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Bad New Days


Bad New Days


in conversation with Hal Foster

What is the relationship between contemporary capitalism and art? Art critic and historian Hal Foster talks to four by three magazine about the shifting practices of the avant-garde, artists Isa Genzken and Thomas Hirschhorn, while addressing whether art can resist the present nihilistic world in an age often defined as post-critical.

The incorporation of nihilism into its hegemonic apparatus was reserved for the bourgeoisie of the twentieth century
— Walter Benjamin

Throughout his work, art critic and historian Hal Foster has re-defined our approach to many avant-garde movements of the 20th century. Adhering to no single doctrine throughout his career, Foster has drawn on psychoanalysis, critical theory and post-structuralist thought to re-evaluate art practices often marginalized from the canon as regressive, mere repetition or as socially reactionary. To name but a few, Surrealism, Postmodernism and the Neo-Avant-Garde have all been shown to be critical and significant historical developments in their own right through his writing.

In his latest book, Bad New Days, Foster examines a paradigm shift in art and criticism within the past quarter century from a postmodern focus on image and text to an engagement with the historical and the real. By tracing its historical context within the condition of emergency brought about by neoliberalism and free-market capitalism, Foster shows this period to be subject to continuous social crisis which art must resist and reflect.  The title, inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s maxim “Don’t start with the good old days, but the bad new ones”, conveys from the very beginning that the avant-garde doesn’t belong to the past, but remains of utter necessity today. We spoke with Hal Foster about the idea of the avant-garde, the practices of Thomas Hirschorn and Isa Genzken, and why we need critique now more than ever.

In your previous work you have extensively written about the avant-garde and in your latest book, Bad New Days, you touch on a new paradigm shift the avant-garde has undergone. What makes the art practices of the last twenty five years, such as those of Cindy Sherman and Joachim Koester, distinct from the avant-garde practices of the early twentieth century and the post-avant garde of the 50’s and 60’s?

Hal Foster: In his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) Peter Bürger offered an influential model of a tragic avant-garde of the 1910s and ’20s—tragic because its project to return art to life was doomed to failure—which was followed by a farcical neo-avant-garde of 1950s and ’60s—farcical because it simply repeated the old avant-garde failure and, worse, repeated it as art. I never bought this model, and in The Return of the Real (1996) I argued that neo-avant-garde practice was a matter less of farcical repetition than of deferred action: the traumatic propositions of the historical avant-garde took time to take effect, to be worked over and worked through. Further, I suggested that, while the historical avant-garde focused on the conventions of particular art forms, the neo-avant-garde addressed the institutions of art in general. In Bad New Days I adopt a different perspective. Roughly speaking, the historical avant-garde had two divergent postures: it was either vanguard, in a position of radical innovation, or resistant, in a position of stern refusal to the status quo. It was also driven by two divergent motives: the transgression of a given symbolic order (as with Surrealism, say) or the legislation of a new one (as with Russian Constructivism, say). The practices that I take up in Bad New Days are neither avant nor rear in these ways; rather, they are immanent in a caustic way. Such work does not pretend that it can break absolutely with the old order or found a new one; instead it seeks to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.


Isa Genzken is one of the artists you take to be a part of this larger shift, with her work taking up aesthetic strategies derived from Dada, while echoing Hugo Ball’s concern of ‘self-disintegration’. What kind of relation does Genzken’s work have to Dadaism and how does it operate as ‘an effective diagnosis of our times’ (91)?

HF: ‘The Dadaist suffers from the dissonances to the point of self-disintegration,’ Hugo Ball wrote in Flight Out of Time, his great diary of Zürich Dada, and Genzken also risks this sacrificial kind of mimetic excess. Her extreme art offers an intense acting-out of the subjective delirium and the social chaos that neo-liberalism has produced. That is the strength of her art, but it is also its limitation, which is also the limitation of our political moment. To connect Genzken to Ball is also to point to the need for an art-historical revision—for a partial shift in emphasis not only in the Dadaist lineage, away from Duchamp and toward Ball, but also in the Pop legacy, whereby we might attend to Andy Warhol less and to Claes Oldenburg more. It is this genealogy that is pertinent to Genzken as well as to Mike Kelley, Rachel Harrison, many others.

Such work does not pretend that it can break absolutely with the old order or found a new one; instead it seeks to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.

The past quarter of a century has seen the rise of the precariat and a multitude of artists working under conditions of high socio-economic insecurity. You’ve argued that Thomas Hirschhorn’s practice resists and reflects this condition. How does his work achieve this and how should we take his claim that ‘the truth can only be touched in art with headlessness’?

HF: Hirschhorn also practices a form of mimetic excess, but whereas Genzken acts out ‘the creative destruction’ of contemporary capitalism, Hirschhorn attempts to recode it in the name of those devastated by it—the precariat. ‘In the name of’ comes with its own problems, of course, the problems of ‘ideological patronage’ (as Benjamin once remarked) and ‘the indignity of speaking for others’ (as Deleuze later commented). Yet Hirschhorn feels, rightly, that it is worth the risk, which he mitigates, in any case, through an active collaboration with the communities at risk that he addresses. His notion of ‘headlessness’ underscores his utter commitment—he’s all in—at the same time that it suggests the need to rechannel the affects that contemporary capitalism elicits (the passion of the sports fan, for example) to other ends.


Both of these artists resist a nihilistic world, while your work attempts to resist a postmodern take on art. But what’s the aesthetic and political risk we are running if the rest of us fail to resist ‘the capitalist garbage bucket’?

HF: In the book I distinguish between a critical practice of mimetic exacerbation, which I associate with artists like Genzken and Hirschhorn, from a cynical practice of capitalist nihilism, which is blatant in the work of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, many others. The former artists take a bad thing and make it worse, but do so in a critical manner that points to the necessity of another kind of life altogether, while the latter artists luxuriate in ‘the capitalist garbage bucket’ (I borrow the phrase from Hirschhorn) as if there were no tomorrow. I hope the reasons why we should opt for the one over the other are clear enough, as are the risks involved if we don’t.

Critique always renews its methods and its languages, or it is not critique. And we need critique now more than ever.

You have claimed that we are in a post-critical age. What’s the contemporary nature of criticism and judgement? And what are the implications for contemporary art, and its criticism, as a whole?

HF: No, I point out that many claim that we are in a post-critical period, which they support, directly or indirectly. I understand the fatigue that theorists like Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière feel with the rituals of critique; I often feel it too. But critique always renews its methods and its languages, or it is not critique. And we need critique now more than ever.


Hal Foster is an American art critic and historian. He teaches and publishes in the areas of modernist and contemporary art, architecture, theory and his criticism focuses on the role of the avant-garde within postmodernism. Foster writes regularly for October (which he coedits), Artforum, The London Review of Books and his latest book is Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (Verso 2015).