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Hal Foster headshot

Hal Foster has been awarded the Dedalus Foundation’s 2018 Senior Fellowship for his project Positive Barbarism: Brutal Aesthetics in the Postwar Period

In this project, Foster is interested in the pervasive turn, from the middle 1940s to the early 1960s, toward the brut and the brutalist, the animal and the creaturely, as these features are manifested in the early work of Jean Dubuffet, Georges Bataille, Asger Jorn, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Claes Oldenburg. Foster posits that each of these figures proposes a different version of “brutal aesthetics,” one that strips art down or reveals it to be already bare, in order to begin again after the multiple devastations of the World War, the Holocaust, and the Bomb. But to what ends exactly? Why does Dubuffet invent the notion of art brut? What does Bataille seek in the cave paintings in Lascaux? Why does Jorn populate his Cobra paintings with creaturely figures? What does Paolozzi see in his monsters assembled from industrial debris? And why does Oldenburg remake everyday products from urban scrap?

Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s reflections on “positive barbarism” Foster proposes that “the positive barbarism that Benjamin glimpsed in prewar art, architecture, and literature became clear as a program only after World War II.” Thus, for Foster, Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, and Oldenburg operate as avant-garde figures whose relation to past avant-gardes demands a new conceptualization that would account for their contributions in new terms appropriate to the particular situation of “immanence,” through which they set out “to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.”

“Positive Barbarism: Brutal Aesthetics in the Postwar Period” was planned to take the form of a series of lectures and culminate in a book to be published by Princeton University Press. The lectures were given as the 67th Annual A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts in April and May of 2018 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.