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Hal Foster in Interview on regrets, criticism, and the future: "I ate up theory like it was hash brownies."


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Hal Foster photographed by Thomas Demand for Interview

It’s not every day that contemporary art thought leaders–let alone high-profile art historians–are interviewed in lifestyle magazines. Yet, Interview has prompted ten writers and artists to ask art historian and critic Hal Foster a single question, and the result is pretty fascinating. Here are some of our favorite quotes from the interview:

Recalling his first experience with an art object in a friend’s home at age 12: "‘Yes, it’s the most beautiful thing,’ I thought, and a second later, ‘Why do they have it and we don’t?’ The first flush of delight made me a devotee of art; the second rush of resentment made me a critic. Every critic needs a touch of ressentiment—it’s his very salt—but too much produces embitterment…If it’s not critical, it’s not criticism; it’s just commentary or opinion. That doesn’t mean criticism has to be negative in the sense of pejorative; in fact, it can be affirmative if its negativity is clarifying—explosions clear the air! "

On competitiveness: “Every artist has to deal with predecessors. It only becomes a problem when that vying becomes too conscious, that is, too strategic. Duchamp was so generative, but the many people who took his chess metaphor literally, and thought that if they worked out the next move before anyone else did, they’d win—well, they didn’t and they don’t (or if they do, it’s only for a season or two).”

On his professional regrets: “Along with many others, I ate up theory like it was hash brownies, and I still do, but I’m more careful about what I write when I’m theoretically high.”

Also on professional regrets, in writing pejorative criticism: “Even if it is true, a line that cuts someone seems gratuitous to me, and I’m certain there are many others who were victims of my mistaking the rhetorical for the critical.”

On the changing market: “Wall Street money suddenly washed over the art world, which was changed utterly, and independent space for critical work shrunk dramatically…I ran to the academy as if it were a sanctuary, which it was—there was a short period when the humanities were taken by critical theory. But I soon discovered you’re as much a commodity there as anywhere else.”

Some takeaways: Foster’s art market fatalism seems a little sad. Earlier in the interview he said, “As a young critic, I was phobic about the market until Barbara Kruger said to me one day, ‘There is nothing, not even the lint on your sweater, that’s not touched by the market. Get over it.’ By which she meant: find a realistic relation to it; fantasies of a pure outside aren’t helpful.” Anyone have thoughts on this? I feel like the fantasy of a pure outside is helpful in reminding us to enact the changes we wish to see in our daily lives. If one has a dystopic view of society, wouldn’t they project that dystopia in their daily interpersonal interactions?

Any other thoughts or favorite quotes from the interview?