Apr 10, 2009

Hal Foster and Mimetic Excess

During questions an audience members asked "What about Now?"

Hal Foster had just spent an hour discussing the Dada movement of the 1920s. His image for the talk was Hugo Ball (above) dressed in an outfit - a kind of joker card that kept reappearing throughout the evening.

Foster's talk was a swirl of words. He has a non-linear take on history, rejecting terms like linear progression in favor of phrases like "rhythmic persistence". History as a series of turns and returns. I enjoyed this, I pictured a pulsing repeating rolling movement rather than a crash vector.

For Foster, Dadaism was one such turn. Foster presented a nuanced take on Dadaism, arguing that Dada was not about trying to be a vanguard or a resistance, but instead an imminent "biting from the inside." Dada was indifferent to the moment, rather than trying to transgress it (as surrealism was) or legislate it. Foster talked of Dada in terms of bathos, centering on the figure of the buffoon, as in Hugo Ball miming the fit of the epileptic.

Foster characterized German Dada as flaccid, fractured, the pathetic subject, epileptic, part-shamen, part-priest, yielding to a moment of pandemonium, utter confusion. A Dada artist "suffers from the dissonances of the time to the point of self-disintegration" (Wol?), at which point the body collapses. The Dadaist is the un-man, pushed to the limit.

Foster contrasted this with Russian constructivism and the new man, the hero figure, "ecce homo novus", Lissitzky's rational subject representing the new order, where man and machine fuse in unity.

Instead of the new man, in Dada Foster saw imminent mimesis (copying objects that surround us, drawing from the here and now), a strategy to survive civilization, to survive the death of humanism. Through miming the epileptic, through incorporating objects from the here and now, and then modifying, altering, changing, the mimesis becomes an excess, a surplus, a hypertrophic collapsing of distance. Foster called this collapse mimetic excess. It is a term I am still somewhat unsold on. Both mimesis and excess are highly subjective (one persons excess is another persons appetizer, for example). Which makes me wonder how useful a criteria mimetic excess is for understanding art.

As for "What about now?" Foster's immediate response was to turn the question back to the audience: "What about now?" A moment of silence. Several peopled snickered. "Why the laughter?" Foster asked coolly.

It was an electrifying second precisely because it signaled the moment when the audience shifted from passive listeners to reflective thinkers: Why do we laugh about about the now?

Then Foster backed off. He made some quick comparisons. For him, Isa Genskin is a contemporary artist who works with and achieves mimetic excess. Rachel Harrison, with her bicycles and pictures of Mel Gibson, worked in a similar vein but more often only achieved mimetic affirmation - repeating mages around us without going full circle to undo them. Foster likened Martin Kippenberger to the Dadaist Picabia, a wandering restless figure.

In making these comparisons, Foster reiterated the importance of history in art today, justifying why he feels it is important to be both critic (or artist) and historian - to balance these two powers.

The call to history is the expected response, and therefore disappointing. What Foster didn't discuss is the pervasive discourse today about the end of art history. The book "Canvases and Careers Today - Criticism and Its Markets", for example, is full of remarks bemoaning the challenges faced by contemporary criticism. "So maybe it's okay now to say goodbye to the critic" writes John Kelsey. Since artworks have become self-reflexive, and have their own website, the role of the critic as explainer of art has evaporated. The self-critical art object is not only the telos of contemporary art, it is also the terminal negation of art criticism (to bend a phrasing from Boris Groys).

In this climate it is hardly surprising that critics turn to history (Fried, who started as a critic, also turned to history). And who could pick a juicier period of history than the avant-garde? The question "what about now?" is even more relevant to art criticism than to art.

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