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HF: Well look, I think avant-garde culture historically needed a fairly confident bourgeoisie--not just to shock--but there was a way in which the bourgeoisie wanted to be tested too, wanted to see its values worked out another way.
BC: As Gombrich said they wanted a 'crunchy diet'.
HF: (Laughs) I think, you know, the classical idea of the avant-garde that we have now, of these extraordinary movements in Paris, they required a bourgeoisie that was informed enough to press them--the artists. I think there was a way in which a version of this relation is all that's needed. That's what I don't see. It doesn't come from the States, it doesn't come from a few rich people. I think there is enormous withdrawal from contemporary culture, just in general, for all kinds of reasons in the States. So those old conditions of avant-garde culture have to be replaced by other ones. Whatever the other conditions are they're never particularly happy--there's too much state; not enough; too much private interest; not enough. These are all in there by default. By default of a self-critical bourgeoisie.
PS: Presumably we're talking about a notion of the avant-garde. Something that one wants to bring with this notion is the idea of political change. Not simply a new set of artists who happen to be the ones who get discussed in all the articles for a while. You want something that's more 'radical' for want of a better word.
HF: Yeah. The avant-garde, again, is this term that in the past articulated the artistic and the political. I don't think that necessarily you go seek out the political in this neighbourhood or that province. I don't think it's ready-made in any community. I think sometimes it happens in form. I'm modernist enough to believe that you can still be political within the materiality of your own work.
PS: Well in a sense it has to be in terms of art practice, that's what it must be surely. Otherwise it's just politics layered on.
HF: Yeah, like it's illustrational. There's a lot of problems: there's theory illustration, there's political expressionism. There's lots of problematic formulations it seems to me right now. Maybe the pressure to form all these things together in work that is also innovative in its own terms is too much to ask.
BC: The grand unification theory of the avant-garde.
HF: I don't think that's a grand theory--it can't be guessed beforehand, I think it happens.
PS: But that's a very different position from a modernist position of De Stijil or some sort of group like that, where they're trying to make the future happen in a certain way.
HF: No, that's beyond us, thank God.
BC: You're talking about the rediscovery of past artworks. I think there's an industry about destroying people's reputations, but even just re-readings. One is constantly surprised though by the facts. I remember finding out that Jackson Pollock's tutor was Thomas Hart Benton. Early on you'll see Pollock making these big floats for political demonstrations with stereotypical capitalist effigies. Then again you have this thing that when the state did intervene in the arts in America with the WPA, that gave rise to this massive grouping which was then again taken up by the state through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and all that: it was done twice. Is that what you long for?
HF: (Laughs) Not exactly. I don't see the early work of Pollock as that divorced from the later work. For me there's not a huge divide between those moments in Pollock. There is a moment where the political, the aesthetic and the institutional come together in the work. It's obviously canonical, classical now, but there's a way in which Pollock really knew where painting was at that moment. He saw that innovation in form could also be political in the sense that there was still enough of a structure to old ideas of painting that if they were messed with, that would have political ramifications. I think it did, liberating ones at least. That's an example, obviously a very privileged one, but I don't think it's unique and I don't think it will never come again.
BC: It's fundamentally presented as some kind of aesthetic leap, as if it's some sort of scientific breakthrough. If you look at his work, OK he does break, but he's also coming back to something, it's still drawing.
HF: But not at that time. Smithson is another example of a person who 'leapt' in this league, gathered up all these different forces in ways that could not be expected. Those are two heroic examples, I think you could find humble ones too.
LF: The thing about photography and the use of attempts at justification through the use of a painterly language: Pollock talking about drawing or anything else can be as much about a sense of justification--in the same way that photography went through, and still is.
BC: But it's also very, very hyped. That film he made, the Time magazine article. And it's the same with Duchamp and the urinal: who took the photograph?--Stieglitz. Who's show was it?--Stieglitz's, he put up the money. Duchamp even wrote the 'scandalous' article. What did he set up afterwards? The Société Anonyme--taking all that money from little old ladies and ambassador's wives (laughter). I'm not condemning it, don't get me wrong, I'm drooling with jealousy. But there has to be these readings too.
HF: (Laughs) Oh sure.
BC: Lets not get too romantic about it.
HF: Oh I'm not romantic about it at all. That's what I meant about my longing for a proper bourgeoisie. It may sound absolutely perverse but...
PS: It's like Hegel's master slave dialectic, you need a bogeyman to have an avant-garde.
BC: Well look at those Yves Klein photographs, the ones with the naked women and that extraordinary audience.
HF: Yeah, there was a great moment when Benjamin Buchloch, in October, a long time ago, reproduced the image of Klein's audience with Malevitch and Lissitzky and students headed to Moscow, and this very different sense of a practice collective etc. His whole deal, Benjamin's, was a before and after: this is real collectivity and this is spectacle. But there's a way in which this is true. That's his story--of massive precipitous decline, you know. I think the other way is to see other possibilities. I think it's important to be grim, as grim as possible, but there's always possibilities.
PS: Because if there weren't presumably culture really would be sewn up by the powers at be.
HF: Yeah and we can all go home.