Hal Foster – The Expressive Fallacy

Hal Foster “The Expressive Fallacy” 1983

In his 1983 Art in America article, store Hal Foster tries to expose how expressionism cannot be a pure expression of the self. He does this by examining the works of contemporary artists who have chosen in their work to critique the authenticity of expressionistic art, In the first three pages of the article, Foster brings up questions of authenticity surrounding the idea of the self as originator. He uses Franz Mark and Kandinsky as examples of expressionists who were seen as “breaking through” representational art. He points out that both Kandinsky and a realist are basically the same. The realist is trying to represent a reality; Kandinsky is trying to represent imagination or symbolism. In either case, they are both using the same language to represent an idea.

By referencing the writings of Neitzsche, he exposes flaws in the logic of expressionists. He argues that even if we were able to experience a truly expressive notion, it would be lost in translation between the subconscious mind and the conscious action. All expressions are delivered through our culture and experiences and therefore cannot be the pure acts of a natural self. We are all products of our environment and cannot be separated from them. Secondly, an artist whose cultural background is ever present can never express his “primitive animalistic” side without doing so as a reaction against his cultural identity. Lastly Foster points out that the “I” that expressionists are trying to present is an exclusionary, isolated, and alienated self. The “I” can only refer back to itself, and to be truly free can have no relevant content relating to its historical perspective. This is an important point because later on in the article, Foster points out that in order for expressionist art to prove its honesty and timelessness, it has to deny any relevance to its place in time or specific historical language. It seems therefore impossible for expressionism to achieve a goal of pure self-expression. It, like all other forms of art, are at least partly a product of their times. Expressionist art is steeped in class and language and these things are culturally based, not naturally based.

Foster examines the works of Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein, Richter, Jenny Holzer, Peter Nadin, Sherman, Richard Prince, James Casabere, Matt Mullican, and Eric Bogosian. He sees these artists as being engaged in a critical commentary on the honesty of expressionist art. Many of these artists work with images of the self through the lens or filter of media, culture and society. Cindy Sherman’s work focuses on the idea of the self created through the other. He staged photos are media stereotypes and negate the belief in a unique persona. Matt Mullican uses logos and signs that he has imagined up as a way to expose the fact that what we think of as an expression of ourselves is merely an arrangement of types; class, sexuality, Ideology, and race make up our “unique” paper doll selves. Foster concludes that the self is either fictitious, socially constructed, or a prisoner of the human body. In any case, he concludes that true expressionism is an impossibility. He believes the work of these artists is a strong arguing point against the idea of expressionism. His article is an attempt at exposing the fallacy behind the idea of expressionism as simply empty gestures.