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Mission Impossible? Bridging the Gap Between Modern Art and Its Public

ISSUE:  Spring 2000

The 75 years since the founding of The Virginia Quarterly Review have witnessed a breach in the audiences for contemporary art that seems to grow wider with each passing decade. I write of the gulf between art insiders (be they artists, critics, curators, or collectors) and the public at large. Head-scratching bewilderment followed by hostility is the most frequent reaction to new work on the part of general audiences. These viewers may approach new art with an open mind, but too often are left believing that contemporary artists are either parading around in the emperor’s new clothes or actively playing a hoax on the viewing public. And no wonder, if not taught, who would admire Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Jeff Koons’ basketball submerged in a tank of water, not to mention Paul McCarthy’s funk scenes of gross food and slop? Minimalism on one side, aggressively messy or infantile installations on the other, have led many professed art lovers to feel dumb, confused, or angry before work they do not understand. There seems to be a conspiracy by those within the art world that decides what is “good,” what should be collected and displayed in museums that leaves general viewers in the dust. While artists claim to want to break down boundaries between art and life too often they alienate those they seek to engage. The majority of viewers, even more than a hundred years after the birth of modernism, still prefer work that contains subject matter they can recognize and that displays talent and skill they can appreciate. On the other hand, once schooled in the evolution of vanguard art, it is difficult for the initiated to look back. So, are we condemned to an ever widening break between cognoscenti and the public at large? How much do artists owe their audience? How easy are they to make things for them? Has such a gulf always existed or is it a feature of the modern era?

For centuries edifying content and appealing form coexisted as essential components of Western art, providing the public with virtuous meaning as well as visual pleasure. Viewers shared a collective conscious that allowed subject matter—usually religious, mythological, historical or everyday still-lifes, genre scenes, and landscapes—to be accessible to anyone with eyes to see and a mind to process information. Harmonious forms and idealized beauty were the hallmarks of Western art, although there is also a long tradition of artists who have asserted the value of the grotesque and the commonplace from Nero’s grottoes to Goya’s black paintings. But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Beauty and Realism as timeless ideals came under systematic assault. Beginning around 1860 and coinciding with the widespread use of photography, vanguard artists began a retreat from illusionism and idealization. Photography had eliminated the painter and sculptor’s former raison d’etre, that is, to reproduce the way things look. If they were no longer needed to capture the world as it was or should be, what were artists to do? The answer was to gradually retreat into the realm of art itself, away from realism, subject matter and narrative, and into an exploration of form, color, composition, materials—the components of painting or sculpture—for their own sake. Manet, Cezanne, Whistler, Gauguin, and Monet are among the forerunners of modern abstraction who placed the formal needs of the picture over that of capturing a likeness. Although their pictures are still realistic, they carry a marked disdain for painting’s former claim to be a window onto life—a highly finished simulacrum of reality—and instead show an interest in flatness, form, and the properties of paint. At the time of their making, the “unfinished,” brushy look of Impressionist canvases (compared to Salon standards) was cause for scorn, ridicule, and outrage. The critic who wrote of the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, “M.Monet. . . Pissarro, Mile. Morisot, etc., appear to have declared war on beauty,” was typical. Yet, 50 years later Impressionist paintings were considered the very embodiment of beauty in the art of the Western world and remain today among the most sought after works of art. This has served as a cautionary tale to all subsequent critics who would hate for posterity to cite their pronouncements as examples of shortsightedness.

Working off Cezanne’s innovations, from 1908—1914, Picasso and Braque together developed Cubism and the rift between those who appreciated radical art and those who didn’t intensified. Cubism totally shattered the structure of Western painting while perfectly reflecting the fractured, fluctuating, and ambiguous nature of modern life. Instead of earlier art’s window onto an illusion of the real world, Cubist painting proffers a shallow relief space where bits and pieces of objects and forms appear and disappear. The jumble of shaded lines and shapes arranged along a loose grid offers a now you see it, now you don’t universe where nothing is fixed or definitely known. Within this hermetic formal armature Picasso and Braque defied high art conventions by referring to current events, popular songs, and off color jokes. Cubism’s formal innovations dominated the art of the 20th century as most every artist that came after from Juan Gris and Fernand Léger to Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko to Agnes Martin and Brice Marden have had to come to terms with it.


Even before the advent of Cubism, with one painting Picasso launched an attack on all that was prized by the art establishment of his time, overturning Western civilization’s standards of good taste, beauty, and harmony. The Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 detonated every rule of Western art: first, Picasso changed style mid painting— one half of the Demoiselles, a group of prostitutes who are anything but “young ladies,” is painted in an Iberian (Spanish Romanesque) style, the second half, in the style of African masks. Next, Picasso subverted the Western canon of spatial representation. Standard fixed one-point perspective is denied and the figures jut out into our space, yet simultaneously remain flat. Third, Picasso attacked the Western idea of beauty. In the past a group of nudes would be idealized and coyly seductive, here they are hideously ugly by Western standards and frightening in their bestial aggressiveness. Finally Picasso overthrew the psychic detachment or emotional distance that accompanied all representations of nudes in earlier times as a way to distinguish art from pornography. Instead Picasso’s invasive and highly charged figures—one of whom squats with legs spread wide—are openly sexually provocative.

In the years around 1910, while Picasso and Braque were pioneering new aesthetic and formal standards, other artists were looking to the machine and embracing the possibilities of the mechanical age. International Constructivism—embodied by Russian artists El Lissitsky and Aleksandr Rodchenko, by German Bauhauslers, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer, Dutch De Stijl artists Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, and French practitioners such as Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger—considered common manufactured objects the basis for a new aesthetic. Railing against the one of a kind, elitist art of the museums, they held the Utopian belief that well-designed, mass-produced goods would improve society, by placing harmonious environments within everyone’s reach. As Léger wrote, “Why is it necessary for these people to go into ecstasies on Sunday over the dubious pictures in the Lourvre or elsewhere? Among a thousand pictures are there two beautiful ones? Among a hundred machine-made objects, thirty are beautiful, and they resolve the problem of art, being beautiful and useful at the same time.”

Along similar, if more bellicose, lines the Italian Futurists led by F.T.Marinetti by 1910 had also rejected the art of the past in favor of a new form of beauty based on speed and machine technology. Marinetti wrote, “I declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. . . A race-automobile . . .is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace . . . There is no more beauty except in struggle . . . . We will glorify war . . . . We will destroy museums.”

While the Futurists with a macho love for dynamism, technology, and militancy, championed the war, in 1916 the Dadaists, a loose confederation of refugees from the war living in neutral cities such as Zurich and New York, had an opposite reaction to the climate of conflict. Traumatized and disgusted by the incomprehensible waste of life and resources, they dedicated themselves to destroying the society that bred such insanity. Infantile, abrasive, and irreverent, the Dadaists lambasted the Establishment and everything it valued.

Andre Breton declared in his manifesto read at a Dada Matinee on Feb.5, 1920, “No more art! No more beauty! No more aristocrats! No more bourgeois! No more clergy! No more God! No more literature! No more music! No nothing. Dada, dada, tra la, la, la, la.” Outlandish performances and uninhibited happenings in variety show formats were an important part of the movement. But serious disillusionment underlay the buffoonery. As one of the Zurich founders of Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire, Hugo Ball wrote in his diary, “Every word that is spoken and sung here says at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.” Marcel Duchamp, who at times allied himself with Dada, but who was in truth an independent spirit, leveled the most radical and ultimately most influential attack on the conventions of art and its aesthetic base. Searching for art that engaged the mind rather than simply gratified the senses, in 1912 he abandoned painting in favor of a number of experiments involving language and chance. He contested the idea that beauty, taste, and skill are necessary to art through various activities, most notably his “readymades.” These are objects he selected—a urinal, a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack—which he considered without aesthetic qualities. Apologists continually cite the aesthetic merit and “lovely forms” of the readymades, but the artist disavowed this intent. “A point which I very much want to establish,” Duchamp wrote, “is that the choice of these ‘readymades’ was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste . . .in fact a complete anesthesia.” Duchamp and Dada both demonstrated that art need not be constrained by aesthetic considerations—a revelation that was probably “the major conceptual discovery in twentieth-century art,” said art critic Arthur C.Danto. He also noted that this discovery, “effectively liberated artists from the imperative to create only what is beautiful, and at the same time freed the philosophy of art from having to concern itself with the analysis of beauty, which had been the central preoccupation of the discipline of aesthetics since its establishment in the eighteenth century. . . .” In this perception however, the general public still lags behind. Duchamp’s idea that art should operate on an intellectual and analytical level equal to that of science, has been of pivotal importance for generations of artists who have followed him, yet it is also a key reason for the enormous chasm between artists and public that marked the past century.

On the surface Duchamp and Dada’s ironic, nihilistic, and destructive anti-art position seems at odds with the Utopian (Bauhaus, De Stijl, Russian Constructivism) constructivists’ idealistic faith in a new order based on universal aesthetics, machine technology, and reconstruction of the environment. But in fact both groups embodied two sides of the same coin—a program to sweep away old corrupt social and cultural systems, and replace them with a new order free from narrow bourgeoisie thinking. During the 1910’s and 1920’s in cities throughout the West there was an unprecedented give and take of new ideas and ways of seeing across movement affiliations, an interchange made possible in part by 20th-century advances in travel and communication. Modernists in cities from Moscow to Warsaw to Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and New York directed experiments to an international community of like-minded artists, poets, and theorists and disseminated their views via small magazines, pamphlets, and announcements. The many manifestos produced to “explain” new positions, the announcements, publications, and exhibitions were, however, mainly pitched to those inside the fold and designed to irritate those outside it. Thus was set in motion a condition that still obtains today of vanguardists attracting an audience of progressive insiders while antagonizing upstanding members of the middle class.

If this is the case, when and how did progressive art come to be bought and displayed in our supposedly democratic museums? Supposedly is key here, because the founders and benefactors of these institutions—the cultural elite, not the public at large—are the ones who decided and still decide what is Art with a capital A.As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Painted Word (1975), “Public? The public plays no part in the process [of accepting or rejecting modern art] whatsoever. The public is not invited. . . . The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in Modern Art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of or commits any other crime against Art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction. . . . The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.”


Although Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Dada all were invented before 1914, it was not until after the First World War that “being modern” became desirable among the culturati who dictate fashion and buy art. Wolfe asserted that it was not that there was a lag between “the artist’s discoveries” and “public acceptance,” but rather that it was only in the 1920’s that works by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Duchamp, Léger, Kandinsky, et al.came to be sought after artistic commodities. The notion that to be fashionable was to be modern had begun to filter through social strata aided by film and advertising shortly after the war. The opening of the International Exposition of Decorative and Applied Arts in Paris in May 1925, accompanied by salvos of cannon fire thundering across the Place de la Concorde, marked the acceptance by culture at large of a watered-down version of modern art. Historians tend to rank the decorative arts as inferior to and certainly less important than painting and sculpture, but the Exposition of Decorative and Applied Arts, for which the term Art Deco was coined, signaled a new look for an age defined by mass production and machine technology. The 1925 exposition heralded a streamlined style making manifest a trend that had been brewing in avant-garde circles from Cubism to Constructivism since earlier in the century—i.e.the move toward reduction. Ornamentation was out, clean lines were in and simply put, form must follow function.

As the century progressed and in the wake of Hitler’s purges and World War II, waves of European emigrant artists continued their experiments on American soil, various movements followed one after another. Uniting the automatic writing techniques of Dada and Surrealism to Cubism’s fractured grid structure and shallow, two dimensional space, artists such as Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, David Smith, Robert Motherwell and others evolved Abstract Expressionism. This style, commonly considered America’s first original contribution to Western art, struck many people at the time (the late 1940’s and 50’s) as messy and undisciplined hodgepodges, the “squirt and blob school” as one critic called it. Life magazine dubbed Pollack “Jack the Dripper,” and the alienation between art insiders and those outside the fold continued.

It was during this time that theory became a necessary corollary to the actual art object. Two of the most influential spokesmen for the new movement were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Greenberg set forth a Darwinian model of modernism that progressed from Cubism’s renunciation of illusionistic 3D space toward an art of increasing flatness and abstraction. Invoking “the integrity of the picture plane,” he repeatedly called for purity—for a style in which lines, forms, contours, colors all became unified on the flat surface.

Greenberg’s theories carried enormous weight in New York art circles. Rejecting Duchamp’s conceptual direction, he unequivocally argued for the formal values inherent in a given medium: “The arts are to achieve concreteness, ‘purity, ’ by dealing solely with their respective selves—that is, by becoming ‘abstract’ or nonfigurative.” Rosenberg, in the meantime, bested Greenberg by combining the latter’s quest for formal purity with something that had been lacking in abstraction, the emotional charge present in pre-Modern work from Michelangelo and Caravaggio to Delacroix and Picasso. In his famous essay “The American Action Painters,” published in 1952, Rosenberg described the new approach: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. . . . What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” The vision Rosenberg inspired was that of the artist as a heroic figure wrestling with paint and canvas and struggling to unleash protean emotions. One offshoot of action painting with its implied showmanship, was a proliferation of performance-based art in the 1960’s. With a nod to Dada and Duchamp, artists such as Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Ana Mendieta, and Bruce Nauman prized their performances over and above resulting art objects. Placing emphasis on spontaneity, chance and “non-art” materials, these artists gave rise to a dominant strain in contemporary art that continues to this day to challenge aesthetic values. The confrontational performance pieces by Adrian Piper, Karen Finley, and Carolee Schneemann of the 70’s and 80’s with their philosophical underpinnings and foregrounding of gender and race issues exemplify art that disturbs, subverts, and re-orients.

Although Rosenberg’s notion of action painting captured the imagination of many, Greenberg’s authority prevailed. The next generation of artists active in the 60’s accepted his reductive formalism and continued to rid their work of all the “dreadful baggage of history.” Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris are among those that sought to further purge their art. After striping away realism, representational objects, and illusion there was still, brushstrokes, color, and the suggestion of atmosphere. Minimalism, characterized by hard linear geometries in dreary, neutral non-colors seemed to finally have carved all the fat off traditional art. Once again the public shook its collective head. “Where’s the art? Never mind subject matter, but at least, where are beautiful surfaces and pigments?”

Their demands were answered by the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein commonly lumped together as Pop Art. While maintaining Greenberg’s flatness, this new work had texture, it had color, and most of all it had recognizable objects, but still most viewers outside the in-crowd were not pleased. Reacting against the gravity of Abstract Expressionism, Pop artists injected humor and irony in their paintings, sculptures, and objects. Johns treated “dumb” subjects like letters of the alphabet, rows of numbers, archery targets, the American flag in a painterly fashion. These subjects, however, could also be viewed as a riff on Greenbergian flatness since they were depictions of objects that were actually flat. It was Warhol however, who broke from the mold of the anti-bourgeois Bohemian artist by unabashedly pursuing celebrity, and he received the lion’s share of attention in the popular press. His persona as well as his work aroused the ire of the general public who felt he was simply appropriating images from mass media and consumer culture and calling them art. From the beginning, Wolfe wrote, Pop was “ironic and campy, [offering] a literary-intellectual assertion of the banality, emptiness, silliness, vulgarity, et cetera of American culture.” No wonder the average person-on-the-street hated it. It was not the sort of realism he or she had in mind. Not only did it seem to poke fun in an ironic urban way, but it called Brillo boxes, silk screens of soup cans, and coke bottles, art—how could anyone who hadn’t followed the ingrown machinations of a few New York critics and artists be expected to “get it.” By this time seemingly all art needed an explanation to be understood. Even Hilton Kramer, the art editor of The New fork Times said in a weak moment, “Frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”


Simultaneous with Pop Art, Minimalist practitioners continued along their reductive course. What was left to divest? What about the very idea of a museum or gallery—a place set aside to display objects? “What about the idea of a permanent work of art at all, or even a visible one? Wasn’t that the most basic of all assumptions of the Old Order—that art was eternal and composed of objects that could be passed from generation to generation. . . . Out of that objection came Conceptual Art,” Wolfe observed. Conceptual Art in a sense realized Duchamp’s hope for an art totally about ideas without demeaning handwork involved. Artists wrote out proposals or ideas and they could either be executed or not. What mattered was the idea—the art object was pushed to the verge of extinction. For example, artists Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner based their work on language, “separating aesthetics from art,” Kosuth maintained, “because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception on the world in general.” Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs of 1965 consists of a chair, a photograph of that chair, and a dictionary definition of “chair,” indicating, as Neal Benezra wrote in his catalogue essay for the 1999 exhibition, Regarding Beauty, Conceptualism’s “determined eradication of aesthetics in favor of linguistic formulation.” Weiner went even further by creating work consisting only of phrases mounted on walls.

Although conceptual art can in some ways be traced back to Greenberg’s reductive dictums, its parentage really stems from Duchamp (who Greenberg dismissed as he dismissed Conceptualism) and is seen as antithetical to those who still insisted on something visual in their art. Neal Benezra has noted that in recent years the “form versus content” argument has continued to dominate contemporary art. “While successors to Greenberg have been ardent in their defense of modernist aesthetic standards, originality, and quality, postmodernists have critiqued aesthetics as an expression of elitist culture,” Benezra also pointed out. It is more than a little ironic that “the masses” postmodernists presume to champion would be hard pressed to understand or appreciate this “anti-aesthetic” work— either artistic or literary. Most people agree that the artist’s job is to mirror and lead culture, to challenge the status quo, to reinvent the world, thereby providing society with previously undiscovered insights. But if the artist offers a special vision that reframes experience in a way that, although personal, is meant to reverberate among us all, what happens when the message is too obscure to be decoded?

The answer may be that we have to wait. History has shown that with time, work that at first strikes us as offensive, impenetrable, or ugly often turns out to be the very embodiment of beauty and high culture. Lessons learned from the critical fortunes of Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, and now artists from as recent as the 70’s and 80’s like Brice Marden, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, or Sol LeWitt, should teach us to at least keep an open mind.

On the other hand, is it unreasonable to want art to be visually gratifying, or barring that, at least visual? Many, if not most, viewers quite understandably feel that if they want to read, they can buy a book—usually with more literary merit than most artspeak. That being said, I must confess that after years of resistance the work of Kosuth and Weiner as well as other “visual poets” now looks good to me. Why? I do not know. But, I hasten to add; it is the work that affects me, not the theorizing that often accompanies it. In addition to a demonstration of skill, when encountering a work of art—be it a painting or a performance or the record of an event—viewers’ hope to experience that indescribable something that taps into emotions that cannot be expressed by words. In the end, while words may comprise an artwork, there still needs to be some visual payoff. Even sound art, blurring the boundary between music and art, conjures images in the mind’s eye. Finally, it seems to be a healthy sign to see that the pendulum is swinging once again and that beauty in a work of art is no longer a terrible thing—witness the deeply satisfying work of Jim Hodges and Tom Friedman. Along the same lines, artists seem once again willing to demonstrate their talents as draftsmen, painters, carvers, etc. On the other side, viewers too should learn to enjoy being disturbed and puzzled by new art. There are numerous artists on the scene—Mathew Barney, Tony Oursler, and Mariko Mori come to mind—whose work evokes strong responses while remaining mysteriously elusive. This is a good sign, when everything is graspable art usually doesn’t have staying power.

In the end, after all the writing on art, the theorizing and criticism, have long been forgotten, it is the art object that will remain standing on its own merits. This is something all of us would do well to keep in mind.


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