Tuesday, March 25, 2008

De Kooning Jumps the Shark; Elvis Has Left the Building

It’s after the end of the world; don’t you know that yet?—Sun Ra , 1970

As regular readers of this blog may have surmised, one of my favorite pastimes is ruminating on the state of things in the art world today. During my twenty years working as an illustrator, questions such as “what is art?”, “is there such a thing as good and bad art?”, “who gets to determine what is art and what is not?”, were far from my mind. Drawing and painting pictures for clients, I never had to worry about things like “what is the meaning of this piece—what am I trying to say?”. I was given an assignment, I did it, and I got paid (hopefully!). Pretty much end of story.

When I decided to become a high school art teacher, I realized that I would have to start thinking about some of these things. I was hired to teach drawing and painting, not commercial art or illustration per se. I went to Borders and bought a copy of Art in America, and sent in for a subscription… So what did I find in the pages of this august publication? A very heavy dose of “installation art”, conceptual and minimalist art, etc. Really, as I remarked in my Art Trends class at Wayne State University (a class taken for my master’s degree in art education), I had seen a lot of this kind of thing back in the early 1970s when I was attending the University of Michigan College of Art. To me, I said, installation art was nothing new—let’s move on already.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

Consider this: what we commonly refer to as “modern art” has been around for over a hundred years. The modernist movements of Fauvism and Cubism are from the early years of the 20th century. Same for the Dada movement-- Marcel Duchamp’s found object sculpture titled “Fountain” (a urinal) is from 1917. By mid-century, painting had come to the point of total abstraction, as typified by the work of Jackson Pollack, a.k.a. “Jack the Dripper”. Painting (“important” painting, that is) was no longer about representation; it had become purely about “paint on canvas”. Gone was any need or desire to represent three-dimensional space; to the contrary, it had become all about “the picture plane”, or “flatness”.

Pollock, No. 32, 1950

Clement Greenberg was, to many people, the most important art critic of the mid-twentieth century. Arguably, it was Greenberg who had the most influence on the way “people in the know” have thought about art for the last fifty years or more. Paint on canvas, picture plane, etc—all from Greenberg. To Greenberg, it was essential that for art to be ART, it had to be always moving forward, always something new and different. Here is an illustration of that point: Greenberg, initially a supporter of abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, abandoned de Kooning when he came out with his series of Woman paintings in the early 1950s. Greenberg argued that by deserting pure abstraction and returning to figurative painting, de Kooning was demonstrating “a failure of responsibility and, ultimately, of character.” De Kooning was, according to Greenberg, “making a major mistake by trying to reinstate the figure.” (Quotes are from the de Kooning bio by Stevens and Swan, pgs. 342, 350.) In other words, Greenberg declared that de Kooning had ”jumped the shark”. Keep in mind, the average person today would likely look at one of de Kooning’s Woman paintings as representing all that is bad about “modern art”, having no idea that this work had been rejected over fifty years ago as being essentially old-fashioned! The premise that art must always break new ground in order to be ART has persisted in the inner circle of the art world to this day.

So, given all of this, where have we come to? After passing through the Pop Art movement of the 1960s (Warhol, etc.), Post-painterly abstraction (term coined by Greenberg) and minimalism, we have gotten to the point where to some in the art world, we are now beyond any use for “the art object” altogether. In the 1980s, philosopher Arthur Danto declared “the end of art”, citing Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) as the point in time where art became indiscernable from anything else. Since then, the history of art can no longer be seen as linear; the art of the last few decades has been dominated by a broad pluralism in which in which just about anything goes. The history of art, traditionally viewed in a linear manner, has come to a grinding halt.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1980

The art world today, in what is often referred to as the Postmodern Era, is not, and has not been for some time, defined by any dominant school or movement. Rather it is defined (if that is the right word) by a complete and total lack of consensus as to the question of “what is art”. Much of the “important” art of today exists largely to deliver a political, social, or ideological point of view and frequently has little or nothing to do with aesthetic value. Much of this work is, to the public at large, unrecognizable as art and in fact, is not even on their radar screen.

Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, 1995

Norm Magunsson, The I-75 Project, (ongoing)

Happily, however, there does seem to be, within the pluralistic art world of today, somewhat of a resurgence of figurative painting, and of realistic painting in general. Some of this work appears largely traditional (cardinal sin!), but some of it could be described as postmodern, typically by virtue of subject matter that is anything but traditional. Art critic/philosopher Donald Kuspit has referred to some of this work as “New Old Masterism”. Artists such as Odd Nerdrum, Steven Assael, Vincent Desiderio and others are painting with the technique of the “old masters”, but the imagery is “new”-- typically strange, often bizarre. Other postmodern realist-leaning painting (realist in terms of realistic rendering, not necessarily in thematic content or subject matter) would include the art that is often referred to as “Low-brow” (this term being a satirical stab at “high brow” art), also known as Contemporary Pop, and the related “Pop Surrealism”. This work is generally inspired by pop culture, and many of these typically very skillful artists come from an illustration background.

Steven Assael, Bride, 1993

Todd Schorr, The Spectre of Cartoon Appeal, 2000

Really, much of the art of today defies labels or easy description. People are working in so many different ways, it’s hard to keep track of. Much of what is being produced these days can be hard to swallow as art. Still, there is a heck of a lot of really great work that is being produced.

David Salle, Angels in the Rain, 1998

Aleksander Balos, See No Evil, 2000

Dana Schutz, Death Comes to us All, 2003

Is art dead? Hardly. Nobody seems to be able to define it, but people still keep making it, whatever it is.

Art as a linear progression? Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.

1 comment:

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