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?

Kuspit, “The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation”

This past week I re-read Kuspit’s The End of Art. Those familiar with the book know it focuses more on the reception, marketing, and institutional setting of art today than on the role of modern and contemporary criticism.  But, as usual, Kuspit’s approach is relevant, insightful and, thus, instructive for our discussion and anyone interested in re-examining art criticism today.  Before commenting on The End of Art and its defense of the "New Old Masters", I want to turn, for background, to an earlier piece — "The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation" — which focuses on aesthetic experience and subjectivity. [Originally published in Art Criticism (Winter 1985/86).  Reprinted in Donald Kuspit, The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.]  The subjective (and intersubjective) plays a crucial role in Kuspit’s theory of art and criticism and provides a useful supplement to his argument in The End of Art.

In this essay, Kuspit gives a psychoanalytic account of the role of modern art criticism.  He makes the case that one of the things one typically looks for in art is substance, significance, and permanence. In particular, he links our desire for art with "enduring value" to a fundamental human need for meaning and psychological stability. Art and life are related, albeit not in the postmodern sense that there is no real distinction between the two, but in the modernist sense that art is a refuge apart from the banal and crushing demands of everyday life.  On this view, art is understood as a fictive realm in which the conflicts of life can be explored, often as a search for an underlying unity and coherence. [550]  This characterization, highly contested in the late 20th century, has important implications for criticism, the avant-garde, and the role of the art critic.

Kuspit claims that we can "recognize" in the experience of art a fantasy of immortality, or, to use a less dramatic characterization, a desire for that which enduresCritical evaluation is an attempt at determining the enduring value of a work and opening up the viewer to the qualities that support such evaluations.  Thus, it is the task of the critic to show what is "mortal" and what "immortal" in a work, since every work is a mixture of both.  It’s important to note that this critical conflict between the enduring and the ephemeral parallels the subjective tension between, and resolution of, one’s fantasies of omnipotent selfhood and the demands made by social norms.

The work of art has charismatic power because it seems to satisfy our needs, to give voice to feelings that seem ineffable, even to put in socially presentable form attitudes that seem transgressively anti-social if not outright criminal.  We expect the work to mirror us, and when it doesn’t, our relationship to it becomes tragic.  We feel abandoned by our last hope for an "understanding" relationship…. This psycho-dynamic symbolic function of art…tends to be obscured by the militantly cognitive response to art.  Discussion about whether  an art is stylistically or ideologically innovative or conservative tends to mask an emotional, even characterological, "prejudice" in favor of the innovative or conservative.  Much debate about the critical value of an art is a kind of allegorical warfare to defend certain preexisting, characteristic "points of view" or "outlooks". [552]

Thus, Kuspit claims, the responsible critic must help one engage the work on this level while resisting banal quibbling over categorization. "[I]f criticism is to be serious it must be motivated by a mature sense of the conflicts that motivate life, and especially of the conflict which shows us life at its maturest". [548]

While Kuspit’s approach is deeply informed by Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice, he questions the adequacy of Freud’s understanding of art.  For example, in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud claims that art offers three "palliative remedies" to the difficulties of life.  The compensations offered by art are:

1. "powerful diversions of interest, which lead us to care little for our misery;
2. substitutive gratifications, which lessen it;
3. and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it." [552]

On this view art offers a substitute gratification for our basic needs.  It is, as Freud said, a ‘phantasy-pleasure’, a ‘sublimation of the instincts’ ‘frustrated by the outer world’, the ‘transferring of instinctual aims’ into a direction in which they cannot be frustrated.  Art is a civilized kind of satisfaction of instinctual aims, ‘but compared with that of gratifying gross primitive instincts its intensity is tempered and diffused; it does not overwhelm us physically.’  It seems to be possible to say that from Freud’s perspective art can also be regarded as a powerful diversion of interest and an intoxicating substance. [552f]

According to Kuspit, this orthodox Freudian view is too limited.  There are other, more "psychologically primitive needs" — existential and psychic needs — that can and should be addressed by art and criticism that enable human beings to feel more "at home in the world". 

It is by putting ourselves ‘in the psychological position of the person who has lost unity with nature as a result of his specific human qualities, and seeks to recover that unity’, that we can understand not only ‘authentic human needs’ but the critical role a relationship to art can play in satisfying them, or rather, in giving us the illusion that they can be convincingly satisfied.  Art…presents itself as the permanent satisfaction of psychic needs.  The illusion of permanent satisfaction is the grandest of the grand illusions — the most fundamental illusion necessary to magical survival.  It is the expectation on which all the other satisfactions art affords are built.  It is the most unconscious expectation we have from art. [554]

It’s precisely this expectation and the subjective value of aesthetic experience that is compromised by today’s "post-art" and "post-artists".  And it’s around this issue that one can begin to appreciate the profound differences separating Donald Kuspit and Arthur Danto — both theorists of "The End of Art".

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.

Potentially Yours

Sarah Hromack, in a typically thoughtful (no rush-to-the-press) reflection on the continuing value and influence of those “seminal” Artforum issues published forty years ago, asks, “Is it crazy to suggest…that blogs and the community of people who maintain them, have potential similar to that of the earliest Artforum contributers?” Potential indeed. But how to actualize that potential, in what form, in response to what aspects of the current scene, etc. is not so easily determined.

There’s a suggestive remark in Challenging Art made by Nancy Holt as she looks back on that period.

I read Artforum and I certainly was around a lot of those discussions [about minimal and conceptual art, earthworks, formalism, art and politics, etc.] Some of it related to me. The Greenbergian battle was interesting, but I didn’t feel directly connected to it. I could see that the Greenbergian kind of thinking was too restrictive and we had to break it down. We had to open up the art world to other kinds of thinking and other influences from outside. The art world was very limited in scope and it was very entrenched. It had to be taken on aggressively. I don’t know how it ever got so entrenched. I wasn’t around when it was entrenching itself. But by the time I arrived on the scene it was constricting anyone who wanted to do something different.

I find it fascinating that the situation she describes is precisely the opposite of the one we’re in today. The artists and critics — Holt, Serra, Bochner, Judd, Smithson, Krauss, Fried, Kozloff, Rose, Baldessari, etc. — were coming out of a period dominated by Abstract Expressionism. In the ’50s, all new work was measured against it. The critical paradigms were either Greenberg’s formalism or Rosenberg’s existentialism. Then in the early ’60s Pop Art emerged as, among other things, a rejection of the purity and angst of Ab Ex and its defenders. This opened things up considerably with minimalism, conceptual art, and earthworks contributing to the options for young artists and grist for the critics.

It’s hard to imagine how small and constricted the art scene was in the ’60s. Even with the proliferation of new practices and assumptions among intelligent and aggressive artists and critics, they still felt the weight of formalism and the long arm of Greenberg extending his reach through Michael Fried, Hilton Kramer, and Thomas Hess. The Artforum crowd was still looking for ways to open things up to other influences.

Today, after a generation and a half of pluralism, driven by increasingly diversifying market forces, it’s difficult to even generalize in a convincing way about the works we see, let alone formulate assumptions that justify one’s critical judgments. The problem now, it seems to me, is not breaking out, but breaking in new critical tools, forms of creative expression, ways of writing, and concepts to help us both see what’s at stake in the current state of affairs and respond to it. The virtue of the web and, by extension, the art blog, is that here, if you’re fortunate enough to have the time, resources, and imagination, you can experiment without answering directly to economic and social pressures or conforming to conventional ways of thinking. The opportunity may not last for long.

The Artforum That Was

Thanks to Sara Hromack over at Forward Retreat for coaxing out of Dan and others a list of recent posts on the function of blogs. Her concerns about taking full advantage of the non-commercial critical space opened up by blogs raise important issues. The most intriguing, it seems to me, is the possibility of using our position of “relative autonomy” to reinvigorate a critical practice which is increasingly overwhelmed by market demands. I stress the relative aspect of autonomy because the foothold one gains from an independent, unaffiliated (what in other contexts one might call “volunteer”, or “amateur”) practice of writing about the arts is both unstable and uncertain. The fact that one has no institutional support or funding is not, in itself, a virtue. Nor does it guarantee a “pure” and uncompromised perspective, let alone thoughtful and provocative remarks worth reading. To make a contribution one needs an ongoing interaction with other creative, intelligent, clever, and well-informed artists and writers who care deeply about what they’re doing.

I’ve been reading Amy Newman’s book, Challenging Art, in preparation for a course I’m teaching this spring called The End of Art: Postwar Culture and Criticism in the U.S. Her book is a history of Artforum from 1962 to 1974 structured as a chronicle built out of interviews with people such as Philip Leider, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose, and others responsible for its profound influence during that period. There were a lot of factors contributing to Artforum’s success during those years — some serendipitous, some reprehensible. But I was struck by something that, on reflection, is probably not all that surprising for someone who’s been involved with art publications and institutions for a number of years.

In the first year or two of its existence, no one was paid for the articles published in Artforum. No one. Apparently Phil Leider, the editor, kept meticulous accounts with the intention of paying everyone as soon as the magazine was on its feet. But that simply never happened. Many people were willing to contribute just to see their names in print for the first time with the hope that it would lead to something more substantial. Others were willing to forego payment to help get an exciting new publication on its feet.

What strikes me as relevant and suggestive about the development of the magazine is the way that an informal network of writers, artists, and art historians was brought together through a common desire to refashion the critical practice of the ’60s away from both the moribund “belle lettristic” style associated with French criticism on the one hand and the existentialist ruminations of Harold Rosenberg and his minions on the other, toward a more empirical emphasis on actual works of art and their place in the history of art. Although his activity as a writer was already in decline, the model for critical practice during this period was Clement Greenberg.

It’s hard to imagine the way a small, alternative rag of a publication coming out of the West Coast in the early ’60s was able to exert such a profound influence on the art discourse. Times change, as we all know. Gains made in one period are easily squandered in another. And critical tools productive at one moment may or may not be appropriate 40 years later. But for those of us concerned about the “actual function” and value of art blogs, there’s an important lesson to be learned from Amy Newman’s analysis and the experience of those critics in the ’60s.