The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Excellence and Postexcellence (2000)

The Edmonton Review, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Summer 2000, pp. 6-9. Edited from a talk given by Darby Bannard to the Edmonton Contemporary Artist's Society, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Oct. 9, 1999. Posted on newCrit 2000. Reedited and revised version published in Critical Perspectives on Art History, McEnroe & Popinski, Eds., Prentice-Hall, 2001.

As you can tell from the title of this talk it concerns value in art, how the idea of value in art has been treated recently in the context of certain academic trends and, by inference, whether artistic value is even a necessary condition of art. I will talk about it broadly with reference to Postmodernism and to the recent "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum as an instance of our current state of affairs. I know this community of artists is interested in these things; art is part of our lives and it is important to us. That's why we make the effort to come together and talk about it, as we are now.

But that close interest also can keep us from seeing art as a whole clearly and objectively; we are too close to the trees to see the forest. I know this is true for me. I spent most of the '80s writing bilious diatribes about the precipitous deterioration of contemporary art forms. It's not that I was wrong but that I was wrong-headed, lashing out in a way I'm afraid looked like sour grapes (maybe it was) with no positive expressed alternative. People told me my writing was good or amusing or bitter, or whatever, but it had all the effect of throwing salt in the ocean. The choir I was preaching to loved it but by then it was a choir without a church to sing in.

This did not make me change my mind about new art; I still see very little of value out there, try as I might. But when I took the job of chair of the art department at the University of Miami in 1989, after 25 years on my own as an independent entrepreneur artist in New York where I had the luxury of picking and choosing my associates and colleagues and most of my professional connections, it finally dawned on me that the world at large, even the highly professional world of academia, really operates on a very low level. Once again I was surprised and disappointed, but this was a job with a paycheck every month so I decided to deal with it. I even got to enjoy the rough and tumble of running an academic department, thankless as it was. Once I accepted the general corruption that operated within, it was much easier to understand why my art had little place in it, and how lucky I was that the New York art world in the '60s and '70s allowed me to paint the best pictures I could and sell them and get a good reputation as an artist. So I dropped the vituperation and bitterness and went back to what I should be doing, which is painting as well as I can and finding the right people to talk to about it, which, by the way, is not easy in Miami. You may feel isolated up here in Edmonton but you have the wonderful advantage of a group of talented, serious, like-minded artists to hang out with. Never mind that you are under siege; every group with a better idea has been under siege.

There's a device I use with my students sometimes when they get their noses too close to art to see it. I say let's imagine an alien from outer space has dropped in on us and says he has been studying our culture but just can't understand this thing we call "art." He can't see why we have it at all. He says your poet Oscar Wilde said art is useless, and he was an artist. Art has no life function and very little social value. You can't eat it, drive it or live in it. Claims are made that it can effect change or improve one's mind and character, but no one has even come close to proving this. It is made from stuff of very little value, like clay and stone and simple cloth. It has no structural procedure or function like religion. It doesn't even have iconic value, like a piece of the true cross, or Jackie Kennedy's pearl necklace. You say art is beauty but then you say some art is not beautiful. You say art is truth and meaning but no one has ever been able to say what it is, and your artist Picasso said art is a lie and your writer Conrad said art is not truth because in the imagination anything can be true.

All I can see, says the Alien, is that you obviously value art highly because pound for pound it is as expensive as anything you have. How do we answer him? Clearly, art is an invention of human culture and operates entirely within human culture. There is no such thing as art without human culture. And It is self-evident that it has a very important place in our culture. "Why" is not so obvious. Theoretically it could just be a huge scam that we are working on ourselves, but, given the evidence, that is just begging the question.

So we tell our visitor we can begin to understand art by understanding that art-making is not only a natural extension of our human skills but also that our current conception of art is the rarified product of a long evolution of something which used to be more useful. The human brain takes a natural delight in form and pattern; it evolved to discern and recognize the fine and subtle details and characteristics of natural objects. These are the necessary skills of the hunter/gatherers we are. Nature rewards these skills and endows them with elements of pleasure. We turn natural pleasures to cultural ends, to cultural pleasures, and art is one of many cultural pleasures we have evolved. Everyone speculates why the cave painters were such marvelous artists. I don't know why, but it is obvious looking at the pictures in Lascaux & Altimira (I was fortunate enough to be among the last tourists allowed to look at Lascaux) that whoever made these pictures had trained to be an artist. These are not the usual crude stick figures you see elsewhere. Is it possible these people just liked good art?

What now we call "fine art," we explain to the alien, existed for centuries because there was a need for it; heroes, gods and tyrants needed physical representation. Civilizations occasionally collected this art. In modern Western culture formal collecting (of art, rather than relics and such) began only around the 14th century, and it was not until the 17th that a real art market developed and the 18th that we built museums for it. It has always been clear that some artists were better at making art than others, but anything we might choose to see as "progress" was usually just a by-product of adapting to conditions and the effort to make something better or quicker. Change was very slow. There was no such thing as "artistic freedom" and the pious adoration we give artists today. Artists were not stars, they were lowly artisans. The few who even got to hang out with the upper classes, like Michelangelo, were an exception proving the rule. (None of this prevented anyone from making great and original art. But today the yearly graduating class from our art programs exceeds the entire population of 15th Century Florence, which employed Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Now that artists have every liberty, where are Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael? Is it possible that talent is still measured out in small doses? Is it possible that we have too many artists, and too much art?)

We go on to explain that the types of art needed by society changed over time. Aristocratic patronage dwindled with the rise of the mercantile classes. The aristocrats collected to reflect their status. The newly rich collected it more to help achieve status than reflect it, and this change in the use of art created a change in the art itself, as patrons went beyond simply selecting the most highly skilled artist available to, say, put them in a picture with the saints, and began to impose their pedestrian tastes on the style of the art as well as the content. By the 19th century salon art of stupefying dullness had commercial ascendancy. At the same time the winds of freedom, independence and individuality were blowing through western culture. Artists began to see themselves as more than common artisans and their art as more than a simple social artifacts. There were serious collectors of art, museums were exhibiting it, large exhibitions, attended by the monied classes, showed and sold art. It was inevitable that an artist like Manet appeared, not as a humble pieceworker in the service of fashion but as a rebel in the cause of art as a noble and independent enterprise valued for itself alone. And so we started on the course of Modernism, as it came to be called, and artists became alienated heroes of the avant garde, with the freedom and responsibility to go it alone and make art as good as they could, unfettered by the bourgeois bounds of propriety and taste. We all know the story; it continues to this day. Now our alien visitor pipes up again.

What you have said, he declares, only points up the irrational absurdity of this activity. You are giving items of singular uselessness incredibly high value without any criteria for that value. I will just have to write in my report that when it comes to this art stuff your species is completely nuts. At that point I think I would just shrug and our friend would get back on his saucer shaking his head in bemusement. His conclusions on what he has observed are absolutely true, and I don't think any reasonable discussion of art can proceed unless we realize that they are true. It is indisputable that we value art highly. And it is also indisputable that we cannot say why without arguing in circles. Art is something we make for ourselves which is there to be valued without any criteria for valuing. This is a good description of art. It may be the defining one. Modernism, as a working attitude over the past century and a half, has insisted that a work of art be valued for itself rather than for its usefulness toward another end. This is more-or-less what is meant by "Art for art's sake." It is characterized by a spirit of high aspiration for art value or "goodness" and is driven by an engine of internal self-criticism.

This has had certain consequences. If the creation of better art is unguided by criteria (how good or useful it is for something) and is specifically a result of individual effort then the art-making will inevitably become a matter of invention, and invention will inevitably be framed in terms of the craft and materials of the art as artists reassess the nature of their activity and question the usefulness of its ingredients. Eventually, over time, methods and conventions extrinsic to the art form will be discarded. This is one of the characteristics of Modernism and it has been documented, most notably by Clement Greenberg, who, like Freud and Darwin, was attacked for pointing to facts we were not willing or prepared to see. Ironically (or tragically, according to your point of view), Modernism, by its very nature, set the stage for its own destruction. Artists, by their very nature, do not like anything which looks like a set of rules, and they do not like hearing it from someone who writes with such obvious boldness and self-assurance. If we examine recent history we see that Greenberg was usually right and that he was high-minded and knew good art when he saw it and we can see that most Greenberg-bashing is just "killing the messenger." We can regret this but we can't change it. Inevitably, a reaction formed against Modernism in all the arts and pointedly denigrated its chief spokesman in painting and sculpture. It came to be called Postmodernism.

Postmodernism, as distinct from Modernism, is aimless, anarchic, amorphous, inclusive, political, non-hierarchical and aims for the popular. It tends away from craft and basics, preferring pre-organized ingredients; hence installation, "happening," "content," "meaning," realist depiction and the invocation of "larger issues." It is, above all, allowing; it lifts the pressure off and lets us bask in the sunny notion that, in art, at least, everything is OK, that the very idea of value discrimination in art is not only expendable but somehow morally suspect, a cousin to the kinds of social discrimination all right-minded people must despise. And it uses the idea of "art," as such, as a kind of cover; anything, once you call it "art," must be taken seriously no matter how inherently ludicrous it might appear in any other context. In this sense Postmodernism can be seen as a form of late Modernism because it has rejected one more convention: the convention of esthetic value and the critical discrimination which comes in company with it. Whether this is an expendable convention remains to be seen.

In my view, Postmodernism, as it is manifested in current visual art, contains three inter-related fatal flaws.

First, the rejection of value discrimination is really just posturing because it is not carried through into the actual enterprise of Postmodernist art itself. The art business - and I mean all of it: artists, curators, dealers, collectors, museums - still operates in the same old good/better/best system of valuation it always has, so it depends on the discriminatory premise of relative excellence whether it likes it or not. Value distinctions are still made, as always, but now a complex cover-language has grown up so that choices can be justified with more acceptable terminology. To do otherwise would threaten what is really important: the maintenance of an art market which has grown way past the limits of the supply of good art or good artists. Modernist limitations, if rigorously applied, would be crippling. I am not decrying hypocrisy here; I am observing that history tells us that internal contradiction in any healthy enterprise is usually exposed and destroyed. This undermines the general system of attitudes and ideas which make up what we know of as Postmodernism. If the Postmodernist market employs a vehicle of value discrimination which dares not to say its name, as it must, the fallacy will fester out and value will reassert itself. It will happen. After all, art without value is just that.

Second, Postmodernism betrays itself by its relentless proselytizing for "anything goes" - I'm OK, you're OK, it's OK. Human achievement is always narrow, limiting and discriminatory and operates within selected restrictions. This is just a fact. Everything good, true and valuable comes about as a result of structured behavior and workable form. Excellence is found when there are reasons for something to be excellent, and this means that the context for it to arise must be clear and intense and deliberately limited. I don't think it comes up in art much these days, but it certainly comes up in other forms of visual entertainment, such as digital special effects or professional sports. Human excellence in the making can take advantage of a relaxed and easy-going atmosphere but the manifestation of that excellence will be anything but. By persisting in this delusion Postmodernism simply offers itself as a vehicle for soft mainstream mediocrity and the maintenance of a market for it. When you break all the barriers you end up with a pile of rubble.

The third fatal flaw of Postmodernism is its rejection of nonreferential form as an instrument of value in art. Formal matters in art are never frivolous or inhuman, as Postmodernism maintains. Form always comes in company with content, and artistic value - Modernist or Postmodernist - must be a matter of form and content working together. Any construction of meaning and value in art must embrace formal considerations, and therefore any art must allow that this meaning or value resides in formal considerations. Real conviction in art can never be carried by content alone. It resides in form, which alone gives life to content. Once again, by its rejection of form as a vehicle for value, Postmodernism presents a value system for artmaking which exists to rationalize weak art rather than support strong art. It is a sheep in wolf's clothing.

But none of this, nor its stultifying academicism, witless obscurity, remoteness from reality and inherent dullness, keeps Postmodernism from being the reigning doctrine of the day. It is the art theology of the moment, the credo for a culture of "sensation." The show which goes by that name at the Brooklyn Museum is probably only another of Greenberg's "episodes in the history of taste," but it is interesting to look at in the context of these remarks.

There are two related points of discussion for the "Sensation" exhibit: the art and the controversy surrounding it. The controversy, however, is a political and sociological matter, not an artistic or esthetic one, interesting only because the art which provoked the hullabaloo is so retrogressive, derivative and tame. Everything there comes straight out of 30 or 40 year old art forms: body art, body parts, excretion, genitalia, blank-looking heads, loathsome things in vitrines, Arbus-like photos, Design 101 make-a-cast-of-something-different projects, flat pop art surfaces, neoexpressionist bright-colored distortion, things lined up in rows, minimalist pop, issue-of-the-week content - this is the kind of dumbdown mockshock you urge your students to avoid because it has been done to death. English artists have always had a proclivity for appropriating and refurbishing; "Sensations" is a classic case of this and a type specimen of '90s art "controversy." Originality and artistic vigor are beside the point because success depends on the lack of it; the show never would have happened in the first place if the art was really new. It has been our habit - at least since pop art went over 40 years ago - to insist that "controversy" come in predigested form and to overlook formally inventive art as "irrelevant." This is the new version of the ancient tradition of rejecting the best new art, and Postmodernism is the label it has assumed. And I am constantly reminded that I am right by those who talk about it: the eyeless "man-on-the-street" hates it, the eyeless "with-it" types love it, and the endangered species of serious art lovers who can see the difference heave an anxious sigh because they know when you deny value to art you deprive it of its sustenance and its life. There's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. We just hope Art is tough enough to come through alive.