What was postmodernism? – Habermas’s critique

Postmodernism challenged the institutionalized modernism of the mid-20th century, offering more radical forms of social discontents and cultural practice. It meant unmasking the values of progress as involving ideologies of the political status-quo, the problems of which were manifest to a new generation in the 1960s. But, more recently, postmodernism itself has begun to age, and reveal its own concerns as those of the post-1960s situation of global capitalism rather than an emancipated End of History.
In 1980, Jürgen Habermas, on the occasion of receiving the Adorno prize in Frankfurt, predicted the exhaustion of postmodernism, characterizing its conservative tendencies. Habermas called this situation the “incomplete project” of modernity, a set of unresolved problems that have meant the eventual return of history, if not the return of “modernism.” How does Habermas’s note of dissent, from the moment of highest vitality of postmodernism, help us situate the concerns of contemporary art in light of society and politics today?
In his Adorno prize talk, Habermas emphasized the question of the “aesthetic experience … drawn into individual life history and … ordinary life,” and “not [already] framed by experts’ critical judgments”. Habermas thinks that such aesthetic experience “does justice to .. Brecht’s and Benjamin’s interests in how artworks, having lost their aura, could yet be received in illuminating ways,” a “project [that] aims at a differentiated re-linking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that [would be impoverished by mere traditionalism] [,a] new connection … that can only be established on condition that societal modernization will also be steered in a different direction [than capitalism].” Habermas admitted that “the chances for this today are not very good.”
Instead, Habermas points out that, “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.” This is how Habermas characterized postmodernism, an anti-modernism that was an ideology of the “young conservatives,” namely Foucault and Derrida (among others).
Habermas drew a parallel of the postmodernism of Derrida and Foucault to the “neo-conservatives,” for which he took the Frankfurt School critical theorists Horkheimer and Adorno’s former secretary, in their time of exile in the U.S. during WWII, Daniel Bell, as representative. Bell had described the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” as resulting in what he called “antinomian culture,” which produced a nihilistic “culturati” in a “counterfeit” high culture of “multiples,” hedonism for the middle class, and a “pornotopia for the masses.” What Bell, as a self-styled “conservative,” deplored, such as the “conformism” of a liberal “heterodoxy” that became a “prescription in its confusions,” postmodernists celebrated. But they agreed on what Habermas called the destructive aspects of the “negation of art and philosophy,” against which various hopeless “Surrealist revolts” had been mounted, as an inevitable result of modernity. Whereas Bell, for instance, explicitly called for the return of religion as a way of staving off the nihilism of modernity, the postmodernists implicitly agreed with the conservative diagnosis of such nihilism, for they explicitly abandoned what Habermas called modernity’s “incomplete project” of enlightenment and emancipation. Postmodernism was a form of anti-modernity.

Critical art, liquidated

So, how does art figure in such a project of enlightened emancipation? The scholar of Benjamin and Adorno’s work Susan Buck-Morss wrote, in response to the postmodernist art journal October’s 1996 Visual Culture Questionnaire, that, “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience. Our work as critics is to recognize it.” Buck-Morss protested against what she called the “liquidation” of art in the move of “attacking the museum,” “producing subjects for the next stage of global capitalism” by replacing concern with the “critical moment of aesthetic experience” with a discourse that “legitimates culture.” In so doing, Buck-Morss pointed out that failing to properly grasp the social stakes of aesthetic experience resulted in the “virtuality of representation,” ignoring how, for Benjamin and the Surrealists he critically championed “images in the mind motivate the will” and thus have “effect in the realm of deeds.”
Indeed, prominent October journal writer Hal Foster had, in the 1982 essay “Re: Post,” gone so far as to call for going “beyond critique,” really, abandoning it, for in critique Foster found precisely the motor of (deplorable) “modernism,” which he characterized as consciousness of “historical moment” that “advanced a dialectic.” Foster stated unequivocally that critical “self-reflexivity” needed to be abandoned because it (supposedly) “enforces closure.” Foster called the Brechtian terms “defamiliarization” and “estrangement” “quintessentially modernist.” But Foster remained equivocal regarding the matter of art’s potential to “initiate new ways of seeing,” even if he stayed suspicious of “the old imperative of the avant-garde and its language of crisis.”

The crisis of criticism — driving art underground

But the concern, for Foster, as with the other leading October writers (such as Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp), was reduced, from social problems, to problematizing art: (in Crimp’s words) “on the museum’s ruins.” But the museum is still standing. The question is whether it still houses art. As Buck-Morss pointed out, the museum is the “very institution that sustains the illusion that art exists.” What this means is that, disenchanted with art, the “realm of deeds,” in which “images in the mind motivate the will,” abandoned by the critics, is ceded instead to the “advertising industry.” The museum, lacking a critical response, is not overcome as an institution of invidious power, but, instead of sustaining the socially necessary “illusion” that “art exists,” however domesticated, becomes an embodiment of the power of kitsch, that is, predigested and denatured aesthetic experience, to affirm the status-quo: high-class trash. Art becomes precisely what the postmodernists thought it was. The museum has not faced the crisis of meaning the postmodernists wished of it, only the meaning has become shallower. In Adorno’s terms, the museum has become an advertising for itself, but the use of its experience has become occulted, in favor of its exchange-value: the feeling of the worth of the price of the ticket. But the experience of art is still (potentially) there, if unrecognized.
For Buck-Morss, there is indeed a crisis — of (lack of) recognition. Criticism, and hence consciousness of aesthetic experience objectified in artistic practices, was in crisis in postmodernism. Critical theory ceased to be critical — and thus became affirmative, even if it was confused about this. This was the result, in Habermas’s terms, of the “postmodernist” turning away from the “incomplete project” of modern art’s critical response to social modernity: a conservative result, by default, even if under the “pretense” that it was progressive or even radical.
Against such postmodernist abdication and thus affirmation of existing “culture,” Buck-Morss called for approaching art “emblematically and symptomatically, in terms of the most fundamental questions of social life,” “bringing to consciousness what was before only dimly perceived, so that it becomes available for critical reflection.” Otherwise, Buck-Morss warned that “tomorrow’s artists may opt to go underground,” and “do their work esoterically, while employed as producers of visual culture.” We might also say that there is the option of continuing to make “art,” but without recognition of its stakes by critics, impaired by a discourse of “visual culture” and supposed “institutional” critique or opposition — that is, an institutionalized opposition to the institution (such as effected by the October writers, who have since entered the canon of academicism, for instance in the academic art of the postmodernist art school). This outcome represses, or drives “underground,” the concerns of artists regarding aesthetic experience, which, according to Habermas and Buck-Morss, following Benjamin and Brecht, are potentially “vital” and “fundamental” to “questions of social life.”

“Relational” aesthetics

The question of the more recent phenomenon of “relational aesthetics” needs to be addressed in such terms, for “relational aesthetics” claims to be about mobilizing attention to the aesthetic experience of the social for critical ends, in society as well as art.
Several important critical accounts of relational aesthetics have been attempted. Claire Bishop has addressed the problem of relational aesthetics raising the social at the expense of recognition of social antagonisms. Stewart Martin has questioned the relational aesthetics opposition of the social to the (autonomous) art object of traditional (modernist) aesthetics. But Martin has also interrogated the hypostatization of the social, whether considered either as a relatively unproblematic value in itself or as a zone of antagonism, as in Bishop’s criticism. Additionally, Martin has addressed shared problems of the late paradigmatic but opposed attempts on the Left to politicize aesthetics by Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou. Martin has deployed a sophisticated understanding of Marx and Adorno on the commodity form towards these ends. Thus it becomes possible for Martin to address relational aesthetics practices’ “naïve mimesis or aestheticization of novel forms of capitalist exploitation,” in treating art as a “form of social exchange” that advocates an “inter-subjective art of conviviality”, as well as address the potential political stakes of various approaches to art. — Conversely, it becomes possible for Martin to address what he calls the otherwise naturalized “commodity form of the political”.
Martin is concerned to be able to preserve a social-critical approach to what he calls the “arty non-art of late capitalist culture.” It is necessary, according to Martin, to avoid the “Hegelian trap” of “harmonious rapprochement,” through a dialectic of “anti-art and pure art,” resulting in an “artification of the world” that however “breaks” with attempts to “critique bourgeois culture.” Instead, Martin recalls Adorno’s recognition that art’s “autonomy,” its simultaneously “anti-social” and “non-subjective” or “objective” aspect, was inherent both in its commodity character and in its “resistance to commodification,” through “immanent critique or self-criticism”. It is this aspect of art, common to both “anti-art” and “pure art,” that, for Martin, “relational” aesthetics, with its emphasis on the supposedly “inter-subjective” character of the social, occludes.

Historical temporality of artworks not linear succession

John Roberts, in his recovery of Adorno, has focused as well on the “asocial” aspect of art as the potential source of its critical value. Roberts recovers the key idea, from Benjamin and Adorno, of artworks’ “pre-history” and “after-life” in history, in order to introduce the problem of the historical temporality of the experience of works of art, which is not reducible to their immediate aesthetic experience or the thoughts and feelings of the artists who produced them. Works of art are “objective” in that they are non-identical with themselves, in the sense of non-identity in time. In Adorno’s terms, artworks have a “historical nucleus,” a “truth-content” revealed only as a function of transformations in history. According to Benjamin, this is how artworks can gain stature and power with time.
The example Roberts uses is the late, delayed reception of early 20th century avant-garde artworks in the 1960s, which inspired artists. This is a very different account from the notion, common in postmodernist criticism, of artists rebelling against the preceding styles and art criticism and historical discourses of abstract expressionism. Artists may have remained innocent of the cloistered disputes of the art critics and historians, though their works were used as evidence in these disputes; and they may have remained more sympathetic to abstract expressionism as art than the postmodernist critics were. The pendulum-swing or grandfather-rule accounts of the vicissitudes of history are inadequate to the non-linear temporality Roberts highlights.
Roberts discusses works of art as forms of “deferred action” in history, with which artists and viewers engage in new forms of art production and reception, which belie notions of successions of styles traditional to art history. This allows works of art to be understood as embodiments of objectified experience that change as a function of historical transformations, as potentially informing a proliferation of experiences unfolding in history, rather than, as Foster, for example, feared, forms of “closure.”

Neo-avant garde or neo-modernist?

It is important that neither Habermas (nor Bell) nor Buck-Morss accepted the idea that gained traction in the 1970s of a division between modernist and avant-garde art. For neither did Benjamin or Adorno. (Peter Bürger’s influential study, Theory of the Avant-Garde, was, importantly, a critique of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory on this score.)
What Martin calls the “dialectic” of “anti-art” and “pure art” has continued, though not necessarily in terms of opposed camps, but rather in what Adorno recognized as the necessary element of the non-artistic in artworks. Now that postmodernism has been exhausted as a trend in criticism (as seen by significant reversals on the part of its standard-bearers such as Foster), it becomes possible to recognize how postmodernism reacted inadequately and problematically to this dialectic, conflating realms of art and social life, and thus repressed it, obscuring its operations from proper recognition.
The emergence of “relational” aesthetics in the 1990s marked the exhaustion of postmodernism, as both its culmination and its negation (it is significant that Foster was hostile, calling it a mere “arty party”), but also a terminal phase of the recrudescence of the problem of the social and of politics, long wandering lost through the postmodernist desert of the 1970s and ’80s, during which Adorno, for example, could only be received as an old-fashioned modernist. But, since the 1990s, critics and theorists have found it increasingly necessary to reconsider Adorno.
Today, which may be considered a post-postmodernist moment, art practices can be broadly grouped into two seemingly unrelated tendencies, neo-avant garde (such as in relational aesthetics) and neo-modernist (in the revival of the traditional plastic arts of objects such as painting and sculpture). The task would be to understand what these apparently independent tendencies in art have in common as phenomena of history, the society and politics with which art practices are bound up. Postmodernist art criticism has made it impossible to properly grasp such shared history of the present, hence its exhaustion today, leaving current art unrecognized.
But, in the midst of the high era of postmodernist criticism, Habermas sounded an important note of dissent and warning against this trend, reminding of what postmodernism left aside in terms of society and politics. For it is with respect to society and political ideology that art remained potentially vital and necessary, if under-recognized as such. In his Adorno prize talk, Habermas raised the problem of art as an exemplary task for the “critical intellectual.” This is because, as more recent critics such as Bishop, Martin and Roberts have noted, art, in its dialectical transformations, allows for the recognition of history, the present as historical, revealing not only the history of art, but of modern capitalist society and its unfulfilled forms of discontent,
as registered in aesthetic experience.

Chris Cutrone

Christopher Cutrone is Adjunct Associate Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Volume 31 no.6 July / August 2017 pp 27 -30


4 thoughts on “An Incomplete Project? Art and Politics in the new Millennium

  1. Canadian artist David Evans wrote, “the term ‘post-modern’ always seemed an absurd conceit. As though ‘modernism’ could be declared null and void by intellectual fiat. Then we’d have the end of art history – the triumph of reductivism.‬‬‬” Today, art theory is like a broken telephone game. Someone’s doctoral thesis misinterprets another’s in a long chain of papers based on each other, the original wrong in both premise and conclusion… these scholars tasked as “risk-takers, art historians, popular voices, and truth-seekers” promote a dubious ideology in exchange for a horse’s feedbag.

    Daniel Nanavati is editor of Chicago/London’s New Art Examiner. He spoke of how postmodernity for decades co-opted the best and brightest, until in time the post-truth world failed and badly needs archiving. We found that calling a stick a work of art made no difference to the stick which remained as much stick as it ever was. Nanavati spoke of a new movement of artists and writers who’ve had enough, want change and discovered each other online through their writing. A self-organizing spontaneous network to toss out the “same old, same old” school and it’s practitioners, for the postmodern do not know what art is… but they know their comfort zone and will dig in tenaciously. Best practice is to write about the emperor’s new clothes with criticism on a bed of witticism.

    The ontology of art starts with an etymology. Oscar Wilde had mastered of the art of conversation just as the famed Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius IX circa 1850, had mastered the art of cuisine; so during the Renaissance the Borgia were masters at the art of poisoning their business rivals; art has always meant a skillful, intuitive, transcendent, and unique excellence above the scope of professionals.

    This definition of art rejects Jean-Francois Lyotard’s myopic postmodern vision, gained while standing on the shoulders of tarnished giants who questioned metanarratives before him. Duchamp wanted to delete the senses from art but we’ve learned that rejecting sense is nonsense, senseless and insensible; the language stirs to speak for itself. Walter Benjamin says that all we can ask of art is an accurate reproduction of reality, that aesthetics, creativity, and authorship are Fascist inventions,(4) then Benjamin committed suicide from a catastrophic failure of morale.(5) Sol Lewitt says that an idea is art(6); try telling your high-school teacher thinking about your homework was the same as doing it. Lyotard is disrupted by facts remaining facts regardless of contingency so the foolish man built his house on sand. Then the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27

  2. For decades the academic-cultural complex promoted a counter-aesthetic mode so successful it’s now required credentials like gang signs in South Central L.A. Since aesthetics are quanta of art, grammar and vocabulary, the postmodern counter-aesthetic is counter-creative – it discards the tools we create with. Which explains why academic art so often consists of strategies denying art while claiming to destabilize your conventions. This curating by superficial formulas suggests a real need to shake up our cultural institutions.

  3. Excuse my bullying, but I had to make a correction concerning Walter Benjamin. At the core of Benjamin’s argument is that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. He’s wrong in that books are made by mechanical reproduction yet stories and authors retain their aura as much as any work of art. Munch’s The Scream is known from reproduction yet remains haunting, as haunting as any Raven perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door. Without its aura, an image is illustration, not art. Benjamin’s error comes from a materialism which says that the only meaning of art lies in an accurate rendition of reality, the essence of art is pictorial reproduction.

    Where we thought “The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was research similar to today’s academic scholarship, it is in fact Marxist propaganda. History reminds us that Marxists saw truth and accuracy as useful when convenient; we cannot read Benjamin innocently when the work has political priorities.

    Walter Benjamin’s thesis insists that all we can ask of art is to reproduce reality. He writes that authorship, creativity, and aesthetics are outmoded Fascist concepts, and the only valid art is that made by the working class for political use. Benjamin is writing propaganda without concern for accuracy. He shares flawed assumptions, fact and fiction twisted to fit political theory; the reductions, contradictions, and leaps of faith are obvious.

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