Thursday, November 15, 2007

Modern Art: a Re-Assessment

Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist I, 1950
Among people that are involved or interested in visual art, there is, for the most part, a general acceptance of what is typically referred to as “modern art”. We have been taught, frequently in college-level art history courses, and even in K-12 art classes that modern art is good—that it is important, and oftentimes philosophically deep. We may even feel that we are in sort of an exclusive “club”—we can look at a painting by Jackson Pollock, and know that we understand it, whereas others—the “average person” (not in the club) just don’t have a clue.

Barnett Newman, Onement I, 1948

Although there has always been some modern art that I just didn’t buy into (Barnett Newman, for example), in general, I never had any real questions in my mind as to the over-all validity (or lack thereof) of modern art. However, a number of years ago (more than I care to admit!) I started reading some of the philosophical writings of Ayn Rand. Rand is perhaps most known as the author of the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead; however, she was mainly a philosopher. She created the philosophy known as Objectivism, which, in terms of metaphysics, focuses on objective reality. This is an art blog, so I don’t want to spend too much time discussing Rand’s work as a whole, but one of the things that I found interesting was her outright rejection of modern art (and modern music as well). This was the first time that I had heard of anyone really challenging the concept of modern art. It really made me stop and think… once again using Pollock as an example, I pondered about his work… was he really as great as we have been led to believe? Ultimately, after some time, I decided hey—I do like a lot of modern art, and modern music as well. (As a musician, I found Rand’s rejection of modern jazz to be just plain unacceptable—still, as with art, it did make me think about it.) Although I tend to agree with Rand on some other issues (individual rights vs. the rights of the “collective”, for example), I simply cannot accept her position on art and music. Yet this did open the door to looking at modernism in a somewhat different light.

Pharoah Sanders

As a commercial artist, I never had to worry much about philosophical issues such as “the meaning of art”, particularly in regards to my own work. I did artwork to make a living, doing illustration work for various clients—they were the ones that were determining the subject matter of my work. Work that I did on my own was largely geared towards creating “samples” to generate more work…

Then, after twenty years of commercial art, I left that field and became a high school art teacher, teaching drawing and painting—not commercial art. I had to go back to school to get my teacher certification. During my course of studies, I took a class called “Art Trends and Art Education”. The basic premise was to examine contemporary art to see what we could bring into the classroom. This premise is sound in and of itself. However, much of the focus of this course was on art that was largely conceptual or minimalist in nature. When we look at modern art over the last one hundred years or so, we can see that in most cases there is a demonstration by the artist of at least a certain amount of technical skill. Of course, this is not always the case—again, I would refer to Barnett Newman, for example. However, moving into the postmodern era, in many cases skill has become a non-issue. It has become, in some people’s minds, totally irrelevant. In the extreme, some have even moved beyond the “art object” altogether, into the realm of pure concept. Much of this work exists largely to promote a political or societal point of view, generally on the left side of the political/social spectrum.

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

I had some real “issues” with much of what we were looking at in the Art Trends class. Much of this work seemed to me to be old and tired, no longer avant-garde, cutting edge or what have you. Installation and minimalist art has been around for decades. Let’s move on already.

I started to do some research on other forms of and issues pertaining to contemporary art. I discovered a number of interesting things. Here are a few examples:

1. Tom Wolfe’s book The Painted Word. This book gives an excellent account of what much of modern art is really about (according to Wolfe, obviously). Wolfe is a brilliant satirist, and extremely funny as well. I highly recommend this book. Wolfe does not totally reject modern art, but he really puts a lot of it in its place.

2. The work of art critic / art historian Donald Kuspit. Kuspit has a book titled The End of Art, which is also worth looking at. Actually, I find that some of his articles are good deal more succinct and basically make the same point: much of contemporary art has gotten so far removed from what many would traditionally consider art to be, the he refers to it as non-art. Kuspit asks: what does the avant-garde look like when it is old?
Kuspit: So what lies ahead for art? Are there any signs in the current decadence of new artistic -- even esthetic -- life? Ironically, yes. What I call the New Old Masterism or New Objectivism -- to name names, the artists I have in mind, among others, are Odd Nerdrum, Vincent Desiderio, James Valerio, Jenny Saville, Paula Rego, Brenda Zlamany, Julie Heffernan and Eric Fischl (in his recent portraits) -- is an alternative to labored and lame duck avant-gardism. (from his excellent article “Going, Going Gone”)

Odd Nerdrum, The Water Protectors, 1985

3. The Art Renewal Center. This is a non-profit organization that exists to revive the standards of craftsmanship and excellence of the old masters. They see modern art as restricting and in fact debilitating excellence in art. The ARC promotes masters past and present, and also provides information and links to an increasing number of art schools and ateliers that promote traditional skills in art.
Although I do not reject modern art, as the ARC does, I am very encouraged to see what appears to be an upswing in terms of a return to the importance of skill in art.

Christopher Pugliese, Ulysses and the Sirens, 2003

4. Not all “postmodern” art is necessarily in the conceptualist/minimalist camp. Kuspit’s New Old Masters would have to be considered to be postmodern; the same is true of the art that is referred to as Lowbrow Art, Contemporary Pop, or Pop Surrealism. (The term “Lowbrow Art” was coined by artist Robert Williams, as a satirical comment on the “highbrow art” that is so loved by the “art intelligensia”.) Many of the Lowbrow artists come from an illustration background, and are highly skilled. Interestingly, the origins of this style of work come from things like California hot rod culture, underground comics, cartoons, etc. Incidentally, the magazine Juxtapoz, which features a lot of this art, is now the second-best selling art magazine in America, outselling the long-established Art in America, self-styled arbiter of all that is essential in contemporary art.

Todd Schorr, The Spectre of Cartoon Appeal, 2000

So where does all of this leave us? While modern art is still very much in vogue, there appears to be an increasing number of people that are yearning for something else. Whether it is a return to academic painting, as promoted by the ARC, New Old Masterism, or Lowbrow Art, it would appear that modern art has become old.

Basically, at this point, pretty much anything goes in art. Although this may be a source of confusion as to what constitutes “good art” (or even art itself) at this point in time, I find the extremely wide range of work that is being done today to be tremendously exciting, and I for one, am also very happy to see a renewed interest in art that is based in traditional art skills.

(For more of my thoughts on this, see some of my previous posts.)


leif said...

A lot of great points, RJ - I enjoyed your post and learned a few things along the way!

Personally I have a live and let live attitude about art. I too enjoy some modern art though I prefer representational, classically-based art, whether its been categorized and fine art or illustration.

But I do believe works like Voice of Fire have merit - and may even be great - because the artist is providing us with the opportunity to see the world in a new way - his way... to see the ordinary or mundane out of context.

That strikes me as a worthwhile pursuit. :-)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic - I look forward to visiting your blog again.

Skywalker said...

Todd Schorr is an incredible artist...Thanks for posting this astounding work

RJ said...

Todd Schorr's "Dreamland" is a beautiful book full of his art, with many fold-outs and tight close-up detail pics. It is an insanely great deal at 29 bucks, available at Highly recommended!!!

John said...

RIck- Enjoyed finding your thoughts on art. Was searching Chris Pugliese's work. As a 72 year old artist who studied with Walter Murch and paints the figure, I'm running into a lot of resistance ( is it just LA?)- finding people like yourself with a good eye for good artist- Dekooning to Schorr-and an ability for thought is encouraging. My web site is -johngauldartist. com Will visit back- John

RJ said...

Thanks, John, much appreciated. BTW, I took a quick look at your work-- it's excellent! I'll be back for more when I have more time.