Essay review: Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression by Benjamin Buchloh

Francis Picabia, “Self-Portrait (Autoportrait),” 1940-43

When the only option left to aesthetic discourse is the maintenance of its own distribution system and the circulation of its commodity forms, it is not surprising that all ‘audacities have become convention’ and that paintings start looking like shop windows decorated with fragments and quotations of history. (117)

This was the first essay that I have read in a long time that was actually a bit of a downer. Perhaps all of the stuff I have been reading lately is overly optimistic (or maybe my earlier “stuff” is more contemporary and therefore less doomsday than 1980), or perhaps I am just mentally exhausted after a long and trying day at work. Whatever the case, this article was thought-provoking and informative, but a little bit depressing.

“Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting” comes from the anthology Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, which was published in 1984. This particular essay was originally published in 1980 in October magazine, then published again in this book with an addendum that discussed how his ideas/fears were confirmed in the contemporary art of 1984. Buchloh basically discusses the concept of “selling out,” first in the art of World War I then stretching the same ideas/factors to contemporary art. He first addresses the resurgence of traditional forms of representation after 1915. Since the mid-nineteenth century, traditional representation (i.e. the portrait, the landscape, etc) had been undergoing a systematic breakdown, first with Impressionism blurring our vision. However, after 1915, art history saw an increase in the popularity of less charged styles (and by charged I mean Cubism and Futurism in particular). Buchloh proposes that this regression is due to several factors: the socioeconomic and political environment, the artists’ increasing sense of the invalidity of their work, and the idealization of the past. 

The main emphasis out of all of the aforementioned factors is the effect of the sociopolitical/economic environment and its effect on artists; the latter factors are more incidental. Buchloh believes that a turn towards the more conservative– which is a recurrent action that repeats itself throughout history– is a very calculated decision on the part of the artist, a “response and reaction to particular conditions that exist outside the confines of aesthetic discourse” (109). The first major breakdown of the modernist idiom happened at the beginning of World War I, which saw the end of full-on Cubism and Futurism, as well as the critical ideals of the originating artists of their respective movements. Picasso, for example, began producing large numbers of stylistically heterogenous works after 1917 that recalled the works (and occasionally styles) of previous artists. However, he still utilized Cubist elements, but these elements stripped of their original symbolic function renders them as aesthetic commodities. According to Buchloh, “the nostalgia of artistic production for its own past conventions corresponds to this class’s nostalgia of artistic production for its past processes of individuation at a time of its historical ascendancy” (125).

Gino Severini, “The Two Polinchinelle (Les Deux Polichinelles),” 1922

The choice to mix old with new is evidence of weakness and insecurity. It is frequently disguised with the addition of “New Wave” as a prefix. Oftentimes the “old” painters, such as those involved with the original Cubist and Futurist movements, recognized that their work was becoming invalid with the influx of younger artists and with the changing of the surrounding environment. Mixing old and new points to a “greater” past (therefore negating modernism and its own historical necessity), which inevitably makes the piece itself more marketable. And that is Buchloh’s primary argument: that artists become more concerned with appeasing the bourgeois, especially in times of conflict, so that they can make money. He baldly states that “the bourgeois concept of the avant-garde as the domain of heroic male sublimation functions as the ideological complement and cultural legitimation of social repression” (121). History becomes a private experience and therefore decorum, as well as “product protection” in an increasingly global market.

Ultimately, the formula for “success” is recalling national continuity (ex. neoexpressionism was quite popular in Germany, which was of course the home of expressionism) followed by placing the work in the vernacular of the contemporary international avant-garde. This destroys artistic liberalism and and reveals a dark authoritarian underside, which stunts progress. Buchloh depressingly concludes with the statement that “the mock avant-garde of contemporary European painters now benefits from the ignorance and arrogance of a racket of cultural parvenus who perceive it as their mission to reaffirm the politics of a rigid conservatism through cultural legitimation” (132).

I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Buchloh’s view that the work of these artists is evidence of “selling out.” For example, in his discussion of Picabia, he did not discuss the fact that Picabia had a mental breakdown during World War I (which Amelia Jones proposed could resulted from his compromised masculinity). I think it is quite possible that his work became less hard-edged for his own sanity, though there is no denying that his later works are more aesthetically pleasant. His “transparency” paintings are extraordinarily popular today and have influenced the likes of John Currin and Sigmar Polke, but there was a time when they risked being lost to history. Nevertheless, Buchloh brings up excellent points about reactionary responses to the outside world, and though the examples he gives are a little extreme, it could very well be that they are evidence of the artist’s personal desire for financial success.

In terms of my comp question pertaining to the transitional years from Dada to Surrealism, Dada was one very politically charged movement and so was Surrealism. However, they weren’t necessarily the same politics. Perhaps Picabia (and Duchamp, for that matter) didn’t want to affiliate himself with Surrealism because he had had enough of the anti-art “pack mentality” of the Dadaists. I’m going to have to do more reading on Picasso and Tzara before I make any definite conclusions, but Buchloh has given me great food for thought.

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