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.  Continue reading