The Blind Leading the Blind
Looking Back Forty-five Years to the New Empyrean
Looking back to the summer of 1963 one must shake one’s head in dismay at the artist then just surfacing, who totally drunk on the grandeur of his visions of paintings to come, banishes entirely any acknowledgement that somehow he would have to make money, placate the needs of clients, or surrender his dreams to the dictates of the new theory.
To be fair to him though, no one possibly understands the social forces pulling out all the stops in democratizing participation in the visual arts that soon will throw away as irrelevant all that he is devoted to. In this egalitarian moment, painting as a distinct and disciplined form of communication will be held in suspicion for its elitist practice; while figurative imagery will be looked at with patronizing contempt for being so out of touch with the moment.
The habitués of the art world, a growing subculture that will quadruple and quadruple again, though always susceptible to fashion, will become, as it always has been, a classic example of group obedience to the ruling code of conduct. Although pretending to inclusion for unique individuals of singular vision; the reality is completely the reverse for those who remain unwilling to compromise their own beliefs. For all the galleries large or small and all the players involved are part of a vast feudal system where everyone knows their place.
Although wearing the easy mannerism of Bohemia, the individuals comprising this multi-layered towering structure of political hierarchies know this, and as in all such societies, anyone who doesn’t will by exclusion be thrust from the ranks.
The more established kids on the block who knew him years before become insistent when encountering one who follows an orbit around an older tradition now eclipsed and made retrograde by the ascendancy of radical theory. They don’t see art as a stewardship, but as something to break. To them, art is a systematic program at finding the solution to the problem of representation- the choice inevitable for the historic moment allowing them to be free of it; to make its presence inconsequential.
He’s quite honest about not giving a damn about the historic moment. His independence from the arbitrations of late modernist doctrine infuriates them; they don’t like others’ implying that their assumptions may be temporal. Anyway, they’re really brutes at heart; they need someone to kick. So they unmask their true selves on the unsuspecting fellow who would think himself so special that he could renounce the given pattern of how things should be.
If he had been part of a small, determined gang of his own that might have proven different, but he is an easy target. Never in the past would they have dared be so haughty to his face, but now numbers are on their side; old scores can be settled. They are free to jeer at the uninvited returnee from Europe wandering Soho, who is alone.
Still none of them would do anything on their own; they’ll settle with license to be snarling. In great spirits, before they rush off down West Broadway to an opening at Sonnabend to meet with the rest of the posse, they tell the fellow in that brief moment: “You thought you were such hot shit. Well, you’re nothing.” One only needs a few of these collisions to avoid tasting more.
It is for similar reasons de Kooning quits New York; he isn’t able to walk the streets in anonymity without someone giving him a piece of their mind. Similarly, Caravaggio as well deserves more sympathy: it must have been very hard to be the greatest living artist in the world and not be subjected to antagonisms that push one into violent extremes.
But this young artist isn’t a firebrand on the tennis court; nor does he have any powerful protector to allow him to breathe at ease. His back is to the wall and not being good at hiding it makes him easy game.
So his disregard for established opinion gives opportunity to their amused sense of superiority. That becomes especially evident with members of the growing bureaucracies, who are equally resistant to independent thinking. They simply won’t touch an unknown factor.
A century of escaping the dictates of the academy only to be reeled in once again by this grotesque mechanized army of robots from the seminary- disdainful and silly, this pompous bureaucracy of day jobbers, peddling approval and license as handed down to them in the codifying, hard, strict scriptures of the day; their self importance almost as ludicrous as their lack of imagination.
The devotion by which this following lives vicariously the success of its heroes makes the inhabitants of the art world no different psychologically in mass hypnosis from that of sports fans or the mesmerized euphoria of nations bowing to the cult of demagogues. Believing they are the select, they follow in complaisance the rote sophistication of their class absolving themselves from the challenge and loneliness of being their own person. So comfortably righteous and only mildly incredulous when first encountering naiveté; their proprietary tolerance is soon outraged by the individual who believes in himself rather than universal opinion; it marks the fellow outlaw. Thereafter, he’s pariah,
His moving to New York in the fall of 1972 will bring this artist the sorry realization that one can’t be free to choose one’s path without reprisal. There is no entree. He feels emotionally bruised by the oppressive strangle hold of art making as ideology removed and unresponsive to aesthetic value. In its insistence to theoretical conformity it is as mean spirited towards individuality as the larger upheaval happening in China. Everybody has to swear allegiance and carry around the equivalent of a little red book,
The tyranny of the idea, pre-determining the confines of the work, marks the whole period continuing to the present and proves once again the harsh reality of an empowered orthodoxy willing to enforce its belief system. It is absolute.
Even the neo-expressionist enclave in Köln is far more conceptually bond in strategic rigor than a straight forward appraisal might at first suppose. In their stylish guise they are as numbingly routine as any cerebral artist of mid-sixties conceptualism. Like the conceptualists, once committed to their project, they don’t dare break from their own mold.
Obedience to their conception of being radically opposed to minimalist confines, the current ideology, is what keeps them card bearing members of the avant-garde. Their rhetorical posturing and flamboyant bravura is far more calculated than emotionally founded. They follow the formula that a movement must stand in opposition to what is in fashion. That’s the game. Their geographic distance from New York allows them that point of leverage whereby they flaunt their stuff. But they are not revolting from that prescription of making art that fits in the encyclopedia of systematic inventions of the science of the sign.
MOMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Menil and the Dia Foundation, like the monopolies of their founding families, have created a state religion. That then is adhered to conceptually in the monopolistic venture of the Castelli/Sonnabend axis that dominates so much of capital investment in contemporary art the next fifty years. Money talks and to where it points so follows value.
With such blessings the ideological arrogance of the late avant-garde institutes a ruthlessly impersonal bureaucratic inquisition demanding correct thinking. Misdemeanors caught in spontaneous acts of individual belief are, in a social sense, figuratively sent through its corridors for instruction. Failure to conform brands one apostate.
In the beginning, it’s a little freaky to be a marked man as the social body, fearing contagion, encapsulates him as a free radical and blocks off any acknowledgement of his presence. Being less than renegade leaves him dangling in the twilight distance from the Emerald City, called in this version Soho. So he finds refuge in the brackish rubbish heap of the East Village where few are willing to go.
Yet it has advantages; for keeping to one’s own path is wondrously exhilarating. He will enjoy his own private wilderness, there to be left alone in intimacy before a canvas pinned to a wall, unobserved and uncommented upon. The silence is so curative, the silence where he paints, and the silence of the images upon the vast emptiness of a silent sky.
A few years later in Brooklyn, Pearlstein and company will stand uncomfortable before his quiet paintings silent in their inexplicit narrative. They want him to commit to a dialogue, a structure they can point to with certainty. He doesn’t want one. Isn’t a soul before the viewer enough?
It is just as well. There is something glorious about the openness of the East Village in the mid-seventies and remarkably refreshing to know one is an outsider, to be free! The ostracism of course is grim. Walking ten blocks across town to Soho, he passes the regulars out and about and feels the sting of exclusion. Still, it’s just a social malady to suffer through, for he is simply not impressed.
As the seventies go by, visiting the hushed gallery exhibitions, made vacant by an elite Cabala restricted in its own esoteric posturing, will lead the artist to explain that being in New York frees an artist to be himself. He clearly knows by being there that nothing is happening.
Nor can a free spirit find welcome from the precious little world of “neo-academic” tradition, co-existing by limited permit of the avant-garde ruling elite, who patronizingly laugh to themselves and leave its membership alone to be the dilettantes and mediocrities they are.
The members of this smug provincial colony are so incestuous in their dealings and so dogmatic in their idolatries that they too close their doors to strangers without the proper password. Their sophistries remain uncontaminated by any new thought. They will not see how early modernism has refreshed tradition, not broken with it, or that it has simply opened its possibilities by de-emphasizing verisimilitude and returning to the more immediate pre-Renaissance response to flatness on the one hand and spontaneity on the other. But like the hard core conceptualists, they are grammarians at heart, not poets.
Their unwillingness to see tradition broadly, as something greater than their narrow practice, sabotages any engaging voice affirming a place for aesthetic experience in the contemporary moment. They are clearly an uninspiring alternative. One is left between a rock and a hard place.
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Once the avant-garde’s agenda to be free from the fetish of material and image winds down with conceptualism and minimalism becoming fetishes in themselves; hierarchies of value will be promoted by polarized constituencies led by theoretical propagandists spouting the utopian narcotic of deconstructive polemics that in turn get sanctioned by powerful syndicates operating in the art market.
Thanks to the feminist movement and policies of political correctness, the term fine arts that once defined a distinct realm will be abandoned as such to include thereafter crafts, the various design fields, along with dance, theatre, and film and the popular arts associated with vaudeville’s satirical comedy. From then on all acts of expression and all acts that produce artifacts of any kind will be entitled art.
This will be made possible because aesthetic values integral to the highest conscious experience of art will be downgraded as fostered by metaphysical prejudice and cited for evil by self-righteous social doctrinaires seeking to discredit the fruit of civilization for its inevitable association to elitism. As such, this prosecution will enforce the single most revolutionary turn-about in society’s view of art since the Protestant Reformation’s prohibition of iconography during the seventeenth century and usher in its stead the clamorous solidarity of emancipated mediocrity.
With aesthetics being outright invalidated in the study of art history, nullified by blind indifference in exchange for art’s social history; the attribute of being of its time and society becomes the assigned focus. Then it is a short step to the proposition that art take a judicial activist role for reforming the collective consciousness. Critiquing the means of communication in mass media will become its purview. Thereafter, art will no longer be a place of refuge or solace for the soul but a social agency policing communication.
Furthermore, the dismissal of aesthetics will provide an excuse to raise the stature of lesser forms of popular art outside the evolution of Western European elite civilization. Often one will see just the artful repackaging of utilitarian handicrafts produced in various forms the world over that are given priority as compensation for undeserved neglect. The result will be that everything is to be held equal in value, unless championed by authority.
That authority will no longer come from traditional sources of expertise. In its stead, once the criteria for art get projected into a full agenda of institutional critique; the force of extra-artistic arbitration will come from cultural observers in academia speculating in semiotics. Having no loyalty towards the territorial integrity of the visual arts, their view in reading painting is literally literary. Their theories become the philosophical fashion for a new breed of critic provocateurs to subject the visual arts to a master idea of radical purity.
Perhaps no one can blame Messieurs Derrida or Baudrillard for the ensuing confusions. It is these self-appointed disciples who ignore their warning against authoritarian arrogance, and so demand radical measures imposing a de facto interdiction towards imagery unattached to disclaimers of its prejudice.
So these deconstructive linguists are greeted as prophets by the rabble who wants an easy share of the spoils as the old guard is scourged from the ranks in academia that they can take their place re-inventing the history of art now outflanked and under the hegemony of the new fields of cultural studies and theory.
Often for the multitudes of artists it’s less than choice, but every occasion to exhibit and every chance for review is coveted and jealously guarded. It will become a society of insiders whispering. Nepotism persists no matter the allusion to altruism. Well connected senior feminists solicit opportunities for their surrogate daughters and sisters, as do the gay tribe for their brethren. But don’t be too independent; don’t be a lone ranger or you may as well leave town.
That is especially so as “The Word” rises in ascendancy to displace and make irrelevant the visual image. When the idea itself becomes the message, its visual execution is inconsequential. So we get actual consumer artifacts assembled together in display, chillingly banal as if just taken out of the wrapper, a surrogate merging life seamlessly into art. But if that is poetry, we already are consumed.
All the while the numbers of seekers all searching for the newest thought have swollen exponentially. Swarming waves of new arrivals clog the scene like jellyfish on the shoreline. Eventually, most will float belly-up, stranded by the shallows. Only a few survive; for nothing has changed. Everything is still controlled by small clubs.
What will unfold in this time of chaotic radicalism will be arbitrary favoritism in which the feminist network, forming a coalition of solidarity with gay rights and minority activists, takes control with a vengeance. It will be a revolutionary takeover waving slogans of righteousness and equality but completely self-serving as it exerts influence by intimidation.
If one should question their assertions that maybe some of their examples of art aren’t art; it will smack them in the face like spitting into the wind. No one enters against the encroaching tide, as if anyone sane wants to walk barefoot through the inundation of Nereids clawing over each other in frenzied arousal, past the tepid shallows and on to higher, sweeter ground of anticipated acclaim.
This madness will be seen first at the grass roots level where artists find or are denied the first rung on the ladder. The highest ground will still be profitably held by a few very rich dealers and in backrooms invisible to the public where the lucrative secondary sales make the game a brokerage deal. Everything below will be overrun in a saturnalia of women’s emancipation.
So for those who will be so foolish as to be indisputably talented, there would be no forgiveness. The malevolence shown would come unsolicited for they are to be special targets. Women who once meekly stood in the background now unmask their thorny cupidity. All the years of their mothers’ accommodating to the authority of father figures will reverse with complete spiteful abandon.
Their call for the suppression of painting will be publicized as a long awaited curative to the old hierarchies and systematic prejudices of what constitutes achievement that kept so many deserving women out of the limelight. The consequences will upgrade experimental play and exhibitionism as something more than the childishly capricious, sexually narcissistic caterwaul that it is.
Worse, it will doom all concerned into servile acquiescence. The threat of chastisement for questioning the new deployments is too great. No one dares to challenge feminism’s firm grip on the culture.
Any legitimate disagreement citing even the possibility of duplicity in their polemical argument as amounting to reversed gender specific prejudice or with the validity of the actual work on aesthetic grounds will bring the full wrath of their despotism down upon the wayward malcontent who will be accused of racism and misogyny for not falling into lock-step. No critic will be so foolish to stumble into that quagmire and still be published. No journal will go against what their readership wants to hear.
The contagion of clichés being heralded will make the art world a cross between the whimsical banality of the Waldorf School and the rapaciousness of the bordello. Only the arrogance of the new chauvinism, of boys flaunting bullwhips and girls stringing pantyhose in galleries turned amusement parks, can find ground in the shifting arbitrariness resulting from identity politics now being validated as a source to mime.
The period is an illustration of extremes. The mayhem of hyperbolic euphoria banishes all restraint as it runs amok through the humanities and the arts tossing aside the legacy of the centuries and inaugurating the lunacy of amnesia by which the present generation looses touch with the past and randomness prevails. Anomalies become the standard and their rationale common wisdom; tradition is hobbled by punitive neglect; and if there is criticism of the new order, it will be denounced as bigotry. The culture is whip-lashed into a voltes-face as its assumptions are turned inside out. Nothing of this magnitude has happened since the Vandals entered Rome.
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Although most in this generation of flower children pretend otherwise, they are as regimented by adherence to proscription as their parents were to theirs and far more hypocritical. They come along smug in the assurance of a historical moment that says one is already an artist just by saying so. The new rallying call frees them to be the truly beautiful artist that they are. So they become intoxicated by grand empty gestures and hostile to the past whose values they are unwilling to strive for. Few have the requisite dedication. They sneer at what is beyond their understanding.
The baby will be cut up in little bloody pieces and distributed to the new faithful who believe they hold a living thing. Now they are relieved from the discipline of learning their craft and fine tuning their perception.
Instead they read the texts of their gurus, diligently musing on the new platforms of consciousness. They assume, with bravura, poetic license when such moments in an artist’s life comes with years of honing down the work to its essence. No other generation in history has assumed they can dance before they can crawl. This one believes they can fly!
It becomes an uncanny, surrealist nightmare as if the sky were swarming with the hum of hijacked airliners playing tag. It would be amusing as it is ridiculous, if but for it being lauded by the museums. Actually, it becomes dull and boring in profligate gestures that on both sides of the Atlantic make obvious “genius” liberated as if a pack of mandrills tearing up a hosiery shop.
Very few of those lucky to gain momentary attention will enjoy it for more than their allotted fifteen minutes. Their success, in truth, implies acquiescence to further aspiration. They will be pigeon-holed into one specific product and reduced to that. Their franchise limited in perpetuity. They cannot escape from the concrete box they willingly step into. It makes them all little shopkeepers: butchers and embalmers and appropriators and cosmeticians slapping on sarcastic confections. Soon the lid will slide in place. Next!
One’s place in the world will be limited to isolating parts from the whole of expression and calling that something new. If there be a clinical, myopic integrity that one can point to; its focus falls into inventive systems whose games and riddles become idle escapism.
But most superficial acts will be seen in the misplaced borrowings from one art form to another. This is most evident in the new practice of directorial photography with pretence to film or painting, but whose artifice makes for unconvincing and self-conscious viewing.
Often it is the half-baked dream that little girls have of Hollywood, staged with theatricality amateurish posing as if Snow White, alarmed by the unsettling pleasure of waking up after being had by her gang of dwarfs: still she’s not sure. Such playacting completely denies the spontaneous magic inherent in photography captured from life. Very little is conclusive or independent of theoretical justification unless one is making art for those who spend their lives watching soap opera.
If one or two photographs are at first striking; soon they disappoint. Then, their connivance stands out like an irksome trick. If performed before one’s parents in a high school auditorium it could be amusing; here it sticks in one’s craw. One can never return to these overplayed charades without wincing. Once understood as pastiche of film, where can one go beyond the cloying appropriation of sentimental artifice? Yet they are applauded as revelations, and the artist starlet becomes the star artist. Talk about fetishism, or is that idolatry!
Perhaps it’s business as usual as philosophical speculation justifying such childishness goes from professor’s tower and publishing house, to artist’s loft and gallery exhibition, through contemporary museum, magazine article and advertisement page, to collector’s vaults and out again to the auction houses. Everyone gets a piece of the action. Everyone is in tandem. No one wants to upset the bandwagon. The market is completely controlled and satisfied.
It is a collective venture, a cooperative industry whose tentacles go out in all directions, giving rank and status and employment to a host of academics, journalists and curators aside from the increasing valuations placed on the product as it passes from one owner to the next that award handsome brokerage fees to dealers.
The real winners are the venture capital gallerists, like Sonnabend, who from the outset hold much of the most important work they exhibit for themselves, creating wealth by assigning value to it. None of that can happen unless the machinery is well oiled and the road wide open to themselves alone. Everybody else is excluded from obtaining a license.
Still, the very best chance of success for an artist is through the notoriety of totally degrading acts of perversity and nihilism that come under the theoretical umbrella of cultural and institutional critique. But that’s an enormous stretch. Most of these acts of repulsiveness are simply strategies to attract the news coverage that only scandal against deity or sexual morality provokes.
So the art is the product of intent to garner success at any cost irregardless of collateral damage to the cultural fabric and the society it preys upon. Ethical considerations are stepped on when not stepped over. Beyond the barbed arrogance towards living beings in the scornful abattoir of one celebrated British artist, only the ruthless avarice of his collectors can match.
Forgetting the depraved who call themselves human, so much of the new art is done so much better by nature’s creatures: whether the geometric logic of the spider’s web and the bee hive, or the foot and a half high symmetrical pinnacle of pigeon shit piled up in twirls of off-white and grey below their customary perch that is ubiquitous to any abandoned building - a site specific installation piece of conceptual clarity, produced as an ongoing performance of habitual duration expressing time in its accumulation: the poetry to which the art world aspires.
For forty years we will witness the piling up of variations on this theme of debris taken out of context for no purpose but applause. In that respect we are different from a host of sentient beings out there in the wilderness who also produce monuments of outstanding conceptual beauty, but who have purpose as their designs fall into place with functional intention. They at least make sense even in their dung heaps!
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Maybe that is why there is so much disquiet in the imperfection of our own forms of communication that we can’t live up to the natural act of telling a story or painting a picture that we must swipe the board clean of past practice. But that is the doubt found in a pseudo-sophisticated culture that can only perpetuate its own discomfort through the numbing prescription that everything be a joke; for we have lost faith in determining our own actions without equivocation.
The dismissal of what it takes to make art that molds the essence of visual experience into its spiritual presence is an admission by those sour dispositions that see it as naïve to believe we can reach each other in the simple beauty of directly executed images. They insist on the corruption of communication collapsing upon itself and make that ironic impasse the subject of the art they endorse.
They won’t take that leap of faith that we are left with anything other than a joke, and in their self-deception they demean what they can’t see or feel or do. Their prophesy that we are swamped in the indeterminacy of the absurd is their defeat; and in their pedagogical stance it becomes ours, for they have made it the only game in town.
But the joke is connivance on the part of the Word dissatisfied to remain in literature and desiring an expanded field of operation in and at the expense of the Visual. Why the impulse to formally annex visual art? Literature has always shared equal billing. Both are unique realms that manifest the imaginative faculty from complementary poles. Where one reads or hears words spoken and imagines visions; the other perceives visual images and imagines words to describe them. Though both use sight, they diverge into distinct spheres of comprehension, experience, and pleasure. So why call an act of literature that has expanded its published site on to a canvas or panel, such as in a John Baldessari, anything other than a literary act? And why push the primary visual experience into the margins as if second rate or obsolete?
This intrusion has been sanctioned by critics and editors whose primary loyalty is to literary conceptualization and who see nothing disturbing that visual imagery be subordinated to the word. Consequently we are left with a literary rub, its subversive pleasure an iconoclastic arrogance.
But there is a world of difference in the mastery required to make an image which resonates feeling in a viewer’s heart and mind. Such a direct communication where representational painting channels the spirit in the flesh goes beyond embarrassment and alibi. No one ventures to speak about the difference in an image of ourselves that touches our souls and brings us to the edge of being.
That ability goes beyond the ingenuity of a breed of ambitious jokers whose course to mock what in their own work they can’t approach have turned art into a pallor game of light amusement. This belligerency is awarded a free pass by a critical establishment bent on constraining visual mastery by treating it as just another form of signage. Bad enough when the photographic advertisement, appropriated, spoofed, and turned into a redundant presence in an art venue, is given critical applause; it pushes appropriation as a moral act of inquiry. But that’s bull. Everybody knows it’s only a joke.
So there will be no differentiation made concerning the spiteful appropriation of stolen images. Don’t speak about the public domain or the legality of marking someone else’s work to make it yours. It’s morally repugnant.
Still, no matter what marks or what schematic invention or theoretical intention placed upon a photographically reproduced painting or sculpture, the borrowed image keeps its identity. It may be slammed by petty sarcasm, but it can only be toyed with. Appropriation is a sham.
In song writing, when a singer reinterprets another’s song it is classified as a “cover”. The original is fully acknowledged even when the cover becomes the classic interpretation. That’s the nature of the art of composing music and song that it is put out into the world clearly with the understanding that others would play and sing and interpret it. This is not the case here.
Yet a borrowed reproduction of an art work can’t ever stop being the original in essence; the borrower can never make it his in the way that a singer can make another’s song magically unique- an honor to the writer and to the interpreter. One will wish to say to those who borrow: “The magic of someone else’s image is not yours.” That is especially so since the intent is a violent disregard for the authority vested in the original by virtue of its mastery.
Mastery, on the other hand, is not needed in graffiti or collage techniques where the dynamic of colliding realities disrupts the normal avenues of coherent intent. In such manipulation, marking and destabilizing the syntax of appropriated images works without trying. A baboon tearing up the Mona Lisa will do wondrous things for a theorist to speculate upon.
Appropriation is for pranksters who wish to show how clever they are at others’ expense. Their cleverness is their message. But as in graffiti art, once Basquiat left the vitality of weathered walls for blank canvas, his painting lost its edge to become just bad painting; so appropriation parasitically lives off its host. It doesn’t exist otherwise. Playing off the superficial culture from mass media is insipid enough, but what is worse is when it preys upon a work of integrity.
Like Basquiat’s original act of graffiti, the power in their work is the product of usurping someone else’s image. Its defiance gives it its edge that excites some to make excuses for dependence on others’ art. But outside the Marxists defense advocating attack on the privileges of mastery, where can one point to its redeeming value- in its literary irony?
Such work remains within the lockstep of parody. Beyond a spoof, and all these works are spoofs, what is the irony when we already expect it? So the work itself becomes a talisman of opposition against established values and proprietary claims of authority. But that gesture of insolence is a very juvenile form of rebellion, and its favorable critical reception, by which it has become the symbol of the new enlightened authority, is likewise a pretty hollow form of social redress. All we’re left is a fetish.
Certainly that is so with Basquiat. His work shares the common stamp of universal mediocrity. His occult status is the product of a media blitz profiting from the public’s curiosity for scandalous tragedy- the vague promise of prurient excitement in viewing the spectacular rise and fall of a manufactured genius who, knowing he is unworthy of such acclaim, obligingly self-destructs. Was this supposed to be a performance piece! Art needs to be more than a clichéd story of obsession and suffering on the part of the artist acting as sacrificial offering to an indifferent public.
Anyway, that is hardly the case with Basquiat. The fantasy introduced by his promoters of his mythic undertaking reaches heroic proportions while he is alive- as have the prices of his works in auction since his convenient death. The irony in this situation vesting authority in Basquiat by the art market is sorely in need of deconstructive purging.
Artistic martyrdom of this kind is fetish. The essence of his work draws its force from its attachment to his death. Its power comes by way of this transfiguration of the fictive outsider/outlaw into the representation of a virtually immaculate fallen angel. The anticipation of his demise is already a condition in his nomination. His candidacy met the pre-condition for a tragic death.
The enigma that people point to is none other than vacancy- a missing dimension that eludes definition. But there is no mystery but the monotony of listless imagination desiring illumination but incapable of anything other than thrashing displays of agonized terror. His work resists any better qualification for he had never sent the taproot to the source.
Likewise, turning someone else’s work into a joke is meager fare indeed. Whatever is justified for such tactics can only be surmised in the polemics of literary critics viewing visual art solely as an agency for social reform. But what have they left us but a vastly more corrupt and arbitrary standard than anything they sought to replace. Appropriation is questionable on ethical grounds for a work of art that deserves respect should be given respect and left alone. No worthy message should be based on violation; appropriation cancels itself out.
Artists have always borrowed source material, but in the past they took only inspiration for they did it by hand as did cartoonists making spoofs. But with the means of photographic reproduction arrogance has risen to the surface. Now every act of sacrilege is applauded in the confusion of not differentiating the political act of appropriating the mechanisms accessing public discourse from violation against the hard won victories of individual artists.
Even Warhol had discretion in borrowing from the reproductions of photography in mass media. His wit does not depend on violence but simply acknowledges the nature of the public domain. With his appropriating photographs Warhol kept to displacing the original and reframing it into a gilded context. The distortions in reproduction were kept within the bounds of silk screen let printed imperfectly- a veil of distance that acknowledges its circumstance as in all press runs as a copy of a copy. In most cases, his borrowings honor and amplify the significance of the original.
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Still it is another matter to produce a unique work from its inception. What one looks for is if it transcends itself from its material platform to a higher dimension. That is the mystery. While using the simplest tools magically, the artist guides by singular intention a visual meditation. It’s a spiritual act not a sarcastic one.
The artistry is fusing its essential physical unity into a spiritual presence. It comes about in its material doing, in the process as paint is pulled and spread upon the canvas. Its forms are felt as well as seen. The physical action is communicable- a visceral exchange understood by the viewer’s own musculature. It is this tactile experience, registered internally during the act of painting that brings an image to life from the mind of the artist to be then available to be grasped within the imagination of the viewer.
The viewer cannot get that from photography imitating the pictorial staging of appropriated conical works. Those photographs are missing an essential presence that can not be activated in the viewer’s musculature. The experience remains with the picture only; the aesthetic dimension that opens channels to the viewer’s physical and spiritual reception is left out.
One can’t make credible form unless one feels it, and one can’t feel it unless one conceptually knows it. The mind will search out the closest ideal form as it resides in readable space. All other embellishments are but attributes that come about because of particular motivations of the artist in execution of the image. But only by passing beyond conceptual knowledge to feeling can the artist transmit form eloquently.
No matter how wondrous the happenings of nature’s sensually beautiful phenomenon harnessed by technical illumination and photography, the hand drawn image is the most direct communication, other than eye contact, shared between humans after that of speech and song. It is a distinctly human activity.
What is interesting is a painting’s never ceasing to be a painted image; yet as one looks at it, it takes on another dimension. One minute it is of this world, and in another moment it’s going beyond. Then one who is looking at it is someplace beyond and right here in the here and now, simultaneously. That is the aesthetic experience where the material platform transcends itself; now disqualified as requiring a privileged initiation. Yet everyone knows that one must be taught to read, or a book is useless; the same for art.
Yet there is a major event occurring in the culture that treats traditional training as if it were obsolete. While photographic and cartoon imagery become an incessant flood; fewer people in the visual arts will be visually literate.
The ignored reality is that drawing teaches one to see; that drawing is a conceptual act that the more practiced, the more sensitive one is to nuances of spatial reference and light. Great works breathe. One should know when one encounters a mechanical act from what is magical. One can’t know drawing unless one is intimate with it and has learned to penetrate its surface. Only then can one enter into its alchemy.
One should be able to read what edge of a contour line marks the boundary of a form; whether it silhouettes the form or is part of the form. Sometimes it shifts within the same descriptive passage the way a voice meanders. Mondrian is a master at that breath of space.
Mondrian’s late period right before his last is his best. Afterwards he is stretching to comply with theory. His acquiescing to the goal of pure abstraction turns his very last works into the symbol of what he had achieved up till then. They become rigid, flattened to the surface plane. His subtle shifts of the intercepting edges abutting become frozen and loose their dance. His magical, lyrical space where land and sky and water’s reflection breathe, inspiring in his later more abstract works the play of floating contours, becomes rejected for a concrete label of that world- the tragic necessity of following the avant-garde imperative to its barren conclusion.
If one has not studied drawing by practicing drawing, even for just the ability of connoisseurship, then one can’t see, and one can’t judge. Pleading that the common person is ignorant of such things does not disqualify its experience. It just means they have downgraded the experience to become only communication where authority rests in ideograms by which we know our obligations: we will no longer have the freedom to be re-creative in our response.
We will no longer imagine poetically for that depends on acknowledging that we have inner lives that need expression, and that expressive communication is an act sympathetically aimed towards another’s imaginative “re-creation”. That experience cannot be mechanically produced for passive reading for it is a species of activity all its own. It is about seeing.
Removing art from the direct observation of visual data and its corresponding partnership with the interpretive act in the perception of its essential nature denies what is art. Artist and the intended viewer are in a dialogue of mutual dependence upon the material act and its resulting image. Each in sequence interprets that material presence as a poetic reality.
To deny that poetic exchange for some theoretical dictate of absolute precision mistakes the beneficial re-enactment whose essential freedom and worth are in its participation. To demand that art be an authoritive declaration instead of poetry, to define communication as only the province of one part of the human mind, one hemi-sphere of the brain, and to wish to coral human emotion, that unkempt cornucopia of desires, attractions, and fears, into a clean, systematic message is pedagogic despotism.
That is what happens, and increasingly from then on theoretical discourse in the visual fine arts is directed by those in semiotics and linguistics advocating universal inquiry into the discrepancy between sign and meaning. But that’s an academic agenda; for to enter the fine arts looking for compensation to the imperfect meaning in language is absurd. Yet they choose to impose their arbitrary assigned values on a visual form that requires a real acquaintance with the re-creative faculty of perception that they obviously don’t have.
Their speculating as sociologists on marketing in mass culture that glamorizes the pseudo-sophisticated fantasies that every child over five can tell you are bull; should not confuse that false world with art or the reading of signs with the beholding of images, but they do, and its consequence sanctions in the practice of artistic expression witch hunts whose sarcastic games become only the extension, and not the elimination, of the very content that they insist that they abhor.
When irony is only used as criticism; then what is left us but sarcasm which suggests foreclosure- meager fare for sure. Even if our worst fears were true, our minds deserve more vital substance and our souls more compassion.
Irony should be more ironic, more plausible and deep: the double edge that cuts through ambiguity in a circuitous progression- the enigmatic twist compelling us to sit down for a moment to wrestle with what should be refreshing. Only the play between bitter and sweet gives irony its pleasure. One needs a range to move in, or one is just straight jacketed into forced feeding. Then why the need to deconstruct the lie if the result is just another insolent injury to gag on- just another form of coercion!
It is approaching half a century since Warhol achieved in appropriation from media, “mediated” only by the undisguised nature of silkscreen, the ironic distance needed to observe with equanimity a media saturated culture. Once done, it was done. Why repeat the discovery over and over again. It cannot be improved upon.
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Nor can Gerhard Richter’s appropriation of the abstract expressionist manner be shown to be either a positive affirmation or a reliable refutation. Even if viewed from a post-modernist vantage, where does his frosting become ironic other than sarcastic? If anything it is a parody on all those countless aspiring imitations that dumbly followed to become parodies of themselves. But what’s the point in referencing what the mob had turned into conventional practice; we already have seen enough mediocrity.
What is so invigorating in Pollock and Rothko is the breath of life. That’s what intoxicates us and makes their abstractions so much more rewarding than other abstract painters. We can empathetically step into their paintings; something denied us by Richter’s boarded up stockades, built upon layers of veneer thrown one on top of the other.
The sugary sensuality of Richter’s mechanical competence of pushing paint as phenomenology is barely more than rhetorical performance- the work of a talented undergraduate who hasn’t found his own voice. His spoof has not dispelled the magic in the abstract expressionists’ mastery, but suggests, ironically, that his real achievement is showing us the in-bred ministrations of the theoretical establishment. But unfortunately Richter’s sophistry won’t let authentic genius be.
What remains luminous in Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko that sets them so apart is the passion precipitating their formal actions. It is that passion that generates the hypnotic force inseparable from the form achieved conceptually, and without which the inventive platform would remain a hollow exercise. It is their integrity, found in the search, that transmits passion, and it is that which thrills us. There is no reason to attempt to defrock the genuine authority of great work by some mockery of appropriation.
There are no grounds to warn us further. The personal destinies of these three painters show us the dangers of celebrity, its confines and its exaggerations. Once they have used up their adventure; once it becomes locked into success, made formula and fetish; they cease to be discoverers and simply become purveyors of a product. Each finds his way out once passion evaporates with the hollowness of continuing, and they self-destruct. Yes, de Kooning lives; his dementia saves him: he becomes a sleep-walker, a hollow man propped up by the machine.
Do we need Richter’s empty, rhetorical games? Why do we need to be guarded from the authority of genius and its mythic place in our culture? We already know they are deeply troubled by their own monumentalized fame. That is warning enough.
When the playing out of transgression against works held in reverence is a greater fetish than its intended target and great commercial success bid on at auction, it’s just playing to the new convention of pseudo irony demanded by theory. The spectacular success in the art market of Richter’s slick parodies of the abstract expressionist practice explicitly presented as inquiry into that painting’s credibility for contemporary deployment has become an extreme example of the act of inquiry as its own fetish. To ask the question should not be construed to legitimize the question, let alone sanctify it.
What does just positing the question prove, especially when the conditions to satisfy the question are disingenuous from the start. Gerhard Richter’s mnemonic gesture looking backward is a fallacious gesture; for it is based on skepticism. The act of painting, and especially painting in the manner of abstract expressionism, can’t be separated from the act of faith and the act of love and the act of desiring it because one is compelled to do so in one’s very bones; for it is the call of the wild. By needing to announce it inquiry, Richter answers his question before he paints the painting.
For an artist to paint with the psychic force necessary to abstract expressionism, he must let go of being tradesman as well as theoretician and enter the stream as if a sleepwalker with his eyes wide open. One can’t paint like Pollock unless one journeys ardently and passionately far from field.
Richter never engages in the search- the long process of letting go and going beyond figuration to arrive at the essential condition of painting which is itself the natural condition of the real world and how humans experience the sensation of being in the phenomenal world, of perceiving its energies, its sounds as much as its visual presence.
Richter has only jumped at pastiche; he hasn’t followed what his long road could become for he starts at the wrong end of the process. He knows his ending before he begins at his beginning. His paintings complete themselves in the worst way; they reverse the order in entering the stream. His painting never leaves the act of painting to become the condition of nature- the essential condition- the transcendent mode where everything is part of the cosmic intelligence as is the artist.
The spiritual economy in painting doesn’t smother the primal source, but lures it into intimacy. Richter borrows the idea but with expectations. Richter’s painting is like a simulacrum of lovemaking turned violent. If and where Pollock and de Kooning turn violent; it is a violence that submerges the self into the event where the self and the other become indistinguishable. Whereas Richter never forgets himself; he is master. He hasn’t offered enchantment, only category. Neither pathos nor magic, we are left with only the assault of the tedious.
His slathered paintings programmed like pre-pubescent runaways, buttered and rouged for sale, gesture like mechanized toys gyrating clueless in mimicry of adult play. To strobe one’s palette knife hard wet on tacky wet in mechanical obviousness is hardly more gratifying than a pimp’s trick. Are we really to look at it as the sonorous cadence of epic poetry? Is this gravitas supposed to be taken seriously! Grim determinism seems more apt.
If one takes Richter’s paintings at face value; what is there but the claustrophobic nightmare of a U boat plowing through the imprisoning layers of squeegee applied paint unable to crest through the surface to freedom. One wonders how the passionate lyricism of the abstract expressionists has now been made into peppermint candy canes blocking escape. We are trapped in a layer cake of phenomenology. One begs: “Please, I can’t breath.” Just as the last row blocks all hope!
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For Richter to begin his celebrated career by exhibiting color charts is hardly reason to place confidence in the relevance of his vision let alone petition for his beautification. That the Museum of Modern Art, an institution prone to aggrandizing isolated techniques to the point of fetish, champions Richter’s color chart as the ground breaking manifesto for the new ideal of rampant arbitrariness is enough to make it clear that the culture’s touch with reality is unraveling in time with the polar icecaps.
Of course the fragmentation of purpose into the minimally grammatical functions of pedagogical scorekeeping keeps us away from more salient, coherent expressions of where we’re going. Perhaps what we are to salute is the compartmentalized consciousness of the company man whose myopic dedication to the integrity of organizational systems has allowed and still allows for the logistical implementation of social solutions no matter how horrific.
Is that compromised devotion to blind mechanics how we are to conceive the proper world where everything and everybody need be in their proper place? One would have thought someone who spent his early years on one side of a guarded wall might have imagined a world without such boundaries of the imagination. Are we to applaud this purging of poetic freedom as if we have all had our required lobotomy? Is there no room for the untethered surprise of a more humane vision? Or are we, as his supporters insist, supposed to see poetry in the technical virtuosity of the bricklayer.
But Richter’s proposition goes beyond the millstone of formula to censorship. The analytical mind that refuses variance from the artificially conceived order would have all of us in his box. We are obliged to honor his order at whatever cost to our own destinies. In that custodial rite of propriety by which he remains outside its jurisdiction, Richter seems to be the symbolic bearer of office, the technocrat assigning value to what is and what is not acceptable practice.
So, with what might be imagined the sadistic glee worthy of any warden of an asylum, Richter twists the verdict on aesthetic pleasure by painting ‘beautiful’ paintings. But their beauty is at best superficial, vacant of meaning outside the declaration of inquiry; for in his prescribed disclaimer, it submits itself as substitution for the authentic and genuine. In consequence, Richter admits openly to its inferiority, for his roose alone is the substance of signification.
As inquiry, it excuses meaninglessness in work that to eyes now unaccustomed to aesthetic discrimination can’t comprehend its telling mediocrity. As such Richter laughs openly to our faces. He gives his collectors exactly what they want- pretty paintings for over the couch with an excuse attached as if that were its claim to value.
Once it was thought, perhaps too hopefully, that beauty and truth were inseparable. But beauty without meaning is an insult to both. And the dissimulation in freeing himself alone from the terror wielded against painting beautifully suggests a magnificent perversion towards all parties concerned. Is the arrogance of the spoiler what holds the critics enthralled? It seems to be.
To the eyes of this writer, the grimacing image lurking in the photograph reproduced in Artforum April 2008 of Richter sitting with Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo sitting outside Demonstrative 67 in Cologne where he first exhibits his color chart, seems more than a little too crafty. By catching everybody in his trope, Gerhard Richter has fulfilled the prophecy that art will be little more than commodity in a world where nobody can or will make aesthetic judgments.
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The value of painting is in the realization not its supposition. Only by dropping the question and saying yes can deeply felt emotion become apparent. Otherwise the artist is on the outside looking in. Only the deep seeded affirmation of painting’s sorcery will make it manifest; to ask why is already negation. Richter’s inquiry sees art only as a storage device for compression of signage- information already pre-digested and approved.
So Richter dissects his mule; and though stuffed, it stays stiff. The only way to ride the beast is to love it passionately and let it take you where you least expect to go. For it to make sense, it must come from deep attraction, a passionate attraction, not a superficial abstraction. It cannot arrive with just the idea, but must be in the marrow.
If it is not an alignment of the self with the manifesting, the act is pedantic which leads to a far different course than that that the abstract expressionists entered. As such, its pedagogical manner is far removed from a true mnemonic re-enactment for it has left out their spiritual quest. And by doing that, leaving out an essential attitude that must be subscribed to with sincerity, Richter demonstrates the fallacy of his inquiry, suggesting more than an overreaching arrogance, dismissive and contemptuous of the spiritual involvement which is at the very heart of the abstract expressionist endeavor. No wonder his painting cannot bring off alchemy.
It is hard to believe such conspicuous dissimulation has been applauded as an important achievement and that Richter is seen with reverence by now two generations of critical theorists. So naturally, it illustrates the constraints employed by the critical establishment determining how the game is now played. But then again, the word game itself implies the social forces deciding reception and membership, and as such, it is a social phenomenon first and foremost. But please let’s not confuse societal games of inclusion and status as in themselves eternal values.
Still, for the way the game is now, the logic runs as following:
To do the unthinkable by daring alone is unthinkable and can only be construed as nonsense. Such independence that ignores critical discourse is repugnant.
To do the unthinkable by announcing it inquiry is correct thinking. Its very lack of daring assures its claim to our regard, and that rhetorical guise can then engage a response. Otherwise, visual thought can not be deciphered by the literary mind.
More like The Glass Bead Game, art as inquiry parades as oracle. Without the certainty of what is proposed, the literary viewer is lost as to what he is expected to retrieve. But painting is primarily visual revelation, not literary exposition. Just the sound of the words marks the difference in how it graces our lives: for the first flows sensation like a blessing over one; while the second hammers hard on one’s head.
Art now summons us to a coroner’s inquiry determining crimes against truth. But painting’s meaning, as in a dream, rolls in upon the shore in waves of recognition. Sometimes the sea storms. But even then there is exhilaration, not handcuffing to the wall. Art can be more than a listing of proofs and alibis damning images deemed unsuitable by the bench. Need we indictments! And by what authority are you claiming the truth?
More often fiction holds the greater relevance in how we come to understand it. One doesn’t need a ledger’s columns of plus and minus to speak about life’s mysteries. Beauty lies in the clemency of potential readings by which we are permitted to forge our choices in determining what is rewarding.
But the new academy is autocratic. The quest of inquiry is the closure infecting every avenue of communication in our technocratic society; that one must wonder why we fill ourselves to the gorge with jurisprudence and still remain unsatisfied.
One isn’t advocating escapism; the spiritual world is our world. Those who refute that are our jailors. They have imposed prohibitions on any expression that can’t be measured verifiably or seen as part of their regime of socially enlightened activism- that great leveler of numbing compliance that by extension eliminates mastery. Mastery once manifested the spiritual; now mastery is attributed to those who advance inquiry.
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Beyond unmasking myths that results in only more confusion, what score do those who follow a misreading of deconstructive criticism think they are settling in the visual arts? Forget that absolute truth in the direct precision of communication is impossibility. Human complexity is supremely opaque. Few of our emotions are unconditional; yet all the while we desire fascination above everything. Then why burden art with this academic worry! Why go round in circles like dogs insisting on the choice spot? Need the messages from our stories and images be irrevocable!
An image depends on an implied compact that understands that what is communicated morphs with need in the beholder. The artist, therefore, must have in mind his recipient’s coming before the work as a place of privilege where one must trust oneself as well as the other. Although some prefer imagery already categorized; the most worthwhile experience is not incised in declaration that the viewer may find his own way into the image. An artwork is the threshold that opens to more than one possibility.
Why should our communicable truths be hampered by being expressed poetically, more evocative and telling in understatement than in sterile deductive conclusions boxing in our lives into measurable cubicles where we are expected to remain docile and satisfied?
If all our truths could be said in clear concise sound bites, how impoverished our passions and how alone the soul that we should fit so neatly into a shadowless reality devoid of depth and heartache and surprise! We are walking palimpsests of lives half-lived and discarded, shed like snakeskin, scraped and bruised and crackling through the surface layer from the flesh of buried memories.
For what do we want but to be free to resist the certainty of even our own judgments of ourselves. What we most dread are confines to our expectations. Aside from the life we would lead if we dared, how many back chapters never get finished because we won’t completely define our intentions; how many loves never past the first misstep! There is so much we hide from ourselves. And you want truth; are you insane!
Reforming the inconclusiveness in our communications as conjectured upon by pedants viewing our human evasions is like religious ravings demanding assurances of immunity if one could but contract God. Our truths are merely where intention meets accident- affirmation as deliberate as kissing someone for the first time, yet unexpected. If it were more secured, would the thrill be as memorable!
Only in art and memory can one go back to that first moment. Why should the mutability in its recovery into text or image make it any less significant or truthful? Everything is in transformation. For whom are we being true? The worth of our messages is determined by the receiver. Why take the fun out of the human heart with all its memories left scattered in drawers and cupboards for us to re-discover by accident or get discovered and shown to us by our children. The treasures of our lives are not the gilt-edged certificates of deposit left in a bank vault. They float on the wind or are barely perceived in the dark.
One will wish to say to artists that given our complex reality; tell your story or make your image as honestly as you can and trust the receiver to understand as he or she can. To the critics: “Stop carping!” We are already skeptical. We do not need dogmatic censure assuming guardianship over art practice that only becomes another form of arbitrary authority. The critique has become the problem.
Embrace the freedom that allows the viewer to recreate his or her own meaning from the art work. The poetic fictions in art forms may hold as many truths as any systematic program of Cartesian purity. Perhaps what we most need to find in art is the sanctuary of the wilderness where we can be alone with ourselves. Not an out of this world fantasy, but a place to commune in the silence. Art is not a vehicle to uphold the law.
No one asks: when enough is enough. Is one trying to discover the next big step, or is one trying to make something magical? Because it is beginning to seem that all those inventive systems are only curiosities that lock experience into a program. Could one be brave enough not to take the next step, but use what we have in the service of poetry.
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But that won’t be the case, then or now. By the seventies, the new generation advancing in the ranks of art history, theory, and criticism, will become more dependent on linguistic and social theory than on actually seeing with their own eyes and hearing with their hearts. Their strategy will predispose judging the visual arts as principally illustrations for theory; the goal simply that it be its logos. And any art form not squaring cleanly with their ideas of social justice will feel the blade of Marxist, feminist, deconstructive vengeance on its neck.
Connoisseurship as the educated act visualizing the intentions of the artist and by which the viewer accesses meaning will be accused of elitism and privilege. So too, painting will be repudiated as consolation for bourgeois sensibility; while the aspiration for beauty, another indictment of complicity in the inequities of capitalism, will be condemned as well.
Their characterizations may suggest hypothetical correlations in the inequities between social classes, but beauty and the ability to fully comprehend it are not the cause of injustice. The new arbitrators for moral good are very naïve in disclaiming quality in art for the sake of advancing equality in society.
If there is fallacy in that expectation, it is made all the more cynically obvious when exhibitions of defiance against the prevailing codes are sponsored by the gallery system. It’s a set up. The rebellious act and scandalous artifact propelled in advance by a well orchestrated grab for notoriety soon are appropriated as fashionable guises, and so neutralized, become commoditized luxuries for the very forces that they profess to antagonize. It is all precious playing at rebelliousness for a society posing before the camera in an art industry geared for entertainment.
Many of the artists who will gain favor would have in the past gone into advertising. Now, instead of selling brand names they are selling irony- the endless irony that everything in the end is commoditized and made logo. But instead of offering us some relief from the exhaustive mind boggling flood of consumer society in which their art finds its context and which the art market is clearly a part, their actions squander our attention as their own gilded parodies become logo for themselves.
What is reflected on to us is the same gloss by another name. The masquerade which has been sold as ironic provocation to a culture of consumerism is annulled by the success of its reception in the media that in turn feeds the art market. Despite the irony that the work is indistinguishable from its target, in their rise to collectable status, these artists become willing providers, complicit in the system they propose to critique. There is something perverse going on here.
If these artists don’t see themselves compromised, then their self-deceptions ironically symbolize what they have satirized. Either way, is that compelling reason to make these gestures over and over again? There are no enduring reasons to return to these works except for those who build their careers on promoting its dialogues and a market place that speculates on it as investment.
Once its rationale becomes accepted at face value by the media steamroller building a consensus, it becomes impervious to further critical review. That then leads to an enthusiastic following among younger artists wishing for a guaranteed direction for their own work. That blind following becomes its validation: democracy at work.
By the same token, renaming as art the popular gross entertainments as found in carnival or burlesque or in Loony Tunes and Mad Magazine as a cure for the sense of social disadvantage that the uninitiated feel will only prove to be a self-fulfilling prophesy that society gets the art it deserves.
The concession to these entertainments being defined as art will be an inch that overtakes the playing field. But instead of creating democratic inclusion it will ultimately foster a greater division between “recreation” and the “re-creative” act, between the popular pastimes and the imaginative engagement of high art. However, it will not necessarily be manifested in the social status of their followings; for there will come an inundation of investors without prior initiation who will want to get in on the hottest new art, the more notoriety the better; so the industry will gear up to their insatiable need.
(All the while this is going on, Paul Mellon is quietly buying up the best remaining examples of traditional art available. A thousand works for the National Gallery and a thousand for the British Collection at Yale. Almost no one else is interested, maybe a few other museums; so the prices are not inflated. He, at least, is getting his money’s worth!)
Forty years later at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the formerly disadvantaged will no longer feel below anybody in sophistication or miss something they can’t understand because the whole garbage can has been spread on the museum floor. They at least know garbage when they see it. Next weekend they’ll go to the ball game instead; while the new generations growing up with a barrage of cartoons and media inundation of the hyperreal will not even know there is something else to miss.
They will be so wired by the habit of images flashing accompanied by bells and whistles that they can’t possibly comprehend the intimate joy of silence before a painting. Art will no longer be surcease from the frantic world rushing by in a blur of photo-generated images one after another in rapid succession or allow for regrouping of one’s resources by giving one’s attention to one image, but just another mirror in the house of horrors.
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The incursion of social manipulators into the forefront of art theory, making it a province of the theoretical utopia, will resemble a horde invading a sovereign state, who pretending to be liberators and neither speaking the language nor grasping the meaning behind the traditions of that world, imposes its own culture.
The outcome will be that the bedrock upon which visual traditions exist will collapse. In its place will arrive a culture steeped in skepticism that esteems the critique above all else in asserting imagery’s fraudulent nature and its role as lapdog to outworn institutions.
The culture will go from early twentieth century’s pursuit of art for art’s sake, exemplified by the program of abstraction for abstraction’s sake, to the cynosure of cynicism for the sake of cynicism that will dominate the second half of that century and into the next. Its purview will be justified on the desire for truth untainted by the vested domination of capitalism and, consequently, the wish to purge the failure of clarity from language and visual communication which permits and becomes the tool for that abuse.
The goal advanced will deny the honest pleasure found in forms of communication more open to self-discovery, but those who don’t understand point to the stillness of viewing as unengaged. They either want to see active participation as if an encounter in an amusement park, or they wish to foreclose the aesthetic experience as an independent act particular to art and fit the practice into the more measurable perameters of communication as information. The experience of art will be based on reading signs not seeing.
It is a technocratic dream. The mind will be used only for receiving what has already been catalogued in incise packages whose signage assures the viewer of what to think and how to think and that it has all been worth while because authority says so.
If you don’t get it and feel as if you have missed the experience, there is something wrong with you. That is how they will intimidate anyone lost. Otherwise the new art is very efficient; no time wasted in lingering in mystery.
The poetic will be despised for ambiguity. Sentiment will be disowned, for it will be confused with sentimental, and emotion totally loathed unless accompanied by the requisite ironic attachments. The soul won’t be mentioned at all unless the misbegotten humor of a psycho in a retro thriller or in the life of a bloody saint. Both will be played as comedy. It’s just as well that we will not return to the Baroque Passion play, but that a whole dimension of being human will be treated pastiche is equally silly and equally boring.
The new art will be as silly as anything that has ever come before and as predictable. Everybody’s sophistication will follow suit. Can you imagine if fashion returned to wearing cod-pieces and everybody started strapping them on. That’s how silly it will get, and it will be demanded to be taken seriously.
That is what will not be so silly; it will be very, very repressive. The generation of flower children spouting liberation from disciplined strictures will enforce the new viewpoint with an iron fist. The feminist juggernaut ultimately can only be compared to Mohamed’s conquest of North Africa. Instead of the phallus, we will bow to the pussy. Oppressive!
All of that will begin to unfold in the mid-sixties. It will be a ceaseless implosion of activity- the more radically disdainful and subversive of anything that has come before the better. It has been decreed in a tone of religious fervor by the Church of MOMA. The search for the new will take precedence no matter how inane. So it will be like the California Gold Rush. Every hick will think he or she is an artist. Just drop your pants if you can’t think of nothing better! It is a culture in decline.
This painter can see all that from four decades ago- this great wasteland; though no one could possibly believe it prevailing for all this time. So from his position in the sixties he hasn’t a clue how much endurance it will take to living it out by going his own way.
Still, it is as it should be. The crowd, which would have been in the way, removes itself. They are the dispossessed, but don’t know it. He is left practically alone and on his own. It’s an incredible inheritance, and he’s free to wander in it. Hardly anybody else is there!
* * * * * * * * *
One holds the whole of art history in one’s mind- a well considered map. There are destinations to visit, and there’s no hurry. It’s as if one were on a six lane highway and all around everybody traveling: all the known possibilities speeding towards and past one. It’s a surrealistic radar screen of activity projecting around one’s route of progress. Sort of like the Serengeti but instead of animals grazing about, it’s the various species of art movements on their migratory patterns. Some are definitely goofs of evolution; they’ll end in dead ends. A flaw in their patterning won’t keep them around except as fossils with their feathers intact in amber in the exhibition case of the natural history of art.
Isn’t that what MOMA is: the recycling bin of a period of mutations and freaks formed by genetic un-coding that failed to go the distance. Perhaps they seemed alarming when first appearing among the docile species of the plane, but they were all wind in their feathered finery.
He has seen them in the Carnegie Internationals of the early sixties and later in Soho and knew they were not going to last for long- no real danger along one’s path if one just lets them pass; their trumpeting just a momentary echo dissipating in a whimper of exhaustion. There is nothing much to them.
* * * * * * * *
By the time he becomes fully aware there are other ways and means while participating in the rhetorical speculations of Robert Lepper’s legendary class of Individual and Social Analysis at Carnegie Tech; he has already close to a decade with the wind to his back. He has been gliding on clear water, sure of himself.
So when he starts exploring new territories; the constellations of possibilities coming at him like squadrons from unlimited space, intrigue more than intimidate. But they don’t convince. None have the answer to satisfy with an example of a projected deployment of continuous linear development returning upon itself except Picasso. Therefore he makes a calculated decision: that example should be kept in mind as he plays out his own hand from the deck that now is so far removed and scrambled from that simpler time.
He is illustrating the story before he writes it. He’s planning on it being an epic; it will take decades. He is in no hurry that it be told; he doesn’t know the middle let alone the ending. It will be ad lib; except he knows it will be against the tide.
The art market does not want any artist to detract from the perception of Picasso’s being unique in range and scope; whereas the young artist sees that is the only game in town: to take Picasso’s example touching upon the whole of the artistic canon and play upon that evolution as if a symphony flowing from one movement into another, picking up chords and motifs and expanding upon their echoes in later movements. It cannot just be a superficial selection of period styles; otherwise it remains a facile fetish parading as engaged exploration.
What always grounds his approach before a canvas is the belief that there is an essential condition to painting that can be entered into calmly, quietly, spiritually. Such an attitude will be denounced as sentimentally romantic and, in touching upon metaphysics, retrograde. It’s not going to change the world. It’s only going to be a place of reflection.
In his dreams of glory, he doesn’t necessarily assume he will find grand success, but it doesn’t yet occur to him that he is outside the law. His independence, evident to his teachers, will soon be reprehensible to all the company of the art world. He is heading for excommunication once everybody out there catches on to his indifference to their views.
His coming in as runner-up four years later in the Rome Prize competition of 1968 awarding him the Chaloner Prize will be the first and last time he receives support. Afterwards everything changes. It will mark a decisive moment in the awarding of fellowships. Soon the bureaucracies of state and federal endowments to the arts will become a swamp whereby juries of established artists will select from their constituents.
So too, his paintings that hang at the Public Theatre are a fluke- the table scraps inadvertently falling from the Newhouse platter. Their being ignored for three years demonstrates the blinders worn by those empowered to search out the new.
His failure in the 1970s is that he doesn’t sell an agenda: doesn’t present its concept. That’s what they are buying; they can’t see otherwise! They need to see the concept behind the work- putting it up front. The work does not matter as such. He reverses the order, naively.
Still, when he has spoken about following Picasso’s example he inevitably gets slammed with that being impossible! Blank stares of incredulity dismiss such naiveté whenever he tries to refer to his evolution from figuration to abstraction. They tell him that it’s already done, but he insists: “But not my way!”
His father refuses to help him unlike Jonathan Borofsky’s parents who back him for five years allowing Jonathan to establish himself on the scene and be seen. He on the other hand is an outsider, nobody to all these people who pretend to be so cool, so in the know.
When he has his first exhibition in New York in 1974 at South Houston Gallery, his Paris paintings are not the work that should be shown first. They need an overture. Unlike Picasso’s audience, no one knows that he has his own equivalent to the Blue and Rose periods. To make matters worse, he excludes the early iconic works from the show only including the more abstracted and lyrical works without offering the viewer a reference point.
Nor are the paintings averaging seven foot rectangles shown to their advantage. They need closely contained spaces much for the same reasons that Rothko preferred for his works. Then, the motifs suggested by the wrought iron quality of paint can be seen silhouetted against the horizon of the color-field as if fossilized skeletons emerging from the Paleolithic mud.
As such they become shrines by which hunters evoke the spirit of the wild. That very primitive assemblage of paint scraped to the very bones of the canvasses so offends Elaine de Kooning’s sense of proprietary claim on behalf of Bill de Kooning that she gets her dander up as Barbara Schwartz tries to explain Richard Rappaport’s manner of dry scraping and abruptly walks from the room.
So there he stands in the early 1970s, between Darthea Speyer’s rebukes in Paris and Elaine de Kooning’s indignation in New York, and both echoed by Si Newhouse’s skepticism three years later, a cave painter via modernism. In this, he will fulfill another movement in his symphony.
Still, wherever he takes painting, it never forsakes the integrity of painting. There is always the recognition of the wall. The wall is its primary value. It is the precinct where one comes in quiet reverence approaching it as a sacrament of re-creation. One breathes differently. His preference is for the scale where a person can imaginatively enter as suggested by Leonardo’s drawing of a man with spread limbs touching the outer diagram of the square superimposed on the circle.
The “master” paintings of his first period of traditional painting are much like the obligatory proofs of rite of passage. From then on that manner of execution will become a reference in interpreting later modes of expression; for there will always be relationships evident that act as a signature of the artist. It is what is particular to him that holds the symphonic unfolding together as an integral form.
With his return from the primeval landscape of his Paris period, his artistic adventure takes him into the heart of darkness. The artist never imagines his welcome as the art world slams its doors. What should have been the new tradition gets invalidated by trespass by the museum/art market axis. They want exclusive rights for their investments. All others entering the territorial grant to areas only suggested by Picasso or de Kooning but never homesteaded will be tried as poachers. Feudalistic assumptions operate fitting hand in glove with capitalism. It’s a controlled monopoly.
A decade later in the spring of 1981 he has an appointment with Thomas Lawson at the Drawing Center. He brings drawings which Lawson views indifferently, but he does not bring the grattage portraits drawn with razor blades. But are the works in grattage, whether portraits or abstract, drawings, or are they paintings, or as some of the faculty at Brooklyn College questioned, really sculpture! The works are unique.
How absolutely dumb! All that is needed is a declaration of intention- an agenda of what constitutes drawing different from someone else’s view to set himself apart. He has the work; he doesn’t define its agenda. He fails to present a rationale for his project from the 1970’s. He has been reluctant to do so, wanting the work to stand on its own. That becomes his most glaring mistake.
Finding meaning in sensory input is no longer the parameter within which the game of art is played. As the arts and humanities get taken over by the social sciences, a generation of specialists in social statistics is now assigning value. It doesn’t matter that the art is hollow; it is being made for hollow people. One’s enjoyment is in the menu. Now, one doesn’t sit down to a meal: one reads the recipes. The icon pops up, and the roboton reacts appropriately. Like cue cards for a live television audience, it tells you to cry or laugh or be angry or be happy.
Perhaps the most offensive result in art as logo is its predetermined response which accordingly denies the viewer’s essential freedom in imaginative participation with the art work. But as duration ceases to be an important part of the experience of art; that avenue to a fuller engagement in the act of viewing will be seen as an antiquated rite.
In its place is the compression of experience into its sign. It becomes irrelevant what mark is on the canvas: it is inconsequential as long as it doesn’t contradict the literal message – its concept in the form of logo.
The experience is the recognition of the sign only as the equivalence to an assigned value. Then, the choice becomes how well it translates into an ad campaign: how well it sounds in a sound bite. The message is the media. Messrs. Bochner and Brofsky understand that all too well.
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