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Our Common Critical Condition

The fiftieth-anniversary issue of Artforum included an article by Hal Foster entitled “Critical Condition,” with the subtitle “On criticism then and now.” The adjective “critical,” which he uses here to define a condition, refers both to the medical sense of the term, as well as its philosophical sense, where “critical” comes by way of the Greek verb krino, meaning to discern, to separate things by means of the intellect. Having no need to remind us of this, Foster moves directly to the heart of his problem, which is also our own: he locates the historical moment where criticism lost both its prestige and power, and aims to describe, in as detached a manner as possible, the cause of this catastrophe. He evokes the motives and questions that inhabited the context and milieu of the arts before 1968, both in the pages of Artforum and elsewhere. He does so by recounting a series of essential memories from the past in order to produce an illuminating diagnosis of our present moment; the whole thing is so brief that we are left with the impression of having heard an important conversation suddenly cut off.

From the first lines of the article, we are transported to the heart of the impassioned debates surrounding minimalism and theatricality; the temperature of the conversations is summery, their tone fervent. Foster cites Krauss, Fried, Stella, Judd, and Greenburg, among others. The art world of the time, seen from where we now stand, seems small, fueled by authentic enthusiasm; the practices that artists experimented with back then aspired to an existential dimension, and were read as metaphors for attitudes, methods for figuring out ways to participate in the public sphere, or to distance oneself from it. The market was only one background noise among many, and not yet the endless, deafening throbbing we have now grown accustomed to. But Foster doesn’t stop here: the text is by no means nostalgic, but explains that art writing at that pivotal time was, as Fried himself confessed, terribly stressful; anxiety and ambition were its principal motors, and the fear of being unable, with art writing’s theoretical language, to equal the heights of art’s expressive power, reigned supreme. The entire aesthetic field, as Foster describes it, found itself under enormous strain; it was, he writes, “already breached from without and eroded from within.” “As we know,” he continues,

the external enemy was called “kitsch,” “theatricality,” or simply “mass culture” (Pop was the open traitor here), while the internal enemy was the extended arena of artistic activities opened up by Happenings, Fluxus, and Minimalism. These activities were problematic for late-modernist critics not merely because they exceeded the proper media of painting and sculpture but because they threatened to push art into an arbitrary realm beyond aesthetic judgment.

The “arbitrary”: behold the name of the troublesome guest that was soon to invite itself into all art writing and every exhibition space around the world, with no plans to leave. Foster concludes his article by catapulting us into the present day, though not without bitter irony regarding the prophecies of the pre-’68 era that never played out. Speaking of the pairing (today obsolete) of art/criticism, he describes it as a means of accessing the past, which opens onto both the present and future:

Read the full article here.