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Art at the End of Its Tether

The form of art is, to a certain and very large degree, independent, but the artist who creates this form, and the spectator who is enjoying it, are not empty machines, one for creating form and the other for appreciating it. They are living people, with a crystallized psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions. The creation and perception of art forms is one of the functions of this psychology.

—Leon Trotsky

One fact—undeniable, but still reluctantly admitted to the official literature—dominates the visual arts at the present moment, and that is the eclipse of the avant garde and the restoration of art to the mainstream of public culture. Everything else of importance—the accomplishment of particular artists, the proliferation of styles, the expansion of institutions, the steady glare of publicity, the decline of individual artisanship, and the adoption of new technologies; above all, the increased accessibility and sociability of art—follows from this fundamental condition, which alone converts every act of aesthetic rebellion and innovation into a socially and artistically approved term of public discussion, negotiation, and consumption.

For something like a hundred years—from Courbet, say, to the surrealists—the best and most original productions of the artistic imagination had issued, if not from an outright antagonism to society, certainly from highly specialized and highly creative alienation from it. Often, especially at the beginning of this era of the avant garde, it was a reluctant alienation, imposed by conditions and not consciously sought after by the artists themselves. The newly enfranchised middle class—so powerful economically and so benighted culturally—enforced upon the visual arts a mediocrity of expression and a staleness of feeling that left artists of genuine sensibility no choice but to establish what was, in effect, an alternative culture of their own. Where the unavowed but unmistakable public function of art was to flatter bourgeois pretensions and adjust the imagination to the moral and aesthetic hypocrisies of industrialism and middle class power, true artistic conscience assumed a fugitive status and was obliged to seek fulfillment in its own internal concerns.

The history of this alternative culture constitutes most of what we now regard as the fundamental achievements of modern art. The alternative culture of the artists has proven to be nothing less that the fabric of modern culture itself—a fact at first bitterly resisted, then slowly and grudgingly admitted, and finally, in our own day, enthusiastically proclaimed by the established institutions which have never lost the power—for it is, above all, economic power—to certify for the public what shall be regarded as the mainstream of artistic endeavor.

THIS COMPLEX HISTORY, which still awaits a historian equipped to deal with both its aesthetic complexities and its social and economic imperatives, has bequeathed to us something more than a magnificent, if declining, artistic heritage. It has imposed upon our consciousness a mythology governing the realm of expectation, performance, and value in the arts. It has, in a sense, disarmed the critical faculty, converting criticism—even the wariest, most disinterested criticism—into a species of publicity, with an assigned role in a familiar scenario. The myth of the avant garde has triumphed, over both criticism and commerce, at the very moment when the avant garde as a genuine historical force has dissolved in the embrace of its traditional antagonist. This is the irony that presides over the visual arts at the present time, determining not only the rhetoric of their public relations and their scholarship—the vastly increased role that commentary, analysis, and spokesmanship play in the arts today—but the very terms in which a new generation of artists conceive their work. Under the banner of an impulse that has all but ceased to exist, these artists aspire to win a place for themselves in a competitive enterprise bearing little resemblance to the culture that produced the masterworks of modern art.

Thus, the unprecedented freedom that art enjoys today is, like so many other vaunted freedoms on the current scene, heavily overlaid with the myths of the past. Historically, art now lives a double life, promising delivery from past restraints and outmoded practices—promising, in effect, to place us more emphatically in the present and even the future than art was ever permitted to do before—while clinging to the rituals of independence and intransigence that are, under current conditions, sheer romance. For the changes we are witnessing in the visual arts—and, equally important, the speed with which these changes are effected and absorbed—depend upon an unequal and uncritical alliance with the resources of society. In any such alliance, the artist is inevitably the vulnerable minor partner, peculiarly dependent on the generosity, confusion, curiosity, gullibility, and opportunism of a social force he is in no position to control. The artist is by no means without advantages in this alliance. By a canny deployment of ingenuity and moral blackmail—a benevolent blackmail that invokes past failures of perception at the same time that it upholds to his admirers a vision of future profit and acclaim—the artist may sway large bodies of opinion and attract large sums of money. But he remains the coefficient of an impulse that is not entirely, nor even largely, his own. His alternative culture, the tradition of the avant garde which vouchsafed the purity of his enterprise, is abandoned for what he hopes are the larger opportunities of established public culture.

THE MOVEMENT that signaled this change of heart was, appropriately, pop art. Simulating an attitude of critical irony and mockery toward both abstract art—the most prestigious fine art of the moment—and the throwaway iconography of commercial visual culture, pop actually effected a decisive rapprochement between the two. Ambitious to displace abstract art, pop assimilated and vulgarized the visual strategies of abstraction while exploiting a vein of public taste. The irony involved in employing the imagery of comic strips, canned soup labels, billboard advertising, and photo-journalism for the purposes of high art proved feeble and the mockery merely tactical. All the talk of “anti-art,” of acting in the gap between art and life, of “an art that takes its form from the lines of life”—the typical cant of the pop propagandists—was little more than a smokescreen for a style of art prepared to address itself to the largest possible audience. The smokescreen was necessary, of course. Promising something new and daring, it answered to the needs of the vanguard myth even though, in actual practice, pop undermined the basis of vanguard aesthetics. The rhetoric and accumulated wisdom of the avant garde were used to deliver art into the hands of a public anxiously awaiting the assault on its sensibilities that would signify a new aesthetic sensation.

Pop art confirmed the existence of this new public, which extended beyond the already sizable audience for fine art and included larger numbers of the young, the hip, the newly rich, and the intellectually homeless than had been attracted to any other art movement in modern times. Pop clearly acted as a liberating force for this public, giving it a respectable and unanticipated purchase on the art scene and relieving it of all those despised burdens—especially the complex ideas and subtleties of feeling—traditionally associated with advanced art. Specializing in puerile emotions and cheap jokes, contributing little to pictorial invention but debasing much of what it appropriated from existing styles, appealing to a hunger for an art that trafficked in familiar and recognizable images and rewarding that hunger with a plastic simulacrum of the real thing, pop succeeded in demoralizing the art scene with a cheerful, swinging ruthlessness that left the very notion of artistic seriousness severely damaged. That this demoralization took the usual American form—giddy self-congratulation abetted by a sharp eye for the market—only underscores the distance separating the art scene of the Sixties from even the noisiest and most self-seeking episodes in the history of the old avant garde.

It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the effect of pop on art and the art public—and, of course, beyond the art public: as an influence on political, cinematic, theatrical, literary, and marketing styles, not to mention styles of dress, pop continues to thrive. Yet pop art itself is now—six years after its first flush of celebrity and acclaim—practically a dead issue in the visual arts, having been consumed by its own publicity and thereby immolated on the altar of novelty it did so much to justify and exalt. What have remained and multiplied are the taste that pop ministered to and the audience it stimulated, and their effect on the art scene is probably a more radical and pervasive factor in current art than any of the artists, movements, or styles that have succeeded pop.

Two of these movements—minimal sculpture and the art-and-technology movement—enjoy a rather spectacular prestige at the moment. While the minimal sculptors still adhere to certain traditional practices, constructing stationary objects of simplified design—mostly module structures of boxlike shapes—that elicit disinterested observation, both groups excite the loyalties of the new public by offering visual experiences fundamentally at odds with those to be found in the classical productions of the modern masters. Whereas the latter carry the unmistakable sign of an individual sensibility and a completely personal conception and control, the new styles suggest the atmosphere of the assembly line, the engineering lab, the drafting table, and the plastics factory. They continue the work of pop in stripping art of its interior expressiveness and its external refinements, substituting for the commercial imagery of pop the surfaces and materials—and, at times, even the forms—of industrially produced objects or, in the case of the art-and-technology group, the aleatory designs (both visual and aural) to be derived from advanced electronic engineering.

THE MOTIVE governing these movements is the acquisition and exploitation of a look and a feel that will, on initial contact anyway, disarm our educated expectations and force us into a new awareness of the underlying affinity between art and non-art, between aesthetic experience and the common experience of the industrial environment. But just as pop closed the gap not so much between art and life as between art and commercial art, so minimal sculpture nudges art in the direction of industrial design and the art-and-technology movement openly aspires to transform the visual arts into a form of electronic theater in which the artist and the engineer and their sophisticated physical props function on more or less equal terms. Just as most of the pop painters were, in fact, commercial artists before they attained their cultural eminence, so the minimal movement has opened the door to various designers and failed architects who are content to leave the actual fabrication of their work to industrial technicians.

One could enumerate further developments: thus minimal sculpture seems to be dividing into two distinct factions, one moving in the direction of open-air “environmental” constructions on the scale of architecture, and the other opting for the improvised manipulation of raw materials (fabrics, metals, plastics, anything) without any preconceived formal design; while the art-and-technology group has formed itself into an official body, a foundation called Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc., and enjoys the advantages of an international membership, a house organ, ample funds from the electronics industry, and the support of connoisseurs on the order of Senator Javits and Theodore H. Kheel. We are, indeed, a long way from the age of the avant garde. For these are artists who have no real quarrel with modern life, but only an impatient ambition to be part of it. Far from conceiving of their work as forming an alternative culture, they draw their ideas, their images, their strategies, their feelings, the emotional and intellectual tenor of their imaginations from the synthetic surface of the prevailing culture. Their only connection with the old avant garde, except for some functional pilfering, is the myth of the vanguard artist that still serves as a passport to the establishment.

PAINTING continues to exist, and there are critics—notably Clement Greenberg—who find no break in continuity between the best of what is being done now and the best of the past. Mr. Greenberg locates that current best in the work of Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, among others, and I would certainly agree that Mr. Noland, at least, is one of the most vigorous and self-confident abstract painters on the current scene. If I feel nonetheless that his pictures, like those of the other pure color abstractionists I admire—Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly—do not satisfy the standards I derive from the art of the past, it is because these pictures are so one-dimensional in spirit, so indifferent to anything beyond the technical realization of their handsome surfaces. Metaphysically, the new color abstraction leaves one empty-handed, adrift in a sea of exquisite visual sensation, and this seems to me not only insufficient in itself but ultimately to place the work at a considerable distance from its own implied goals, assuming those reach beyond purely decorative gratification.

There is, of course, something essential in the game that pictorial art plays with the decorative function. The masters of modern painting—Cézanne, Seurat, Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Miró—have all been wonderfully adept at locating their work at precisely the point where the expressive force of the artist’s vision remains a visible counter-weight to the decorative realization of that vision. “As in love,” Matisse once observed, “all depends on what the artist unconsciously projects on everything he sees.” Without the clear articulation of that projection, an essential term in the dialectic of great painting is, it seems to me, irretrievably lost, and I do not find that term effectively asserted in the art of the color abstractionists, who have jettisoned expressiveness in the interests of a brilliant visual positivism. Serious and accomplished they are, but their work is too vulnerable to purely decorative resolutions to act as a barrier to the dissolution of painting itself. They too strip painting of its internal complexity even in the process of adding to its external refinements.

Elsewhere, painting persists in something like its traditional forms but defensively, uncertain of its prerogatives, unnourished by the prevailing culture, confused in its goals, and isolated in its values. There are figurative painters of extraordinary gifts—probably the most powerful at the moment is Philip Pearlstein, whose double portrait of his daughters, exhibited last season, rivals the best portraits of Balthus—but, like Balthus’s own work, their pictures seem to exist outside current history. Even their strengths do little to allay the feeling that we are witnessing the twilight of a great tradition.

In the face of these developments there are murmurings of discontent—most serious literary and political people in this country seem to have written off the visual arts as a minor entertainment industry—but there is remarkably little resistance. The museums, with their vastly expanded facilities and memberships, have become captive to the leaders and sponsors of the new movements, and their economic survival more or less depends on their remaining so. The universities function for the most part as fellow-travelers of the art market and the mass media, lavishing their funds and their prestige on the celebrities of the moment. Criticism, where it is not simply a racket for advancing reputations, is mesmerized by formalist discriminations which attach to every increment in pictorial novelty a burden of philosophical significance the art itself is often ludicrously insufficient to sustain. With few exceptions, art criticism is no longer a humanist enterprise but the pastime of ideologues at the service of visual technicians.

As for the future of art, I have no doubt that it is going to be very like the future of life generally—tyrannized by technology and bureaucracy, rationalized by propaganda, trivialized by the mass media, and condemned to an abject dependency on the main course of society until its best instincts recoil in disgust. At the moment, certainly, the artists themselves seem perfectly content with the status quo.

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