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 …

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