Thursday, April 30, 2020

Time to Read

In Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency published in 2015, the art critic Hal Foster reflects on the past twenty five years of contemporary art. Pointing out that it is "too early to historicize this art", he attempts to "theorize it" in a collection of five essays.
I guess the title and the picture on the cover (an x-ray of Isa Genzken's head drinking wine from a glass) put me off and the book stayed at the bottom of the "to read pile" all these years. A few weeks  into this dystopic new world, I have finally plenty of time to read Bad New Days.
Following a brief introduction, the first chapter titled "Abject" brings us back in the eighties and nineties with a discussion about gaze versus look. References to Lacan, Sartre, the Renaissance, Expressionism, Freud, Duchamp, Manzoni, and more, pepper the rich text. To illustrate his point Foster analyses Cindy Sherman's work and adds a list of artists including Mike Kelly and Andres Serrano, inescapable names when talking about abject art. Is "abjection a space-time beyond redemption or is it the fastest route for contemporary saints to grace"?
In "Archival" Foster concentrates mainly on the practice of  Thomas Hirschhorn. He also refers to Tacita Dean, Joachim Koester and Sam Durant to describe how the artists "transform the no place of an archive into the place of a utopia", in short, a "sublimation of the traumatic".
"Mimetic" (mimetic exacerbation) highlights the wrong through art, mocking like Isa Genzken or using illusion like Robert Gober. Foster establishes a connection between mimetic art and Dadaism. Referring to Jeff Koons, he warns against the peril of celebrating "the capitalist garbage bucket".
The fourth essay in which Foster stresses the tension between left and right is titled "Precarious", a socio-political qualifier. He refers again to Hirschhorn's installations set in underserved areas and widens the subject to the precariousness of life, ending with more questions: "Where do I stand? What do I want?".
"Post-critical" the shorter text, without illustrations, is about  the critique, its flaws, what should be its future. The discussion relies heavily on the writings of two French philosophers Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière.
"In Praise of Actuality" wraps it up in seventeen well made points about art museums, biennials,  performative art and this sentence sums up Foster's thoughts about the state of the art: "Just as the viewer must be deemed passive in order to be activated, so artwork and art museum alike must be deemed lifeless so that they can be reanimated." Following his gloomy outlook for art "fixed on a traumatic view of the past" he ends with some hope in a few words "it must also open into future work".

With its title coined from Berthold Brecht's aphorism: "Don't start with the good old days, but the bad new ones", discussions based on an array of philosophers, art critics, art works, and numerous references to art history, the dense writing adopts a scholarly tone emphasized by abundant notes and even a short history of its typeface. The book assembles texts previously published as separate articles and after its release was the subject of several reviews in magazines or newspapers like ARTnews, Frieze or The Guardian.
The reading empowers the viewer who can "categorize" art works sometimes difficult to approach with new paradigms offered by the author. It provides cues on how to look at and reflect on art born from historical traumatic events, generators of a state of emergency (the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tianmen Square, the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, failures of neoliberalism with its repercussions on social welfare, ...).
One cannot avoid wondering about the impact of the ongoing traumatic situation on art. What about art post-2020?