Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 3

Click here to read part one of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Click here to read part two.

Bad Painting as a historical phenomenon was born in large measure as a refutation of Modernism, which insisted that art should be really good. But in spite of his unflappable belief in the existence of quality, Clement Greenberg himself said in a 1945 review of Jackson Pollock that "all profoundly original art looks ugly at first." The critic's point is that from Turner and Manet forward the viewing public, from the lay observers up to the tastemakers, were largely behind the curve in terms of accepting the most advanced painting as a legitimate enterprise. And by the time that the public caught up to and accepted a given style, painters had moved on to something else and the process began again. This cycle repeated for roughly a century and then the rules changed a bit.

To be sure, advanced painting had its passionate defenders throughout this process (Ruskin, Mallarme, Apollinaire, Schapiro, etc.), but Greenberg was the one to forcefully introduce the idea that these styles were the products of an aesthetic and cultural critique. Ironically, critique was the instrument of Modernism's destruction and at the same time Greenberg's most durable legacy - an enormous portion of important art since the late '60's has taken critique of one sort or another as its primary motive. Consider these two quotes, the first is from Greenberg's coda essay, "Modernist Painting," 1960:

"The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence."

In part two of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I quoted from the press release for "Bad Painting, Good Art," the big Bad survey show from 2008 at the Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna. There is a striking similarity to the Greenberg quote:

"'Bad Painting" is the critique of painting expressed with its own most essential means: many of the most important painters of the 20th century like Francis Picabia, Rene Magritte, Asger Jorn, Philip Guston, Neil Jenney, George Baselitz, Albert Oehlen or Julian Schnabel radically called their medium into question using different strategies of incorrect, faulty, ugly or angry painting in order to open up new possibilities for the medium."

Greenberg and the Viennese curators clearly have a different idea of what the essential means of the medium are, and why they need to be critiqued; the former insists that subversion is not the goal, and the latter implicitly says that it is. But both agree that critique is the driving principle - that the painting of the recent past shouldn't be used as a foundation to build upon, but requires correction. Now return to Greenberg's statement about the ugliness of the new, and compare that to the "Bad Painting" press release. Ugliness, or at least temporary ugliness, would seem to be an inescapable consequence of immanent critique.

Another common aspect of Modernist critique and the Post-Modern critique which opened the door for Bad painting (and many other styles and motives) is a kind of moralism. Modernism's moralism was a drive toward purity - in the case of painting, toward the purely self-referential image. Greenberg himself admitted that the perfectly flat, auto-referential painting was not a possibility, but that advanced painters must strive to get as close to it as possible. It's hard not to notice the religious overtones to this quest for an absolute purity which is always just beyond reach.

Bad painting's moralism is of a different stripe (no pun intended). It would say that since quality and purity are simply the arbitrary prescriptions of an institutional power structure, these criteria must be dispensed with. Transgression of the parental/parochial rules of Modernism is the goal: it can take many forms, but must look Bad. This last point is the one that's difficult to get around - Why should I or anyone else be asked to look at something that is admittedly and intentionally Bad? This is where moralism comes into play, and it's that of the bitter pill: it tastes terrible, but if you know what's good for you, you'll take it. It's the visual version of Castor Oil, and once again this is where it crosses paths with Greenberg's pronouncement about Pollock in 1945.

Bad Painting, it would seem, is Post-Modern critique taken to a peculiar but entirely logical extreme. This is how backlash tends to work in all cultural spheres, be they political, religious, or aesthetic: a wild see-saw ride that eventually find equilibrium. Viewed as such, it makes little sense to decry Bad Painting. What could one say, anyway? It's really Bad?

The irony, of course, is that Bad Painting's methodology of critique is borrowed, at least in part, from Modernism itself. In the Hegellian sense, Modernism (specifically good painting) and Post-Modernism (specifically Bad Painting), can be seen as a schematic dialectic: the latter depends for its existence on the former even as it seeks to delegitimize it. And as Hegel points out in the Phenomenology of Spirit, major cultural shifts of this sort must be sorted through in each and every detail; no steps can be skipped. Bad Painting, which now has a thirty-year institutional history, would appear to be an endgame to a long cultural reevaluation.