On Pluralism (1986)
Arts, Summer, 1986, pp. 84 - 85.
Well, there's bad news from Soho. The dike is leaking and the little boy with the wet finger has gone home to read Art and Culture. The stretcher-maker doesn't get those 200 by-next-week orders anymore. The driver working the downtown circuit hears unfamiliar worried whispering from the deep seats of his stretch limo. One of the Grand Acquisitors went to auction off a couple of his Frederico Zucchini paintings and Christie's wouldn't give him a reserve price. The notorious painted refrigerator got displaced by the one who works for the Chicago Bears. And the New York Times, like Juvenal's husband the last to learn of the disrepute of the recently beloved, labored mightily and brought forth a marvelous piece of aesthetic temporizing called "Is Neo-Expressionism an Idea Whose Time has Passed?" Even the title qualified the obvious.
No problem. The smart guys will regroup at the Upper Philistine Club, "Sure," they'll say, "We knew all along it wouldn't last. We just went along for the ride." And the classic "It got overdone, of course. But the best of these artists will be around for a long, long time." And also "Don't you know Neo has been old hat for two years? Now, here's what's really hot..." What will it be? I hesitate to guess. By the time this gets published it'll be old news. Abstraction, probably. Some clunky, non-figurative spin-off of Neo-Ex.1 Then we will hear "Figurative is all very fine, but you gotta be a carnasooer to like abstract."2 That kind of talk will zing about. The critics will shift gears. Dealers will bustle around new lofts with new contracts. 28-year-old artists will have shows cancelled and wonder how that stuff the visiting critics bullied them into back in art school could be so suddenly, so completely, nowhere.
But when all is said and done, when the wreckage is cleared, one high and pious wisdom will endure, one immutable, all-inclusive principle that the wisest will solemnly intone: nothing can dominate, nothing can last, nothing is truly better or worse. All that is in the past. Today, today, we live in the age of ...pluralism.
The modernist avant-garde began with Manet. He was the first artist forced to enliven his art with the art of the past in response to the banality of the art of the present. He was a true radical, rebelling into tradition, mining the past for the best just as his colleagues mined the past for sentimental trivia. By introducing the fresh, the unfamiliar, and the superior he offended the art public. This "shock of the new" became a pattern in the 19th Century, at first from inner necessity, then, gradually, from preference and fashion.
In our time innovation has become as obligatory as it is misunderstood. Originality cannot be contrived. It does not advance on a broad front. Originality appears and art gets better when originality as such is beside the point, when it comes up as a by-product of the simple effort to do better. Nevertheless, many artists, especially inferior artists of strong ambition, have recognized the need to "be original," to innovate for the sake of innovation rather than aesthetic necessity. Being "different," and, lately, being offensively different, has become a short-cut through the hard struggle to get better. Pop Art put the by-pass in place in the early '60s. That decade brought simultaneous recognition to several distinct art styles. In the '70s art styles multiplied like mutant rabbits. In the '80s anyone can do anything, and everyone does. When anything goes everything goes. The coincidental culture boom has given commercial life to the hodge-podge, encouraging all styles and manners and media to move forward in parallel, swelling and fading, weaving in and out of fashion. It also needed rationalization. Hence pluralism.
We all know that art, like life, like a horse race, is even at the outset. In fact, an unmediated pluralism, a laissez-faire pluralism, a pluralism that doesn't care, is an ideal. We have political pluralism of this kind in advanced democracies. Everything may start equal: nothing is either required or encouraged to stay that way. Art-world pluralism, however, is anti-best. It is the expressed desire not to shoot for the moon, to not be "too good." Art-world pluralism does not say "let it be." It says "let it be mediocre." Its aim is to neutralize, to use the doctrine of relativity to discredit any aspiration that despises the system and moves away from it. Pluralism is an active foot-soldier in the constant war between the art system and the best new art. It fights the life in art, erodes it, eats away at it.
Unfortunately, pluralism has the tenacity of practicality. It does so much for so many. It is the opiate of the mediocre. Harry Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." In a large institutional setting, which the art system has become, almost everyone does. Pluralism says there's more of you than there are of them - just get together and take the authority away from those uppity fuddies. The art business, the last of our institutions to climb out of the '60s, excuses this reckless revisionism with the homely anti-elitist humanism of that furry decade - it's OK, give it all a chance, don't judge, don't discriminate, lay back, be cool - encouraging everyone to reach into that old-time grab-bag and pull out real-life clichés to build an aesthetic high ground for the leaky vessels they send to market. Because it belittles the tradition of a singular best, pluralism belittles discipline, learning, training - all the things that show us how to do something better. It says to the child in us that there is no spinach, no piano lessons, no math homework, no laps around the track, no SATs. It says that these things are all secondary to "real emotion," whatever this is. Temper tantrums, I suppose. It tells the artist he's not an ill-trained incompetent, he's "doing his own thing." It tells the curator that there is so much out there that all he has to do is hang out at the AAM or CAA meetings and rap with his colleagues and get a list together.3 It tells the collector whose timid eye needs a "highbrow" label that, what the heck, anything can be highbrow, especially if it looks really awful and gets the ordinary person upset. It tells the National Endowments that they can be comfortable siphoning tax-payer's money to posturing artists with inane projects in the name of "all shades of opinion." It tells the avant-gardist that there will always be a new kick hopping down the pike. It tells the critics not to bother with thorny matters of "goodness"; just play it cool, let the market do the choosing, and then write "so-and-so reflects the spiritual fragmentation of modern life" or some other such lofty eyewash. It is so easy to do.
When I was a sophomore we called it "bullshit." Well, the bull has grown up and he has contracted a severe intestinal virus. Pluralism has spawned a blathering tribe of cacademics, overqualified professors of the immaterial, bloated logodiarrhetic hippopotami who forage in the dark and lie submerged by day, defecating their clotted verbiage into the critical stream, fertilizing, in turn, all those semi-literate downtown art hounds who fill the magazines with interminable incoherent mumbling. No one understands any of it. Everyone knows no one understands any of it. Everyone says it, even. But the "force" is there. This is the system that gave birth and sustenance to Neo-Expressionism. It will do the same for the next thing, whatever it is. It must go on.
Best of all, the market loves pluralism. Money is the fuel that drives this engine, after all. Art has always been at odds with its own marketing and management. This is very awkward and inefficient. What to do? Pluralism knows. Just toss that old-fashioned idea of excellence, and craft and "elitist" aesthetics along with it. These things only hinder commerce. There never is enough of the good stuff. It's never popular. It is impossible to sell. And those pains-in-the-neck who criticize and split hairs and insist on better and worse and major and minor make it even more difficult. Pluralism tells the market not to worry, we're beyond all that now, beyond narrow styles and short supplies, beyond those bad old days when all the best art was gathered into one style practiced by a few artists hardly anyone knew about. We are smarter now, more sophisticated, more creative and, for sure, more productive. We've come to an era of luxuriant plenty, a splendid orchard where the trees stand row by row bearing perfect fruit and nothing's out of reach. Just pick what you like. You like this, I like that. Everybody's happy. It is so much nicer, and so much more fair and democratic, and so much more profitable, to live in this dreamworld of pluralism, floating on the flatulent jabber of the happy crowds who rush to dissemble in the service of aesthetic relativity.
I say "dreamworld" because it is a dreamworld. Pluralism is a fantasy. Great art does not spring en masse from a flat field like tulips in Holland. It is made just like history tells us it is made, by a few talented people working in a narrow style. Narrowness and concentration are the muscle of art-making. Art doesn't care about broadness and fairness and availability, and it doesn't care about those who do. Art, as art, is disinterested. All it wants is a few geniuses and a good solid, simple, dry, unitary nonaffective art style. That's what the art system is here to provide, not a pluralist fun house. Art doesn't cater, it aspires. It is a rocket, not a blanket. It is non-egalitarian, hierarchical, exclusive. It aims to be good, actually good, a goodness made real through feelings, not words. In art, as in life, goodness is "lifelike"; it is feeling in action. It is indivisible and constant. It holds its object high and aims for it only. Art is passionate. The life in art flows from that passion, from that pure felt need to be best. Like it or not, that's what art is all about, and art itself, art as we see it through history, stands in simple and massive proof.
Pluralism lies in the face of history. It denies historical certainty. Its head is buried in the sands of time. The nemesis of history keeps dogging pluralism, nipping at its heels, chewing up all those photo-realists and conceptualists and video makers and pattern painters and minimalists abandoned on the aesthetic battlefield by the restless market. Pluralism is forever fighting a desperate rear-guard battle. Time helps it keep history at bay. Woe betide one rash enough to represent history in the present. Quick as a cat, pluralism cuts off anyone who stands for an exclusive best, especially if he's right. I think of Clement Greenberg, counted even by his enemies as our greatest critic, who steadily and insistently showed the world the best art of an entire generation and kept at it until they swallowed it - though it was swallowed more as a matter of historical process than by his insistence - thereby marking himself as a dangerous man, a narrower, an exclusionist, enemy number one of the pluralist system. That narrowness, the narrowness of Greenberg, the narrowness of Pollock, the narrowness of modernism, the gun-barrel narrowness that aims and speeds and hits the one right target, the marvelous, merciless narrowness of history, is anathema to pluralism, subversive, destructive. Greenberg is history jumping up to the present pointing to the future. Pluralism responds with a fury. It has, Goebbelslike, invented preposterous "Greenberg's Formalist Theories" which have the same casual plausibility and willful misrepresentation as any effective propaganda.
Not many have read Greenberg but everyone knows about "Greenberg's Formalist Theories." I have disproven statements people have made about these nonexistent theories face to face, like an old-time preacher, book in hand, chapter and verse. It's no use. They won't change their minds or admit their mistakes. What "everyone knows" is far more persuasive than simple fact. The merest whiff of "Greenberg Formalist Dogma" brings quick, sharp, indignant reaction, anywhere, anytime. Diane Waldman, certainly no card-carrying "formalist," said a few things in a recent sculpture catalogue which were vaguely "formalist" in tone, and, by the way, entirely credible. The Times critic, right on cue, neglected the art in the show to jump all over the presentation and the catalogue text, using phrases like "unnecessarily narrow," "amazing statement," "the argument [is] bizarre," "facile formal analogies," and the like. It is very unfortunate. Greenberg has seen better and written better about art than anyone else for forty years and has offered and given encouragement to generations of American artists and all he gets is knee-jerk knocks from relativist boneheads. He deserves better.
Still, if this is the way it is, why fight it? Why not let it be? Good art will make its way. It always has.
Well, maybe. This brand of pluralism is something new in art, this much of it, this virulence. Maybe it is only an effect, not a cause, merely a handmaiden of an industry which lives by illusion and has started believing it. It could be a factor, or a symptom, of a general decline. I don't know. What I write won't change anything. I just want to point, to go on record, to reach the few sympathetic ears and rile up the others. There are many out there who are estranged, as I am, from an enterprise they thought embodied pride and noble aspiration, estranged not by opposition - that comes with any active, competitive business - but, through impossible ideals, I suppose, by a sadness that a profession which has given us the best of ourselves for hundreds of years could descend to this pathetic anarchy, this raft of whacked-out children adrift on a vast, oily sea of commerce, sails fluttering in the vagrant winds of pluralism.
To those who automatically reply, as they automatically will, that this is just the talk of an "established elite" terrorized by the "vigorous, iconoclastic forces of the new," I say please, give me a break. That's too easy, too pat. I know about all that. To begin with, it is the pluralists who are established, not me and those few who agree with me. We are no more established than the Impressionists were in 1870. Furthermore, I am truly worried that there isn't something out there in that pluralist jungle "vigorous and iconoclastic" enough to give me trouble, real trouble, artistic trouble, something that raises the neck hairs and says real art is here. This void is scary. It tells of the future of painting, not me and my problems. Why, in this motley riot of Neo-Expressionism, is there not one artist who can stand up to the best of the recent past? I've got an eye; I can tell the difference. Why do most of my best students, and most of the other young artists I hear from, pass by this whole generation and go back to de Kooning and Pollock and Hofmann and the artists of the '50s? Why do artists in other disciplines - poetry, prose, music - shake their heads in bewilderment and ask what the hell is going on in the art world? These people are not just talking to my face. They really think something is haywire. We've cut loose from reality: from aesthetic reality, from real-world reality. Yesterday's newspaper can go in the birdcage and last year's books and records in the garage sale. But what does one do with a $95,000 Schnabel? The reckoning is overdue. When it comes, it will come with a bang and a whole lot of whimpering.
1. I don't like using footnotes, but I couldn't resist these. This essay was written as a talk given at Western Michigan University last February. At a gathering after the talk I was shown an article in the January Art News entitled "The Return of Abstraction." I hadn't seen it. Lo and Behold, there it was: a clunky, non-figurative spin-off of Neo-Ex.
2. Believe it or not, since I wrote this piece I've heard this said twice, more or less as I wrote it here. Maybe my miserable record of predicting the vagaries of the art business is improving.
3. The list is real. It stands, stiff and overbearing, behind every survey show in the Western Hemisphere. It is one or the principal embarrassments of so called "pluralism." When you abdicate taste, or conscience, for that matter, "consensus" pours in like concrete filling an empty mold. A stunning recent example of the list at work was a huge show at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art called "An American Renaissance: Painting and Sculpture Since 1940." It included just about everything which has floated to the top of the pluralist swamp - good, bad, and mediocre - cleverly classified and lined up like merchandise in a supermarket.