From irony to what?

Hal Foster – What Comes After Farce? (Verso, 2020)

American art critic Hal Foster’s book title references Marx in the 18th Brumaire. Marx poked fun at the installation of a ludicrous fake Napoleon in France who played out in history ‘first as tragedy’ then ‘as farce’.

Foster – clearly referencing the terrifying fool in the White House – asks ‘what comes after farce?’

Of course we have our own buffoon in the top job here too, with a sick Grima Wormtongue in tow. In recent times, England has always been forwards about going backwards. Yes sir.

So, this book applies to the Disunited Queendom as well, and probably to all the countries currently saddled with ‘populist’ governments.

In a series of dazzling essays which display Foster’s rich understanding of semiotics, aesthetics and philosophy, we are taken through culture on a cliff edge, via its art and literature. Foster’s scholarship really roots the debate in art history.

Foster can take you through how meaning itself has changed over long epochs: The referent was uprooted by reification and divisions of labour in the modernist era, hence the abstracted modernist avant-garde. Postmodernity further alienates by re-embedding meaning itself as a priori reified but also ‘floating’, its context loose.

This is the cultural knot we are now in. Postmodernism fell apart as a subject around the millennium (I wrote a paper on this for the Journal of Critical Education Policy) but it has re-emerged as a kind of dark matter in post-truth and world leaders who denounce inconvenient data as fake news – at the same time as they often have news of unhealthy veracity produced.

How to escape this place? The advocacy, essentially, seems to be to move from deconstruction to reconstruction, the examples given include forensic architecture as documentary, and the work of Hito Steyerl.

A key moment is the citation of Bruno Latour, who advises a shift in the role of the critic to become that of enabler, provider of an arena of debate. Latour asks us to move from being the person who pulls the rug from under us – as with Derrida and deconstruction perhaps – to being the person who provides one. A rich carpet to debate on.

Latour’s advice dates from 2004 though and it tells me much about the times that Foster’s hopeful comments about universities as spaces of critical challenge already seem quite hopeless. Things are moving too fast to keep up with. Universities are on the edge of a crisis of model due to the sudden end of unlimited travel – and that in front of a UK government that actively wishes to close arts and humanities courses.

In fact Dominic Cummings has already identified Foster as the enemy. Here, without a doubt, is a man who discusses Lacan at dinner parties. Cummings’ disapproval is surely another strong reason to buy this book.

Foster mentions Eric Garner in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in 2014 uttering ‘I can’t breathe’. This reference is made before George Lloyd pleaded using the same words, to receive the same lack of compassion, and before the riots in America and the global Black Lives Matter upsurge. In this, there is a prescience, no matter how fast things are being made obsolete.

Foster’s comments on kitsch, grounded in the usual texts those who went to art school will know, Greenberg et al, seem all too relevant again as well. Britain’s default imaginary space still seems to be that of laughing goons such as Farage. Television acts as a sentimental steroid. We live in a mental Downton theme park, eyes glazed over as our bodies go through abject repeat patterns in an austere landscape. Fake memories of World War Two grip people like fever. The whole spectra of kitsch.

This book is extremely well-made, it is philosophically rich but disturbingly acute. My one worry is Foster’s continued psychological investment in the art world as it stands as the site of resistance to the rightwing, post-shame turn. Perhaps the real opposition can no longer come from middle class gallery goers. MRB eagerly awaits Will Davies’ next book on the death of liberal Britain. The hegemony has shifted to populism – and in this we all lose – but maybe this means that the critical culture that might make an actual difference cannot come from the old Guardian Guide circuits either.

Of course, there are a lot of great and powerful artists whom we might consider mainstream, but there is also a nauseating circuit of arse kissers with little cause or content. Foster describes an art world ‘torn between transgressive routine on the one side and ethical vigilance on the other.’

Foster doesn’t mean it to be, but that is a brilliant one-line take down of contemporary Circuit Art over the last twenty years.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘only the Sleaford Mods can save us now.’

– Steve Hanson

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