Kuspit on the Emergence of Computer-Mediated Art

Donald Kuspit’s recent essay at artnet, “The Matrix of Sensations”, argues for an historical development from mimesis (analog representation grounded in the object) to sensation (art grounded in digital codes). The progression begins with Manet and the impressionists, goes through post-impressionism, early and high modern abstraction, and culminates in postmodern computer-mediated art.

The status and significance of the image changes in postmodern digital art: the image becomes a secondary manifestation — a material epiphenomen, as it were — of the abstract code, which becomes the primary vehicle of creativity. Before, the creation of material images was the primary goal of visual art, and the immaterial code that guided the process was regarded as secondary. Now, the creation of the code — more broadly, the concept — becomes the primary creative act. The image no longer exists in its own right, but now exists only to make the invisible code visible, whatever the material medium.

The transformation from objective representation to code, Kuspit notes, is neither complete nor widely accepted.  But it marks a clear and logical path shaped, in part, by scientific theories and technology in the 20th century.

The response to Kuspit’s article has been swift and, in some cases, passionate.  Lou Gagnon dismisses Kuspit’s claims for the artistic value of “digital art” and the “creativity of code” due to their lacking an essential haptic dimension.  While his concerns are important, he overlooks crucial nuances in Kuspit’s approach when he claims that

We can relate to haptic records because we share a tactile world, because we make mistakes and we incorporate or work around them. We need that tactile feedback. I can take all the digital images that I can store of my children and all of them combined will pale in comparison to the fleeting power of holding their hand, smelling their hair and thumbing through their drawings.

Kuspit’s argument turns not simply on the distinction between our objective and tactile world of experience, on the one hand, and images, on the other. Rather, Kuspit is more concerned about our naively assuming the veridicality of perception and representation and having these assumptions called into question by the compelling, coherent, and often contradictory proliferation of digital forms arising out of this “matrix of sensations” — a questioning that leads to “a new experience of the real”. Gagnon’s point, that an artist’s creative response is shaped by their embodied experience, is true but trivial.  The more interesting questions have to do with the unexplored, or poorly understood, possibilities of experience and, to what extent, if any, computer-mediated art opens up those possibilities.

Tom Moody also points to an apparent disparity between Kuspit’s arguments (most of which he agrees with) and the examples (which fall short of Moody’s expectations.)

I think more is needed by way of both argument and example.  It’s not clear to me, on first reading and to cite just one example, how the link between the electronic pixelated image and sensation give rise to a radically new kind of experience.  Having just seen Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 (incorporating both analog and digital), I’m wondering how the use of digital processes in recording and editing the cinematic image “makes the invisible code visible”, what that could possibly mean, or why it matters.

It’s also curious that there’s no mention of Lev Manovich, noted for arguing (some years ago) that code and software form the basis for avant-garde art, and how Kuspit’s views coincide with, or depart from, Manovich’s.  (The only “new media” reference is Christiane Paul’s recent book, Digital Art.)

Crashing the Discourse with Judd and Bochner

In his review of the republication of Donald Judd’s collected writings (Artforum, Summer 2005), Mel Bochner offers some interesting asides on contemporary art and artists — much of it familiar; all of it relevant.

In spite of the "pluralism" of critical practices and market forces at work today — glossed by Bochner with the phrase "the trough is big enough for all the hogs" — something is missing.

One can hear it in all the verbal hand-wringing about the state of contemporary art. Is it only nostalgia for the "good old days," or does so much that is being done now lack either passion or purpose? The old guys…may have been cranky, but at least we went at it tooth and nail, as if our lives depended on it. Something real was at stake.

And in the ’60s and ’70s Judd was at the center of it.

As a working artist facing the challenge of present-tense conditions, Judd was uniquely able to judge how others were dealing with similar problems and sources. What made his reviews exciting to read was that he wrote with the immediacy of a war correspondent. By sending home dispatches from the front lines of contemporary art, he became that most valuable of literary companions: someone worth arguing with.

It’s precisely that sense of engagement and commitment that Bochner claims is missing today and I agree.  Of course, there was also a certain measure of narcissism and self-promotion that motivated artists to write in the ’60s and early ’70s.  Judd, for example, was not only defending what he found "worthy" in the work of other artists, but contributing to an emerging climate, coming out of a response to Greenberg’s dogmatic formalism, the tyranny of Ab Ex, the banality of Pop Art, and the flaccid criticism of Thomas Hess’s Art News poets, toward a new configuration more conducive to the reception of his own work. 

Judd’s self-interest is a given — a necessary price and one worth paying if, in addition, you can count on direct and unpretentious access to an artist grappling with his thoughts as he works through an encounter with both the art of the past and with the most significant work and issues of the day.

If Judd were writing today, would he be blogging?  Perhaps.  But I’m not sure it would be the best venue for him.  His tough-minded responses could easily turn into the sort of embarrassing, pugnacious rants the unedited free-for-all our blogosphere seems to encourage.  Nor would he be inclined to engage with the ephemeral and superficial art-gossip columnists that seem to proliferate on the web.  So what’s the relevance of Judd today?

Judd’s critical practice, if we can call it that, was not separable from his work as an artist.  It was a sustained, thoughtful, passionate, and serious attempt to crash the discourse on art and bring it closer to the lived experience of seeing, assessing, and creating visual and visceral responses to the world around us.  If nothing else remained, that in itself would be reason enough to remember Judd.

The Artist’s Judgment

In a brief but suggestive State of the Art column in the new Frieze magazine, "Can We Really Suspend the Power of Judgement?", critic Jan Verwoert raises questions about the expectations, interests, and effects in play when one writes about a work of art.  Alternately assuming the position of artist or critic, he expresses reticence about the making of clear and definitive judgments.  Commenting on A Visit to the Louvre, a recent film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Verwoert relates that, in the voice-over, the narrator speaks "with the passion of someone who has an intimate understanding of painting, but also with the pride and competitive élan of an artist who, through a series of rigorous assessments, sets out her own position in relation to other artists by dividing them into genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents."  We learn later that the narrator is not speaking in her own voice, but reciting the words of Cezanne.  (The text is taken from the artist’s writings.  The artists and works to which Cezanne is responding are not indicated in the Frieze essay.)

Now Verwoert observes that "[t]he power of the words lies in the passion behind the artist’s verdicts", but the critic is torn between the opposing positions of speaking with authority and conviction, on the one hand, and withholding judgment, on the other.  "The conventional ritual of praise and rejection…limits art criticism to a tiresome Oedipal game in which a paternal pat on the back or an indignant slap in the face are the only gestures available. To relinquish authority thus actually means gaining the freedom to think and speak differently."  But, in the end, Verwoert asserts that "remaining undecided is precisely what you cannot do as a critic".  "The trick", he concludes, "…is to refrain from symbolically claiming the position of power that in practice is already assigned to you. That is what scruples are about."

Verwoert’s main concern is the way contemporary art criticism runs the risk, wittingly or otherwise, of promoting the market interests of collectors and the compromises faced by museums and galleries in exhibiting and acquiring new works or art.  Much of what he says about the leverage of wealthy collectors — or, should I say, investors — is both true and important.  But what is lost in his analysis is the crucial distinction between the voice, values, and interests of the artist vis-à-vis those of the critic.  As an artist who writes about art, my concern is to avoid conflating the two in order to better understand and articulate the unique perspective offered by the artist qua artist who responds from an inevitably interested position.

There are many differences between the artist and the critic.  One of these has to do with the challenge presented by the work one confronts in a gallery, museum, classroom, or studio.  While the critic may be presented with puzzles, obscurities, apparent inadequacies in the work, the artist sees these and more.  The work is, in some sense, always seen in relation to the artist’s own practice, and very often in the same medium.

What is it about this work that intrigues me?  Why is it a painting rather than a wall drawing or a photograph?  How was it done?  These are elementary questions, I admit.  And they’re not unique to the artist.  What is unique is the personal way in which I find myself responding to those questions.  While clearly oversimplifying matters, I have to say that at a very basic level my concern is how the work I encounter directly affects what I do and how I think about the work I’ve made.  What are my affinities with this artist?  What interests do we share?  Are there things here I can use?  What’s wrong with the piece?  What would I have done differently, and why?  No matter how inspired and impressed I am with a work, there’s almost always something that’s not quite right about it.  Too much empty space.  Too didactic.  Too derivative.  Not enough paint.  The color is too harsh in places.  There’s not enough attention given to the support, or the way it’s mounted on the wall, floor, or pedestal.  It’s constructed in too cavalier and haphazard a manner.  There’s not enough concern for the integrity of the work as an object.  It engages important issues, but in too heavy-handed a way.  While one work is too explicit and painfully sincere, the next is too opaque, convoluted, or austere.

Now, of course, the art critic will often respond with precisely the same language.  The difference is in the way the words are felt and what’s at stake.  For while the critic attempts to open the reader up to the work, to enliven one’s perceptions, to reveal the work’s possible meanings and significance (or lack thereof), the artist is compelled to accept or reject the work as part of an ongoing negotiation of his or her own identity as an artist and everything that represents.

There are, of course, numerous exceptions and not everyone’s experience is the same.  But I can say with a fair degree of confidence, on the basis of conversations over many years with other artists in galleries, studios, classrooms, and bars, that artists see themselves and their work, first and foremost, in the context of other artists and other works of art.  This has little to do with markets, donors, collectors, or curators.  They’re all outsiders from the artist’s perspective.  The only ones who really matter, in a life or death sense, are other artists.  That’s why they tend to be divided into "genuine painters and impostors, allies and opponents".

Here, as simply one example taken at random, are revealing and passionately partisan remarks made by Camille Pissarro to his son Lucien about "the schemer" Gauguin:

Paris, April 20, 1881

I am sending you…a review which contains an article on Gauguin by [Albert] Aurier.  You will observe how tenuous is the logic of this litterateur.  According to him, what in the last instance can be dispensed with in a work of art is drawing or painting; only ideas are essential, and those can be indicated by a few symbols.  Now I will grant that art is as he says, except that "the few symbols" have to be drawn, after all; moreover, it is also necessary to express ideas in terms of color, hence you have to have sensation in order to have ideas…. This gentleman seems to think we are imbeciles!

The Japanese practiced this art as did the Chinese, and their symbols are wonderfully natural, but then they were not Catholics, and Gauguin is a Catholic. I do not criticize Gauguin [in his Jacob and the Angel] for having painted a rose background, nor do I object to the two struggling fighters and the Breton peasants in the foreground; what I dislike is that he copped these elements from the Japanese, the Byzantine painters, and others.  I criticize him for not applying his synthesis to our modern philosophy, which is absolutely social, anti-authoritarian, and anti-mystical.  That is where the problem becomes serious.  This is a step backwards; Gauguin is not a seer, he is a schemer who has sensed that the bourgeoisie is moving to the right, recoiling before the great idea of solidarity which sprouts among the people — an instinctive idea, but fecund, the only idea that is permissible!  The symbolists also take this line!  What do you think?  And they must be fought like a disease!

[From Artists on Art, Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, eds., New York: Pantheon, 1972, 317f.]

Kuspit’s Pascalian Wager

Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art is a sustained defense of aesthetic experience, not from the standpoint of the aesthete, but from point of view of one committed to furthering "personal autonomy and critical freedom" through art in a world overwhelmed by the commercial, the trivial, and the ephemeral.

When works of art become consummately commercial — when commodity identity overtakes and subsumes aesthetic identity, so that an expensive work is uncritically accorded aesthetic significance, not to say spiritual value — they become everyday artifacts, thus reversing the ‘esthetic osmosis’ that Duchamp thought was the essence of ‘the creative act’. Aesthetic osmosis makes works of art evocative and engaging and even creates them, for it transforms ‘inert matter’ into a phenomenon the spectator is willing to call a work of art — a ‘phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically’, that is, to take seriously. [14]

Kuspit’s text is a call to seriousness as he brings to our attention the serious condition into which art has fallen. He joins with others in declaring the end of art.  But he must believe it’s an end in appearance, not in fact — a failure of contemporary imagination and commitment.  Kuspit is making what no doubt seems to him a last ditch attempt to recover from the remains of modernism an understanding and approach to art that enables "the aesthetic transformation of everyday experience of reality" [28], that resists "the resentment and repudiation of beauty" [31] — a dialectical beauty which never loses touch with the ugly inherent in all substantial beauty and on which it depends — that never loses its connection to "artistic contemplation" as "a way of caring for one’s psyche". [37]

When one looks at Otto Dix’s horrific images of trench warfare, his aesthetic transmutation of death and destruction into a weirdly beautiful scene gives us a certain perspective on it that is more critically effective — more consciousness raising, as it were — than any journalistic rendering of it. It is also more soul-saving, for it has a cathartic effect that no war photograph can have. The photograph may move us, but it will not rescue us from the unpleasant feelings it arouses in us, which is what Dix’s aesthetically brilliant images do in the very act of evoking such feelings.  The photograph shows us the devastating scene, but Dix’s images not only show its devastation, but involve us with it, in a complex dialectic of identification and disidentification — shocked attachment and resolute detachment — similar to the dialectic of subject matter and form.  In short, aesthetic autonomy is a prelude to personal autonomy, even a basic part of it.  Human beings are not fully human without aesthetic experience. [37f]

I trust this very brief glimpse at Kuspit’s argument gives a sense for what he thinks may be lost during this age of "post-art".  In the central chapters he gives an historical account of the rise of nihilism and entropy in the art of the 20th century, as well as the "turn inward" as a refuge from the debilitating effects and anomie of modern society. Kuspit presents a bleak, but realistic, assessment of the situation we find ourselves in today.  The "crisis in criticism" discussed in our previous posts is symptomatic of a crisis in contemporary art as a whole.  The prospects of survival on Kuspit’s view and from the position of one who has been at the center of, and active in, the artworld for most of his adult life, are not good.  But he accepts, albeit implicitly, a Pascalian wager, recognizing that while the likelihood of preserving art’s power to deal with what often seems a tragic and meaningless existence may be vanishingly small, the only hope is to assume the possibility of some measure of success and to do what you can to achieve it.

The question is to what extent one accepts Kuspit’s analysis and shares his values.  What does he capture that’s "essential" and where does he go wrong?

Comments on Kuspit

In response to Dan, JL, and George’s comments to the previous post, I think it’s both unfair and unwise to dismiss Kuspit’s analysis as “narcissistic posturing”. Kuspit distinguishes the historical, contemporary, ideological, and critical aspects of art to sharpen our focus on the way one’s experience can be either enhanced or limited by active engagement, on the one hand, or reductive categorization on the other. He’s using the notion of the “historical” not to dismiss it, but rather to question the way it intervenes in one’s encounter with art, shortcircuiting the psychodynamic process that Kuspit believes is at the center of our experience of modern art. We can disagree with his position and characterization of this experience, but not without giving it a close and careful reading.

I don’t think Kuspit is dismissing the historical and the value of consistent, coherent, and necessarily selective accounts of artistic works, movements, and styles embedded in a larger framework of social and material forces. His point is that a fruitful engagement with the work of art depends on our keeping it “in play” and not fully determined. To be affected by it, we must remain open to the unexpected. That entails finding ways to take “out of play”, to whatever extent possible, prior assumptions about the work and its cultural and historical significance, not because they are inherently illegitimate, but to keep them from “conditioning” and, thus, limiting our response. It’s those preconceptions that he refers to as “ideological”, and that he associates with the historical, that diminish a certain kind of productive and critical encounter with art, the value of which is to “further personal autonomy and critical freedom, strengthening the ego against the social superego as well as the instincts, both of which stifle individuality with conformity”. [From The End of Art, Cambridge University Press, 2004, 14.]

So it’s not a question of eliminating history all together, but rather one of relegating the “historical” and the “contemporary” (or “critical”) to those moments in our engagement with art where they can do the most good.

Now it may be that too sharp a distinction between the “historical” and the “contemporary” obscures the ways in which our knowledge of the work might help to open it up for us. (This may be relevant to George’s concerns about “the present”.) Perhaps this is true only for works that rely on a strong conceptual component. I’m thinking here, for example, of Daniel Buren’s early work which, on first encounter many years ago, was utterly opaque to me until I did a bit of research and learned more about his concern for drawing attention to the “rules of the game” — the practices of display and “consumption” of art. Kuspit might place such works as Buren’s in another category entirely — cognitive rather than affective. And, of course, that raises other issues…

The Perpetually Unsolvable Puzzle of Contemporary Art

Much has been written in the last several years about the
turning point in art and culture that occurred in the mid-’60s. Arthur Danto characterizes it as a shift from
the modern to the "contemporary". If we accept this distinction and assume we have a reasonably clear idea
what falls under the concept of the modern, one is inclined to ask what is
brought into focus through the concept of the contemporary. What does it mark other than the indexical
"now" or "the mythological present"?

In a recent essay entitled "The Contemporary and the Historical", Donald Kuspit argues that the contemporary is that which precedes, resists, and lies outside history, that is, a history constructed
according to the criterion of narrative coherence—a fitting together of events
and objects in such a way that each finds its unique place in relation to an
overall configuration. On Kuspit’s view, history is the solution to a puzzle wherein the parts fit together in a clear and satisfying way—"a consistent narrative integrating some of these events in
a system or pattern that simultaneously qualifies and transcends them by giving
them some sort of purposiveness, appropriateness and meaning, thus making them
seem fated" or inevitable. [Kuspit’s essay has also been the subject of discussions by Dan and JL at Grammar.police.]

Kuspit’s analysis of the contemporary, which makes no
mention of Danto, is similar in many respects to the latter’s conception of the

I think of posthistorical art as
art created under conditions of what I want to term “objective
pluralism,” by which I mean that there are no historically mandated
directions for art to go in…. Objective pluralism…means that there are no historical possibilities truer than any other. It is, if you like, a period of artistic entropy, or historical disorder.
[Arthur Danto, from a lecture given at SVA, 18 February 1993.]

Kuspit also acknowledges pluralism as a mark of the
postmodern, i.e. the "unlimited expansion of the contemporary". He
claims that this "radical pluralism…has made a mockery of the belief that
there is one art that is more ‘historical’ than any other. Thus history has
become as absurd and idiosyncratic as the contemporary."

In words that echo Danto’s defense of "the end of
art", Kuspit says

There may be a history of modern
art and a history of traditional art, but there can be no history of postmodern
art, for the radically contemporary can never be delimited by any single
historical reading…. In postmodernity…[there] is no longer any such thing as
the judgment of history, only an incomplete record of the contemporary…. Art
history’s attempt to control contemporaneity—and with that the temporal flow of
art events—by stripping certain art events of their idiosyncracy and
incidentalness in the name of some absolute system of value, was overwhelmed by
the abundance of contemporary art evidence that proposed alternative and often
radically contrary ideas of value…. In attempting to establish certain art as
more legitimate and necessary than other art, history writing implicitly
privileges some art as more creative and ideologically correct than other art.

By contrast, according to Kuspit, the extra-historical
nature of the contemporary makes possible a plurality of interpretations that
keep the art work alive and "in play", rather than fixed, resolved,
the puzzle solved. "This enhances its contemporaneity, that is, the more
communication about and interpretation of it, the more contemporary it seems,
that is, the more alive in the present, as it were, and thus in less and even
no need of permanence." As soon as
historical status is claimed for an art object, "it withers on the
contemporary vine, losing its creative resonance…."

When the contemporary object is cast in stone and projected
into the future as art of historical value, it becomes "a fetishized
product, as though the creative process that brought it into being is beside
its point. In fact, the process is completed by its creative interpretation,
which is ongoing—a perpetual re-becoming and thus de-reification and
dis-establishing of the art product."

Only when there is nothing left to
interpret and communicate is the object complete, that is, resoundingly
concrete, which means that it is a product that has lost the vital resonance or
aura it had when in process—a resonance or aura that can be restored by a
rejuvenating injection of dynamic interpretation. It is perhaps inevitable that
art history misplaces the concreteness of the work process that is art, for art
history is subliminally concerned with the legitimacy of objects, and only
reified objects are legitimate from the perspective of history. History
writing, then, is necessarily an act of reification, and reification goes hand
in hand with idolization — the antithesis of critical consciousness.

Thus, the contemporary, for both Danto and Kuspit, marks a
space within which critical questions and interpretations are always in play,
always engaging, forever reinventing what we see in the works and through them.

The logic of Kuspit’s position seems to suggest that the
"contemporary" is more of an attitude than a temporal marker — a
critical state of mind that governs one’s engagement with an art object,
keeping its contingency in play. In principle, one could approach an artwork
from any historical period as a "contemporary" work, i.e. make it
"contemporary" by applying one’s creative imagination to the
interpretation of the work and one’s critical consciousness to one’s own
theoretical framework, unencumbered by "history".

This clearly differs from Danto’s view of the contemporary
which makes modern and pre-modern works alien in some fundamental way —
aspects of another "form of life" governed by a different structure
of art criticism — another paradigm which we understand, at best, from a
psychological and existential distance.

Since at least 1977, in a memorable essay published in Artforum entitled "Art Criticism:
Where’s the Depth?", Kuspit has been arguing for a "revitalized
idealistic criticism" and the necessary role of criticism in enabling the
work to endure by transcending its particularity. His argument extends to the ontology of art
when he claims that a critical engagement is necessary to complete the work.  Critical
consciousness is needed to constitute a (whole) work and its "aura".
Only then is the work fully realized and knowable. Only then do the relevant details emerge and
enable description of the whole and its parts. "In the last analysis the
presence of the work — its way of being present — depends upon critical
reflection of it, and criticism’s effort to formulate general ideas is an
effort to ground the particular work is such a way that it will have a durable
presence." ["AC", Artforum,1977]

Given the prevalence of a largely descriptive and
compromised art criticism in today’s media, one would do well to re-examine
Kuspit’s theory and practice for ways out of the current impasse.

A Correspondence Theory of Aesthetic Value?

As a follow-up to the previous post on the source of aesthetic value, I’m including an excerpt taken from an essay by T. J. Clark entitled “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art”. [In Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, Francis Frascina, ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1985.]

In the section included below, he calls into question an assumption, attributed to Greenberg, that art can have its own values and be understood and assessed exclusively in terms of those values. (Clark is responding, in particular, to the arguments contained in Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939 and “Towards a Newer Laocoon” of 1940.) In arguing against this claim concerning art’s autonomy, Clark invokes what I’m inclined to call a “correspondence theory of value”. (In fact, it’s not so much a theory as it is an assumption or, at best, an hypothesis.)

This characterization, which may amount to little more than a truism to the social historian, is borne out by Clark’s claim that qualities valued in certain forms and periods of art—flatness in the case of modern art in Europe—necessarily acquire their significance and meaning from non-art sources in the larger society.

Clark’s account is historical but based on substantial assumptions about psychological and sociological mechanisms needed to explain how values associated with individual pursuits and experiences, economic conditions, and political interests external to art correspond to, and somehow affect, the interest one takes in works of art, the qualities one values in those works, the judgments one forms about them, and what they represent to the viewer.

In the end, the connotation and significance ascribed to a particular characteristic of a work of art—what it comes to be seen as—is a representation which stands for a non-aesthetic quality of an object or event external to the work of art that is held in high esteem, explicitly or implicitly, by the viewer.

What would it be like, exactly, for art to possess its own values? Not just to have, in other words, a set of distinctive effects and procedures but to have them somehow be, or provide, the standards by which the effects and procedures are held to be of worth? I may as well say at once that there seem, on the face of it, some insuperable logical difficulties here, and they may well stand in the way of ever providing a coherent reply to the Wittgensteinian question. But I much prefer to give—or to sketch—a kind of historical answer to the question, in which the point of asking it in the first place might be made more clear.

Let us concede that Greenberg may be roughly right when he says in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that “a fairly constant distinction” has been made by “the cultivated of mankind over the ages” “between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere” (“AK,” p. 42) [27]. But let us ask how that distinction was actually made—made and maintained, as an active opposition—in practice, in the first heyday of the art called avant-garde. For the sake of vividness, we might choose the case of the young speculator Dupuy, whom Camille Pissarro described in 1890 as “mon meilleur amateur” and who killed himself the same year, to Pissarro’s chagrin, because he believed he was faced with bankruptcy. One’s picture of such a patron is necessarily speculative in its turn, but what I want to suggest is nothing very debatable. It seems clear from the evidence that Dupuy was someone capable of savouring the separateness of art, its irreducible difficulties and appeal. That was what presumably won him Pissarro’s respect and led him to buy the most problematic art of his day. (This at a time, remember, when Pissarro’s regular patrons, and dealers, had quietly sloped off in search of something less odd.) But I would suggest that he also saw—and in some sense insisted on—a kind of consonance between the experience and value that art had to offer and those that belonged to his everyday life. The consonance did not need to be direct and, indeed, could not be. Dupuy was not in the market for animated pictures of the Stock Exchange—the kind he could have got from Jean Béraud—or even for scenes á la Degas in which he might have been offered back, dramatically, the shifts and upsets of life in the big city. He purchased landscapes instead and seems to have had a taste for those painted in the neo-impressionist manner—painted, that is, in a way which tried to be tight, discreet, and uniform, done with a disabused orderliness, seemingly scientific, certainly analytic. And all of these qualities, we might guess, he savoured and required as the signs of art’s detachment.

Yet surely we must also say that his openness to such qualities, his ability to understand them, was founded in a sense he had of some play between those qualities occurring in art and the same occurring in life—occurring in his life, not on the face of it a happy one, but one at the cutting edge of capitalism still. And when we remember what capitalism was in 1890, we are surely better able to understand why Dupuy invested in Georges Seurat. For this was a capital still confident in its powers, if shaken; and not merely confident, but scrupulous: still in active dialogue with science; still producing distinctive rhetorics and modes of appraising experience; still conscious of its own values—the tests of rationality, the power born of observation and control; still, if you wish, believing in the commodity as a (perplexing) form of freedom.

You see my point, I hope. I believe it was the interplay of these values and the values of art which made the distinction between them an active and possible one—made it a distinction at all, as opposed to a rigid and absolute disjunction. In the case of Dupuy, there was difference-yet-consonance between the values which made for the bourgeois’ sense of himself in practical life and those he required from avant-garde painting. The facts of art and the facts of capital were in active tension. They were still negotiating with each other, they could still, at moments, in particular cases like Dupuy’s, contrive to put each other’s categories in doubt.

This, it seems to me, is what is meant by “a fairly constant distinction [being] made between those values only to be found in art and the values which can be found elsewhere.” It is a negotiated distinction, with the critic of Diderot’s or Baudelaire’s or Felix Feneon’s type the active agent of the settlement. For critics like these, and in the art they typically address, it is true that the values a painting offers are discovered, time and again and with vehemence, as different and irreducible. And we understand the point of Feneon’s insistence; but we are the more impressed by it precisely because the values are found to be different as part of a real cultural dialectic, by which I mean that they are visibly under pressure, in the text, from the demands and valuations made by the ruling class in the business of ruling—the meanings it makes and disseminates, the kinds of order it proposes as its own. It is this pressure—and the way it is enacted in the patronage relation or in the artist’s imagining of his or her public—which keeps the values of art from becoming a merely academic canon.

I hope it is clear how this account of artistic standards—and particularly of the ways in which art’s separateness as a social practice is secured—would call into question Greenberg’s hope that art could become a provider of value in its own right. Yet I think I can call that belief in question more effectively simply by looking at one or another of the facts of art which Greenberg takes to have become a value, in some sense: let me look, for simplicity’s sake, at the notorious fact of “flatness.” Now it is certainly true that the literal flatness of the picture surface was recovered at regular intervals as a striking fact by painters after Courbet. But I think that the question we should ask in this case is why that simple, empirical presence went on being interesting for art. How could a fact of effect or procedure stand in for value in this way? What was it that made it vivid?

The answer is not far to seek. I think we can say that the fact of flatness was vivid and tractable—as it was in the art of Cézanne, for example, or that of Matisse—because it was made to stand for something: some particular and resistant set of qualities, taking its place in an articulated account of experience. The richness of the avant-garde, as a set of contexts for art in the years between 1860 and 1918, say, might thus be redescribed in terms of its ability to give flatness such complex and compatible values—values which necessarily derived from elsewhere than art. It could stand, that flatness, as an analogue of the “popular”—something therefore conceived as plain, workmanlike, and emphatic. Or it could signify “modernity,” with flatness meant to conjure up the mere two dimensions of posters, labels, fashion prints, and photographs. Equally, unbrokenness of surface could be seen—by Cézanne, for example—as standing for the truth of seeing, the actual form of our knowledge of things. And that very claim was repeatedly felt, by artist and audience, to be some kind of aggression on the latter: flatness appeared as a barrier to the ordinary bourgeois’ wish to enter a picture and dream, to have it be a space apart from life in which the mind would be free to make its own connections.

My point is simply that flatness in its heyday was these various meanings and valuations: they were its substance, so to speak: they were what it was seen as. Their particularity was what made it vivid—made it a matter to be painted over again. Flatness was therefore in play—as an irreducible, technical” fact” of painting—with all of these totalizations, all of these attempts to make it a metaphor. Of course in a sense it resisted the metaphors, and the painters we most admire insisted also on it as an awkward, empirical quiddity; but the “also” is the key word here: there was no fact without the metaphor, no medium without its being the vehicle of a complex act of meaning.

Art and Social Change

Dan at Iconoduel and Miguel at Modern Kicks have been looking at the possible connections between the arguments in Greenberg’s early and important essay from 1939, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch“, and Lyotard’s in The Postmodern Condition. This weekend I re-read the Greenberg essay and the exchange between T. J. Clark and Michael Fried focused (among other things) on “Greenberg’s Modernism”, an exchange published by Critical Inquiry in September 1982. I’ll set to one side, for the time being, Lyotard’s views on modernism, aesthetics, and the sublime. Its relevance to the arguments contained in A-G&K are not immediately obvious to me, but perhaps I need to re-read that work, as well. For now, I’ll start with some thoughts on the debate surrounding Greenberg’s early work.

Every time I read A-G&K, I’m struck not only by the clarity with which it lays out the foundation of Greenberg’s approach to art, but also with his insight into the historical conditions that have shaped and constrained artistic practice in advanced capitalist societies. One can argue with his historical account of the emergence of kitsch, the role of 20th century popular culture, and the precise nature of the relation of the avant-garde to the bourgeoisie. But that he puts his finger on one of the chief obstacles to progressive artistic engagement today — the extraordinary difficulty of finding a secure economic and political position from which to practice one’s art and from which to effectively engage and critique the “dominant culture” — is, it seems to me, beyond dispute.

Greenberg argues that when cultural forms lose the power to embody and express what’s at stake in a society, the standard artistic response is to rigidify (by means of “academicism”) the fine points of style and form, theme and variation. Beginning with the emergence of the avant-garde in 19th century France, however, Greenberg finds a more critical and progressive response to the crisis of traditional bourgeois art as modern artists struggled to create an art that would critique the values and contradictions found in their rapidly industrializing society. The nascent avant-garde, according to Greenberg, ultimately disengaged with society, eventually rejecting its political foundation in favor of a cultural goal — to move art “forward” on its own terms as “art for art’s sake”. This involved a belief in, and search for, “absolutes” beyond content.

Thus, Greenberg’s claim is that artistic practices in the modern world inevitably became reflexive — focused on the medium itself. Cutoff from the social world, art was to be justified in its own terms. In this way, art became the subject matter of art. Ironically, art for art’s sake itself often led to a kind of academicism. But the difference between the avant-garde and the degenerate academic forms of art is that the avant-garde “moves” (makes progress?) while the academic (or “Alexandrian”) stands still. In this sense, avant-garde method is vindicated.

Also, paradoxically, the avant-garde “belongs” to the dominant culture or ruling class. Culture requires support and, thus, the avant-garde maintains its connection (its “umbilical cord of gold”, to borrow a phrase from Marx) to the dominant culture. And since this “elite” audience was shrinking, the future of the avant-garde was endangered.

It seems to me the issue here is not so much, as Miguel suggests, in the opposition of realism and abstraction, but in the question of what gives rise to meaning and value in art. It’s obvious that modern artists gave unprecedented attention to the mediums in which they worked. In the 19th century, this constituted a radical move away from the tradition and conventions of the time. In challenging the standards for representation of the visual world and introducing spatial incongruities, abandonment of local color, dramatic emphasis on surface features and two dimensionality, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Derain, Kandinsky, and others rejected the decadent art of the bourgeoisie, disrupting the comfort associated with it.

So the question here is how and why particular art works, or the qualities common to a number of influential works, acquire significance and value. What did flatness, to use the most obvious example, represent and why did it have such compelling attraction for artists and critics in the 20th century? Or, to consider a related question, what was so important about “purity” in art? Why were so many drawn to it as a concept around which to organize a practice or interpretive approach to a body of work? And — here’s the question distinguishing Greenberg from Fried from Meyer Schapiro from T. J. Clark, etc. — with reference to what can these questions be answered?

These are some of the questions one must face when confronting the issue of art, agency, and social change — questions requiring the tools of the social scientist more than the philosopher, artist, or art critic.

Critical Engagement

Dan Hopewell raises questions in response to the previous post that are too good to be buried in the comments section.

In rejecting Danto’s notion of a pluralistic, posthistorical mode, what do you see as the implications for contemporary criticism? Is it still resigned to cast about in the wake of Western Art’s post-grad growing pains, or should it be capable of a greater agency in working through it? Or is the stagnation of criticism more fundamental to the very “problem” itself? […]

These are, indeed, “the big questions”. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, but I don’t honestly think we’re in a position to answer them, i.e. to provide sufficient explanation and understanding of the current situation to enable us to overcome their hold on us and their demand for immediate attention. That we feel their claim on us suggests, of course, that criticism matters, that it plays a valuable role in our social and cultural lives, that it gives back more than it takes from us in time, nerve, and effort.

For example, I’ve always thought that artists have a responsibility to one another to respond to work honestly, thoughtfully, and spontaneously. Too often one visits another’s studio and immediately the talk turns to anything but one’s honest reaction to, and assessment of, the work itself — that level of engagement takes honesty, care, and a willingness to risk misunderstanding and, in extreme sitations, even the relationship itself. There are a lot of feelings that come into play at such moments. Anyone who’s been through a decent art school critique learns at an early age that exposure and critical attention puts the artist in a sensitive and vulnerable position. It’s difficult for everyone involved. But if the people for whom it matters most avoid this sustained confrontation with another’s work and refuse to speak honestly about what they see, there’s very little likelihood that anyone will.

It’s too often the case that grad school is the last time an artist can expect to get an honest and helpful response to their work. As Sarah Hromack makes clear in her witty send up of art school poseurs, it’s easy, often self-protective, and perversely satisfying to simply write others off as lacking in seriousness and purpose. That, in itself, is based on a complex critical assessment that should also be clearly articulated and “shared” with the artist — would-be or otherwise — who lacks the self-awareness necessary to discern how fatuous and dishonest their connection to art has become. That’s what it means to take someone seriously and it’s what’s required of anyone who cares deeply about the endeavor. Whether the other person deserves one’s sincerity is another matter.

Critics, by definition, should be held to the same standard. They owe it to the artist to be honest and to engage in an exchange over the meaning and significance of the work, as well as its role in a larger critical and historical context. The vulnerability and consequences may change depending on whether the discussion takes place in the studio or in a public forum, but the responsibility should be accepted.

The value of criticism goes beyond the ethics of engagement. If that were all that were at stake we would be dealing with little more than abstract moralizing. But surely it’s the effects that matter since the one who is critiqued is able to see more clearly how the work is actually being received. Nor is that process itself straightforward and direct. Understanding the response of the critic itself entails interpretation and assessment. So everyone involved is caught up in a delicate exchange involving perception, response, articulation, and (yes…) judgment. This enables all involved to sharpen their wits and refine their practice, whether it be expression through an artistic medium or engagement and understanding through the medium of ordinary language.

This is the very first step we must take in order for there to be any hope of creating a lively and productive critical environment. But it’s not sufficient. There are too many other obstacles in place that must also be examined and dismantled.

Re-Thinking the Present

Over the course of the last several years, the artistic and critical practices of the Sixties have been getting a lot of attention. Thanks to a number of recent publications and exhibitions devoted to individual artists (Rosenquist, Smithson at LAMoCA and the Whitney) and “movements” (minimalism, conceptual art, earthworks) the complex nature of this transitional period of cultural production can be more fully understood and appreciated.

Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, Amy Newman’s history of the early years of Artforum, fills in part of the rich critical background of the period. By relying almost exclusively on interviews, she shows how the most influential art magazine in the 20th century was shaped by the very specific, and sometimes idiosyncratic, ambitions, ideas, and personal networks of writers and artists in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Last August, in a series of posts, Miguel Sánchez at Modern Kicks commented on Newman’s book, drawing attention to the subjective and occasionally inconsistent chronicle which needs more careful editing. He raises some good points about the prevalence of a moral discourse in art and the contentious relations among principle players such as Philip Leider, Max Kozloff, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, to name a few.

David Cohen, who reviewed the book for the Art Bulletin, begins with Hilton Kramer’s claim that the early Artforum functioned as “a kind of Bible”. Playing out the trope, Cohen characterizes Newman’s book as a Talmudic accompaniment to the Bible which “weaves around the original texts new layers of meaning through a disconcerting but richly rewarding synthesis of legend and lore, philosophical speculation, social analysis, anecdote, telling contradiction, and dialectic.”

What emerges from these “new layers of meaning” is a much clearer sense of the critical dynamics underpinning what, in hindsight, appears to be a dramatic shift in artistic sensibility. Arthur Danto has argued that the transition occurring at this time amounts to “the end of art” — a culminating moment at which art fails to achieve the modernist philosophical goal of self-definition. Through this “failure” comes the realization that anything can be a work of art, an epiphany experienced by Danto in 1964 when reflecting on an exhibition of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. The result is that art, in a profoundly Hegelian gesture, abandons the task of defining art, leaving to philosophy an exercise that properly falls within its domain. Danto claims that art, from this moment on, can longer be subject to a dominant and guiding theme or raison d’être. From here on art will be pluralistic — something for everyone with no constraints on what one ought to do as an artist or critic. The “moral component” referred to above drops out of the picture entirely.

My view is precisely the opposite of Danto’s. While I agree with the claim that a certain kind of modernist practice goes through a radical transition in the early Sixties, I see this not as the end but as the beginning of art. A rough analogy might be that with the culmination of abstraction and formalism at mid-century, western art had, in a sense, earned its MFA and was able finally to set out on its own. The time frames are different, but the pattern may be the same. It is typical of the early postgraduate phase of an artistic career to be a period of exploration and re-examination. (It used to be a rule of thumb that it took ten years after the MFA for an artist to mature. It’s a mark of our commerically reconfigured artworld that one is often preparing for their first retrospective by that time!) The pluralism prevailing since the Sixties may simply be western art’s first attempts at “finding its way”.

While I hestitate to push the analogy too far, I would certainly argue that the recent work on minimalism, conceptualism, pop, and earthworks — all focused on the critical period of the Sixties — provides an opportunity to scavenge through the remains of modernism for the concepts and tools needed to re-think the present.