Hal Foster

Siemens Fellow - Class of Spring 2011

Townsend Martin 1917 Professor of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

American Academy Project: Strategies of Survival 20th-Century Art
Current Institution Affiliation: Princeton University
Current Location: New Jersey


Hal Foster is an art historian and well-known author on modernist and contemporary art and theory. His numerous books include Prosthetic Gods (MIT, 2004), Design and Crime (Verso, 2002), the textbook Pop Art (Phaidon, 2005), The Return of the Real (October Books, 1996), and Compulsive Beauty (October Books, 1993). Foster’s intellectual formation took place in the cultural context of late-1970s New York, initially as a critic, then as a critical art historian. He began to write for Artforum in 1978 and was an editor at Art in America from 1981 to 1987. In 1983 he edited a seminal collection of essays on postmodernism, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Bay Press), and in 1985 published his first own collection of essays, Recodings: Art Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Bay Press). In 1987 Foster became the director of critical and curatorial studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program. Foster has been an editor of October and October Books since 1991 and writes regularly for numerous art publications, including Artforum, the London Review of Books, and the
New Left Review. He has been at Princeton University since 1997.

American Academy Project

Strategies of Survival 20th-Century Art

As Siemens Fellow at the American Academy, Foster will work on the book Bathetic, Brutal, Banal: Strategies of Survival in Twentieth-century Art, inspired by Theodor Adorno’s intriguing thesis: “Art is modern art through mimesis of the hardened and the alienated.” Foster aims to explore Adorno’s thesis and, in doing so, to come to terms with a related – and even more enigmatic – formulation about modernist practice posed by Walter Benjamin: “In its buildings, pictures, and stories, mankind is preparing to outlive culture, if need be.” Foster sees “the bathetic, the brutal, and the banal” as interconnected strategies in modernism that coexisted and intermingled during the twentieth century; there is important resonance for the analysis of contemporary art as well.

Lecture Summary

Published in Humanities

Bathetic, Brutal, Banal

Walter Benjamin’s portentous 1933 essay "Experience and Poverty" observes, "In its buildings, pictures, and stories, mankind is preparing to outlive culture, if need be." The Reichstag fire occurred in February of that year. »