Art's Eclectic Future: A Synthesis - Part I

Posted Apr 27, 2006
Last Updated Jun 21, 2012
Persistently Alarming Memories
“Modernism” has a specific meaning when applied to the arts, but it also has several other related definitions, causing confusion as to exactly what modernism means. In the broadest sense, modernism means “conformity to modern ideas, practices and standards”. Under this basic definition, modernism primarily describes all things that are current, including older concepts and customs still in use. Philosophy and theology both define modernism somewhat differently than does art and design. In the arts, modernism is defined as the “deliberate departure from tradition” using “innovative forms of expression” and experimentation. Here modernism excludes traditions. Modernist painting, sculpture and architecture must replace traditional painting, sculpture and architecture, rendering them obsolete. This essay refers to this last definition: modernism in fine art, and what new alternatives might emerge after modernism, as currently defined, becomes obsolete. Not the current postmodern alternative, which is really a continuation and extension of modernism, but distinct new kinds of art that will alter the definition to make it more inclusive.

Although they are both printed in America, the Artist’s Magazine and Art in America magazine feature two very different kinds of art. The Artist’s Magazine devotes its pages to the American realist tradition of painting and drawing, while Art in America showcases the official current modernist/postmodernist art scene, from abstract painting to installation. Both are exclusive, there is very little overlap, and neither mentions the other magazine or its artists. Even the advertising and classified sections don’t target the same demographics. These magazines seem to be describing two separate Americas: one folksy, populist, craft-oriented and rural, the other slick, conceptual, fashionable and urban. Which is the real American art?

Art in America is joined by many other publications, the media, museums, and most universities in promoting modernism as today’s only true fine art. Most current art historians and critics would declare that publications like the Artist’s Magazine are featuring illustration rather than fine art. (For example: What Christo is doing is fine art. What Nelson Shanks is doing is illustration.) They would further insist that illustration, although a skilled craft, is a lesser art, because it is not conceptually challenging. Fine art, according to modernist theory, is provocative, it is about innovation; it “pushes the edge of the envelope”. True to the above definition, modernism cannot allow traditional drawing-based artists to coexist or compete with their “cutting edge” artists, illustration must be demoted to a lesser category, such as “applied” or “commercial” art. Real fine art, they insist, cannot be derivative of anything; it must boldly go where no art has been before!

Modernist art maintains its own self-serving semantic confusion by calling itself “modern art”. Actually, modernism is a style, not a label for whatever kind of art is happening now. It’s a particular kind of design with specific goals, like romanticism or classicism, but by calling itself modern, it continually reasserts itself as being the only current style. Nothing can replace modernism if nothing can be more modern than it. (Some call the most recent group of modernists “postmodernists”. I see no difference. Postmodernism’s goals and messages are quite similar to modernism’s: concept over object, existentialism over humanism, etc. Their ideas do not clash with modern design. It is more likely that postmodernism is simply late modernism. A sea change accompanies a truly new art style, it is usually suppressed before being embraced, and the reigning art establishment finds postmodernism too acceptable for it to be something really new.) More than artists, the design industry promotes its own geometric version of modernism with militaristic zeal. They label any art more decorative than their minimalist parameters as old fashioned and obsolete. Anyone who dares challenge the industry’s supremacy is branded as sentimental and dismissed. Their designers are all on the same page. Only theirs is “good” design.

Modernism has promoted itself so successfully that it has become hard to mentally separate the style called modern from the modern inventions and manufactured goods themselves. To illustrate this, let me ask, “How do you know that the car you are driving is more modern than the car your father drove?” Other than on-star tracking, keyless ignition, and all the other technological improvements, it is still a motorized carriage with four wheels, a steering wheel and seats for passengers - just like your dad’s. However, the difference is plainly visible: the design is newer. Your 2006 Chevy Impala is recognizably different from the 1966 Impala that your father drove because it has been redesigned over the years. Could all the modern improvements be put into the old design? Of course they could. Many car companies have offered new and improved retro designs, from the Ford Thunderbird to the VW Bug. You could put a jet engine in a Model T Ford if you wanted to! Modern design is really just a look, a fashion, a style, coupled to recent technology.

The same goes for everything, modern style could be separated from our entire technological civilization without loss of function, but it’s difficult to conceptualize. We must reprogram all of our thinking to envision it. Let’s try another thought experiment: Can we picture wide screen HD TVs, cell phones, sports cars, jumbo jets, submarines, even space shuttles redesigned by the Victorian science fiction author Jules Verne? Will all our current technological marvels still work after they’re dressed up as steam locomotives and horse-less carriages? Sure, but a lot of mental gymnastics is required to reorient all these things around the alternative design matrix, and the results would bear little resemblance to our current world. We expect modern things to look modern.

Our penchant for modern design is even more entrenched when we imagine the future. Most of us have a mental picture of the future, but I wonder if the actual future will conform to our expectations. Two hundred years from now, will the cities we build on the planet Mars look more like the Jetsons or like the old West? No one knows, but most people would assume that it’s going to look more like the Jetsons. We have an especially unshakable modernist bias when conceptualizing the future. The best example is Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. He envisioned an Epcot Center-like model for what the world will look like 300 years from now. Think of the starship Enterprise, its exterior design and its interior sets, minimal and mechanical, positive and progressive. Even the Federation of Planets is based upon the UN in design and concept. In his version of the future, space is viewed as mankind’s “final frontier”; so scientific discovery is linked to American “manifest destiny” and projected into outer space. It’s a fully progressive concept, hopeful and noble, and modernist design provides the perfect backdrop for the vision.

But if we divorce modernist design from futuristic technology, would our redesigned Jules Verne spacecraft fly as well as the Enterprise? Can an art nouveau spaceship “boldly go where no man has gone before?” We are so conditioned to view the future as modernist, such a vision seems incongruous. To warm up to this alternative, consider Star Wars instead. George Lucas produced a more eclectic/timeless futuristic model in his Star Wars movies. This is because the basic premise, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, is not tied to a progressive vision of the future. His sets are baroque, eclectic, and almost Victorian in places, all mixed with cartoon like creatures and mechanical spacecraft. Whereas Star Trek projects the American frontier into outer space, Star Wars shows us an epic and heroic battle as timeless as the Odyssey, where modernist design is unnecessary. Without conformity to an assumed progressive trajectory, the future is set free!

The future is unknown; let us return to today. Whatever happens in today’s world right now should be called modern: both the comforts of our civilization as well as its evils, but our culture, a culture dependent upon industry and technology, must spin everything new as positive. Optimism is mandatory! Today’s world must be better than yesterday’s. We assume that nobody except the Amish prefer to live in yesterday’s pre-electric world, and those antiquarians, people who love the past, are nerds and loners. We wonder how people survived before cell phones and computers. We eagerly consume every advancement that our “state of the art” technologies offer. We equate modern things with success and progress; we are programmed from birth to be positive about the future. Think of successful executives and CEO’s; don’t we picture them in modernist offices? Anytime something new is built or manufactured in our world: banks, offices, skyscrapers, furniture, and cars, toothbrushes -almost everything - they are designed by modernist designers. They are bright, shiny and new. We are supposed to like them - all of them.

However, some of us dread when some charming old building we’ve known for years is demolished. We know that today’s architects won’t replace it with an improved version of the same style and design (like the way Nero’s architects did when rebuilding Rome or as Ramses did at the Temple of Karnak). We know that an unrecognizably different structure will stand in its place. Compliant, we acquiesce to the change, no matter how drastic. No one wants to stand in the way of progress, so even if we prefer the older styles and designs, we shut up and go along so as not to offend those who like and promote modern design. Humans are a social species, and we don’t like whiners and pessimists. We try to smile and constantly think positive thoughts when confronted with things we don’t like. We want others to like us so we keep unfavorable opinions to ourselves. However, outside the art field, many people have a secret negative reaction to modernist design, especially painting, but say nothing. These people, who smile politely and stutter when asked their opinion about that new painting in the office, try their best to find something to like about it, but can’t. What is the matter with these people who prefer old styles to new? Why can’t they get with the program?

Since modern art was a product of the last century, by now almost everyone has been exposed to some form of it and has developed an opinion about it. Commercially available for at least 60 years, four generations have been impacted by modern design. (The “international style” of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier entered the world stage right after World War II.) Although many urban dwellers immediately took to it, the majority of people were uncomfortable with early modern interior design, with its unadorned, geometric, sterile look, so people like my parents, who lived in the suburbs of New York City during the 1950s, chose the “colonial” alternative for their home decor. I grew up surrounded by secretary desks with filials, teakwood tables and antiques. But when we visited the city, I could not help being exposed to buildings, sculpture and painting of the modern persuasion. Also, I remember a childhood friend, Dougie Lyons, who lived at the end of the block, whose parents went for early modern. His older sister was an art major at C. W. Post, and I saw her abstract paintings at his house. Even as a kid I noticed that Dougie’s sister’s paintings and paintings reproduced in the last chapter of the big art history book in my father’s library looked very different from the pictures in the previous chapters, but they didn’t bother me. I was too young to know that these two kinds of art didn’t coexist nor that budding artists were discouraged from painting the old way, but I began to find out after I started drawing at the age of 10 and calling myself an artist.

Even as a kid, I never hated modern art as my parents and most other grown-ups did—but simply preferred illustration to abstract. (I didn’t know we had to take sides.) Since I considered myself an artist from grade school on, I assumed that developing an appreciation for modern art would be encouraged at school, and it was. My earliest drawings were copies of illustrations in books. This impressed teachers and parents, and I was accorded early celebrity for my ability. Then I became a teenager, and both internal and external pressure caused me to change and grow. Anything wild and way out was an easy sell. Art class introduced me to the 20th Century’s many art movements, some of which I embraced immediately. I remember the reaction to my first modernist-inspired creation in Herricks Junior High School (about 1967). We were learning about the kinetic art of Yves Tinguely and were asked to create a kinetic sculpture for homework. So I went home and deconstructed an old odd-og toy, added nuts, bolts and wires and splashed it with paint. My battery operated art project moved wildly and erratically. The art teacher loved it. She was so impressed that she took it and me down the hall to the principal’s office for a demonstration. I never forgot his reaction. He didn’t even try to be polite. Speechless, this strict looking man in a three-piece suit looked at the art teacher and me as if we were both nuts. Afterwards, she tried to explain that some people, like the principal, are closed-minded and don’t understand the “new” art. Even with the explanation, I was shocked. This was the first negative reaction to something that I had created. Everyone enjoyed all the drawings that I did, what was it about this other form of creativity that brought about this ugly reaction?

One may assume that a negative reaction to modernist painting is based upon a reversal of expectation. Exposed to the many antique paintings in books and museums, people who study history might expect to see similar handiwork painted by skilled craftsmen being made today. Instead they are presented with paintings that look like they were made by preschoolers. Or canvases smeared with random splashes and blobs of color. Or nothing but empty space and sparse geometric form. Or conglomerations of junk. Or graffiti. Or profanity. Anything but quality work done by skilled hands that people can enjoy and understand. The common folk simply hate it and don’t care to know why they do. Often you hear them mutter under their breath, “My kid could do stuff like that”, disappointed that these enormously expensive artworks do not exhibit expertise beyond their abilities. For espousing their honest and legitimate opinion, the culturally unsophisticated are immediately seized upon and criticized as uneducated and closed-minded by the art elite. Often, arguments erupt over who’s got the biggest degree. What these ordinary people, who never took a college level “art appreciation” course, don’t realize is that this art was deliberately designed to challenge their preconceptions, and that their feeling of uncertainty is intentionally built in. This art similarly challenges the culturally educated, but they have learned to channel their aversion into esteem. Some have actually trained themselves to know “good” art by their dislike for it. (I read somewhere about a wealthy collector who, after taking an intense dislike to an exhibition of some emerging artist’s drawings, realized that this meant that the artist had merit and bought the entire collection!) What brought about this ironic state of affairs? Why must art patrons train themselves to love the unlovely? And what motivated the modernist artists of the 20th Century to produce such provocative and unpalatable monstrosities, so loathed by the masses that special education and acquired taste become prerequisite to comprehension?

The answer is history. At one time, avid patrons with narrow taste and a rigid academic system that was highly critical of art that violated its rules and ideals tightly controlled the creative output of artists. Over 100 years ago, artists rebelled against these constraints, legitimately at first, but over time the rebellion grew out of control. After the First World War, many new art movements blossomed. Some, like Dadaism, sought to target and demolish ALL of the public’s comfortable preconceptions and esthetic definitions of art. “What is art?!!” was their battle cry. Public reaction to Dadaist exhibitions was sort of like theater audiences expecting to see a romance being shown, without warning, a hideous slasher horror movie instead. For example, Marcel Duchamp (who embraced Dadaism, cubism and surrealism) placed a men’s public urinal on a marble pedestal as if it were a statue and labeled it “Fountain”. Art patrons were outraged. There were riots, and people smashed the artwork. Delighted, the artists reacted by making more questionable art and bigger, more shocking, exhibitions.

Their reasoning went something like: If what you see really offends your sensibilities, even if it makes you angry and you hate it, you are never-the-less forced to think about it; therefore it’s successful. Not only Dadaists, but all artists of the early modern movement were in agreement on this point: they felt that it was their duty to make people think - like it or not - rather than produce crowd-pleasing kitsch. Most early modernists were expressionists, either representational or nonrepresentational. The representational expressionists like Pablo Picasso, distorted or crudely rendered observed objects. The nonrepresentational expressionists like Wassily Kandinsky, produced forms and colors without reference to objects. None were concerned with acceptance of their work. Ever since, assaulting public preference became an ingrained and subconscious part of modernist thought. All traditional art, but especially Victorian art, with its emphasis on ideal beauty, was branded “kitsch” or sentimental. Kitsch was something that no artist wanted to be called. Another derogatory term used was “Biedermeyer”, after the immensely popular 19th Century German printer of Alpine scenes. This term was used to deride bucolic landscape painting. The last thing serious artists wanted was to have their work compared with the “calendar art” landscapes that people loved. By mid century, museums such as the Met in New York began moth balling their extensive collections of 19th Century “Hudson River School” landscapes because they lost status as “serious” art. (Today these beautiful landscapes have been reassessed and museums are showing them again.) As modernism took hold across Europe and America, the old academies that trained aspiring artists in the traditional, time-honored craft of painting began closing. A lost generation of untrained artists grew up in the void. Young artists at universities were simply encouraged to “do their own thing”. Looking to make a mark in the field, they began experimenting with every kind of novelty they could dream up to attract attention, divorced from tradition and limited only by total uniqueness.

However, even total novelty and constant surprise, no matter how shocking at first, begins to bore us once it becomes familiar. The sight of a corpse traumatizes most of us, but undertakers who see them every day are so unfazed that they can eat lunch in their embalming rooms. We are a culture besieged by new things all the time: commercials scream for our attention by using comedy, violence, and sex to make us look. We learn to absorb or dismiss all things outrageous automatically. We mute or fast-forward TV commercials with our remote controls. Our shock receptors become dull from sensory overload. We treat modern art the same way by accepting and ignoring it. The original generation, the lovers of old fashioned, beautiful, traditional art that were scandalized and horrified by modernism have passed away, replaced by generations who know only Robert Moses architecture and Andy Warhol painting. We are not shocked at all: it’s everywhere. It’s the world we live in. What once was shockingly ugly has become normal, routine and standard fare. Warhol is third generation protest (postmodernism is forth generation). Warhol’s representational pop art rebelled against Jackson Pollock’s nonrepresentational abstract expressionism that rebelled against Matisse’s derivative expressionism, which rebelled against Bouguereau’s academic classicism. Rebellion was the 20th Century thing to do. Even if artists no longer remembered what they were rebelling against, they knew they had to rebel, or they risked having their art branded obsolete or out of style. The original source of the whole century long revolution was, of course, the 19th Century academy.

The question is: why did the revolution keep going for so long? A revolt is usually a reaction to some perceived oppression. Revolutions dissipate when relieved of whatever injustice originally caused the rebellion, like the 1960s counterculture fell apart after the Vietnam War ended. So when the modern movement during the first few decades of the 20th Century obliterated the rigid, academic, intolerant old regime, one might expect a reaction to the chaos that total freedom in the arts had introduced. After the first generation of frenzied rebellion, some form of return to structure and control should have occurred. This did start to happen, as evidenced by the Social Realist and Neue Sachlikeit movements of the 1930s, but unfortunately, the rise of nationalism and communism favored these movements as propaganda for their political causes. These movements were effectively exterminated along with the axis powers at the end of the Second World War. Total freedom of expression reemerged as victorious and as American as Jackson Pollock’s New York School of Abstract Expressionism so vividly demonstrated.

A new elite emerged that barred artists from returning to tradition. Wealthy art patrons like Peggy Guggenheim insured that both the avant guard artists and the art critics who insisted on novelty and experimentation thrived. “Visionaries” like Robert Moses promoted architectural modernism in cities. Big money was the fuel that kept the fires of modernist revolution from going out. Over time, the offensive or provocative edginess of modern art became anticipated, and once it was part of the mainstream, people became reasonably comfortable with it. Today, we expect to see modern art wherever big money is. In New York where anything goes, people don’t even give it a second look. The excitement of newness has long since worn off.

20th Century art is diverse; so diverse that it is hard to speak of it as one entity. The images run the gamut from the brutally disturbing like Francis Bacon to the serenely beautiful like Isamu Noguchi. Most of the 20th Century’s art has valuable things to say. I’m not against it; I’m for any creative endeavor. However, I don’t think it has the same things to say as traditional fine art, and it certainly does not supplant it. A lot of modernist art is more playful and less serious than, say, Baroque art. The stuff that I like, I find humorous and witty. I don’t expect offerings like Paul Klee to induce tears of joy, as does more serious art like Caravaggio. From Picasso to Pollock, from Duchamp to Warhol to Christo, I get it. They all poke fun at a stuffy, traditional establishment that tried to control art, which dictated to artists what art was supposed to be. Like the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers, 20th Century art is a food fight in the halls of etiquette, a pie thrown at a man in a tuxedo. That’s what I see when I visit the Museum of Modern Art (although I get disapproving looks when I chuckle there). These guys are pulling our legs. But, as I have already mentioned, after 100 years, the jokes are getting a little stale.

On the other hand, some more recent “art” goes too far. When it’s light and satirical like Marcel Duchamp painting a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, I’m still chuckling. When Paul Serrano serves up “Piss Christ”, a photo of a crucifix in a beaker of urine, the laughing stops. Instead of looking for alternative methods and content, some modernists increase the old Dadaist shock tactic to full electrocution strength. They force people to wallow through bloody “installations” of animal entrails (Hermann Nitsch) or adorn an image of the Madonna with elephant dung and pasted cutouts of porno magazine vaginas (Chris Ofili). These provocations invite outrage. Should a mob lynch these artists, will it prove them successful? As in Dada, if a riot rewards good art, would a full-scale war be the reward for even greater art? How about terrorism: is this ultimate attack on public interest really the most terrific art? (Believe it or not, some artists think so.) I consider anyone who calls terrorism art totally insane. Ask yourself: was Osama bin Laden successful in winning you over to his cause by blowing up the twin towers that September 11th? He certainly got our attention, but it’s more likely that most of us would rather see Osama dead than care about his reasons. Terrorism doesn’t make you think - it only makes you mad as hell.

For me, it is anathema to use art to attack people. For art to degenerate from a creative, positive and beneficial endeavor into some kind of weapon is indefensible. There is plenty of ugliness in the world and the impulse to destroy is as old as civilization itself. With our global media, we don’t need art to make us face human horror. Art has often been used in the past as a wake up call, to bear witness to social injustice. Goya did so 200 years ago, by showing us horrible images for their cathartic effect. However, if we sound an unending alarm, like the boy who cried wolf, people stop listening - or, if pushed too far, they shoot the messenger. I believe that the best art does more than simply mirror human sin. The best art inspires our spirit and cures our blues, stimulates our minds and profoundly moves us with beauty, rather than inducing us to riot or vomit. Of course, I understand why these attention-getters use such insulting and outrageous publicity stunts, even though I don’t condone them. People are lethargic and apathetic, and it’s brutally hard to engage them. For an artist, the worst thing is to be ignored. These artists resort to such desperate profanity because the media pays more attention to murderers than artists, and insulting society makes them visible. However, some produce work that has no cathartic effect at all, they mock and hurt people, or generate sick and perverted stuff just for shock value. These I don’t excuse. Art must be creative, not destructive, and these don’t deserve to be called artists. Period.

The above are extreme examples; most of modern art doesn’t have such a dark side. Besides, it’s not the art that bothers me, nor the artists. Freedom of expression must be held sacred. Everyone is free to pursue and present his or her genuine vision. It’s what moneyed society does with the output of artists that ticks me off. Big money is, was, and always will be motivated by pure economics. It takes longer to produce a classical painting than it does to produce an abstract painting. Abstract artists can quickly cover large canvases commanding greater prices than small paintings. It took Gericault more than half a year to paint a big canvas like “Raft of the Medusa” (1819, 16’ x 23’). It took Picasso only weeks to paint “Guernica” (1937, 12’ x 26’). It took Pollock only a day to produce “Autumn Rhythm” (1950, 9’ x 17’). Now, if you can get art critics to claim that all three of these large canvases are of equal value, or, even better, if you can convince art patrons that the newer abstract paintings are worth more than the old stuff, think of how much more money a gallery could make selling abstracts over classical paintings! The walls could be constantly restocked with huge paintings. Wealthy collectors won’t have to wait months to purchase a famous artist’s work as they did in the Nineteenth Century. It’s a marketer’s dream. But one wonders how long an abstract painting by Franz Kline will be worth more than a classical painting by Gerome. High society had better put more art critics on the payroll to keep their investments safe and history spinning!

Continued on Part II...


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