Contemporary American art, according to both George Cotkin’s Feast of Excess and Walter Benn Michaels’s The Beauty of a Social Problem, endlessly risks collapsing back into the mute, formless material world from which it emerges. Conceptual and minimalist works, agree Cotkin and Michaels, refuse to be read as the expression of a coherent artistic intention. Effacing the boundaries that separate them from everything around them, they deny their own autonomy, while foregrounding the chaotic and banal elements of which they are composed. For Cotkin, this is precisely what makes the avant-garde so intellectually compelling. His book breathlessly narrates the efflorescence of experimental and countercultural art over more than two decades, showcasing the life and work of roughly one artist per year, beginning with John Cage in 1952 and finishing with Chris Burden in 1974. For Michaels, most of the works produced...

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