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A Farewell to Totality


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

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

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

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

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