ART RAGEI was having a hard time getting to sleep last night, tossing and turning as I reflected on Modernism's failure to deliver us Utopia. Forget Thomas More, I thought, we should instead be heaping our scorn and derision on Bartok, Picasso and James Joyce. In fact, I seem to remember that this was supposed to be the raison d'etre of post-Modernism.It is ma inly a reaction to an imagined series of failures, especially the one to deliver some vague promises about paradise on earth, apparently made by the luminaries of the Modernist movement. But what did they really promise us and who took them at their word when they did wax idealistic?
Forget for a moment that Modernism is an invention of a particularly iconoclastic, and curiously anodized caste of intellectuals. In reality the various movements of Modern Art were constantly at each other's throat and never coalesced into one general movement, except in the heads of today’s re-writers of art history. Do they mean that in some way we should never again be impressed by the protean works of Picasso? Probably we should banish the questionable writings of Ezra Pound and maybe even the twelve tone music of Arnold Shoenberg as anti-Octave.
Morality is today seen as the key issue. Any instances of the dreaded ‘male gaze", for instance is immediately suspect. This noxious term coined by ace British power-spotter, Griselda Pollock, implies not plurality or accomodation, but a world in which male gazing will be replaced with the type of art whose key to existence is being a sop to political correctness.
But why then are the crowds still lining up to see the work of those 19th century, early Modernists, still being displayed in the Musee d’Orsay and in the Orangerie in Paris. Haven't they learned anything? Didn't they take to heart the chiding of the likes of Griselda Pollock, a well-trained art historian who really does know her stuff, but submerges it, as do so many trendy critics and curators, under the bafflegab of deconstruction and identity politics.
Perhaps some didactic pamphlet could be handed out to the many women in the long line ups to see arch-gazers like Degas and Gauguin, to the effect that they are being duped by the patriarchy into seeing the works of these naughty little Frenchmen, who, despite their reputations are really just so many pornographers, working fully clothed, while their models shivered undraped and objectified, on some divan, until the end of the working day, when the artist, undoubtedly a drunken, testosterone monster, flung himsef on her.
This situation has caused many writers locally and in magazines like Modern Painters to deplore where so much of this thinking originated. It was in the clubby atmosphere engendered between the salon Marxists who control academia and their selected university-trained artists. The agenda was to form an unprecedented cronyism, a veritable closed circuit where one gets a grant from a like minded artist and then next year returns the favour. It is this ongoing fraud of arms length funding and the so-called "peer review" process of grants and purchase awards, that George Woodcock, in his 1985 book, Strange Bedfellows, warned us about. He was the first to point out in this work, the increasing cronyism evident in the selection of Canada Council juries, for instance,which is hardly news to most artists.
Woodcock, a friend and colleague of the esteemed scholar Northrop Frye, also shared the latter’s disdain for the nasty post-structuralist habit of not studying the texts of, say Shakespeare, in their original, but only considering the ideolological commentaries on them, done by tenured radicals masquerading as true authorites. Tenured radicals is a term coined for a book of the same name by the writer, Roger Kimball, who edits the review, The New Criterion, with N.Y.Times art critic, Hilton Kraemer. Together these two unrepentant Modernists have led the aesthetic backlash against the frippery and flim flam of much recent philosophizing on art, the ‘thin gruel of conceptualism’ as Times critic Robert Hughes put it.
They, like many other viewers, seem to feel that the worth, not to mention the appeal, of what I call ‘grant art’ art goes down in direct proportion to the amount of abstruse verbiage written to explain it. And why do the new forms of art making have to be depicted as replacing painting? The same silly notion of the end of painting was put forward when photography was invented in the mid-19th century, even though it instead actually liberated painters from depicting only the surface reality of the world. In fact the camera was, and is, a good tool for the painter.
Not that I have a hard time understanding the theories of the conceptualists. Its not exactly rocket science, this type of rhetorical thinking which, among other things, makes the claim that all painting is redundant. I simply disagree with the premises set forth in the canon of the deconstructionists. Its all ideologically-based for starters. The first line I read in a work by semiotics inventor, Roland Barthes, is that we should look carefully at who is using a particular word or phrase and judge their usage of that word or phrase according to their social position or class. Sounds like something Robespierre would have said during the Reign of Terror.
Will these French philophers of the 1960s continue to be the ruling caste of Western intellectual thought forever, thereby making a bed of roses for their initiates and a bed of thorns for those who are non-believers? This state of affairs is probably why New York critic, Harold Rosenberg, wrote in Criticism and its Premises: “Art criticism today is beset by art historians turned inside out to function as prophets of so-called inevitable trends. A determinism similar to that projected into the evolution of past styles is clamped upon art in the making. In this parody of art history, value judgments are deduced from a presumed logic of development, and an ultimatum is issued to artists either to accommodate themselves to these values or be banned from the art of the future.”
I think this is possibly the most acute and perceptive satement written about art in the last 50 years. They don’t even wait for the history to happen nowdays; they write the art history even before the art is done. We formerly might have said: "even before the paint dries", but as it is unfashionable to refer to the patriarchal, phallo-centric practise of painting, we would now say: "even before the Cibachrome lab bills are paid". Rosenberg also wrote about the paradigm shift so desperately sought by the 1972 Documenta show in Germany: “After 1972”, he claimed “anybody could be an artist, except, perhaps, painters and sculptors”.
Progress in art today is under the sway of a group I call “the paradigm shifters” who love to point to why everything we loved about 20" century art: technique, bravura, the heroic, and the sensual, are actually attributable not to the skill or vision, but to the delinquency of the Modernists. This attitude has fuelled a whole new culture of complaint. It goes along with road rage and the newer phenomenon, air rage. I call this aesthetic backlash "art rage”. It stems from seeing Modern painting and sculpture eviscerated on the altar of recent art criticical theory, so that the determinism ,which Rosenberg spoke of, could be conferred on the work of iconoclastic artists only. These are artists determined to show that everything made in the recent Modernist past was somehow morally faulty, even if it looks a whole lot better than the offerings of today`s annointed "cutting edge”.
If art today is at all visually pleasing or stimulating, it is brushed off by the conceptualist brain trust with the epithet "retro". To win favour with this self-appointed elite, art must reflect our disfunctionality as a society. We are apparently so bad that the idea of giving audiences anything joyous or even just pleasing to look at (defined as "retinal candy") is considered in bad taste, as it is seen to be giving in to the pressures of today' s consumer society, or is portrayed as ignoring our past moral transgressions.
This sentiment is expressed over and over again by art writers, especially in Canada's newspapers. Can't we stop looking for beauty, they ask us? After all, isn't most beauty based on the repression of women or gays or the ubiquitous “other”? This “other” is a particularly good example of a meaningless, plastic word. The other ‘what’, for God’s sake. Its part of the legacy of the tenured radicals, an inter-discplinary habit of using verbs as nouns and nouns as verbs or anything else you please.
In the university of Toronto Quarterly, UBC English professor, Graham Good, writes in his essay, The Hegemony of Theory , that it all boils down to RSH . This is an acronym which Good uses to denote racism, sexism and homophobia. He opines that what post-structuralism and the ensuing paradigm of ‘gult and grievance’ has wrought is an intellectual atmosphere where everything must be done to use Art in combating these scourges, whether real or imagined. Artists whose work does not reflect an antidote to RSH will undoubtedly be re-educated in the future to do a more socially useful, rigidly moralistic type of art. Remember the Soviet era trials of artists considered guilty of formalism? They sound a lot like the tastes of today’s juries, judging by what most publicly funded “grant art” looks like.
The only antidote however, to these paradigm shifts being currently orchestrated by the academies, is ‘art rage’. It may be the only possible reaction left for many painters for instance, to a decade or more of the new totalitarianism in aesthetic thought. Art rage is felt by these painters at having to compete for grants with artists using technological media, who can’t wait to toss their ancient art of oil painting on the scrap heap of history. Art rage at cronyistic juries who hold the public’s opinion and taste in contempt or conversely, consider abstraction as ‘mere decoration’. Art rage at how many good painters and sculptors have been dismissed because they have failed to be “cutting edge” or not sufficiently moralistic in their choice of subject matter.
Above all, art rage at the admonitory tone, which is the requisite feature of too much contemporary art, especially in Canada. Are we, as a largely tolerant, humanist society, really deserving of the unrelenting finger wagging embodied in contemporary conceptualism, installation and photo-based art. Who has empowered this precious and proscriptive approach to the visual arts by letting one elite dictate what kind of art is really good for us? Why is the government funding this loyal artistic opposition, a kind of officially sanctioned counter-culturism? For my money I will stay art raged, despite the promise of more sleepless nights.
Gregg Simpson, 1999