Hal Foster’s task in this collection of essays, “a polemical account of recent changes in the cultural status of architecture and design as well as art and criticism in the West” (p. xiii), is to “try to relate cultural and discursive forms to social and technological forces, and to periodize them in a way that points to political differences today” (p. xv). As this precis suggests, Foster is working from within a broadly Marxian framework, his goal as critic as much to account for art (and debates within art criticism and art history) as a socio-historical force as to provide aesthetic assessments of contemporary art forms. In the penultimate chapter of Design and Crime, “Art Critics in Extremis,” Foster “recounts the demise of a dominant formation of postwar artist and critic,” a bittersweet prelude to a final chapter in which he “cautions against any premature report of the death of art and criticism as such” (pp. xiv-xv).
“Art Critics in Extremis” is ostensibly a review of an anthology, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-74, that recounts, through interviews with the major players, the story of Artforum from “its inauspicious beginnings” through its “glory days” as the contemporary art journal of the late sixties, “to its editorial meltdown” in 1974 (pp. 104-105). But Foster takes the opportunity of the review to assess the cultural shifts that have led to the demise of the critical paradigm established by Clement Greenberg and continued, in the pages of Artforum, by Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson. For Foster finds “an epic” codified in the issues of Artforum that appeared in the late sixties, one that draws together multiple lines of critical innovation and rupture—a story of “the rise of art criticism as a serious discipline in the US” and the concomitant “decline of the modernist critic” (p. 116). For a brief period, Artforum captured an “extraordinary instance of interlocked debate,” “a collision between late-modernist paintings and neo-avant-garde alternatives” (pp. 114, 115). As resistances to late-modernist boundaries were mounted by “conceptual, process, body, performance, video, site-specific, earthwork, and installation artists” (p. 113), as modernist criticism’s “sublimation of the ethical and political was … reversed by developments in the New Left, a pumped-up [art] market, and feminism” (p. 119), it became clear that what Fried et al. most feared—art’s capitulation to “the arbitrary” (p. 120)—would come to pass. The resultant “rise of the critic-theorist of the October sort” promised new directions for art criticism, but today “this figure has begun to subside in turn” (p. 121). We are now at a sort of impasse, one recognized in the quotation from Adorno that serves as a bridge between the penultimate chapter and “This Funeral Is for the Wrong Corpse.”
“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore,” wrote Adorno in 1969 (cited on p. 123), a conclusion whose truth Foster nevertheless refuses to see as excusing pessimistic assessments of the future of art and art criticism: “might ‘the end of art’ be one more thing about art that is not ‘self-evident anymore’?” (p. 123). After a lightning tour of the declines of modernism, poststructuralism, the reductive finalities of art theorists like Peter Burger, the neo-avant-garde, etc., Foster offers “a few versions of [the] ‘living-on’” of art (another term borrowed from Adorno; p. 129-30). He constructs an admittedly “artificial” “taxonomy” of contemporary art practices that “point to a semi-autonomy of genre or medium, but in a reflexive way that opens onto social issues”: he calls these practices “‘traumatic,’ ‘spectral,’ ‘nonsynchronous,’ and ‘incongruent’” (p.130). These artistic developments, “committed to formal transformations” (p. 130) and typified by the work of Robert Gober (traumatic), Rachel Whiteread (spectral), Stan Douglas (nonsynchronous), and Gabriel Orozco (incongruent), defy the teleological end of art, instantiate a “coming-after and living-on” (p. 143). Foster thus ends his book on a note of cautious potentiality, a testament to the hope that sustains him as a critic.