The Return of the Real

From October Books

The Return of the Real

The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century

By Hal Foster





In The Return of the Real Hal Foster discusses the development of art and theory since 1960, and reorders the relation between prewar and postwar avant-gardes. Opposed to the assumption that contemporary art is somehow belated, he argues that the avant-garde returns to us from the future, repositioned by innovative practice in the present. And he poses this retroactive model of art and theory against the reactionary undoing of progressive culture that is pervasive today.

After the models of art-as-text in the 1970s and art-as-simulacrum in the 1980s, Foster suggests that we are now witness to a return to the real—to art and theory grounded in the materiality of actual bodies and social sites. If The Return of the Real begins with a new narrative of the historical avant-gard, it concludes with an original reading of this contemporary situation—and what it portends for future practices of art and theory, culture and politics.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262061872 328 pp. | 7 in x 9 in


$36.95 T ISBN: 9780262561075 328 pp. | 7 in x 9 in


  • Hal Foster's essays have time and again defined the point where theoretical imagination converges with urgent questions in the practice of art, and he offers a guiding intelligence for anyone who wants to know why contemporary art matters in the wider debates about the shape and direction of American culture.

    Thomas Crow

    Robert Lehman Professor of History of Art, Yale University

  • The compelling analyses in The Return of the Real make clear that Hal Foster is one of the few contemporary critics who cinsistently asks and thinks through the most probing questions about the turbulent intersection of late 20th Century art, cultural theory, and global capitalism, and who keenly knows that the answers to them can never be reassuring or fashionable affirmations but rather new and disquieting questions.

    Jonathan Crary

    Columbia University

  • As the twentieth century lurches to its end, the rhetoric of 'posts' has been increasingly supplanted by an awareness of uncanny repeition. No one has more skillfully mapped the resulting spatial displacements and temporal heterogeneities than Hal Foster. Lively and accessible in style, theoretically astute and politically engaged, The Return of the Real is a model of cultural criticism at its most incisive.

    Martin Jay

    Professor, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley

  • Hal foster has written a well-argued account of contemporary art practices and issues that is unique in its perceptive assessment of the very recent past. Foster has the capacity - rare in historians - achieving a critical and crucial distance from that work which affects him most immediately. An invaluable book for educators and artists alike.

    Silvia Kolbowski


  • The Return of the Real is one of the most cogent and theoretically self-aware readings of contemprary art I have seen.

    Howard Singerman

    Department of Art History, University of Virginia