Action Critic

The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience

by Harold Rosenberg
Horizon, 270 pp., $7.50

Nietzsche predicted that when science reached the limits of its logic it would curl about to bite its own tail, forcing the scientist back upon the only remedy—art. What Nietzsche did not foresee is that the artist, too, would reach the limits of art, which would then, in turn, curl about to bite its own tail, as it now does in New York, where the demand for the new is always forcing the painter beyond the limits of his logic. Nietzsche was ignorant of our “speedup in history-making,” one of the pressures analyzed by Jacques Ellul in his recent book on The Technological Society and its permanent revolution. These pressures are nowhere more imperative than in New York, the arena where the new is immediately submerged in “the next wave of novelty” before it can be appraised. Or, as Harold Rosenberg remarks, the new is established as a fact before it can be validated as art.

This perversion of history is the theme of his previous book called The Tradition of the New, the continuing break with the past that has itself become a tradition, constantly expelling the painter beyond the present. The instantaneous global diffusion of knowledge about the latest “trends” in painting, a diffusion promoted by museum directors, art historians, publishers of art books, art dealers, and the politics of the biennial, has progressively shortened the interval for esthetic response, so that the painter is a victim of the kind of art-history dictated by evangelists of the next. Thus the painter must be in ceaseless revolt against the momentary values that are merely a “prepared taste.”

Rosenberg is a critic passionately devoted to the contemporary who is also dissatisfied with the contemporary. This is a position calculated to arouse misunderstanding if not dissent, but it is an intelligent position and evidence of his incomparable acquaintance with what is happening, how, and to whom, in the New York School. In this collection of twenty-three abrasive essays he defends by attacking: he repudiates the vanguard audience and vanguard critics in order to defend the vanguard painter. Now that everybody is vanguard, we all live upon the endlessly renovated clichés that identify a painting with what is said about it—“present-day creation consists of art historian artists painting art history for art historians,” as Saul Steinberg says. So our experience of art derives only from our fashionable knowingness about “movements,” and a painting at once becomes a mere document. Since, then, art-history is our only esthetic and the art-bureaucracy continually is rewriting art-history by promoting what is current, the newest painting yields anxious objects, evidences of an intense and incessant revolutionary quest disturbing the painting and the painter by impermanence and a sense that “everything has been done.” Thus the new instantly closes possibilities to the painter, who must, however, remain in the vanguard, accepting the “unlimited risk” of other revolutionary possibilities. In The Tradition of the New Rosenberg spoke of revolutionary art as a comedy: “It declares that art …

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