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


Book review: Irrational Modernism by Amelia Jones

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Source)

My thoughts were powerless against unhappiness so huge. I couldn’t alter European history, or order the artillery to stop firing. I could stare at the War as I stared at the sultry sky, longing for life and freedom and vaguely altruistic about my fellow-victims. But a second-lieutenant could attempt nothing– except to satisfy his superior officers; and altogether, I concluded, Armageddon was too immense for my solitary understanding. (Siegfried Sassoon, 1930 [46])

First of all, let me say that I cannot even begin to describe how refreshing it was to read Amelia Jones after the structural mess that was Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. I have actually read a fair amount of Jones’ scholarship, as she was a visiting scholar at my school last semester, and I have concluded that there are four things that can always be counted upon in her work: a cohesive introduction with a thesis statement that is easily identifiable, a conclusion that wraps up everything with a nice little bow, a beautiful (albeit complicated) style of writing, and liberal usage of derogatory language.

Having met Dr. Jones in person, I can tell you that she reads like she sounds. She is brilliant, opinionated, and extraordinarily blunt (word to the wise: don’t try to talk to her about Harry Potter, because she’s one of the 1% of the population that thinks it’s a waste of verbage). During a lecture in which she presented a partial chapter from her new book, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts, she offended one of my professors so much with her repeated usage of the term “c*nt art” and a brief allusion to her own sex life that he opted out of dinner with her that night. I found this rather ironic, as he was teaching a class on Leo Steinberg, who was often just as blunt as Dr. Jones in his own writing (and in one of my papers in that class, I discussed how she reminded me of him). However, this particular professor loved her book Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York DadaContinue reading