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Hal Foster and Ben Lerner chat about the hatred of painting and poetry


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At the Frieze website, Hal Foster and poet Ben Lerner talk about painting, poetry, and the modern proclivity to hate both. In their respective spheres, painting and poetry are frequently denounced as antiquated or obsolete, while at the same time being endowed with an aura of purity and autonomy. Foster and Lerner explore these contradictions, while also pointing out the surreal poetry of Donald Trump. Read an excerpt of the conversations below.

Ben Lerner is the author of the recently published book-length essay, The Hatred of Poetry, which we previously covered here.

BL: To stay with Rothko as an example (although innumerable painters would work): despite the recent revision of the dark, late Rothkos as representing something other than just the end of painting, or despair about painting, the dominant reading of them still tends to be about a moment of suicide or exhaustion for the medium. I still think poetry wins out over painting in terms of being autopsied and having its death proclaimed more often in the general culture – but, like poetry, painting gets repeatedly certified as dead. Why?

HF: Well, I was part of a critical clique that, at an early point in the debate over postmodernism, wanted to put painting to death. There is a revolutionary rush to the declaration of any end. The history of modernism is punctuated by the thrill of the fini!

Yet, for painting to be hated, it had first to be loved, and it wasn’t always – at least not in the Western tradition. For centuries, it was seen as a rather lowly craft. It wasn’t until after the Renaissance that this changed – even [Diego] Velázquez wasn’t sure of his status as a painter in the court of Philip IV.

Is painting a liberal art or just a crafted thing? That question made the discourse around painting aspirational: it had to be lifted up from mere work, material, embodiment, worldliness, and this meant that, like poetry, painting came to stress the transcendental. This aspirational rhetoric reached a high mark with great modernists like [Kazimir] Malevich and [Wassily] Kandinsky, and the discourse became so rarefied that it prompted its own avant-gardist counter-attack. Painting almost had to be taken down, hated on, made material, worldly again. And that’s the rhythm of the history of modern painting – first elevated and then dethroned – so that almost every end of painting is somehow also a new beginning.

Sometimes, the end of painting was also meant as a sign of the end of the class that supported it. For Aleksandr Rodchenko and others, painting was essentially individualistic – that is, essentially bourgeois – and so, to move beyond it, to open up to different kinds of production and reception, was a political act as well.

Images of Hal Foster and Ben Lerner via Frieze.