Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Tyranny of the Zeitgeist

Ward Jackson, Chillohowie, 1971. Acrylic on linen, 36" x 36," courtesy Metaphor Contemporary Art.

Zeit·geist (tsīt'gīst')
- noun, German
the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.

About a week ago I attended a panel discussion about a marvelous and grossly under-recognized painter named Ward Jackson. A question was posed to the panelists as to the number of Ward Jacksons in recent history; painters of a very high caliber whose work was generally overlooked. Just how many are there?

The consensus, obviously, is that there are far too many to calculate, but Jed Perl (one of the panelists) outlined what he considered to be the reason why: Being in sync with the zeitgeist, he said, has become the ultimate measure of success for art and artists. If the artist is not addressing it in an immediately recognizable way, he or she is often considered anachronistic or irrelevant.

Perl went on to conjecture that all art of consequence was in fact in some kind of dialogue with the zeitgeist, but often in a more personal and circuitous way; not always evident at first glance and not always in full agreement with the art world's prevailing intrpretation(s) of it. Demanding a front-and-center approach runs roughshod over the personal and highly individual nature of art and artists.

I've been thinking about this ever since. Of course he's right, but there's an interesting irony at play. When post-modernism slew the dragon known as Clement Greenberg, part of the new compact was that arbitrary measures of quality were considered a relic of the old regime. Quality became a dirty word, simply a reflection of the power group's taste and their ability to enforce it. All very sound reasoning, especially in light of Greenberg's increasingly strident insistence on flatness and a reiteration of the framing edge, not to mention the white-males-only nature of his inner circle.

But the dismissal of the notion of quality created an unusual problem. Inclusion and a multifarious approach to making and showing art is clearly a good thing. But some exercise of judgement is still always made when curating or reviewing an art exhibition. Work is never hung in museums or galleries on a first-to-arrive basis; judgments are rendered, most work is rejected. The cover story here is that post-post-modern rejections are not made on the basis of quality, but on the basis of cultural relevance, i.e. proximity to the zeitgeist. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

As the notion of quality was being assailed in the late 60's, Greenberg himself pointed out that in more informal settings, art world intellectuals never stopped using the language of quality: "this show was great," or "that show stunk." But in print, in the classroom, or any other more official setting the language had changed dramatically.

The real sea-change was in fact semantic; the abolition of quality as a yardstick never really took place. Even in today's all-over-the-place art world, the same handful of dominant themes continually resurface; if I see one more show about identity accompanied by a banal catalog essay on the subject I'm certainly going to puke.

It's a funny thing; until this week, it never really occurred to me that rebelling against this particular criterion - communion with the zeitgeist - was a necessity. Manet is one of my heroes, and even as he looked back at Velazquez he was in perfect sync with 19th century modernity; perhaps the first real painter of the zeitgeist. I've always taken it as an article of faith that the self-conscious expression of modernity should be a primary goal. Now I'm not so sure.

It comes down to the old question as to whether art is the mirror that reflects the culture or the hammer that shapes it. If the artist takes the role of mirror, he or she must follow instead of lead. Depiction of the zeitgeist is a necessarily passive position, and it requires a lot more television than I'm willing to watch.