In the 1980s Hal Foster interpreted Barbara Kruger’s photomontage as subversive signs. I began to appreciate his ideas in the early and mid 1990s when postmodernism rushed into Korea. Since the early 2000s, when he brought the issues of architecture/design into the context of cultural criticism, the visual environment and its relationships with urban space have become my new research topic now. With about ten- year cultural time gap,I have been following his shadow.
Since the postmodernist art critique in the 1980s, Foster has been well-received by visual arts communities mainly due to his meticulous formal analyses and sharp diagnoses of the socio-cultural connotations of artistic practices. Again, in Art-Architecture Complex, he employs his unique analytic and critical methodologies in and outside of the art historical context. His methodologies are most effective when examining the relationships between art and architecture/design and making multi-layered interpretations of their contexts conflated upon each other.
The Marxist criticism running through his critique extends the socio-cultural implications, upon which he makes sharp-edged critical comments. Since his Marxist criticism is fundamentally opposed to cultural structures of consumer capitalism, such discussions could be uncomfortable to design practitioners aligned with the market economy. Nevertheless, we need to be able to discern critical opinions from ungrounded cynicism.
In his book Design and Crime (2002) Hal Foster tackled bringing architecture/design into socio-cultural discourse by demonstrating that the accelerating cultural commoditization in the neoliberalist economy heavily affects architecture/design. In his later book Art-Architecture Complex, he sustains the same critical standpoint and takes one step further by making in-depth analyses of significant architectural phenomena from the late 20th century. These topics are based on the formal characteristics of the leading architects, the dynamics that they have brought up, and where they are posited in the visual-cultural landscape of modernism and postmodernism.
The first part of the book critiques architectural practices of the most influential architects at work today. As city marketing expands to every corner of the globe, the projects of these tycoon architects continue to increase. Oftentimes, we are informed of the ways in which digital technologies allow engineering feats that determine an individual designer’s signature style. On the other hand, rarely do we hear formal analysis or cultural critique of these architectural designs viewed from the context of the history of art and visual culture. Particularly for Korea, which has taken up a considerable portion of the world’s mega-scale building market for the past two decades, a critical view on the changing visual-spatial environments is absolutely required. Foster provides us with a frame for socio-cultural critique of these designs while addressing their effects on the contemporary global environment, and by extension our own situation.
The second part of the book takes on subjects that the author has long pursued as an art historian: the exchanges between different genres and their formal reversals—from image to space as painting, sculpture and film become spatial, and from the material to the immaterial as sculpture turns into an image. Here he examines the actual complexities arising between art and architecture/design. First, on the problematic point between Pop and Postmodernism, or the issues of the real and image, he explains the imageability and spatialization of the [material] object, which actually originated from the first pop age and is becoming more prominent in the digital era. Second, he deals with the problem of Minimalism by which the concept of installation was established, and visual experience based on perspective turned into immersive spatial experience. In this transition, he associates the structure with concepts of the tectonic and construction, and thereby overcomes phenomenological interpretations that often remain as ambiguous language. In doing so, he hints at the art-architecture complex from another of his long-time subjects of concern: the tectonics of the Russian avant-garde. Such historical examinations extend the visual-spatial experiential affinity far back to the early 20th century. In addition, these studies reveal the strategic errors of a cultural industry that often identifies “experience” with “participation,” and uses both terms to indicate democratic and emancipatory potentials.
– The Problems of Pop and Postmodernism in Architecture/design
More generally, the primary precondition of Pop was a gradual reconfiguration of cultural space, demanded by consumer capitalism, in which structure, surface, and symbol were combined in new ways (p. 1, footnote 1).
Postmodern architecture/design in the late 20th century appeared to be an alternative to a modern design that had banned all decoration or symbolic elements, only allowing abstract structural forms for functional use. By suggesting imageability, postmodern design was expected to recover symbolic potential. Around that time, Learning from Las Vegas (1977) by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour became a historical reference that declared a shift from a three-dimensional [spatial] environment to a two-dimensional [pictorial] façade, or visual environment. Since then, however, postmodern symbols have often been confused, lying somewhere in between civic quality and iconicity. On this problematic confusion, Foster comments that “this deceptive populism only became dominant in political culture a decade later, under Ronald Reagan, as did the neoconservative equation of political freedom with free markets also anticipated in Learning from Las Vegas” (p. 8). This interpretation explains the reason why landmark buildings that appeared at an enormously increased rate in the late 20th century “combine the willful monumentality of modern architecture with the faux-populist iconicity of postmodern design” (p. 15).
The transition and continuity from Pop to Postmodernism is integral to design as well as art. This is because the technique of consumer capitalism concealing the political and the cultural behind a commercial layer was advanced during this period, and it is determinant in identifying the socio-cultural position and existential ground of design now. Moreover, neoliberalism shrouds commercialism in a disguise of civic quality by replacing symbols and the real with images and gesture. Thus, without a critical acknowledgement of overall economic and socio-cultural phenomena, it is almost impossible to reconfigure the direction of design.
On the one hand, Foster requests an urgent acknowledgement of the pending issues; on the other hand, he seems to maintain a critical distance as if the stream is so overwhelming that it is extremely difficult to go against the flow. Sometimes critics are expected to suggest an action plan in front of a problem; supplying such a plan is not only his job, but to do so would also be ineffectual without some diagnoses and logical explications as preconditions for such action.
– Minimalism in Art and Architecture/design
The concepts and the relationships between Minimalism in art and the minimal in architecture/design are even more complicated. Minimalism in art history is posited at an intersection of Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Postmodernist Art, yet in terms of form and style its outlines are relatively clear; it is represented by the installation-oriented practices in the 1960s by artists including Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt to name a few. Meanwhile, the origin of minimal architecture/design dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when strict rules proscribed any decoration from buildings and objects in favor of heightened function and this absence of adornment (or symbol) drove the emergence of geometric forms. In other words, the minimal in design mainly referred to the simplicity of form. Foster also points out that the minimal in design is a stylistic term that describes the external form detached from historical context, and then he distinguishes it from Minimalism in art. Historically minimal designs based on functionalism continued through the Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design in the early and mid 20th century, reached its peak at Dieter Rams (designer of Braun products), and is still running through Jonathan Ive’s designs for Apple. From this point of view, Minimalism in art occupies a transitional position between modernism and postmodernism, whereas the minimal in design lies in the extension of modernism.
Throughout the 20th century, people understood functionalism as nearly equivalent to utilitarian pragmatism. However, in the context of Louis Sullivan’s maxim “form follows function,” function means the essence or the innate purpose of things. In this sense, we can suppose that functionalism is rather closer to organicism, in that it seeks in nature for the principles of form-making and the laws of sustainable circulation, than to utilitarian pragmatism grounded on maximum productivity. If we recover the original meaning of function, we might be able to reclaim the essence of design not in economic value, but in ethical value.
Artistic and design approaches to minimal[ist] form still seem quite different from each other. While the former is a philosophical study of formal principles, the latter is a pursuit of the internal laws of nature. In fact, however, the idealistic approach of the former embraces the ethical endeavor of the latter, or vice versa. So, regarding the minimal in design practice as an exploration of the essence of form and its relationship with surrounding conditions rather than a mere stylistic adjective could be a way to overcome the border between art and design. This will then enable us to apply Minimalism’s problematic status in between Pop and Postmodernism to both art and design. With this in mind, we can understand why the author included in the discussion of art-architecture/design such dense stories of Minimalism that at first seem limited to art historical discourses. Broadened and blurred boundaries are needed in order to apply the issue of imageability to immanent visual-spatial practices especially in the era of digital technology.
Foster’s writing is particular in its logical structure, and is constructed in part by his active use of punctuation marks. For my Korean translation, I tried to preserve his original meaning by replacing structures foreign to Korean with conjunctional counterparts. He uses some proper nouns in plural forms in order to signify cultural reproduction, so a closer look at these details will help an in-depth understanding of the author’s intention. Last but not least, I recommend that never missing the footnotes and bibliographies to better understand the multiple layers of the text.
I am grateful to my friend David A. Parker who helped me with the nuances and cultural backgrounds of numerous sentences and Suki Kim, the chief editor of Hyunshil Munhwa, who made a decision to publish the Korean edition under such difficult circumstances of Humanities in Korea, and who shared thoughts throughout the process. My special thanks go to my parents who have always supported my work with unconditional trust in me.
– Jeong Hye Kim