Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama ).
Actually, there is one ontology maintained throughout history, the ontology of despair. If, however, ontology is what is perennial, then thought experiences every historical period as the worst and, most of all, its own which it knows directly (Theodor Adorno, Noten zur Literatur , vol. 4).
I have begun this essay by quoting Benjamin and Adorno because it is these two thinkers that seem to have most inspired Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s writings, in particular Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory and Theodor Adorno’s reflections on the culture industry. We are quite clearly positioned on the cusp of a new period in history–or ‘posthistory’ as some of us would have it–one very much codified by the advances made in digital technology, inextricably linking the domains of global finance and cultural production/consumption into a tighter web of codependency. It is a well known fact that the historical avant-garde of the early 20 th century was long ago replaced by a homogenizing and manipulative culture industry. There have been many neo-avant-garde strategies since the defeat of the historical one, but none that have been able to permanently unmask, let alone assist in dismantling, the ‘spectre of ideology’ in its all-consuming form, one that permeates all aspects of public and private life. Or perhaps it’s more that people (in the West) don’t really care, or are in a position too comfortable to really want to do something about it (enlightened false consciousness). Perhaps it was a dead issue long ago, the hope for art being able to affect life. Who knows if anything can be done. These words sound outdated to us now. Buchloh’s persistent example over the years, his insights and omissions, are a brilliant example of strategies in art criticism used to frame and validate a type of socially and politically conscious work. A type concerned with social critique, but more precisely a type of social critique that was attracted to an allegorical tendency in artmaking that targeted the institution of art as an extension of the capitalist market.
Following the translation of Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama ( Trauerspiel ) into English in 1977, a number of allegory-inspired texts cropped up in the field of art theory and criticism. This translation could be understood as having appeared at a rather propitious moment, seeing as postmodernism has been dated as emerging at about this very moment in time. Many writers have understood postmodern critical trends in art as strongly allegorical in intent, in contrast to the Lessingesque stance of modernist canons of the late nineteenth century up until the end of the American formalist period in the late fifties. Craig Owens wrote two essays about allegory (“The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” and a Part 2 of the same title, both in 1980). Geoffrey Ulmer discussed allegory in “The Object of Post-Criticism”, an essay included within the popular book edited by Hal Foster, The Anti-Aesthetic (1983). There are others. Although these essays discuss a decisive shift in consciousness from the self-referential art and self-critical interpretations of modernism, these reflections on allegory do not seem to be overly attentive to the definite historical ruptures on which such allegorical modes depend.
In 1982, Benjamin Buchloh wrote “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art”, the first in a series of reflections he developed on the allegorical nature of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde practices, the radical historical nature of which such writers as Owens and Ulmer seem to have missed or dismissed in their adherence to the poststructuralist writings of Derrida, Lyotard, and de Man. Buchloh’s writings are profoundly inspired by the Frankfurt School (to a German tradition rather than the French, although he is also much indebted to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies and Foucault), and in particular to the ideas of Walter Benjamin. In opposition to allegorical works that merely rehearsed the reification process of the commodity sign as a critical standpoint, Buchloh championed works that questioned the complicity of these very forms of representation (photography, film, sculpture, museum installations) with the power structures of the world at large. In our day and age, artworks with critical punch are quite often just as quickly co-opted by the establishment–to the extent that irony has come to lose its sting.
Under the melancholic eye of both Walter Benjamin and Benjamin Buchloh, at two different and very separate points in history, allegorical procedures took on the emblematic status of the hieroglyph: in the fusion or juxtaposition of disparate images and/or words, in the retracing and reconfiguration of past usages and experiences and representations, the hieroglyph, like the allegorical emblem, embodies new and forgotten interpretations that resurface continuously, especially when they mark out the threshold of historical change.
In 1928 Benjamin published The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Trauerspiel), a text that elaborated a theory of allegory in terms of Baroque literature, but that was also cast in cultural and ontological terms. With the rise of secular culture in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the desire for public action and material production took on a general melancholic attitude in the face of a world increasingly understood as fragmentary, transitory, and lacking in “fullness of experience”. This could be seen as stemming from the loss of both a spiritual connection and a sense of ulterior meaning to actions and experiences within the context of the everyday:
The great German dramatists of the baroque were Lutherans. Whereas in the decades of the Counter-Reformation Catholicism had penetrated secular life with all the power of its discipline, the relationship of Lutheranism to the everyday had always been antinomic. The rigorous morality of its teaching in respect of civic conduct stood in sharp contrast to its renunciation of ‘good works’. By denying the latter any special miraculous spiritual effect, making the soul dependent on grace through faith, and making the secular-political sphere a testing ground for a life which was only indirectly religious, being intended for the demonstration of civic virtues, it did, it is true, instill into the people a strict sense of obedience to duty, but in its great men it produced melancholy…In that excessive reaction which ultimately denied good works as such … there was an element of German paganism and the grim belief in the subjection of man to fate. Human actions were deprived of all value. Something new arose: an empty world…For those who looked deeper saw the scene of their existence as a rubbish heap of partial, inauthentic actions…Mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask, and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it. 2
The allegorical gaze onto the outside world betrayed a profound, inaccessible absence: “it is precisely the immotivation of the world that causes the pervasive melancholia of the Trauerspiel , that causes the allegorical way of looking at the world.” 3 Under the gaze of melancholy life flows out of the object and remains behind, a dead object, a disembodied shell. The object becomes incapable of emanating any significance of its own and must depend on the allegorist to make sense of the desolate, sorrowful dispersal of meaning that marks the presence of an anachronistic artifact amidst contemporaneous things. As a fixed, static image or sign, the allegorical emblem acts as a storage site for memory, like an abandoned museum or library, a forgotten monument, a dust-covered souvenir.
The melancholic gaze stems from this sense of being cut off from direct divine influence–“mundane, earthbound, corporeal” in the words of George Steiner. This earthboundedness, akin to Christ’s being kenotically forsaken on earth, is what distinguishes the concept of Trauerspiel from Tragedy. Trauerspiel is immanent, grounded in history, while Tragedy is transcendental, grounded in mythology. Tragedy is conveyed through silence, Trauerspiel through a “torrential prolixity”. This distinction strangely has its applications today in terms of how modernism has been distinguished from postmodernism (modernism as symbolic, “transcendental, totalistic, often utopian”, while postmodernism as allegorical, “immanent, contingent, somehow fallen”). Allegory’s tendency to convey a meaning or idea through a plethora of words or network of images, conveys this necessity in allegory of discovering hidden correspondences amidst the cacophony of everyday life before anything can even come close to the ‘truth’ of divine constellations .
Just as Baroque drama of the seventeenth century represents nature in a process of decay as a result of the loss of this religious context within the quotidian and within “great works”, a transformation of human labour processes in the nineteenth century paved the way for an experience of alienated “dead objects” under capitalism and a gradual loss of unmediated personal experience. According to Walter Benjamin, the last real instance of allegory to be fully developed was in the poetry of Baudelaire:
“Melancholy bears in the 19 th century a different character to that which it bore in the 17 th . The key figure of the early allegory is the corpse. The key figure of the later allegory is the “souvenir” ( Andenken ). The “souvenir” is the schema of the transformation of the commodity into a collector’s object…The heroic tenor of the Baudelairean inspiration shows itself in this, that with him memory ( die Erinnerung ) recedes in favour of remembrances ( des Andenkens) ” ( Central Park , section 44).
The “awareness of the all-too-human propensity to forget the past”, the lack of ‘fullness’ of experience of the world, the fragmentation of discourse and imagery, the simultaneous devaluation and sanctification of the object, and the internalization of death and decay in the form of the souvenir, all of these intensely allegorical elements characterized the form and content of Baudelaire’s verse. The decay, not just of nature, but of everyday urban experience, and the devaluation of the use value of objects in favor of exchange value, were all aspects resulting from industrial modes of production in the nineteenth century and were manifestly allegorical in terms of Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism that signaled cultural and social decay under capitalism. Just as Baudelaire’s poetry was to be characterized by a “wrenching of things from their familiar context” so as to create a sense of shock by the suddenness of discontinuity, so were commodities to be exhibited for their exchange value, wrenched from the usual context of everyday use, exposing the objects’ new reified status.
Although the Trauerspiel probably represents the last “romantic-metaphysical period in Benjamin’s thought” before his change of methodology towards a more Marxist dialectical materialism, one detects a strong relationship of this text to the most influential of his writings on art, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction . In advancing the concept of aura as comprising the cult value of historical works that guaranteed the authenticity, uniqueness and autonomy of the traditional work, Benjamin seemed to have envisaged an imminent future when the technology of mass cultural forms would wipe out the status of art as it had come to be known: “He knew how much the conception of the single, isolated work of art, authentic and unrepeatable, owed to religion, which gave it its sacred radiance, and then later, in a secularized form, how much it owed to a system of private property which gave it its value.” 4 However, with this ‘lowering’ and dispersal of the content and form of the art work would be a corresponding ‘raising’ of the meaning of the work to a higher level of experience, thus giving the work a social significance unknown to it before. It is in this ontological ‘leap’ from the sacred to the profane that meaning is constructed-from the absence or forgetting of a past notion of ‘truth’ arises a new understanding of social experience through new modes of production and reproduction of visual and aural representation. Of course this process seems to echo what he had described in the Trauerspiel with the rupture of the religious from the secular world of experience. The end result of such a rupture is the figure of allegory, frozen into a fragmented, emblematic stiffness (the looking glass or death’s head in seventeenth-century drama, the commodity fetish and the reproduction of the artwork in nineteenth and twentieth century culture).
In the transitoriness and fragmentation of secular experience, allegory is embodied in the “dance of represented ideas”, such that truth is never wholly present as such, but is perpetually in the process of becoming and fading away within the movement between conflicting ideas: “For ideas are not represented in themselves, but solely and exclusively in an arrangement of concrete elements in the concept: as the configuration of these elements…Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars.” 5 Rather than a mere devaluation of meaning that one would have expected, in the transformation of things of the world into signs, one becomes more conscious of an absence within experience that was perhaps always already there. As the social and economic structures within the world slip from one form of representation to another, one’s experience and one’s relation to objects and to other people, become transformed. One tends to forget the past in this structural shift from one form of historical experience to another, and in so doing one tends to look away from the truth of oneself by shifting one’s sense of self from one ideological subject position to another (i.e. in the loss of one form of experience to one that conforms to a new imposed structure). It is at this threshold from one form of experience to another that one can begin to understand the underlying power structures that bind experience. In highlighting this threshold, allegory makes present this absence as melancholy.
Inspired by this Benjaminian notion of allegory, Benjamin Buchloh indulges in what appears to be a very allegorical approach to discussing art (in terms of how he relates ruptures in history to discontinuous cultural and subject formations). He uses Benjamin’s theory of allegory as a way to understand some of the avant-garde strategies used by artists in the latter half of this century:
The allegorical mind sides with the object and protests against its devaluation to the status of commodity by devaluating it a second time in allegorical practice. In the splintering of signifier and signified the allegorist subjects the sign to the same division of functions that the object has undergone in its transformation into a commodity. The repetition of the original act of depletion and the new attribution of meaning redeems the object. 6
The object cannot retrieve its original function or value. However the process of transformation, of desublimation and sublimation, is highlighted so as to render visible the workings of ideology or mystification (Adorno). In Walter Benjamin’s text on German Trauerspiel , the allegorical mode also approaches things in the world by the action of lowering and then raising them to a higher significance:
In becoming a world of allegorical emblems, the profane world is robbed of its sensual fullness, robbed of any inherent meaning it might possess, only to be invested with a privileged meaning whose source transcends this world. The philosophical concept thus finds its analogue in the allegorical emblem. In both concept and emblem, the arbitrariness and unreasonableness of assigning a thing to a particular meaning only make the point more strongly that the individual phenomenon now takes on a new life, no longer centered in itself but enlisted in the service of representing truth. This paradox is the foundation of Benjamin’s brilliant list of what he calls the “antinomies of allegoresis” — the simultaneous devaluation and sanctification of the object… 7
Undoubtedly, the first instances of such devaluation and raising of an object within the twentieth century art context were that of the fragmentary system of montage in poetry, film, and collage in visual art, and especially that of the readymade exhibited within the museum. Commencing with such artists as Heartfield and Duchamp, the emptying of the conventional meaning of language and the commodity and its elevation to the status of epistemological emblem was to serve as an allegorical model for numerous instances of avant-garde intervention within the museum. It is in wrenching an object from its previous context of production and reception that a new meaning of historical, social and aesthetic significance is constructed. Within the context of the neo-avant-garde James Coleman is the most recent artist that Buchloh has included in his repertoire of allegorically-bent artists, dedicated to the practice of institutional critique (Broodthaers, Buren, Haacke, and Dan Graham are others). Not that Coleman is a ‘recent’ artist (he has been making conceptual works since the late sixties), but that Coleman’s newer work has a decidedly allegorical feel approaching a Benjaminian sense that Buchloh has just caught onto. In the case of Coleman, the use of allegory as a hermeneutical trope seems particularly fitting since the majority of Coleman’s recent projections, video, and film works seem to relate directly to theatre, under the guise of the tableau vivant or photo roman . The particular way Coleman uses language also seems to approach some of Benjamin’s ideas on language within the context of allegory, or the concept “non-sensuous similarity” ( On the Mimetic Faculty ).
However, before delving into Buchloh’s more recent allegorical readings–particularly that of James Coleman–an account of Buchloh’s critical project of promoting ‘avant-garde instances of self-determination’ needs to be divulged. Buchloh’s convictions and his Benjaminian melancholy seem rooted in the failure of the historical avant-garde, in the more recent shortcomings of the (post-)Minimalist and (post-) Conceptual art movements, and of course in the dilapidation of memory and experience under the weight of the culture industry on the one hand and in the ruinous ideological underpinnings of neo-Kantian positions calling for the autonomy of art on the other.
The references to popular theater in the case of James Coleman’s post-Conceptualist work seem to be directly related to the visual arts’ rejection of figuration and narrative and its incapacity for political critique in the postwar period, while the theatre and cinema in France, Germany, and Ireland proved to be overtly political, in large part because theatre and cinema escaped the necessity of being sold on the market as in the case of art objects. It is especially in the realm of the theatre of language and of historical memory that Coleman’s work can be understood to problematize the neutralization of visual art, in a similar way to that of Peter Weiss’ plays or the Living Theater (as a synthesis of Brecht and Artaud), to that of Beckett’s plays and teleplays, and to that of Godard and Straub’s cinema, in that they addressed the political climate of the postwar period through a complex play of language. Much of Buchloh’s insight, and his subtle references to allegory, could be seen as originating from the political weight of German theatre and cinema in Berlin during the sixties. Thus it is to this postwar period that we must turn now.
In a country that’s in a hurry to make the future, the names attached to the products are an enduring reassurance. Johnson & Johnson and Quaker State and RCA Victor and Burlington Mills and Bristol Myers and General Motors. These are the venerated emblems of the burgeoning economy, easier to identify than the names of battlefields or dead presidents (Don Delillo, Underworld ).
For if we consider the innumerable corpses with which, partly, the ravages of the plague and, partly, weapons of war, have filled not only our Germany, but almost the whole of Europe, then we must admit that our roses have been transformed into thorns, our lilies into nettles, our paradises into cemeteries, indeed our whole being into an image of death. It is therefore my hope that it will not be held against me that in this general theatre of death I have not foreborne to set up my own paper graveyard. 9
From the inception of the avant-garde with Courbet and Maxime du Camp in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a call for the abolition of beaux-arts tradition and the conventions of figuration through an embracing of an ideology of industrial progress and new “techno-scientific paradigms”. The avant-garde could be understood as arising from the failure of the revolution of 1848 which paved the way for modernist art (autonomy and materiality) and new forms of mass culture. Even in its retrospective labelling, avant-garde art has a different connotation from what modernist art and mass culture were to become. Modernist art resolved to do away with the canons of a classical, aristocratic tradition which was still construed as a threat to the bourgeoisie while newly emerging forms of mass culture brought about by industrial production, like photography and film, was seen as threatening to give a prominent voice to the rise of the working classes. From this point on, modernist art and mass culture were to become interdependent in their struggle for dominance. Avant-garde art was to develop as a form that attempted to cross the divide between classes, a form that melded art into life via the belief that industrial progress would bring about greater human equality.
Later on, the abolition of representation and of cultural memory in visual art in Europe and America seemed to have acquired an even more urgent raison d’etre in light of the atrocities that pervaded the second world war. This moment in history without a doubt symbolizes the most inexplicable instance of human barbarism, a wound that runs far too deep within the flesh of collective and personal imaginary for cultural practice to regain any real continuity with the past. Old modes of representation could not even begin to express this shattering sense of existence. This sentiment echoes an idea central to Theodor Adorno’s critical thought–the impossibility of poetry after the Holocaust. Adorno was also convinced of the impossibility of representing history in art, a tendency that was also embraced by American culture, although for completely different reasons (having become a world power, it tended to envision the world as a clean slate onto which it could exercise its political and economic influence after the devastation of the wars). Thus reflections on history were repressed within art production for different reasons depending on whether one was European or American. Europeans avoided reflections on recent history up until the late sixties because they were attempting to let the wounds of the world wars heal, the guilt stemming from the atrocities subside. In terms of artistic theory and praxis, the failure of the historical avant-garde reinforced Adorno’s paradoxical modernist stance, a stance that shunned representation and the bridging of art and life, but which did not deny art’s historical determinism and it’s capacity for social change. This stemmed from the memories of the recent past. Americans on the other hand were preoccupied with the future, for they had taken over what power had been lost by imperialist Europe. Their history was seen as one that was in the making, one that embodied the hopes and promises of progress that paved the way for the future.
In light of the dramatic socio-political developments that occurred in the first few decades of the twentieth century, from the utopian project of the Russian revolution to the defeat of the left during the Weimar Republic, the notion of an avant-garde art in Germany was considered a dead issue up until the late sixties, seen more as an excuse to continue producing works for the museum than as a way to effectuate any real social change:
The German New Left of the 60s suspected the cultural production of the neo-avant-garde of being not much more than the result of market interests with no other function than to furnish museums and homes with luxury consumer items and to legitimate postwar neocapitalism. Any cultural production was considered reactionary, affirmative by definition (for instance, Warhol), and constitutive of the system… 10
As a student in West Berlin during the sixties, Buchloh witnessed the rejection of the avant-garde as a natural cultural expression of that particular time and place. Cinema and such dramatic projects as Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade were considered a more credible alternative to the plastic arts because of their roots in a popular public culture (especially considering the strong Brechtian tradition in Germany) in opposition to bourgeois contemplation and consumption of fine art. With the collapse of traditions and values based on kinship and community as a result of “the growth of economic and social individualism in industrial societies” (Goody, 1968, p. 402–3), the notions of the people and the Volk , nationality, class, and minority cultures were subject to dynamic, conflicting, and shifting interpretations during the sixties. Cinema and theatre were a very effective means of addressing contemporary social issues within cultural practice, something that visual art practice avoided altogether it seems up until the eighties. 10a And unlike the eradication of representational forms in the visual modernity of fine arts, cinema and theatre did not depart from its focus on the domains of figuration (the body), rhetoric, and literary narrative.
In the early seventies Buchloh was introduced to Conceptual art and to a neo-avant-garde movement that circulated around the critical art journal Interfunkionen . In 1973 Buchloh took over this publication from Fritz Heubach, regarding the journal as a chance for cultural intervention, for he saw the possibility for the “transformation of visual practices–with political implications–in certain aspects of conceptual art”. 11 Conceptual art’s emphasis on information value (such that anyone was able to participate and approach the work without prerequisite knowledge about art) and its rejection of the status of the art object made the journal a privileged format for most Conceptual artists during the sixties and seventies.
When Benjamin Buchloh arrived in North America over twenty years ago, he had come with the intention of being critically engaged in the discourses and activities surrounding the Conceptual art movement. He had been invited to the Nova Scotia College of Art in 1977 to serve as editor to a continuing series of art publications of a decidedly Conceptual focus. Unfortunately, at that particular moment Conceptualism was already on its last legs. Fast emerging was an era of ‘mythological’, reactionary art whose mock avant-garde label paid lip-service to the art market (and thus to growing right-wing political oppression) in the wake of Conceptualism’s slow dissolution from incisive institutional critique to a hollow administrative signifier (or so Buchloh would have it). It so happens that just following his departure from Germany there had also occurred a political swing to the right in Germany that Buchloh saw as being signaled by the Berufsverbote and the death of the Baader-Meinhof group 12 . Buchloh found himself as if shipwrecked amidst the last surviving and fast dwindling messages of resistance to “the administrative enclosure of modern art by the culture industry” 13 . It was as if the international tendencies of Conceptualism had unwittingly paved the way for an international counter-movement based on a return to the heroic posturings of painting. The tautological strategies of Conceptualism, in its emptying of art of materiality and traditional ‘content’, had reached the cul-de-sac of its ahistorical destiny. The opportunistic and non-critical reenchantment of mythological content came gushing back into art.
This overshadowing of neo-avant-garde interventions by figurative painting at the end of the seventies was a pivotal moment for Buchloh, for it was this very moment of regression, this “return to order” in art, that affirmed his resolve to stake out and promote a post-Conceptual art practice that was historically conscious and functionalist in intent. He sought out artists who wished “to rematerialize critical thought in real social life” 14 . I would go so far as to say that this ‘mission’ was conceived in Buchloh’s mind as somehow rescuing the anti-positivism of Adorno’s Critical Theory and of Benjamin’s socio-politically engaged artist as producer, especially in light of their “melancholic adjustment to the new historical necessity of living within the silence of Communism” beginning in the 1930s” 15 .
In terms of Buchloh’s own historical position, he had come to America from a Germany where the left culture of the East was an official state culture while in the West the reconstruction of an elite bourgeois culture had been strongly guided by American intervention with the Marshall Plan. In terms of artistic innovation and authority, from a European perspective, America appeared as a land of infinite possibilities where the space for a possible freedom from the barbarism of capitalist exploitation was still being mapped out. One must also assume that the defeat of the New Left perspective, culminating with the student radicalism of 1968, had resounded gravely in Buchloh’s mind. The repetition of the failure of the Left to effect socio-political change and then the failure of avant-garde artists to resist the effects of the culture industry (figured through the logic of capitalist market practices in art), seems to have triggered a melancholic revision of Adornian and Benjaminian cultural criticism. Through the late seventies, eighties and early nineties, Buchloh produced an art criticism that served to promote the production of works that struggled toward a functional relationship with reality in the sense of New Left activism and a desire for a resolution to the dilemma of a reductivist immobilization of art (as a dematerialization of the work into critical language as put forward by Conceptualism.) Therefore, Buchloh’s art criticism begins where Conceptualism ends off.
Baudelaire’s modernist poetry provides us with experience of the world constituted by the absence of experience. Such, for Benjamin and Adorno, is the remarkable constitutive character of modernist works of art in relation to the world they inhabit. 16
What bound the aesthetic dimension of both Benjamin’s and Adorno’s thought was the understanding of the adaptation of human perception to industrial modes of production and the desire to inscribe art within the framework of an historical project. All forms of art, being affected by the historical contingencies within which they arise, come into the world and are experienced as such with ideological strings attached. Although Adorno and Benjamin are often discussed in connection with one another, their ideas on art are decidedly divergent. Benjamin’s writings display a paradoxical view of cultural experience, at once collective and personal, mixing a strain of materialism with a messianism and even psychoanalytic tendencies, championing mass cultural forms like film while secreting a nostalgia for auratic experience. Especially in light of the failure of the historical avant-garde to resist its own aestheticization under Fascism and Communism under Stalin, Adorno remained elitist in his taste for modernist art. His rejection of the avant-garde, as well as l’art pour l’art and Jugendstil, seems to be tied in with his belief that these movements paved the way for administered culture and the reign of commodified art, what he and Horkheimer called the “culture industry”.
Some critics found this focus on the aesthetic in Adorno’s and Benjamin’s works annoying, considering their criticism to be little more than the “sublimated fulfillment of political urges”, “a form of ersatz practice”. But as Richard Wolin notes: “…in an historical era in which social theory had become “social science,” philosophy was irredeemably scholastic, and objective prospects for social change were seemingly crushed beneath monolithic authoritarian and welfare-state formations, Critical Theory increasingly turned to the aesthetic sphere as a unique repository of qualitative difference, negation, and critique”. 17 Inspired by this very tradition, Benjamin Buchloh stands out in my mind as one of the most prominent art critics and historians to have written about American and European art of the postwar period not only because of his questioning of its disavowal of historical memory in the postwar period but also because of his systematic mapping out of the avant-garde project since its historical origins in the 1920s. (However, many art critics and art historians (e.g. Hal Foster) have criticized him for what they see as a tendency towards historicism within this thought, that is, that he sees tendencies in art as punctual and final, where ruptures of great retrospective clarity occur once and for all, where there is no room for long transitional murky periods, or deferred revisitings, such that art production is not as dependent on abrupt economic or socio-political crises as he would like them to be.) In privileging the domain of art as a form of social critique and resistance to the globalization of the culture industry and its form of hegemonic control through spectacularization and subject construction, he upholds the Adornoian conviction that avant-garde practices in the autonomous space of the museum remain one of the last strongholds of Western bourgeois culture against mass social control of experience and of critical thought and discourse. Nonetheless, the museum is under the continuous threat of mass subjection to the culture industry (whose strategy is diversion from public action through systematic consumption of capitalist ideology). Perhaps because of his position as outsider to the hegemonic American cultural sphere, he was conscious of the urgency to address the dissolution of critical art practices in light of the socio-economic rupture of the early 1970s (the oil embargo of 1973, etc.) and the attendant conservative political pressures felt in the field of culture. This dissolution of the critical function was in large part due to the impasse of conventionalized approaches to making “avant-garde” art: the dematerialization of art, the ahistorical approach that entailed the wiping out any memory of references to past subject matter, genre, and material-specificity. In the late seventies, Buchloh was particularly instrumental in bringing attention to the overt repressions and omissions created by art historical and critical writing, especially those that had issued from post-war America.
I’m totally uninterested in European art and I think it’s all over with - Donald Judd.
At the time that Buchloh was writing about European and American neo-avant-garde artists in the journal Interfunktionen , Americans paid very little attention to what European artists were producing, chiefly because American artists had finally found an opportune historical moment to forge their own legitimate and authoritative identity as producers of serious, avant-garde art in contradistinction to the European conventions and innovations of the past that had hitherto dominated the art world. A new American avant-garde style was enforced in Europe by the unprecedented postwar invasion of American art and culture on the European market after the Marshall Plan. This of course was in part due to the thriving practice of American art criticism. Clement Greenberg and then Michael Fried were amongst the most influential in forwarding an aesthetic of modernism–autonomy, ideological neutrality, medium-specificity, opticality, and empirical self-reflexivity–that made this brand of art particularly attractive to postwar artists in a burgeoning, prosperous art market. In order to show to what extent art criticism was to hitherto affect art production in the postwar period I quote from Buchloh’s essay Formalism and historicity that expresses the problem of an exclusively formalist theorization: “Formalization of historical and critical description seems to have found feedback in the production of American art of the sixties. The terms which had been used to describe the phenomena became the terms used to produce the phenomena”. 18 The omissions and emphases that were created by art criticism and theory had an unparalleled influence on how art was made and on what ended up getting acknowledged as a legitimate and authentic work of art. These historically determined variables constitute reception, one of the most important aspects of avant-garde practices: “It is a valid step to acknowledge the extent to which ‘reception history’ has become ‘production history’, and … to reveal the degree to which seemingly autonomous aesthetical entities inform themselves historically.” Besides analyzing the pitfalls of formalist tendencies in American art, Buchloh also vehemently criticized the tendency to mythologize the artist and the artistic process or content at the expense of addressing the historical events that led to the political decline of Europe (i.e. Beuys). To counter the overriding modernist tendencies to formalize and mythologize art production and content, Buchloh brings in poststructuralist linguistic theory to show how “the language of secondary mythical reality has to be read with the adequate tool of ideological criticism” so that “their original intentional reality becomes apparent”. 19 The ahistoricity of myth and formalism were to become the modernist tendencies that Buchloh would continue to attack in his critical writings for the next two decades. It was precisely this semblance of artistic autonomy in opposition to any ideological connotations, and even the out-and-out affirmation of a will to transcend the structures of the culture industry, that allowed the American avant-garde (as Abstract Expressionism) to establish a hegemonic position in the European art market in the post-war period. What Buchloh was to reveal to the North American art world, as demonstrated by Guilbaut in an even more systematic manner, was the culturally neutralizing effect of such art in the interests of American political hegemony in the post-war period.
In his attempt to revitalize the critical function of art, Buchloh has continuously stressed two factors: that past and present art works and art practices could not be read outside the economic, political and social developments that made up a given historical period, and that the only way that art could hope to save society from being completely consumed by a corporate-backed culture industry was through addressing the continually fluctuating criteria of legitimation within the institutional framework in which art was exhibited (the liberal-democratic and bourgeois definition of culture autonomous from corporatized structures). Thus avant-garde practice was “exemplary in both its mnemonic functions and utopian bent, both in its ravaging criticism (while judging the present against the standards of history) as well as in its anticipated promises (while judging the present against the standards of imagined possibilities)”. 20 The work that Buchloh considers meriting discussion are those that resist the art conventions that are neutralizing and mythologizing in the face of the values of corrupt state and corporate power structures, namely those that imprison society within the capitalist logic of commodity fetishism. Like such artists as Buren, Haacke or Broodthaers, Buchloh considers it naïve to suppose that one can simply abandon or destroy the museum space (as was attempted by some avant-garde artists of the 20s and 60s). Resistance to the ideology of the corporate culture industry could be freely expressed through intervention within the seemingly secure space of the bourgeois public sphere so as to disturb the expected notions of production, exhibition and reception, and so as to unsettle the viewers’ preconceived value systems: “…modern art’s ability to engage in such societal critique depends on its participating in precisely those patterns that it exposes”. 21 Far from harbouring any utopian ideals, he used pessimism as the driving force behind his strategies of critical negation in the war against the cultural industry’s domination over all spheres of social activity. The autonomy of the art institution from the voracious maw of the culture industry made avant-garde critique still seem like a viable form of resistance.
Although Buchloh appears to be struggling against defeatism in evoking Productivist activism, his critique has the effect of extending and making conscious conceptualism’s instinctive fusion of activism and defeatism. In the reigning ideological conditions of supremacy of the Pop counter-revolution, such a fusion can only result in placing the residues of activist strategies at the service of an imperious defeatism–one which uses activism as an outer form, shield, or mask. 22
Much of Buchloh’s pessimism seems to be consistent with a historicist mourning of the ‘original’ avant-garde project. The Russian chapter of the historical avant-garde that involved an attempt to abolish the fetishism, commodity exchange, and property value of bourgeois art in favour of integrating art into life could be understood as a return to reestablishing the priority of use value. For the first time art would be on the same level as other modes of production, thus establishing a relationship of equality between objects of industrialization that would reflect the relationship of equality between classes. Walter Benjamin’s warning of the potential for such art practices to be appropriated by political forces as instruments of propaganda, especially in the case of photomontage, was the fate of the Russian avant-garde, while the Dada and Surrealist art practices were overtaken by advertising and by a return to conventional art practices in the rest of Europe. Buchloh describes this turn of events in Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression . As we know the avant-garde was to return in various guises but never to return with any firm belief in the possibility of a utopian integration of art into life in a more egalitarian society. Rather it would come back as an effective method of critiquing art institutions and conventions that remained passive to or even perpetuated the values of hegemonic power structures. Buchloh champions this form of institutional critique, a strategy that he gets from Adorno who saw the autonomous field of art as the only form of resistance left in a society overtaken by the culture industry under the sign of spectacle. There is no more talk of class struggle, no more talk of faith in industrialization, only a wish to outsmart the institutions in their subservience to economic forces and ideological interests.
Jeff Wall’s criticism of this fusion of activist strategies (as a ‘turn toward reality’) and defeatism is well founded. It is precisely this activism through the negation or dissolution of the aesthetic (as in Conceptualism’s use of language as pure communication that dissolves aesthetic hierarchies) that poses a problem in terms of appropriation of such models by the art institution. In the case of this cyclical return of the avant-garde project, it is never fully successful in retaining its position of critique because of the eventual, inevitable acculturation of the works’ original intentions by the art institution, rendering them marketable and ineffectual in terms of radical institutional critique. Buchloh relates this to the historical contradiction of embracing an anti-aesthetic while remaining within the confines of the museum:
This dilemma, constitutive of the radicality of post-Minimal work in general, resulted from an unresolvable historical contradiction: namely, that the work’s phenomenological and theoretical ambition could no longer acknowledge its specific status as an aesthetic object, nor admit its status as convention within traditions of artistic and rhetorical figuration. Yet at the same time, the work’s dependence on the institutions and discourses of art in order to achieve legitimacy prevented it from actually abandoning its status as a traditional aesthetic object and claiming the condition of a scientific or political intervention instead. 23
Buchloh described the same fate to all Conceptual practices: “…the critical annihilation of cultural conventions itself immediately acquires the conditions of the spectacle, that the insistence on artistic anonymity and the demolition of authorship produces instant brand names and identifiable products…[and] inevitably ends by following the pre-established mechanisms of advertising and marketing campaigns”. 24 The continuous acculturation of avant-garde critique by art institutions, essentially because of the infiltration of corporate sponsorship into the domain of culture, eventually made Buchloh question the efficacy and the limited scope of the strategies he continued to promote within the museum setting:
For three or four years now, all the approaches that formerly interested me have begun to seem insufficient. A kind of revision of my own methodology brought me to the problems of narrative as historical memory. The most dramatic thing was the change in my relation to minimalism, which was so important to my intellectual development and which suddenly became a primary problem… 25
From this moment (1994–97), Buchloh would return to the pivotal moment of the “decline” of Minimalism and Conceptualism in order to reevaluate James Coleman’s work and its relation to allegorical modes of social and cultural criticism. Perhaps because of the non-didactic, unresolved status of Coleman’s works vis-à-vis society and the art institution, his works have been able to evolve in a more complex way than Buchloh could ever have imagined up to quite recently. It is with the re-discovery of Coleman’s works that Buchloh’s use of allegory acquires a new richness of context that seems much indebted to Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge.
What is even more significant is that this rejection [of social conventions and prohibitions] was not in the name of some other pattern of ordering society, though the new libertarianism was given ideological justification by those who felt it needed such labels, but in the name of the unlimited autonomy of individual desire. It assumed a world of self-regarding individualism pushed to its limits. Paradoxically the revels against the conventions and restrictions shared the assumptions on which mass consumer society was built, or at least the psychological motivations which those who sold consumer goods and services found most effective in selling them (Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes , p. 334).
This change in Buchloh’s relation to minimalism was most apparent in 1997, when Artforum asked him to contribute a few reflections on what he saw as constituting the role and responsibilities of contemporary art criticism. In a tongue in cheek fashion, he begins by comparing his position as critic at the end of the twentieth century to that of Michael Fried thirty years earlier when he had written Art and Objecthood , the essay that signaled his withdrawal from criticism with the emergence of minimalism on the art stage. This comparison is significant for it is in large part because of the co-optation of minimalist works by the culture industry (corporations, fashion designers) that Buchloh had become so embittered as a critic. Ironically enough he found it increasingly difficult to recognize the minimalist project as a successful avant-garde practice in a reverse position from that of Michael Fried. The most poignant case in point is Buchloh’s disenchantment with Flavin for having succumbed to the seductions of the fashion industry’s call for “an aristocratic austerity campaign”:
Dan Flavin, however, unlike his late friend and Minimalist colleague [Judd], did have a choice as to whether to submit fluorescent sculptures to the corporation that spectacularizes Minimalism to generate the new distinction of the consumption of austerity. Flavin of course accepted. (I wonder whether my original assessment, that Flavin’s Minimalism posed a resistance to corporate culture, was ever justified at any point in history of endless repetitions, or whether the very avant-garde model underlying his work was ever any thing but pure affirmation.) 26
The following year, in a panel discussion with other members of the theoretical journal October , Buchloh repeated his disaffection for Minimalism in light of how its main artists continued to work in an optimistic vein of industrialized mass culture despite the fact that this project became untenable over the years with the revelation of the destructive forces of industrialization at the hands of corporations. The most positive influence engendered by Minimalism had been the first attempts at the critique of institutions, especially in unmasking the myth of autonomy and opticality of art. But in continuing the minimalist project without questioning the validity of its place under historically different circumstances and with their opportunistic embracing of spectacularization through the production of commissioned minimalist public art works and the adoption of the minimalist aesthetic in fashion, Buchloh found himself in a position where he had to re-evaluate all the previous aspects of art that he had considered indispensable in the fight against the economic interests of the culture industry.
Although he begins his essay in Artforum rather ironically, poking fun at himself through a comparison to Fried, in actuality he sounds more serious than ever in seeing his role as a critic coming to an end. In his apocalyptic musings on the state of art’s criticality and of the art establishment’s support for such avant-garde practices, one detects a certain finality in his critical project:
…declaring from the vantage point of a critic who has been engaged with a relatively limited set of artistic positions and practices that what has come into sight as a distinct possibility is, if not the end of art, then the end of these historically determined definitions of artistic practice and with them the end of their protagonists and institutions. These practices had been defined within a model of critical resistance and radical negativity; the protagonists had perceived themselves as inextricably linked to yet indisputably opposed to the culture industry; the institutions had taken seriously their historically defined functions of providing a critical space of exemption, if not opposition, within the bourgeois public sphere–that is, sites for the development and preservation of aesthetic and historical knowledge in forms of exchange and communication that were neither immediately nor entirely subjected to ideological instrumentalization or economic interests…the end arrived much sooner than anticipated. 27
Throughout the article Buchloh reacts to the present state of the neo-avant-garde as if it were truly the end of any possible critical practice in art. Unlike his previous defeatist sympathies, such as in the panel discussion on “Art after Minimalism and Pop” in Discussions in Contemporary Culture , this essay truly reflects a turning point in his abandonment of previous strategies toward a consideration of alternative forms of subject construction through the re-inscription of the mnemonic function back into art. Despite the Foucauldian undertones that such considerations of subjectivity evoke, the move seems to be a natural direction for his thought to take considering how ahistorical notions of identity construction had become so prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s and how they were so detrimental to the possibilities of collective activism. This he blames on the successful merger between the “culture industry” and avant-garde art, instigated by the fashion industry. This successful coup by fashion was the result of a long line of art made with an eye to the construction of identity and subjectivity in the absence of any real experience within which subjectivity could be authentically constructed:
Art-world fashions, by contrast, present a conclusive and compelling logic of their own: from identity politics to the even narrower restriction of gender politics, straight down to the final installment as fashion politics, in which, through the delusion that identity can be produced, constructed according to the configuration of objects, cultural production becomes absolutely equivalent to fashion production at the core . 28
This is referring to the art made in the eighties and early nineties that reacted to the anxiety of feeling powerless within society by transferring the focus from the collective onto the individual’s sense of identity and responsibility. This of course is what the culture industry and corporations want to enforce. The symptom of anomie and the crises in identity explain the smothering of resistance within the public sphere: “What is most obviously lacking in the time-worn definition of the “personal as the political” is the insight that “the public” has become an increasingly controlled and regulated space and that the insistent, politically disabling deflection of artistic practice onto the domain of private experience itself is of course part of the effects of that regulatory rerouting”. 29 This type of art, as we know, was used by minority cultures and marginalized social groups for a just and moral purpose not intended to fall into the pattern of navel-gazing or essentialist statements about culture, nation, and gender. But this is exactly what the culture industry causes it to do once it spectacularizes identity politics for the purpose of profit. Offering a choice of multiple subject positions was as easy as selling a commodity once the fashion industries got their hands on it. The very seduction of identity rests on the feeling that one is resisting the structures of power and of the media through a political notion of personal identity when in actuality it is obeying to a sign system based on advertising difference rather than effectuating real difference, and thus resistance. According to Buchloh, the real way to resist and to change the system would be through participation and active engagement within the public sphere, through attacking the problem from inside the system, not by retreating inside the self. What Buchloh seems to be pointing at is, first of all, the by now familiar desublimation of such identity politics within advertising strategies so as to construct a commodity-driven identity while seeming to embrace multifarious identities; secondly, he blames the misuse of poststucturalist theory for “the conceptualizing of identity as a performative category and [for the] foregrounding of the linguistic signifier in identity’s production [that] promised an exemption if not an escape from social class and political institutions that was only too welcome in American culture, where politics since the 70s has been increasingly written out of public history by total inscription onto the private self”. 30 Therefore, the adoption of such theories of identity at the expense of a concern with the greater public perpetuates a social collapse into anomie where the public sphere becomes an ineffectual, homogenized and controlled entity. This may sound problematic in that one cannot deny the need to address a diversity of interests coexisting within the public sphere. What Buchloh seems to see as the danger however is the commodification of specific interests by corporations so as to gain more influence over people’s actions and tastes. The immediate falsification of artistic constructions of identity through the process of spectacularization is enforced by the culture industry. The withering of true life experience is at the root of the problem, for true subjectivity and identity are constructed through unmediated instances of consciousness, through real ‘first-hand’ experiences (such as pain and suffering), and through encounters with real, unexpected, uncontrolled events and objects: “The image of life without experience is finally the image of life without history…only lives articulated through experience can be fully and self-consciously historical”. 31
When Buchloh complains of the defeat of art criticism he is commenting on the fact that his role has been denigrated by the fetishization of certain avant-garde works by the fashion industry, or by their juxtaposition to fashion logos, rendering them commodified as fashion objects. This phenomenon seems related to the impossibility of representation, the abolition of aesthetics, and the gravitation toward reality that were some of the trademarks of Minimalism and Conceptualism, and that were in part inherited from and in part in reaction to the modernist tendencies of American postwar art. Their emptying of reference and their closeness to the seriality of commodity status, made them all the more susceptible to decontextualization from art into commodity sign. Why Buchloh continues to believe in the immunity of certain avant-garde strategies only to have this belief defeated, shattered by what Walter Benjamin had already outlined at the end of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, is beyond rational judgement on his part. He seems to blindly wallow in defeatism instead of coming to terms with the endless cycle of innovation and acculturation which has been happening since the rise of modernist art and mass culture in the mid 19 th century. He compares the fate of individual art objects to the state of the museum that receives corporate support by multinational corporations and even fashion designers like Hugo Boss. He, more than anyone, should not have been the least bit surprised by the change in the dynamics of museum culture due to the shift from national power structures (government subsidies) to corporate ones since the early eighties. In Documenta X , the book he declares that if “someone like David Geffen, who made his money in music production, …can buy the contemporary art museum in Los Angeles for five million dollars and call it the David Geffen museum[, t]here’s nothing left to protect. There’s not a single voice of resistance”. 32 He appears to be stating once and for all that no form of artistic resistance is capable of combating the all-consuming hydra of the culture industry that has integrated spectacle seamlessly into everyday life. In saying this he is reiterating an Adornoian stance that is by now, worn out and tired and quite predictably defeatist. But it was toward certain artists of the neo-avant-garde, in particular minimalist artists, and toward their purportedly supportive curators that had sold out to the fashion design industry (just as so many art institutions had sold out to multinational corporate power), that Buchloh was to direct his most scathing critique–for it was behind them that he had stood all along. In a moment of melancholic musing he calls up the image of a museum monument, a dead object in memory of a dead culture, as a virtual possibility for the future:
I often think of the day when the Guggenheim will finally close down…It would become one of the truly great twentieth-century testimonies to the failed idea of the museum as a site of democratic civility and of the bourgeois public sphere, where a class constructed and preserved its own visuality and cultural self-consciousness, outside corporate state power and the state of corporations. 33
This image of a museum in ruins projected into the future resounds allegorically in this article, for it in fact acts as a rhetorical device to convey the urgency of finding new strategies to counter such a bleak image of the future. These avant-garde strategies that Buchloh invokes through this scenario of the abandoned museum are discovered in a few remaining instances of artistic practice whose institutional critique fortify rather than damage the dilapidating walls of the museum as a space of resistance to spectacle culture. Although Buchloh remains resolutely pessimistic, he identifies three artists whom he considers to be successful in resisting ‘global commodification’: Alan Sekula, Raymond Pettibon, and James Coleman. The work of James Coleman, while rooted in post-Minimalist and Conceptual avant-garde strategies, departs significantly from the more problematic aspects of Minimalism and Conceptualism, in particular “the disavowal of the mnemonic function [as] one of the most crucial preconditions of modernity, [and] the annihilation of all memory of its discursive condition as visual fiction…and as a system grounded…in convention”. 34 He positions himself against the restrictive applications of modernist paradigms in Minimalist and Conceptual through the incorporation of narrative and optical duration within the experience of visual art in the museum setting. By representing past traditions of theatre within contemporary art media, video, film, and slide projection, Coleman’s work makes the viewer conscious of the importance of recalling past narrative and visual modes of identity construction (that are ever more alien to present experience) in evaluating our present subjectivity that owes much of its aspect to the technological reproduction of reality through photographic and digital media.
The business of the critic, for Benjamin, is not to resuscitate the dead, or to reconstitute the original which now stands before us fragmented, but to understand the work as a ruin, and in so doing paradoxically to awaken the beauty present in it as a ruin. 3 5
Coleman’s archaeology of figuration appears to be engaged in the investigation of the intricate relationship between the history of scopic desire from its earlier embodiment in pictorial conventions to their subsequent desublimation and dissipation in mass cultural forms. His archaeology of narrative traces the transformation of language experience from the poetic and communicative dimensions of theatrical dialogue and dramaturgy to their subsequent dilapidation in contemporary film and television and the narrative structures in pulp fiction and the photonovel. 36
Buchloh’s methodology has never departed from the desire to reconnect with an historical project that he understood as having been forgotten, erased, or remained unknown in American modernist art. This has been coextensive with the development of a retrospective critique of Conceptual art through the discovery of an historical consciousness within the works of many post-Conceptual artists after 1980. Buchloh had up to quite recently not shown any interest in James Coleman’s work, not having noticed until then the properly allegorical factors at play in his work that were so effective in the critique of identity politics in the eighties and nineties. Whether or not Buchloh interpreted the return to figuration, narrative and rhetoric in Coleman’s work as little more than a return to mythological or pre-Duchampian practices as in the case of most 1980s painting, is unclear. It is no doubt in large part due to the warm (and long overdue) reception of Coleman’s work in New York in 1989 that changed Buchloh’s opinion about the work (and I might add Michael Newman’s catalogue essay on Coleman entitled “Allegories of the Subject: The Theme of Identity in the Work of James Coleman”).
Oddly enough, or rather typically enough, Buchloh feels the need to rationalize Coleman’s refusal to comply to the restrictions mapped out by modernist and avant-garde canons by referring “to Duchamp’s own critical revision of the readymade doxa” 36a in his return to figuration (and to a form of tableau vivant ) in his Etant donnes . This return to past forms of figuration in a ‘peep show’ format and in its use of uncanny juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements (the simulated outdoor tableau of a corpse-like female nude holding up an oil lamp in the foreground while a waterfall scintillates artificially in the background) seems to allegorize the commodified nature of desire in terms of reified symbols of need and pleasure derived from Duchamp’s previous works ( La mariee mise a nue par ses celibataires, meme , Eau & gaz a tous les etages , Priere de toucher , Feuille de vigne femelle , etc.) Through this enigmatic return to figuration in Etant donnes , Buchloh feels that Duchamp indirectly disclosed the fact that the readymade and the death of the artistic author was not the be all and end all of avant-garde strategies in art; that obviously, strategies altered according to historical circumstance, according to new modes of production and reproduction, and according to changes in subjectivity. Like the invention of the readymade as allegorical emblem, the tableau vivant was used as a hybrid life-like model whose innate dialectic between pictorial and theatrical genres revealed allegorical insight into the nature of desire under the sign of commodity production.
It is precisely in allowing the ‘devalued’ forms of representation to enter into dialectical discourse with contemporary forms of reproduction that Coleman is able to grasp a synthesis of the loss of subjective experience in the face of historical memory. The conflict between the ‘impoverished’ forms of theater and painting and the now privileged ones of television and film reveal the layers of past formations of subjectivity. Past modes of visual production highlight the historically and ideological bound nature of experience through our sense of alienation and discontinuity with these outmoded forms. The unbridgeable gap between the two modes of experience draws our attention to the effacement of causality or motivation between the before and after states of subjectivity (during a period of historical rupture) and makes us question the mechanisms behind such a change in subject position through history. By using the outmoded devices of narrativity and figuration that recall a past form of subjecthood, Coleman attempts a redefinition of the subject that is not complicit with the society of the spectacle, one that is conscious of the process of history on subject formation and on the dangers of ideology in enforcing certain points of view, certain privileged subject positions, or even a dissolution of the subject altogether.
Buchloh’s re-evaluation of the methodology of his criticism seems to correspond to a pivotal moment in history where many of the avant-garde strategies he sided with were no longer effective. This moment of course corresponds to the socio-political upheavals on a global scale in 1989 that were to have repercussions at an economical level throughout the 90s. The uncertainty of the survival of neo-avant-garde art practices under the unifying pervasive sign of capitalism in its new global configuration, made the idea of rescuing human memory through art more urgent than ever. Shortly after the historical rupture of 1989, Francis Fukuyama presented a revision of Kojeve’s Hegelian theories on the end of history, warning us that without the dialectical counterpart to capitalism, symbolized by the former Soviet Union, there would be a collapse of the social struggle between subject and object, master and servant, that which constituted the basis of all History, at least since Plato’s Republic. Liberal democracy, characterized by the principles of free market economics would spread globally, succeeding in producing an unprecedented material prosperity on all continents. The period of mourning for a socialist utopia would make way for the myth of a global economy (replete with its manic symptoms of conspicuous consumption of commodities I might add). This loss of resistance to global capitalism on an international level of course would have repercussions in the superstructure. As we have come to realize some ten years after the ‘fall’ of socialism, global capitalism did not come to be seamlessly integrated into these former communist societies. If anything, many of them are doing worse off than before (Russia and the Republics, and Poland). But in the West, as Benjamin Buchloh was to witness, “the socio-economic and political interests behind the apparatus of the cultural industry” was to be felt as the omnipresence of corporations invading the art institutions. The final blow to the last remaining cultural forms of resistance was the fusion of art with fashion. As will become clear, it is in large part a return to the allegorical mode in art that saves it from being subsumed by spectacularization via the commodification of personal and national identity.
In light of the problems facing art production and reception in the face of the corporatization of culture and the continuous acculturation and appropriation of avant-garde culture, Buchloh turned to writing about James Coleman’s projection image works because of their use of unconventional uses of theatricality, figuration, and fragmented narrative structures, as well as the subtle references to history in the form of shifting positions of enunciation that resist the unity and essentialism of interpretation and subjectivity. As in postwar Berlin up until the mid-1960s, Buchloh experienced a renewed distrust of art objects that were too easily commodified and he came to privilege a return to the unprocurable performative arts that depend on the body’s phenomenological experience in the real time and space of the museum, the active interpretation of the work by the viewer, and the multifarious interpretations provided by complex, fractured, overlapping, and inconclusive narratives.
Against the backdrop of eighties and nineties-style artistic constructions of identity and subjectivity, Coleman’s work stands out all the more as a poignant critique of the annihilation of memory. Coleman calls up past formations of subjectivity through the mediation of the experience of theater in ancient times, identification with characters in a play constituting one of the earliest forms of subject construction through the externalized enactment of imaginary conflicts and anxieties. Jean Fisher contextualizes this historical formation of the subject in its present social configuration:
Our sense of selfhood is conditioned by established pictorial and linguistic codes that make up the symbolic order of society. Among the anxieties of the present is that the more the world has become entangled in the commodified languages of mediated communication networks, the less control the self has appeared to exert over its own destiny; the more we have become entrapped in the labyrinth of signs that constitute the spectacle of contemporary existence, the more we are compelled to naturalize and universalize the imaginary constructs and values of the hegemonic order which deny legitimation to other knowledges, experiences, and aspirations. 37
The archaeological layers of past forms of visual and narrative representation that Coleman juxtaposes to contemporary forms of visual and aural reproduction creates a sense of discontinuity of experience within the viewer, making one aware of a loss of experience and of the process of alienation and cultural decay caused by mediated forms of entertainment and information (similar to what Walter Benjamin was to foreground in his analysis of Baroque theater of the seventeenth century with the loss of the religious context in everyday life).
The ‘outmoded’ or anachronistic figures and events that are portrayed in Coleman’s slide projections, video and film works seem to have been subjected to a process of reification by their juxtaposition to the modes of technological reproduction burgeoning under global capitalism. These images are rendered stiff in their decidedly static portrayal of arrested movement. Also, as reproduced images/events, they are removed and emptied of their historical context, like commodities emptied of their use value and of the process of human labour. As with Baudelaire’s bringing together of lofty and low in the context of nineteenth-century urban life, Coleman resuscitates the devalued literary and visual forms of the past so as to display them as a “petrified primordial landscape”(Benjamin) amidst common forms of contemporary experience, such as television and film. There occurs a leveling effect of these past forms of experience when they are mediated through the contemporary forms of photography and film, for mechanical reproduction obeys the same logic as that of the free circulation of commodities when they are decontextualized from their place of production. The images remain forever nebulous, static, reified and inaccessible to contemporary experience.
One of the ways James Coleman presents these past conventions of theatricality is through a sequence of slowly dissolving and overlapping slide projections. Coleman emphasizes the static nature of each framed tableau, mixing the return to contemplation of detail and composition related to painting, with the unfulfilled anticipation of movement and narrative in the presentation of what appears to be a staged setting of a film or theatrical production. On both contemplative and spectacular levels, or rather in a dialectical movement between the two, the discontinuity of expectations driven by the rhetorical use of contrasting conventions causes the unity of subject position to fall apart. Between the pictorial references to cinema, painting, television, the photonovel, and theatre, the viewer has no sense of being able to master knowledge of these diverse visual forms that were and are instrumental to subject construction within different historical periods. Buchloh recognizes this as a strategy of subject dispersal rather than the disappearance of the subject altogether. In fact Coleman’s work seems to be a direct critique of the present instrumental methods of subject formation through the calling up of past forms of visual representation and experience discontinuous with our present social condition. This emphasis on devalued past forms of representation in contrast to newer forms creates a dialectical discourse of a discontinuity with the past, of a loss of experience, and of an inaccessibility of the historical, for one finds no way of entering into this discourse as a unified subject. Buchloh claims that: “It is by considering past formations of subjectivity that the dispersed subject grows stronger, or constitutes itself”. 38
While Minimalist and Conceptual models addressed subjectivity and objectivity through the ‘universal legibility’ of phenomenological experience between material object, viewer, and architectural space, or as an egalitarian exchange of pure information between subject and object within the administrative space of the museum, these works were not immune to the influences of acculturation because of a certain neutralization of the issues of past constructions of subjectivity through the loss of the mnemonic function. By unearthing the past formations of subjectivity intrinsic to the experience of theatre and painting, the post-Conceptual work of Coleman reminds us of how we came to adopt the subject positions we now inhabit. This consciousness of the ideological underpinnings of culture via allegory seems to constitute, for Buchloh, the key to establishing a resistance to the leveling effect of experience under global capitalism.
Coleman’s tableaux vivants become hybrid models that straddle the pictorial and the theatrical, the instant and the temporal. In his projections the visual remains fairly static, only slightly shifting from one still to the next, while the linguistic and performative aspects follow different levels of hybridity and overlapping narrativity. As concerns his use of language, in opposition to the linguistic dimension of Conceptual works, the multiple subject positions coexisting in the disembodied voice-overs of the projections, seem to intend a disunifying effect on the viewer. The juxtaposition of past and present narrative genres, the multiplicity of voices, the discontinuity of narrative, the monologue, the use of repetition, the constant switching of diegetic time sequences (from past, to present, to future), all of these linguistic elements contribute to frustrating the spectator and creating a fluidity of subject positionality because of the lack of stable identification and the subversion of anticipations. The various genres and ‘grains of the voice’ also add to this sense of discontinuity–advertising juxtaposed to literary genres, a child’s voice against the theatrically-trained voice–a veritable collage of heterogenous references and timbres, of high and low cultural forms. Coleman playful use of language also seems to refer to a strong Irish literary tradition of language as a way of alluding to national identity. His use of puns, factured lyricism, and various levels of stream of consciousness seem to refer to a sensuality and ‘impoverishment’ of language invented by such authors as Joyce and Beckett. In the video installation “So Different…and yet”, the use of an exaggerated French accent by the two characters and the many references to Irishness (“emerald of the beautiful isle”) refer to the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans, whose descendants invaded Ireland, thus referring to the historical and national contingencies that go on to make up a national identity, a necessarily hybrid identity. This is but one example of how the discontinuity of language as an allegorical device informs the viewer/listener about the complexities of the formation of national identity.
The first flagrant instance of theatricality and allegory in Coleman’s work was no doubt Slide Piece (1972–73), the photographic projection of a mundane urban location accompanied by a sound track of multiple male voices. Here the visual register is ‘impoverished’, that is our expectations of the slide changing to a new image is thwarted, such that the aural/narrative register is privileged as an epistemological model. The persistence of the unchanging image seemed to act as an empty reference point onto which memories and ideas could be projected by the individual speakers in the voice-over, each responding to the urban landscape with different descriptions. This highlighting of divergent perceptions and recountings of impressions and experiences surrounding this single image/event reflects the inseparability of visual interpretation from individual experience and imaginary, and from the structuring principles of language. This ‘piling up of fragments’ of response from various voices, as well as those unvoiced by the viewer, echoes the allegorical mode plotted out by Benjamin: the collage of various ideas and responses breaks apart the ‘false unity’ of the decontextualized image. The discontinuity of experience, emphasized in the descriptive ‘leaps’ from one voice to the next, a collage of voices one could say, is necessary in the construction of a more ‘genuine’ unity, one that contrasts the homogeneity of experience encouraged by the instruments of power. In terms of Benjamin’s ideas on language, the ‘divesting’ action of the concept has the mediating role of saving phenomena from “utter isolation in their individuation and allows ideas…to be represented in discourse”. 39 Only by representing ideas in concrete, everyday language, can one break apart the alienating ‘false unity’ of an image, and re-inscribe within it the particularity and truth value of experience.
According to Buchloh, Coleman questions Michael Fried’s rejection of theatre by countering the transcendent character of medium-specificity with a multitude of artistic and literary forms, media, and genres, and by countering all sense of autonomy of the work of art through his direct phenomenological invocation of the spectator and the institution (he does not conceal the mechanism of projection, allowing the noisy projector to occupy the same space as the viewer’s body). But although he embraces a variety of art media and references, he also problematizes Minimalism and post-Minimalism by his use of static or dissolving photographic projections and video/film installations that depict visual theatrical representation and a linguistic dimension that provides various narrative points of view. Rather than factual, documentary, and universalizing concepts of language and photography as in Conceptualism, Coleman uses figuration, dramaturgy, rhetoric, nuances in phonetic enunciation, and historical specificity to convey a multiplicity of subject and object positions vis-à-vis the image. But if Coleman’s post-Conceptual work distinguishes itself from Conceptualism in many ways it owes much to it as well:
La Tache Aveugle in this sense is both obedient to the prohibitions against narrative so deeply ingrained in the whole history of modernism, and so recently reinforced by Conceptual art’s thematizing of immobility via an aesthetics of tautology, but at the same time, by embedding its very notion of the medium within the process of the unfolding, it covertly traffics with the diegetic. 40
In fact, much of Coleman’s allegorical methodology depends on multiple dialogues, between past and present and between high and low cultural forms. In the case of La Tache Aveugle (a work I will go on to discuss later) he juxtaposes elements from spectacle culture and from theoretical contemporary art forms such as Conceptualism on the one hand, and juxtaposes new forms of visual reproduction (the slow slide dissolve) and the ‘impoverished’ historical cinematic forms that have been annihilated from collective memory (the classic 1933 film) on the other.
In opposition to the spectacularization of personal identity by the fusion of corporate structures with the culture industry, Coleman addresses not only the historical permutations of subjectivity, he also the current debates and conflicts surrounding the concept of national identity without succumbing to the essentialist and naturalizing tendencies that unwittingly fetishize the concept of nationhood. In the film Box (ahhareturnabout) , a found piece of film footage of a boxing match is looped and fragmented by interspersing each frame with black leader. An internal monologue accompanies the loop, characterized by puns and a distinctive enunciative delivery–the ‘grain of the voice’ referencing a theatrical register, but juxtaposed to the spectacular image of a boxing match. The reference to Irish national identity is subtle, for it is in identifying the Irish boxer Gene Tunney fighting Jack Dempsey in a rematch in Ireland in 1927 that historical specificity and a “sociopolitically specific body” enters the picture (in contrast to the universalist abstract tendency of phenomenology). The very form of the work, the serialized loop with its alternating visual shocks that recreate the impression of visual punches by the black leader, seems to act as an optical metaphor for the conflict between two historically specific agents that represent opposing national identities. Coleman confuses any clear message of national identity by placing it within the alienating context of the spectacle. It is this tendency toward a reintegration of the notion of the historically and sociopolitically specific within Coleman’s work (without fixing these notions into a naturalized position) while problematizing the established canons and taboos of modernist practice in America, that makes Coleman’s work effective in dealing with the contemporary problems of the spectacularization of personal and national identity. Therefore Buchloh’s emphasis on theatre in Coleman’s work not only positions it against Michael Fried’s notions of modern art and against Minimalism and post-Minimalism’s univeralizing tendencies, it also seems to characterize the allegorical nature of Coleman’s work that indirectly criticizes the dual positions of fundamentalist national identity and the dissolution of the subject by the alienating experience of spectacle by hearkening back to traditional notions of performance and narrativity within theatre.
One of the main formal aspects of Coleman’s allegorical method is the recurring slow slide dissolve in his image projections. What is unsettling is the way the images do not differ very much from one another, such that rather than a sense of progression of movement one senses and instability and a discontinuity between the images. The overall impression is of a slight shift in position, or in horizon line. As if caught in time, the ‘discontinuous’ projected images flow into one another with no clear sense of real narrative unfolding, no sense of before and after states, no progression toward a conclusion as in conventional uses of narrative. This occurs particularly in the projection Living and Presumed Dead , where one has the sense of witnessing the final curtain call of a theatrical piece. A succession of slide dissolves portray the subtle shifting positions of a long line of characters in masks and costumes, reminiscent of a popular play. Not much happens except that the panoramic line up of the characters seems to shift ever so slightly within the dissolves, in a confusion of visual effects–blurring, followed by clarity, a shift in horizon line, the disappearance of a character, and the reappearance of another. But the show never comes to an end. This subversion of anticipation breaks with the conventions of both film’s and theater’s privileging of the scopic field, of the viewer conditioned expectations, and passive voyeurism. The visual field is ‘impoverished’ in the Benjaminian allegorical sense of the word, while the actual narrative accompanying the static images complicates matters in a similar but temporal manner. In Living and Presumed Dead , the voice-over, a very expressive theatrical voice, recounts an Oedipal type story. However, rather than providing unified subject and object positions Coleman seems to have dispersed these positions within a panoply of repetitious narratives, of “multiple appearances and multiple deaths…, producing a logic of dissemination rather than of closure”. 41 This exaggerated eternal return of the same plot structures within theatrical narrative comes from Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale where he theorizes that “an extremely reduced number of narrative functions is elaborated into an ever burgeoning cast of characters in ever changing permutations of basic plots”. 42 The title of the image projection Living and Presumed Dead itself evokes allegory, for the figures act as masked and costumed unidentifiable characters, mere marionettes really, objects that display themselves in their stiffness, and around which pile up fragments of narrative variations. They are emblematic symbols for the narrative, but they are past dead configurations of subject identity. Furthermore, the allusion to ancient tragedy (the Oedipal type references) within the context of allegory fits in well with Walter Benjamin’s analysis of Trauerspiel :
For in the theory of ‘tragedy’ the rules of ancient tragedy are taken separately, as lifeless components, and piled up around an allegorical figure representing the tragic muse. Thanks only to the classicist misinterpretation of the Trauerspiel, such as the baroque practiced in ignorance of its true self, could the ‘rules’ of ancient tragedy become the amorphous, binding, and emblematic rules according to which the new form developed. In such a context of allegorical decay and destruction the image of Greek tragedy seemed to be the only possible, the natural sign of ‘tragic poetry’. 43
Rosalind Krauss relates this sense of subtle rupture between projected images in Coleman’s work to Barthes’ term “obtuse meaning” or “third meaning” that he uses when analyzing stills from film in their horizontal progression from one image to the next. In many ways Barthes’ third meaning approaches Benjamin’s concept of “dialectics at a standstill”, the allegorical dialectical image that creates new sparks of meaning from the coming together of incongruous elements. As Krauss puts it, at a certain point Barthes “arrives at a set of details that strike him as “counter-narrative” details that set reversibility against the forward drive of diegesis, that produce the effect of dissemination against the interweaving of narrative form, that give off a sense of permutability against the focalization of the story”. 44 This could be interpreted as the presence of subtle forms of rupture within the continuity of the diegetic flow of narrative, as what is properly allegorical within the juxtaposition of film stills. It relates to the sense of a leap in continuity from one moment to the next that is integral to our understanding of allegory. It also relates to what Barthes calls the “mortiferous layer of the pose” and to what Zizek says about how film can be conceived as the magic coming alive of dead images while the photo relates as the frozen, immobilized movement of life. Zizek recognizes this tendency toward desiring ‘mortified’, petrified objects, as being proper to the symbolized gaze. 45 The very notion of the reification of the image that obscures the production process relates directly to the process of commodity fetishism in capitalist modes of production and to the stiffness of the allegorical dead object. This is what is properly allegorical about Barthes “third meaning” in film that seems to find its echo in Coleman’stableaux vivants . The reification of the image/object through discontinuity between film stills is exemplified when one analyzes a work like La Tache Aveugle in which Coleman uses nine stills from Whale’s film, The Invisible Man, precisely the series of moments leading up to when the hero is about to become visible at the very moment of his death. Nobody materializes in Coleman’s image projection. The arrestation of this final moment and the subversion of anticipation, as in the case of Living and Presumed Dead , is caused by the agonizingly slow dissolve ( La Tache Aveugle ‘s nine stills unfold in eight hours). This device relates to the system of allegory in the Benjaminian sense, for it is the very absence of a presence or in the very presence of an absence (the dead object, the corpse, the commodity, the object emptied of historical and human context) that meaning is constructed. Benjamin thought that it was in the juxtaposition of objects, the leap in meaning from one instance to another, that the idea was configured. The qualities of disunity, non-immediacy, and the generation of meaning through process are all allegorical in that ‘truth’ remains constantly in suspense. It is unavailable except as a perpetually fleeting process. The difficulty of attaining a clear, direct meaning in Coleman’s work seems to stem from this continuous leap from one meaning to another, or in the subtle, almost imperceptible, shifts from one image to another. Benjamin held that there was no continuous passage from the reality of phenomena to the transcendent realm of ideas. What distinguishes the allegorical form from mere commodity fetishism and the culture of spectacle is the element of critical rupture between past and present forms of representations, the leap from phenomenological experience to transcendental memory and history, integral to the work.
It stands to reason that James Coleman’s slide dissolves constitute a highly sophisticated and contemporary form of allegory in terms of revealing to the viewer the nature of perception and subjectivity amidst the crumbling nations of the late 20 th century. Buchloh was not the first art critical writer to notice this however, and his status seems slowly but surely to be relegating itself to the sphere of art history, i.e. the publication of his book this year on American and European neo-avant-garde art from 1955 to 1975. His appropriation of elements from Benjamin to Adorno and Foucault (from allegory to the theory of the culture industry to the construction of perception and subjectivity around administered institutions) in his essays from the 1960s to the 90s were ingeniously constructed around the desire to promote the continuation of a critically engaged avant-garde practice. Museum critique had been effective up to a point but seems to have exhausted itself with the intervention of multination corporations into the sphere of the museum. We seem to have reached a point where the domain of art as provider of ideologically critical forms of knowledge needs to reach beyond the walls of corporate manipulation.
Benjamin Buchloh’s critical stance is, to my mind, one of the few strongly ethical voices resounding within the contemporary context of “Western” art. Although he may be accused of being historicist and defeatist and although he could also be accused of a certain Eurocentrism, I do feel that he takes a personal responsibility as a critic and art historian to outline the repercussions of a dwindling avant-garde artistic praxis in the wake of totalitarianism, advanced capitalism, and now global corporatism.
The fact that such gallery spaces as P.S. 1 can be taken over in a merger with MOMA (Feb. 1999) and that deaccessioning has become the logical solution to a global art market that must reevaluate its collection according to trends in markets and fashion, makes Buchloh’s defeatist position ring true. That once alternative spaces like the Dia Foundation seem to be continuing a trend set by the now 12-year director of the Guggenheim, Thomas Krens (Guggenheim’s in Spain, Germany, etc.), by planning to open a new Dia space in Beacon, N.Y., points to a new competitiveness that seems to have taken over art institutions, one that sees the museum more as a corporation and their collections as assets:
The once-clear boundary between mainstream and alternative institutions has become increasingly difficult to draw, as has the distinction between art designed for these once-so-different venues. The most established “alternatives”–P.S. 1, the Drawing Center, the New Museum–have long assumed a more museumlike demeanor. Conversely, the creation of project rooms devoted to experimental new art and the willingness to address up-to-the-moment issues and artists have pushed established museums ever closer to the cutting edge (“Issues and Commentary: Growing Pains”, in Art in America , June 1999, p. 51).
The summer of 99 saw two shows at the MOMA that reveal the contradictory messages that the corporatism of the museum are conveying to the public: “The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect” and “Fame After Photography”. The former was an attempt on the part of the museum to play at institutional critique. But by turning its space into a theme park survey of artists that do museum-specific or museum critical art, they seem to have somehow emptied the works of their original, often site-specific, and time-specific strategies, somehow lumping them together as so many equivalencies to be drained of any real function or poignancy:
Where MOMA attempted to go Buchloh one better and foster its own bit of institutional critique from an artist he has championed, the results are fairly disastrous for all concerned. Daniel Buren directed that a slice of the permanent collection be displaced intact into the “Museum as Muse” installation, with his signature stripes left behind to mark the absence in the upstairs galleries…Buren drains his gesture of effect by primly withdrawing himself from the act of selection and leaving the details to the museum… Buren’s fastidious nonparticipation only opens the door to curatorial business as usual, a lesson–if one were needed–of the futility of the institution organizing its own critique (Thomas Crow, Artforum , Summer 1999, p. 146).
The other show “Fame After Photography” consisted of the display of mostly pop culture paraphernalia that moved in, I dare say, the opposite direction to that of institutional critique: media spectacularization. The hotchpotch of American mass-market advertising and media images was no doubt supposed to work in a similar vein to the 1990 show “High and Low”, only this time they quite brazenly omitted the “high” part, or any potentially critical part. Organizing a show about institutional critique one month and then one based on artifacts and ephemera from American mass-culture and paparazzi opportunism the next, points to the deeply problematic nature of corporate-management style museum programming, or perhaps to its secret agenda of global neutralization and homogenization of art. This seems very much in keeping with Krens’ exhibitionist use of corporate sponsorship at the Guggenheim, to the point where he incorporates the sponsors’ products within the exhibitions: BMW sponsored the blockbuster “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit; Nokia cellphone owners got discounts on the purchase of tickets to the “China, 5000 years” show, sponsored by Nokia; John Cage’s 1994 show “included a demonstration of sponsor AT&T’s new still-image phone” (Art in America, June 1999). What has happened to the idea of the museum or gallery as space of knowledge within the democratic public sphere? Since when did the art institution have to become an extension of market forces, and art a function of these market forces (assets) rather than multiple, heterogeneous expressions of human reflection on the nature of knowledge, aesthetics, and beauty, and the importance of these areas of thought and expression as a form of social critique and reform?
Beyond the prevalence of his defeatism and the acknowledgement of a few bright stars amidst the administrative black holes of culture, Buchloh does not seem to embrace any ventures into new forms of production or reproduction. The Western museum appears moribund and supersaturated with corporate culture. Computer technology haunts the margins of museum culture, offering up virtual spaces of expression. But the capacity for art to thrive outside of the physical art museum institutions seems uncertain to say the least regardless of what such journals as Third Text may say about the use of multi-media by artists in second or third world countries.
In the somewhat sweeping scope of this essay on Buchloh and allegory, I wanted to convey the sense of a critical journey through two historical ruptures occurring in the second half of this century via the social and political reflections elaborated in certain avant-garde practices. It was meant as a response to the continued urgency with which we must address the crisis of visual culture as it has come to evolve in our art institutions under advanced capitalism. By now we have grown tired of the incessant talk of the end of art and culture and ideology and history, etc. As James Coleman pointed out in his reference to nationhood, as have other critically-engaged artists such as Alan Sekula, the future of a critically engaged subjectivity will be based on the problems involved with participating in a “global culture”. On the one hand we have a globe embracing the capitalist standards of living thanks to the efforts of the IMF, WTO, GATT; on the other hand we have extreme instances of nationalism in opposition to American imperialism that breeds intolerance and war. The strategies of the above mentioned artists, in their efforts to retrace the steps that led to colonization and the exploitation of cheap labour in an historically critical manner, will perhaps lead to a consciousness-raising vis-à-vis the myth of globalization.
Revisions in critical methodology, as in artisitic practice, are occasioned by unprecedented and unpredictable ruptures in collective experience throughout history. The very experience and memory of these ruptures, as we have seen, depends on resistance to an enlightenment project that promotes the rationalization, categorization, and homogenization of human experience and action through the fine tuning of the instruments of power toward greater control of the public domain. As Buchloh’s critical project has shown us, the role of avant-garde practices within the space of the museum, although not directly and immediately influential on the overall social fabric, has effectuated some social awareness outside the realm of everyday life that has become completely infiltrated and dictated by the media. James Coleman’s allegorical mode of critique has been forwarded as one of the most effective ways of questioning the subject positions constructed around the logic of commodity fetishism and spectacle culture, thus occasioning a resistance to the global homogenization of mediated experience, thus bringing about the suspension of the end of history . There are others, there will be more.
2 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama , London: NLB, 1977, pp. 138–139.
3 Bairnard Cowan, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory” in New German Critique , no. 26, 1982, p. 118.
4 Charles Rosen, “The Ruins of Walter Benjamin” in On Walter Benjamin , Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988, p. 167.
5 Walter Benjamin, Trauerspiel , p. 34.
6 Benjamin Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art” in Artforum , September 1982, vol. 21, p. 44.
7 Cowan, “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory”, p. 116.
9 Hallman, Leichreden , cited in The Origin of German Tragic Drama , p. 231.
10 Documenta X, the book , Ostfildern: Cantz-Verlag, 1997, p. 377.
10a The development and continuation of such a rich theatrical and cinematic avant-garde practice in several European countries proved to be of significance for later avant-garde visual art practices such as that of James Coleman, who was to address the problematic notions of nationality and identity by referencing the popular genre of theatre within his work.
11 op. cit., p. 384.
12 op. cit., 625.
13 Jeff Wall, Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, Toronto: Art Metropole, 1991, p.104.
14 op. cit., p. 112.
15 op. cit., p. 93.
16 Tom Huhn & Lambert Zuidervaart, The Semblance of Subjectivity , Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997, p. 201.
17 op. cit., p. 94.
18 Benjamin Buchloh, “Formalism and Historicity” in Art in the Seventies , p. 83.
19 op. cit., p. 83.
20 Benjamin Buchloh, “Critical Reflections” in Artforum , January 1997, p.102.
21 The Semblance of Subjectivity , p. 9.
22 Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel , p. 109.
23 Benjamin Buchloh, “Memory Lessons and History Tableaux: James Coleman’s Archaeology of Spectacle” in James Coleman: Projected Images: 1972–1994 , New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1995, p. 51–52.
24 Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” in October, The Second Decade, 1986–1996 , Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997, p.152.
25 Documenta X, the book , p. 637.
26 “Critical Reflections” in Artforum , January 1997, p.69.
27 op. cit., p. 68.
28 op. cit., p. 69.
29 op. cit., p. 69.
30 op. cit., p. 69.
31 The Semblance of Subjectivity , p. 203.
32 Documenta X, the book , p. 640.
33 “Critical Reflections”, p. 102.
34 James Coleman: Projected Images: 1972–1994 , p. 49.
35 The Semblance of Subjectivity , p. 152.
36 James Coleman: Projected Images: 1972–1994 , p. 64.
36a op. cit., p.58.
37 op. cit., p. 20.
38 Documenta X, the book , p. 638.
39 Trauerspiel , p. 35.
40 Rosalind Krauss, ” ‘…And Then Turn Away?’ An Essay on James Coleman” in OCTOBER 81 , Summer 1997, Cambridge: MIT, p. 17.
41 op. cit., p. 19.
42 op. cit., p. 19.
43 Trauerspiel , p. 189.
44 “…And Then Turn Away? An Essay on James Coleman”, p. 12.
45 Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies , London and New York: Verso, 1997, p. 88, 123.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama . London: New Left Books, 1977.
Buchloh, Benjamin. “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art” in Artforum 21. September 1982.
Buchloh, Benjamin. “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” in OCTOBER The Second Decade, 1986–1996 . Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Buchloh, Benjamin. “Critical Reflections” in Artforum , January 1997, p. 68–69, 102.
Buchloh, Benjamin. “Formalism and Historicity” in Art of the Seventies .
Buchloh, Benjamin. “Memory Lessons and History Tableaux: James Coleman’s Archaeology of Spectacle” in James Coleman: Projected Images: 1972–1994 . New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1995.
Buchloh, Benjamin, David, Catherine, and Chevrier, Jean-Francois. “The Political Potential of Art” in documenta X, the book . Ostifeldern: Cantz Verlag, 1997.
Cowan, Bairanrd. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory” in New German Critique , no. 26, 1982.
Foster, Hal, ed. Discussions in Contemporary Culture . Seattle: Bay Press, 1987.
Huhn, Tom and Zuidervaart, Lambert, editors. The Semblance of Subjectivity . Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Krauss, Rosanlind. ” ‘…And Then Turn Away?’ An Essay on James Coleman” in OCTOBER 81, Summer 1997. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Rosen, Charles. “The Ruins of Walter Benjamin” in On Walter Benjamin . Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988.
Wall, Jeff. Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel . Toronto: Art Metropole, 1991.