Wednesday, October 11, 2023



Hal Foster on The Anti-Aesthetic
Jenny Holzer, Living: Some days you wake up and immediately . . . , 1980–82, bronze, 8 × 10″. © Jenny Holzer/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

THE NOTION OF POSTMODERNISM was once a great stimulant to art and thought; today, it feels like another anti-aphrodisiac of the just past. In some ways, postmodernism seems more historical than modernism, reanimated as modernism is by questions of colonialism, diaspora, and globality. On the other hand, this untimeliness makes the present a good moment to look back at postmodernism, if only to measure our distance from it.

The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, which I edited, was published forty years ago; it was quickly followed by Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (1984), assembled by Brian Wallis. Although academic presses soon produced related anthologies, these initial entries were issued by an independent publisher (Bay Press) and a contemporary museum (New Museum), respectively. In other words, the discourse of postmodernism wasn’t hatched in the academy, even if it came to roost there, and it wasn’t conjured up by journalists and publicists, even if it came to serve the culture industry.

Although not as nihilistic as our libertarian present, the early 1980s was a time of deep reaction. With Thatcher, Reagan, and Kohl, neoliberalism had captured the levers of political power, and neoconservatives like Daniel Bell were ascendant ideologically. What motivated the neocons above all was revenge against “the ’60s.” The problems of contemporary society, they claimed, were due to militant students, Black activists, and strident feminists, not, say, the ravages of advanced capitalism, and the necessary cure was a return to tradition, family, and moral values. Yet even as the Left was in political retreat, it had advanced on cultural fronts. There was real vitality in these multifarious debates, not least in matters of critical theory, which was heterogeneous, especially in the anglophone context. To come to terms with these ideas new and old, a bevy of reviews appeared, including Camera Obscura, Critical Inquiry, Diacritics, differences, New German Critique, October, Representations, Screen, Semiotext(e), Social Text, Telos, Third Text, Wedge, and Zone. In retrospect, though, the drift from politics to criticism was a bad trade, however limited the options then were. When a Social Text editor said to me that critical journals were the political parties of our time, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Cover of The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Bay Press, 1983).

In part because of the vagaries of translation, young intellectuals in the United States encountered the Frankfurt School about the same time as structuralism and poststructuralism. Gramsci came via British cultural studies along with Althusser and Debord, who represented very different lines of Marxist thought. French feminism and film theory, which drew on Saussure, Freud, and Lacan, arrived with Foucault, who was skeptical of all three. A main motive of The Anti-Aesthetic was to parse how these various models might bear on contemporary art and architecture. Yet this also set up the ambiguous posture of the book, which was vanguard in its commitment to theory but defensive in its opposition to the neoconservative-neoliberal order. The Anti-Aesthetic was unambiguous, however, in its rejection of any postmodernism associated with neo-figurative art and neo-ornamental architecture. Stylistic in orientation, that postmodernism was more anti-modernist than anything else, and it appeared to support the cultural politics of the reactionary alliance.

The Anti-Aesthetic also appeared in the wake of The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), in which Jean-François Lyotard argued that “the grand narratives” of modernity—the dialectic of spirit, the emancipation of the worker, the accumulation of wealth, the classless society––had run into the sand. I wanted to begin, then, with a contrary voice, that of Jürgen Habermas, the central figure of the late Frankfurt School. As luck would have it, he had delivered his Theodor W. Adorno Prize lecture, “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” at New York University in 1981; New German Critique published it later that year. The title of the essay carried its thrust, which insisted, against both Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition and Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), that the modern commitment to “communicative rationality” be recovered. Habermas acknowledged that the Enlightenment mission––to separate knowledge into the three spheres of science, morality, and art and to develop their “inner logic” professionally––had had mixed results at best, one of which was to distance such activities from the public. He also understood that “the 20th century . . . shattered this optimism” about the “rational organization of everyday social life.” On the other hand, Habermas averred that “efforts to ‘negate’ the culture of expertise,” à la Dada and Surrealism, were mostly “nonsense experiments”: “Nothing remains from a desublimated meaning or a destructured form; an emancipatory effect does not follow.” Hence his ultimatum, cast in the form of a question: “Should we try to hold on to the intentions of the Enlightenment, feeble as they may be, or should we declare the entire project of modernity a lost cause?”1

When a Social Text editor said to me that critical journals were the political parties of our time, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Habermas wasn’t sanguine about the possibility of this holding on. “Modernism is dominant but dead,” he admitted, “the disillusionment with the very failures of those programs that called for the negation of art and philosophy has come to serve as a pretense for conservative positions,” and communicative reason was outmatched by capitalist rationality. Nevertheless, he urged that the good fight be fought, as did Kenneth Frampton in “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” For Frampton, architecture was a central arena in which “local culture” confronted “universal civilization.” This shifted the question, which Frampton posed via the philosopher Paul Ricoeur: “How to become modern and to return to sources, how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization?” Postmodern architects like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Robert A. M. Stern, and Michael Graves proffered a populist “return to history” but “merely [fed] the media-society with gratuitous, quietistic images.”2 Against this cynical program, Frampton pressed architects to “[build] the site” according to the principles of critical regionalism, which were exemplified for him in the work of Alvar Aalto and Jørn Utzon. With an emphasis on the tactile and the tectonic over the imagistic and the scenographic, architects might promote a sensuous kind of place-making that would support the realm of “human appearance” (an allusion to Hannah Arendt) and thus resist the predations of advanced capitalism. It soon turned out, however, that a greater threat than pop-historical postmodernism came from architecture refashioned as a sculptural media logo, à la the Guggenheim Bilbao, which suited the interests of a now-global capitalism even better.

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, 1997, September 22, 1999. Photo: Alamy.

Again, The Anti-Aesthetic advocated practices that were not merely antimodernist. At the same time, in essays first published in October, Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp demonstrated how modernist conceptions of both medium and museum had fallen into crisis. Concerned that the category of sculpture had become almost meaningless after Minimalism, Krauss, in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” reasserted its old definition as a commemorative monument in order to trace the breakdown of that logic in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, first in the work of Rodin, where sculpture entered “its negative condition—a kind of sitelessness,” and then in that of Brancusi, where it became a “pure marker” that, through a reflection on its materials and processes, “depicts its own autonomy.” For several decades, Krauss argued, modernists explored this “idealist space” productively, but in time it was “experienced more and more as pure negativity,” with sculpture understood mostly as that which was not-architecture or not-landscape. However, in a deft structuralist move, Krauss argued that this negative binary could be expanded “into a quaternary field” in which sculpture was revealed to be “only one term on the periphery” along with “site-construction,” “marked sites,” and “axiomatic structures.” “Within the situation of postmodernism,” she concluded, “practice is not defined in relation to a given medium––sculpture––but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium––photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself––might be used.”

This renowned text remains a brilliant demonstration of method, one that openly privileges structure over history as a mode of explanation, yet that very emphasis also renders it silent on socioeconomic factors, such as the dominance of the commodity form and the rise of spectacular society, that have impacted sculpture far more than any logical operation.3So, too, other critics have used the quaternary field deployed by Krauss to map not artistic expansion but ideological closure, and though Earthworks and other such constructions did extend sculpture spatially, for the most part they have proved to be a dead end aesthetically.4

Another ruse of history has operated on the art institution as analyzed by Crimp in “On the Museum’s Ruins.” According to Foucault, it was Manet who underscored the reflexivity of modernist art, whereby “every painting now belongs within the squared and massive surface of painting.”5 So what happens, Crimp asked, when photography is let loose on that surface not as a discrete medium of art but as an anti-auratic operation of image reproduction and proliferation as performed by Rauschenberg? Can the disciplinary boundaries of the institution hold up, or does such postmodernist art demonstrate once and for all that, as the theorist Eugenio Donato put it, “the set of objects the Museum displays is sustained only by the fiction that they somehow constitute a coherent representational universe”? Important at the time, this epistemological crisis of the museum seems a minor problem today compared with its complicities in colonialism and imperialism, not to mention its histories of expropriation and exclusion.

Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo Town Hall, 1952, Finland, 1976. Photo: Larry Speck.

In “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” one of the most influential texts in The Anti-Aesthetic, Craig Owens redescribed the postmodern crack-up of the “grand narratives” of modernity as a “loss of mastery.” Although “the representational systems of the West admit only one vision—that of the constitutive male subject,” feminist artists had come to challenge that dominance. Long “excluded from representation by its very structure,” the female subject was its most incisive critic, one dedicated to its “ruin.” The prime move of feminist postmodernism was thus to “expropriate the appropriators,” an operation that Owens described, in terms that are now canonical, in the work of Dara Birnbaum, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Martha Rosler, and Cindy Sherman. “Here,” he concluded, “we arrive at an apparent crossing of the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation.” After Rosler, Owens warned that women should not be “a token for all markers of difference”; at the same time, he insisted, “sexual inequality cannot be reduced to an instance of economic exploitation.” This tension between difference and totality has returned with force in contemporary debates about race and class. 6

For the Marxist Fredric Jameson, however, it was only through such totalizing that any difference could be understood. A year after the publication of The Political Unconscious (1981), Jameson lectured at the Whitney Museum on “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” his first text on the subject. For Jameson, the passage from modernism to postmodernism was a matter less of a rupture than of “a restructuration of a certain number of elements already given,” of which he offered several telling instances. Whereas intellectual inquiry was once undertaken in discrete discourses like philosophy, history, political theory, and literary criticism, the new species of critical theory roamed across these disciplines, poaching from them freely. Jameson next pointed to a shift in the typical relations between high and low art. Whereas modernists tended to oppose the two, postmodernists liked to intermingle them. More precisely, whereas modernists alluded to classic texts for parodic effect (as with Joyce), postmodernists tended to incorporate them in a pastiche that undercut their normativity (as with Kathy Acker).7 Most important, Jameson refused any stylistic understanding of the notion of postmodernism. Its purpose, rather, was “to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order”—those of advanced capitalism. If modernists stressed the originality of their oeuvres, postmodernists enacted “the death of the author,” and their practice of pastiche took the modernist fragmentation of language to a new level, one that Jameson likened to the effects of schizophrenia, in which “meaning is lost,” “the materiality of words becomes obsessive,” and the world is “transformed into an image.” Through this staging of an “unreality” that feels like “intensity,” Jameson concluded, postmodernism expresses “the inner truth” of advanced capitalism, which is to erode any “sense of history.” “Our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.” Jameson ended with a proposition of his own: “Postmodernism replicates or reproduces––reinforces––the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists that logic.”

View of “Rayyane Tabet: The Return,” 2023, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut.

In “The Ecstasy of Communication,” Jean Baudrillard also associated the postmodern subject with a schizophrenic who, no longer able to “produce the limits of his own being,” “is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence.” Of course, as with Jameson, such pathological diagnoses of an entire society are problematic, and Baudrillard was indeed prone to extreme statements, which were sometimes parroted in ’80s art talk. Yet he produced important insights, some of which anticipate “the hyperrealism of simulation” all around us. Here are several examples: “Advertising in its new dimension invades everything, as public space (the street, monument, market, scene) disappears.” “Bodily movements” are displaced into “electronic commands.” “The instantaneity of communication has miniaturized our exchanges into a succession of instants.” “In place of the reflexive transcendence of mirror and scene, there is a nonreflecting surface, an immanent surface where operations unfold––the smooth operational surface of communication.” The opposition between private and public is “effaced in a sort of obscenity where the most intimate processes of our life become the virtual feeding ground of the media.”

Finally, in “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community,” Edward Said concluded The Anti-Aesthetic with a critical reflection on “the politics of interpretation.” This phrase performs a discursive twist typical of the time: Rather than to represent or interpret politics, the charge was to politicize representation, to politicize interpretation. Yet Said was already alert to the problem that such criticism, however interdisciplinary, hardly translated into more direct communication with a wider audience. On the contrary, “critics read each other and cared about little else.” If “technical language” remained the criterion and “self-policing” remained the protocol, “the particular mission of the humanities” would be only “to represent noninterference in the affairs of the everyday world,” and its primary function would be merely “to represent humane marginality, which is also to preserve and if possible to conceal the hierarchy of powers that occupy the center, define the social terrain, and fix the limits of use, functions, fields, marginality, and so on.” Guided by figures like Said, the humanities have improved dramatically on these fronts, but representing “humane marginality” remains their primary purpose.

Kerry James Marshall, Vignette (Wishing Well), 2010–12, acrylic on PVC panel, 72 7⁄8 × 61″.

MOST ANTHOLOGIES worth a damn are products of urgency and contingency, and The Anti-Aesthetic was no different. A twenty-eight-year-old editor and critic at Art in America at the time of its publication, I was almost too eager to trace the connections among art, theory, and politics that the contributors pointed toward.Urgency and contingency bring oversights, then, some of which remain especially galling to me. Although the premier artists of postmodernism were women, only one woman appears as an author in the book, and there is only one text on feminist art, and that was written by a man.9 And though I participated in a seminar on Orientalism given by Said, the book includes no text on postcolonial discourse. There are excuses––Said was focused on literature and music, not art, and critics like Geeta Kapur were not widely known and journals like Third Text not yet founded—but these are excuses. It took the auto-critique of anthropology, along with the provocation of the notorious “Primitivism” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, to foreground the many implications of postcolonial critique for art. Difference, as understood by both poststructuralism and feminism, was still difference within more than alterity without.

I have already noted some shifts in the subjects taken up in The Anti-Aesthetic since its publication; here, to conclude, are several more. First, the valence of appropriation has obviously undergone a sea change. Once central to postmodernist practice, which was often called “appropriation art,” this operation was taken to challenge unexamined assumptions about authorship as authority and art as property. Now the notion is fraught with ethical peril, and the term often functions as an accusation. Second, though it was always trivial to treat postmodernism as a stylistic term, its use value as a period marker has become uncertain. Simply put, we overstated the break with modernism, if not with modernity (whose grand narratives appear more defunct than ever). Certainly, the modernism that provided a foil for postmodernism was a reductive one, often too focused on a straw man or an easy target (such as Greenberg or Color Field painting). Perhaps what Lyotard, Habermas, and others counted as modernity is also due for revision––and postmodernity along with it. Third, in my introduction to the book, I opposed “a postmodernism of resistance” to “a postmodernism of reaction” and associated the former with poststructuralist critique and the latter with neoconservative politics. Already a year later, I had questioned this binary, for both appropriation art and postmodern architecture can be taken to promote a fragmentation of cultural signs that speaks to the corrosive action of capital more than anything else.10

Baudrillard was prone to extreme statements, which were sometimes parroted in ’80s art talk. Yet he also produced important insights.

Fourth, rejection of the aesthetic has eased. Suspicious of the lazy aestheticism all around us (late Greenbergianism, art photography, neo-expressionist painting, bronze sculpture), my cohort of artists and critics was skeptical of the aesthetic as a category, and in an early moment of the digital revolution, we were more dismissive of artistic aura than even Walter Benjamin (who influenced us enormously). As a site of reconciliation between different faculties (as Kant had defined it), the aesthetic seemed to be aligned with the ideological. This led me to draw, within the postmodernism of resistance, a distinction between two positions, one affined with Gramsci, the other with Adorno, and to offer an ultimatum of my own:

The adventures of the aesthetic make up one of the great narratives of modernity: from the time of its autonomy through art-for-art’s sake to its status as necessary negative category, a critique of the world as it is. It is this last moment (figured brilliantly in the writings of Theodor Adorno) that is hard to relinquish: the notion of the aesthetic as subversive, a critical interstice in an otherwise instrumental world. Now, however, we have to consider that this aesthetic space too is eclipsed—or rather, that its criticality is now largely illusory (and so instrumental). In such an event, the strategy of an Adorno, of negative commitment, might have to be revised or rejected, and a new strategy of interference (associated with Gramsci) devised.

In his account of the politics of interpretation Said had also advocated for Gramsci; there was a counterhegemonic thrust in the texts by Frampton, Owens, and Jameson; and a Gramscian position appeared to be the one to take up in the face of the neoconservative-neoliberal order. Yet I have come to doubt the necessity of this Gramsci-Adorno opposition. They are not as mutually exclusive as I made them out to be in the exigencies of the moment. And today there is a new insistence on the aesthetic, even a return to the beautiful, especially among Black artists and critics, in large part because it offers some respite from an otherwise necessary focus on traumatic histories, some promise of “a transfiguration of the given.”11

Fifth and finally, there is a shift in the valence of the critical, which is no longer the undisputed good or inviolate criterion that my cohort often took it to be. That said, I remain committed to the kind of critical intervention that The Anti-Aesthetic attempted to make; the postcritical is not for me. Nor is the insistence that criticism be reparative; in my view, that notion edges toward a redemptive idea of culture that much of the most important art, modernist and postmodernist alike, rejects.12 Criticism and culture are not therapy, not then, not now.

Hal Foster’s Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg was published in 2020 by Princeton University Press.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983). I dedicate the present text to its publisher, my great friend Thatcher Bailey, who was crucial to the making of the book from first to last.

2. There was pushback on the Frampton essay from architect friends who didn’t see critical regionalism as properly postmodernist, but what appealed to me was precisely its critical posture; it pointed to a “postmodernism of resistance.”

3. “The logic of sculpture, it would seem, is inseparable from the logic of the monument,” Krauss wrote in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” “By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation. It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place.” Two decades later, Benjamin Buchloh offered this diabolical revision: “The logic of sculpture, it would seem, is inseparable from the logic of the commodity fetish. By virtue of this logic, a sculpture is always already a fetishized object whose function is disavowal. It lacks any particular location and it is universally accessible. It speaks in a symbolic tongue about the meaning or use of the fetish.” See his “Sculpture: Publicity and the Poverty of Experience,” in Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 510.

4. See Algirdas Julien Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, trans. Paul J. Perron and Frank H. Collins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); see, too, the foreword by Fredric Jameson. Recently, of course, “the logic of the monument” has been contested in very different ways.

5. Michel Foucault, “Fantasia of the Library,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 92.

6. It could be argued that Owens totalized in his own way, hypostatizing all authority as domination.

7. I was stumped by how to treat postmodernist literature, in large part because the writers associated with the term (such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and even Amiri Baraka and William Burroughs) were more hypermodernist than anything else. (There is a lesson here about the nonsynchronicity of the various arts.) In a text on “post-criticism” for The Anti-Aesthetic, Gregory Ulmer argued, after Rosalind Krauss, that critical theory had achieved a “paraliterary” status of its own, in large part through carrying over the modernist critique of representation, especially through the devices of collage and montage, into the domain of philosophy. See Krauss, “Poststructuralism and the ‘Paraliterary,’” October, no. 13 (Summer 1980), 36–40.

8. Also contingent was my acquaintance with the authors. I knew Frampton from the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and Krauss and Crimp from October. I worked alongside Owens at Art in America and Jameson at Social Text. I studied with Said at Columbia and met Baudrillard on one of his many trips to New York.

9. This problem is not mitigated by the fact that Owens was gay. However, in the short time remaining to him—he died, far too young, in 1990––he did become an important voice in queer theory, which had only begun to emerge at the time of The Anti-Aesthetic.

10. See my “(Post)Modern Polemics,” in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1985), 121–138.

11. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: Norton, 2019), 33. Also see Christina Sharpe, “Beauty Is a Method,” e-flux, no. 105 (December 2019).

12. I allude here to my “Post-Critical?,” in Bad New Days (London: Verso, 2015); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–151; and Leo Bersani, The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Ed Ruscha, Cigarettes (detail), 1956, tempera on board, 15 × 10". © Ed Ruscha.
Ed Ruscha, Cigarettes (detail), 1956, tempera on board, 15 × 10". © Ed Ruscha.
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