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On Aphorisms for Artists

Post #1538 • March 22, 2012, 12:17 PM • 1 Comment

Alesh Houdek [update Mar. 23: I meant to link to Alesh's blog post, not just his website] has discovered Aphorisms for Artists.

Recently, I came back across Walter Darby Bannard’s Aphorisms for Artists — 100 short “chapters” of observations, quips and warnings. They are meant to and indeed do inspire thinking about what is valuable in art, but they espouse a very particular conception of art. Bannard believes that art is a purely visual experience, and that the creation of art is almost solely about the materials. He’s an abstract expressionist painter, and post modernism is his enemy, where post-modernism is taken to include almost all of the art created by contemporary artists. I find this view peculiar and limiting, but I do enjoy living in it off and on. And I think that the contemporary approach to art making, which thrives on playing with meaning as much as materials, on mixing genres and media, and on voraciously devouring as much of the world for incorporation into art, will find much to use here.

As the editor of Aphorisms, I leaned on Darby's manuscript to make it about art in general, rather than specific to painting. Nevertheless, the aphorism "Paint, don't think" stayed that way. Rewriting it to handle art in general drained it of life. If you're not a painter and you can't read that and think, "sculpt, don't think" or "film, don't think," you have a lack of imagination that cannot be remedied by aphorisms. There are other similar instances in the text, such as, "When making a painting, only one thing counts: what you do next."

I also discouraged him from bashing postmodernism per se. I wanted this to be more than a handbook for modernists, although, as a handbook for modernists, there is nothing better. I wanted this to be applicable to all kinds of art-making, including what Alesh describes as a "contemporary approach", and he confirms that we have succeeded.

Nevertheless, there is this.

Postmodernism is Modernism with Alzheimer’s.

Postmodernism shuns useful rules and conventions and rationalizes inferior art by wrapping it in words—a suit of armor with no one inside. It thrives in the academy, where language abandons reality to serve ambition, and reputations rise on hot air. It is silly and joyless at the same time.

Postmodernism seems to be fading away. Let’s hope! But when it comes to trendy intellectual nonsense, academia is infinitely resourceful. What will it come up with next?

Bannard does not believe that "art is a purely visual experience". Humans are messy creatures and we have no idea how consciousness works. I know some of the most diehard modernists out there, and to my knowledge, none of them think that art is a purely visual experience. If nothing else, there are elements of feeling and association that are really what we're after when we go to art in the first place. Rather, we think that for an object to succeed as visual art, it has to succeed visually. That's not to the exclusion of meaning or style, it's a recognition that meaning and style are not markers of artistic success. By all means, play with meaning and mash genres like nobody's business. Just don't mistake meanings and genres for quality.

Even in the above aphorism, the objection is not to postmodernism so much as academicism. There was, at one point, an entrenched academic modernism. Philip Morsberger told me in a conversation last year in Augusta that as a young art student, he was scolded in a figure drawing class because his drawing wasn't abstract enough. It looked too much like the model. Clement Greenberg, from what I know about him, would have thought that teacher was an idiot. This is a man who supported the work of Horacio Torres.

But entrenched academic modernism has been displaced by entrenched academic postmodernism. I have written about academicism as distinct from postmodernism, but they are a better fit for each other than academicism and modernism ever were. Modernism had a long and useful life outside of the academy, whereas postmodernism was co-opted by the academy soon after its conception. Derrida, cited later in Alesh's post, basically went to college and never left.

One aspect of postmodernism is historical fact. We are, for better or worse, not living in the conditions of high modernism as exemplified by art, design, and philosophy circa 1948. Nobody argues that. The problem is with the academic postmodernist idea that art succeeds by establishing meaning. This, and not its factual status as postmodernist, is what invalidates most of contemporary art. The fact of the matter is that the mechanism by which art succeeds cannot be known. That leaves artists to intuit their way to success. Meaning doesn't help you, but eliminating meaning doesn't either. Mashing genres doesn't help you, but keeping them pure doesn't either. There is no general method, only specific ones. If you can live with that, you're a modernist. If you can't, you're an academic.

Comment

1.

Walter Darby Bannard

March 22, 2012, 5:50 PM

Thanks, Franklin. Your ability to see the "big picture" is always a balm in the culture wars.

I'll just add a couple of brief notes to your excellent commentary:

Whenever I went with Clem to a museum neither of us had visited his first comment was "Let's go look at the old masters." He was also known to say (and said to me) that he preferred realist painting, but that at the time he was writing realism happened not to be the best painting.

Art is not "about" the materials. That makes no sense. The materials are simply what is there, whatever the genre or mode. What's there is the art. Art is not "about" anything. If it is "about" something then it is not art, it is an illustration of something else. Isn't that what "about" means?

Saying that art is a "visual experience" just means that you experience it by looking at it. Music is an auditory experience. Food is a gustatory experience. These are categorical designations which exclude nothing. They merely indicate the expected mode of perception in a particular circumstance. It is completely fluid. There is nothing "pure" about it. In any event, what you do with it or how you take it is up to you.

I never said anything to the effect that "post-modernism is taken to include almost all of the art created by contemporary artists". There are all kinds of non-post-modernist artists. Most of what is shown and sold is older art or modernist art. It is a mixed bag, and that's fine with me. What bothers me is silly crap—modernist, post-modernist, whatever.

As for incorporating anything and everything into art, I'm all for it and always have been. Doing so has been the trend for a half century now, but it is only a mode of art-making. It guarantees nothing.

The discourse would be a lot more fun if those who write about art would think things through a little better.

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