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Art Critic and Historian Hal Foster Talks States of Emergency and Structural Change

Posted on April 5, 2021

Society, you may have noticed, has seemed a bit unhinged of late. On Saturday, April 10, artist John Miller and art critic and historian Hal Foster will talk with FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore about the question of finding meaning and sense as the futures of art, society, and politics seem to unfold in increasingly erratic ways.

Art critic and historian Hal Foster is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, What Comes After Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle (Verso, 2020) and Brutal Aesthetics (Princeton University Press, 2020). He teaches at Princeton University, co-edits the journal October, and contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and Artforum.

In anticipation of his April 10 Lens Mix talk with artist John Miller (3–4 p.m., register here), we talked to Foster about how his historical and critical pursuits about art in states of emergency come to bear today.

FotoFocus: It’s quite a time to be a historian. How does that lens inform your understanding of our present?

Hal Foster: I’m an art historian, not a [social] historian, but for a long time now, these two decades since 9/11, my work has focused on times of emergency, on states of emergency, in the technical sense—when laws are suspended in part or in entirety. My interest is in thinking about how artists and writers and other cultural producers have responded to emergency. Much of my contemporary criticism is focused on how artists now have responded to states of emergency, and my historical projects have concentrated there as well.

My latest book, called Brutal Aesthetics, looks at the immediate period after World War II, and essentially asks how artists and writers started again after world war, after the Holocaust, after the bomb—what ground they could claim, how they could begin again, start from scratch. And my next project will look back to the period right around World War I and will ask much the same question. I would say it is a protracted period of emergency in the present that has focused my projects in the past.

I’ve worked as a critic and historian and theorist at the same time, and it was always very important for me to take my commitments as a critic vis-à-vis the present into the past, and my contemporary commitments opened up historical projects. And then my historical projects illuminated my contemporary engagements.

FF: You teach graduate seminars on pre-war and post-war topics and have an interest in the relation between art and philosophy at times of political crisis, which feels very timely. As everything is happening in real time, how are you seeing art respond, and where do you expect there to be the most evolution or biggest shifts?

HF: Well to be honest I haven’t seen much art over the last year. I think the real events, if not in art, then in culture, that have changed the terms have less to do with the pandemic and more to do with Black Lives Matter. Even before last summer, with the rise of Trump, institutions like museums have had to reflect on what they do and how they’re constituted, from Boards of Trustees right down to daily programming. That self-reflection, which is often helped by activists, became even more intense with Black Lives Matter. The same is true of colleges and universities. There’s a real, important movement of auto-critique at these places, in different disciplines in particular, like art history. We’ve had to think deeply about our own complicity with white supremacy, to put it simply. I would say that the change has only begun at the level of institutions and museums and colleges and universities. And I think it has more to do with racial justice than pandemic concerns, although that obviously has affected them materially, economically as well. 

FF: I’m curious about the interplay between the institutional-level reckoning and what we see on the ground.

HF: I think [the institutional change] is the most important thing. It’s easy enough to change programming, but that is ephemeral. And if there’s a structural change — in terms of how these institutions are constituted, who directs them, then the programming will be transient. Cultural institutions are fairly adept at window dressing, less committed to structural change. So I think that will be the test as we go forward: to see really what happens at the level of how the institutions are formed.

FF: You wrote an earlier book about the cyclical nature about how the avant-garde occurs throughout history. Are you seeing or expecting that to be at play here?

HF: That’s a complicated question. My argument is not that the avant-garde is cyclical, but that it’s not very punctual. We tend to think that avant-garde events happen and they are effective in the moment of their happening. But they become effective over time, and often retroactively. That’s not so much a cyclical as deferred in terms of temporality. But I suppose that’s a technical point.

I see it more as a historical object that I have let go. I sometimes think that my interest in the avant-garde was a way to hold on to an idea of history as coherent in its direction. And I don’t think it is. I don’t think there’s any trajectory in our culture and society and politics and history. I think everything is a struggle really. I still think that there’s more and less important work, more and less pertinent work, whatever the principal problems of the present are. And I guess that can count as a way to designate an avant-garde, but I don’t see it in the singular anymore.

FF: Thinking back to what you said about your work in recent decades, was it that work that changed your view, or was that changing view what drove you to your current interests?

HF: It’s certainly changed over the last 25 years as we’ve become more aware of different traditions, different dynamics. Again modernism and postmodernism was about an avant-gardeism that seemed to drive along a particular line in time, and that line is bifurcated many, many times over and crossed with many other lines. There’s a whole matrix of innovative practice, not just one avant-garde.

Lens Mix 5: John Miller and Hal Foster, Zoom Webinar, April 10, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm. Lens Mix talks are free and open to all, but require registration to receive the Zoom webinar link.

FotoFocus collaborates—locally, nationally, and internationally—to present and support photography and lens-based projects that are accessible, enriching, and engaging to a diverse public. FotoFocus inspires conversations about the world through the art of photography and film, via its partnerships and signature programming including the FotoFocus Biennial, FotoFocus Symposium, FotoFocus Film Program, and FotoFocus Lecture and Visiting Artist Series.