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February 2010
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Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 05:34 am
Altermodern Week 4: Apologias for apoplexy

Today -- and I think this will be the last day in Altermodern week, because I'm feeling burnt out on it already -- I want to go one level of meta deeper into the conversation that the Tate Triennial 2009 has inspired. We've done the concepts, the mainstream press reaction, now let's do the reaction to the mainstream press reaction. I've collected together a list of all the reasons people came up with (mostly on blogs, sometimes right here on Click Opera) to explain the hostility with which large parts of the UK press greeted the Altermodern show, Nicolas Bourriaud, its curator, and the concept of the altermodern. Remember, in a parallel world this is being covered with curiosity, accuracy, positivity, pride, enthusiasm. Think of the numbered suggestions below as reasons we don't live in that parallel world.

Before I list these explanations, I want to note that we have 23 related but different reasons here. Now that makes me a little uneasy, for a start. It makes me think of Slavoj Zizek's essay on the justifications for the Iraq War, The Iraqi Broken Kettle. Now, one or two reasons for going to war might not raise suspicions, but when you're given twenty different reasons, shooting off in all directions and contradicting each other, you get into the realm of Freud's broken kettle. Freud described a man who returned a broken kettle to a friend with the three statements: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. One of these would have been enough; three is too many.

Okay, so here are 23 reasons why the British press broke the altermodern kettle. We begin with some of the explanations given in Altercritics, Dan Fox's article on the Frieze website:

1. "The British have an uneasy relationship to visual culture." Dan Fox. This is "the Chromophobia argument". But where did it come from, this uneasiness? According to Fox, and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, it's rooted in religious schism:

2. "The moment of trauma that scarred the nation’s visual psyche forever was the 16th-century English Reformation, which saw the country’s ruling church and state break from Catholic Rome in favour of establishing its own Protestant church. In the late 1530s, monasteries across the country were dissolved, and Catholic churches sacked. Protestant doctrine prohibited the idolatry and manufacture of graven images of God, which resulted in the wholesale destruction of much of the country’s visual art." This is interesting; religion lies behind the rants we read yesterday?

3. "Essentially the legacy of British art is that neither the abolished Catholic tradition nor the Protestant century of destruction will ever triumph. The Britishness of British art rides on a tension between two aspects of a sensibility; a Protestant distrust of religious exuberance, colour and decoration and, on the other hand, a tremendous yearning for what has been lost (as a result of the Reformation). The British tradition has developed as a dialogue between these two things.” Andrew Graham-Dixon, quoted by Dan Fox in Frieze

4. Then there's the British hatred of success, its need to shoot down high-flyers and especially high-flyers with intellectual pretensions: "Critics tend to use contemporary art as a lightning rod for their disdain of a particular bracket of artists with high media profiles, and anything with a whiff of financial profligacy or conceptualism about it – often all three." Dan Fox

5. Dan Fox also touched on the empirical / a priori philosophical divide between the anglo-saxon nations and continental Europe: "Skepticism towards ‘big ideas’ can, in some cases, be evidence of a healthy and down-to-earth pragmatism. The flipside, however, is a paranoia about pretension – an anti-intellectual fear of somehow being ‘caught out’ by ‘big ideas’ if, at a later date, they are demonstrated to be worthless."

6. Then there's the historical background to Francophobia in England: "You probably have to go back to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 for clues to... the anti-Gallic subtext running through some of the ‘Altermodern’ reviews." Dan Fox

7. Daniel Miller, commenting under the Frieze blog, suggests some sort of territorial scuffle between the mainstream media and the art world: "In 2008, Gregor Schneider proposes exhibiting a dying person in an art gallery, and is attacked. In 2009, Jade Goody is now actually doing this, in the full glare of the media. And, granted, she is being attacked as well, but it is all part of the circus. What contemporary art only promises, the mass media delivers. Perhaps the latter fears the former, like a hero fears his shadow?"

8. A more pragmatic excuse is offered by Adrian Searle, who actually is a journalist writing for a mainstream newspaper (The Guardian): "Newspaper critics in the UK sometimes have less than 24 hours to see a show AND write about it. Sometimes half that. I think the disgruntled if not exactly angry tone you detect is actually defensiveness, frustration and panic, most of the time, as well as a mistaken wish to appear somehow ‘controversial’, which invariably sucks and shows people at their worst."

9. Here are some of my own hazarded guesses. I guess that people understand someone getting a kicking much more readily than they understand art (something getting a looking).

10. I guess that the editors of newspaper culture sections are projecting an assumed -- but incorrect -- hostility on the public's part. Maybe it's not that incorrect, though. There is hostility out there. Even people at art school -- what am I saying, particularly people at art school! -- feel hostility towards the art world.

11. Another Freudian reference, this time to his "narcissism of small differences" (which proposes that the kind of differences siblings exhibit, ie small ones, are the most murderous): "The English and the French are cousins who are too much alike. It explains most anti-Europeanism in Britain - there is a mass refusal to accept how close we actually are, which becomes self-perpetuating." Robin Carmody, comment on Click Opera

12. Here's me trying to parse the "we're not shocked, you're not subversive" tone of many of the reviews we saw yesterday: "The press begins with the proposition that the contemporary art world is shocking and subversive and radical and avant garde. The press then complains that the work is not shocking, not subversive, not radical and not avant garde. Having set this expectation up and demolished it by a series of paradoxical "looking glass arguments" (in which the radical becomes conservative, the anti-colonial a new form of colonialism, the future the past, the subversive becomes only what subverts the expectations of radical niche audiences at progressive institutions like the ICA, and so on), the press is content, in most cases, to do nothing more. Having established that the work is not shocking, they end their reviews without ever looking at what it is."

13. But I'm still wondering how much of this is a pose. Is it that writers are really shocked, but pretend not to be?

14. Or that writers think their readers would be shocked, and pretend moral outrage on their behalf?

15. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that language is the currency of power, and art uses language in sufficiently different ways from the mainstream media that it spooks the hell out of journalists.

16. The post-colonial theme, the presence of an Other who is not blamed, looks to outsiders like the art world letting the side down, letting the West down. It looks like art being the West's quisling, its fifth columnist. That arrogant proposition the altermodern might produce, paradoxically, a certain humility. I think this is the implication people like Nick Cohen fear the most in the altermodern; they see it as submission before The Bad Other, ie "dhimmitude".

17. Or it could just be a hatred of the brainy: "One should be used to this with the mainstream press – they’ve always been scared of intellectuals that go beyond the merely middlebrow." Comment on Ready, Steady, Book

18. The press isn't just afraid of the intelligence of intellectuals, but their capacity to bore people and chase away customers: "There is also a fear of intellectuals in the press in terms of the media's terror of the switch off, or the channel hop. You know the kind of thing: 'if we linger on this guy talking for too long without flashing graphics, etc then we might lose the fleeting interest of our micro-attention span public!' Similarly in newspapers, most discussion of thinkers, musicians and artists is levelled at biography rather than ideas. Or the critic will often tell us how they feel about a work rather than substantiating what they think about it." Rowan Wilson, commenting on ReadySteadyBook

19. Me again, suddenly realising that this storm in a teacup may actually be good news for the art world: "Actually, I think what we see here is a great example of the kind of moral panic which tends to signal a rude state of health for the medium involved." And you thought it was just the artificial rape of non-real girlbots that got people hot under the collar?

20. Of course, this may all be calculated provocation: "By putting "a Frenchman" with "a theory" in charge of the Tate Triennial, Serota has waved a very successful red flag in front of a very obdurate and foolish bull. And it has charged." Me, here, yesterday.

21. Then there are the inevitable hypocrisy arguments: "It is debatable whether anyone other than a white middle aged white male curator established in one of the western world's oldest centres of culture would be in a position to [propose a clean sweep], or that the whole project of the invention of curatorial conceits reflecting tendencies and framing contemporary and historical cultural movements, conforms to already well established western cultural critical practices anyway, so there is already something of a critical hegemony in place already." Anon comment, Click Opera

22. It could all be blowback for hype: "This show which, personally, I found interesting but it's hardly an earth-shattering dawning of a new world era." Anon comment, Click Opera

23. Then there's the Helen of Troy hypothesis: "Are you still upset that Serge got Jane?" Anon American, Click Opera


Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 07:29 am (UTC)

Oh come on Mr. Momus, you know are backing a loser here, but it's interesting to see you flap around. Chromophobia!? It got one star on IMDB and this line from a review of it maybe says something : "That many reputable actors cannot have fallen for a bad script. Well... I'm not sure what it proves about those actor's judgment." Ok, so many points to pick up on from the past discussions, but I got little time and and think I can sum Nicholas B. up by quoting Jean-Baptiste Poquelin : "Either I'm the Messiah, or I'm a worthless piece of shit. ". On the others... I totally get what Stewart Home is saying is saying. His reference to Evola and crypto fascism in not wide of the mark, the demagouge who lead us all into a new era, symbolic use of violence through language, critical / intellectual over passionate and irrational, eulogizing of corporate institutions etc : "As long as Fascism existed and could be considered a movement of reconstruction in the making, one of yet unrealized and uncrystalized possibilities, it was still permissible not to criticize it beyond a certain limit.", "In this respect, the corporative system, if judged on the basis of its direction and its fundamental requirement, represents undoubtedly another positive aspect of Fascism. ". Anyway, S. Home is self conscious, like most good punkers should be that have something to say. He understands media, call and respone, illiciting reaction, and such. all tools of a good agitator, no matter the medium of art. . You cited Sokal, who derided for example Baudrillard for using obscure Astronomical terminology such 'red shifts' in his writing, but defend Nicholas B. for his use of obscure biological terminology such as 'heterochrony' in his writing. No entiendo! Just remember Didactic-ism is the enemy of art and it is art that were are talking about. In the end this debate just reinforces the wide held belief (by the majority of people on this planet) that art is for a self serving social elite comprised of "fils à papa", Oxbridge types with a dictionary up their arse and second-rate opportunists. Give me the inarticulate consciousness over semantic cockfights any-day and if you think that the next "cultural" era will be ushered in by the head of a corporate institution whose can't even clean the walls and sweep the floors of their establishment properly, then I feel sorry for you, baby. Get off your knees for fucks sake, it's an embarrassing place to be. Also something else that twisted my telencephalon was a fragments of a discussion on Anarchism/Socalism, in particular gravitating around the mis quoting of Bakunin "All anarchists are socialists but not all socalists are anarchists"... therefore last word to NC, and to examine Altermodern through an anarchist paradigm : "I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations, culture and much else. The conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met".

My 10p

Best from froth land. Peace Out.


Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 08:00 am (UTC)

PS Also what the fuck, Dan Fox is really full of it (and I don't mean nous). A demonstration of yet another feeble attempt by the social elite to defend themselves through the use of piss poor historical analysis. The fight against the wide-scale corruption and horrific crimes of the Catholic Church was a kick against the pricks by ordinary people, sorry if they scuffed a few of your paintings in the process, luvey.

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Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 11:22 am (UTC)

Of course, this may all be calculated provocation: "By putting "a Frenchman" with "a theory" in charge of the Tate Triennial, Serota has waved a very successful red flag in front of a very obdurate and foolish bull. And it has charged." Me, here, yesterday.

- maybe on the reasons is that the focus is on the curator not the artists. On the Tate website there isn't even a list of the artists who are in the show! I didn't see one artist mentioned anywhere or any images of their work just video of Bourriaud.

I also think people are generally a bit pissed off about the future in general and may not appreciate some curator claiming to know the answers about the future of art.

Also how does the relational fit into this? Are those artists now irrelevant?


Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 11:27 am (UTC)
My own 10P



Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 11:32 am (UTC)
Re: My own 10P

Your 10p is not there - ah hang on you need to loose that full stop at the end

wishbone ash

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Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)

What I get from all this is that after four longish posts and hundreds of comments, debate has settled around a single theme: why did British critics respond the way they did? Which essentially translates as: why are British critics the way they are? Which is in turn metonymic for: why is Britain the way it is? That it all devolves to this national theme is pretty ironic given the supposedly transnational nature of altermodernism. Almost total absence of discussion about the actual art here doesn't bode particularly well for altermodernism becoming the new 50-year cultural reich.

Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)

When can we finally declare dead the long-running trend of declaring things dead?


Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)

Best comment yet!

Oh, and thanks for your valiant efforts this week, Momus. You deserve an honorary degree and tenure after all this! Though I wish I'd never been introduced to the likes of "Stewart Home" and Nick Cohen.

Just to lift one of the veils of obfuscation, it was I, your old friend and fan, Zed the Dodo, the Can't-Decide-ist, who, bravely from my bedside, both offered my legal services to yet another Nick and fleeting commentary to this site--ideas I, see now, which were gently appropriated by Mr. Carmody and Mr. Fox! (Watch for that subpoena, gentlemen!)

In the end, France got Charlotte, and everyone from Bryan Ferry to Franz Ferdinand took advantage of Jane, so shouldn't we all be happy now?

Tomorrow there should be bunnies and silly dancing!

(Interesting, the two words I must type in the slot below to prove I'm legit: TRAGEDY reports.)

ReplyThread Parent

Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)


Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)

Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)

What are the positive altermodern reviews saying?

Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)

if we're going to talk about the press reaction with any hope of understanding it, look no further than the way that 'world' is structured, who owns and controls it, and what value system is adopted to keep it all that way.


A few more thoughts:
-capitalism, in which the majority are controlled and exploited by a ruling minority class of corporate interests, could not exist without some kind of widely -distributed 'convincing' ideology. Look at the common themes of the populist media: celebrity culture. To quote Donny Gluckstein, 'The charisma of individuals (politicians, stars, royalty etc.) is a function of alienation and lack of control in the lives of the mass of people who are made to feel their lives are worthless'. This of course leves them wide open to exploitation. From the perspective of those in power, it is in nobody's interest to encourage thought and intellect, both of which are required for any debate of concepts, like the Altermodern.

-With reference to your point 16, In Britain, the widening gap between the rich and poor (http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSL1777256220070717 ) is covered up by constant reliance in the populist media (especially the press) on the myth/ idea of 'nation', whereas it is obvious that in a class ridden society, the idea of a homogenous socio-politcal entity called 'nation' does not exist - the possessing class and the (class conscious) working class have fundamentally different attitudes and priorities which reflect their antagonism. The obsession with 'the nation' is only a crude attempt by those whom the existing way of doing things benefits to convince those off whose backs they live that this nonsense is the Right Thing, and thus to reshape them to serve the needs of capital.

-With regard to point 18, the media's obsession with FUN (not thought, or anything challenging) could be said to be a need created by the system itself. When you have labour as a commodity being bought and sold, with consequent lack of control over your workplace and conditions, it follows that 'free time' is sharply and antagonistically divided from work time. So an enormous value is placed on 'making the most' of it, with all kinds of pointless and hedonistic pursuits (binge drinking, football etc) which pose no threat to the status quo and which also (again) serve the needs of capital. look at the concentration of ownership of the breweries! and what about the wealth thrown about in professional football? So the mass media , who are a part of that economic status quo, have a vested interest in perpetuating such consumption.

It seems to me like it always comes down to the same thing.....

Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)

"6. Then there's the historical background to Francophobia in England: "You probably have to go back to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 for clues to... the anti-Gallic subtext running through some of the ‘Altermodern’ reviews." Dan Fox"

this also rests on the myths of the nation I brought up before. To help construct them you also have to construct an 'enemy' or an 'other', it's less a question of what we ARE than what we are 'NOT' (french=pretentious, garlic eatin', catholics !).
Reminds me of sentiments found in Randy Newman's stuff.

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Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
Files For The Folders

I'd love for you to spin this altermodern yarn out one more day, providing concrete examples of the postmodern vs. the altermodern, be it in literature, architecture, film, gallery art, web art, fashion, lifestyle, specific ways of thinking, etc. I know you gave the analogy of the altermodern being a folder name, with the files to come, so if you feel there aren't enough present examples of the altermodern to contrast the postmodern, I trust you can come up with some altermodern ideas of your own. I'm imagining rows of similar endeavors with two columns, one for the postmodern approach and one for the altermodern approach.

Adam in St. Louis

Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)

I can't comment on what I haven't seen, and I can't comment on reactions I haven't read to what I haven't seen.

But Mr. Fox is wrong about Batchelor's Chromophobia, which isn't about an "uneasy relationship to visual culture." It's about, as the title says, the fear of color and the ramifications of color in theory. And the basic antithesis to color is not rooted in religion, per se, but in ancient philosophical conceits, esp. the dislike of color by the textual.

You should read it; it's a decent piece of art theory and a hell of a lot more provoking then Relational Aesthetics.

Wait... have we talked about this before?

Wait... I just read Fox's critique of the critics. It didn't mention Chromophobia! Anyway, I like Fox's critique. And I'm looking forward to Bourriaud new book! My complaint with him isn't that there is too much French philosophy in his writing, but exactly the opposite: I think he's intellectually lazy and prone to unsupported (and demonstratively false) pronouncements. But it would be nice to read a really good new idea, and maybe he's matured as a thinker.


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Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)

My only defense of Bourriaud: He's a hell of a curator. I've only seen three of his shows at the Palais de Tokyo but they were all great, and I've seen tons of pictures of his shows, and those look great too.

He should just do what a lot of blue chip artists do: hire a couple of decent thinkers and writers to flesh out his ideas and write them down. Then he can sign his name, and viola! great work.

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Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)

Some thoughts:

British wariness of the visual was a historically strong tendency in British film criticism, where the literary tradition (David Lean) and the documentary tradition were venerated over and above anything inherently cinematic (Powell and Pressburger were long neglected in their own country for this reason). This became one of the great Anglo-French conflicts, c.f. Truffaut's famous remarks about the words "British" and "cinema" being inherently contradictory. More of this, below.

The postmodern age perhaps being over ... if it is, Britain (and the other Anglo-Saxon nations) have the most to lose, because they are the ones who have gained the most from its overturning of the old hierarchies, because it is their mass culture which it has, once unthinkably, elevated to the level of academic study. The Anglo-Saxon world may well need postmodernism to feel validated: without it, it might conceivably have retained the underlying inferiority complex it seems to have had in the days of Reithianism on one side and e.g. 'An American in Paris' on the other. So I can understand a certain paranoia at it possibly being overturned.

If postmodernism did indeed begin in 1957, it began at an absolute turning point in British history, the most important in the last 100 years (at least) - the point where the coming of mass consumerism cross-fertilised with the humiliation and collapse of the British Empire at Suez. The potency of the former, in the wake of the influence of Hollywood in the previous quarter-century, did much to silence calls for Britain to take a different post-imperial role from that it adopted at this moment.

But what is less widely-known today, and is written out of British history (possibly for political reasons - *definitely* so if the papers that do it are owned by Rupert Murdoch) is that much of the early postmodernist veneration of American mass culture was actually imported from France, and had its roots on the equal if not greater psychological effect that Suez, together with its own simultaneous withdrawal from empire (far more bloody and messy than ours - while our constitutional clutter remained as it had been way beyond living memory, the mess of Algeria led directly to the overthrow of the previous French constitution and the inception of the Fifth Republic) had there.

The British New Wave and its French counterpart are typically seen as opposites - one rooted in realism, the other an adventure in pure cinema - but the Nouvelle Vague critics' famous attacks on "le cinema de papa" were rooted in the same reasons as their British contemporaries' disdain for the last dregs of Ealing - the established cinemas in both Britain and France simply weren't recognising the diminished status, set against the USA, of both countries, they were living in a fantasy world of faded glories. It was the French who took Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray etc. seriously when Britcrits (at least those on the BFI's publications) were still dismissing their films in classically decorous, "tasteful" terms, were still refusing to accept the argument (foundation stone of postmodernism) that, after Suez, a more constructive dialogue with the products of the US was necessary if only because they now owned our future.

That it is the French who have, in recent years, consistently challenged what has evolved out of auteurism and the Nouvelle Vague - or what the Anglo-Saxon world has turned it into - has a heavy irony. But perhaps it shouldn't: even in the interim between Suez and de Gaulle's withdrawal from NATO, France didn't *need* the US like Britain did. It should hardly be surprising that British critics, when they adopted auteurism and used it as the foundation stone for a whole new cultural orthodoxy, turned it into something it was never meant to be.

Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)

I hadn't heard that Truffault quote, but it's sharp. I think Powell's Peeping Tom is the ultimate statement on the status of the image in British culture: the image kills. Pointing it out certainly killed Powell's career for a few years.

The point about pomo's overturning of the hierarchy between high and low benefitting UK/US popular culture more than anyone else is also astute, I think.

much of the early postmodernist veneration of American mass culture was actually imported from France

This is true, but only in terms of cinema. Yes, Cahiers critics championed Ford, Hawks et al. In the visual arts world, though, it's hard to think of French Pop Art or pro-consumerist art. French cultural life continued to be dominated (viz. the Situationists) by voices critical of consumer culture. Only very late in postmodernism did France embrace, you know, Tarantino movies (with Godard providing the bridge).

I always liked Chirac's point re: Iraq that "friends tell friends when they're making mistakes". France's stance there has been vindicated, but I don't hear anyone learning from that in the UK now, and saying "Chirac was right, to be a better friend to the US we should have told them frankly where they were going wrong." Instead we get Brown in the US pledging close ties in exactly the same way Blair did when Bush was at the helm. The message that emerges is one of completely indiscriminate allegiance. And let's not even talk about all the torture rendition stuff, denied and then admitted only when the US regime changes and the US attitude to torture changes. Orwell really did nail it in 1984.

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Wed, Mar. 4th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)

Fantastic post, this one. I was thinking along similar lines the last few days (to some of the points mentioned herein), without being able to articulate it clearly.

Also, in the future, will attempt to refine expositions to some decent form prior to posting... even though had always been fond of the improvised-brainstorm-condensed-notes form, realize that isn't the local (um) format. Besides which it's easily (intentionally or otherwise) misinterpreted. (it would be nice to see a place for it resurrected, as I think intelligent and worthwhile threading can come out of such, though again the (intentional, as often as not) potential for mis-interpretation is high.

Thank you to whoever linked to Stewart Home. Very interesting reading(I'd never heard of him). (and thank you Nick for the counterpoint/interpretation to the causticism contained therein, ... I appreciate the multiple vocal points)


Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 07:37 am (UTC)

Collings is the only critic that I've read that has had anything discerning to say about the exhibition and the reaction to the theory that promotes and supports the show.