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Happy Hundredth to Clement Greenberg

Post #1277 • January 16, 2009, 10:50 AM • 75 Comments

Question: You talk about art for art's sake, and I would challenge that to this degree: I don't think that morality and esthetics can be separated at a time when civilization itself is threatened, and that implicit in art for art's sake is the denial of the responsibility of the artist to civilization itself when civilization is being threatened by militarization - a cultural and esthetic fact and a destructive esthetic fact.

Greenberg: I have an embarrassing answer to that. Just as we don't ask the shoemaker to put himself in touch with the most burning issues of the day in making shoes, we don't ask an artist in making art to put himself in relation with the most important issues of the day. And as I said, this doesn't mean that art is just as important as what human beings do to one another. I'd only repeat that when you're at art - when you're making art - it's art you're making as an end in itself, and it's art you're dealing with as an end in itself. It's rather simple, and I think St. Thomas Aquinas was the first to say something like it. The shoemaker making his shoe - of course a shoe is a means to something else - but the shoemaker has to make a good shoe first of all if he is a good shoemaker, and if he is to, let's say, fulfill the demands, the justified demands, that society makes on it. And it is, I think, as simple as that. Which doesn't mean that the artist, as a human being away from his art, has to turn his back on politics or morality. It doesn't follow at all from art for art's sake. What did happen to the slogan "art for art's sake" in the nineteenth century was it shifted over into the assertion that art was more importnat than anything else, which I feel is a very illegitimate, immoral assertion, actually.

Clement Greenberg turned 100 years old today. I'm assigning homework to everyone in the art world, due sometime in 2009 - you have to read a collection of Greenberg's essays. Not insane crap that other people wrote about him - his actual words. Make it easy on yourself - pick up Homemade Esthetics, from which the above excerpt is taken, or Art and Culture. The late writings are good too, and if you're ambitious, there's the four-volume John O'Brian compilation. I'm not telling you to agree with him. I'm telling you to find out for yourself what he said. This goes double for all you who haven't read him since grad school, quadruple for all still in grad school, and octuple for all who know him only by the reputation with which, in his own words, he had an argument.

Probably the work of no thinker of the twentieth century is known so wholly in the form of caricature. In agreement or not, that's no way to understand the single most important art writer of said century. As he was fond of saying, and as we're fond of saying at, go look again.

Ryan McCourt is throwing him a party. Also, the redoubtable Fugitive Ink beats me to the punch (damn you, six-hour time difference!). As always, Walter Darby Bannard's The Unconditional Aesthete is worth a repeat visit.



Bunny Smedley

January 16, 2009, 11:11 AM

You literally do have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat GMT ...

More to the point, though, what an excellent quotation to have chosen, not least because it shows how mistaken many people, including very well-read and intelligent ones, are in what they 'know' about Greenberg's writings. 'Look again' indeed!


its a big world

January 16, 2009, 12:09 PM

Painter Andrew Wyeth Dies at 91




January 16, 2009, 12:11 PM

The problem with people like the one who asked the question above is that they have some sort of non-art agenda(s), and they want art to fit into that, their way. Any art or artist that doesn't is then somehow suspect, deficient, illegitimate or even immoral. That, actually, was one of the problems with Ruskin, despite his undoubted merits as a critic, and it was a serious problem, in my opinion.

So when you descend from a Ruskin to people who really don't get art very well, if at all, except insofar as it fits their non-art ends or issues, the problem becomes not only serious but practically insurmountable.

Welcome to the present.



January 16, 2009, 1:11 PM

Myself, I don't get that upset with those who ask the art and morality question and associate it with some "collapse" or another. It gave Clem an occasion to generate a superb, clear, and mercifully brief response. Besides, Clem himself once touted Marxism as the savior of culture. (He later chided himself for that position many many times, both publicly and privately.)

Morality always trumps art in those rare instances where there is a conflict. But that is quite different than saying art must serve morality. Art serves only itself. When it must give in to morality it simply withdraws; that is not the same as becoming a pawn in service to something admittedly higher up in the scale of what we value. For art to serve morality is to make itself something other than art. Propaganda, miracle and morality play, late 20th century academicism, whatever. Instead, art uses morality sometimes as one of its many means, though more often in literature and theatre than visual or musical.

Ordinarily, art and morality go their separate ways. Even when I look at some "visual" expression that harps on some contemporary moral or social issue, it usually comes off as basically irrelevant, an unsuccessful attempt to use the issue as a means for art and a complete failure to serve it as an end.

Politicians, including corrupt ones, are almost always the best agents for rescuing civilization. As I write this, the senate is in the process of confirming a man who cheated on his taxes as the supreme head of the IRS. The argument for confirmation is that he will be effective in executing the role of Treasury in restoring the economy. It seems like a good argument too, and I wish him very success, even if he continues to avoid paying his own taxes. Then there is the odd case of the racist LBJ, who did more to advance civil rights than any other president since Lincoln.



January 16, 2009, 1:19 PM

Or the foreign policy bungler George Bush, who did more to help the people of Africa than any other president.

Clem's words are so damn common sensical and so obviously right, but there is something about us that is bored by that, and this is magnified in the art world, which almost seems to exist as a vehicle for irraional thinking. Of course politics has been giving it some serious competition in that respect lately.



January 16, 2009, 2:37 PM

Yes the artworld has become a vehicle for irrational thinking. The fundamental mistake, though, was that it became a vehicle for any kind of thinking. Art writing, of course, is something of an exception. But even there, the emphasis should be on the verbal expression of feeling while avoiding crazy theorizing.



January 16, 2009, 2:52 PM

The coincidence of the 100th birthday of Greenberg, and today's death of Wyeth, prompted me to look up the following, which I thought was interesting...

Here's Greenberg on Wyeth, circa 1945:
“It is seldom that so many great pictures can be seen together as at the Brooklyn Museum’s present Landscape show. Starting––a bit paradoxically¬¬––with a superb little crucifixion by Lorenzo Monaco in the fourteenth century, it progresses through the Renaissance, the baroque, and the nineteenth century, to come to an anti-climactic stop with a dead bird in the grass executed with meretricious and astounding precision by the young American Andrew Wyeth.

Not all the paintings here are landscapes in the strict definition of the term, but one is grateful in the main for the broadness with which that term has been applied. Yet the looseness of terminology or slackening of taste that induced the museum to include Tchelitchew, Tanguy, Seligmann, Ernst, Berman, Burchfiled, and Wyeth in the show cannot be forgiven.”

Yet, by 1987, after watching contemporary art's sad decline into Pop, etc, Greenberg qualified his distaste for Wyeth, stating:
"I think Wyeth is way better than most of the avant-garde stars of this time. Better than Rauchenberg. Better now than Jasper Johns."



January 16, 2009, 3:00 PM

He didn't qualify his distaste for Wyeth, he said Wyeth was better than Johns and Rauschenberg.

Actually Wyeth was usually better when being meretriciously precise. When he tried to be "expressive" the pictures really sucked.

He was wrong about Burchfield. I did my best to point this out to him.



January 16, 2009, 4:10 PM

MC: I'm not at all convinced that Pop, per se, had much to do with the decline of contemporary art. I could make a case that Bannard, Olitski, Stella, and Poons, for instance, got their start in the rebellion that Pop instigated. What really declined was taste, as I once wrote about for Arts. In retrospect, I might have put it more precisely by saying that taste got diluted by having too many participants. In any case, the decline in taste led to the triumph (if you want to call it that) of lesser art. Ruscha, for instance, has a much higher standing in the Pop group than Johns, Rauschenberg, Roenquist, and Warhol with respect to what he achieved, yet is not ranked at their level by the multitudes, though he is ranked plenty high compared to Bannard, Olitski, and Poons. He is better than Stella, too.

Pop had potential, even if it attempted to disconnect itself from tradition. But communal taste did not demand enough of it. The rest is history.

Modernism began its descent into the abyss in the 60s. It would not matter if it had been replaced by something as good.



January 16, 2009, 4:24 PM

Pop was a result of the same influences and basic changes in attitude as the minimalists & formalists, coming up in the same family. but it did not really instigate anything but more pop. It was merely the dumb brother.



January 16, 2009, 5:52 PM

Yes, the dumb brother that happened to buy the winning Lotto ticket. It's really amazing sometimes (make that often) how something or someone so undeserving can get so far. Of course, nobody ever said things had to be just or fair or right, only that they should be, but should is a rather weak concept (make that very weak).



January 16, 2009, 6:08 PM

John, I don't necessarily disagree with your assertion that what really declined was taste, and that Pop was merely a brazen manifestation of that decline. However, I would say that what really happened was a serious weakening of self-reliance, rationality and seriousness in the face of fashion, popularity, image and related crocks and follies. You can also call it a failure of nerve, or a decision to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid because all the hip/cool people were doing it. It became far more important, if not crucial, to be or seem overtly "with-it," and that became both contaminated and reinforced by non-visual considerations such as politics, ideology, theory and so forth.



January 16, 2009, 9:20 PM

I don't know why you all want to talk about art, when it is just as simple as seeing how beautiful the art is, minus all this talking and arguing about it. You just have to see and feel the power of art, people! That's why I surround myself with beauty, even when it comes to powerpoints... but apparently that's jerkiness! Let art into your hearts, that's what I do.



January 16, 2009, 9:32 PM

The Internet is a poor conduit for tone, Nat, but we're all obviously glad to hear that you're enjoying art in your way.



January 16, 2009, 10:32 PM

Pop the "dumb brother"? I can't buy that at all. The evidence does not support it either. Their method was not unlike that of the impressionists - taking images from forbidden places. They inspired a lot of young artists to take the bit in their mouth and run with it, as a result. I'm not precise at history but nonetheless think of Pop as coming before minimalism, so perhaps it is the "older brother"..

Taste is what got dumbed down. Too many got interested in art and the system accommodated them by relaxing its demands so everyone could participate.



January 16, 2009, 10:51 PM

Pop came out big time in the Spring of 1962. Stellas stripe paintings were first shown to a large audience at MoMA in 1959. Both were "undergroung" earlier.

Pop was dumb because the art was no good and the basic idea was to graft illustration onto AE methods and brushwork, at least at first, which is a dumb idea.

The idea of minimalism is not that profound either, but at least it tried to cut back to basics in the face of the waves of third-rate AE - which was all over the place at the time - instead of dressing it up and dumbing it down. It was a genuine reaction instead of an accomodation.

Pop was the dumb brother.. Minimalism was the smart-ass boither. Formalism was the brother that joined the army and got killed in the culture wars.



January 17, 2009, 12:27 AM

Ordinarily I'd defer to opie's assertions about art history, but I checked Wikipedia on this one and found they date the beginning of Pop to the mid 50s in England and the late 50s in the US. Minimalism, on the other hand, they date to 1960.

A case could and perhaps should be made that both "isms" were a reaction to 3rd rate AbEx. That's how they look to me, anyway.

The metaphor of the three brothers is funny. Both pop and minimalism qualify for "smart-ass", appealingly so, too. But I believe that 500 years from now there will be some Pop art in major museums. Same with minimalism. Pop is maybe dumb like a fox, not dumb like a painter. Formalism was the sober one. The other two were hell-raisers.



January 17, 2009, 12:29 AM

BTW, what Clem seemed to object to about Pop was its results, not so much its methods.



January 17, 2009, 10:12 AM

I love Wikipedia, and I loathe pulling rank, but I was there watching it happen and Wikipedia wasn't.

Both pop and minimalism were implicit before they "started" just as anything is. Rauschenberg, Kienholz, Richard Hamilton, Larry rivers and others were doing pop back in the 50s and the pop strain goes back to Duchamp and Dada, of course. Ellsworth Kelley and Myron Stouf and others were doing minimal before Stella, along with nominal earlier Bauhaus/Cubist-derived minimal artists like Albers.

It is reasonable to pin the beginnings of a "movement" to when it gets out there into the mainstream, and that was more or less simultneous for pop & minimalism around 1960/62. Whereover you put the starting point, whatever that may be, it certainly is too close for one to have been any sort of causative influence on the other. They were both reactions and developments to what was in the air during the decline of Abstract Expressionism.

Also, I can't think of any single pop work I would think would be in an art museum in 500 years, other than as a historical artifact.



January 17, 2009, 10:37 AM

Generally speaking, Wikipedia can be useful, but it is hardly to be taken as definitive, especially when any sort of interpretation of a complex process is involved. This is true for art as well as non-art topics.



January 17, 2009, 11:04 AM

"Also, I can't think of any single pop work I would think would be in an art museum in 500 years, other than as a historical artifact."

OK, but what from that period will be?



January 17, 2009, 11:14 AM

Opie, I pin the beginnings of a movement when it begins, not when it makes the mainstream. When did Cezanne's version of impressionism begin? When it got accepted into the Academy show?

Were you in England too? That seems to be where Pop got its earliest start. (I can't go for saying it started with Dada or Duchamp.)

But I do agree that minimalism has strong roots in the Bauhaus.



January 17, 2009, 12:00 PM

We are usually on the same wave length, John, but I have to once again take issue.

Sure, things begin when they begin. But this is not biological conception or the start of a 100 yard dash. There is no precise time unless we decide on one.

It is clear, for example, that Dada and Duchamp were very much in the spirit of later pop; in fact, Duchamps overblown reputation derives from Pop Art, and Pop Art is clearly dependent on the roots from Duchamp and Picasso/Braque collage and Surrealism and Schwitters and Miro and many other things.

Minimalism certainly got permission for reduction from Mondrian et al but I would strongly disagree that minimalism as it gained momentum in the 60s was rooted in Albers and Bauhaus; I heard too much of that when I was a minimalist and had no interest in or influence from Albers. The similarities were evident but the intentions, the "idea", was completely different.

In other words, the beginnings of any complex social phenomenon are unclear until they become clear. Therefore you decide on when they became clear, which is what I did.

As for Cezanne, it would,have begun when it became clear, I suppose.

Of course it is possible to do it differently, but I return to my original point, which was that Pop Art did not really precede or influence Minimalism.

This kind of response is why my father wanted me to become a lawyer, which I didn't do, thank God.



January 17, 2009, 12:12 PM

There will be Ed Ruscha works in museums 500 years from now. Claes Oldenberg's drawings, I suspect might be there to. Wayne Thiebaud's pies, for sure. The list could be made longer.

Pop was an enabler more than minimalism. Minimalism was more self conscious of being ART and limits. Pop said you can do anything with anything and have fun with it and above all you can swim against the tide of the art machine. Stella's protractors have a touch of pop in them, both the shapes and the colors. Of course, pop eventually became the machine, much more so than minimalism. Funny how the happy go lucky upstart was fashioned into a prison.

But pop's early years still inspire me. After all, doing painterly abstraction today is as much swimming against the tide as anything Richard Hamilton did.



January 17, 2009, 12:26 PM

Are you guys drunk?



January 17, 2009, 12:34 PM

The similarities were evident - I rest my case. Intentions have nothing to do with results. Being against the Bauhaus may have shored up a verbal defense against being derivative (unoriginal), but in the show down the look was there and the look is what I go by.

My dad never thought I should be a lawyer, but a lot of nuns did. (Several nuns who taught me told my parents that I made them prepare extra-well for their classes.) Trouble was, I don't take arguing that seriously; that would spoil the fun. Courtrooms are no place to have fun. But most of the rest of the world is.

That said, I truly believe that pop will not disappear. Some of its artists got good results, and it certainly provided inspiration for those who would challenge the status quo.

MC - drunk on argument.



January 17, 2009, 12:52 PM

Did Pop challenge the status quo or, more to the point, find a way to bypass it by throwing in its lot with the wider, bigger, and ultimately far more powerful mass culture, to which it referred and pandered so effectively?



January 17, 2009, 1:03 PM

Hamilton, for sure, challenged the status quo. So did Larry Rivers and Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston. Like I said, pop eventually became the machine. But it didn't start out that way.



January 17, 2009, 1:24 PM

Jack, you might like Richard Hamilton's definition of Pop (that I got from Wikipedia which says it ws in a letter to the Smithsonian dated January 16, 1957): Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.

Not that much different than yours, except the "low-cost" part.

For a look at Edwardo Paolozzi's (Scottish, not Italian) I was a Rich Man's Plaything (1947) click HERE or HERE.



January 17, 2009, 2:26 PM

I suppose you will just have to take my word for it, John, or not, as you choose.

I worked very closely with Frank Stella and talked to other proto-minimalists all the time, Carl Andre a lot, for example. There was absolutely no interest whatsoever in Cubism, Bahaus, Albers, etc. The influences were Newman for me & Poons, Still for me, Brancusi for Andre, Hofmann & Kline early and then Johns (the repeated motifs in particular) for Stella, Wyndham Lewis for Hollis Frampton (another hang-out friend), and so forth.

Aren't you familiar with the fact that after his 1950 & '51 shows Newman was heartbroken because so many of his colleagues chastised him for being "Bauhaus"? The American Abstract Artists, with their purist dogma, had thrown that kind of thinking into deep disrepute in the '30s. If anything, his art had its source in the kind of latter-day "mythological Surrealism" that Rothko, Baziotes, Gottlieb, Stamos and a zillion other AE artists did, as it evolved in the 1940s.

Good grief, I teach a seminar in this stuff and I have probably 5000 downloaded images of every phase of the careers of these people. The reductionist trends of the early part of the century certainly gave permission for minimalism but simply did not generate it.



January 17, 2009, 2:41 PM

Opie, I didn't say anything about "generate". I said, in agreement with you I thought at the time, that "I do agree that minimalism has strong roots in the Bauhaus". It is hard to believe the artists you mention never saw work from the Bauhaus. And saying Johns influenced Stella is saying pop influenced minimalism.

I take it you realize Pop did not start in the US, but in England, a number of years before it hit NYC, more in sync time-wise with AbEx than minimalism.

Time to blow snow and go out for dog food.



January 17, 2009, 4:09 PM

Saying that they saw Bauhaus does not mean that they were influenced by it. The AE artists had no use for the kind of latter-day "pure" painting as shown by the American Abstract artists in the late 30s. In fact they rather pointedly disdained it. Really, the influence just did not exist.

You are right about the pop to minimalism influence in the instance of Johns to Stella. Rauschenberg had used repeated forms as early as the mid-50s, and Stella was very impressed with an all-over green target by Johns he saw at the Jewish Museum in the4 late 50s, and was taken by the idea of the stripes on Johns flags. There was a spirit of almost destructive reaction against AE at the time. There are probably more instances of crossover.



January 17, 2009, 4:16 PM

Hamilton's definition of Pop is virtually indistinguishable from a definition for commercial advertising. Very apt, actually.



January 17, 2009, 4:31 PM

I think Pop was essentially a joke that wound up being taken seriously, at which point it became a travesty, albeit a highly profitable one.



January 17, 2009, 6:36 PM

I've enjoyed this discussion gentleman. Just to move the timeline forward a bit,I think that Pop led to goop, to use Pretty Lady's wonderful expression. I saw some today at the Boston ICA - Goop with wall labels - My God the wall labels. I did like Cornelia Parker's sculpture "Up in Flames," and the view of Boston harbor is magical although a little bleak this time of year. I was wishing I was looking at the Hudson. I would have loved to see that U.S.Airways plane. Now there's an example of someone doing something well - pilot "Sulley" Sullenberger, that could be applied to art. Tara Donovan had already come down - I wanted to check and see if there was any magic there. But I paid my $10. anyway to see what was up. I looked at all the books and bought Fairfield Porter's "Art in its Own Terms" to cleanse the palette and keep from going insane.



January 17, 2009, 6:49 PM

and one more thing re. the ICA. I've decided I do like Marlene Dumas when she paints her daughter. I felt the same after the MOMA show. Maybe I'm just pre-disposed to give a painter the benefit of the doubt, but I choose to believe that she didn't ask for fame and riches. They have a large red portrait there, which I could dismiss as good illustration, to hark back to an earlier discussion. But they also had a quartet of paintings - 3 skeletons and one large portrait of the young daughter, and one of the skeletons had two children hanging about - two views of the same child perhaps? The wall label irritatingly pointed out that the group were a statement on the unknowingness of children - yes thank you I got that. Still, I liked them.



January 17, 2009, 9:01 PM

And, of course, the material success of Pop, not just in terms of money but also fame, glamour, image and so forth, inevitably made all too many join it or adopt its principles (such as they were), if not its exact methods or style. Things were bound to go from bad to worse, as they surely did. By now, we're in a situation where the real issue is not so much how bad things are, but whether it makes enough sense to bother with it at all.



January 17, 2009, 11:34 PM

(this is one of my favorites)

Necessity of "Formalism"
Author(s): Clement Greenberg
Source: New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 1, Modernism and Postmodernism: Inquiries,
Reflections, and Speculations (Autumn, 1971), pp. 171-175

THERE is the common notion of Modernism as something hectic, heated. Thus Irving Howe lists among the "formal or literary attributes of modernism" the fact that "Perversity-Which Is to Say: Surprise, Excitement, Shock, Terror, Affront-Becomes a Dominant Motif" (Introduction to a collection of essays by various hands called The Idea of the Modern [New York, I967]). A related notion is that Modernism can be understood as an extreme version of Romanticism. But a long look at Modernism doesn't bear out either notion as a covering one.

Modernism is as specific a historical phenomenon as Romanticism was, but it doesn't represent nearly so specific an attitude, position, or outlook. Modernism may continue certain aspects of Romanticism, but it also reacts against Romanticism in general-just as in reviving certain aspects of Classicism it reacts against Classicism in general. In the context of what is signified by terms like Romanticism and Classicism when they are used unhistorically, Modernism as a whole distinguishes itself by its inclusiveness, its openness, and also its indeterminateness. It embraces the conventional polarities of literary and art history; or rather it abandons them (and in doing so exposes their limited usefulness). Modernism defines itself in the long run not as a "movement," much less a program, but rather as a kind of bias or tropism: towards esthetic value, esthetic value as such and as an ultimate. The specificity of Modernism lies in its being so heightened a tropism in this regard.

This more conscious, this almost exacerbated concern with esthetic value emerges in the mid-igth century in response to an emergency. The emergency is perceived in a growing relaxation of esthetic stand- ards at the top of Western society, and in the threat this offers to the serious practice of art and literature. The Modernist response to this emergency becomes effective because it takes place in actual production rather than in discourse; in fact, it is more conscious in the practice of art than it is in discourse or criticism. This response begins to make a break with many well-tried conventions and habits, ostensibly a radical break. But for the most part is remains only ostensibly a break and only ostensibly radical. Actually, it's a "dialectical" turn that works to maintain or restore continuity: a most essential continuity: continuity with the highest esthetic standards of the past. It's not par- ticular past styles, manners, or modes that are to be maintained or re- stored, but standards, levels of quality. And these levels are to be preserved in the same way in which they were achieved in the first place: by constant renewal and innovation.

The emergency has proved to be a lasting one, and Modernism a lasting response to it. And so far it has been a more or less successful response. The higher standards of the past have been maintained in production, which does not have to mean that the best of the past has been matched in quality in a point-for-point way; it suffices that the best of Modernist production attains a similar qualitative level.

The Modernist preoccupation with esthetic value or quality as an ultimate is not new in itself. What makes it new is its explicitness, its self-consciousness, and its intensity. This self-consciousness and in- tensity (together with the Igth century's increasing rationality in fitting means to ends) could not but lead to a much closer and larger concern with the nature of the medium in each art, and hence with "tech- nique." This was also a questioning concern, and because it got acted on in practice by artists, poets, novelists, and composers, not by pedants, it could not but become an "artisanal" concern too (which does not mean the same thing as a "mechanical" concern-or at least the best of Modernism has shown that it does not mean the same thing). And it's this, the artisanal concern and emphasis of Modernism that has proved to be its covering emphasis, its enduring and also its saving one-the one that again and again brings Modernism back to itself.

Its artisanal emphasis is what more than anything else makes for the hard-headed, sober, "cold" side of Modernism. It's also part of what makes it react against Romanticism. An eventual tendency of Romanticism was to take medium and artisanry too much for granted and to consider them as more or less transparent or routine. I won't say that this was a decisive factor in the deterioration of standards, but it was a symptom of that deterioration. It was not just the soft-headed- ness of Romanticism popularized and in decline that provoked the hard-headed reaction of the first Modernists; it was also a certain unprofessionalism.

I don't for a moment contend that Modernism is exclusively an affair of hard-headedness and artisanal sobriety. I started out by saying that it distinguishes itself by its openness and inclusiveness of temper and attitude. And I set out to correct, not demolish, what I feel is too one-sided a view. Yet this view almost invites demolition when it comes to Modernist painting and sculpture (and maybe to Modernist music too). For these exhibit Modernism as almost crucially a concern in the first place with medium and exploratory technique, and a very workman-like concern. Manet and the Impres- sionists were paragons of hard-headed professionalism; so was Cezanne in his way, and so were Seurat and Bonnard and Vuillard; so were the Fauves-if ever there was a cool practitioner, it was Matisse. Cubist was overwhelmingly artisanal in its emphasis. And this emphasis remains a dominant one, under all the journalistic rhetoric, in Abstract Expressionism and art informel. Of course, Apollonian tempera- ments may produce Dionysian works, and Dionysian temperaments Apollonian works. Nor does artisanal hard-headedness exclude pas- sion; it may even invite and provoke it. And of course, there were notable Modernist artists like Gauguin and Van Gogh and Soutine who were anything but soberly artisanal in outlook; but even they occupied themselves with questions of "technique" to an extent and with a consciousness that were uniquely Modernist.

Artisanal concerns force themselves more evidently on a painter or sculptor than on a writer, and it would be hard to make my point about the artisanal, the "formalist" emphasis of Modernism nearly so plausible in the case of literature. For reasons not to be gone into here, the medium of words demands to be taken more for granted than any other in which art is practiced. This holds even in verse, which may help explain why what is Modernist and what is not can- not be discriminated as easily in the poetry of the last hundred years as in the painting ....

It remains that Modernism in art, if not in literature, has stood or fallen so far by its "formalism." Not that Modernist art is co- terminous with "formalism." And not that "formalism" hasn't lent itself to a lot of empty, bad art. But so far every attack on the "formalist" aspect of Modernist painting and sculpture has worked out as an attack on Modernism itself because every such attack developed into an attack at the same time on superior artistic stand- ards. The recent past of Modernist art demonstrates this ever so clearly. Duchamp's and Dada's was the first outright assault on "formalism," that came from within the avant-garde, or what was nominally the avant-garde, and it stated itself immediately in a lower- ing of aspirations. The evidence is there in the only place where artistic evidence can be there: in the actual productions of Duchamp and most of the Dadaists. The same evidence continues to be there in the neo-Dadaism of the last ten years, in its works, in the inferior quality of these works. From which it has to be concluded that if Modernism remains a necessary condition of the best art of our time, as it has been of the best art of the hundred years previous, then "formalism," apparently, remains a necessary condition too, which is the sole and sufficient justification of either Modernism or "formalism."

And if "formalism" derives from the hard-headed, "cold" side of Modernism, then this must be its essential, defining side, at least in the case of painting and sculpture. That's the way it looks right now- and looks more than ever right now. The question is whether it will keep on looking that way in the future: that is, whether Modernism will continue to stand or fall by its "cold" side and by its "formalism." Modernism has been a failing thing in literature these past twenty years and more; it's not yet a failing thing in painting or sculpture, but I can imagine its turning into that in another decade (even in sculpture, which seems to have a brighter future before it than paint- ing does). If so, this may come about in the same way that it has come about, as it seems to me, in literature: through the porousness of Modernism's "hot" side, the enthusiastic and hectic side, which is the one that middlebrows have found it easier all along to infiltrate.

There have, of course, to be deeper, larger factors in all this than the ambiguous difference between Modernism's "hot" and "cold" sides. If Modernism's "hot" side has become a liability in these past years, this is a symptom, not a cause; the cause, or causes, have to be sought outside Modernism and outside art or literature.

Art is, art gets experienced, for its own sake, which is what Modernism recognized in identifying esthetic value as an ultimate value. But this doesn't mean that art or the esthetic is a supreme value or end of life. The neglect of this distinction by the original art-for-art's-sakers- most of whom were not Modernists anyhow-compromised a valid perception.

My harping on the artisanal and "formalist" emphasis of Modernism opens the way to all kinds of misunderstanding, as I know from tiresome experience. Quality, esthetic value orginates in inspiration, vision, "content," not in "form." This is an unsatisfactory way of putting it, but for the time being there seems to be no better one available. Yet "form" not only opens the way to inspiration; it can also act as means to it; and technical preoccupations, when searching enough and compelled enough, can generate or discover "content." When a work of art or literature succeeds, when it moves us enough, it does so ipso facto by the "content" which it conveys; yet that "content" cannot be separated from its "form"-no more in Dante's than Mallarme's case, no more in Goya's than in Mondrian's, no more in Verdi's than in Schoenberg's. It embarasses me to have to repeat this, but I feel I can count here on the illiteracy of enough of my readers in the matter of what can and what can't be legitimately put in words about works of art.



January 17, 2009, 11:54 PM

Well Jack, as I said somewhere above, the adventuresome go anywhere you dare start up position has evolved into a rigid system of dos, don'ts, and many other guidelines, rules, and mandates.

Guess the crowd must be kept under control, especially all those that will never ever be allowed admission to the inner sanctum, but who are nonetheless useful to prop it all up for those who have been. Even as they are faced with a perpetually shut door, they must be kept in a state of belief that they belong. And so by surrendering their taste they can feel approved by those on the other side, who have surrendered theirs too.

Somehow it all makes sense in a macro manner. It isn't particularly rational, but it is stable and fairly resistant to upset. It won't be over until it's over.

Making truly good art is probably the most outrageous and rebellious thing that anyone can do right now, along with insisting that anything that would call itself art be truly good.



January 18, 2009, 12:14 AM

Thanks eageageag. The "emergency" that Clem refers to no longer strikes many as an emergency. Instead, most think it is in a state of perpetual resolution, thanks to the institutionalization of the avant-garde, which busies itself with arty and repetitious "confrontations" that fail to upset even those with no more enlightenment than they receive through the popular media. I wonder why the shortage of vulgarians to become offended does not worry them. But then, worrying about that might seem like an emergency.

The situation is stable, as in entropy. Except for the ongoing repetitions, no movement takes place. The only real change may be that the self-consciousness he writes about has been raised to a state of utter permeation.



January 18, 2009, 12:45 AM

If Modernism's "hot" side has become a liability in these past years, this is a symptom, not a cause; the cause, or causes, have to be sought outside Modernism and outside art or literature.

The cause, I'd say, is the decline of taste. There is no emergency because collective taste cannot sense the basis for one. Instead, it revels in hotness for its own sake, and is content with that. Hotness is the object of diminished taste.



January 18, 2009, 9:31 AM

John, I think you give too much credit to the originators of Pop for being adventuresome, as you call it, but this brings us back to the true value (or lack thereof) of "new and different" for its own sake or in and of itself. The only thing that matters is the results, what they actually came up with in terms of work, and that was and remains largely dubious, downright laughable in many cases, and most certainly highly overrated.

Maybe everybody likes "mavericks" and "bad boys" and so forth, but when it comes to art, that sort of thing only interests me if the work does. Otherwise, it annoys the hell out of me, at least if it's being accepted in lieu of the real thing. The real thing, obviously, is good work.



January 18, 2009, 10:26 AM

"Decline of taste" is overbroad. It states, or at least implies, that the capacity to determine what is good has declined in the population. But that capacity does not change any more than talent does. What changes is circumstances.

That's why I wish some smart social psychologist would tackle the problem of art "periods", why, for example, did Cubism come about and be immeditely recognized as a new starting point for painting, why an artist like Van Gogh looked like a bumbling madman in 1880 and is universally loved today, or why we now have a virtual paralysis of the expression of value, an incapacity to make judgements that amounts to a supine across-the-board yielding up of individual taste to the forces of the market.

These are not really changes in the capacity to see art for what it is but changes in social circumstances.

You may say that it amounts to the sme thing - OK - but I would like to see it intelligently and objectively examined, and that is not going to happen in an art world that thinks Marcel Duchamp is the most important artist of the 20th C.



January 18, 2009, 11:36 AM

Yes it does amount to saying the same thing, except that I don't expect a social psychologist to get very far with explaining things in art. They start with a scientific filter in front of them, and so the result of their work would naturally show the limitations of science. Neither art nor taste are limited to what science can examine.

Taste declines when it is not rigorously exercised, at which point its potential is no longer fully realized. It is diminished as a result, just as the athletic ability of, say, a runner is diminished if the runner lays off practice. And so yes, the actual capacity of our collective taste has declined. Looked at as pure Aristotelian potential, that has not declined (if that is what you mean by "capacity"). It is simply a case of those who don't use it lose it, and this is happening on a larger than usual scale lately. The loss is palpable, as far as I am concerned.



January 18, 2009, 12:34 PM

About talent. That also requires exercise. I'm not sure it has declined, though. There may be more artists using their talent now than ever before, I suspect. But I am sure the other side of the process, taste that recognizes the fruits of talent, is coming up short, and so that talent fails to emerge on the scale it once did. At least, this is one plausible speculation.

I'm not sure the universal love for Van Gogh that exists today is quite deserved. He was good, but maybe not as good as all that.

"Yielding individual taste to the forces of the market" may be related to something Aristotle observed in his intro to the Ethics: we ought not expect more certitude from a subject than the subject allows. Taste by its nature is not precise. One can like a picture today and tomorrow have a diminished response to the same thing. In an uptrend, anyway, these day to day changes correct taste, and it gets better. But it never gets to the precision that an auction price provides. Yet many yearn to that kind of precision, which is close to the precision science provides. And so, contrary to the advice of Aristotle, they seek certitude the subject does not allow, and therefore they must manufacture it. Auction prices are manufactured taste, in a sense.



January 18, 2009, 1:05 PM

"Neither art nor taste are limited to what science can examine."

Of course not. But obviously "not being limited to" does not mean "unexaminable". And I would not look for "explaining things in art" any more than Mackay's MADNESS OF CROWDS "explained things in people". Like any scientific approach it would examine the facts and the process and perhaps hypothesize some causes. Nothing explains everything.

My point about van Gogh was about the change in perception, not how good he is.

My point about circumstances was to emphasize them, because we tend to see human characteristics as intrinsic rather than as trade-offs with the environment. What we "are" is what we do in the world. How else to explain the dozen or so artists who painted gorgeous paintings for 2 years during the Fauve period and then quickly fell to pieces? How possibly to even guess how Mozart would have turned out if born 200 years later, in 1956? Or Shakespeare 100 years earlier, in 1464? Or how to explain why, in a time when there are more artists turning out more art than at any time in history there is so little that is even interesting, much less good? It is not intrinsic talent and ability, or ambition or hard work, it is circumstances.

I agree that, like athletics, seeing needs practice, but it is circumstances that provide the opportunity, or need, or desire, for that practice. Same goes for any skill

You are giving me an opportunity to quibble, for sure. Thanks!



January 18, 2009, 2:21 PM

OP, you bring to mind the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955).

He suggested that there is no me without things, and things are nothing without me; I (human being) cannot be detached from my circumstances (world). This led him to pronounce his famous maxim "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia" ("I am myself and my circumstance") which was always at the core of his philosophy. For him, the Cartesian cogito ergo sum was insufficient to explain reality—therefore he proposed a system where life is the sum of the ego and circumstance. This circunstancia is oppressive; therefore, there is a continual dialectical exchange of forces between the person and his/her circumstances and, as a result, life is a drama that exists between necessity and freedom.

Ortega y Gasset wrote believed life is at the same time fate and freedom, and that freedom “is being free inside of a given fate. Fate gives us an inexorable repertory of determinate possibilities, that is, it gives us different destinies. We accept fate and within it we choose one destiny.” In this tied-down fate we must therefore be active, decide and create a “project of life”—thus not be like those who live a conventional life of customs and given structures, and prefer an unconcerned and imperturbable life because they are afraid of choosing a project.


Chris Rywalt

January 18, 2009, 6:53 PM

This combination of self and circumstance is also the basis of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers. I haven't read it yet, and I've read a few articles questioning his methodology, but the basic premise rings true to me: It's not all about who you are, it's also about the opportunities and difficulties unique to your time and place. Or, as the promotional material for the book reads, successful people "are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot."



January 18, 2009, 7:00 PM

If you think how we took millions of years to go from some kind of amino-acid-laden slime mold to us terrifically smart artzy-fartzy folks and really think hard about how we evolved WITH the world and its conditions, rather than on it or from it or against it, you will get a kind of creepy but strangely exhilarating feeling thet we are not much different from some rock, not to mention being demonstrably 99% the same as a chimpanzee.

This is not some kind of mystical zen thing,. It is just true.



January 18, 2009, 7:29 PM

...we are not much different from some rock, not to mention being demonstrably 99% the same as a chimpanzee.

In fact, the sensation that we have a separate identity from the process that produces rocks and chimpanzees is a product of our brains and no more. Said process doesn't see it that way. In fact, it doesn't see it in any way - we're the ones thinking about it. This is what I was trying to say about panjectivity.


Chris Rywalt

January 18, 2009, 9:41 PM

It always amazes me how many people don't think this way.



January 18, 2009, 10:50 PM

reading Porter-

On Ad Reinhardt, from "The Oriental in American Art," 1960:

"He believes that the proper subject for art is aesthetics, and to the humanists or the socially conscious who say in their various ways that man's chief concern is man, he might answer that man in his smallness should behave with decorum."



January 18, 2009, 11:03 PM

Sure circumstances have a lot to do with what happens. But why stop there? Happenstance has more of a say than circumstance ever could. Imagine not if Shakespeare had been born 100 years earlier but instead what if a different sperm had hit paydirt in his mother's womb when his egg was exposed to millions of the squirmy little things? Why was that particular egg the one up for fertilization that day too? And so on.

Theologians have said that happenstance is Divine Providence viewed through human eyes. That is the most plausible mental construct through which to grapple with the difference between a human and a chimp, and how either species got here in the first place, and all the other questions raised in the last few posts. There are still issues like Hume raised - if the divine is so perfect and powerful why is evil allowed - but again, it is humanity designating what is evil, not the divine. One group of thinkers worked their way around this by saying evil does not really exist, it is the absence of prefection where perfection ought to exist, a pure void. But Hume's point remains a good one - there is just a hell of a lot we can't pin down hard as we try.

In the end, it is very difficult to imagine that the universe came from nowhere and operates by accident, whether the accidents are best described as mere circumstance or complete random chaos. But that seems to be the alternative to the view that something really huge and powerful is behind it all - that God exists. (Whether God loves us is not settled by all this.)

I don't regard all this as "mystical", but rather thinking about my experience and what we have collectively learned about things and each other.

When I contemplate on this scale, the decline of taste and its effects don't amount to much, not much at all.



January 18, 2009, 11:52 PM

Two goldfish in a bowl. One says to the other:

"if there is no God, then who changes the water?"



January 19, 2009, 4:37 PM

Just saw a superb catalog published by Rizzoli for a major van Dyck exhibition held on the 400th anniversary of his birth. The reproductions are about as good as they come, and the overall effect is of work so breathtakingly beautiful that it's hard to believe human hands could have produced it.

But there's a downside.

I'm looking through this extravagant embarrassment of riches, mesmerized by one gorgeous, masterful image after another, and I'm thinking, so why am I torturing myself with what now passes for art? Is there anything current that can live up to this "old stuff" or generate comparable admiration and respect?

I feel like going up to the overwhelming majority of living art "stars" and saying, in a not-so-civil tone:

"So you want me to look, even just glance at your work, let alone respect you as an artist, on what basis, again? You want me to spend my all-too-limited leisure time bothering with your stuff, when I could be spending it on someone like van Dyck, meaning an absolutely guaranteed sure thing? You want to try to try a little (or a lot) harder to convince me? Because, quite frankly, I'm really fed up with disappointment, so either deliver the goods or get the hell out of my consciousness."



January 19, 2009, 5:58 PM

As I watched some of the Obama concert yesterday I was struck by how much better popular music is than popular art. Pop music is more effective politically, too, than the self-consciously political advanced art. Not that all of it was great. Just that it seems way ahead of what Jack is attacking.



January 19, 2009, 6:33 PM

And one last note. The music business appears to be much more lucrative than the art business. Irony, eh?



January 19, 2009, 6:49 PM

It's not ironic. It is a matter of unit sales.

I understand that it is not going to be called "inauguration" but "coronation". Term lomits will be repealed.

The Democrats were pushing for "apotheosis of the Messiah" but thought that might trigger Him to be called back home by the Heavenly Father.



January 19, 2009, 7:05 PM

can i get an amen for brother jack.



January 19, 2009, 7:11 PM

It is still ironic to me that the group with the greater commercial success is also the more successful as art. And, as you say, that success is based on appealing to the taste of a mass audience, while the art business thinks of itself as appealing to the more sophisticated members of the culture. "More sophistication" is not supposed to result in lower levels of art.

Every Palm Sunday is followed by a Good Friday, where the crowd that gets rid of you is the same one that loved you the week before. Obama is so set up as the perfect president that it is hard to think he will be spared the Palm Sunday/Good Friday process. But he has been "managing expectations" lately by going back on his promise to "tax the wealthiest Americans" more and promising staggering deficits for years to come instead of talking about going over the budget line by line to cut spending.

But one thing strikes me strongly, his inauguration tomorrow will bring America's involvement with slavery to an end. It does not matter that neither side of his family tree has any slaves in it, either.



January 19, 2009, 7:49 PM

Is there anything current that can live up to this "old stuff" or generate comparable admiration and respect?

This question becomes downright painful when you're trying to make the new stuff.

As I watched some of the Obama concert yesterday I was struck by how much better popular music is than popular art.

Beyonce hit "God Bless America" over the back of the head with a shovel, Garth Brooks covered Don MacLean's proof that stream-of-consciousness lyrics could result in pap, then lead a blubbery chorus in a round of "Shout," and I could take no more. But I think you're right that popular music, if not super-popular music, is in better shape than art. Much of what I suggested in the Unsolicited Advice and Immodest Proposal posts is already true of the music world or included strategies already being used to good effect by musicians.

"More sophistication" is not supposed to result in lower levels of art.

Which tells you something about the difference between real and self-assesed levels of sophistication in the art world.

I'm enormously pleased to see Obama and Biden headed to the White House - both men have substantial virtues, and the Republican alternative was utterly ridiculous. I don't expect magic, though.



January 19, 2009, 8:06 PM

I'm a bit puzzled by this admiration for popular music. Most of it is unlistenable. There are islands of good stuff here & there, just as in art, but they are pretty isolated. I don't know about you guys, but I can't bear 99% of what I hear.

It has always been that way; I was hunched over my old Hallicrafters when I was 13 years old trying to tune in radio stations from Newark to Los Angleles to get jazz or boogie-woogie or Slim and Slam or bebop or WCKY to get Hank Williams or the Carter Family or the Grand Ole Opry, or something listenable or fun like Spike Jones, or even swing. The alternative was Vaughn Munroe or the Andrews Sisters, who at least could harmonize.



January 19, 2009, 9:00 PM

My question may be painful to you, Franklin, but it doesn't even occur to most current artists, and even if someone brought it to their attention, they'd simply blow it off as irrelevant, at best. That, obviously, is part of the problem.

They can't or won't even begin to acknowledge that there is TONS of GREAT work out there from before they were born, much more than anyone can process in a lifetime, which has FAR greater claim to attention than anything they've ever done. If that realization really hit home, maybe they'd have some decent incentive to do better.



January 19, 2009, 10:49 PM

most of the best new pop music is primarily played on the college radio stations. it has been like that for atleast 20 years.



January 19, 2009, 11:27 PM

Opie, I couched it in relative terms.

I would take Garth Brooks (who I don't like much) over anything by Hirst, for instance. The Bee Gees over Warhol. Bob Dylan over most art stars now and of the last 40 years. Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Elvis, Fats Domino, Everly Bros, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Judy Henske, Kris Kristofferson, Lefty Frizzell, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Morgana King, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Simon and Garfunkel, Ray Charles, Ricky Lee Jones, Rod Stewart, Roy Orbison, Sonny and Cher, Beach Boys, Beatles, the Doors, Tom Waits, Allison Kraus, Cat Power, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blondie (even), Dave Van Ronk, Deana Carter, The Diamonds, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Glen Campbell (even), Waylon Jennings, conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Marty Robbins, johnny Horton, Aretha Franklin, Canned Heat, the Eagles, Otis Redding, Arlo guthrie, Gladys Knight, Monkees, Jimmy Buffett, Crystal Gayle, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Sonny James, Little Richard, Richie Havens, Dolly Parton, Carl Perkins, Loretta Lynn, Iron & Wine, Floyd Cramer, Mamas & Papas, Suzanne Vega, Mason Williams, Faron Young, Neil Diamond, Country Joe McDonald, Thelma houston, the Platters, New Christy Minstrels, Byrds, Rick Nelson, a lot of jazz like Coltrane, Peterson, and Burton, and many more ... all can sound good enough. And Johnny Cash, I really like, absolutely, especially the last few albums. These are all commercially successful musicians that go over with large groups of buyers and are accepted and recognized. I can't say for you, but it would not surprise me if you liked some of these too.

I cannot come up with a comparable list of "successful" art stars from the same time period that could hold my attention, and most of those I could name would be from the 50s and 60s.

And yes Franklin, the masses who buy this music are not as sophisticated as those who frequent the dealer's showrooms for the art stars. They just aren't. That doesn't mean the tight little art mob is TRULY sophisticated, but it is relative to the music masses.

I'm less of a musicologist than art historian, so I am loathe to try to prove all this. But I'm confident of the gut feeling I got listening to the Obama thing - granted that some of the performances were awful. But could you imagine rolling the "replacement shark" by Hirst across the stage or panning to a close up of his diamond skull to flash on all the TV screens deployed through the crowd. Or asking Pope.L to give a speech in his dollar bill skirt tied to the podium with a bunch of raw sausages?



January 19, 2009, 11:27 PM


I do understand what you mean about current art, and I'm a painter, so I feel Franklin's pain. But I'm wondering where you draw the line. Can you name a living artist who has given you a thrill lately? You sound a little like the collectors of period furniture who feel anything after 1830 is degraded. I'm asking with respect and curiosity and because I often feel the same way when looking at "old" art. I have a friend who can paint a portrait like Raphael, or maybe on a good day Manet. And he also paints gorgeous large abstract paintings. He works in N.Y., paints full time, and I can give you his phone number. Having a friend like this, and the fact that I can occasionally turn out a piece of work myself that seems like it could bear looking at for a long time, makes me believe that my sensibility may be modern after all, though I often have my doubts.



January 20, 2009, 12:04 AM

John, I think you made your point, but the comparison strikes me as fractured.

First of all, I was talking about music now, not of the last 40 years. Yes, of course, there are stars on your list I like a lot and I could add dozens more, and a lot of lesser musician, some of whom are even better but never made it to the top or did and are now forgotten.

But be that as it may, suppose we take Fats Domino and Rauschenberg. I would rather listen to Fats Domino than look at Rauschenberg; I don't really mind looking at Rauschenberg but I do like Fats Domino. I suspect that 95% percent of the population also would.

But what are we demonstrating here? Music is consumed so differently from art that comparisons go off-base. Are you trying to compare "lucrativeness" by comparing single-sale high-price goods with multiple-sale low price items? Can we say that Damien Hirst is "popular" in the same sense that Garth Brooks is popular? Wouldn't your comparison better is we were talking about Leroy Neiman and Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade? Can we even make such comparisons?



January 20, 2009, 1:29 AM

Opie, I would take Garth Brooks over Leroy Neiman, Bob Ross, and Thomas Kinkade as well as Hirst.

Or course we are looking at apples and oranges, except all I am saying is that the apples are better at being apples than the oranges are at being oranges. That's fair.

If there is fracturing, it is in the time zone. Many on my list did not get their starts lately, though most are still going at it, though the same could be said about the artists that would form a shorter list, if I wanted to bother with it. Still, some, like Cat Power, Tom Waits, Deana Carter, and Iron & Wine, are very current.

There isn't any "serious" music on my list. Comparing John Cage to John Baldassari might be the cleanest comparison of them all, except what I was getting off on was the success of the commercials in music qua music versus the failure of the esoterics in visual art qua art, or what passes for it.



January 20, 2009, 1:31 AM

1, I discovered Cat Power, Tom Waits, and Iron & Wine, among others, by having students bring their fave CDs to my classes for play while they worked.


Bunny Smedley

January 20, 2009, 3:11 AM

Interesting discussion.

My first reaction was that, within my own experience at least, the relative performance of art and music over the past century becomes far more similar if one introduces a desperately old-fashioned and probably entirely methodologically unsound distinction between high culture and popular culture.

E.g. although I do listen to some contemporary classical music (John Adams, Arvo Part, Philip Glass etc), if one compares the twentieth century with the eighteenth (my set of Harnoncourt's version of J. S. Bach's sacred cantatas is one of my most valued possessions) it's hard not to feel there's been a fairly serious dropping-off in quality - which seems to me to be true in 'high culture' visual art as well, despite some absolute masterpieces created amidst the self-regarding, boring rubbish.

On the other hand, there's plenty of twentieth century popular music that's meant a lot to me over the years - everything from Woody Guthrie to the Kinks to the Talking Heads to various unimaginably obscure British indie bands of which most readers here will, I imagine, be quite pleased to remain unaware.

And as far as that goes, there are plenty of twentieth century visual things I hugely admire and enjoy - but quite a lot of them are book illustrations, or war memorials, or poster designs, or occasionally even films - in other words, visual things that stop short of being 'art' in any sense the eighteenth century would have recognised. I love the fact we have easy access to all these things, rather as we have access to such a range of popular music.

But I still think there's something qualitatively different about the experience of standing in front of Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon', or listening to Beethoven's String Quartet Op 132 played live in a beautiful room, as compared with, say, admiring the design of Peter Saville album cover, or listening to Billy Bragg on my iPod while sitting on a bus that's stuck in traffic. And yes, reactionary that I am, I think that the recent past has been less generous* in providing the more profound of these experiences than previous centuries have been.

*Of course I do see that modern technology has probably made it cheaper and easier for art and music to reach more people than ever before - but I still think the present age is creating less serious music, and less good art, than some that went before.

That's no reason to give up, though - good things are still being produced, and heaven knows, there have been other relatively fallow cultural moments in the past.



January 20, 2009, 10:26 AM

most of the pop groups/artists on john's list have not put out anything relevant in the last 20 or so years.

in more recent times just after flipping through some of the few cd's of mine that are not in storage and hanging around the boom box, i can give a few names to chew on.

first group below are all very good and can definitely hang with the names on johns list:
sonic youth "day dream nation"
fugazi "repeater"
adorable "against perfection"
pavement "crooked rain" "slanted and enchanted"
catherine wheel "chrome"
joy division "closer" "unknonw pleasures"
red house painters "songs for a blue guitar"

one of beth orton's albums is very good, can't recall name the others are ok.

slowdive, very good shoe gazer music.

smashing pumkins (very mainstream, new) but i could only recommend "gish" from 1991

belle and sebastian, pretty good random songs

yo la tengo a few very good older albums

although i don't agree with many of his pics, jack rabid puts out a very good magazine, "the big take over" tracking many underground as well as mainstream bands. each month he puts out a list of his top 40 and most are never played on mainstream radio. you need to weed through the recommendations, but i have made many discoveries over the years.

there are definitely bands,groups over the last 20 years that can hang with john's list and beyond.

outside of "college rock" i am more inclined to listen to classical than jazz.



January 20, 2009, 11:40 AM

David (#66), first, this isn't about van Dyck; I just happened to run across a particularly beautiful catalog of his work and used him as an example to make a point. This is also not about old vs. new, per se, since production date, like "differentness," need have nothing to do with quality.

My real point is the obvious decline in standards, which are now not only very low but essentially deemed irrelevant. I don't care what an artist intends, or what the work supposedly means, or what it addresses, unless the work is sufficiently good as art. I'm beyond fed up with work that simply cannot stand on artistic merit and must rely on non-visual props. Such work may have its value, but not as visual art.

I've more or less "retired" from the contemporary art scene, after taking it much too seriously for too long. The yield was far too low to justify such investment of time and energy, and besides that, I simply can't respect the system. It came to feel foolish and even demeaning to be running after the bogus, the pretentious, the ludicrous, the outrageously overrated, not to mention overpriced. I'm still open to anything good that may come my way, but I'm done trying to get blood from turnips.



January 20, 2009, 11:45 AM

20 Years? I'll have to try some of the ones on your list, 1. I can't think of anything that has come up in the last 20 years that bears much attention

Bunny & John: The only way to avoid the apples & oranges problem is to go back - as always - to what does something do for me, what degree or amount or quality of esthetic charge does it have for me. What we try to objectify as goodness or quality in art always goes back to this one way or another because all other measures are futile and misleading. Anyone who is serious and honest in this business is driven to this conclusion.

In my experience, and I believe in others, this is a function of a constantly shifting expectations. I expect some kind of entertainment value in any art form I choose for myself, but I don't expect the same thing in every case because that would be a needless limitation of enjoyment.

With music I exercise this daily, for example, with the internet service Pandora, which allows you to categorize and refine the music it delivers to you. My categories are Classical 18th C., Classical 19th C. to present, Chamber Music & Piano, Jazz 1920s, Jazz 1930s to present, Boogie-woogie, Blues, Country & Western and R&B, Within each category I accept or reject each offering, which refines or "purifies" the category. This is a web version of what we to in everyday life (with just about everything, actually) and it enables me to expect a high level of enjoyment of what I am hearing.

There also seems to be a hierarchy, what we tend to call "serious", which is where we put that Late quartet of Beethovens. Does that give me more of a charge than Louis Artmstrong's "Potato Head Blues"? I don't know, and I really don't care - they are both too good to bother making the distinction. But they are both somehow "higher", they do more from me, than the perfectly constructed "Coal Miner's Daughter" by Loretta Lynn, which I also like hearing.

As for the taste of others, it takes about two minutes to tell where they are at. If they don't get Jimmie Rodgers (he's an excellent test) they are not going to get C&W - my folk-singing brother-in-law regarded a long-ago gift of a Jimmy Rodgers album as a sign of my susceptibility for hokum. If they don't get Mozart riffing on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (or whatever they called it 250 years ago) they are not going to get classical. If they don't get Howlin' Wolf they are not going to get Chicago Blues. And so forth, for music, art, movies, pasta sauces.

When I am pressed by those I advise to make comparisons and have to at least sound specific I sometimes resort to percentages, like "that's an 85% Hofmann", which is a somewhat artificial but practical way of articulating my reaction.

There's so much out there! Why bother with the dreck?

Anyway, enough.



January 20, 2009, 3:30 PM

There's so much out there! Why bother with the dreck?

That's it, in a nutshell. It's just that there's so much dreck, and so much of what's worthwhile is "old stuff." But yes, OP, that's basically what I was getting at.



January 21, 2009, 8:40 PM

re. Jack

Thanks for the response Jack. I do understand what you're saying.



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