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Convoluted critique

review: art and architecture

Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 By Benjamin HDBuchloh.MIT Press, 2000. 592pp. £34.50

This book is situated in the intellectual-left tradition of contemporary art discourse. As such, it presents us with problems of cultural production, cultural determination, national and post-national identities, and the ever-stifling presence of global capitalism. Amid all this, we consider aesthetics, although Buchloh tends to think of aesthetics in formalist terms.

The book contains 19 essays, all highly intellectualised and convoluted. It is beautifully produced on chrome paper but includes no colour plates. The black and white photographs, however, are of high quality and well chosen to complement the text.

In his introduction, Buchloh explains that he will trace the interaction between two 'mutually exclusive forces' - artistic production and the culture industry. He argues that it was not until the rise of conceptual art about 1968 that 'artistic positions' really detach themselves from the legacy of the historical avant-garde. His focus is 'the interdependence between artistic and ideological formations' in the post-war period.

These strands provide the basis for an interpretive description of an artist's works in each essay. We are treated, therefore, to a highly systematic overview: the work of art finds itself under the structured gaze of a cultural critique which has emerged in the post-war period alongside the art it both informs and intellectualises. So it is hard to resist the specific criticism without first overturning the intellectual system in which it is embedded.

With this in mind, we turn to the essays.

Poor old Joseph Beuys gets it in the neck for his bad faith. Beuys, we are told, turns his back on his (partial) responsibility for the holocaust. He does so by creating a myth in which his plane was shot down in the Crimea and the stricken Beuys was saved from death by Tartars who wrapped him in fat and felt.

'You are not German', the Tartars are supposed to have said, 'You are Tartar'. And so Beuys is seen to be pardoning himself and the German race for its unforgivable atrocities.

I doubt that this will convince as a piece of criticism. There is bound to be some collective shame at having been in the military service of Nationalist Socialism. But I doubt that Beuys' work can be pinned to the denial of that shame rather than, say, the spiritual awakening of a man saved from death by his enemy, in materials which are pre-industrial and belong to a world before the development of munitions.

Buchloh, in this same essay, moves from criticism to theory in his damnation of Beuys, co-opting both Freud and Saussure to his cause. But Beuys was quite right to ignore the application of such highly theoretical fields to the practice of art. It is here that we see the intrusion of theory at the expense of criticism.

The critic, if we are to agree with him, has to persuade us to see the work of art under the light he shines upon it. The theorist, by contrast, bamboozles us into believing what he says is true, whether or not we can understand him.

Take for instance: 'Linguistic iteration, the principle according to which subjectivity is constituted in the production of speech, finds its objective correlation here in the iteration of the act of choosing the object of consumption. Thus Arman's work can no longer propose a radical equivalence between the self-constitution of the subject in the speech act and the constitution of the self in the act of material production. . . ' Blimey! But I doubt if this amounts to very much. Why is subjectivity constituted by speech acts - as opposed to taking penalty kicks or frying bacon? Why 'object of consumption'? (We do not ordinarily consume art. ) What is the relation between personal subjectivity and collective subjectivity; and how on earth has art changed any of this?

Grand questions, all of them.

However, when the philosophers have had their symposia, and convivially disagreed with each other, as they will, these matters will remain unclear.Why then, should art's public wait upon their solution? I like Arman's work and have long done so. Buchloh's essay makes no impact on my appreciation.

Much cleverer people than I will read these offerings; and they may make themselves cleverer still by doing so. But I fear they will emerge from the struggle no wiser.

Edward Winters teaches at the University of Westminster

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