Articles Issue #35
BY Irmgard EmmelhainzMay 9, 2021
BY Irmgard EmmelhainzMay 9, 2021
Formalism functions as the cosmetics of art criticism like aluminum siding on a slumlord’s property. It is an attempt to disguise what is crumbling beneath the surface politics of its proselytizing church bells, ringing, in the megachurch / museums and galleries where there are more Black bodies guarding the white cube than exhibiting in it. –Theodore Harris, Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism
Since the collapse of the Eastern Block, nothing offers a new polarity in opposition to the dominant forces of capitalism. Global absolute and extractive capitalism has the power to penetrate, exceed and undermine political borders, to distribute territories differentially transforming them into privileged zones inhabited by citizens and misery belts or sacrifice zones populated by redundant populations. The sensible component of Empire is the culture industry, its nervous system, our interconnected desiring communication flows. Indeed, as the last bastion of visibly threatened (or made obsolete, according to Chris Hedges)1 liberal values on earth, cultural production is disconnected from actual social struggles which are local and based on fighting for survival or against deadly extractivist or infrastructure megaprojects and territorial defense. Insofar as the value of art and culture are determined by market success and visibility, critique has become redundant. What is thus the relevance of Marxist critique in the context of the unquestioned reification of artistic production by the culture industry? Where is the potential for radicality and opposition in the face of ideological liberal mannerisms leading to extreme, violent polarization? Finally, in the post-medium or the art-in-general condition of art, are the oppositions—form versus content and ideological apparatus versus self-critique—still current?
In 1939, at the peak of European fascisms and at the brink of World War II, Clement Greenberg published an essay that would determine, to a large extent, debates on art and culture in North America in relationship to politics and propaganda. Greenberg established that the value of art resides in its form and that content is an artwork’s medium specificity. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” begins elucidating how the same society is capable of producing an array of disparate cultural products linked to the aesthetic experience proper to each individual and to the social and historical contexts in which the aesthetic experience takes place. Disparate cultures, for Greenberg, translate to avant-garde and kitsch. The avant-garde represents a “superior consciousness of history,” a historical criticism of society. The historical criticism of the avant-garde, moreover, is not about politics, but more tied to revolutionary, anti-bourgeois ideas inherent to bohemia. He famously wrote: “The true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment,’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” The avant-garde is also characterized by the “search [for] the absolute,” realizing the ideal of Hegelian aesthetics to reach non-objective art, valid solely on its own terms.2 For Greenberg, this means that content is sublated into form and cannot be reduced, analyzed or interpreted, as abstraction means turning attention away from subject matter or common experience, and toward the medium or medium specificity for creation. In other words, the avant-garde artist is consumed by pure formal preoccupations. Greenberg’s depuration of context is linked to his critique of art concerned with politics under the genre of socialist realism. He was perhaps thinking of Mexican painters working in New York in the 1930s who became influential in the art scene. In Greenberg’s view, their resort to figuration and the narrative of dialectical history was prone to “kitsch,” becoming demagogic cultural expressions for the masses (funded by the State). For Greenberg, this kind of art tends to bring culture down to the masses’ level to flatter them, in contrast to the avant-garde, which is superior because it is critical—through formalism—of the society that sees it emerge. While Greenberg’s formalist vision prevailed in North America, influencing critics like Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss as well as artistic movements from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, in the 1960s art took on a fresh political and critical turn, reviving the first avant-garde’s épater la bourgeoisie and adapting it to épater la société du spectacle. By then, Frankfurt School thinkers as well as French post-structuralism and critical theory had become the compasses to debate the relationship between art and politics in North America. By the 1980s, medium specificity became art-in-general and the idea that form crystallizes modes of ideological perception while it embodies a set of productive relationships between institutions, artists and audiences had substituted Greenberg’s vision on the relationship between art and politics. At that time, Walter Benjamin’s position in his key text “The Author as Producer” (1934) had also become influential. The traditional Marxist question, “What is the artwork’s position with regard to the productive relations of its time?” led to critical practices such as institutional critique. It also gave way to art forms conscious of the position they occupy within the culture apparatus and to artists self-critical of the place from which they operate, in the sense of the place they occupy in heteropatriarcal racialized society, making cultural demands for visibility as minorities. Criticality in art, moreover, came to be linked to Empire’s cultural wars in the fronts of multiculturalism and gender from which the concern with class and a critique against capitalism completely disappeared.
From the viewpoint of the formalists, the relationship between aesthetics and politics tends to be reduced to the view that Marxist criticism opposed all forms of formalism whose natural attention to the technical aspects of a work robs it of historical significance, reducing it to a mere aesthetic game. In his 1962 review of John Berger’s collection of essays, Permanent Red (1960), Michael Fried viscerally and cunningly destroys his book. Fried accuses Berger of basically applying Marxist “critical jargon” to define the terms of the plastic arts, listing “an arsenal of praise and abuse.” Fried dismisses Berger for allegedly valorizing art according to the political purpose it may serve, for supposedly addressing a partisan audience whose objective criteria are more political than aesthetic and thus would not disagree with him. Fried also accuses Berger of vouching for “the viability of his [Marxist] concepts against the realities of contemporary experience.”3
According to Fried, Berger was incapable of minding the gaps between theory and practice, ideology and critique, form and content, and dismisses him for establishing an “objective” system of critique based on a transitive relationship between art and politics.4 As an after effect of McCarthyism, he further reduces Berger’s criticism as based on the following parameters: “What [purpose] can art serve here and now?” “Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?”5 Fried posits Berger as a champion of partisan representational art, although the artists Berger discusses in his book comprise the early modern and classic male masters. Berger further devotes a section in his book to a materialist history of the art system; that is to say, to elucidate the conditions of the possibility of art pondering on what an artist is, what are painting and drawing (and the experience), the academy, the galleries, the biennales, being a student, etc.
Berger furthermore devotes commentaries to early modern artists such as Henry Moore, Ceri Richards, William Roberts, Josef Herman, David Bomberg, George Fullard, Frank Auerbach, Friso ten Holt, and Henri Matisse, describing how their works stand out by the quality of the draughtsmanship, presence, formal skills, attitude, the tensions between reality and form, surface and perception. The second part of his book is devoted to writing about the Renaissance, Piero della Francesca, Poussin, Watteau, Goya, Romanticism, Millet, Renoir, Gauguin, Courbet, Juan Gris, Lipchitz, Zadkine, Fernand Léger, Picasso, Dufy, Kokoschka. In his argument, Picasso is central to modern art insofar as his work changed the way in which we see the world. Picasso managed to register in his painting a way of seeing that is inherent to modernity. In his account, Courbet is the only explicitly political artist because, according to Berger, Courbet believed in the independence from art for art’s sake and from the prevailing Romantic view that the artist or his work are more important than the existence of the subject of the painting. Berger sees value in Courbet’s work, amongst other things, for his freedom not to “represent” but to identify with his living subjects, to feel mutual belonging (this observation could well launch a productive discussion into the quandaries of documentary filmmaking).
Obviously what infuriated Fried was Berger’s pitiless destruction of the works of Naum Gabo, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Dubuffet, Germaine Richier and Barbara Hepworth under the chapter titled: “Artists defeated by difficulties.”6 In his view, the problem with Naum Gabo’s work is that it is more concerned with engineering than about aesthetics, delivering a form of beauty that expresses function rather than hope; Klee is dismissed for the passivity of his trace. And Pollock’s paintings are described as unable to communicate anything, while they are qualified as both avant-garde AND kitsch: as being capable of delighting the sophisticated eye but if they were to be transformed into textile design or wall-papers, they could also please the unsophisticated eye. And so on. I could see how Berger’s judgment on Pollock would enrage Fried, who decides to take sides with Greenberg’s allegiance to the sublation of content, the extrication of representation and his commitment to abstraction, which would be further provoked by Berger’s positing Diego Rivera as “the future” of art in the book’s final chapter. In a way, Diego Rivera, insofar as his work has a stylistic European basis, represents for Berger the possibility of recharging the art grounded on Picasso’s innovations (which greatly influenced Rivera). If Picasso’s work represents an artistic revolution that established a new, modern way of seeing, new points of view and a new vocabulary and a grammar for art, Rivera represents for Berger the potential for the realization of this vision in the “non-Western” world at a time in which art in Europe felt to Berger to have stalled: “Works of art are like the stones of bridges which men have built and crossed together because they need to travel in a particular direction. Yet now the bridges are being dismantled and the stones adapted into charming bird baths for private gardens.”7 The individualization of artworks was due to the ubiquity of formalist art and criticism, a sign, in Berger’s view, that art had been intimidated by the barrier between avant-garde art and the working class. This situation posits for Berger a challenge to be overcome to deliver new ways of seeing, breaking through subjective private worlds and toward democratic and collective ways of seeing. In other words, Berger rejects Greenberg’s vision of modern art for being “decadent” but above all, for validating aesthetic experience merely on subjective, formalist terms, as a form to escape reality as opposed to striving for collectivity and hope. Although later on, Thierry de Duve would embrace formalism as a parameter for aesthetic judgment while declaring that interpellation and dialogue are essential for the aesthetic experience and judgment (“C’est beau, n’est-ce pas?”).8
Permanent Red is not the product of Berger’s shallow and old-fashioned populism, as Fried argues, and neither is Berger applying Marxist concepts or parameters to discuss the visual arts, even though for him art is not dissociated from collective emancipation or the working class. Rather, he is primarily concerned with ways of seeing. In his view, artworks provide the memory of the artists’ way of looking at the world and this memory increases our awareness of our potentiality to have a certain relationship to the world, which necessarily implies action. For Berger it is not the subject matter of an artwork that makes the promise, but the way in which the artist looks at the subject, in an implied desire for change and a promise in the sense that it offers hope. Above all, for Berger, the artist’s vision embraces the present by looking at the world and thus coming to terms with it by asking “What is man?” and “What can man become?” Finally, Berger does not dismiss formalism by any means, for him “all art is formalization,” and yet he ponders on the use of form: “Does formalization emphasize an aspect of the truth of the world or is it merely used to improve the formal effect of the picture?”9 His problem with abstract art is that it lacks subject matter and relation to human life and that it offers a passive, contemplative world that becomes a refuge for privilege and a failure to confront the challenge of society and the disillusionment with the human condition. Because of its meaninglessness, abstract art is passive. In other words, for Berger, abstract art in Greenberg’s sense represents the materialization of capitalist alienation and fragmentation.
In the context of the contemporary global culture industry, debates on the relationship between aesthetics and politics, conservative versus progressive art form and content, propaganda and high art that marked twentieth-century aesthetic production were translated to the idea that art delivers a “superior consciousness” capable of revealing truths. Cultural institutions have therefore become secular temples framing the windows for democracy’s antagonisms and for visualizing the “collateral damage” of globalization. Within the contemporary culture industry, form (albeit recycling modernist forms) matters and content tends to be homogenous in the sense that criticality remains a defense of Enlightenment values (restituting the voices of the oppressed and minorities, bringing back repressed memories and archives, rewriting history, claiming restitution for violations of human rights) pitted against the historical reality of global extractive absolute capitalism. In parallel, a new institutional critique is bringing to the fore the complicity of the culture industry with corporations: oil, war and pharmaceutics, to mention three examples.
In spite of the neoliberal dismantlement of the welfare state, generalized precarization of life and work, the dissolution of the apparent separation between state and the economy, massive extinction and human and environmental crisis brought about by climate change, etc., the ideological resistance to capitalism has receded. In order to ponder on this situation, political theorist Anita Chari recuperates Lukács’s conceptualization of reification as a central pathology of capital society. For Chari, reification is above all, “an unengaged, spectatorial stance that individuals take toward the social worlds and toward their own practices.” Reification is furthermore an individual point of view that subjects take toward culture, society and the economy, considering them as autonomous fields of social life, operating independently of human volition.10 In other words, for Chari, “reified subjectivity” is a formalist and spectatorial form of subjectivity that is unable to see its own involvement in the broader process of capital that comprise its domination. This form of subjectivity is established by Greenberg’s formalist aesthetics, precisely the object of Berger’s critique, giving way to subjects that are unable to understand their own privileged positions (in their private gardens) within the context of a social reality characterized by injurious forms of interdependency: life on earth and the lives of the redundant populations are being sacrificed for the sake of the privileges of the global 10 and 1%. Critique has become ineffective due to formalist cognitivism and becomes a symptom rather than critical of absolute extractivist capitalist processes. In other words: absolute extractivist capitalism is legitimizing itself using liberal frameworks for critique. A sign that liberalism has become obsolete is current global violent polarization and resentment as the main political affects. De-reification is thus urgent and depends on a critique of formalist, individualized subjectivity and of the culturalization of politics, that is to say, politics as extricated from the economy and class consciousness, disconnected from real social processes, materializing in social media or the culture industry. Chari posits the situation in the following manner: contemporary capitalism creates a disjunction between class and economic interest as well as a separation between class and other markers of social difference like gender and race. As a result, cognitive political ambivalence is created, rendering the paradigm of self-reflexivity inadequate to generate critical consciousness. For Chari, what we need are more complex strategies of critique in sync with the ways in which embodiment, affect, sensation and desire play into an individual’s contemporary experiences. In her view, the task is to “defetishize the fetish” in Adorno’s sense, to have artworks operate as a kind of Trojan Horse, executing homeopathic assaults on capitalist forms of domination.11
Berger’s notion of critical art as potentially de-normalizing subjective, formalist modes of perception of capitalist societies is not far from Chari’s articulation of de-reification. And we could also consider Berger’s demand on art that its reference to reality, insofar as it is guarded by the artist’s memory of it, be precise, hopeful and striving toward collective consciousness. That art offers an image of the world in common by creating a world through ways of seeing in sync with Earth’s possible futures, recalling Gilles Deleuze’s summoning aesthetic forms to rebuild the link between humans and the world that has been broken by modernity.