Saturday, August 18, 2012

History, Nostalgia, and Other Subjects

This is a piece I've been meaning to write for about a month-and-a-half, but life got in the way, as they say. It's a response to my friend Mark Stone's article over at the excellent Henrimag about nostalgia in painting, (My friend Dennis Bellone already wrote a nice response to the same piece - Dennis used to refer to himself as d. richmond, but recently unmasked himself on his blog, Immaterial-Culture).

Mark's complaint is that painting has reached an old-wine-in-new-bottles stage, and even the bottles are starting to look a little rough. Old-timey avant garde strategies and gestures have become period styles to be replicated with vestigial post-modern theoretics as a kind of cover story ("it's not retro; it's a critique of the retro impulse"). Even though he's right in essence, I think the thing that needs to be dropped entirely is not the engagement with history, but the aspiration to avant-gardism.

I know people having been writing about the death of the avant-garde for more than fifty years, but I mean it this time - it's exhausted, and this is not a tragedy; the vast majority of the world's great masterpieces have been made outside of this model. The avant-garde had a good run - more than a century - and was certainly responsible for some high-water marks, but that's over now. And it's OK, because there are lots of different ways to skin this particular cat.

And what are the earmarks of the historical avant-garde, consistent and uninterrupted as modernism crashed into post-modernism? Critique and novelty are the main identifiers. In the case of modernism, criticality and originality were immanent and aesthetic in character. In the case of post-modernism the critique was cultural, pointed outward as opposed to self-referential, and commenting on (and often attacking) the larger practice of art-making and the social and political backdrop that nurtured it. The novelty tended to involve the facture - weird non-art materials or no materials at all or industrial processes and so on.

As the roundly reviled Hilton Kramer noted, avant garde art was art that initially met with resistance. There is now a critical, curatorial, and commercial apparatus that demands avant gardism. There is no resistance; quite the contrary - there is only supply and demand.

So now that the avant garde is genuinely dead, what do we replace it with? Or more specifically, how do we replace its motives, so familiar and reflexive, taught at all the big schools and showed at the big institutions?

I think a meaningful engagement with history is an excellent starting point - looking at art that was made in the long period before art started to really suck. This kind of dialog is certainly not a new concept: Titian was not invisible in Velazquez, and Leonardo was not invisible in Rembrandt. Manet was completely obsessed with Velazquez, and the Abstract Expressionists were equally enamored with Picasso. Degas worshipped Ingres, Picasso and Matisse worshipped Cezanne! Was this a nostalgic impulse? Of course it wasn't - it wouldn't even occur to you to become a painter if there weren't previous painters that thrilled you! And your initial impulses would naturally be to emulate or even best the ones you loved best.

I think that Mark's real complaint (correct me if I'm wrong, chum) is that there is not in fact a meaningful engagement, like the one typified by Manet's relationship to Velazquez or Picasso's relationship to Cezanne. It's just a stylistic mish-mash, like late 19th century architecture, adding up to nothing much. There's a large body of theory endorsing and defending the mash-up as a legitimate response to the whole 21st century conundrum of art making. But much of the art and the theory was born enervated and emaciated and will be forgotten sooner than many people think.

A key feature of art after the avant garde will be dropping the convulsive reaction against the concept of quality (I can already hear the accusations of hegemony as I type this). But as Greenberg pointed out many years ago, the recognition of quality never left the conversation at parties, openings, and bars ("this show was great, that show was awful, and the other one was...") but it became frowned upon in print; the official, historical record. As a criteria, it was replaced with the concept of cultural relevance. But sitcoms, music videos, and reality TV are more relevant to and reflective of the culture than art can ever hope to be. And who cares? Is this what art really wants to aspire to? Shouldn't art offer a compelling alternative to these things?

A reverential look at the past is not an abdication of the responsibility to make an art suitable for our own era. For the best artists, it's a place to begin. Great artists will use it to create something that looks fresh, and the weak artists (always the majority) will use it to create something that looks nostalgic and retro.