Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bricks and Other Subjects

Last month I taught a pre-college course at the Parsons School of Design, and one day we took the class to MoMA. While we were looking at Minimalist work, a sixteen-year-old student asked me to explain Carl Andre's Equivalent V to her. I told that it wasn't simply bricks stacked neatly, it critiqued the subjectivity that had always been taken as an article of faith in the making of a work of art - it questioned the ideas of talent, authorship, originality, skill, craft, and composition and asked if all these elements were a necessary precondition to a work being created, accepted and discussed as art. It was, in 1966, an aggressive, but not a radical gesture (Duchamp's Fountain was already 50 years old).

The young student listened to me intently, but confessed that even after considering all this, all she saw was bricks. I didn't get frustrated with her, because I looked down and discovered that all I saw was bricks, too. And I think this is the fate of a great deal of recent art made in the spirit of critique.

At this point in history, it is understood that the bricks are art, along with a dazzling array of things that would never be considered as such prior to the twentieth century. Now that the bricks have lost all power to pose difficult questions, all that's left is the art, and as art, there's not much to see - I think that few would argue that Andre's sensitivity led to bricks stacked more artfully than the piles one would find at a construction site, and besides that, his supporters would vehemently argue that this is beside the point. Once the gesture loses its power, so goes the art.

Art that questions the dominant standards of art is not new: Caravaggio, Manet, Monet, early Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Pollock, early Johns, and others all asked hard questions about what art could and needed to be. But after the questions were satisfactorily answered, all the artists on this list left something to be looked at and considered on its own merits - after the arguments ended, there was still art. That Caravaggio questioned the importance of the Greek ideal in painting is of relatively minor interest to me when I'm standing in front of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. The idea that a Monet was once considered radical is now rather hard to believe, and doesn't really matter that much in the experience of looking at one of the Cathedral at Rouen paintings.

Institutional critique as a driving force behind contemporary studio and curatorial practice has been at hot topic here at No Hassle at the Castle of late. It's a default position for a huge amount of art and has been for a long time now - the last few Biennials, Younger Than Jesus, Greater New York, and the big fairs confirm that post-modernism still holds sway and perhaps more importantly, the grad programs have embraced critique as subject matter in their curricula (which is itself quite ironic). I think that in the very near future, much art made with these objectives is destined to look no more profound than a neat stack of bricks.