Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 6

"Ugliness I imagine likewise to be consistent enough with an idea of the sublime. But I would by no means insinuate that ugliness of itself is a sublime idea, unless united with such qualities as excite a strong terror."

-Edmund Burke, from A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757

In part five of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I asked why an artist would set out to make an ugly picture; what are some of the possible underlying objectives. The occasion for the question was the George Condo retrospective at the New Museum, but I hoped (and hope) to arrive at some larger observations about the bad-as-a-virtue aesthetic. I quickly concluded that the convulsive reaction against Modernism was a key factor in the development of Bad Painting. But next I want to consider if in fact Bad Painting was actually looking for a new modality for expressing some of the same goals as Modernism.

Abstract Expressionism is roundly considered the high water mark of Modernism, and the recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art reaffirmed its status. Those artists were all pursuing the sublime, which is something a bit different than the utopianism of Mondrian - the sublime mixes the most contradictory extremes of human experience: beauty and terror, passion and pain, life and death. In "The Sublime is Now" (1948) Barnett Newman wrote about the enduring and problematic concept of the Greek ideal in the visual arts; how it was essentially at odds with a search for the sublime:

"The invention of beauty by the Greeks, that is, their postulate of beauty as an ideal, has been the bugbear of European art and European aesthetic philosophies. Man's natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute can be identified and confused with the absolutisms of perfect creations - with the fetish of quality - so that the European artist has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity."

Viewed in this way it could be that Condo is seeking a mode of expression that completely breaks free of the slavish obedience to the Greek ideal; perhaps ugliness is his attempt to touch the sublime. As I mentioned earlier, Condo's career began in the middle of the Reagan era. I also came of age during that period, and the ugliness and brutality of institutionalized greed and racism covered over with a veneer of middle-American normalcy was stultifying; like perfume sprayed on a rotting corpse. Condo's portraits could be viewed as an analog for this hypocrisy; perhaps he was making a genuine effort to expose it and his motivation was a desire for positive change. Perhaps his pathway to the sublime was a shock strategy; he wanted to show us a mirror which did not flatter us in any way.

In "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde" (1984) Lyotard points out that the modern artist, here meaning the artist who comes after Burke and Kant first articulated the artistic pursuit of the sublime, seeks whatever strategy he can to draw out a sense of the sublime in the viewer, including shock:

"The very imperfections, the distortions of taste, even ugliness, have their share in the shock effect. Art does not imitate nature, it creates a world apart, eine Zwischenwelt [an intermediate world], as Paul Klee will say, eine Nebenwelt [another world], one might say, in which the monstrous and formless have their rights because they can be sublime."

I'm sure you've already guessed, but I don't find this defense satisfying for very long. In his old master-type portraits, Condo substitutes ugliness for beauty. A very funny cartoonist named Sam Gross many years ago told me that "the old switcheroo" (i.e. drawing the frog dissecting the scientist or the deer shooting the hunter) is a hack's game. Doing the polar opposite of what is expected is the standard adolescent strategy for infuriating the authority figures in their lives: parents, teachers, and so on. The Condo pictures have an undeniable graffiti-on-the-boy's-room-wall vibe, and it seems appropriate here to point out that the early works were painted while the artist was in his 20's. A real attempt to touch the sublime would also entail harnessing the dialectical extremes of the human condition.

In the same essay cited above, Lyotard points out that the counterbalance, the drawing out of the polar opposite response, is achieved through intensity. Love in its most intense state can paradoxically feel awful, and grief felt so thoroughly as bring one to the rim of the abyss is often described as perfect and beautiful. Intensity is precisely what I find missing in Condo (and many other establishment Bad Painters). Most of the pictures in the show felt as though they were painted between bong hits and porno tapes (VHS, of course) and their art-school insouciance is clearly part of their appeal to those who find them appealing. The lassitude they communicate may be effective in de-sanctifying western painting, but the emotional intensity level is low - like meeting someone with Asperger's. It would seem that this emotional blankness is part of the program; an essential aspect of the parody is mocking those who try to express intense emotion in painting - a project started in earnest by Robert Rauschenberg many years earlier.

Can something or someone be casual and insouciant with great intensity? To me, this sounds like an oxymoron, or theatrical at best. So, are the pictures just cynical? I think so, but I have more scenarios I want to cycle through. Keep checking No Hassle at the Hassle for further meditations on the topic.

Below are links to the first five installments of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:"

The G., the B., and the U., pt. 1

The G., the B., and the U., pt. 2

The G., the B., and the U., pt. 3

The G., the B., and the U., pt. 4

The G., the B., and the U., pt. 5