The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

The War Against the Good in Art (1972)

New York Times, August 6, 1972, section 2, p. 17.

A serious commitment to serious art is a difficult position to hold today. Several years ago I took part in a symposium to discuss "Is Painting Dead?" Barbara Rose was moderator, and with me at the inquest were Robert Rauschenberg, Don Judd and Larry Poons. Suddenly, in the middle of it all, a man jumped up, ran to the front of the balcony and abused us hysterically for not talking about things more important, more "real." It was immoral, he screamed, to go on about mere art with the horrors of Vietnam in every headline.

It was a small incident, in the general run of things, but interesting if we see the angry man and the symposium each as part of the modern resurgence of an age-old malady: the attack on art. Neither meant to attack art itself, but in fact each did - the symposium by questioning the viability of the medium which is, with sculpture, the sole present vehicle of the highest standards of visual art, the man on the balcony by deriding the importance of art in the face of social issues. It probably never occurred to him that his derision was precisely mirrored by most of the "establishment" responsible for continuing the war he opposed so emotionally.

These outside attacks, from a society which dismisses all new art as frivolous nonsense, are part of the game. But more difficult, more insidious and more subversive are the attacks from the inside, from the "art public" - artists, critics, gallery owners, museum people, art professors. This two-sided assault has gone on for the last hundred years or more, since art became self-consciously "modern." But like a spy mouthing patriotism, forever changing disguise, the inside attack is always clothed in righteousness, never attacking whatever form of art encompasses the highest quality.

In the past all antagonism to new art was evidently conservative, and could be identified as such. When the Impressionists turned away from the cold sentimentality of the salon the outrage rose from the academy. The best painters at the beginning of this century were called "wild animals." Cubism was a brash intellectual experiment; Matisse was a "good draftsman gone wrong." The avant-garde forged ahead. The rest lagged behind, surly and displeased.

But in the late teens and twenties Dadaism and Surrealism launched a new kind of attack - the attack from the avant-garde, from a position which implied that the best new art was not outrageous but dull, not advanced but old-fashioned. These artists embraced change as an end in itself. By aping the spirit of innovation as it has always appeared in good new art, they tried to displace the traditional forms and very process of art making.

Today this attack is manifold. It came to the fore in the early sixties, when Abstract Expressionism had spread to a choking mass. The reaction came, as always, but this time it was different, for there was not one reaction but many. Suddenly, everywhere, the idea of innovation caught up to innovation itself, and everyone innovated with brutal regularity. Obvious newness was sanctified. Surprise became the safe substitute for esthetic experience. Pop art laid campy illustration on the tired Cubist framework. Minimal artists declared their freedom from esthetic relationships. Others, now "beyond" painting and sculpture, make huge jumping and blinking gadgets, wrap buildings in plastic, plot impossible devastation on lakes and prairies and even photograph their own naked anatomy. The art magazines burst with desperate originality and sag under the weight of anti-traditional bombast. Museums try to let it all in and suffer the chaos which follows the abandonment of standards. Critics balk and hedge, or come out stridently for whatever manages to look distinct, fearfully aware of the dupes of the past, who condemned the new. The best one-man show of new painting last season (Olitski's) was totally disregarded by all the daily and weekly press. The best show of sculpture (Caro's) fared only a little better. And those who uphold the best of the new art, who struggle to point to the real facts, are accused regularly of the peculiar, anachronistic-sounding crime of "formalism." The avant-garde has become the new conservatism.

It all seems like anarchy, but it isn't. The forms are new but the dynamics are old. As always, there is only one real difference, the difference of quality, the difference between good and bad. That is the way it always has been, is now and always will be. There is no way around it. Quality in visual art has belonged to painting and sculpture for hundreds of years. Despite a thousand new materials and methods it still does, because painting on a rectangular canvas and the organizing of a static, three-dimensional object still keep our best talent busy.

If the long-predicted death of painting and sculpture ever comes, it will be because the serious tough-minded artist has abandoned them, and for no other reason. Materials are only vehicles, inspiration is deeply human and ever persistent. It will always come up in the "wrong" place, and it will always be resisted and misunderstood. Great art, new or old, will not compromise, but it is always there, waiting for us to come to it. It is the flower of our civilization and, ultimately, its salvation.