The Future of Art
As we approach the end of the century, there appears to be a consensus that Art, taken as a whole, is in trouble. Despite booming museum attendance, and the undeniable quantity of new art (or of creative output), there is still a deep-seated feeling that we have fallen from grace. Even the strongest apologists for postmodernism admit that the volatility of Art now, and its lack of a definitive nature, make its continued viability uncertain at best. It still resists being a popular medium, which some think spells its doom. To retain somewhat of its exalted status and thereby keep prices high, Art has found that it must be esoteric even when it is pushing a populist message. But this alienates the masses, and Art has arrived in the tenuous position of selling mostly far-left ideologies to rich people who got rich within ideologies of the right. The market shields these buyers from the message by selling art as an investment. And criticism translates the message to the masses, hoping to encourage its continued indulgence. If enough words are written, if enough public-relations dollars are spent, most may be steered into the belief that Art is a positive social force and away from the recognition that it is the grossest of luxury items. But how long, many ask, can such a dichotomy last, especially in a society ever more concerned with "elitism"? The tension between idealism and materialism is very high, and public opinion appears to be moving from disenchantment with contemporary art to animosity. And even in intellectual circles, the arguments of art are losing their appeal. With Art as "pluralism," that is, as everything, theory is in a sense superceded. What is there to say about something that is all-inclusive? Anyone who has a limiting definition of Art is wrong, a priori, and the philosophy of art is, in effect, dead--as in finished. Avant garde artists have already lost the desire to paint and sculpt; if critics lose the impetus to talk then Art is left hanging, as just a commodity. First its status slips, then its value, then its price. The rich abandon it as a bad investment. The masses abandon it as hypocritical. And we have a corpse.
Robert Hughes warned us 15 years ago that the body was already cold, that rigor had long since set in. And he was mostly right. The market has not yet collapsed, and criticism has kept its mouth (mostly because graduate programs keep producing so many tongues), but art history has stopped. Or at least paused. No new isms, no new theories, no major artists. Where to go from here? Some think Art will become just another mass medium, like pop music or film, answerable to a mass audience. Artists, if they are to get rich, will have to do so just like any other creative person: by selling in quantity. Others see a return to "high" decorative art, of an aristocratic sort, to give the wealthy what they want in the first place. There are various arguments about what these scenarios might mean. Some think either one is equivalent to the death of Art. Some think the first is what Art should be anyway. Some think that of the second. Some think Art should be dead in a democratic society, and rejoice at its fall regardless. A few, like Hughes, are truly sorry to see Art go, but cannot solve this dilemma.
For Hughes and all those like him I have tidings of great joy. Art will survive simply because it is not contained in any of the categories above, and never has been. This is not some new-age assertion of hope on my part. It is a theoretical truth I intend to prove, in this and subsequent articles, and in my art. Modernism, and thereby postmodernism, was created by writers in the first half of the century, beginning with, say, Roger Fry, and ending with Clement Greenberg (but including many, many others), who invented the schism that still plagues us. To "revivify" Art (and for their own greater glory), these critics divided art history into two major segments: the past, which was regressive, and the future, which was progressive. All art of the past, from the Greeks to van Gogh, was tied into a sack and thrown into the theoretical sea. It had to be to make room for more art. Old art came to occupy the category I mentioned above—aristocratic art. That most did not fit in this category did not make any difference to those who were glad to see it go. Future art, on the other hand, would be an art of ideas. It had to be an art of ideas 1) to give it the proper intellectual ballast, 2) so that critics could talk about it. What all art since Kandinsky (around 1910) has in common is that it is an art of analysis. Modern art is the artist or critic thinking about art.
I contend that this definition of Art was bound to deconstruct, as it has, and that this deconstruction does not doom us to neo-court painters or to Saturday Evening Post covers. Criticism has tried to remake Art in its own image, but Art is not criticism. It is the opposite of criticism. Art is synthetic. It springs from the imagination. Its origins are pre-cognitive; its mechanism ineffable; its consorts, symbol and myth. Criticism is analytic; its methods, rational. It meets art like matter meets anti-matter. Art is always arrayed in mystery. Criticism cannot abide mystery. When criticism becomes more powerful than art, its methods begin to systematically destroy the foundations of art. Reason, continually watered, crowds out an etiolated imagination, and our dreams become dessicated. But creativity can never be completely killed off. And talent is ever-renewed, despite all effort to argue it away.
Art as a rational and political tool, as a subset to language or cognition, as a handmaiden to social criticism, had a built-in destruct mechanism. When Art becomes equivalent to criticism, when "thinking about art" and "art" are the same thing, then you have analysis analyzing itself, a vicious circle that can do nothing but implode. Artists need to bypass criticism and themselves ask the question that begs itself here: what is art? Why was Michelangelo not just a "decorative" artist? Why was van Gogh not just a "realist," a painter of objects? Why, exactly, was Clement Greenberg wrong: when the Old Masters were transcending "illustration" (and they were), what were they doing? What is it in an artifact that transcends dexterity and cleverness?
As Tolstoy told us a hundred years ago, it is emotion—emotion successfully and powerfully revealed through a visual medium. Art is not an idea. It is a great artifact. It is a physical thing that must be imagined and created. And its impetus is a private passion, not a public mission. Art cannot take direction, either from the left or the right. It is a gift of the Id, not a presciption or proscription of the Superego. Some artists know this, either consciously or unconsciously, and it is these artists who, despite all the pressures of the markets and magazines, will be the artists of the future. Whether the markets or the government or the masses respond immediately to these artists is of absolutely no matter, as our art history classes were to have taught us. Art is that thing which transcends both decoration and politics, and to look to curators, philosophers, and salesmen to inform us about Art is simply to be lost. Even after a century of chaos, misinformation, and grand attempts at co-option, the artist remains primary, and all the others can only play a game of catch-up.
What this means for the true
lover of art is that he or she must look for art in the same place the artist
does: that is, inward, not outward.
Like the God of Luther, Art speaks directly and requires no
priests. Modernism is in trouble, but
it has always been in trouble—because it attempts to substitute the sermon for
the oracle, the idea for the deed. Art,
which is now what it has always been, can reassert itself only person to
person, work by work. And the
connoisseur may know these works by the good they do him.
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