Benjamin Buchloh Essays About Education

This is a terrific collection of essays that provides a valuable opportunity to review the intellectual development and ambitions of one of the leading critics of our time. It offers access to the author’s enterprise from a distinctive vantage point: saving for a second volume his influential period and approach studies—essays such as “Formalism and Historicity” (1977), “Allegorical Procedures” (1982), and “Cold War Constructivism” (1990)—and his well-known “from/to” critical developmental surveys of art movements—such as “From Faktura to Factography” (1984), “From Gadget Video to Agit Video” (1985), and his forceful summary essay on Conceptual Art subtitled, “From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” (1989)—, this volume features a more monographic Buchloh than we are generally accustomed to, a Buchloh focused more closely on proper names and individual bodies of work. We gain from this editorial compartmentalization not only because of the sustained example of close reading it provides, but also for the insight it allows into the author’s critical-theoretical method. What comes through first and foremost after reading these essays together is his commitment to what he calls in a 1999 essay “the very model of a ‘principle of hope’ [the phrase is taken from Ernst Bloch] so integral to any avant-garde formation” (244). In a manner now generally anathema to scholars both junior and senior alike, this book breathes its allegiance to the old ideal throughout with rarely ever a sigh or sense of fatigue. For better or worse, it might be said, it has little of the melancholy of a Farewell to an Idea.

There is nothing vulgar about the this commitment, however: as much as any post-avant-garde pessimism or triumphalism, it is drawn from that tradition—dominant in Euro-American art and intellectual life now for close to two-thirds of a century—that developed the bulk of its sense of purpose by defining itself opposite to l’art engagé. Listen, for example, to the tone of this characteristic passage: “After all, it has become painfully apparent that the sclerotic fixation on a model of reductivist criticality or instrumentalized rationality in artistic practice does not promise to be any more productive than an adherence to the foundationalist myths of the perennial validity of the classical genres and production procedures of painting and sculpture” [xv]. Buchloh’s project—still holding onto that “principle of hope” as it does despite such sclerosis—overcomes this pessimism even while making his primary focus the simple fact that, under the present historical circumstances, it cannot be let go. To put it another way, what this book provides is an opportunity to see in a clearer and more detailed light that which we have known about Buchloh all along—i.e., that he is an Adornian through and through. The one insight that may have been less visible previously but comes clearly into view when reading these essays together as intellectual history is that this is true now more than ever.

Ever the critic, the ambition to discriminate between good art and bad is central to Buchloh’s entire body of writing. This ambition is particularly visible in the “from/to” essays not included, which trace critico-aesthetic gains and losses across the life spans of movements, and in certain single-artist studies such as his well-known “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol” of 1980 (41-64), in which he brings his full critical arsenal to bear on art-as-myth. His critical impulse is somewhat complicated by the focus on individual artists in the other essays included here simply because he is not engaged directly in critique or even so much in the discrimination between good art and bad (although such discriminations are always assumed if not always directly stated), but is attuned instead to the interest of the work in question, appraised according to its measure of historical reach and acuity. It is here that Buchloh emerges as an art historian even more than a critic and as an Adornian in the best possible sense: the main focus of his work is not on critical advances or declines within a movement or tradition or on art suffering or escaping from its own ideological conventions as art, but on art, first and foremost, as a cipher of history more broadly conceived.

At the end of the most recent of the essays, he indicates this ambition in a “crude sketch” of a method that, he says, suffers neither from “the formalist analysis of post-Greenbergian approaches” or from “the limited tools of a social art history exclusively based on a mechanistic principle of ideology critique.” Instead of either art or its context being looked to as the source of meaning that illuminates the other, each is said to mean significantly only by reciprocal homology: “the structure of the historical experience and the structure of aesthetic production [may] be recognized within sets of complex analogies that are neither mechanistically determined nor conceived of as arbitrarily autonomous, but that require the specificity of understanding the multiple mediations taking place within each artistic proposition and its historical context” (254). He calls this “a methodology that has yet to be elaborated” but we might well see it as a methodology pursued and often powerfully realized throughout the career represented by this collection (even as he lapses only occasionally into the post-Greenbergian and, particularly, the social-art-historical modes he rejects). That said, however, we can also see a clear methodological shift that has taken place over the course of that career.

If the critical scale of the earlier Buchloh ran from art that served myth on one end to art that negated it on the other, from art that perpetuated spectacular identity forms—the myth of the artist as shaman, for example, or the artist as ideologist, or the myth of the artist as autonomy realized—to art that deconstructed such forms, the later Buchloh has come to appreciate art for its capacity to provide the experience of nonmythic forms of identity. Beginning with his essay on Hans Haacke in 1988, he tells us in the introduction, “and perhaps more systematically in my work on Gerhard Richter in recent years,” he has focused on “the aesthetic capacity to construct mnemonic experience as one of the few acts of resistance against the totality of spectacularization” (xv). His model of criticality thus might be said to have shifted from one side of the artwork to the other. No longer focused primarily on negating, uncovering or deconstructing myth, it turns instead on the question of what a nonmythical, post-traditional identity form might look like and, thus, on a critical concern with the possibilities for such identification under the rule of what Adorno called, among other such labels, our “postpsychological” condition, and Buchloh terms variously “advanced desubjectivization” (551), “the subject’s annihilation” (xvi), “the systematic destruction of subjectivity” (x), “the historically determined destruction of the subject” (532), etc. Art’s accomplishment worthy of the critic’s praise, according to Buchloh’s newer model, is to develop a subjectivity more grounded than the “quick specular surrogates for identity” (xxiii) on offer in an increasingly global, increasingly spectacular world.

The old Marxian category of historical consciousness that has driven Buchloh’s critical thinking all along thus assumes a whole different status in the wake of this subjective turn. Where before such a critical consciousness had marked a position that was roughly that of science or philosophy, a position that negated illusory and obfuscating identity structures by rendering them as epiphenomenal to the movements of history, now it has come to be much more strongly oriented toward its capacity to produce identity rather than deconstruct it. By developing historical perception or “construct[ing] mnemonic experience,” Buchloh’s newer critical model promises a subject that gains its autonomy through the very act of knowing itself as such—that is, knowing itself as a subject who acts and suffers in history—and thereby resists the larger threat of “advanced desubjectivization.” His model of identity here is plastic and mobile but it is never strictly performative: it draws even less on unstable and rapidly shifting identity forms than it does on the old essentialist bourgeois myths. Such postmodern formulations, he suggests, fail to recognize “the degree to which desubjectivization and the decentering of subjectivity now operate . . . in tandem” (551). Instead, Buchloh’s newer resistant subject anchors itself in the give and take of history, not as the finger-on-the-pulse observer of his older model, the observer who evaluates the contradictions of subject-cum-object, derives “the exact system of overdetermination” (xvii) and negates it, but as an actor who refracts history as lived. Historical consciousness, thus, is rendered not as historical knowledge or understanding or insight as they are usually understood, but as a manner of self-consciousness, as the experience of subjectivity per se, of self as history, in a world that would have that experience be otherwise.

Writing in 1962, Adorno offered this description of the ethical and epistemological criterion that governed his practice: “Philosophy should not with foolish arrogance set about collecting information and then take a position; rather it must unrestrictedly, without recourse to some mental refuge, experience.” For better or for worse, it is the critical, political promise of this root generative experience that Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry preserves and carries forward in a manner that truly is exceptional.

Blake Stimson
Professor of Art History at University of Illinois, Chicago

Previously at: Art History Program, University of California, Davis

In the introduction to Formalism and Historicity, a compilation of essays originally published between 1977 and 1996, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh suggests that these should be read from the perspective of contemporary art. Acknowledging the current crisis provoked by the decline of criticism’s historical function, Buchloh reveals that the spectrum inhabited by what he considers to be meaningful, radically reflexive, and critical art has become extremely narrow. Such art is situated on the verge of invisibility, on death’s door, at history’s end.

The cover art of Formalism and Historicity features an El Lissitzky artwork.

Looking up from the book, the reader inevitably tries to relate Buchloh’s persuasive diagnosis to the reality that art goes on being produced, albeit in tandem with the culture industry and in shapes we may find unsatisfying. And history goes on, too, however frightened and hopeless its continuation might make us feel. We still view our contemporary art; more than that, we consume and ponder it as never before.

Although Buchloh writes of the present, he is always gazing backwards into the past. Loss orients his approach to the now. Themes of disrupted historical continuity, impersonations and absences, false doubles and careless heirs arise throughout the articles in the book. Buchloh points to the reductions and simplifications perpetrated by art historians (for example, by Clement Greenberg in “Cold War Constructivism”), the neo-avant-garde’s failures in interpreting avant-garde tendencies (“The Primary Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde”), American art’s similar failures vis-à-vis European art (“Formalism and Historicity”), the interwar return to figuration, and modernism’s radical aspirations (“Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting”). But Buchloh continues to find the prototype for all these twentieth-century losses in the failure of social revolution’s extreme aspirations, most notably the one that, via the Sergei Eisenstein film, gave the journal October its title.

Following Alain Badiou, we might say that Buchloh remains true to the event of revolution, but the path of this fidelity has become ever more attenuated and difficult as it has passed through two periods of unconditional decline, the 1930s and the 1980s. The first saw the rise of totalitarian regimes and preceded the moment when Buchloh entered the arena as spectator and critic. Buchloh himself witnessed the second period, which saw the rise of neoconservative and neoliberal regimes and the dismantling of the welfare state.

Steve Kado, October Jr., 2010. Artists’ book and 45 min presentation. A ¾-scale model of the Spring 1980 issue of October 12.

In Buchloh’s tradition, revolutionary fidelity devolves into a tense orthodoxy and austerity à la Theodor Adorno, one of the few writers the critic definitively respects. Wholly in keeping with Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, with its contrasts between the “good” Schoenberg with the “bad” Stravinsky, Buchloh likewise divides artists into sufficiently and insufficiently radical, into the faithful and the renegades. The essay “Formalism and Historicity” contains a whole string of such juxtapositions: Daniel Buren is better than Donald Judd; Judd is better than Yves Klein; Jackson Pollock is better than Georges Mathieu, and so on. Among postwar European artists, the principal positive characters in the book are Marcel Broodthaers and Piero Manzoni, who migrate from one essay to the next. Buchloh regards the former, in particular, as a supremely important practitioner of allegorical strategies in contemporary art, and the essay on his work is the only monograph of its kind in the book. Buchloh was among the first to apply Walter Benjamin’s understanding of allegory to twentieth-century art, with its disintegration of the natural, organic links between things coming as a consequence of the loss of connection to the source of meaning as exemplified by the gap between use-value and exchange-value.

Buchloh has inherited both Adorno’s orthodox supreme court of judgment and the melancholic falling away from meaning in Benjamin’s treatment of allegory as the central elements of Frankfurt School religiosity—not to say mysticism. To these we can also add messianism, which is likewise explicit in Benjamin and implicit in Adorno. The question of whether art offers the hope of salvation and redemption from capitalism’s sinful totality is still the question for Buchloh. While he constantly denies art’s claims to exclusivity and brilliance by locating it within the process of social production and reproduction, it is nevertheless impossible to mistake the passion in his judgments or the depth of his disappointment in the failure of the avant-garde to perform its historical task of exodus.

Theodor Adorno poses for the camera with an equestrian painting in the background, date unknown.

But this is not all that Buchloh has learned from the Frankfurt School: he has also mastered the art of locating cultural products within the overall system of production predominating in a given society. For example, he brilliantly shows the connection between the poetics of conceptualism and economic administration in “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions.” No method could be more relevant today, but perhaps using it effectively requires criticizing the messianic aspects of the Frankfurt School legacy as well: not only the longing for a supreme historical teleology, but the corresponding revolutionary melancholy, and the resulting privilege granted to art over other human practices. Rejecting this quasi-religious heroism might involve recognizing the historic defeat of a certain project of criticism and art history, and this accounts for the tragic cast such a refusal receives in the introduction to Buchloh’s book. But it might also make us freer, even as it moves the contemplation of art away from the realm of criticism and art history and toward contiguous disciplines such as anthropology.

The implicitly spiritual inheritance of Hegelian-Marxism can also be detected in Buchloh’s passion for totalizing schemata. The all-embracing system of spectacle, which infiltrates and appropriates for its own profit even consciously resistant artistic strategies, is Buchloh’s eternally returning and unconditional nemesis, his original sin, whether understood as capitalist ideology or state propaganda (e.g., “From Factura to Factography”). “Capitalism remains my Devil,” as his contemporary T. J. Clark once put it, revealing more with the second noun than with the first.

Marcel Broodthaers, Décor: A Conquest (detail), 1975. Installation.Copyright: The Estate of the Artist; Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

Buchloh defines art’s current conjuncture by the collapse of any hope for the democratic cultural production that was supposed to follow the devaluation of craftsmanship known as deskilling. Here the history of radical art is that of an endless war on a spectacle, which is perpetually seizing the weapons of resistance. Attempts to elude such recuperation set art on a path of monkish asceticism, which manifests as the rejection of any intoxicated delight in the illusions art is capable of supplying, in the exposure of all fascination with fetishistic possession or seamless identities. Buchloh points to the fissure within the subject as a truth we cannot ignore if we try to talk seriously about emancipation and self-awareness in the modern world (“Residual Resemblance: Three Notes on the Ends of Portraiture”). Paradoxically, however, the critic’s signature omniscience and unsleeping rigor are themselves undivided in their totality. Buchloh is like the vigilant guard at the heart of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and it is sometimes difficult to read his systematic severity otherwise than as the correlative underside to the same relentless discipline he would ascribe to global capitalism.

It is no wonder that “correct” and “genuine” radical art is coherent and undivided in Buchloh’s reading, with clear lines of continuity, inheritance, and evolution. His ideological orthodoxy corresponds to a geopolitical centralism. Although Buchloh himself has regularly criticized American ethnocentrism in art history (beginning with the earliest essay in the book, whence its title), he has remained suspended in the dialectic of internationalism and imperialism, between the elitism of the historical avant-garde and the elitism of the neo-avant-garde’s attempt to transgress it. The social function of these essays cannot be structurally separated from either, which does nothing to alter their sobering critical value.

A book which lifts writings from their historical context in the soft-cover magazines where they originally appeared can only reinforce the impression of a seamless system of analysis, crushing in its grandeur. Of course, the sense of summation and academicization of hitherto living reflection is an unavoidable side effect of such collections. A stronger impression of the same sort was produced by Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, a two-volume textbook authored by Buchloh, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, and Yve-Alain Bois, and designed to cement the exceptional authority that has long collected around October. We must remember, however, that originally all of Buchloh’s articles were utterances produced in a particular place: witty, pointed interventions in contemporary discussions of art and tactical maneuvers in his struggle against the spectacle.

Buchloh calls for responsive strategic thinking. Heeding his call, we should ask whether it is possible to tear our eyes away from a totalizing vision of the spectacle, from the mesmerizing investigation of power’s mechanisms and the insistence on an unrelenting social determination, without forgetting its institutional reality. For the investigations that occupy Buchloh promise their own sort of intoxication, albeit one different than that of conservative art, which charms us with illusions and oblivion. The glare from his enlightenment is blinding, and as we observe the patterns Buchloh has detected, we cease to consider the peripheral, the incomplete, or the contested. Despite the undeniable charisma of Buchloh’s total criticism, can we recognize the value of a method that would indulge asceticism only to the extent that such refusal serves the larger project of emancipation, rather than the other way around? For the real fissure of the subject, which Buchloh himself discusses, consists in the detection of the inevitable blind spots that arise in any system of knowledge, panoptical or otherwise. Identifying these fissures—which are present within each of us—can hardly be labeled practically or pragmatically valuable if we deem practical and pragmatic only what is subject to instrumentalization, monitoring, and rational management. And yet, this fissure is inseparable from any attempts to act on current conditions.

For example, what do I see around me? I see that young artists in Russia, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America want to say something, to speak about what worries and interests them and to pursue social change. Almost none are interested in a hermetic criticism and reflection on language itself, neither modernist nor postmodernist, and this obliviousness renders many of them naive. Some of them go to art school where, as some people think, they can be trained to speak the idiom of contemporary art. But even those young artists who do not study anywhere see this language art as a ready-made means of communication, one of many possible media, as an extant medium, and as a global post-Conceptual language. But who can hear what is said in this language? What place does this medium occupy among all the others?

In these circumstances we can draw a contradictory lesson from Buchloh’s book. On the one hand, as Buchloh teaches—and following the legacy of the Frankfurt School—we should not relegate the structures of art production to oblivion; we should not indulge in childish rapture over the very fact of access to utterance. At the same time, pace Buchloh, we should not let negative theology enchant us; we cannot be paralyzed by a spiritual mourning for art’s ultimate mission as evinced by the historical austerity of the avant-garde. Instead, the question, as ever, becomes: How can we proceed to speak within the real of our current moment, here and now, without being overly flattered by our own articulations or indulging any unnecessary illusions about their place in the political economy? What does the desire for art look like, under the circumstances? An unequivocal, universal, and seamless answer to these questions is impossible.


Translated from the Russian by Thomas Campbell

© 2016 e-flux and the author


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