Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 5

"In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay."

-Ernst Fischer

I opened part four of the Bad Painting series by saying that I hadn't intended to revisit the topic, and the same is true for this installment. I think it's an extremely interesting phenomenon, but in terms of the history and development of art, I don't think it's a real game-changer (which is a term I've been hearing a lot lately). Bad Painting, or more generally, art that flies in the face of accepted norms of beauty, wholeness, variety, and so on, has clearly become one method of art-making among many others in an era that has no dominant aesthetic or ideology. Lots of curators, artists, and writers are vying for a leading role in defining our peculiar moment in history, and a great deal of money is changing hands as dealers and collectors try and separate the important from the trivial.

So why did I come back to the subject for a fifth go-around if I think that, in overall terms, it only occupies one niche among many? Because I just saw the George Condo retrospective at The New Museum, the venue which codified Bad Painting as a genre way back in 1977. Nothing could be more institutional than a mid-career retrospective, and the institution which hung it is one which built its reputation around institutional critique. The ironies are layered.

The Condo show was mainly ugly and depressing, and I don't necessarily consider this a criticism - it was clearly so by design. Works of art simultaneously posit a set of objectives, and then fulfill those objectives to a greater or lesser degree; viewed from this angle the Condo paintings were a great success. Chronologically, the show starts around the beginning of Reagan's second term, and tracks through to the present - the decline of the Roman empire comes to mind, and the pictures evoke lassitude, decay, consumerism, and death (and fucking). The supporting literature briefly alludes to this, but goes on to laud Condo's old-master technique (!?) and his ability to create empathetic characters (um...).

I'd like to pose an extremely naive question, one that my grandmother might have asked: Why would you set out to make an ugly painting? Without some underlying objective, it would seem like a strange thing to do; counter-intuitive to say the least. The first and simplest explanation is that I need to re-calibrate my idea of what is or isn't ugly - that my taste has been culturally conditioned. I don't feel a real need to linger on this one except to say that it seems symptomatic of tumultuous times: a sustained period in which bad is considered good - or left becomes right, up becomes down, freedom becomes slavery, etc. - must be a time of distinct rupture and upheaval. Few would argue this latter point; the 20th century contained some of the greatest horrors that humans could visit upon one another, and the 21st century is also off to a roaring start.

As is often the case with big questions about contemporary art, a better place to begin would be with Modernism. In the last installment of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I talked about the specific criteria of Modernism (originality, quality, purity, etc.) and the extent to which Post-Modernism sought to overturn them. I think it's also necessary to pull the camera back and talk about why Modernism was deemed to have been a failure; why all of its central tenets should be flipped on their head.

Early Modernist artists and architects were supposedly making art and architecture that would be the backdrop for a better world; one in which technology, philosophy, and politics all matured at a steady rate and trajectory until societies all over the planet were saner and more humane. The project had its origins in the Enlightenment, when Kant tried to systematize reason and Descartes recognized the importance of the individual perspective. It was made poetic and heroic by the Romantics, and was eventually taken over by Modernism, which combined the heroic with the more scientific approach characteristic of the early Enlightenment figures.

But while America was dropping napalm on Vietnamese civilians, the early Post-Modernists looked back over the first two-thirds of the 20th century and saw the mustard gas and machine guns of WWI, Hitler's camps and Stalin's gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The utopian aspirations of the Modernists seemed like a blood-soaked parody, and not surprisingly, parody became a central strategy of Post-Modernism, along with, among other things, appropriation (the opposite of originality) and amateurism or faux-amateurism (the opposite of quality and professionalism).

The abject nature of the Condo pictures smacks of gallows humor. There is no hope; nothing left but ghastly gags. In his laudatory review of the show in the April, 2011 Artforum, David Rimanelli twice declares: "You want to die. Me too." The literature surrounding Condo talks a great deal about his ravenous and omnivorous tendency for appropriation from various periods in art, but less about his equally strong tendency to present self-consciously debased and degraded versions of those styles.

I opened this essay with a fragment of an Ernst Fischer quote about art in a decaying society, and the necessity for it to face up to that decay. The next part is:

"And unless it wants to beak faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it."

But if you hold a strong belief that the world is in fact not changeable, why try and point to an alternative? Under these conditions, art with a more positive, humanist message becomes little more than a depression-era MGM musical; pure escapism. But then again, if you don't believe that art can change hearts and minds, why would you become an artist? Because you want to die?

As I went through various possible answers to the above questions, this piece got longer and longer and longer - I finally decided that it made more sense to break it up into segments. Expect more on the topic very soon. As always, comments are welcome, and the more penetrating insights will definitely become grist for subsequent posts.

To read previous installments of the Bad Painting series, follow the links below, and make sure to read the comments, some very smart people chimed in:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 1

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 3

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 4