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According to Hal Foster, Good Art Asks Hard Questions. But Should Criticism Provide Answers?

In the interregnum of this socially distanced spring, reading Hal Foster’s What Comes After Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle felt like a whirlwind tour through a period that had suddenly become historical, much faster than its author could have anticipated. Out from Verso Books today, the volume assembles eighteen short texts…

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According to Hal Foster, Good Art Asks Hard Questions. But Should Criticism Provide Answers?

In the interregnum of this socially distanced spring, reading Hal Foster’s What Comes After Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle felt like a whirlwind tour through a period that had suddenly become historical, much faster than its author could have anticipated. Out from Verso Books today, the volume assembles eighteen short texts written over fifteen years—many of them originally published in the London Review of Books—beginning in the aftermath of 9/11 and ending with the ascendance of post-truth and post-shame politics under Trump’s presidency. In a 1994 essay on the neo-avant-garde, Foster was critical of Marx’s claim that historical events happen twice—first as tragedy, then as farce—deeming it a cynical way of framing “the contemporary as posthistorical.” But in 2020, he embraces Marx’s observation not only to describe “a president whose prototype seems to be the child monster Père Ubu,” but also as the premise for his entire book, which asks: “If farce follows tragedy, what follows farce?” In naming this a “time of debacle,” Foster underlines its uncertain, interstitial character: it is an era of collapse, but one that holds the possibility, however slim, of yielding positive change through a release of force. As he points out, the term debacle comes from the French débâcler, which refers to the breaking up of ice in a river.

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Courtesy Verso Books.

Organized into three sections—“Terror and Transgression,” “Plutocracy and Display,” and “Media and Fiction”—the book’s essays take up subjects ranging from Bush-era kitsch to the architecture of mega-museums and the work ofpolitically engaged artists like Paul Chan and Claire Fontaine. Across them, a question resounds again and again, one that has lost none of its sharpness in these plague days: “How to respond?” Foster traces how artists have responded to the political situation, while also asking how art criticism should respond to artworks and, through them, the broader moment. Early on, apropos of the 2011–12 MoMA PS1 exhibition “September 11,” Foster asserts, “The prevalent mode of art viewing today is an affective one. If Kant resumed the ancient question ‘Is the work beautiful?’ and Duchamp formulated the avant-garde query ‘Is the work art at all?,’ our primary criterion seems to be ‘Does this image or object move me?’” Ample evidence for Foster’s argument can be found in the belletristic musings that increasingly fill the pages of many contemporary art publications. Ours is a time in which personal feeling is taken as the grounds for truth and authenticity. Foster refrains from overtly lambasting this tendency, yet despite his characterization of pathos as “our” primary criterion, there is little doubt that it is far from his own.

What Comes After Farce? is broadly concerned with how leftist cultural politics can proceed when there are no veils left to pull back and it no longer matters whether Jeff Koons is “sincere or ironic or somehow both at once.” Foster belongs to a paradigm that preceded the rise of feeling as the ultimate arbiter of art, and that is devoted to evaluating works according to concepts and debates drawn from art history and critical theory. The artists upon whom he bestows the greatest favor tend to reformulate modernist strategies in light of contemporary exigencies. In a detailed reading of Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Underpainting), 2018, for instance, he shows how Marshall resuscitates the genre of the meta-picture, yoking it to a concern with black aesthetics and the colonial history of the museum. Foster commends the “old 1968er” Harun Farocki for holding fast to “stark oppositionality” in Brechtian films and installations that confront the changing relationship between eye and machine in a time of automation and algorithmic control.

Hito Steyerl: Liquidity Inc., 2014, video, 30 minutes, 15 seconds.
Courtesy Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, and Esther Schipper, Berlin.

Far more prevalent today than Farocki’s approach is a strategy Foster calls “mimetic exacerbation,” whereby critical distance gives way to suffocating proximity. Artists intentionally exaggerate select features of contemporary existence, choosing to “take bad things and make them worse,” presumably to show how awful things really are—as if we didn’t know already. After endorsing this method in his 2015 book Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, Foster here points to its risks. Surveying Hito Steyerl’s moving-image installations and writings, he delineates the artist’s pet subjects (“junk images,” “serious games”) and signature rhetorical moves. The latter leave him ambivalent. “Her motto,” he writes, “is ‘I don’t want to solve this contradiction, I want to intensify it,’ and her modus operandi is less to demystify ideological beliefs than to exacerbate corporate protocols, ideally to the point of an explosive transformation.” But does the cataclysm ever arrive? Foster concludes by casting doubt on what he sees as Steyerl’s quasi-cynical attachment to the thrills of the end times, wondering, “Why this apocalyptic tone from critics on the Left when we are surrounded by hell-fire politicians on the Right?” The question could be asked of many artists today.

Trevor Paglen: DMSP 5B/F4 from Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation (Military Meteorological Satellite; 1973-0054A), 2009, C-Print, 37 1/2 by 30 inches.
©Trevor Paglen. Courtesy Metro Pictures, New York, and Altman Siegel, San Francisco.

While Steyerl comes in for criticism, she also belongs to the tendency championed in the book’s third part, “Media and Fiction.” Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, and Forensic Architecture’s Eyal Weizman are first mentioned together as figures who “point to the urgent necessity of a science of agnotology, or the analysis of how it is we do not know or, better, how we are prevented from knowing.” One might call them the children of Farocki. In the book’s final and most substantial text, “Real Fictions,” first published in Artforum in 2017, they are associated with efforts to reframe the real by using “artifice to rehabilitate the documentary mode as an effective critical system.” If art is to wrest itself away from the domain of individual feeling and avoid becoming merely a luxury bauble owned by the plutocratic class, it might do so by making an epistemological gambit in the field of worldly reality.
Foster never fully lays out the stakes of this media agnotology, nor does he discuss the divergent relationships to artifice found across the practices he mentions in this essay. He refrains from explaining how the use of artifice relates to the problem of “alternative facts.” Doing so would require a format altogether different than the one that What Comes After Farce? adopts. The title is apt, not only because it invokes a great problem facing the left—how to imagine a future amid this mess—but also because it reflects the interrogative quality of the book’s texts, many of which pose questions Foster makes no attempt to answer. In dangling conclusions, he gets to the heart of the matter, only to swiftly depart. It is a common gesture in short-form criticism, a way of signaling the big issue in the absence of the space or will to thoroughly confront it. “Model Worlds,” a text Foster wrote for a 2018 catalogue on Sarah Sze, winds down with a series of queries, finishing with the proposal that “the fact that her art prompts such questions so keenly. . . is central to its achievement.” Can the same be said of criticism? Is asking the right questions enough? It’s a start—but especially from a critic of Foster’s skill and stature, more answers might help clear some ice from the river.

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NYU Will Remove Sackler Name from Graduate Institute, Deana Lawson Wins Hugo Boss Prize, and More: Morning Links from October 23, 2020

To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter. News New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute following years of pressure from the student body and artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization P.A.I.N. [Hyperallergic] Yesterday Marian Goodman Gallery announced that it would close its London location. In an interview with ARTnews, gallery…

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NYU Will Remove Sackler Name from Graduate Institute, Deana Lawson Wins Hugo Boss Prize, and More: Morning Links from October 23, 2020

To receive Morning Links in your inbox every weekday, sign up for our Breakfast with ARTnews newsletter.
News
New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute following years of pressure from the student body and artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization P.A.I.N. [Hyperallergic]
Yesterday Marian Goodman Gallery announced that it would close its London location. In an interview with ARTnews, gallery founder Marian Goodman shared what comes next for the enterprise’s British operation. [ARTnews]

Thirteen women, in interviews with The New York Times, have accused the Iranian celebrity artist, Aydin Aghdashloo, of sexual misconduct over a 30-year-period. [The New York Times]

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A New York program that offers perpetrators of minor offenses the opportunity to take an art class at the Brooklyn Museum instead appearing in court, is at risk of defunding. [The Art Newspaper]
Deana Lawson is the first-ever photographer to win Guggenheim Museum’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize. [ARTnews]
Artists & Institutions 
After a summer of social and financial turmoil, white-led arts institutions nationwide are reckoning with racism. But what does it take to achieve equity?  [Los Angeles Times]
A show of work by Bruce Nauman at Sperone Westwater Gallery, featuring a new digital artwork activated by an iPad touchscreen, “confirms how sedulously he is still pushing the studio’s limits,” writes Jason Farago. [The New York Times]
Maxwell Alexandre’s first solo show in England is now on view at David Zwirner’s London gallery. Check out some of the work, which centers Rocinha, the Rio de Janeiro favela where he was raised and currently lives, here. [The Paris Review]
Market
Sotheby’s back-to-back modern and contemporary evening sales in Paris and London generated a total of $90.4 million. [Art Market Monitor]
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is facing criticism following the decision to deaccession dozens pieces of art and artifacts at Sotheby’s. [The Art Newspaper]

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Artist Saul Fletcher Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide

Saul Fletcher, a British-born, Berlin-based artist known for moody images of collaged objects photographed against a plaster wall in his studio, was found dead last week in Berlin what several outlets have reported to have been a murder-suicide. The claims have been circulating in the British and European tabloids since late last week, with the…

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Artist Saul Fletcher Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide

Saul Fletcher, a British-born, Berlin-based artist known for moody images of collaged objects photographed against a plaster wall in his studio, was found dead last week in Berlin what several outlets have reported to have been a murder-suicide. The claims have been circulating in the British and European tabloids since late last week, with the tabloids linking Fletcher with actor Brad Pitt (Fletcher was photographed by paparazzi last year walking around the Venice Biennale with Pitt and sculptor Thomas Houseago).
This morning, the three galleries that represented Fletcher at the time of his death—Anton Kern Gallery in New York, Knust Kunz Gallery Editions in Munich, and Grice Bench in Los Angeles—provided to ARTnews a joint statement regarding the reports: “We are devastated, appalled, and shocked by the tragic loss of Rebeccah Blum and Saul Fletcher. We are all grief-stricken and confused. We offer our deepest condolences to their families and together are offering our support and help.”

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Blum is a freelance curator who previously was director of Berlin’s Aurel Scheibler gallery. ARTnews has not been able to independently verify these deaths or the circumstances surrounding them.
According to a Daily Mail article published on July 23, Fletcher confessed to his daughter last Wednesday evening that he had killed a woman, now assumed to be Blum based on the statement of the galleries. Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, according to the Daily Mail, Fletcher’s daughter reported this information to the Berlin police, who subsequently found a woman dead from apparent stab wounds in Fletcher’s apartment. The following morning, Fletcher was found dead in the garden of property he owned near Rochowsee lake, about two hours north of Berlin.
ARTnews has reached out to Berlin law enforcement, but has been unable to verify this reporting at this time.
Fletcher, who was born in 1967 in the village of Barton, on the northeastern coast of England, and was largely self-taught, first came to prominence in the late 1990s when he began showing with New York’s Anton Kern Gallery. In a review of his exhibition at Kern in 2000, New York Times critic Roberta Smith called Fletcher’s photographs “evocative, slightly macabre, sometimes overly precious,” which “appear to be the work of a shut-in working in a nearly empty attic with the occasional cooperation of family members.”

Fletcher’s work has appeared in major international exhibitions as well, including the 30th Bienal de São Paulo in 2012, the 4th Berlin Biennale in 2006, and the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. His most recent exhibition at Anton Kern was in 2018. That same year, Inventory Press published a monograph of his work with essays by Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 2019 Venice Biennale, and critic Kirsty Bell.

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Unprecedented Toppling of Monument to Slave Trader Shocks British Art World

Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the…

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Unprecedented Toppling of Monument to Slave Trader Shocks British Art World

Until his statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters on Sunday, few people outside Bristol had heard of Edward Colston. Dramatic images of the protests held in the British city show the bronze sculpture of Colston being torn down and thrown into the harbor of the historic port city. But the felling of the monument to the merchant, whose fortune was earned from the transatlantic slave trade he helped establish in the late 17th century, is just one part of a fierce and reignited debate about public art honoring problematic figures that’s being waged in Britain right now.

“I’ve recorded uprisings since the 1980s, but I was slightly stunned,” said artist John Akomfrah, referring to images on social media of the Bristol demonstration, which was peaceful, like many other protests across the U.K. “There is a remarkable irony. [Colston] has ended up in the place where he put hundreds of lives”—the harbor where bodies of enslaved Africans were thrown overboard during the infamous Middle Passage.

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Colston was a leading member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade in the late 17th century. “There’s no sympathy from me about his plight,” Akomfrah said.
The merchant’s statue, which was unveiled in 1895 when the British Empire was at the peak of its power, has long been a source of division in the city. Attempts to add a contextual plaque referring to the philanthropist’s role in the slave trade had reached a political and bureaucratic impass, prompting demonstrators to take matters in their own hands last weekend.
“I was amazed. It was the kind of thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” said Hew Locke, a London-based sculptor who lived in Bristol in the 1980s. “This piece has been on my mind as a problem for years,” he told ARTnews. “Colston wasn’t a bad man. The language was wrong. He was an evil man. That’s the truth of it.”
John Cassidy’s sculpture has been derided as a poor work of art, but Locke disagrees with that assessment. “Aesthetically, it was one of Bristol’s best Victorian sculptures,” Locke said. In 2006, to pay homage to the sculpture’s history, Locke bedecked a large-scale photograph of the Colston monument with the trappings of his wealth based on the exploitation of Africans.

It’s unclear right now what will happen to the statute. Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said on Monday that Cassidy’s sculpture will be “fished out” at some point but vowed that it will never return to its former prominent location. The bronze could be destined for the city’s history museum, MShed, which overlooks Bristol harbor, along with a collection of the Black Lives Matter protestors’ placards.
The fate of Colston’s statue and the Black Lives Matter movement raises awkward questions for other cities in the U.K. On Tuesday, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a review of all London statues with slavery links. One London’s former docklands now business district of Robert Milligan, a prominent slave trader and plantation owner, has been vandalized and covered in protest placards. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the statue would be removed. And there have been renewed calls to remove or at least recontextualize colonial-era statues, including ones in Cardiff in Wales, Dundee in Scotland, and in Oxford. Since 2016, campaigners have tried to banish the statue of the arch-imperialist of the Victorian era, Cecil Rhodes, at the University of Oxford. (A demonstration is taking place on Tuesday.)
Locke expressed skepticism over whether anything would change. “We will see,” he said. Meanwhile, authorities in Belgium have begun to remove statues of King Leopold II after protests. His colonization of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo involved systematic brutality and atrocities.
Some institutions have begun taking accountability for their role in structural racism, but their responses have done little to satisfy critics. Several big London museums, following their peers in the U.S., issued statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests at the end of last week and over the weekend. The British Museum immediately faced accusations of inaction over decolonizing its collection, which includes colonial-era looted art and human remains. The National Gallery in London also posted on social media its rejection of “racism, inequality and violence” in response to the death of George Floyd while being arrested by police. Anti-racist protestors began gathering in Trafalgar Square a week ago on the art museum’s doorstep despite an ongoing national lockdown due to coronavirus.
For nearly 100 years a bronze statue of George Washington has stood on the gallery’s front lawn, making it one of many public London monuments to “dodgy figures,” as Locke has put it. Presented by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1924, it is a replica of the marble sculpture by the French 18th-century sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon that stands in the State Capitol building in Richmond. There is no mention on a plaque (or on the National Gallery’s website) that Washington was a slave owner, or that Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War.
When reached by ARTnews about whether it planned to make that history available, a National Gallery spokesperson claimed it was not the museum’s responsibility to do so, but rather the U.K. government’s. The museum is “looking” to update its website about the biography of its founding collector, John Julius Angerstein, however. Its current page about Angerstein glosses over the uncomfortable truth that much of the art collector’s wealth was based on insurance of ships used in the slave trade. He also had a financial stake in a slave plantation in the Caribbean.
Such a clarification of institutions’ history is becoming more common in the U.K.—Tate, for example, issued a lengthy statement about its founder’s role in the slave trade last year. Locke said that context such as this is necessary for institutions—and, in particular, the monuments in the cities around them. “The sculptures are part of history, but you need some acknowledgement of who these people were,” he said. “You can’t say police brutality is terrible, institutional racism is terrible, and then you don’t want anything to change in your local landscape.”
Locke, like Akomfrah, seemed resigned that the debate about the relocation of colonial-era monuments in the U.K. will now be framed by the government as a question of law and order after Colston’s violent removal. The U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson was quick to condemn the Bristol protestors’ actions claiming that the Black Lives Matters protests have been “subverted by thuggery.” After coming under fire, he toned down his rhetoric but insisted that anyone who harmed property would face “the full force of the law.”
Many in the British art scene—and beyond—are now left with serious quandaries going forward. “Let’s be clear, [Colston] was a mass murder,” Akomfrah said. “He benefited from the misfortune of others. The real question is, why was that statue put up in the first place?”

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