The Emperor's Old Clothes (1982)
Arts, September, 1982, pp. 81 - 83.
The perception of beauty is a moral test.
-Thoreau, Journal, June 21, 1852
Hey, you better not criticize this stuff so much. It might turn out to be good.
-Collector X to sculptor Y, at "New Wave" opening in Soho
I worked in an auction house last spring, writing a catalogue on a certain kind of antique I know about. One day, during lunch, while thumbing through a magazine on a colleague's desk, I came upon a piece about a couple who collect contemporary art. They were pictured there, nestled together, looking out at me, all smiles and earnestness. Pictured below them was a particularly appalling painting of the "New Wave" persuasion, that species of grotesquerie heretofore confined to California ceramics and summertime movies designed to make teenagers scream. They keep it on their bedroom wall, so they were quoted, because they "don't want tranquility." Hoping against expectation to find what could make such apparently pleasant people dislike tranquility enough to do such expensive violence to their bedroom wall and to their composure, I read the piece; while I was reading, the lady who catalogued with me - a friendly, intelligent, relatively normal person who knows a little about new art, but not that much - looked over my shoulder, pointed to the reproduction of the painting, and said, "That's not even funny. That's insulting!"
Though I might argue the use of the word "insulting" in this context I had to agree with her. But she had startled me, and I was surprised by my own surprise until I saw that her innocent spontaneity reproached my peevish but accepting distaste, the grudging response of a veteran who gets ready for each "new wave" like a sea captain facing another gale, muttering the ancient wisdom that when you're already up to your neck in it, don't make waves. She did something the art world has stopped doing, something I had become unaccustomed to. She looked at a highly touted work of art and reacted directly, simply, and honestly. No equivocating, qualifying, backing oft, or holding out. No fat words or fulsome phrases. No excruciating art-historical sidestepping. She said "it stinks!" Simple as that. Is she a late model in the long line of uncomprehending philistines who excoriated Manet and Cezanne and Pollock? Or have we created a situation in which, for the first time in the modern era, the "man on the street" is more likely to be right in his judgment than the expert? What is this willful partiality for bad art all about? Are we in the midst of a taste crisis? Have we been in one for twenty years? If so, why?
Maybe we can answer these questions, but first I'd like to offer my list of the Ten Verities of Recent Art History. Some may be obvious, but they bear repeating; others may be arguable, but they need saying:
1. Our society values art very highly.
2. Few of the many works of art existing are valued very highly.
3. The art business is a system of continuing valuation.
4. Within the art business art will be treated as a commodity, and the business itself will be a relatively typical, loosely organized social and political system which can be assessed and described in terms of power and hierarchy, with winners and losers, leaders and followers, and all the usual baggage.
5. The principle of commercial success, which in recent years has tended to coincide with critical success, is natural selection. We live with a popular but inaccurate image of the "big talent" who sweeps in and knocks the art public off its feet. A better analogy would be all the artists as a huge nest of baby birds, heads back, mouths agape. The few who get fed will prosper. The mama-bird is the collector, the worm is money, and the active principle is selection. Taste, as it is expressed publicly, is a function of what collectors do with their money. All the rest - all the dealers, curators, magazines, "tastemakers," "talent brokers", "powerful critics" - is either secondary or imaginary. I know this won't sit well but it's true.
6. For new art the correlation between good and successful is arbitrary, random, and unpredictable.
7. Just as there are very few good new artists and good new works of art at any one time, so there are few very good seers of that art. Keep this in mind, because there has been an idea around for the last twenty years that art should be served up like apple pie and be just as available to taste. That's not true. Making and seeing art is like anything else: you don't get any good at it without ability and hard work, and you don't stay good unless you keep at it. Art is for the privileged few, as the anti-elitists maintain, but those few earn their privilege and deny it to no one. The charge of "elitism," in any of its chameleon forms, usually exposes lazy reluctance to work at getting what art has to offer.
8. When taste is separated from personal preference, taste is in trouble. Taste in art is like conscience in everyday life; without it you're lost. It is far better to be "wrong" than to yield real preference to authority. I can't tell you to like Pollock. You can't "decide" to like Pollock. You can't get any art until you receive, through feeling, what's there. If you don't like some kind of art I think is good, all I can do is say go back and look again. If it does something for you, fine. If it doesn't, too bad. It'll probably be there anytime you want to try again. Art is not for everyone, any more than artichokes or tap dancing or brain surgery is for everyone. Remember when Tom Wolfe wrote that he had looked at all the great art of the recent past and didn't get any of it? Remember the vast collective relieved groan that rose from the grateful multitude of his fellow visual illiterates, from all the browbeaten culturati who had been biting their tongues as they wandered bewildered from gallery to museum? Exercise your taste, work on your taste, educate your taste, change your taste, but never deny your taste. That, more than "bad" taste, is the current malaise of the art business. How else could our collector friend get into that masochistic relationship with that painting on his bedroom wall? He knows how bad it is - his taste tells him that - but his judgment is to suppress his taste in the cause of banishing tranquility, for reasons I can't possibly fathom.
9. Artistic excellence is apparent in an atmosphere that welcomes it and obscure in an atmosphere that doesn't.
10. The history of taste over the last 150 years is a history of increasing resistance by the art public to excellence in new art.
Four or five hundred years ago, when the Renaissance was taking shape, art was made because there were clear needs for it. The aristocrats wanted portraits, the church wanted saints. The audience was small and culturally homogeneous. Subject matter and technical means were limited. Talent was the demonstrated and understood ability to do the job at hand better than the next artist, and art quality and contributions to the evolution of the craft and medium were by-products of the efforts of talent to do that job. Good art went across because this audience was on top and had no reason to be defensive about its taste. They said, "We want the best; provide it." If they couldn't tell the difference, they would find someone who could. Before the 19th century, for the most part, excellence had the authority of clarity. In his own time the kind of criticism Leonardo got was comparison to Raphael. Everyone knew how good he was, and how good Raphael was.
Social changes during the Renaissance and later brought about a non-aristocratic mercantile class supplemented during the Industrial Revolution by a fast-growing, affluent middle class. Both had money to buy non-essentials. Chief among these non-essentials, then as now, was status, moving up. Art, which came to the 19th century full of high-status associations, moved naturally into that sphere of effort. This, in turn, catalyzed an element of the art business which had been quiescent until then: fashion as an instrument of power. This new use of art turned objects of pleasure and indulgence into vehicles of social advancement, using them to attain a station in life rather than reflect and enhance it. More and more, as the middle class grew, fashionable art moved from the job of affecting a person - art's real and only legitimate function - to the job of satisfying group taste, from providing unexpected pleasure to conforming to present expectations. Aesthetic pleasure, the perception of artistic goodness, which is the single principle for judging art, began to recede in the face of the painful process of intimidation and compliance which comes with status-change. Art that had the power to affect was pushed aside by art that lacked the power to offend, and the successful artist began to turn his aim from excellence to the gratification of this demanding but less discriminating clientele. Art had to have content and character they could all understand, because that is what they paid for, and "high" became "high-tone" - the classics, the heroic, the grand theme - coated with sweet sentiment, an unconscious parody of the inner superiority they sensed in the art of the past.
Goodness in art did not disappear, of course. Indeed, it came through here and there in many of the "high-tone" paintings the middle class held in favor. Unlike today, most of the artists knew how to paint. But as time went on good art was less likely to be chosen for itself, and it gradually moved off center stage. Eventually genius took the disjuncture public when Manet, as Clement Greenberg has pointed out, took issue with all the "stews and gravies" in the paintings of his contemporaries, with all the fudging and hedging, with all the art that manifested its compromising nature by compromising the power of its medium. He went back behind his generation, back to Velasquez and Goya, brought freshness and light and color to the art of his time, and by doing this became the prototype modern artist, the first to bring forth older standards to set against the art of his own generation, the first artist to rebel into tradition. Manet's art was "shocking" not because it was so "far out" but because it was so "far in," because his colleagues and their patrons had wandered so far from home. This "shock of the new," as it has been called, is really the shock of the old, the shock of the imperishable, the shock of being rudely advised that we had better get back on track. Very good new art, like extreme goodness in any realm of human endeavor, subverts entrenched habits of error.
Manet's procedure, which came to be called "modernism," and the effects it had on the art public, set the stage for the relationship between artist and public for years to come. As time went on the artist as alien became a standard - the Impressionists and their disastrous auction, van Gogh and his ear, Gauguin in the South Seas, Cezanne in splendid isolation in Aix. A familiar mythology grew up around the lonely unappreciated artist, starving in his garret. It became a rite of passage. And, inevitably, it became fashionable. A small, purposeful avant-garde audience sprouted at the end of the century and slowly took root and grew, bearing the torch of the advanced in all the arts, and in architecture and the crafts. The benighted critics shrugged at Cezanne, howled at the Fauves, and waged desperate humor at the Armory Show. But the "shocking" was upstaging the stodgy at every turn. The handwriting was on the wall, and it said "far out is in." All that remained was for the message to penetrate the great dim heart of the art mob.
That came with the culture boom after World War II. Everything multiplied in number: art, artists, museums, critics, magazines, publicity, prices. Even the government got in the act. Symptomatic of what was to come was Life magazine's 1949 spread on Jackson Pollock. They called him "Jack the Dripper," and mockingly asked, "Is he the greatest artist in America?" Of course not! was the overwhelming and expected reply. Great or not was beside the point. The real message was clear: here's a guy who lays canvas on the floor and runs around dribbling house paint on it with a stick and he gets into Life magazine. By the late '50s the first lunatic strains of true novelty art were upon us. Rauschenberg did an all-white show and a show of grass. Johns did monotone targets and American flags and cubby-holed genitalia. Alfred Barr hustled over to Castelli's and bought the stuff for the Museum of Modern Art, and the stampede was on.
By the early '60s Pop had swept away the turbid remnants of Abstract Expressionism and opened the way for the tyranny of novelty. Everyone began innovating, grim, plodding. uninspired innovation, the "look" of the new art at any cost. And the natural consequence of persistent novelty was diversity. Endless styles were spawned, dividing like amoebae, each generating its own coterie. Critics, curators, and collectors were hard put to keep track of it all, much less discriminate between good and bad. So they threw up their hands, took a cue from the New Democratism of the '60s, and raised the white flag of "pluralism" - I'm OK, you're OK, It's OK. This spurious egalitarianism, fueled by new sources of money and coupled to the pseudo-tough Duchampian scorn for high standards, opened things up for the art bullies, who swarmed onto the pages of Artforum with reams of unintelligible garble, fanning the various styles and substyles which sprang up and blazed and died like so many brush fires. Curators, with limited purchase funds, talked to each other, got their lists together, bought what each other bought, and hoped for the best. Academics. possessed by the "excitement" and "ferment," culled the latest from the art magazines, intimidating by sheer weight of information those naive enough to wonder how such patent silliness could possibly be great art, or art at all. The notion of quality came under attack as narrow, elitist, and, worst of all, no fun. Connoisseurship became suspect. The art business put all its weight behind the mindlessly superproductive avant-garde and made it our official culture.
Everyone is in on it now. Everyone poses as "far out" so they won't be far out - out of it, out to lunch, out of favor, unpopular. We are in an era of contrarian chic. Staid, gray museum trustees campaign for the latest trend just as passionately as their predecessors campaigned against it. A spokesman for the General Services Administration, that bastion of enlightened liberalism, belittles the thousand government employees who signed a petition to rid their building's plaza of a monstrous Serra rusted steel wall which they all hate. "New art," he tells them, "takes getting used to." Your corner stockbroker will confide that he buys "against the market" when "everyone else is losing their head." Newsweek magazine advertises, "We don't fit the mold. We break it!" An ad for a camp movie proudly claims "something to offend absolutely everybody"; simultaneously a distinguished film critic, in an article in American Film, asks "Why do critics love trashy movies?" It is as if all the long-hair radicalism of the '6Os has drifted upstairs, and nowhere is it more unbridled than within the compliant precincts of the art world. The belief that the best new art is shocking, disturbing, and outrageous has been twisted into the converse: that shocking, disturbing, and outrageous new art is the best art; the dissemination of this notion has set loose some of the worst art ever made or shown, pure "retinal abuse," as a friend calls it. And the bad art, and the people who go along with it, are emboldened by this preemption of the barricades. Bad art is not on the defensive any more. It dares you to criticize because it needs it. Only through censure can it be validated as truly far-out, if, indeed, anyone can be found who is not afraid to criticize. "There they go again" chortles the avant-gardist, "those old retardataire, reactionary, out-of-it fuddy-duddys who can't stand the new, the fresh, the exciting, the vital, the living art of today." This may be nonsense, but it certainly is inspired marketing. Imagine, convincing people that bad art is good art, and that the worse it is, the better it must be, and selling it to them at astounding prices! There was always that nagging problem with good art: there never was enough of it. But anyone can make this stuff.
And, it seems, everyone is. New York was up to the gills with "New Wave" this summer, and I went around to look at it so I would know what I was talking about. I was prepared to be offended; there was that picture in the magazine at the auction house, and lots of ghastly things in other magazines, and all the huff and puff by the bandwagon art writers, using words like: raw, powerful, difficult, tough, disagreeable, disarming, aggressive, angst-ridden, sinister, unsettling, existential, authentic, authoritative and, hardest to choke down, moral. Moral! That's a word to be used advisedly, or left to the likes of Thoreau. The egregious and always with-it Barbara Rose, in an article on "new wave" painting for Vogue magazine last March, managed to use the word four or five times, and most of those others, too. Good grief!
But I was surprised more than offended by what I saw. There were a few mildly awful things, and some inept muddles of the sort that make my heart sink when I go around doing student crits. But most of it, especially the painting from Italy, was downright tasty. Most were built up on age-old composition principles, art-school stuff, with a lot of slick licks out of Cubism, Leger, German Expressionism, and the like. Layered over that, like icing on a cake, was plenty of up-to-date crudifying. I was reminded ever so much of the latter-day Abstract Expressionists muddying their colors to get that tough, real-man action look. Anyone who can look at this painting and say "raw power" hasn't been around the art business long enough, isn't paying attention, or both. As for "newness." I've been lecturing, teaching, and jurying around the country for nearly twenty years, and I can assure you that the 'new' aspects of this painting, the funk/punk/cruddy, has been in place out there for years, seeds from Chicago and California collected and sown by the art magazines and nurtured in the fertile heartland only to rise up and come slouching toward New York. That's the only new thing about it. That and the curators and critics who rush to fall in line.
Enough tirade. My interest here is not that novelty art or any other kind of bad art holds the foreground-that's always been true in modern times-but that good art seems to have take a permanent back seat, and that, conversely, the popular bad and minor art of the recent past seems to be holding on very nicely. Artists of the caliber of Rauschenberg and Johns, for example never would have held for 25 years back in the time of the Impressionists. If the cycle has not stopped, it certainly has slowed to a crawl, as Greenberg's lonely voice, again, has tried to tell us. We have seen how the misuse of art tends to hold good art back. But it has always worked its way forward for triumphant, if belated, recognition. What's different now?
Let me digress with an illustrative anecdote, from my experience. I know two young artists in a western city. I'll call them Moe and Mack. They paint in the same vein. Moe is untalented and fairly successful; Mack is very talented and somewhat less successful. Mack recently had a show of difficult, eccentric paintings. A bit perversely difficult, I thought, but consistent with a maturing high talent and way better than anything Moe had ever done. Moe came to the show, looked around spent about twenty minutes putting down everything in sight and stalked out.
"Damn'." exclaimed the gallery owner, "Moe sure missed the point of these paintings, didn't he?" "Not at all," I replied. "What we saw was pure artist's anxiety. If Moe hadn't got the message he would have walked around here saying, 'aren't these nice'." I went on to explain how painful it is to come against another artist in your own actual and stylistic territory who is running circles around you, how this experience is part of every artist's maturing, and how coming to terms with it is a measure of character and seriousness. Moe walked out of here angry and uptight, I said, and that is perfectly natural. The test will be how he feels next month, and how he copes with it personally and in his art.
Moe's feelings in front of Mack's paintings tell us about taste in recent times, because the art world reacts to the best new art like Moe did, and for the same reasons. The continuing appearance and presence of the best new art comprises a continuing criticism of lesser art. It is threatening, undermining and subversive, now just as in Manet's time. That art, and any critic who champions it, must bear up under constant derision and repudiation: The derision will usually be framed in language conditioned by the current vogue. Witness these words and phrases from a review by Hilton Kramer of a recent show of young "formalist" painters: "familiar," "follow slavishly," "no shocks or surprises," "abject surrender to narrow pictorial conventions," "imitative," "not a trace of fresh thinking or fresh feeling," and that voguish but obnoxious word "epigones." Sounds dreary doesn't it? It's just a taste of the ritual avant-gardist litany whenever any relatively meritorious painting shows up. That's how we damn things these days. I saw the show. It was a nice bright, energetic batch of pictures, some good, some not so good. The overall level of quality was certainly better than most I saw that season. But it had that stigma; it was just good painting, more or less. It didn't go out of its way to grab you, to shock or entertain. Good art never does. It just sits on the wall and declares itself to be better. That's why it must be denigrated and pushed in the background.
The best recent art may be in the background for good now. The art business may be too cumbersome and too fixed in its premises to allow the wheel to turn. By "art business" I mean not only artists and dealers and collectors, but also the vast interrelated framework of museums, college art departments and art schools, the Endowments, corporate patronage, magazines. art writers, and the thousands of people who read about art and talk about it whether or not they buy it. It is an intricate and elephantine subworld, operating within its own self-generated ecosystem, too headstrong and unreflective to entertain any limiting principle of discrimination. It may be a historic fact that there is never much good new art; it may be a historic fact that there are few people who can tell the difference. The art business does not want to hear this because the art business is mainlining on the dizzy excess of avant-gardist novelty, and these facts, true or not, are straight cold turkey. So we may be in the midst of a fundamental change, the kind of change which comes about at some point in the growth of any human system. Modernist evolution - the ongoing cycle of lesser new art in the foreground moving backward and the best new art in the background moving forward - may have given out after the Abstract Expressionists were canonized in the late '50s and early '60s, replaced by a process of fragmentation or branching, so that each "style," however defined, can move forward on its own terms. There will be serious art, there will be boutique art, and there will be plenty in between, and each will shake out and go its own way with its own audience. The art business looks and acts more and more like the music business in this respect. And maybe my ranting about "new wave" is just about as silly as going to a Stones concert wearing a "Mostly Mozart" T-shirt.
It was Mozart who got me to thinking that I might be tilting at windmills, one rainy day last June as I sat, spleen unvented, staring at a half-finished draft of this surly disquisition curled in my typewriter. There was a Mozart piano concerto on my FM stereo, number 14, I think, K449, and it caught my ear, came in unannounced, as good art will do. I sat there listening, avoiding my writing by thinking about Mozart, how he railed at the shallowness of his audience in those letters to his father, and how he probably wrote the masterpiece on my radio in far less time and with far greater ease than I was writing this essay. As my mind diddled with these and other unproductive ruminations, the first sweet phrases of the slow movement came across to me and the refreshing pleasure of very beautiful music spread within me, gently chiding me, making me question the sullen resentment that lay beneath what I was doing. The music put me in tune with myself, reminding me that art is, in itself, utterly sufficient and utterly removed from the frantic business that feeds on it.
I know this just as surely as I know what rain is like, and I realize that saying it to the greater part of the art world is like trying to explain rain to Saharan nomads. They have been told about rain, but they get along without it, can't understand it, and really don't want to hear about it. There is little reason for the art world to heed what I write. I say this from a strong sense of fact, not from spite or rancor. This is a cautionary tale for a small constituency, the people who really love art and what it holds for them. I know they are out there because I run into them, two or three in any place I go to judge a show or give a talk. They are pained and confused by what they see going on just as I am. All I can say to them is what I must say to myself, what, in fact, I have had to return to even within the narrow compass of this essay, what Mozart had to bring me back to: the art is enough; art is unconditionally personal and pleasurable, a resource, like a vein of ore, solidified goodness, making no concession beyond mere existence, "stones in the river," like Hamada's pots. It's up to us to get what is there; whatever we put between ourselves and the best in art, we put between ourselves and the best in ourselves. That is why Thoreau said that the perception of beauty is a moral test. There's a price to be paid for taking art on its own terms, for even as the world apotheosizes art it keeps a wary and deliberate distance from its spirit. Great art likes it that way. Maybe we should learn to.