(Presenters left to right: David Breslin, Thomas Crow, Hal Foster, Robert Slifkin, James Elkins, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Jonathan Katz, Mignon Nixon, Alison Pearlman, Katy Siegel, Paul Wood, Briony Fer, and Theodore Triandos.)
Many things could be said about the tone and content of the conference, perhaps most gossipy that Hal Foster was situated by virtue of his history and institutional alliances to “defend” the art journal October, which, in the formulation of Jonathan Katz, set up a dominant mode in US art history focused on the how of representation rather than the what. In other words, through recourse to critical theory and post-structuralism, October privileged the processes of signification (how meaning is made) over the significations (what meanings), generating a fanciful infrastructure around an empty core (an “act of ideology” in Katz’s words) and failing to acknowledge, for instance, the personal, the AIDS crisis, and queer subject matter. It’s an axe that Katz has been grinding for some time. I think it’s a valuable critique but that the very situatedness of a single piece of art critical writing by a single straight white, twenty-something man in 1985 (Katz spoke about Foster’s “Subversive Signs” in Recodings) has to be taken in historical and material context. I guess, however, that very situation of writing about subversiveness in the arts in NYC in 1985, a time when more people were dying of AIDS-related causes than total soldiers died in the Vietnam war, and failing to talk about AIDS is the problem. Silence=Death.
I’m off track because what most interested me at the conference was an apparent generational divide. Not everyone fit neatly into one or the other category, but I saw two points of view emerge that have broad repercussions for our art historical work. The first might be described by the following constellation: Krauss, mid-1970s, interpretation, universal processes of signification, French critical theory, taking a position. The second might be: Lutticken, mid-1990s, description, localized and situated meanings, post-colonial theory, resisting any single position. The first takes a stand, the latter lays out a network of possible stands without committing. If many of us feel that critique has run out of steam, what is left? How do we practice forms of resistance if our “positions” are as slippery as capital? Combat spectacle and commodification while knowing full well we are always already spectacularized and commodified and feeling okay with that? How do we both reach for more empiricism and “reality” (a word floated around a lot) while noting biases? How do we acknowledge total relativity without losing shreds of truth?
One option on offer is something like Geertz’s “thick description,” where situated and locally-produced systems of making and meaning are piled on top of one another until the speaker susses out what he or she thinks might be intelligible frameworks. The art historian then might be the great assembler or collector of historical facts and subjective observations who then sets up an admittedly personal but trained arrangement that invites (truly welcomes or even produces) alterations and modifications. The art historian is also, therefore, the alterer or tailor who doesn’t tear down and destroy what’s come before but makes subtle adjustments so that it fits better. Can’t we then remove the shoulder pads from October's 1980s blazer to reveal the body's more natural contours? Perhaps replace its buttoned up front with a jazzy belt that can be removed at the discretion of the user? Let's tailor and not burn art history's history.
Photo of tailor by Henry Boogert