There is a scene in Dragnet
, starring Jack Webb, in which he wears snazzy sunglasses. Or maybe it’s an atypically stylish tie. Anyway, he has modified his usual dowdiness to a degree that delivers a severe shock to a female acquaintance, the other character in the scene. “You’ve gone hip!” she gasps, and drops her bag of groceries. Luckily, I wasn’t carrying a bag of groceries as I read Hal Foster’s “Precarious,” his most recent piece in Artforum.
I definitely would have dropped it. Not that Foster has gone hip. He’s gone all touchy-feely, in the elegiac mode of an old-fashioned liberal. An amazing change. Foster praises Robert Gober for a 2005 installation evoking the awfulness of America's behavior on the world scene after 9/11—no explication of a thesis from the once hard-nosed theorist, just sympathy for the artist's horror. Jon Kessler conjures up the same subject with another installation, only the mood is even grimmer and Foster is even more sympathetic, and still more so, as the lugubrious parade goes on and on, right to the end of the decade.
I don’t want to exaggerate the degree of Foster’s transformation. He was never an October
apparatchik on the Benjamin Buchloh model. Where Buchloh was nastily dictatorial, Foster was merely pompous and peremptory, misreading artworks in service to the great cause of reducing them to slogans. This policy gave off more than a hint of bondage fetishism, as Barbara Kruger, for example, cooperated with Foster’s need to tie her up in a single, extremely constricting role: lead prosecutor in the case against consumerism and the male gaze. Playing along with this bondage game was supposed to be empowering—and it was
empowering, in the market place.
Now Foster is lamenting the horrors of the decade just past, as we all should, and praising the art that lamented those horrors when they were fresh. Gone is the October
idea of the artwork as a finely honed, precisely targeted weapon in the ideological wars. In its place is Foster’s variation on the old idea of art as the mirror that moral sensitivity holds up to a cruel world. From artwork as active agent to artwork as passive reflection. As I said, an amazing transformation, and not entirely welcome, in my snarky view of things. I mean, if you are concerned with contemporary horrors, why not look them in the face? As if I didn’t know . . . as if I didn’t do the same as Foster and everyone else, looking away from current events, finding them bearable only second-hand, in the representations supplied by our more sensitive artists.
Labels: 9/11, art market, Barbara Kruger, Benjamin Buchloh, bondage, definition of art, Dragnet, Hal Foster, Jack Webb, Jon Kessler, male gaze, October, representation, Robert Gober, the horror