John Berger and Michael Fried emerged as forceful critics alongside, and largely against, the new form of art that we now call “contemporary.” To fully appreciate what was and continues to be at stake in the distinction between their competing critical arguments at the time of Fried’s January 1962 review of Berger’s 1960 book Permanent Red, we need to understand all three of our terms—Berger, Fried and contemporary art—in relation to the ruins of modern art atop of which each staked its claim for the future.
It hardly needs saying that the term “decolonize” once meant something wholly different than it does now. To put it not a little too bluntly, in the heyday of the anticolonial movement it was the colonies and the colonized that needed decolonizing, not the colonizers, but now even that need, as we like to say, has been “colonized.” Of course we understand that the “decolonize” in the slogan “decolonize your syllabus” is metaphorical, that it means diversify or “decenter” (as we also like to say), but that does little to allay the fact that, formally, rhetorically, it collapses the distinction between colonizer and colonized. Sometimes, decentering oneself and one’s syllabi means little more than absolving oneself of accountability for the colonial past. Just to give it a name, we might call this phenomenon “colonial narcissism.”
Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.