“Theory”: Nothing recalls the fractious discursive climate of the 1980s better than that single, imperfect word. In part two of “Writing the ‘80s,” we return to three strands of the discourse that marked the decade. Here, THOMAS CROW assesses the Pyrrhic victory of social art history in the ‘80s as a generation of artists turned the academic notion of “subversive critique” on its head. (Available in Artforum’s April issue: JOHN RAJCHMAN examines the fate of “postmodernism” and that of a thinker who somehow skirted the decade’s debates. And HOMI K. BHABHA revisits the turn to identity politics and asks how the recognition of difference might—indeed, must—inform our post–9/11 landscape.)
AT THE ONSET OF THE 1980s, I HAD AN EXPERIENCE AS A teacher that presaged—or so I came to see in retrospect—much of what would happen as a consequence of “the new art history” over the course of the decade, particularly as that untidy intellectual pursuit came to play a part in the contemporary practice of art.
I had spent a term instructing an undergraduate
class in the latest analytical frameworks for interpreting modern-life painting
Why was it that this group of painters, arguably the first coherent avant-garde, concentrated almost exclusively on the spaces of newly organized leisure, scenes where demarcated free time was packaged into “experiences” of sport, tourism, shopping, and entertainment? The aquatic resort or dazzling shopping street offered its version of reality as a collection of apparently uncomposed and disconnected surface sensations. The wedge driven between sensation and judgment was never the invention of artists but had been engineered by burgeoning commercial forces to appear as the more natural and liberated moments of an individual’s life. The emerging patterns of leisure-time consumption provided the invisible frame that made fragmentary and distracted cognition cohere as the very image of pleasure. (1)
An elementary understanding of this concept required American students to wrestle with the unfamiliar issue of social class, even to use the term “bourgeoisie” in a sentence as an objective historical term. Simply put, the modern consumer economy began as an enterprise limited to those with the free time and ready cash to occupy the new spaces of organized leisure. And they were expensive. The new department stores—at once the encyclopedias and ritual temples of consumption—grew spectacularly by supplying the newly affluent with the necessary material equipment and, by their practices of sales and promotion, effective instruction in the intangible requirements of this novel sphere of existence.
Even to think in these terms of course entailed conjuring the forbidden spirit of Marx—poisonous heresy to an established hierarchy of troglodytic art historians bereft of higher intellectual culture. My group of unprejudiced undergraduates, however, could easily travel where most art-history professionals could not, and my most striking feedback from the student side came in a conversation with a graduating senior. Her keenest ambition had been to work as a buyer for a chain of upmarket department stores. In her job interview, she rehearsed precisely this critical-historical account of the nineteenth-century origins of the department store and its surrounding culture of consumption—and found herself hired on the spot.
IT STRUCK ME AT THE TIME THAT MY STUDENT’S CANNY use of the course content was a surer sign of learning than the customary moralizing critique of consumerism as manipulated false consciousness. And I hadn’t really grasped until then how easy it was simply to subject that Left position to a kind of reverse engineering: Diagnosis of some putative malady can simply be turned around to generate a recipe for its successful reproduction. Indeed, such a reversal, in the absence of any foreseeable change in the economic status quo, would constitute the surer empirical confirmation of that diagnosis.
The wave of appropriationist and simulationist tactics that crested in the mid-’80s appears in hindsight as the outcome of the same kind of thinking. If product packaging now carried a power confirmed by heavyweight theorizing (and Baudrillard became the name to reckon with), then reviving the readymade under the authority of Pop quotation offered an irresistible avenue for channeling that power into one’s work. Perhaps Haim Steinbach came closest to giving the game away by limiting his sculptor’s contribution to fashioning elegantly retro Formica-clad shelves that straightforwardly showcased unmodified store-bought items. His work always seemed more a demonstration of syntactical principle than of any cognitively interesting bricolage: I had the chance to compliment Steinbach on his shrewd choice of a pair of Air Jordans to adorn his then new piece no wires, no power cord, 1986 (Michael Jordan had joined the NBA only two years earlier with his unprecedented, trendsetting Nike deal); but the artist was vague as to who exactly Jordan was and didn’t think it much mattered anyway. And he was right, in that the conceit underlying Steinbach’s work was too fragile to sustain anything more than a certain allegorical suggestiveness subtended by a deft formal intelligence and a magpie’s fascination with objects that catch the light, which are precisely the qualities that still-life painting has purveyed for centuries.
“To explain everything is to excuse everything,” goes the ancient French adage. Enhanced historical understanding of similarly outmoded genres and styles—provided by a newly self-conscious academic discipline—renewed the interest of contemporary-art audiences in traditional art forms in a way that the old connoisseurial art history had never been able to accomplish. At the same time, the relaxation of standards in craft and technical apprenticeship, which Minimalism and its offshoots had already accomplished, allowed those genres and styles to be re-created with minimally transformed found objects or simple photographic duplication. Alongside still life came didactic history painting, ritual altarpieces, portraiture, and kitchen-sink domestic genre; all the staples of traditional art practice were back, their only real novelty being the stipulation that they needn’t—and probably shouldn’t—be rendered in paint on canvas.
JUST HOW THIS KIND OF HISTORICISM—THAT IS, THE
transformation of historical depth into a menu of contemporary choices—came to
pervade artistic thinking during the ‘80s requires a complex explanation in which
the newer forms of art history played various parts. Certainly the emergence of
a social art history cannot be assigned more than a portion of the
responsibility for this development. More direct in its impact was the related
but distinct grouping of writers drawn by Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson
to October magazine in
One American crucible where social art history
and the theoretical approach associated with October came together lay
in the estimable Whitney Independent Study Program (long may it flourish) under
the direction of Ron Clark. The ISP welcomed representatives of both tendencies
and fostered an environment where their overlapping implications were put into
play for cohort after cohort of beginning artists, curators, and critics. (The
radiating effects of this unique, ongoing experiment merit a sustained study in
their own right.) But here as elsewhere, critique and license lay only a hair’s
breadth apart from one another: Can one forget that the young Julian Schnabel,
a totemic figure of the ‘80s’ dark side, was an early ISP graduate? And Schnabel
was only the most successful among a number of artists who exploited the
analytical intelligence then floating around the art world to strategize an
ultimate move into the realm of theatrical film and fashionable celebrity—which
started with his defiantly derivative embrace of painting as media event. If
all signs are created equal, why wasn’t this one as good as any other, its
marketability being merely a convenient bonus? Such contrarily opportunistic
exploits served to goad left-leaning thinkers—a Benjamin Buchloh, say—into even
more stringent examinations of the commodity transactions at the core of nearly
all artistic practice, further turning the screw in a spiral of criticality
that seemed to leave, as a young artist’s guarantee of integrity, only
something like Christopher D’Arcangelo’s near
It comes as no surprise, then, that the
underestimated Ashley Bickerton, speaking on behalf of that cluster of
As concepts, New York–style appropriation or simulation implied a secure stance within the fine-art world from which to effect said appropriating or simulating. Just before he retreated for good behind his arch manufactured persona, Jeff Koons joined the conversation to affirm this assumption. Speaking of the accessible appeal carried by everyday objects in his sculpture—basketballs and the like—he nonetheless anticipated that his audience “can try to get more out of it and start dealing in art vocabulary instead of just sensational and personal vocabulary, and start to deal with abstractions of ideas and of context. . . . I hope that that would happen.” (6) By implication, the wider realm from which these objects are displaced is regarded as more familiar to an uninitiated audience than the fine-art one. But the reverse is true of the artist, for whom the fascination of the “sensational and personal” depends on its lying firmly outside the boundaries of his core professional norms where “abstractions of ideas and of contexts” prevail.
But there is no reason why the same body of art-historical theory could not give rise to forms of appropriation and simulation that ran in the opposite direction, that is, an artist being more at home in an everyday media realm and displacing into it objects from that exotically fascinating category of commodities labeled “American Fine Art.” As a shorthand recipe, this reversal underlies much of that practice that rose to international attention in the early ‘90s as the “Young British Artist” phenomenon, the groundwork for which had been laid in the ‘80s with this same cohort of American simulationists as backdrop and point of departure.
ART HISTORY AGAIN HAD ITS LARGE PART TO PLAY.
Much of what went on under the name “the social
history of art” (or, alternatively, “the new art history”) had emerged from a
network of dissenting art historians working across
Though the Art & Language group, with its
roots in analytical philosophy, derided structuralist
and semiotic theory as “the French disease,” that body of thinking too made a
strong early appearance in Britain through the pages of Screen magazine,
which became something of an Anglophone cognate to Tel Quel
and incubated a generation of adept writers whose preoccupation with film
easily transferred itself to questions in the visual arts. In the same period,
the crossover from theories of the sign to the work of social description took
place under the auspices of the
A few more steps down this path, however, and
semiotics suddenly meant Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and Vivienne Westwood, just as
these street idols—all with art-college roots—now stood out as magisterial
semioticians in their own right, no academic validation required. Why should
art have to be any different? Nourished at
The vaunted achievements of earlier artists had
become no more than useful implements to be taken up and put down as the
occasion required, often in unholy combination. By the measure of an American “art
vocabulary,” to use Koons’s term, nearly all of “Freeze”-generation output
appears cheerfully derivative, while a good deal of it just looks incompetent.
But, placed alongside its axis of terror and disgust dredged from mythic
survivals in the common culture, the majority of American Pop and process art
suddenly looks prim and decorous by comparison. Encased in its own pristinely Koonsian vitrine, Marc Quinn’s Self, 1991 (a
flaking, peeling cast of the artist’s head formed from nine pints of his own
frozen blood, now by accident sadly melted), one-upped Bruce Nauman’s early
conflations of signature and bodily index, while calmly and without histrionics
incorporating all the sadism of Nauman’s later video output as well. Hirst’s Thousand
Years, 1990, crossed the slaughterhouse imagery of Francis Bacon—no name to
conjure with in New York but a talisman in London—with a process aesthetic out
of early Hans Haacke. But when the rotting cow’s head
breeding the doomed flies proved to reek beyond endurance, Hirst abandoned the
rigorous protocols of the latter and substituted a fake head smeared with
mayonnaise and ketchup. (7) The unmistakable overtones of William Golding’s
perennial schoolboy allegory Lord of the Flies then found a grotesque
echo in yet more synthetic artifice: the feral children of Dinos
and Jake Chapman, cobbled into their hypereroticized monstrosity from shopwindow mannequins to embody the nightmare reversal of
all the child-abuse panics that regularly ripple through the British national
psyche. And that nightmare itself was to materialize in Marcus Harvey’s
A dis-alienated avant-garde, then, purveying a Hogarthian catalogue of grotesques in some warped garden of unearthly delights. At the close of the ‘80s, the more earnest exponents of a social art history could only turn away from this spectacle in dismay: (8) Like all academic pursuits, it had its own decorum to defend. Having assumed an elevated point of view that could survey the historical imbrication of avant-garde art within a society of consumption, a good portion of its authority depended on the assumed blindness of its subjects to that condition. No one counted on those surveyed becoming the ones to do the surveying themselves, nor did anyone consider how art’s own elevation would suffer in the process.
Thomas Crow is director of the Getty Research Institute and a contributing editor of Artforum.
1. See Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” written in 1981 and reprinted in Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996): 4–37.
2. For examples of Buchloh’s trenchant arguments of the period, see his “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 339–68, and “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Artforum, September 1982, 43–56.
3. Quoted in David Robbins, ed., “From Criticism to Complicity,” transcript of a panel discussion moderated by Peter Nagy at Pat Hearn Gallery, May 2, 1986, Flash Art, Summer 1986, 46.
5. Ibid., 48.
6. Ibid., 47.
7. See Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the
Way to Work (
8. See, for example, Julian Stallabrass’s nonetheless invaluable High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s (London and New York: Verso, 1999).