‘Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory’ reviewed by Jeremy Spencer

Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory

Columbia University Press, New York, 2011. 320 pp., £34.50 hb
ISBN 9780231149389

Reviewed by Jeremy Spencer

About the reviewer

Jeremy Spencer is an Associate Lecturer at Camberwell College of Arts. …


Dialectical Passions explores post-war reflections on art and culture from a Marxist perspective, concerned with the ‘critical legacies of the New Left’ and the ‘persistence and renewal of resistance’ in art and architectural theory through ‘the “long nineteen-eighties”’. (23) The book focuses upon writers whose work is pertinent to Marxist and Hegelian dialectics; its distinguishing concerns are ‘critical distance, mediation, and totality’ and ‘the valences of negative thought in contemporary art theory’ (3) and the kinds of politics that it indicates. (Thus, the art historian T. J. Clark is also considered as a political thinker concerned with the ‘survival of the Left’, (69) self-consciousness of his own part in the academic recuperation of 1968.) As such, the book is not intended as a systematic overview of the arguments of Left cultural theory since the 1960s: the ‘space between’ the categories of dialectical thought and Leftist nihilism directs Day’s choice of historians and theorists of art and architecture. These authors, named as ‘difficult’ to assimilate within art histories and theories, are explored through detailed and immersive readings of specific texts: the ‘dialectical logic’ of the writing on architecture of Manfredo Tafuri and Fredric Jameson and those of Clark and other leading contemporary figures in the history and theory of visual art.

Day addresses the conceptual logic of the social history of art elaborated in Clark’s earlier writings, a project distinct from both post-structuralism and reductive social approaches. She traces the development of negation in his writing, from a description of the typical procedures and techniques of avant-garde art to a methodological and analytical principle. The focus moves to Tafuri’s challenge to the ideologies of avant-gardism and articulation of negation in the context of the arguments and debates of Italian Marxism and then the implications for dialectical thinking of the renewed interest in allegory in early 1980s art theory; Day explores contemporary writers central to this turn in relation to the work on allegories of Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man. The last chapter explores how art theory has approached discourses of social abstraction; the theme of the relation of reification to the categories of dialectical and negative thought runs throughout the book’s chapters.

The focus of the first chapter is the distinguishing role of mediation and negation in Clark’s methodology and interpretations of modernist culture and the aporias and antinomies that it necessarily generates. Although Clark does not deal systematically with the concept, Day identifies mediation as the ‘founding problematic’ of the social history of art. (68) She focuses on his account of the abstract painting of Jackson Pollock, a practice that strains his methodologies and strategies and so poses the problem of mediation most acutely: her argument develops from the confrontation of a social history of art with an abstract painting of drips and splatters. The mediation of text and context, or linking ‘surface fracture to an analysis of publics, academies, or everyday life’, (51) and therefore questions of autonomy and heteronomy, are its defining and focusing problems; dialectical thinking is the means to renovate the apparently stultified categories of bourgeois art history that posited art ‘as a matter of direct experience and spontaneous access’. (46)

Day, therefore, disputes the common misconception that Clark’s disciplinary contribution was a concern with social and historical context and the conditions of artistic production. She argues that discontinuity is at the heart of Clark’s art history that looks for inconsistencies in its objects where other key writers on modernism, such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, assumed coherence; Clark’s methodology is identified perceptively as a ‘practice of negation’. Day surveys Clark’s concern with aesthetic negations and differentiates this formulation of the early 1980s from the ‘dis-identificatory practices’ explored in the film journal Screen, then an important forum for the discussion of Left modernist culture. For Clark, critical art practices must find their meanings within those of the ‘dominated’, which separated his project from the model of negation elaborated in Screen, which Clark considered ‘empty’ and nihilistic.

The question of aesthetic negation occurs in Clark’s engagement with Greenberg’s art criticism and the exchange with Fried on the character of modernist art that followed. The category of negation afforded the means to criticise Greenbergian modernism and its postmodern caricature; it was introduced to ‘reopen’ Greenberg’s formalism to history and society. Day argues against the view that Clark imparts a sociological meaning to the values of modernist art; he takes seriously the validity of the claims and accuracy of the descriptions of Greenberg and its followers but they perceive ‘only appearance’, failing to recognise the ‘social substance’ of the developments they describe. The operative but often misunderstood phrase that Clark used, ‘practices of negation’, which suggests a sense of elimination and renunciation where Fried and Greenberg largely saw plenitude, fullness and positivity, meant the deliberate avoidance of the established conventions, skills and techniques of artistic tradition. Day identifies the concept of metaphor, a kind of ‘encompassing term for tropes in general’, (63) as pivotal to Clark’s reworking of these values. He complicates unacknowledged metaphors of harmony in modernist criticism by the addition of dissonance, ‘antinomy, impasse and difficulty’. (59) Modernist critics had recognised the cancelling out of metaphor to be substantive of modernist art but had failed to grasp its significance, namely, to ‘revive [a] relation to the world’. (56) However, ‘metaphoricity cannot be eradicated when it is the condition of one’s activity’; (57) the antipathy to its own conditions determined modernism as a decidedly ‘aporetic activity’.

The phrase ‘practices of negation’ seemed to refer primarily to an artist’s medium. However, Day attends to different social forms negation takes. The ‘values of social resistance’ is ‘the desire to participate in changing the social conditions of life’; (38) the work upon cultural materials becomes a challenge to dominant social ideologies in that the conventions avant-garde art avoids or travesties are part of and supported by those ideologies. Day identifies a second, more general sense of the social aspect of negation, arguing that it is a symptom of the absence of a social ground for the practice of avant-garde art.

Day turns to the account of avant-garde aesthetics in their relation to modern capitalism of the Italian architectural theorist and historian Manfredo Tafuri. She finds in Tafuri an explicit and sustained articulation of art and negation that cannot be understood separately from the context of the intellectual culture of operaismo. Her focus is the strategic role of negative thought and nihilism in Tafuri’s analysis of the interwar avant-gardes, which was unusual in its suspicion of these movements’ emancipatory rhetoric and claims. While rejecting the simplification that avant-gardism was ‘the research and development arm of capitalist modernization’, (80) Day explores Tafuri’s contention that its negativity was pivotal to capitalist economic and social development. Whatever the subjective intentions of artists and intellectuals, the interwar avant-gardes played a destructively modernizing and therefore productive role in capitalist societies. Day considers the Tafurian critique ‘harsh’ but it isn’t dismissive, it is posed with the intention of understanding the problems that beset avant-garde practice and ultimately, for developing contemporary political strategies.

The concept of the ‘Metropolis’, which seeks to express an essential negativity inherent in the experience of the modern city, one of ‘estrangement, alienation and reification’, (93) is foundational for interpreting critically avant-garde art practices and capitalist development. It is a critical formulation for the analysis of urban development and it captures the dislocation of meaning to which the European and Soviet avant-garde responded aesthetically. The concept described ‘the abstractions of reified existence’ and emerged as a means of figuring the ‘“life” of capitalism’ that displaces the nostalgic conception of the city as an ‘organic entity’. (83) “Metropolis” characterises modern capitalism in terms of ‘disenchantment and devaluation’ and begins ‘an account of social reification’. (86) Tafuri sees the necessity of embracing the reifications and devaluations of human experience in the Metropolis as the only viable means to expose the logic of capitalism and recover emancipatory thought. Day indicates the political nature of the argument that the avant-garde actively acknowledged and embraced the given situation of ‘chaos and fragmentation of experience’ (94) entailed by the Metropolis. The negation of tradition that characterised the social function of the avant-garde becomes the premise for political action in the situation of Metropolis for Tafuri.

The third chapter explores debates on allegory and symbol and the revived interest in allegorical modes of representation in the context of the postmodern critique of modernist aesthetic claims. Owens’ 1980 essay published in October, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory Postmodernism’ articulated allegory with resources taken from structuralism and post-structuralism to theorise and distinguish the character of postmodern art. Day identifies this revival to exemplify the ‘post-structuralist abandonment of dialectic modes of thinking’ and as such, the stakes were political as well as aesthetic. (133) Day elaborates the characteristics of the allegorical mode (‘nonindentity, rupture, disjunction, distance and fragmentation’) in distinction to those of the symbol (‘immediacy, presence, identity, and transcendence’) and why the former appealed to theorists of postmodern art. (144) But she is critically aware of the tendency – which she detects in Owen’s canonical account of allegory and postmodernism –simply to oppose allegory and symbol denying their relational character. Theorists and historians such as Stephen Melville and Fred Orton have drawn ‘attention to the problem of hypostatizing the very opposition of allegory and symbol’. (149) Day explores the specifically dialectical nature of allegorical form in Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama and in de Man’s writing on figural language that postmodern theory had largely ignored. Through detailed readings of the sophisticated conceptions of allegory found in their writing, Day criticises the tendency of the cultural debate of the 1980s to simplify the relationship of allegory and symbol, pitting one against the other, a tendency she sees as continuing in contemporary critical discourse.

The last chapter of Dialectical Passions looks at the consensus in social-aesthetic theory of the diminishing prospects of social emancipation and ‘radical aspirations’ that went hand in hand with the fusion of discourses of dematerialisation and social abstraction with social art theory. The chapter explores how the synthesis of these discourses with social and political analysis of culture in the projects of Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and Fredric Jameson had fatally weakened the possibility of ‘critical distance and practices of resistance’. (184) Jean Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production (1973) emerges as a key theoretical resource for their work, which Day argues, had simplified the critique of political economy in Marx. Although sympathetic to Critical Theory and Western Marxism, the defence and renewal of Marxism is central to Jameson’s intellectual project, and antipathetic to late-capitalist culture, their engagements with social abstraction suggests disquieting consequences for the development of radical thought. Day comments that because of the displacement of the category of use-value Buchoh’s essays increasingly ‘posit all but absolute reified relations in the realm of the culture-industry-turned-spectacle’ (194) ultimately assuming ‘critical closure’. In his effort to distinguish a politically conservative from a radical postmodern culture, Foster had advocated ‘practices of resistance’ and although still playing the optimist to Buchoh’s pessimist, Foster’s prognosis for critical art practice and theory had increasingly become ‘profoundly melancholic’. Foster comes to think that complicity with the market is necessary, that we need to “make-do” with our situation, underscoring the impossibility or futility of any ambitions for social transformation. Day argues that these interventions although intended to be progressive ‘generated their own political closures’. (205)

The histories and theories of art and architecture the book considers are shaped by ‘politics of emancipatory anticipation’, (232) by the possibility of exceeding or going beyond capitalist modernity that is neither utopian or historicist. But the book does not conclude with ‘another invocation of future potential’ but with the effects upon the anticipatory politics that permeates art theory of the ‘hiatus of emancipatory politics’, (234) which Day approaches through an earlier exchange between Adorno and Lukács and which is expressed practically in a 2001 work by Russian artists collective, the Radek Community. Day is aware of the limitations of radicalism in art theories and practices and contemporary politicization of aesthetics and her concluding remarks are cautious. Although intensely creative, in the absence of any renewed ‘unified social practice’, the revived conjunction of aesthetic and politics in contemporary art ‘has probably achieved all it can’. (245)

28 September 2011

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