Art critic and Princeton University professor of art and archaeology Hal Foster says his new book “Brutal Aesthetics” — the subject of a Wednesday, December 2, Labyrinth Books in Princeton live stream — was “born of my puzzling over” a paradoxical statement by 20th-century German cultural critic Walter Benjamin: modernism teaches us “how to survive civilization if need be.”
Calling it a riddle that its originator hadn’t really explained, Foster says the “reference of ‘civilization’ seems clear enough; it is the travesty of civilization authored by Fascism and Nazism, civilization turned into its opposite. This is the barbarism, exploited by the dictators that rose in the ruins of World War I, that Benjamin hopes, in a desperate dialect, to counter.”
Foster continues exploring Benjamin’s thoughts and barbarism as a means to reveal his thematic compass with the question, “Yet what kind of modernism teaches us to survive a civilization (that becomes) barbaric, and what sort of survival could this be?”
Part of the answer is in Benjamin’s unsentimental outlook that “rejects the traditional, solemn, noble image of man” and looks at “the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present” and the his Marx-influenced idea of creating new artistic language “In the service of struggle or work — at any rate of changing reality instead of describing it.”
Foster argues that the barbarism that Benjamin thought reached its apex in World War I was only a prelude of the barbarism to come — “the mass deaths of World War II, the Holocaust, and the hydrogen bomb. Only then did the positive barbarism that Benjamin glimpsed in modernist art, architecture, and literature become necessity. Only then were artists and writers truly forced ‘to start from scratch, to make a new star, to make a little go a long way,” as Benjamin had written.
Foster focuses his exploration when he says he then became concerned “with the turn, from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s, to the brut and the brutalist, the animal and creaturely, as manifested in the world of the Frenchmen (painter and sculptor) Jean Dubuffet and (philosopher) Georges Bataille, the Dane (painter) Asger Jorn, the Italian-Scot (sculptor) Eduardo Paolozzi, and the Swedish-American (sculptor) Claes Oldenburg. Each of these figures proposed a different version of brutal aesthetics, one that pares art down or reveals it to be already bare, so that they might begin again after the compound devastation of the time.”
Then with the following series of rhetorical questions he guides the reader into a thicket of aesthetic and academic wonderings: “Why does Dubuffet invent the category of art brut? What does Bataille seek in the cave paintings of Lascaux? Why does Jorn populate his (arts group) Cobra canvases with denatured figures? What does Paolozzi see in his monstrous assemblages of industrial debris? And why does Oldenburg remake cheap products from urban scrap?”
The Princeton University Press-published “Brutal Aesthetics” — like his other dozen books written or edited by him — is connected to what Foster reveals was his first aesthetic experience, described during an Interview Magazine interview:
“My first art epiphany is more like a primal scene because it has a traumatic touch and because it’s a memory that mixes real and fictional bits. I was 12, and in the living room of an inseparable friend. Vast and uninhabited, it was composed like a picture in a magazine, appointed with furniture unlike any I had ever seen: elegant structures of aluminum tubes, glass tables so sheer they seemed to disappear. There were also objects that were not furnishings, which I understood to be sculptures, though they were not statues or busts. My friend called them abstract, which made the paintings on the walls, no less difficult to make out, abstract too. One painting in particular struck me; it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. A stack of hazy color in irregular blocks of paint, it was a bright apparition. At the top is a rectangle of white tinged with blue, a projection of pure light, and at the bottom, a bigger block of the same colors but in a different mix, like a midday sky shrouded with thin cloud. Below the white box on top is a yellow band almost covered by a red stripe, and below it is a final rectangle of cream, here underlined by streaks of all the colors that appear elsewhere on the canvas-blue, white, yellow, red. The painting is fire and ice at once, both calm and intense, and this is how it made me feel, too. About the size of a mirror or a window, it does not reflect anything or reveal any outside. It is its own appearance and perfect as such. “Yes, it’s the most beautiful thing,” I thought, and a second later, “Why do they have it and we don’t?” The first flush of delight made me a devotee of art; the second rush of resentment made me a critic. Every critic needs a touch of resentment — it’s his very salt — but too much produces embitterment.”
In the same interview he revealed his thoughts about writing about art. “I don’t write to be pejorative or positive in any case; that never motivates me. What gets me going is to grasp the new thing — an idea, an affect, some mix of the two — that a work expresses but doesn’t articulate. That’s the service I want to render: to limn that thing in words. I don’t worry much about market valorization.”
However, he says, he is prone to make mistakes. “Along with many others, I ate up theory like it was hash brownies, and I still do, but I’m more careful about what I write when I’m theoretically high. Also, when I was a young critic, I printed some hurtful things . . . I thought it was clever; he thought it was cruel, and later told me it had devastated him. Even if it is true, a line that cuts someone seems gratuitous to me, and I’m certain there are many others who were victims of my mistaking the rhetorical for the critical.”
Saying that he has a “trace of Romantic anti-capitalism” in him, he then puts himself in the context by saying he emerged “as a critic in the 1980s, with Reagan, deregulation, the sheer awfulness of what we now call neoliberalism. Wall Street money suddenly washed over the art world, which was changed utterly, and independent space for critical work shrunk dramatically. I was an editor at Art in America at the time, and the market reformatted everything before our eyes. I ran to the academy as if it were a sanctuary, which it was — there was a short period when the humanities were taken by critical theory. But I soon discovered you’re as much a commodity there as anywhere else. The university does screen you from power, however; my own is bound up with governments and corporations in ways both good and bad, but it affects me little either way. The art world is far more naked in its involvement with power. At dinners after openings I sometimes feel like I’m watching bank accounts have sex. But I’m a very small chip in the casino that is the art world.”
Hal Foster: “Brutal Aesthetics,” Labyrinth Books. Wednesday, December 2, 6 p.m. Discussion about the book between Foster and Yves-Alain Bois, professor of art history at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Register. Free. www.labyrinthbooks.com.