their desperation to defend high art, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno rejected Orson Welles and (gasp) Mickey Rooney. Davis contrasts academic blather with real Marxism: "read the Manifesto of the Communist Party." What has happened to Marx's lyrical praise for capitalism, in its power to remake the world, right down to "cosmopolitan artistic culture"? What, for that matter, has happened to people like Davis, smart enough to give The Communist Manifesto its original title?

Davis knows that working critics want something more than "just a rehash of Marxist ideology." And he has little time for actual Postmodern theorists—who have read Marx, who question fine art apart from mass culture, and who slam Modernism as all too wrapped up in powerful institutions. He also avoids asking how they found inspiration in the Frankfurt school (or in the Trotsky and Breton of my epigraph). Still, he insists, they are wasting time when they ask for a "new theory." Of course, he promptly offers one. Having established that his opponents are Marxist "only in the most superficial sense," he bases his theory on class, defined by "relationship to production."

Since artists and dealers neither own the means of production nor toil like the working class, they belong to the middle class, just like doctors and shopkeepers. In the class wars, they therefore have conflicted loyalties. This sounds reasonable. In fact, it sounds much like the statement of the problem that Davis dismissed. Marx actually had little to say about middle-class society, which is why Postmodernism and the Frankfurt school exist. Besides, reasonable does not necessarily mean valid.

Davis cannot explain America, in which wealth means liquidity, including ownership of the means of production through investments. He does not clarify the relationship of art to either the working class, as entertainment, or to the bourgeois, as patrons. He lumps together all artists, who have many day jobs and thus other class roles, and lumps them together with doctors, who do not. He does not explain what has provoked a sense of crisis in the first place. Artists have not changed classes all of a sudden, but styles, audiences, markets, status, power, and the very idea of an art world have changed—dramatically and perhaps irreversibly. Besides, globalization of the arts gives "workers of the world" a whole new meaning.

For all his insights, Davis's definition of class struggle could come right out of David Brooks (but the columnist and not the artist). Artists are the ones who sip latte and avoid action. After the lovely quote from Marx, about the glories of capitalism, has art reached a happy ending, then, in a capitalist utopia after theory? But no, here comes a final swerve after the hymn to middle-class culture, a demand for revolution in the material conditions of society. But what exactly would this involve? Would it help to stop reading criticism—or at least ArtNet?

Goodnight, sweet prints

Davis has made a perceptive, provocative start, but Drucker has made it to a fresh draft of the art scene, and it is an eye-opener. Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity parallels Davis's outline, but with more subtlety and a connection to works of art. She also shows a real willingness to share her doubts—even to end her keynote chapter with them. Doubt is one thing, however. For her, the problem is that critical theory is only critical.

She, too, has looked to theorists for ideas, judgment, and concern for art. As the ideals of Modernism battle it out with the irony and diversity of Postmodernism, who has not? However, she finds theorists puzzled and alienated, and it leaves her unsatisfied. Do artists no longer play by the rules when it comes to money and mass culture? Instead of complaining, she prefers to ask what kind of art they are making. And there she finds strange but enticing dreams.

She starts with Untitled (Ophelia), a photograph by Gregory Crewdson from his Twilight series—a title that could easily stand for a generation of contemporary photography, like that of Benjamin Fink and Alex Prager. A woman in white floats beside a living-room sofa in a state of awareness, sleep, or death. One could take that ambiguity as a metaphor for the state of the arts. Instead, she first asks how other critics might interpret the photo. Not everyone, she makes clear, is out to dismiss contemporary art. Too often, however, critics salvage it only by interpreting it as dark, detached commentary on middle-class life, embedded in stale images that no longer promise fulfillment.

Wrong, she says. Crewdson take mass culture for granted, as not just acceptable, but as a way of life. With it, he then creates something apart from mass culture—something magical and something of his own. Over and over, she will look to individual artists with the same scenario. She sees art as neither critical of consumer society nor identical with it, but what she calls "in complicity." Where Davis sees artists as simultaneously at odds with power and a slave to it, she sees them recreating the productive power of the market, but as a sweet dream. As Marx himself wrote, "All that is solid melts into air."

After stating her case, Drucker turns again to critical theory. She takes a point of origin long before the Frankfurt school. Starting with Kant, art derived its value from its autonomy. Postmodernists like October magazine may have rejected Modernism's claim to keep fine art safe from popular culture, but only to maintain their critical distance. When Arthur C. Danto declares the "end of art," he looks at Brillo boxes by Andy Warhol. All he can see is a philosophical concept, Drucker notes, when a consumer product is staring him right in the face.

She asks for a conception of art's "radical agency" without the burden of social reform—of "artistic identity recovered from instrumentalism." In her last chapter and nearly two-thirds of the book, she lays out a clever series of strategies. Some, like "thingness and objecthood" or "the 'now' sublime," sound like Modernism but as a coming attraction. Some, like "monsters and flesh" or "hybridity and unnaturalism" recall Surrealism, but as seen through a B movie. Others, like "slacker aesthetics" or "flagrant complicity," simply give in, so long as the artist gets the last word. Regardless, "individual subjectivity is marked, expressed, and preserved in all its ideological complicity."

Dream a little dream

Drucker combines passion when it comes to the art's potential, wit when it comes to present-day examples, and tough-minded ideas when it comes to the recent past. How could I not want her to describe the future? I tend to describe it the same way myself. But is it all a bedtime story?

She may not wave Ben Davis's straw men, but those she criticizes might think so. True, Kant discussed art as "purposive without purpose"—in a sense, autonomous. True, Romanticism spun that idea into the expressive autonomy of the artist, Oscar Wilde into art for art's sake, and Clement Greenberg into a way to salvage art from "kitsch." Modern art, however, has had plenty of alternative histories. When Edouard Manet's Olympia or Les Demoiselles d'Avignon stare back, painting breaks the theater's fourth wall and, with it, any possibility of the autonomous object. When any number of modernist movements try to remake society, they do as well.

Nor do they always do so from the top down. Stuart Davis and others embraced the pop and sizzle of pop culture long before Pop Art. As museums opened design departments, art entered the production line. And the designers wanted it that way. Later theorists just upped the ante, holding Modernism to just those aims—and of course finding it wanting. Hal Foster, for one, adds a deft compromise, finding the pop, sizzle, and Postmodern critique in Modernism all along. Drucker's wry categories for young artists could easily have included the titles of his books, such as Compulsive Beauty or Prosthetic Gods.

The critical impulse will not go away so quickly either. When Foster describes "the paradox of immediacy" or "sympathy undercut by sadism," he could be rebutting her optimism in advance. In The Return of the Real, he tries to answer his own question: "should we then simply surrender" the subject? Apparently not. Artists may not always despise what they see, but could discomfort and ambivalence feed their visions, too?

More than enough artists would agree. Not everyone is sweet or dreaming, and who likes Mickey Rooney anyway? Feminism and multicultural identities are everywhere in the galleries, and 9/11 moved political art from an agenda to a common impulse. An artist's divided loyalties, public and private, are in fact a precondition for effective political art—and a public's divided loyalties for the controversy and censorship it receives. Drucker pays respects to other histories when she speaks of the "diversity of nineteenth and twentieth century art" and the "inherently political" nature of personal expression. However, her story line never wavers, much like history for a modernist or Marxist.

She downplays signs of tension in her interpretations of art as well. She says that Mary Gaskell appropriates images of women because she likes them. Gaskell's latest videos, however, have women and girls squirming, both in front of and behind the camera. Drucker calls a Wagon Station by Andrea Zittel a "prototype for mass production." Unlike a Breuer chair, however, do not expect these one-of-a-kind desert trailers in your neighborhood anytime soon. In their harsh compaction of life functions, from kitchen to toilet, they recover the idea of autonomy—in both its idealistic and its oppressive connotations.

The nightmare rides upon sleep

Davis is right after all: artists are contradictory and conflicted. They were when Goya created his Black Paintings or Gauguin tread between civilizations, but now so is everyone else as well. And no one is all that sure what to do about it. For all Drucker's thoughtfulness, with artists like Cai Guo-Qiang or Takashi Murakami, complicity basically comes down to the meeting of museum institutions and male adolescent fantasies. Artists and critics have every reason to feel conflicted, too. The contradictions did not just spring full-blown out of The Village Voice and October.

Partly, the crisis comes back to the usual questions of esthetic judgment. Art has always thrived on contradictions. The art market has just made them worse, but it also makes it harder to know who is thriving and who gets to decide. Sure, patronage centuries ago or the tight circle of New York in the 1940s shielded some mediocre artists. Now, however, vast reputations suddenly rise and rarely fall. I myself dislike most of Drucker's exemplars, which is why I have mostly not mentioned them.

Part comes down to conditions for making and viewing art. People can honestly worry about nurturing growth when emerging artists have to look young and handsome. People can worry about the influence of certain art schools and dealers in adjudicating the outcomes. People can worry about the loud, bloated, dispersed installations and video that result when gallery-goers have to cover Chelsea in an afternoon, in what I like to call Modernism pressed for time. Yet at the same time, as audiences grow, more and more people look to art objects and images for the expression of their own battered politics and identities.

Drucker has the insight to see beauty where others see only confusion or despair. That takes a loving eye, along with a willingness to insist on what everyone ought to know: artists are making exciting work, and an immersion in reality does not always entail selling out. However, her ability to frame contradiction as productive ambiguity also stems from some ambiguity of her own. She uses some slippery vocabulary.

Autonomy can refer to the Kantian notion of art, to art that does not draw on practical realities as its subject matter, to art that specifically excludes mass culture, or to the free creative act of an artist—even one who embraces mass culture. Mass culture can mean anything from markets to popular entertainment, which have separate and unequal influence on art. Complicity, too, comes with more than enough baggage. It can suggest art as canny connivance but also participation in a wrongful act. It also shares roots with comply, implying a loss of the artist's autonomy. Sweet dreams can easily become Orwellian nightmares.

Davis may have to wait a long time for a revolution, artistic or other, and in the meantime Drucker's categories will multiply into some gorgeous exhibitions. For now, art is trapped between museum blockbusters and niche markets, and I enjoy both. Still, the feelings in an artist's gut will not go away, torn between personal and career pressures, so often conscious of not living up to either. To her credit, Drucker never leaves the questions behind. As she puts it, "sweet dreams indeed—but are we being lulled to sleep or to a new awakening?" One can always dream.

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Johanna Drucker's Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity was published in 2005 by the University of Chicago Press. Ben Davis's "Art Class" appeared on ArtNet August 24, 2007. Trotsky and Breton wrote their "Manifesto: Toward a Free Revolutionary Art" in 1938. A related article looks further at complicity in the art world.


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