Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 27, 2000
Benjamin Buchloh Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 MIT Press, 2001. 576 pp.; 122 b/w ills. Cloth (0262024543)

This is a terrific collection of essays that provides a valuable opportunity to review the intellectual development and ambitions of one of the leading critics of our time. It offers access to the author’s enterprise from a distinctive vantage point: saving for a second volume his influential period and approach studies—essays such as “Formalism and Historicity” (1977), “Allegorical Procedures” (1982), and “Cold War Constructivism” (1990)—and his well-known “from/to” critical developmental surveys of art movements—such as “From Faktura to Factography” (1984), “From Gadget Video to Agit Video” (1985), and his forceful summary essay on Conceptual Art subtitled, “From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” (1989)—, this volume features a more monographic Buchloh than we are generally accustomed to, a Buchloh focused more closely on proper names and individual bodies of work. We gain from this editorial compartmentalization not only because of the sustained example of close reading it provides, but also for the insight it allows into the author’s critical-theoretical method. What comes through first and foremost after reading these essays together is his commitment to what he calls in a 1999 essay “the very model of a ‘principle of hope’ [the phrase is taken from Ernst Bloch] so integral to any avant-garde formation” (244). In a manner now generally anathema to scholars both junior and senior alike, this book breathes its allegiance to the old ideal throughout with rarely ever a sigh or sense of fatigue. For better or worse, it might be said, it has little of the melancholy of a Farewell to an Idea.

There is nothing vulgar about the this commitment, however: as much as any post-avant-garde pessimism or triumphalism, it is drawn from that tradition—dominant in Euro-American art and intellectual life now for close to two-thirds of a century—that developed the bulk of its sense of purpose by defining itself opposite to l’art engagé. Listen, for example, to the tone of this characteristic passage: “After all, it has become painfully apparent that the sclerotic fixation on a model of reductivist criticality or instrumentalized rationality in artistic practice does not promise to be any more productive than an adherence to the foundationalist myths of the perennial validity of the classical genres and production procedures of painting and sculpture” [xv]. Buchloh’s project—still holding onto that “principle of hope” as it does despite such sclerosis—overcomes this pessimism even while making his primary focus the simple fact that, under the present historical circumstances, it cannot be let go. To put it another way, what this book provides is an opportunity to see in a clearer and more detailed light that which we have known about Buchloh all along—i.e., that he is an Adornian through and through. The one insight that may have been less visible previously but comes clearly into view when reading these essays together as intellectual history is that this is true now more than ever.

Ever the critic, the ambition to discriminate between good art and bad is central to Buchloh’s entire body of writing. This ambition is particularly visible in the “from/to” essays not included, which trace critico-aesthetic gains and losses across the life spans of movements, and in certain single-artist studies such as his well-known “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol” of 1980 (41-64), in which he brings his full critical arsenal to bear on art-as-myth. His critical impulse is somewhat complicated by the focus on individual artists in the other essays included here simply because he is not engaged directly in critique or even so much in the discrimination between good art and bad (although such discriminations are always assumed if not always directly stated), but is attuned instead to the interest of the work in question, appraised according to its measure of historical reach and acuity. It is here that Buchloh emerges as an art historian even more than a critic and as an Adornian in the best possible sense: the main focus of his work is not on critical advances or declines within a movement or tradition or on art suffering or escaping from its own ideological conventions as art, but on art, first and foremost, as a cipher of history more broadly conceived.

At the end of the most recent of the essays, he indicates this ambition in a “crude sketch” of a method that, he says, suffers neither from “the formalist analysis of post-Greenbergian approaches” or from “the limited tools of a social art history exclusively based on a mechanistic principle of ideology critique.” Instead of either art or its context being looked to as the source of meaning that illuminates the other, each is said to mean significantly only by reciprocal homology: “the structure of the historical experience and the structure of aesthetic production [may] be recognized within sets of complex analogies that are neither mechanistically determined nor conceived of as arbitrarily autonomous, but that require the specificity of understanding the multiple mediations taking place within each artistic proposition and its historical context” (254). He calls this “a methodology that has yet to be elaborated” but we might well see it as a methodology pursued and often powerfully realized throughout the career represented by this collection (even as he lapses only occasionally into the post-Greenbergian and, particularly, the social-art-historical modes he rejects). That said, however, we can also see a clear methodological shift that has taken place over the course of that career.

If the critical scale of the earlier Buchloh ran from art that served myth on one end to art that negated it on the other, from art that perpetuated spectacular identity forms—the myth of the artist as shaman, for example, or the artist as ideologist, or the myth of the artist as autonomy realized—to art that deconstructed such forms, the later Buchloh has come to appreciate art for its capacity to provide the experience of nonmythic forms of identity. Beginning with his essay on Hans Haacke in 1988, he tells us in the introduction, “and perhaps more systematically in my work on Gerhard Richter in recent years,” he has focused on “the aesthetic capacity to construct mnemonic experience as one of the few acts of resistance against the totality of spectacularization” (xv). His model of criticality thus might be said to have shifted from one side of the artwork to the other. No longer focused primarily on negating, uncovering or deconstructing myth, it turns instead on the question of what a nonmythical, post-traditional identity form might look like and, thus, on a critical concern with the possibilities for such identification under the rule of what Adorno called, among other such labels, our “postpsychological” condition, and Buchloh terms variously “advanced desubjectivization” (551), “the subject’s annihilation” (xvi), “the systematic destruction of subjectivity” (x), “the historically determined destruction of the subject” (532), etc. Art’s accomplishment worthy of the critic’s praise, according to Buchloh’s newer model, is to develop a subjectivity more grounded than the “quick specular surrogates for identity” (xxiii) on offer in an increasingly global, increasingly spectacular world.

The old Marxian category of historical consciousness that has driven Buchloh’s critical thinking all along thus assumes a whole different status in the wake of this subjective turn. Where before such a critical consciousness had marked a position that was roughly that of science or philosophy, a position that negated illusory and obfuscating identity structures by rendering them as epiphenomenal to the movements of history, now it has come to be much more strongly oriented toward its capacity to produce identity rather than deconstruct it. By developing historical perception or “construct[ing] mnemonic experience,” Buchloh’s newer critical model promises a subject that gains its autonomy through the very act of knowing itself as such—that is, knowing itself as a subject who acts and suffers in history—and thereby resists the larger threat of “advanced desubjectivization.” His model of identity here is plastic and mobile but it is never strictly performative: it draws even less on unstable and rapidly shifting identity forms than it does on the old essentialist bourgeois myths. Such postmodern formulations, he suggests, fail to recognize “the degree to which desubjectivization and the decentering of subjectivity now operate . . . in tandem” (551). Instead, Buchloh’s newer resistant subject anchors itself in the give and take of history, not as the finger-on-the-pulse observer of his older model, the observer who evaluates the contradictions of subject-cum-object, derives “the exact system of overdetermination” (xvii) and negates it, but as an actor who refracts history as lived. Historical consciousness, thus, is rendered not as historical knowledge or understanding or insight as they are usually understood, but as a manner of self-consciousness, as the experience of subjectivity per se, of self as history, in a world that would have that experience be otherwise.

Writing in 1962, Adorno offered this description of the ethical and epistemological criterion that governed his practice: “Philosophy should not with foolish arrogance set about collecting information and then take a position; rather it must unrestrictedly, without recourse to some mental refuge, experience.” For better or for worse, it is the critical, political promise of this root generative experience that Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry preserves and carries forward in a manner that truly is exceptional.

Blake Stimson
Professor of Art History at University of Illinois, Chicago