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There’s No Geist like the Zeitgeist

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The exhibition called “Zeitgeist,”1 which generated such heat and smoke in Berlin a year ago, still lingers in the mind as an event—even though the promised English version of its catalog has not yet materialized. It was a huge show in an overwhelming setting, a bombscarred and partially restored palazzo named the Martin-Gropius-Bau, built in the late nineteenth century as a venue for international trade-and-culture expositions. The Wall runs directly outside its abandoned portico; not far away are the ruins of Gestapo headquarters. Short of a De Mille set constructed on the lines of Piranesi’s Carceri, it would have been hard to find a more dramatic environment, or one which did more to make its contents more theatric: 237 paintings and sculptures, by some fortysix living artists. And theater was the order of the day: even the catalog preface bore the title “Achilles and Hector before the Walls of Troy.”

Its organizers were Christos M. Joachimides, a Greek art historian living in Berlin, and Norman Rosenthal, of the Royal Academy in London. They had collaborated before, on a much-discussed and somewhat incoherent potpourri at Burlington House, “A New Spirit in Painting.” But “Zeitgeist” was intended to be a much bigger affair: a blockbuster, in fact, one that would put the hotly discussed topic of figurative revival in perspective. It would be an epiphanic moment for post-modernism (or neo-expressionism, or la transavanguardia, the “trans-avant-garde,” as the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva, despairing of finding a better label, named the art he liked to promote). Not in a long time had a major show of contemporary art openly borne so many palm prints of the mafia. Though its curators did a lot of legwork, their selections in the end seemed to have been ordered directly from a menu presented by a few dealers: Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone, Leo Castelli, and Michael Werner. Thus of eight artists in the show, seven came from Castelli’s stable.

There was also a blatant sexual bias. Out of forty-six artists selected by Joachimides and Rosenthal, one was a woman; and that woman, Susan Rothenberg, was represented, to her indignation, with old work. The idea that responsible curators could put together a “survey” show that ignored women artists has become unthinkable in the US, but Joachimides pettishly dismissed objections. Women, he told an interviewer from the German magazine Kunstforum, had their place in performance, photography, video, and other non-malerisch activities—electronic knitting or media quilt making, as it were; in any case, “we were not looking primarily at the genitals of the artist.”

The profusion of work by such painters as Rainer Fetting, “Salomé” and Helmut Middendorf suggested that his glaucous curatorial stare had been riveted nowhere else; it seemed unlikely that a fair eye would find such squawking rubbish better, or culturally more revealing, than the work of Nancy Graves, Judy Pfaff, Elizabeth Murray, or Jennifer Bartlett. The attitude was perhaps best summed up by David Salle, a young painter whose late-Picabian mix of weepy alienation and cold sleaze was considered the essence of New Wave sensibility and had become popular on West Broadway. He was accordingly given four bays to fill. Each of his four paintings slyly contained a letter which, put together, read C-U-N-T.

Yet however pretentious the title of the show, however dubious its politics or tendentious its argument, however theatrical its presentation or subservient its casting directors to the influence of art dealers, it was a roaring popular success. Indeed, one could argue that its success happened because of, not in spite of, these qualities. The larger the art public gets, the more show biz it wants. It seeks generalizations. The art audience has a long-inculcated addiction to handles, isms, and trends. It has great difficulty spotting the merits of the isolated artist, but if it is told with enough confidence and coercive simplicity that something has preempted history and is the Wave of the Future—especially after the 1970s, a woolly time of pluralism and small gestures, when nobody knew and few cared where “history” was heading—then the audience will go along. In any case, the word “Zeitgeist,” cliché in English, still has a romantic resonance to the Germans.

The Spirit of the Age can be defined as fashion plus curatorial and market horsepower. It all depends on what people can be induced to look at—in short, on marketing, as any realist painter, perpetually relegated by abstractionist and figurative expressionist alike to the back burner of mere worthiness, can confirm.

The role of government and officials in this is crucial. Neither Joachimides nor Rosenthal commanded many legions as a writer, and for art historians their bibliography is short. Their function was that of culture brokers; the spectacle of art-world Cherubinos, thinking a cappella and shuttling between studio and court, is a familiar one on both sides of the Atlantic—a characteristic form of postmodernist bureaucracy. Such people can cast the unformed slurry of scuttlebutt into official concrete; can mold, less by argument than by the power of spectacle, what is “in” and what is “out.” These productions cost a lot of money, and the Berlin municipal authorities, who were naturally anxious to improve their city’s blurred image as a cultural center in the eyes of both the German and the foreign public, put up some $750,000 to underwrite “Zeitgeist.”

What they got, in return, was the sense of riding the spearhead. The early 1980s have turned out to be the moment when the current of transatlantic taste in the visual arts reversed itself. For more than thirty years, America—specifically, New York—had been the approved generator of new styles. In the 1970s the sense of a cultural imperium had disintegrated, although its external form was maintained by the market. Now a great deal of the energy was coming from, not to, Europe. Like the previous situation, this one could not be allowed to go uncommemorated. Thus, just as one aim of the Metropolitan Museum’s show of American painting from 1940 to 1970 had been to imply that all Europe’s recent art, thrown into the transatlantic scale, could hardly stir the balance against the weight of Manhattan, so “Zeitgeist” set out to assert the superior vitality of recent German art.

No bones were made about the bias: there were, for instance, eighteen German artists as against one Frenchman—and a mediocre Frenchman at that, Gérard Garouste—and eight Americans (seven, really, since one of them was Andy Warhol, who cranked out for the occasion a group of garish rehashes of Albert Speer’s architectural projects that reduced even his shrinking claque to embarrassed silence). As that quirkish oracle of the mimeograph Willy Bongard remarked in his newsletter Art Aktuell, “it is obvious that the selection can be considered an indication of the strength of the pressure groups now putting their shoulder to the wheel.” But in the sphere of art as in any other, pressure groups can push and shove as they please without much effect, unless there is a public broadly receptive to their message. The creation of that public—and its differences from earlier publics for modern art—is what makes the situation in the early 1980s so rich and incongruous.

In broad terms, there is no mystery about why figurative expressionism revived. Like any other unforeseen event it was, of course, inevitable. People want to look at images. If they cannot get them from painting, they will turn to photography—hence all the fuss in the mid-Seventies about whether photography was, or was not, a “fine” art. All the theory in the world will not substitute (though in the 1960s and 1970s it certainly tried) for the sense of empathy that comes from looking at a painted figure in a painted landscape. Perhaps, on some elementary level, many people resented abstract art because they felt it was snubbing their bodies. But there are no Gallup polls on this. In any case, no reductionist argument will convince a public, for long, that painting may not incorporate narrative, drama, and emotional description.

Naturally, the idea of a continuous reign of the abstract, achieved by relentless purging of undesirable elements from the surface of the picture—a kind of Trotskyite vision of the pictorial millennium—was born to fail; just as one may predict, with some confidence, that in the not too distant future (by 1990, perhaps) the art public will feel so clogged with anguish, narcissism, and irony, so tired of being boiled up by painters’ egos, that there will be an equally convulsive purge of the expressive. SoHo, if it is not all boutiques by then, will be full of mini-Mondrians doing West Broadway Boogie-Woogies: the art world never stays still for long.

But why Expressionism, rather than some other type of figure painting—Realism, for instance? One must consult the temper of the public: the first mass public for the visual arts since the advent of Modernism, a hundred years ago. Though the audience for the avantgarde was certainly precipitated and distilled from the mass public for salon art in late nineteenth-century France, it was always a coteríe; at a rough guess, not more than 3,000 people in the world knew or cared about Georges Braque in 1930. The notion that Modernism was the specialist concern of small groups lasted, in America, until about 1945. After 1950 the pedagogical values of the Museum of Modern Art (an American invention, with no European equivalent) permeated American education; the middle-class preschooler, pudding tempera on brown paper, carried Miró’s baton in his lunch bag. The premium set on “creativity” in education combined with the booming growth of museums, cultural centers, art departments, and, of course, the art market itself, to produce a mass audience and an imperial vision of American culture. And the lead character in the drama of American cultural supremacy was, of course, the movement known as Abstract Expressionism—“The Triumph of American Painting,” in Irving Sandler’s somewhat injudicious phrase.

The legend of the Abstract Expressionists, as distinct from their actual work, provided the ever-growing art audience of the 1960s and 1970s with the same kind of romantic frisson that had once been furnished by the big romantic potboilers—Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Moulin Rouge. For here was the real stuff of fatal artisthood: from Pollock pissing in the Guggenheim fireplace to Rothko slitting his wrists in the lonely studio, nothing was trivial, everything was infused with suffering and moral determination. If the Nietzschean Clyfford Still had not existed, Ayn Rand would have had to invent him.

To virtually everyone in the American art audience who had been born after 1940, Abstract Expressionism was held up as a model of creative endeavor and moral probity. So it had been; but not in the fetishized, legend-encrusted form it acquired through cliché, gossip, and rumor. What the legend produced was a fear of missing the bus. Its lesson was clear: real art, the realest and most intense art, is torn with manifest travail (and, if possible, a bit of social wreckage too) from the center of the body and the cellars of the mind. It is hot, passionate, unconfined, personal, and chthonic. It is made by heroes with problems, who snarl at grace and are rumored to go through the mass of Bennington girls like runaway rototillers. It costs hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars today; whereas thirty years ago you could get it for nothing. Those who got it for nothing then share the heroism today (if they hung onto it: nobody honors the Long Island dentist who sold Blue Poles too early). Those who get it for millions today also demonstrate “commitment,” and do fiscal penance for the ignorance of others. It leaves behind it disputed estates and bereft but powerful widows.

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    Zeitgeist (Kunstbuch Berlin Verlagsgesellschaft, 1982).

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