in Opinion | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

All in the Family

Is the new art history a one-party state?

in Opinion | 14 NOV 05

I grew up in a one-party state. It was called Chicago. The time was the 1960s. The party boss was Mayor Richard Daley. The party in question was nominally democratic, and when it came to national confrontations the D was boldly capitalized and the mayor’s loyalties were never in doubt. After all, it was Daley who stole the 1960 Presidential election for John F. Kennedy. He may have voted the dead, but at least he included black voters too, which is more than can be said for George W. Bush, who stole the 2000 Presidential election in Florida by excluding them and may yet vote the unborn.

But I digress. My point is that, while I cannot say I have faced anything like the worst of one-party rule, I’ve known the real thing and recognize it when I see it. The extremes of Daley’s regime are remembered even now – the shooting of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the infamous Police Riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention – but the real power of a machine is not in the use of force. Instead it’s about smiling on safe constituencies and spurning uppity ones, dispensing and withholding favours; in short, it’s about routine patronage or, as so far as the Republican backing of Haliburton’s ‘Contract for America’ goes, naked cronyism.

Thus, it was not fear of the cops that taught me political disenfranchisement (though messing with them was folly), but a lack of services, since I lived in a mixed-race district of a bitterly segregated city with a liberal alderman who didn’t toe the party line. Hence, when it snowed, our streets were the last to be cleared, and a good deal else was denied along the way. Such neglect was petty, but pettiness is what monolithic parties thrive on. They know who they are by who they collectively ignore or scorn.

Some may balk at the comparison, but let me propose that the new art history that many of us who are members of the oppositional generation of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have tried to foster is now turning into a one-party state. Although this conviction has been growing, the idea takes on fresh intensity with the recent publication of a massive textbook that purports to summarize the essential lessons of 30 years of post-Structuralist, post-Freudian, post-Frankfurt school research and theorizing. Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism is the product (in all senses of the term) of the perpetually retooling cultural industrialist Rosalind Krauss, two of her former graduate students, Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, and her frequent collaborator Yve-Alain Bois. Needless to say, they are all accomplished, high-ranking professors, and in many respects this is the least obscurantist, hence most useful, exposition of their version of art history yet to appear. It is destined to become the standard, reconstituted ‘grand narrative’ of modern art for the foreseeable future – in universities, at any rate.

There are things to admire and much to argue with as regards its aesthetic inclusions, exclusions, exposition and analysis, but as a veteran of Daley’s Chicago let me point to two tell-tale signs of the rise of art-historical one-partyism. They are the index and the recommended readings, which describe not only the admitted limits of the authors’ own scholarship but the narrow scope of the world of art and ideas towards which they steer the unsuspecting student and the general public alike. Before I go further, let me reassure you that this commentary is not prompted by sour grapes – I am mentioned twice in the readings sections (though nowhere in the index). It is prompted by a pattern of academic log-rolling and nepotism, the likes of which we have not seen since Clement Greenberg’s heyday, which is no accident inasmuch as Krauss was Greenberg’s acolyte before she became his apostate and then overt Oedipal rival.

Thus even a cursory inspection of writers deemed worthy of attention shows that an overwhelming preponderance are either the principal authors themselves, former contributors to October magazine, the group’s party organ, intellectual mentors who have been ‘rebranded’ by the October group, or former students of one or another of the principal authors, and so essentially the respectful progeny of the Doktormutter and Doktorvaters who head the family enterprise. That the same coterie’s writings and exhibitions are repeatedly cited in the body of the book, to the virtual obliteration of divergent much less dissenting views, simply reinforces this pattern.
And so the widely shared struggle to broaden critical discourse beyond the old mainstream is funnelled into a new mainstream. And with that academic order is restored, interpretive hierarchies consolidated and doctrines confirmed by reiteration. Syllabuses are mise-en-abîme (but thanks to obsequious robe-kissing, never lose sight of the ‘original’ they dutifully simulate), teaching jobs are secured, panels are seated, articles are assigned, and all in all favours are dispensed and withheld by centralized figures of authority and ciphers of regression. You don’t need Foucault to know which way the wind blows or where power resides. It is time to stop thinking in terms of the October revolution – Thermidor has arrived and empire is upon us. No need to panic, though: just think how humiliating it is to be a party functionary.