American Art: An Artist's Perspective (1989)
Catalog essay: "Exhibition Made in America." Virginia Beach Arts Center, Virginia Beach, Virginia, April, 1989.
Any museum or art center which shows contemporary art should have periodic surveys of recent painting to inform the community what is being taken seriously by the art world. Such a survey does not presume to be only the best art of our time; instead, it offers a representation of accepted new art and asks you to look and make up your own mind. This exhibition is a good, broad cross-section of the painting of a generation.
As you walk around the show you will be struck by the variety of styles. A curator might say, "This has been a fertile time in the arts, a time when old rules were broken and horizons expanded, a 'pluralist' time when artists have been encouraged to engage in any form of artistic experiment." A collector might say "This is the new art, the 'cutting edge', the art of the future." A critic might say, "This art profoundly reflects the turbulent spirit of our times." An academic might say, "There's so much going on and it's so interesting that no one style can prevail." Each has a point of view, a way of seeing, a "perspective."
The span of this show is the span of my life as an artist. I have been asked to write about this time from an artist's perspective. As an artist I cannot say these things, or take these attitudes. I am not a dispassionate observer who can cast a generalizing eye. "Pluralism" and "cutting edge" and "turbulent spirit" mean nothing to me and my art. It is my nature and in the nature of what I do to be partisan and critical. Any serious artist must be, down deep.
I think "history" - that inexorable annihilator - criticizes like an artist. These "perspectives" of ours, these tranquil summations of present-day fad and fancy are caught and ground into dust by its pitiless hand. Art is all value. Its function is to be good, and history, in the long run, sorts out art along these lines. History is not perfect, but it is relentless.
For example, if we take a course on the art of the 1950s we are told about the art of the Abstract Expressionists, of Pollock, deKooning and Hofmann. Is that "American Art of the '50s"? Of course not. It is the residue of the '50s. It is what we have chosen to retain. The rest is gone like a cloud of sparrows. We won't hear about Ben Shahn, who in 1953 gave the Norton Lectures at Harvard and was praised by the Director of the Museum of Modern Art as "the greatest American artist of the 20th century." We won't hear about Kenzo Okada, Cameron Booth, John Levee, Hyde Soloman, Vicente, Yunkers and Yektai, all excellent artists, all in tune with their times, all off the list. Few are remembered. And, furthermore, those who are remembered were, in their time, taken seriously by very few. To say in 1948 that Pollock and the now-celebrated Abstract Expressionists were the "artists of the time" would (and did) provoke derision. Now to say otherwise would provoke derision.
So it is with my "perspective." I have my list. All the feeling and sense of rightness I can muster tells me that the best artists alive today are the classical modernist abstractionists: Motherwell, Olitski, Noland, Frankenthaler, Poons and a half dozen others. I know this list is no more acceptable today than a list of Pollock and the rest would have been 40 years ago. I really don't care. They are my peers and my competition. They are the artists I measure myself by, the artists who have given me the most through their art. As far as I'm concerned that's what counts.
The word "Modernism" makes one think of recent art. But Modernism is an attitude, not a time. Western art has been "modernist" for hundreds of years, since the Renaissance, at least. Modernism is the attitude of the modern, any modern, of learning from any art of the past to bring what is new and fresh into present art. The emergence of sophisticated modelling, the invention of perspective, the development of tube paints and stretched canvas- all this is modernist evolution. Modernism is less something new than a way to recombine something old to make something better.
Modernism took a long time to become explicit. Nineteenth Century academic painting fell into a routine of tightly painted browns, greys and ochres in keeping with the sentimental and heroic subjects demanded by a newly-rich middle class which needed pictorial equivalents for its sense of gravity and importance. Manet looked out on all these "stews and gravies," as he called them, and decided that they were dull. Not finding much to please him in his own generation he reached back to the bravura paint and rich color of Velasquez and Goya, painters obligated to paint certain subjects but free to delight in their craft while doing so. Manet's borrowing was his originality. The "new look" he brought to painting flew in the face of stuck-in-the-mud new-rich taste and it thrilled the young Impressionists, who borrowed in turn from Manet and used the freshness of nature to rationalize their joyful flights of paint and color. I'm an abstract painter, but I think the craft of painting reached its apex in 1875.
The Impressionists made common subject matter acceptable and broke high art from the academy, forcefully affirming that painting is its own boss. Their discontinuous surfaces led to the divisionism of the Post-Impressionists, the proto-Cubism of Cézanne and the abstraction of Cubism, and Modernism - the working attitude which says painting is a distinct organism with its own agenda for evolution - became the standard of the time. With the writing of Fry and Greenberg, Modernism was set forth in words. It seemed, when I was learning my craft 30 years ago, that the art of painting and the Modernist attitude were in a fine creative balance.
I remember those times and the thrilling challenge handed over to the young modernist painter. We measured ourselves by ourselves and by the best we could see, and learned, as Kant advised, not to count opinion but to weigh it, to know who to listen to, who to trust. We were suspicious of hyped-up art. Our inspiration didn't always come from the "right" place. It came where we found it, and if we found art where nobody else was looking that was all the better. We fell on the shows at the galleries and museums like gourmands at a smorgasbord, ingesting much and approving little, asking as much of Picasso and Matisse as we asked of ourselves. Everyone was painting muddy deKoonings, so we painted "minimal" long before the word was used for art; in fact, they called our art "latter-day Bauhaus," a terrible curse at the time. It didn't matter. We assumed we were walking a hard road and that it would be a long time and a lot of luck until we came before the eyes of the world. Critics were critical then, and curators cautious until the art proved out. The art business was stodgy, a giant wheel that turned slowly and worked imperfectly. But it worked.
About 25 years ago a confluence of perceptions helped give rise to a new general attitude about art which allied with our post-war prosperity to bring about a new entity with new characteristics. I call it Big Culture.
One perception in this confluence was that culture is prestige. Another was that visual art is the best way to get culture fast. If you don't have culture and you want it, the quickest way to get it is to buy it. Music, literature and theater don't give you much prestige for your money because reading and going to concerts and plays isn't very visible, and books and records sit on the shelf out of sight. Art, on the other hand, is there for all to see, all the time. It is quick, easy and obvious. Listen to the experts, go to shows and auctions, read magazines and catalogs and get out your checkbook. In no time at all you can be a "major player" amidst a blazing display worth millions, courted by museums, caressed by dealers, admired and envied by friends and associates.
Big Culture's big problem was the modernist axiom and historical fact that there are only a few artists of genius every generation, each with a few years at the peak. Big Culture, like big government, needs to support a huge structure: artists, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, foundations, publishers, academics and the much larger and less active constituency of those who enjoy the warm bright glow of art's glamor. It could not feed this crowd on the paltry pickings of Modernism.
The solution was ingenious, if illogical. It was based on another perception, the perception that the clearest attribute of new modernist painting was startling innovation which affronts middlebrow taste. So why not encourage and accept anything which affronts middlebrow taste? This attitude is called "avant-gardism," and it suits Big Culture to a T. High taste, true avant-garde taste, allows too little. Ordinary taste, which prefers Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, is also too limiting, too "quiet," too involved with craft. Big Culture needs size, speed and turnover. If high taste and ordinary taste are excluded - as they must be by a system that proclaims that newness is good in itself - then calculated invention is free to generate many styles of art, each taking its own path, each, in turn, fostering more styles sufficiently distinct to pass the test of novelty and sufficiently obvious for the fast take. Past art is out by definition, and craft, to the immense relief of every inept painter, can be dismissed as an outmoded restraint on inspiration.
Poor Modernism! Its errant seed has grown up and turned against it, for when we put it to the test of novelty it fails. It is no longer new and different. It just keeps on saying the same old things about high standards and rare genius. Big Culture has supplanted Modernism with the far friendlier and more accommodating "Post-Modernism," which is partial to superficial change, amusing fashion and what can only be called "post-literate" writing. We now have styles too numerous to track, shows too numerous to see, artists too numerous to count, prices too high to comprehend and fads that move in and out of the breathless art press with a sprinter's speed. Personal taste is swamped, and skepticism, the natural ally of individualism, is belittled by the powerful fashions created by the experts who step in to monitor the riot of art and make lists of what we should like, thus bending esthetic choice to political choice. One of the ironies of this "pluralism" is the rigidity of these lists at any particular time. Every museum group show of new art seems to have the same artists, and one collection in Beverly Hills looks just like another.
Pluralism - the main plank in Big Culture's political platform - is all right as an expression of tolerance of individual differences in a free and democratic society. However it has no place in the endeavor for excellence. Excellence, whether in business, baseball, science or art, is concentrated, exacting and exclusive. High achievement is always supported by a small culture of specialized learning, shared conventions and procedures worked out over time - a bullet in a gun barrel, not a fistful of gravel. A narrow but allowing method has always been a precondition for great art. The true avant-garde doesn't break old rules, it makes new ones. If "anything goes" everything will. The pseudo-avant-garde lets off the pressure by eroding craft and undermining high aspiration. It is the easy way and it holds sway over the art world now just as the academy and the salon did a hundred years ago. In fact, it is the new academy.
What of the future? My students, who are part of the future, are bewildered by so much mediocre art in so many high places. The best of them either turn to realism, which comes with a rich and supportive tradition, or reach back 30 or 40 years to the Abstract Expressionists, much as Manet reached back to Goya and Velasquez. Others insist "I do it my way" and break "rules" in an environment lacking any rules to break. Willfully dismissing older art as "irrelevant" and craft as "restrictive." They are esthetically homeless kids with a bat and a ball and no game.
I don't think there is any great new painting being done by anyone under 40. There is good painting and there is bad painting: great painting has skipped a generation. If it was there I would see it. It would hit me like lightning. Is the new art too "new" for me, too "challenging"? Hardly. Behind all the clowning and posturing it is listless and old-fashioned. None of the hot new painters pay much attention to the formal discoveries of the last 30 years, or to the dramatic improvements in paint technology for that matter. I wish it was too new for me. I need that esthetic kick in the pants just as much now as I did back in the late '50s looking at Newman and Rothko and Still.
So, as my grandmother would say, I'm a Gloomy Gus. There is talent out there; my students show me that. But talent needs pressure to become genius, and the pressure must come from working against and learning from other talent. This cannot happen as long as fashion obscures talent and misleads it with the high prices and low esthetics of the marketplace. We need a new elitism. Until the system of fashion-driven value is replaced by one of art-driven value we will be in decline. I hope a new generation of artists can change this. Art itself is at stake.
As I said, this a first-rate cross-section of the painting which has come to view in the last 30 years. This is the art l am referring to. Go look at it and see what you think.
Undersigned: "Darby Bannard, Artist and freelance writer, living in Princeton, New Jersey."