Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hammer Time

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1929. Oil on canvas, 42" x 42."

Last week I got together with a bunch of my artist cronies and saw the color show at MoMA (again) and also saw the Whitney Biennial. Not much to get the heart racing in either one (my companions enjoyed the color show more than I, and the consensus opinion of the Biennial was thumbs-down), but we talked a great deal about contemporary currents, particularly in curation and scholarship.

The Biennial, for all the controversy it usually generates, was safe and sleepy: it had that grad school look that's been fairly common coin for the last ten years or more, and nothing seemed to really break much new ground. And the whole thesis for the MoMA show was color as system or found object; reducing or eliminating the role of the aesthetic/emotional choice in selecting, mixing, and combining colors.

The catalog essays for both of these exhibits lionize the reduction, sublimation, or outright rejection of the kind of aesthetic decisions that artists have always made and the studio practices most often associated with visual art. In the case of the Biennial particularly, artists were expected to address the zeitgeist with force and clarity, and visual decisions were made principally to that end.

So how did this happen? The genesis is clear enough, and can be in large measure linked to Clement Greenberg's unprecedented power and influence in the post-war period. He was brilliant, he was a bully, and the in the years following his highly influential "Modernist Painting" (1960), he turned what started at as a set of smart observations about painting into a set of cumbersome demands. He had an unflappable belief in connoisseurship, but insisted on using the word "taste," making him an easy target of derision; he was clearly referring to his own taste.

By the late 60's the Vietnam protests were raging and the civil rights movement was peaking in intensity. All institutions of power were coming under heavy scrutiny (as they always should be), and this included the power centers of art. Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual, and Feminist Art hewed away at Greenberg and Modernism, and it and he fell like a big, dead tree. Art that was visual in its conception was linked to the old regime, and art that critiqued power was associated with the revolution.

Fast forward forty years. The rebels of the 60's and 70's are now curators at big museums (like MoMA and the Whitney), department chairs in BFA and MFA programs, sitting on juries for grants and group exhibitions, writing for the leading magazines, and so on. In a familiar and always ironic cycle, they have become the thing they hated: the Art Establishment. At this late date, deriding visual art as a symbol of entrenched power is disingenuous to say the least.

Interestingly, I think that a more visual approach could and would be embraced by young artists; I see no shortage of talent in my freshman classes, and there is an enthusiasm for the kind of emotional content that can be generated by the deft handling of shape and color and scale. I think the real resistance would come from the intellectual and academic community.

It is fundamentally easier to write and about subject matter (which is narrative in nature) than it is to write about the visual (which is non-verbal in character). Try peeling off 500 words about a painting that is red and blue and you'll see what I mean; this kind of criticism and curation has essentially vanished, and whatever you think about Greenberg, it is undeniable that he could articulate these things better than anyone.

Those critical to a primarily visual approach to art would say that in the proto-fascist Bush era, art that is aesthetic in character is somehow living in denial of the global turmoil and misery that presently seems so intractable. But I disagree; the eye and mind set free are and always have been conduits for change, and power has always recognized this: Stalin imprisoned Malevich in 1930, putatively as a suspected spy, but in reality for painting squares. Stalin was afraid of paintings of squares.

It all begs the old question: Is art the mirror that reflects society and culture, or the hammer that shapes it? The artist who is perpetually critiquing and commenting on society and current events is not leading, but following; it's an inherently passive position.