Book review (excerpt, ©The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved)
Orders of Appearance
Abstraktion – Kapitalismus –Subjektivität: Die Wahrheitsfunktion des Werks in der Moderne (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2008), 255 colour and b&w illns, 441 pp., ISBN: 978-3-7705-4397-7.
Sebastian Egenhofer, Towards an Aesthetics of Production, trans. James Gussen (Zürich: Diaphanes, 2018), 53 b&w illns, 299 pp.
Estrangement and recognition will alternate in the mind of any Anglo-American art historian reading SebastianEgenhofer’s two books. His signposts are, if anything, over-familiar: in Abstraktion – Kapitalismus – Subjektivität, the earlier volume, they are Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and the American Minimalists of the 1960s (Donald Judd is his key figure). The introduction of Michael Asher and Thomas Hirschhornin Towards an Aesthetics of Production (originally published by Diaphanes as Produktionsa ̈sthetikin 2010) only barely stretches the canon. These are the white male totems of acertain late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century arthistory. They are, in particular, the totems of the so-called October school, whose representatives Egenhofer cites atregular intervals. What Egenhofer has done, however, is tomake of his landmarks the stuff of a vastly ambitious conceptual framework that has no close analogue in Anglophone art history – nor, so far as I am aware, in anyother language. To render that achievement legible requires translation in more senses than one.
Egenhofer earned his doctorate under Gottfried Boehm,a key figure in continental Bildwissenschaft (‘image studies’,more or less). Boehm’s hermeneutic approach to ‘iconicdifference’ is a palpable influence on his student’s work, asthe distinction between images and other kinds of things is likewise the pivot of Egenhofer’s theory. It is not, ofcourse, that artworks are something other than things. Butthey make of their ‘world–relation’ (Weltverhältnis: a central term in the earlier, still untranslated book) a problem that they address head-on, rather than a convention they presume.1 Modern artworks, or at least the ones that Egenhofer cares about, disclose their own production insuch a way that a ‘rift’ emerges between what he calls thehorizontal and vertical dimensions of their existence. These dimensions are, respectively, that of immediate presence inthe viewer’s space and time (an aspect of the artwork thathe often simply calls the ‘image’, or Bild), on the onehand, and on the other hand the temporal ‘archive’ or ‘back side’ of the work’s production (in a word, history). Egenhofer uses the term ‘archive’ in an expansive sense torefer not only to the physical remnants of an artwork’smaking, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to its social and institutional frames, such as the gallery, the mu-seum, and the discourses of art criticism. It is perhaps forthis reason, too, that the author devotes nearly as much of his attention to artists’ writings as to their paintings orsculptures. Individual practices emerge in this presentationas sometimes self-contradictory bundles of form, matter, and discourse.
Secondly, in addition to class, the two other great structures of social appearance in capitalist modernity, and in several other kinds of society for that matter, are gender and race, each of which interacts with class in complex ways. Gender and race are constituted and limited forms of appearance, as well; they cannot possibly remain external to an ‘anamnesis of the genesis’13 of aesthetic appearance, too, since the aesthetic (or anyway the institution called art) is similarly an ordering and limitation, a cross-section, of a broader continuum of possible practices, forms, objects, and metabolisms with nature. In a similar way, ‘male’ and ‘female’ are cross-sections, extractions, from a continuum of possible corporeal, sexual, and cultural modes of existence that are richer and deeper than the gender binary can abide. Race, in turn, sifts the category of the human as such, assigning some to privilege and others to social death on the basis of what is, nominally, an aesthetic fact, namely skin colour. (Frantz Fanon speaks of this as ‘epidermalization’.) Recognition of these dynamics might throw a certain light on Egenhofer’s choice of objects, too. We encounter Robert Morris, but not Yvonne Rainer or Simone Forti; Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Yayoi Kusama are mentioned only in passing, and Lee Bontecou only as an object of Judd’s criticism. There are no black artists at all; neither are there any artists frooutside the USA or Western Europe. This is not a plea for quotas but only for historical accuracy.
There is, however, another and perhaps even more fundamental question that one can put to Egenhofer’s delimitation of his field. Though he implicitly adopts Boehm’s notion of iconic difference, at certain moments he seems hardly to mind the distinction between ‘aesthetic’ appearance and appearance as such; since they are congruent, the one is just a region of the other. At the very end of Aesthetics, for instance, he writes that ‘anything in the world can serve as the hinge to the infinite ground of beings’; any ‘thing that does not cling to the consistency of what already is’ but which rather ‘turns the non-self-evident character of its existence outward and shapes it into a resistance’ may accomplish the work of truth–production. One should hope so; one should hope that truth happens in places other than the gallery. So, as Christopher Wood asks of Belting: why then is art so persistently Egenhofer’s object? Why does he preserve art – canonical art, at that – as his ineluctable frame, when it seems, rather, that the constitution of any form of appearance whatsoever is the real stake of his inquiry? Abstraktion and Aesthetics propose a theory of the production of semblance, but not of the production of art’s autonomy. Here perhaps is an immediacy not yet sublated. I am not sure there is an explanation for this other than historical inertia; that is, the fact of art’s institutionalization as just such a privileged zone of ontological instability. Egehnofer’s is not, admittedly, a harmonizing political aesthetics a` la Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, since ‘strife’ is its keynote; what I am saying is just that art here maintains its privilege as a space of onto-political experimentation. But the horizon of his aesthetics of production may not be art at all.