WHY VAN GOGH WOULD CUT BOTH EARS OFF TODAY
Contemporary art is governed by aesthetic anarchy.
The revolution began years ago when academic technique, fidelity to nature, and “beauty” were scraped in favor of subjectivism. The public now relies on critics to tell it what art is. Responding to the mandate, the critics have developed a dogma consisting of an arcane vocabulary which has become so incestuously self-enamored that it refers more to itself than the art. Still, the rhetoric gives an air of science and unimpeachable method to matters of taste.
Today’s artist must identify the personal aesthetic which defines his work. Among the many 20th century options — from Cubism to Constructivism, Fauvism to Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism to Post Painterly Abstraction, Pop to Op, Conceptual to post avant-garde — the artist searches for a common thread. S/he finds it in the New. All modern styles have shared a passion for progress. Burying the old, enshrining the New. The contemporary artist, therefore, attempts — unless s/he wishes to be dismissed as “unimportant” — to produce work which is, above all, “new.”
This imperative presents daunting problems, practically no less than philosophically. To the extent that innovation challenges prevailing aesthetic dogma, it is often initially condemned as an aberration, and its authors as impostors. Van Gogh, Picasso and Braque, Kandinsky and Mondrian, Pollack and de Kooning were less than the toast of the town when fathering Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, and Abstract Expressionism. But more recently, by way of contrast, Johns, Warhol, Stella, Schnabel, Koons have enjoyed christenings at Studio 54 for Neo-Dada, Post Painterly Abstraction, Pop, and the Transavantgarde.
The first group changed art at the center, challenging popular culture and threatening dogma, creating the New. The second played with the surface, welcoming popular culture and inveigling dogma, creating novelty.
Artists’ ambitions have, in turn, influenced their aesthetics. Modernists, content to survive, explored the unknown. Pops, craving attention, attended cocktail parties. And now post-modernists, wanting sensation, devise promo strategies in hope of inspiring another rebel-artist or auteur personality cult.
Somewhere in this process, as the new has been replaced by novelty, doctrinaire has unseated legitimate aesthetics.
The doctrines of the original modern art movements — whether composed by poets and intellectuals (Appollinaire, Mallarme, Breton, etc.); critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg); or the artists themselves (Kandinsky, Klee, Motherwell, etc) — defined and systematized a new aesthetic, put it in the context of art history, and, generally, made its work seem more like methodical experiment than autism. In short, the doctrines functioned, simultaneously, as tools of education and tools of propaganda.
With the advent of Pop, however, doctrine, in an attempt to disguise the vogue of substancelessness and petty novelty, has become more important than the art which it endeavors to justify, making one wonder which is the real issue. Second, it has become more propaganda than education. Third, regarding education, it is larded with art school buzz words which have little relation to the work itself, or, in any case, no cash-in value.
Contemporary doctrine and criticism are stunning for their flatulence. The issues of “frontality”, “flatness”, “edge”, “scale”, “plasticity”, “painterliness”, “pictoral space”, “compression of motif”, “metaphysical multivalence of parts”, and “optical fibrillation” are debated. We are subjected to dissection of an artist’s “voice”, “iconography”, “diction of line”, “dialectic of color”, “the rhetoric of his brushstrokes”, and ultimately his “Zeitgeist”. If Rauschenberg or Johns come up, Kiefer or Baselitz, Salle or Fischl, or any other member of the postmodern pantheon, their pictoral space is invariably compared to that of Poussin, Caravaggio, Ingres, Delacroix, Vermeer, Valaquex, or Pierro della Francesca.
In short, current doctrine has a way of distorting the subject by both over-complicating and over-simplifying it, and artists of today must take especial care not to be seduced by the fashion critics of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Art is above all, both in the creation and the observation, a living experience which loses meaning and impact to the extent that one attempts to explicate it, much less throw vocabulary at its mysteries in hopes of revelation. When a real practitioner is in front of a canvas the furthest thing from his mind is “frontality,” “pictoral space,” “rhetoric of brushstrokes,” or his “Zeitgeist.. He is an animal rediscovering instinct, the more primitive the better. It is no mistake that one of the most brilliant movements of the century was that of the Fauves, “the wild beasts.”
But, in the end, as Dutch expressionist, Asger Jorn, once observed: “There is no such thing as different styles, and never was. Style is the expression of a bourgeois content, and its various nuances are what we call taste.”