Post #335 • August 2, 2004, 6:33 AM • 47 Comments
Greenberg welcomed pop art at first. He told me he found it "refreshing," presumably by comparison with the excesses of second-generation abstract expressionism in the 50s. Little did he know how good some of those second-generation painters would look in the 21st Century, by comparison with second- and third-generation neo-dada. That's my point. The future is impossible to predict, because history never repeats exactly. I think that when Greenberg predicted that the best art would be recognized eventually, he was expressing his own optimism, and this optimism was not necessarily misplaced. In the Archives of American Art is correspondence between him and other people involved in the David Smith estate. In the 70s, some of these people complained because Greenberg had invested some of the estate's money in stocks, and the market was so bearish that these people evidently thought stocks were never going to go up again. Greenberg said that he thought capitalism was fundamentally sound. From the correspondence, I gather that this argument wasn't accepted, and control of these moneys was taken away from him. Too bad. If they'd hung onto what he invested in the 70s, it could be worth a small fortune today.
Since nobody can be sure what the future holds, here's my prediction (a bit of it already being realized). Taking a cue from Hegel, I foresee a new style that represents a synthesis of modernism (the thesis) and postmodernism or dada (the antithesis). That's what happened in the Dark Ages. Medieval manuscripts can be gorgeous, but not always because of their similarity to Roman scrolls. What about the "animal style," with its sinuous curlicues, developed from the art of the Celts and other barbarians, but incorporated into many manuscripts? Would you call the Book of Kells an eyesore, simply because it's an acme of the animal style? I'd call it a masterpiece, though admittedly my criteria must differ, valuing color and composition more highly than fidelity to nature. Roman sculpture looks more faithful to nature than the Book of Kells, but, except for its portraiture, most of it's just dutiful copying the Greeks. The Romanesque sculpture at Vézelay and Autun is vital and original. The Parthenon must have been beautiful, but how about the vaulting in Amiens and the stained glass of Chartres? They're neither classical nor Renaissance, but does that make them chopped liver?
I agree. Self-criticism has always been a part of the art enterprise. It was first directed at the mimesis of nature and the refinement of design. Modernism directed it at the product of art-making. Postmodernism directed it at the culture of art-making. What comes next will direct self-criticism at itself. If art was a car, Modernism took it apart to the last bolt, and Postmodernism did an intense background check on the mechanics. The next movement, which I think is happening here and there, will reassemble it. The best art is going to remind us of the past in some ways but surprise us in others. (Those inclined to semiotics will note that hybrid vehicles recently entered the market in force.) We'll see better through the assumptions that surround art, not to rid ourselves of them, but to choose among them with freedom.