This second part of the review of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s most recent compilation, Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art, will detail another instance in which contemporaneous politics is unexpectedly manifested in the book. (The first part is here; the conclusion is here.) Buchloh’s important essay “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting” was originally written in the fall of 1980 and published in the Spring, 1981 issue of the arts journal October, with which Buchloh has long been associated (162). It was subsequently anthologized elsewhere, including in the influential Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, published by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1984 and eventually a staple of period, university syllabi on art and theory.
The essay is, per critic Donald Kuspit’s coeval assessment, a “Marxist blitzkrieg” on the figurative painting then re-ascendant in the capitalist west and popularly known as “neo-expressionism” (Kuspit 137). I will examine Buchloh’s take on ideology critique in “Figures of Authority”; the text’s political valences as of its writing and original publication; Buchloh’s highly revisionist postscript to the version in Art After Modernism (reprinted, as well, in Formalism and Historicity); and, finally, that postscript’s completely different set of political valences.
Buchloh commences with the problem of the “return to traditional modes of representation in painting around 1915, two years after the Readymade and the Black Square” (115). The former reference is to Marcel Duchamp, associated with Dadaism in France; and the latter reference is to Kazimir Malevich, associated with Suprematism in the early Bolshevik revolutionary process. These two moments were but a further demolition of the “perceptual conventions of mimetic representation,” “codes of recognizability,” “credibility of iconic referentiality,” and the “hierarchy of figure-ground relationships on the picture plane,” all part of the “visual and spatial ordering systems that had defined pictorial production since the Renaissance” (115).
That system’s breakdown had been underway since the nineteenth century. Advances such as Cubism and Futurism were stamped by, for example, "nonrepresentational modes and procedures of fragmentation and pictorial molecularization"; and by "collage techniques [that] forced the simultaneous presence of heterogeneous materials and procedures within the painted surface, and ... underlined the interaction of aesthetic phenomena with their social and political context" (128).
Outside of the newly founded Soviet Union (USSR), these advances of the pre-1914 era would be significantly reversed at the end of the First World War, in the “return to order“ or “retour à l’ordre” – as it was known after-the-fact. (Social and cultural norms have been routinely upended by the total wars of the twentieth century, and the ruling class has routinely attempted to restore pre-conflict norms and “stability” in their interests.)
Communist parties formed across Europe, inspired by the success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – and by the widespread defection of the Socialists and Second International to the imperialist camp in 1914. The Communist International (Comintern) formed under the general guidance of the Soviets. In Germany, multiple attempts at insurrection to overthrow the capitalist state were made by communists, but they stumbled. In Hungary, a communist government under Béla Kun came to power in 1919, but was quickly ousted by intervening Romanian forces.
The bourgeoisie was deeply threatened and this is key to the conservative “return to order” in art. Such order was characterized by the reassertion of “mim[esis],” “recognizability,” “iconic referentiality,” “figure-ground relationships,” and the "traditional values of high art" (121) in easel painting. Characteristic, as well, were the "inherent authoritarian tendency of the myth of a new classicism" (122); the "demand for respect for the cultural tradition"; and the reaffirmation of "the 'eternal' or ancient systems of order ... the law of the tribe, the authority of history, the paternal principle of the master" (123). Even the Cubist Pablo Picasso, the Futurist Gino Severini, and other artists important in earlier innovations themselves reverted to these traditions. Buchloh poses a first question: “Is there a simple causal connection, a mechanical reaction, by which growing political oppression necessarily and irreversibly generates traditional representation” (116)?
Moreover, looking past the immediate post-1918 period and its conservatism, Buchloh gestures towards the Fascist seizure of power in Italy in 1922, by Mussolini, and the Nazis’ ascendancy in Germany in 1933, under Adolf Hitler. Both moments have long been understood as an end-result of the failure of post-War, anti-capitalist political sequences. Posing a second question of a continuity between those two moments, on the one hand, and the “retour à l’ordre,” on the other hand: “[T]he attitudes of Neue Sachlichkeit and Pittura Metafisica cleared the way for a final takeover by such outright authoritarian styles of representation as Fascist painting in Germany and Italy” (116). Again, artists core to early-century progress themselves "cleared th[is] way," including Christian Schad, associated with "New Objectivity," and Carlo Carrà, with "Metaphysical Art."
The USSR’s Stalinist Thermidor, underway by the 1930s, is a secondary issue for Buchloh. This authoritarian reaction also manifested a return to traditional representation in art. “Really-existing socialism” collapsed more than a quarter-century ago, however; the theoretical questions raised today by the experience of the USSR – and how those could be legitimately related to artistic phenomena in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy – are highly opaque. Given such difficulties and the necessity for an historical excavation of “really-existing socialism,” I will set aside this aspect.
Of contemporary art in 1980, Buchloh then poses a third and final question: “[T]o what extent [does] the rediscovery and recapitulation of these modes of figurative representation in present-day European painting … cynically generate a cultural climate of authoritarianism in order to familiarize us with the political realities to come” (117)?
“[P]resent-day” refers to the neo-expressionism then burgeoning in popularity and influence in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Italy, and elsewhere. This retrograde trend was distinguished by "[e]xcited brushwork and heavy impasto paint application, high-contrast colors and dark contours" (145). Prominent artists associated with neo-expressionism in the FRG included Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff, A.R. Penck, and many others. Under the name of Transavanguardia (literally “beyond the avant-garde”), Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, and Francesco Clemente were associated with the Italian variant.
Neo-expressionism served to renew myths of national-cultural identity, which had proven so dangerous for Europe throughout two World Wars, as Buchloh underscores. West German artists took up the Expressionist heritage, while Italian artists drew from late Giorgio de Chirico and the 1920s work of Fascist-aligned Mario Sironi.
Invoking artists such as Frank Stella, Gerhard Richter, Robert Rauschenberg, Piero Manzoni, and Robert Ryman, Buchloh counterpoises this neo-expressionism to its immediate predecessor, the vital period of high modernism, minimalism, and conceptualism from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. In these latter, experimental practices – similar to pre-War innovations – "the production process of painting was radically questioned for its claim on organic unity, aura and presence, and replaced by heterogeneity, mechanical procedures, and seriality" (149). Further, they "provide[d] the viewer with perceptual clues to all its material, procedural, formal, and ideological qualities as part of its modernist program" (143).
The homology, one of multiple permeating the essay, is notable. The hypothesis is that Cubism and Futurism, et al were supplanted by the “retour à l’ordre,” while high modernism, et al many decades later were supplanted by neo-expressionism. Per Buchloh, the initial "return” in art both reflects and overdetermines the post-War, conservative wave; and that overdetermines, in turn, the fascist wave’s paradigmatic moments of 1922 and 1933. Given these assumptions, the next question is obvious: what is the political situation, as of 1980, homologous to, or even a repetition of, the interwar era from 1918 to 1939?
The argument is not subtle:
"As was the case in the call to order by regressive artists of the 1920s, a growing aggressivity is now becoming apparent in the manner that these clichés of vision and language are propagated. With the demise of liberalism, its underside – authoritarianism – no longer feels inhibited. And it thus comes to the fore in the guise of irrationality and the ideology of individual expression. In reaction against social consciousness and political awareness, proto-Fascist libertarianism prepares the way for the seizure of state power." (158)
What are we to make of this?
Unspoken here is the repression, in certain western-European states, encountered by the upsurges of working class and oppressed peoples throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This approach went beyond “soft” attempts to reestablish ideological hegemony and popular consent favorable to the ruling class, for example via the mass media or school institutions. It instead encompassed a “hard” exercise of violence against the rebellious, consistent with the classical Leninist definition of the state as an “armed body of men.”
Throughout its 1970s campaign against armed-struggle groupuscules, the FRG enacted laws prohibiting any support for the Red Army Faction (RAF) – even mere propaganda. An individual or entity could be charged, even if they provided no material aid and had no awareness of, or involvement in, acts of violence. Booksellers who carried pro-RAF texts were prosecuted, as were people who wrote pro-RAF graffiti on subway trains; one individual who distributed a prisoners’-rights leaflet addressing the torturous conditions faced by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and other incarcerated RAF militants was prosecuted.
The offices of Trikont-Verlag were raided, its inventory confiscated, and its business records seized. The publisher was persecuted for distributing the manifesto of the Socialist Patients’ Collective; How It All Began, a memoir by Michael “Bommi” Baumann of the anarchist-influenced June 2 Movement (J2M); and pamphlets by the mass-struggle Gauche prolétarienne (GP) a French Maoist organization. Further laws were enacted formally targeting “’anyone who disseminates, publicly issues … produces, owns, offers, stocks, announces, praises, or attempts to import or export’ a text … threatening ‘the existence or safety of the Federal Republic’” (Varon 261).
The 1972 Berufsverbot, or “professional ban,” permitted termination of civil servants who supported “anti-constitutional” organizations. That was invoked to suspend Peter Brückner, who taught at the University of Hannover and had publicly argued the merits of the 1977 “Buback – Obituary.” In that controversial statement published in a University of Göttingen student newspaper, the pseudonymous author “Mescalaro” had expressed a “’clandestine joy’” at the RAF’s assassination of federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback (Varon 263).
All of this was an ideological pretext to crack down on mass, left forces that the authorities genuinely feared (not the miniscule RAF). As examples, police toting machine-guns invaded and ransacked more than 50 radical, youth collectives in West Berlin in 1975. The RAF’s attorneys were endlessly harassed, hampering defense of their clients and thus casting doubt on the “justice” system’s very viability. Christian Democratic Union (CDU) officials denounced prominent writer Heinrich Böll, a critic of the FRG’s state violence.
Italy, as well, saw growing repression. The 1975 Legge Reale permitted police to open fire when public order was “threatened”; and dictated severe sentences for demonstrators possessing defensive or identity-protecting measures, such as handkerchiefs, helmets, and balaclavas. That year “marked the beginning of the most violent and bloody phase of the class struggle” there (Berardi 153). The autonomists were then the latest phase of an immense upsurge, of workers, youth, women, and the marginalized, ongoing in the country since 1968 – with no long-term lull, unlike France or the US.
Armed-struggle groupings, such as Prima Linea (“Front Line”) and the infamous Red Brigades (RB), grew in the face of police attacks and juridical assaults. In 1978, the RB kidnapped Aldo Moro, the former, Christian-Democratic Prime Minister, and demanded the release of imprisoned comrades. The government refused negotiations, and the RB murdered Moro. Many believe that this sordid denouement furthered the “strategy of tension” backed by elements of the Italian ruling elites. This strategy was intended to create a climate of terror that would popularly delegitimize and demoralize the mass, left movements and provide ideological pretexts for escalating the state’s crackdown.
Given the Moro affair, such escalation began in early 1979. Major autonomist figures, including Antonio Negri, were arrested and charged with supporting the RB; eventually, more than 12,000 militants would be incarcerated, some for decades, with hundreds fleeing into exile (Lotringer v). This doomed the autonomists and decisively ended the long-1968 political sequence.
Concern about repression and violations of basic civil liberties – to use US terminology – in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere was shared by the left generally. This was one factor driving theorizations of an allegedly new, “strong state” capitalism. These theories addressed not only the actions of “armed bodies of men” but also other factors, such as intensifying economic centralization. The later works of Nicos Poulantzas are one example.
These are some of the objective conditions which existed in Europe at the time and which can, at least partially, contextualize Buchloh’s profound concerns over “authoritarianism,” “proto-Fascis[m],” and a “seizure of state power” by such forces.
Aside from the “strong state” strategy, fascist strategies had also been prepared, certainly in Italy. Those two approaches are different. Unlike Bonapartist and elite dictatorships, fascism mobilizes the petit-bourgeoisie as a leading class-strata; is therefore relatively autonomous vis-à-vis the high bourgeoisie; actually militarizes these mass forces, outside of the system, for the physical destruction on-the-streets of the workers’ movement; upholds the most reactionary ideas; and can “revitalize” the capitalist state through fascist cadres and apparatuses.
In the end, both ceded to neoliberal value-accumulation strategies. By some point in the 1980s, neoliberalism was more obviously dominant and successful at neutralizing much of the post-1960s forward motion of working class and oppressed peoples. (This is applicable, of course, only until the 2007-08 global economic crisis.)
This neutralization was facilitated by the constant failures of European social-democratic, official Communist, and New Left-influenced parties to overturn the capitalist state, even in seemingly more-propitious situations. Dictatorships ended in Portugal in 1974, when the Carnation revolution overthrew Marcelo Caetano; and in Spain in 1975, when the butcher Francisco Franco finally expired. Despite popular mobilizations, particularly in Portugal, both cases ended in prolonged transitions to bourgeois democracy. The Eurocommunist projects in France and Italy, while having a certain logic, ran aground. Even relatively measured reforms proposed by the Socialist François Mitterrand, elected to the French Presidency in 1981, were squashed by opposition from international capital.
The 1984 compilation Art After Modernism featured “Figures of Authority” and a new postscript by Buchloh. In the latter, the author is deeply critical of his original piece: “The present situation … may perhaps be less profitably compared with the twenties than I originally suspected” (163). Buchloh’s striking revisions to the earlier theses can be understood in terms of, precisely, shifts in the political situation.
First, from the postscript: “[W]hen we look at a painting by Kiefer, for example, we see first of all a German national asserting through his art a national authenticity and identity, but also tackling or toying with the distant monstrosity of German Fascism, simultaneously exorcising its power in today’s society and performing for us the labor of mourning occasioned by a barbarism that has quickly receded into the past” (164-65). (Neo-expressionism remained visible in 1984, and artists such as Kiefer are now canonical.)
Here, initial concerns over “authoritarianism” and “proto-Fascis[m]” have receded by 1984. The nationalism inherent in neo-expressionism no longer points towards a potential “seizure of state power” by such forces, but towards a “distant monstrosity” or “barbarism” – in “the past,” its power “exorcis[ed]” by a “labor of mourning.” This is a result of neoliberalism’s success – and displacement of fascism and those aspects of the “strong state” I noted earlier.
Second: The “aesthetic mirage” (165) of neo-expressionism “seldom … reflect[s] upon the real fears (and practices of protest) brought on the aggressive policies of the Reagan administration and by the deployment of missiles on the territory likely to be the first ‘war theater’” (163). Those “fears” are instead “project[ed] … onto the distant historical reality of authoritarian politics in other countries” (165). Here is the most fundamental driver behind Buchloh’s revisions.
In the (once again) escalating conflict with the USSR, US President Jimmy Carter had launched a plan in late 1979 to deploy medium-range Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles in NATO countries, including the FRG, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Britain. These new weapons could hit Soviet command centers within six-to-eight minutes, thus enabling an offensive first-strike – rather than a purely defensive capability (Solo 109). Moreover, neither system would be able to hit Washington, DC or Moscow. These tactical missiles, plus new military doctrines based on early and simultaneous use of conventional and nuclear arms in a conflict, could essentially obliterate western Europe while leaving the two, main, Cold War players relatively unscathed.
Many were alarmed, particularly given the incoming Presidential administration of Ronald Reagan and its saber-rattling against the Soviets. By 1981, millions were demonstrating in western Europe against the Pershing II and cruise “euromissile” plans – and were to remain a major force on the ground throughout the early-to-mid 1980s.
Third, on Kiefer again: “[W]e see an obedient disciple, who now for the first time has encapsulated the lessons of the ‘School of New York’”; such “colonialized representations” provide “an image of obedience and assent: the various foreign cultures validate the hegemony of the dominant culture” (165).
The initial analysis of neo-expressionism was weighted towards its national(ist) origins, whether German or Italian, given, again, fears of a new, continental “authoritarianism” and “proto-Fascis[m].” However, the analysis by 1984 is more weighted towards the painting’s engagement with abex, US abstract expressionism. The relation between the US and Europe is here explicitly characterized as “colonialized.”
Abex had arisen by the end of the Second World War, and the dominant military and economic position of the US – given the destruction of much of Europe and Japan – allowed for a strong cultural position as well throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. (See the histories of CIA support for art exhibitions that traveled globally, as instruments in Cold War propaganda.)
The real, objective conditions that can provide an explanatory framework for this change should be evident. There was a new primary political contradiction developing on the ground: the mass movement – spanning multiple, national borders – against the “euromissiles” and new, US imperialist offensive.
Fourth and lastly: Buchloh faults his initial lack of any analysis of artworld economics. This is not much of a flaw. A burgeoning “strong state” or even fascism is the worry in 1980, and how the wealthy spend millions to decorate their apartments is trivial in comparison. There is a tremendous disjunction between the two questions.
At first pass, “Figures of Authority” can easily be interpreted as more a critique of a form – one in which the temporal specificity of its historical determinants and politico-strategic conjunctures can be lost on readers. I would dare to say that is likely how it has been interpreted over the years, as with other 1980s-era attacks on painting. An effectively transhistorical and universal reading of such critiques is a problem. Debates about a form or medium are only seemingly abstract and intra-artistic, and, in Buchloh, the dramatic moves between the 1980 composition and the 1984 postscript indicate as much.
In the final part of this review, forthcoming, I will return to earlier discussions of Daniel Buren and Nan Goldin and tie those together with “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting.” I will conclude by examining some of the implications of Formalism and Historicity, and its perspectives, for today.
- Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” “Anatomy of Autonomy.” 1980. Jared Becker, Richard Reid, and Andrew Rosenbaum, trans. Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds. New York: Semiotext(e), Foreign Agents Series, 2007. 148-170. Print.
- 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.
- Kuspit, Donald B. “Flak From the ‘Radicals’: The American Case Against German Painting.” 1983. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Brian Wallis, ed. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art; Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, Inc., 1984. 137-152. Print.
- Lotringer, Sylvère. “In the Shadow of the Red Brigades.” John Johnston, trans. Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds. New York: Semiotext(e), Foreign Agents Series, 2007. v-xvi. Print.
- Solo, Pam. From Protest to Policy: Beyond the Freeze to Common Security. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, a Subsidiary of Harper and Row, 1988. Print.
- Varon, Jeremy. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 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.