Monday, March 2, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 2

Click here to read the first installment of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

The earliest instance of "Bad Painting" being used as a laudatory term in an institutional setting is the New Museum's 1978 exhibition of same title. The show included Neil Jenney, Joan Brown, William N. Copley, and William Wegman. The operating principle in the exhibition was still a relatively fresh idea in the evolving postmodernist critique of art: the notion of the "end of history," or the rejection of the idea that art had an evolutionary progress from one period to the next. From the "Bad Painting" press release: "It would seem that, without a specific idea of progress toward a goal, the traditional means of valuing and validating works of art are useless." But if the curators were bereft of those criteria of valuation and validation, how was work chosen for the show?

Again, from the "Bad Painting" press release, this time quoting New Museum director Marcia Tucker: "'Bad Painting' is an ironic title for 'good painting,' which is characterized by deformation of the figure, a mixture of art-historical and non-art resources, and fantastic and irreverent content." These criteria are borrowed from expressionism, pop, surrealism, and pop, respectively. More from the press release: "In its disregard for accurate representation and its rejection of conventional attitudes about art, 'bad' painting is at once funny and moving, and often scandalous in its scorn for the standards of good taste." This last criterion seems to strike closer to the heart of the matter: The standards of good taste in painting at that time stemmed from Modernism. One would have to infer that the selection process included an assessment of how emphatically a given painting rejected Modernism. This assumption is bolstered by the show's explicit rejection of a historical teleology, which was central the Modernist history of art.

Fast forward thirty years to 2008, when the Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna mounted a show entitled "Bad Painting, Good Art." The show presented a historical overview of bad painting as a phenomenom, and included work from a time long before it was considered a genre. From the press release:

"'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. Using prominent works by 21 artists, the exhibition presents 'bad painting' as a phenomenon which opens a new and differentiated perspective on the history of painting since the beginning of modernism which today still influences contemporary discourse."

The elephant in the room for both of these survey shows, and for the myriad of museum and gallery shows in the intervening years based on a similar premise, is that they never include "real" bad painting. By this I mean the millions of pictures produced in freshman painting classes and retirement communities every day. The 90's trend for "Outsider" art was close in appearance, but these pictures were never showed alongside "Insider" bad painters. There is often a strong family resemblance between the art world version of bad painting and the amateur version, and the amateurish pictures are sometimes held up as influences. But the real article is missing the essential self-awareness that it is not Modernism; that it is responding to and rejecting Modernism. It is therefore never exhibited in the company of art world bad painters.

The other elephant in the room is that Modernism hasn't been central to the discussion or creation of art for about forty years, except, of course, as a kind of specter that needs to be continually critiqued. Even the 1978 New Museum show, which was hung when postmodernism was at its peak as an art world force, came a full decade after Modernism had been knocked off its pedestal. Pop, minimalism, and conceptual art had, along with the afore-mentioned critiques, all contributed to Modernism's demise. It's important to point out that the original "Bad Painting" exhibition didn't take place in an abandoned warehouse in one of the boroughs, or a loft, or a bar, or any other such setting which could be associated with subversive art - the New Museum had a stable address on lower Broadway in the heart of Soho, with a large, renovated exhibition space. All characteristics of the dreaded "art institution."

Without Modernism as a formidable enemy, a good deal of critique-driven art would have no identity. Therefore, a certain tightrope act must be continually played out. A phantom power group of people and institutions that are enforcing "good" taste, academicism, quality, linear historical narratives and the like must be fabricated or exhumed in order to rail against them. These power systems don't actually exist, and haven't for quite a while. From my own vantage point inside one of the major art schools, it is quite clear that the originators of the major critiques of the 70's now hold the positions of power. The same is true in the major museums which show contemporary art ; the New Museum now has a multi-million building all it's own in lower Manhattan, which opened to great fanfare in 2007. In a familiar cycle, the rebels of the '60's and 70's, who asked hard questions of power and demanded satisfactory answers, have themselves become the art institution. Life is funny, isn't it?

In subsequent installments of the Good the Bad and the Ugly, I intend to discuss the internal critiques stemming from Modernism itself in the mid twentieth century, and the role of Pop in redefining high and low.