Words of the Day:
“Offend” and “Intend”
by Miles Mathis
Paul Soderberg recently published an article with ARC entitled Storm Warning to the Artworld. The article’s main point was that Modernism was a sham and that ARC and Plein Air magazine were two prehistoric superfish that were going to swallow the whale Modernism down whole.
Maybe. As I have said before, I think the intentions and contentions of ARC are mainly correct concerning Modernism, and I would say the same about Plein Air. In addition, Mr. Soderberg’s article was well-written and clear. He seems to be a logical new voice for ARC, since he is well-read, outspoken, and confident. I hope he is correct in his assertion that the end of Modernism is near, whether that end is brought about by the two superfish or by other means.
However, it also occurred to me that many will think that Mr. Soderberg’s thesis is a smooth transition from mine, or is mostly equivalent. To deflect this possibility I have felt it necessary to write this counterpoint. There are a couple of ideas in Mr. Soderberg’s article that I find to be dangerously wrongheaded, though perhaps not intentionally deceptive. Which is to say that I do not know Mr. Soderberg’s intentions or the intentions of Eric Rhoads, publisher of Plein Air. I know them only by what they say at this point. I therefore assume that they have taken all the various positions they have taken with goodwill toward art, true artists, and art history.
I know the people at ARC a bit better, so I know that this is not true in their case. Mixed in with a love for true art is a desire for power over artists. This should not surprise me, since Nietzsche, a man I quote often, taught that all action is informed by a desire for power. I should be more surprised if Fred Ross’ actions or anyone else’s were wholly determined by goodwill or altruism. Nietzsche would say that my assumption that Mr. Soderberg and Mr. Rhoads are driven mainly by goodwill is naïve, and that I would do better to assume the opposite. That is not the way I work, though. Some have claimed that I burn bridges indiscriminately. I don’t. It will take a bit more convincing before I am sure that Mr. Soderberg’s philosophy (or that of Mr. Rhoads) is deadly to me. For now I will act on the assumption that it is not fully stated or not fully thought out.
Nor do I respond only to differentiate myself from my successor at ARC. Even had I never written for ARC, it would be important to counter some of the claims of Mr. Soderberg publicly. If realism is soon to take over the art world then it must do so not only with the right paintings but with the right ideas. If we build a new faulty definition of art, then we will have doomed the world to another century of bad art and bad thinking.
Mr. Soderberg’s first error is on concentrating on the Modern artist in his attack on Modernism. He points at “expression” as being a central villain, and then goes on to complain of the excessive status of the artist in modern society. His fire is slightly misaimed in both instances. First of all, Modern art has not been mainly an art of expression. It has been an art of politics and theory. Expression was an important term in the second half of the 19th century. But by 1913, the date he cites as the turning point, expression had been replaced by politics and theory. Or, to be even more precise, it was very soon to be. I myself often cite 1917, the year of Duchamp’s urinal, as the final turning point. In 2004 this work was voted the most influential work in the 20th century by 500 top art experts. I happen to agree with them. It is not the best work of the 20th century; in fact it is in a first-place tie with about a thousand others for worst. But I think it is the most influential. Regardless, it is easy to see that there is no artistic expression in this piece. Only if you include political or theoretical expression as part of the definition can you absorb Duchamp’s urinal. But you have to remember that until then, historically, expression meant artistic expression. For example, the Expressionists, as an historical movement, were not mainly interested in politics or theory. They were expressionists because they were expressing personal emotions or things along that line. This is also true about the post-Impressionists, the tonalists, the symbolists, and even the Fauves, for the most part. That is what expression had meant in the late 19th century, in the early 20th century, and it is what most people mean when they speak of expression in art today. Of course, by this definition, expression is very hard to argue against in art. If you have a problem with Van Gogh’s melancholy or Munch’s angst, then you also have to jettison Bouguereau’s nostalgia and Sargent’s languor and Rembrant’s somberness and Chardin’s quietude and so on. Expression can hardly be a categorical error in art.
Even with someone like Pollock, it is not the expression that is the problem. Most realists do not dislike Pollock because he was expressive. They dislike him because they doubt that the paintings actually express anything—or anything beyond manic energy. Rothko, likewise. Few dislike him for trying to express himself, I think. He is disliked because it is doubted that he did so effectively. Or, it is thought that the things he expressed are not terribly interesting.
The problem with Modernism was never expression, it was lack of expression. Modernism, at its most influential, was always soulless and emotionless, from Duchamp’s found items to John’s numbers and targets to Warhol’s silkscreens to Pearlstein’s and Currin’s nudes. Where Modernism was expressing anything, it was not personal emotions but cultural emotions—the artist was borrowing a stance he had learned in some course or from some journal. There are exceptions of course, but the main line of Modernism has been anti-expressive.
Mr. Soderberg’s other implication in the first part of the article—that the personal cult of the artist is a central problem of Modernism—is also off the mark. It is true that many artists get paid way too much for way too little and that many many artists are famous for absolutely nothing. But the fact is that, with hindsight and as an overview, artists had less power in their own field in the 20th century than at any time in history. Some were able to buy a degree of prestige and a fat paycheck by kissing up to the right people, but they were never the primary players in art. John Currin is at the mercy of Gagosian and the museum curators and the critics and hundreds of other non-artists and he knows it. He could diss Andrea Rosen only because a more powerful gallery was ready to take him. He is a player, and you will never see him playing a tune that does not make him more famous. Or, if he does so, you can expect to see an immediate and precipitous fall. Let him decide to paint subjects like we do, without an obvious political or theoretical spin, and you will see how much his name is worth.
Mr. Soderberg says that in the 20th century “the artist became all-important.” But this is absolutely false. The artist is now a brand name, completely interchangeable. What is primary is the theory. Modernism is a very slowly evolving socio-political theory, and it is this theory that is the foundation of all new work. The secondary level is the museum/curator/critic. The curators and critics and other administrators of art, informed by the theory, choose various artists to embody this theory. They guide them and lecture them. The artists are therefore at the third level. They are not “all-important.” They are doubly subordinate. Once the artists have been read the code and given the tests, then they will have earned the right to be obnoxious and say ridiculous things. This is their PR function, you see. They are the rich, third level flunkies, doing primarily what they are told. The poster people. They generate attention, and the method of generating attention is not so important as long as it is non-hierarchical. That is to say, they can be seen pissing in fireplaces and gambling and chasing hookers, but they should not be seen playing polo or watching Pride and Prejudice or wearing monocles or getting manicures.
You now see why it has been important for me to make this distinction. Someone who read Mr. Soderberg’s article might be prepared to further lower the prestige and power granted to the artist as punishment for a century of abuse or as a blueprint for future humility. This could only make it easier for administrators to rake even more power onto their side of the table. As the “big fish” at ARC and Plein Air take over the administration of art from the Moderns, they will then have a huge stack of chips to bet with, and we artists will be sitting there wondering what just happened to the kitty. The public will be told that the balance of power has just shifted from the artists’ side to its side. But what will really be happening is that the artists will be too humble to ask for power or to wield it; the public will be too ignorant and too disorganized to move quickly; and the administrators, whoever they are, will emerge as virtual dictators. Forgive me if I do not see this as a pleasant future, even if I am allowed to paint figures.
Mr. Soderberg fails to consider how positive periods in art like the Renaissance might fit into his theory. The answer is, they don’t. Anyone who reads Vasari can see that the artists were very powerful players. Michelangelo was considered to be a demigod. All the guilds and workshops were run by masters, and these masters determined the field of art. It was completely hierarchical. The patrons had power as well, the power to hire artists and to commission works. But these patrons, even when they were Popes, had less power than contemporary administrators. Michelangelo fought with various Popes and cardinals and often won. Who could fight with the new Pope—Contemporary Theory—and win? No one. Not even Lucian Freud. Even though he is a realist and a figure painter, Freud is sitting right on the bullseye of Theory. This is not a coincidence.
This is why I doubt the ability of ARC or Plein Air to swallow the whale Modernism whole. They do not understand it. They do not see how pervasive it is. Nor do they see how it is tied into many modern ideas that they themselves accept. They want to pull a tooth, but they don’t see that the roots of the tooth have gone into the brain and encircled it, and that this brain is their own. In attacking Modernism, they end up attacking expression and the right of the artist to have power in his own field. Pull the tooth with these pliers and art dies. Or to put it in more lucid terms, pull the tooth this way and the zombie of Modernism is replaced by another zombie
Another terrible mistake is made in making “offense” one of the central terms of the argument about art. Mr. Soderberg fails to make some very important distinctions, and without these distinctions his theory of offense will do more harm than good.
He is right to argue that “artists” like Andres Serrano, whose work is summed up by intentional offense, are mostly gratuitous. Even as a political or religious statement, Serrano’s work is just shallow and inflammatory. But Mr. Soderberg does not stop there. He says, “The rest of us hope and strive always to avoid offending people.” Us being real artists. But I don’t think this is true at all. I do not hope and strive always to avoid offending people. I do not try to offend anyone or intend to offend anyone, but that is a very different thing. Once again it is informative to tie Mr. Soderberg’s statement to the Renaissance, a time full of real artists, by all agreement. Does anyone think that Michelangelo strived to avoid offending people? No. He did what he had to do artistically. In fact, he offended a lot of people, including the church he had been hired by. He did not offend them intentionally. It just turned out that way. He thought it necessary to have nudity. The cardinals disagreed, and were offended. What to do? Who knew more about art, Michelangelo or the cardinals? Most people would say Michelangelo, and history has agreed. The fig leaves are now looked upon as ridiculous by almost everyone, even those within the Catholic church.
I still deal with matters like this on a daily basis, which is why I was able to spot the contradiction in Mr. Soderberg’s argument so quickly. Many people, including my own grandmother, are offended by my nudes, especially the pubic hair. According to Mr. Soderberg’s argument, I should simply quit painting them out of respect for my audience. If I keep painting them, it is a sign of my ties to Modernism, and a sign of my disrespect for the public. I should be uplifting at all times, and by this Mr. Soderberg does not mean genitally uplifting.
You can see that it would be very easy to push his argument one more tiny step past me, where you have Bouguereau’s nudes, chaste and hairless. Many people are offended by Bouguereau. Some are offended by any nudity, no matter how de-sexed. Some are offended by all the little girls looking so scrumptious. Some are offended by the objectification of women, no matter how it is achieved. Should Bouguereau have been required to take all these offended people seriously? Should ARC? Should I? If I say that they can be ignored as prudes or ignoramuses, am I being elitist and hierarchical, dismissive of my public and claiming special treatment? Well, yes. In a way I am. Is there anything wrong with doing it? I don’t think so. I have every right to dismiss prudes and ignoramuses as prudes and ignoramuses.
The problem with the avant garde phonies is not that they are dismissive of ignoramuses, it is that they are themselves ignoramuses. That is to say, it is not the attitude that is the problem, it is the facts of the matter. Michelangelo had every right to dismiss ignorant cardinals or presumptuous citizens of Rome because he was Michelangelo. He was a great artist and they were not. He had earned the right to a bit of attitude. The same could be said of Rubens or Rodin or Wyeth. If Wyeth tells a clueless old lady who objects to his Helga series to take a hike, it is unlikely that Mr. Soderberg would take him to task for it.
But the contemporary artists that Mr. Soderberg and I both detest have not earned the right to any attitude. They have staked claim to an ancient hierarchy without doing anything to earn it. It is all a façade propped up only by outlandish presumption. Mr. Soderberg could easily attack Serrano and Finley and all the rest for being fakes. Instead he attacks them for a lack of humility. They are fantastically immodest, but this is not the baseline problem of the situation. The problem is that they are shallow, uninteresting, obnoxious people who have nothing to add to any dialogue or catalogue.
If Michelangelo had been humble and concerned mainly with avoiding offense, he wouldn’t have done anything he did. This is true of everyone who ever did anything important, including the princes of peace like Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and all the rest. Did Jesus avoid giving offense? Hardly.
Artists should neither avoid giving offense nor intend to give offense. They should intend only to create great art. No great artist was primarily concerned about what his audience thought. An artist who wanted sales had to be concerned to some degree. He could not be unaware of his market (a market that used to consist of one rich person at a time). But an artist whose work is completely determined by concern for his market is not a great artist and never has been. This is universally understood. He is called a market whore and his work is thrown in the kitsch barrel.
Mr. Soderberg seems to be encouraging us all to be like Kinkaid or Pino, slaves to our market or public. I don’t honestly think he intends to encourage this, but that is where his comments lead. An artist who only served the public would be completely useless. He would not even strictly be an artist. He would be a decorator. Art may be decorative, but the artist must transcend just filling orders. If there is nothing personal of the artist in the art, then it is not art—or it is very mediocre art. And, you see, we are back to the importance of expression. Not expression as the totality of art, but expression as a necessary ingredient of art.
One final paragraph before I conclude. There is a lot of talk of “intention” in this counterpoint. It has also been a feature of my conversations this week. A fellow realist tried to defend some parts of Modernism by saying that you had to consider the intention of the work. I disagreed, so I must make some distinction between cases where intention is important and intention is unimportant. In short, bad intentions can destroy a good work, but good intentions cannot save a bad work. Let me give some examples. I will start with Mr. Soderberg’s example, Serrano’s Piss Christ. This is a bad work with a bad intention. It is a trifling artifact, and its intention was to offend. Supporters of Serrano claim that its intention was to make people think, but even if so, it failed. It did not make Christians think, it only made them mad. It also did not make agnostics or atheists think, since if they had given up on Christ or the church, they had already thought about things much more deeply than Serrano’s work could possibly go. Non-Christians simply would not care one way or the other. For myself, I don’t think Serrano’s main intention was offense or shock or enlightenment. Serrano’s main intention was making Serrano famous. Shock art had been the road to quick fame for years, and it drew people like Serrano like flies. Making people mad without making them think is a sure road to fame. If Serrano had really thought that Piss Christ would make people think, he would have chosen something else to portray. Making people think is not lucrative. Look at what we pay teachers.
As an example of good work with bad intentions, the easiest example is Nazi art. Leni Riefenstahl was a very talented photographer and film maker whose art has been dismissed because its intention is assumed to have been to support the Nazi party, if not to support all that the Nazis stood for. Ms. Riefenstahl claimed that she did not support genocide or any of the rest, but it has been hard for her to deny that her work supported the party.
Finally, we come to bad art and good intentions. I had been talking to my friend about Jean Arp and the work Chance Collage, which I critiqued in my MoMA article. My friend defended the work, since its intention may have been to break down barriers or to make people think about the definition of art or various other things. In my opinion, this argument fails for two reasons. One, the work is so trifling on the face of it that no amount of intention or explanation can save it. I could draw a circle on the wall with a ballpoint pen and say that my intention was to save the universe from final and utter destruction from a brood of evil demons, but it is still a circle on the wall drawn in ballpoint pen. A rational person will ask how my circle can possibly save the universe from utter destruction, and I can ask how Chance Collage can make an intelligent person think thoughts they had not already thought. Or, given that these thoughts were somehow novel at the time, I can ask if they were not just as trivial as the piece itself. “Is anything inside a frame art?” asked Arp. Wow, deep. Two, my evil demons example makes it clear that stated intentions are unprovable. We judged Riefenstahl’s intentions not on what she said, but on what must be the case by all the facts at hand. Likewise, Serrano’s intentions are finally unknowable. I dismissed him whether his intentions were what his supporters said they were or what his enemies said they were. He could not win either way.
Serrano could be lying, Arp could be lying, and of course I was probably lying when I said I was trying to save the universe from ultimate destruction. That or crazy. Either way it would be OK to dismiss my stated intentions, since they were so clearly out of synch with the actual work. If Kinkaid stated that his intention was to create masterpieces, we would either dismiss it as a lie or dismiss it as a colossal failure. When the work is crap, intentions don’t mean a thing.
Some will wonder if none of
this was really meant to offend. I said
that I never intended to offend, and yet how could Mr. Kinkaid not take
offense? And we have reached yet
another distinction. I said that my art
was not meant to offend. This article
is not my art. This article is
polemics. My art is not an argument;
this article is an argument. It is an
agon. I am counterattacking all those
who threaten me, who back me into various corners, who invade my fields. Even so, it is not strictly correct to say
that I intend to offend Kinkaid or Ross or Arp or anyone else. My intention is not offense. My intention is refutation. Offense does not win an argument. A superior argument wins an argument,
especially if it is allied to persistence and earnestness and humor and
insight. This is my intention. Or, I could be lying.
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.