In this conclusion to the review of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art, I will return to the question of ideology critique, its historical determinants, and its political valences, particularly given earlier discussions of his take on Daniel Buren, Nan Goldin, and neo-expressionism. (The first and second parts are, respectively, here and here.)
The women’s, AIDS, transgender, and queer movements were an on-the-ground, mass presence during various timeframes from the 1970s to the 1990s. Over the long term, they led to successes and victories that significantly shifted the state of the situation – the domain of being or that-which-is. An understanding of those struggles’ reality or potential is important in interpreting Goldin’s work but is absent in Buchloh’s 1994 “Residual Resemblance: Three Notes on the Ends of Portraiture.” The essay is archly structuralist and allows no space to contest the dominant, social meanings applied to “marginalized” peoples. These meanings are determined by, precisely, that-which-is or the domain of being, the privileged site of ideology critique.
Buchloh’s reading of Goldin is more obviously amiss from the standpoint of 2015. He did not grasp the newest thought around sexuality, gender, and the penumbra of related movements. (At October, for example, critics such as Douglas Crimp and Leo Bersani were more associated with that thought.) Politics would have served his purposes better in “Residual Resemblances.”
Conversely, per the differences between the original, 1980 essay “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting” and its 1984 postscript, the shift in Buchloh’s approach to neo-expressionism is deeply and avowedly political. This is unusual for him, as I hinted in part I, and salutary. When a strategic conjuncture or political situation changes, our approach to seemingly “formalistic” questions around art and its mediums must also change. Such assessments are not universal or timeless.
Powerful, on-the-ground, mass campaigns against the deployment of nuclear-tipped, US Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe are one objective, historical background against which Buchloh’s shift must be understood. The second is neoliberalism’s early-1980s displacement of fascism and “strong state” authoritarianism, both of which the ruling class had prepared throughout the 1970s.
I have already touched on implications of Buchloh’s move, from the standpoint of 1984. What, however, does this move suggest for us today?
First, a political calculation was made, by Buchloh and others, that fascism and “strong state” authoritarianism were immediate threats. (The imminent consolidation of neoliberalism was not self-evident, as “Figures of Authority” itself makes clear.) This was a misjudgment, but that is OK. Politics requires some degree of speculation about the future, whether in terms of the state of the situation or of ruptures with that.
In 2015, this ominous, original scenario has actually come to pass. The most severe capitalist crisis since the Great Depression began in 2007-08. The ruling classes quickly shifted the burdens of that crisis onto the backs of working people, in an effort to restore profitability. They simply doubled-down on austerity, even though neoliberalism was one core cause of the downturn in the first place and will only intensify the next downturn.
Economic immiseration and new social-democratic failures have reinvigorated extreme-right and fascist politics. Nominally the farthest-left in recent, European history, Greece’s Syriza government has agreed to a third Memorandum handed down from the European Union (EU), thus flagrantly bypassing this year’s resounding and popular “No” vote against austerity.
Marxists long noted that a defeat for the left – self-inflicted or not – opens space for the right. This was certainly the case, in different ways, with Mussolini’s ascendancy in Italy in 1922 and with Hitler’s in Germany in 1933. The Syriza catastrophe can only strengthen the hand of Golden Dawn (GD), the Greek, fascist party.
GD goons have attacked hundreds, including trade unionists in the All-Workers’ Militant Front (PAME) and many immigrants; assaulted members of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) on live television; and killed the prominent, left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas.
Elsewhere, the fascist Jobbik party in Hungary is a force. The fascist Svoboda and Right Sector are, as well, in Ukraine and played a major role in the installation of Petro Poroshenko’s regime in 2014. Particularly since 2013, the French extreme right has reconsolidated: an odious stew of those upholding fascism, clerical reaction, Islamophobia, Marshal Pétain, the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and former, French colonial domination in Algeria.
Buchloh was later skeptical of his 1980 attempt to clarify the present as a repetition of the past. Today however, fascism’s resurgence across Europe is precisely such a repetition, propelled by capitalism’s invariant character. The raw barbarism of the current extreme-right is plain. This is unlike earlier, primarily electoral and elite efforts of, for example, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Jörg Haider in Austria, which lacked fascism’s real, mass mobilization of the petit-bourgeoisie; its militarization on-the-ground; and its relative autonomy vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie and official state apparatus.
Second, whether or not imagistic representation in art is a mechanical, superstructural effect of political reaction is central for “Figures of Authority.” Axioms, now badly decayed, about the affirmative relation of modernism to political progress ground this question. Minimalism, conceptualism, high-modernist painting, and other avant-garde tendencies deeply challenged imagism throughout the mid-century but have long been assimilated into the functioning of the dominant system. Neoliberalism has been quite satisfied with a certain heterogeneity in form.
A corollary question is whether the resuscitation of European fascism and the extreme-right could itself beget a new, artistic figuration. That remains to be seen.
Third, the analysis of neo-expressionism by Buchloh is initially weighted more towards its national(ist) origins, whether Expressionism in Germany or the Mussolini era in Italy. Subsequent revisions are weighted more towards the painting’s “colonialized” engagement with US abstract expressionism, abex (165). Those revisions have ramifications that go unstated in the text.
One: Concerns about abex are a move away from figuration and towards abstraction, which, to say the least, runs counter to one of the essay’s fundamental purposes. “Formal” implications of the mutated politico-strategic conjuncture are considerable.
Two: The formulation “colonialized” suggests a type of unified, intra-European politics against US imperialism. One material foundation for such a politics was, precisely, the mass, anti-nuclear struggles – spanning multiple, national borders – against US “euromissile” deployments in the 1980s.
Intra-European unity also existed in other political registers. The NATO military alliance, founded in 1949, cohered the ruling classes in a bloc against the feared Soviet Union (USSR) and its allies in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or “east” Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and (for a while) Albania. The logic underlying NATO effectively disintegrated with the collapse of the USSR and “really-existing socialist” states from 1989 to 1992. Subsequently, the European Union (EU) was formed in 1993, and the Euro was finalized as a replacement for old, national currencies by 2002.
NATO and the EU are wholly reactionary. The EU has pillaged Greece since 2007-08; politically delegitimated its core, political project; and is imminently headed to the scrap heap. Any replacement must come from the progressive struggles of working class and oppressed peoples on the continent – analogous to the anti-nuclear movement – and not from the ruling class.
Turning to Buren: Formal object-properties of those “empty,” characteristically striped affichages that the artist pasted throughout Paris in April 1968 were decisive for their meanings and audience reception. Given their display on billboards and street spaces outside of museums, galleries, and the art system, the posters’ institutional non/relations were moot. Such a reception was facilitated politically the following month by the immense popular upsurge in France – a foreshadowing of which appeared in Buren’s earlier statement from that February. Those proto-revolutionary conditions enabled a near-total subtraction from everyday institutional contexts, whether political, social, or cultural.
The aborted 1971 Guggenheim installation is quite divergent from Buren’s 1968 project, although Buchloh problematically posits a continuity, or even identity, between the two in terms of the artist’s development of ideology-critique approaches. The meanings and audience reception would be determined more by the institutional, museum context and less by formal object-properties of the immense, striped cloth that was to hang from the ceiling and bisect the Guggenheim’s famed rotunda. This restriction of site is one effect of the Gaullist reaction to May 1968 and the restabilization of bourgeois state and society.
The transition to a post-1968 “long march through the institutions,” is thus one central condition in grasping Buren’s move towards ideology critique and institutional critique. A long-term, strategic, and critical engagement in relation to the realm of ideology becomes more necessary, once a proto-revolutionary upsurge, its dynamism on the ground among millions, and its possible subtractions from the state of the situation all come to an end. The same applies in relation to institutions – including those of the artworld. “In relation to” here signals that such engagement can be either “outside” or “inside.”
The case of Goldin detailed some of the problems, as revealed by historical trajectories of the relevant mass movements, with ideology critique – particularly when that approach does not account for on-the-ground political factors. The case of Buren detailed specific historical circumstances in which an ideology critique and institutional critique approach came into being in the first place. Lastly, the case of the highly political “Figures of Authority” again detailed another set of specific historical circumstances, the fundamental transformations of which rendered Buchloh’s two conceptions of ideology critique, “before” and “after,” profoundly disjunct.
“Figures of Authority” was only one of many bombastic, 1980s-era attacks on painting – by Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, and others – that targeted neo-expressionism. Whether from the vantage of then or today, these could easily be read in a formalistic way. However, the temporal applicability of conceptions of critique can be limited by the historical determinants and politico-strategic conjunctures in which they were developed. Debates concerning form or medium are also about the broader, political context at a given point – not simply about art.
Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art (October Books). Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2015. Print.
Paul Mullan is an activist and writer living in Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead, Free Press Houston, and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Paul also blogs for Red Wedge at "Conditions" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.