Representation Joaquín Barriendos Rodríguez

The polemic that took place in the field of the philosophy of art over the course of the 1970s between those who applauded the return of “representation” to the fine arts (above all painting) and those who stridently opposed Western mimetic models of representation and their metamorphic and veiled reappearances in modern and contemporary art, coincided, understandably, with the adoption of the first postmodernist attitudes and readings into the visual arts and global culture, as well as into the new cartography of the globalization of reality.1 Allen Thiher, in his analysis of Godard’s Alphaville, refers to postmodernism as a condition in which “mimesis can be nothing other than a representation of itself: revealing its own genesis or a criticism of those conventions which vindicate the possibility of representing a fundamental reality and thus transcend the very act of representation.”2

This postmodernization of the possibility/impossibility of representing the “real” through art provided the context to the contemporary conflict of representability becoming central to what is known as the epistemological turn. The shift of the concept of self-reflexivity from critical literary theories and discourse (new criticism, new historicism) to poststructuralist cultural studies was instrumental in leading to an ethical questioning—through Derridean and Foucauldian thinking—of both the power inherent in all representation and the aesthetical-political alienation forming subjectivities. Thus, within the interdisciplinary territories of contemporary art, self-reflexivity was used as a critical strategy for undoing the reality/fiction relation of art understood as text, a reflexivity that Leo Steinberg referred to as the origin of contemporary art, which Foster took up again as the source of a horizontal (political and aesthetic) reading of the world: “This horizontal expansion of artistic expression and cultural value is taken further, critically and acritically, in almost anthropological art and in cultural studies.”3

The contemporary conflict of representability is, therefore, overlaps with the “postmodern reading” of modernity and with two consequences that this phenomenon has produced in artistic practice and in critical theory. The first consequence was the possibility/impossibility of narrativization and the transmission of meanings from reality to texts (to which poststructuralist historiography made reference in the context of Italian microhistory and a North American critical historical approach promulgated by Hayden White’s The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation). So from the perspective of the form/content opposition, Donald Kuspit supported the validity of Minimalism, arguing that minimal content was aesthetically pure and, therefore, distinguishable from its form. The second consequence had to do with the epistemological situation, which for a wide spectrum of cultural analysis meant that self-reflectivity transcended the texts as a space of mediation between the field of aesthetics and other critical approaches to reality. In the words of Hans Bertens, “what is certain is that some subjects, such as gender, race, ethnicity, or even class, which did not play a determining role within the kind of postmodern self-reflexivity which has been until now [self-reflexivity restricted to the field of literary theory], began gradually to occupy a place in the debate on postmoderism until they ultimately became the central themes.”4

Owen himself, referring to Western politics of representation, states that “it is precisely on the legislative border between that which can be represented and that which cannot where postmodern manipulation takes place.”5 The political and aesthetic frictions between the reformulation and canceling of representability suggested, in the words of theorists such as Brian McHale, the very death of the critical epistemology of art and the return of an ontological theory of the artistic that is markedly neo-Kantian.6

Moreover, this postmodern infection of the contemporary crisis of aesthetic representability coincides with the emergence of a poststructuralist and deconstructivist focus on alterity, diversity, and transculturality in art that drew on the theories of “otherness” proposed primarily by Paul Ricoeur, Michel Foucault, Paul de Man, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jürgen Habermas, Hyden White, H.G. Gadamer, etc., which were reread by the group of art theorists and critics coalesced around the magazines October and Art in America, as they were by the new British art criticism.7 What Baudrillard called “radical exoticism” in the contemporary can be thus understood as the result of both the emergence of mobility in the imaginary on a planetary level and the processes of fetishization of the Other (through its absorption as an image within the context of the globalization of alterity).

This globalized cultural diversity, this consumption of alterity, was synchronized with a kind of aesthetic staging of the political incompatibility of transcultural reciprocity. The biennalification of contemporary art and the inclusive attitudes of the curatorial movements of the new internationalism would therefore avoid the conflict inherent in the self-reflexivity of art by a strategy of endorsing the (political) legitimacy of cultural difference through representation, with the (aesthetic) legitimacy of the universal in the very representation of transcultural conflicts. Although its intent was avoidance, the new internationalization of “all the others” through contemporary art would thus assume the burden of being the “politically correct” consequence of the West’s inability to exterminate alterity in the field of identity politics; alterity, as we tirelessly confirm, “resists everything: conquest, racism, extermination, the virus of difference, the psychodrama of alienation. On one hand, the Other is always dead, on the other hand, it is indestructible.”8

Accelerated by the globalization of culture and witnessed within the transcultural epistemology of art was the need to build more flexible paradigms to fight against a new cartography plagued by hybridization, acculturation, and new ways of expropriating the subjectivities generated by emerging, “border,” or subaltern cultures. In the medullar conflict of transcultural representation through global curatorial models, this seemed to offer a way to incorporate “decolonial narrativization” into artistic practices as a space for the construction of new cultural subjectivities without having to eliminate the aesthetic self-reflexivity that late minimalism and the critical antirepresentational movements had achieved as post-avant-gardes.

Cultural theories of contemporary art thus approached, through cultural studies of literature as well, the narrativity and semiotics of discourse, the perspectives coming from postcolonial studies, gender studies, and the set parameters of research grouped together in subaltern studies. The epistemological impact of these subaltern studies were therefore decisive for postcriticism—to which Gregory Ulmer referred as the expression of a more organic and deconstructive understanding of reality9—and became an exercise closer and more committed to the very practices of contemporary art after having built on the new critical historiography of culture: the new history as its theoretical base. As John Beverly has pointed out in Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (Post-Contemporary Interventions), epistemology has a task to perform after the infiltration of subaltern historiography into the center of its postcolonial focus.10 Shelly J. Bromberg asked in the article “Complicity and Social Construction”: “Can the academic world continue to be self-critical enough to actively and tirelessly subvert its discourses on power, as a way of recognizing, although not containing, subaltern expressions?”11

The controversy surrounding representability in contemporary art embodies a pluri-dimentionality of factors that cross the strictly aesthetic, and it is diluted in a greater conflict sensed by Hal Foster as the “return of the real” having a great deal in common with a modernist inheritance in which—through the development of the artistic avant-gardes and the neo-avant-gardes—politics and aesthetics generated a confused imbrication, a kind of interference due to the acceptance of the following axiom: reality itself is unrepresentable, and as a consequence the world can only be represented through that which it is not. Hans Bertens keenly detected the ambiguity of this perspective, maintaining that “the real can only be represented as if it were not, given that the real is unrepresentable a priori. In this kind of presentation of the world-as-it-is-not, politics and aesthetics occur simultaneously. In an ideal way, this kind of presentation would have the effect of disrupting (ideologically comforting) the presentations of the world-as-it-is and introducing, in the interior of these exciting uncertainties and in the enormous political potential of the world-as-it-is-not, a complacent bourgeoisification.”12

The radicalization of this representational impossibility provoked the generalized feeling that (avant-garde) art as a tool for the culture of progress has historically failed, despite the total emancipation of the “artistic” from the cultural. The overcoming of this “small defeat” of the aesthetic was attempted by the ultraminimalist, appropriationist, and hyperrealist denial of all representability (associated with pop and with the massification of cultural images to which Adornian thought referred), and as such, it was weighted with failure. However, the very impossibility of culminating this representoclast absolute increased the importance of “guarding,” Foucauldianly, the very way in which, though aesthetics, the politics of representation of the world as ways of accessing reality are articulated. “Our two basic models of representation barely understand the essence of pop genealogy: that images are tied to referents, to iconographic subjects, or real things in the world, or alternatively, that what images can do is represent other images, so that all forms of representation (including realism) are self-referential codes,” consequently, “where Barthes and company see an avant-garde disruption of representation, Baudrillard sees an ‘end of subversion,’ a ‘total integration’ of the work of art in the political economy of the sign-merchandise.”13

The contemporary conflict of transcultural representation, therefore, should be viewed as the burden borne by the postmodernization of the “really representable,” to which we referred earlier, and the conflicts of cultural signification, the dichotomy of pure art/impure art and pure aesthetics/impure aesthetics, as vindications or negations of representability in art, if new perspectives on the politics of transcultural representation are to be offered. In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon observes how the purity/impurity of the artistic field was bathed in the idea of a political purity/impurity as legacy of the historic avant-gardes. She proposes a non-postmodernizing recuperation of representability in which various forms of aesthetics and aesthetic “contamination” are mixed into a kind of political compromise through aesthetics.14 From this perspective, emancipation is a process and not a condition, and therefore, art does not have to resolve anything, it simply has to use its power of representation as a research and positioning strategy before the processes of the cultural construction of meaning and the dissemination of subjectivities. Aesthetic representation, within this framework, becomes politically progressive despite deactivating the artistic-political function of progress.

Representation as a possibility and not as a solution, therefore, cannot be disengaged from the process of raising awareness about a new aesthetics, understood as a transitory visual space across which a kind of knowledge of reality is constructed and flows through the articulation of meanings and through the politicization of cultural subjectivities. Appearing between the borders of this new aesthetic knowledge of the postcolonial era is an ethical recovery of representation as the beginning of a transcultural understanding that dearticulates and depostmodernizes the “tyranny of meaning” referred to by Craig Owen.15 The aesthetic expropriation of the politics of transcultural representation thus presents the possibility of invalidating, from the inside, the colonial strategies of the deauthorization of marginal subjectivities through self-consciously speaking, as Kobena Mercer has noted, from subjectivity itself and from the ethical recuperation of the power of meaning.16


1 / Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Boston 1984. The anthology, which includes texts by Jorge Luis Borges, Baudrillard, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Donald B. Kuspit, Roland Barthes, Hal foster, Craig Owens, Jürgen Habermas, Lucy R. Lippard, and Michel Foucault, well reflects the claims made in the global epistemological conception of culture and the shift through cultural studies of postmodern theory from architecture and literature studies to the arts in general.

2 / Allen Thiher, Postmodern Dilemmas: Godard’s Alphaville and Two or Three Things That I Know about Her,” Boundary 24, no. 3 (1976), p. 947–965.

3 / Hal Foster, “El artista como etnógrafo,” ed. Hal Foster, El retorno de lo real: La vanguardia a finales de siglo, Akal, Madrid 2001, p. 206.

4 / Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, Routledge, London 1995.

5 / Craig Owen, “El discurso de los otros: Las feministas y el Posmodernismo,” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation.

6 / Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen, New York 1987; Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern.

7 / The format itself of October was a response to the representational crisis of the time; see Thomas Crow, “La crítica de arte en la era de los valores insuficientes: En el trigésimo aniversario de ArtForum,” ed. Thomas Crow, El arte moderno en la cultura de lo cotidiano, Akal, Madrid 2002.

8 / Jean Baudrillard, “Concept of Radical Exoticism,” ed. Jean Baudrillard, La transparencia del mal. Ensayo sobre los fenómenos extremos, Anagrama, Barcelona 1991.

9 / Gregory Ulmer, “El objeto de la poscrítica,” ed. Hal Foster, La posmodernidad, Kairós, Barcelona 1983.

10 / John Beverley, Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (Post-Contemporary Interventions), Duke University Press, Durham/London 1999.

11 / Shelly J. Bromberg, “Complicity and Social Construction,” Jouvert 7, Miami, no. 1 (2002).

12 / Hans Bertens, “Postmodern Deconstruction: The Politics of Culture,” ed. Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, Routledge, London 1995, p. 91.

13 / Hal Foster, El retorno de lo real. La vanguardia a finales de siglo, Akal, Madrid 2001, p. 130.

14 / Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge, New York 1989.

15 / Craig Owens, “El discurso de los otros: Las feministas y el posmodernismo,” ed. Hal Foster, La posmodernidad, Kairós, Barcelona 1983.

16 / Kobena Mercer, “Black Art and the Burden of Representation,” Third Text, no. 4 (1990),