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« Magic Eye | Main | Moviegoing: "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi" »

September 08, 2003

Can We Just Take a Do-Over?

Michael:

As you know, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in French history and trying to link it up with the rise and development of Modern Art. All of my reading convinces me that the relationships between French social, economic, political and religious history on the one hand and French art history on the other are too clear cut to ignore. (I intend to give a very specific, concrete example of these correspondences in an upcoming posting.) The more I read, the more I am convinced that the dogma fed to us in our Lousy Ivy University in the 1970s (i.e., the notion that Modern Art developed as the result of a purely internal dialogue held within the arts community, chiefly about formal issues like color and “flatness”) is hogwash. The first fifty or so years of Modern Art, from Courbet to the death of Cezanne, was an entirely French affair, very local in character, very idiomatic. What we think of as Modern Art during this period was one subset of French art that reflected French concerns and was created for French consumption. The formal strategies that were adopted, as well as altered, played with, and tossed on the trash heap, don’t derive from each other via some form of immaculate conception, but were glommed on to by artists attempting to find a way of engaging the concerns (and often, but not always, the francs) of the French art-buying public.

This is not to denigrate the incredible creativity involved, nor to criticize the French for the particular set of social, religious, economic, military and political problems they had to confront. I’m simply trying to point out that while the French had a particular clutch of problems to deal with, the rest of humanity had its own set of social, economic, political and religious issues, which were by no means identical to those of the French.

Despite this not very controversial truth, one of the main tenets of the standard, formalist-oriented story of Modern Art (promoted by, say, the Museum of Modern Art throughout most of its existence) is the notion that the experience of Modernity was more or less the same everywhere. (Or at least, it was implied—if not explicitly stated—that the experience of Modernity was, or sooner-or-later would be, identical among urban elites in the Western World). Consequently there was a strong tendency to ignore, bulldoze and generally denigrate local differences and traditions.

Of course, anyone could play in the game of Modernism as long as they paid homage to a set of issues that were, at root, French in origin. To get good at Modernism, one had to first soak up sufficient French-ness to become able to beat the French to the next space on the game board. Picasso perfectly illustrates what was required from a successful non-French player of the Modern French Art Game. For a generation of American artists born early in the 20th century, their opportunity came when the Surrealists fled to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, where they became available for inspiration and cross-examination. (Hooray, we shouted in the 1950s, we had pulled off a hostile takeover of French, er, Modern Art!)

The consequences of this for “advanced” contemporary art were (and remain) profound. Conceptualism is a thoroughly de-nationalized, de-localized, de-socially contextualized approach to making art. While it often references history, it assumes that its viewers all have the same history. When it references culture, it assumes that audiences from Moscow to Tokyo all have the same culture. When it references class, it assumes that its audiences, at any rate, are all going to be university-educated bourgeoisie. I can only assume that the thin-ness of the vast majority of such art is the result of its divorce from, even its contempt of, local traditions and concerns. (Or, as George Hamilton described it in the immortal Zorro, the Gay Blade, the “local news and gossip.” By which George did NOT mean the local art world news and gossip.)

Every now and then, particularly after visits to contemporary art museums in which the art is often ingenious, often witty, and almost always instantly forgettable, I wonder if its possible to go back to, say, the Armory Show in 1913 and take a sort of do-over for American art. You know, just skip the whole Modern Art thing. We might never have had any respect from the international art mafia, but we might have a whole lot more meaningful art hanging or sitting or being projected in our museums.

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at September 8, 2003




Comments

. . .the art is often ingenious, often witty, and almost always instantly forgettable. . .

I call it "punchline art". Like a one-liner you forgot 14 seconds after you heard it -- because you you got all there was to get the first time 'round & there's no reason to re-visit.

Posted by: Twn on September 8, 2003 6:43 PM



No...It can't be...but maybe...there's another person in the world who loves Zorro the Gay Blade as much as I do!

"I have always counted on others being nicer than myself, and never in my life have I been disappointed!"

So much better than that Antonio Banderas crap.

Posted by: Marvin on September 8, 2003 10:18 PM



Interesting. I've always found Picasso's art deeply Spanish. I certainly never saw anyone resembling his "Three Musicians" in France.

As for American art, there's plenty of the type you've described hanging in our museums right now. You just have to be willing to look for it in some odd places. The Tellfair Museum (Savannah GA) is the best place I've seen for it, but the Asheville Art Museum (Asheville NC) and the Mississippi Art Museum (Jackson MS) also have solid modern-American collections with a regional flair.

I also like the art collection in the Roswell Museum (Roswell, NM) -- small but surprisingly good, with a couple of O'Keefes to lure you in and contemporary regional artwork to keep you around. The Santa Fe Art Museum (also NM) is also a good, small, regional institution -- and if you're lucky, you may even catch a chamber music concert while you're there.

But for art pertaining to the American West, the Gilcrease Museum (Tulsa OK) and the Buffalo Bill Center (Cody WY) are unquestionably the best in the world. I prefer the Gilcrease for its superior collection of paintings and Native American artifacts, but will readily concede that the Buffalo Bill Center is a much better place to see sculpture.

Happy hunting!

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 9, 2003 4:33 AM



FvB -- Yeah, there's a good essay to be written by someone more substantial than we are about America and its love affair with (and vulnerability to and stupidity about) French art and intellectual things. And I say this as someone who likes a lot of French art and lived in France for a brief moment. I'm not sure I have much that's enlightening to say about it.

All I've got to contribute by way of explanation is that the French can be impressively chic and worldly-seeming -- they seem to know about style and pleasure and ideas, and they sneer so damned attractively and effectively. And, on the other side, Americans can be such marshmallows, especially where art and quality-of-life (and sex) things are concerned. We're earnest and easily hurt; we're always striving towards Culture (where the French take it for granted); we have no idea even how to wear scarves, sit in cafes and conduct love affairs. The French, in their vanity, have no hesitation about putting themselves at the center and apex of Civilization. We, in our earnest rube-ishness, craving culture and pleasure yet wary of it, buy into it all too quickly.

Although, as everyone's noticed, France seems to have lost much of is hold over the American imagination recently. Which is handy -- it makes the history of America's infatuation with France a finite thing.

My little contribution to the discussion is to offer the observation that Americans nearly always take France (which does have much to offer) much too credulously. We take their radical-poseur "thinkers" not as swashbuckling and absurd public figures but as actual historians and philosophers. We take their fashions and advanced art not as sexy provocations but as something earnestly meant. Why? Because, heck, we try to mean it when we say something, so why wouldn't the French? We tend to fail completely to understand the nature of French life and the role these art-and-thought activities plays there. They're provocations, distractions, poses -- they're sexy and chic, and all the more sexy for being advanced as though sincerely meant. But no one in France (a few gauchistes aside, who usually wind up committing suicide) let it get in the way of the real business of life -- sipping coffee, making money, going to the country for the weekend, having affairs, and sneering at Americans.

What I'd personally like to see Americans pick up from the French -- and I just know everyone's paying close attention to me here -- is a little worldliness (the French overdo the cynicism, but we could use a touch of it), a respect for basic and earthy pleasures (food, wine, coffee, sun, sex, although thank god we bathe more often than they do), and an appreciation for flirtation and provocation for their own sake -- without taking them too damn seriously. "Ah, does that tickle me? Does that enrage me? Does that arouse me? Mmmm, how interesting ...."

Anyway, I second what Tim says, although my knowledge of non-modernist American 20th century art isn't as extensive as his is. As long as I'm in an assigning-books-for-others -to-write mood, I'll say that I'd like to see someone write a comprehensive book on just that subject, wouldn't you?

I think one of the awful effects of modernism (in all the art fields that I can think of -- art, architecture, music, lit) is how it has managed to polarize people, and the arts themselves. You're either with the program, or you're cast out and (probably) resentful about it. All the press and the intellectual attention goes to the modernist-pomo-etc scene -- which means that only it is considered "really art," that it's a wildly-over-inflated and over-intellectualized scene, and that the non-modernist art worlds don't get nearly the attention (or the "criticism") that they deserve.

It seems clear to me that modernism -- whatever its pretentions, and the pretentions of those who do p.r. for it -- is nothing more than one strand in a much larger matrix of art and culture. It has its pleasures and its contributions to make, but the idea that it's somehow more real, or more artistic, or more significant than that is absurd.

Which prompts a couple of questions (for me, anyway) -- how did modernism-etc get away with it for so long? It's an appalling achievement (and has largely been a destructive one, IMHO), but an achievement nonetheless. How to explain it? It's as horrifying yet impressive a phenom as such other secular religions as, say, Freudianism and Marxism. There's something in these creeds that's amazingly effective at creating a disciplehood and getting people to surrender to them. Hats off to them, if only for that. But I don't think it would hurt to think for a few minutes about what it is about them that makes good minds go soft.

The other question it prompts for me comes out of the fact that I like some (not a lot, but some) products of modernism. In my view, a good modernism would offer a perfectly pleasant art route that coexists alongside many other perfectly pleasant art routes (and much of the modernism I like personally, at this point in my life, has a modest, non-utopian quality). So, the question: can modernism-etc actually co-exist? Can it live alongside other art approaches? Can it share space, and share the spotlight? Can it be nothing more than just one option among many? Or, as I sometimes suspect, is modernism's world-devouring, utopian side so central to it that the whole style and movement has to collapse when the charm goes?

Not for the first time, I wind up marveling over this. The Berlin Wall has gone, Marxism isn't taken seriously in the real world anymore, Freudianism keeps trying to revive itself but seems to have lost its grip .... Yet the same old thought-police still dominate the official art world. They've embraced the language of plurality and diversity, but they're still clinging to power. Is this possible just because art doesn't really matter, and isn't as subject to empirical testing as politics, econ and psychology? It's a place (maybe the place) where the remaning True Believers can cluster?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 9, 2003 10:33 AM



"..we have no idea even how to wear scarves, sit in cafes and conduct love affairs." I'm not sure that's even true. (Well, we may not know how to wear scarves, thank God). I think that's what the French would say about us.

I think you may be buying their malarkey in the way you caution others in your comments---you are taking them too seriously.

Posted by: annette on September 9, 2003 3:34 PM



Come to Charlottesville, VA. We know how to sit in cafes. (Problem is, on a summer afternoon those outdoor cafes can be mighty unpleasant places. Best to wait till evening.)

What I don't like about the French is that so many of them are selfish and disaffected. Americans would never let 15,000 people fry in a heat wave -- we'd pitch in and try to help, like we always do.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 9, 2003 4:27 PM



BTW Michael, the reason there isn't (as far as I know) a single book about 20th century non-modernist American art is because the art is too individualized to follow a clear narrative line. Many of these artists have artistic influences, and some even have art-school training. But plenty of others don't -- they just pick up a brush, a camera or a welding torch, and they go for it.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 9, 2003 4:43 PM



"What I don't like about the French is that so many of them are selfish and disaffected. Americans would never let 15,000 people fry in a heat wave -- we'd pitch in and try to help, like we always do."

Actually, tens of thousands of Americans have died in heat waves since the big one of 1980 in the lower Midwest that killed about 10,000. I experienced the short 1995 Chicago heatwave that killed 500-700 within the city in a few days. Did my family think to check in on my wife's 86 year old grandmother? No. We had no experience with the effects of heat that intense. (She survived fine, fortunately.) Did Mayor Daley warn people? Did the city take steps like opening air-conditioned public buildings? No. But, did we all learn from it and do better the next heat wave? Yes. The French will do the same.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 9, 2003 4:49 PM



Annette -- I don't mean to be taken too literally, just to be acknowledging a historical reality, which is that the French are pleased to peddle "l'art de vivre," (the art of living), and that for decades and generations culturally-insecure and culturally-aspiring Americans (me included) were eager buyers.

Tim -- Alexandra Ceely once made a similar good point, which is that modernism not only makes for a good (or at least enthralling) story, it also makes for an easily-teachable story. It's a handy package, in other words, and easily passed along in schools. I'd still be mighty happy to see a book on the theme of non-modernist modern American art. So what if it's harder to package and if the multiple stories are harder to tell. What are we paying our authors for anyway? To tell only the easy stories? (Joke, by the way.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 9, 2003 11:09 PM



Well, we're not paying our authors much -- or at least, not the authors of art books. But they're telling these stories. They're just not doing it in a handy format. As with the art itself, you have to root this stuff out.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 10, 2003 2:00 AM






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