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The Terms of Anarcho-Modernism

Post #1649 • February 26, 2014, 4:46 PM • 1 Comment

My Anarcho-Modernism post was shared with a private group on Facebook. Someone asked me to clarify the terms in advance of further discussion. I have copied my comments below, with some editing.

So, terms are a problem throughout this piece because Greenberg and Read don't agree on a definition for "culture." My tendency to prefer dictionary definitions when possible makes me favor Greenberg's. Read's distinction between art and culture is pretty artificial even if it's an interesting one to make. The objection from both of them, really, is to rote culture or imposed culture, and with that clarified - somewhat at the expense of Read, I admit - they're in close enough agreement to get past the differences in terms.

Culture is just the general sphere of activity in which works of art get made and looked at. Read's categorical distinction makes it hard to talk about the people who enjoy and support art - fine, they're not the culture, they're not the art world, but then what do we call them? This is why Paraskos tends to sound a little cryptic in his conclusions, in my opinion. New possibilities open up at the end of his essays on this topic and they remain unexplored, seemingly out of necessity because it's not clear how one might explore them without coining even more definitions of existing terms.

My point is that if the real problem here is imposed culture, then there's a solution already extant in Greenbergian modernism that organizes spontaneously and thus works against impositions, and it's basically the same process observed by Menger: numerous people trying to satisfy personal desires cause outcomes to appear that are unsought but nevertheless valuable. The difference is that artistic conventions are getting traded instead of commodities. There isn't a literally finite supply of conventions, but not all conventions are equally viable at any given time and there is always an uneven distribution of talent among people who would employ them, so you end up with a phenomenon similar in some ways to a market.

That's another problem with Read - some culture is always going to imposed. That imposition isn't necessarily one by powerful people in the art world, although that certainly happens. More fundamentally the medium has a history of usage and stock conventions, and this is what you first learn when you learn to use the medium. It can't be any other way. It's also not necessarily a bad thing - conventions are enabling and it's nice that we don't have to keep reinventing them.

Even the people inventing Abstract Expressionism from scratch still started with painting in oils on rectangular supports. The gamelan may be different from year to year but each year it is still recognizable as gamelan and has to succeed as gamelan. Good art happens as a successful response to the need to make work that is both good and different.

But the fact of the matter is that you need a lot of the conventions of the genre to make that differing art, even if not all of them, or even if you're doing something new with them. It happens sometimes that new art is good but so different that it takes the audience some time to catch up to it. But if it's good they do, or at least I believe they tend to. It's hard to look at a Gauguin and truly feel it to be as scandalous as it once was. So we have to combat the inflated cultural imperialists of the world and the culture they impose on us, but the first line of attack against them is to make better art.



John Link

February 26, 2014, 10:48 PM

Interesting observation about Gauguin and scandal. The history of scandals tells us most of them don't seem scandalous for long. It takes something truly awful, not merely scandalous, like the Holocaust, to endure. In any case, as you suggest, scandals and better art are completely different things. It has gotten to the point where anything remotely good is automatically "different".

I don't know why there is so much concern with "imposition" over the past 100 years. I have a friend who was once told by Ivan Karp that Karp would show him if he made on small change to his drawings. Incredibly the change would have been a clear improvement, the kind of easy thing that would have yielded so much, the kind of thing that so seldom comes up. Yet my friend refused. I told him he made a big mistake. Had he accepted the imposition, his life would have turned out a lot different than it did, or so I conjecture.

Artists have lived with impositions for a long time. Everyone who painted a full Mount Calvary crucifixion scene had to include three crosses. It didn't kill any creativity. As you say, conventions are often enabling, not destructive.



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