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Inflated importance

Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes) By Hal Foster. Verso, 2002. 176pp. £14

Recently I read of a review which began 'This is the worst of author X's awful books' and ended 'I hate author X's bad books.' I mention this because I am now suffering from a milder case of such intemperance. It is also an appropriate starting place because Hal Foster's book begins, after brief camouflage in the form of a preface, by reprinting four review-essays from the London Review of Books.

The review-essay is a peculiar genre which does not admit its own nature, trying for independent cultural commentary while feeding vampirically on its hapless subject.

Foster certainly feels superior to his subjects, which include a book about no-brow culture, The New Yorker, Art Nouveau, Bruce Mau's design, Frank Gehry's buildings and Rem Koolhaas' writings. Actually he meets his match in Koolhaas, whose cleverness makes him nervous. This sense of inferiority comes out most strongly when he ends the chapter with a quotation from his antagonist, a tactic which somehow seems more possible in a review than in a book.

In fact, Design and Crime ends altogether with a quotation, this time in the form of an image. It is a photograph by Gabriel Orozco, in which lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center are the backdrop - a photograph from 1993, which carries a different sense since last September.

This is by no means the only time that Foster adverts to 11 September. One of his pieces, on Koolhaas and Manhattan, appeared just 18 days later, and tries to connect those dire events to Koolhaas' urban theories. Momentous realities are a severe test for theorists: their ideas can seem out of place or ridiculous in the perspective of Auschwitz or Vietnam. The sooner they rush into print the more severe the measurement, and here Foster's commentary on 11 September seems just another of his efforts to be 'with it' and up-to-date.

In one sense I am the wrong person to review his book, because I take exception to its underlying premise, that there is a ruling cultural discourse which one must try to keep abreast of, perhaps becoming one of its spokespeople. So Foster announces that architecture and design have become more central to cultural discourse and that consequently art and criticism appear less important. He does not give evidence to support this, which is not the issue anyway. My problem is the importance accorded to our cultural moment and, essentially, to us. I hate the idea that the latest idea is the best, and the allied attempt to inflate our own place in the scheme of things.

For me the chapter about Artforum is archetypal for this kind of timeboundness.

Here is this magazine, which had a heyday in New York in the 1960s, about which Foster has composed a long and intricate piece in which names of forgotten artists and halfforgotten critics tumble forth in profusion.

Something has happened to the notion of the ephemeral; in Foster's universe there is not really such a thing. His history begins with the Impressionists, so there is lots of space for recent blips and squiggles.

At times you feel he knows it is all rhetoric, as when he defines his main aim: 'I think we need to recapture some sense of the political situatedness of artistic autonomy and its transgression, some sense of the historical dialectic of critical disciplinarity and its contestation - to attempt again to provide culture with running-room.' This sentence first appears in the preface, but its original source lies further on, buried on page 25 in his piece about Bruce Mau. The recurrence confirms our hunch that this is a key sentence, and confirms Foster as a writer who quotes himself, repeating his best phrases in other connections on the assumption that we will not remember them, or perhaps will be pleased to run into them again. Thus 'commodities are tweaked and markets are niched' more than once - cleverness which grates the second time round.

Foster is not an old-fashioned advocate of high culture or believer in the artist's autonomy, but perhaps he finds some of the stranger features of the current cultural scene not to his liking. Given his acceptance of the cultural-studies view of value, he has not got a way of saying so; hence these 'diatribes' which are almost as far from what this word usually means as can be, but garrulous juggling of names instead (philosophers become brands), which never settle for long. Hence too the book's title, which makes no sense, except in calling Loos' 'Ornament and Crime' to mind, for it never identifies an enemy.

Robert Harbison's Reflections on the Baroque was recently issued in paperback (Reaktion Books)

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