Scathing Assessment of Modern and Post-Modern Art

Someone in this forum, and I can’t remember who it was, shares my distaste for the empty spectacle of the post-modern art world. This is a great article by the chairman of the Art Renewal Center (actually the transcript of a speech he gave to the American Society of Portrait Artists at the Met):

http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/Philosophy/philosophy1.asp

I agree with most of what he has to say, and admire what they are trying to do. I especially share his sentiment that painters of the late 19th century (particularly those of the Salon, the followers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the British Symbolists) have gotten a bum rap in the 20th century, and for no good reason. He’s absolutely right about the influence of Bouguereau in his time and the skill of his work. Janson’s Art Through The Ages (the standard text for survey classes in Art History) covers his career with one image (Nymphs and Satyr, in black and white) and a short paragraph that describes his work (inaccurately) as combining mythical subjects with such painterly realism that his contemporaries considered it pornographic. A disturbing bit of revisionist history if ever I saw one, and one easily refuted if you bother to consult a few primary sources.

Speaking of revisionist history, another book that I highly recommend:

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Not only a disturbing look at the inaccuracy of the facts presented in most high school history books, but also a plea to stop teaching history as a collection of irrefutable facts in the first place.

Wow. I didn’t know someone could froth at the mouth when discussing art history. Haven’t finished the article, but I’m hesitant to accept some of his assumptions. Burne-Jones, ignored? Waterhouse? Jean-Francois Millet? How have these guys been underrepresented? As far as I can tell, this guy wants to bury abstraction entirely.

He does, and while I personally wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (some art produced in the 20th century isn’t awful), I also can’t say I disagree with his assessment of the value of the works of artists such as DeKooning and Pollock and even, to some extent, Picasso (who is certainly the most overrated artist of the 20th century). I also can’t say that I agree with the post-modern dismissal of representational art as irrelevant to modern aesthetics. I’d wager to guess that a few hundred years from now the popular art movements of the 20th century will be considered highly interesting for the underlying cultural changes that spawned them, but much of the art itself will be considered a queer curiosity devoid of aesthetic value.

For what it’s worth, however, he’s pretty much correct about how the current art world treats the work of 19th century painters, which do indeed represent the culmination of all the knowledge and skill in post-Enlightenment art. Bouguereau is almost always depicted as sentimental, unpopular, and uninfluential, even in his time. The first is open to personal interpretation, but the latter two points are demonstrably untrue. Waterhouse and Burne-Jones are rarely even mentioned in most world art history textbooks, unless as a footnote connecting them to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (of which neither man was technically a member), which is almost universally dismissed as a laughable dinosaur in a world of art that was rapidly moving on into impressionism and expressionism and other “more important” movements. Are they unknown? Hardly. Their work is actually pretty popular among the general public. But as a fine arts major let me assure you, you probably won’t learn about them in school. Today’s academics would place them in the same category with Thomas Kinkade (painter of light!) and sofa-sized works of art sold at the local mall, and that’s a damn shame.

From Waterhouse’s obituary, circa 1917:

“One feels that his figures are there to make a picture rather than they are occupied with any business of their own. They do make it very skilfully, but neither they or the pictures seem quite alive. He was at his best, perhaps, in the ‘Martyrdom of St Eulalia,’ now in the Tate Gallery which escapes more than usual from the Burne-Jones lethargy, which though very natural and expressive in Burne-Jones himself, seems to be a mere artistic device in Waterhouse. But he was at any rate, quite free from that theatricality which is the common vice of academic and subject painters. He painted always like a scholar and a gentleman, though not like a great artist.”

Theatricality a vice? Tell it to Botticelli. Tell it to Titian. Tell it to Leonardo da-fucking Vinci.

To be considered a “great artist” then, and today, one must completely abandon techniques and concepts that artists have spent the last several thousand years exploring. Try talking to a post-modern artist or (worse still) a post-modern critic about the value of mimesis, and see how quickly you get laughed out of the room. Much of the art world today is concerned with little more than getting artists to take a public dump on several millenia of aesthetic wisdom and then pat themselves on the back for their cleverness. Art as narrative or a coherent visual language are derided, and certainly the works of many 20th century artists (Pollock, for example) would be unidentifiable as art when deprived of their context. If nobody told you that the work of “art” that won this year’s Turner Prize at the Tate Gallery was actually a work of art–if you came upon it by accident, outside a museum–would you even know that it was art?

The Turner prize is one of the most prestigious art awards in the western world, given every year by London’s Tate Gallery for a body of work whose creator has demonstrated outstanding ability and originality. The winner then chooses an item to put on display. The prize is worth £20,000. This year’s award went to 33-year-old Martin Creed for an exhibit that consisted of an empty room with lights that flicker on and off every five seconds.

So yeah, while Ross gets pretty frothy about the whole state of affairs, I can’t blame him. It stinks, and most of what he says is pretty much true, even if he says it a bit overenthusiastically. When people stand around talking about the artistic merit of an empty room with bad lighting and students of art are expected to nod their heads in agreement (or risk being labeled “too ignorant” to understand the value of the work), then the emperor truly has no clothes. If Bouguereau had been a contemporary of Raphael, he’d be considered one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. The idea that the value of a work of art depends solely on the historical context in which it was painted is a wholeheartedly post modern ideal. In a day and age when Bouguereau is considered “pornographic” (Art Through the Ages, Janson) and a crucifix floating in a pool of urine is considered high art, something is seriously amiss.

I think this is the highfalutin’ equivalent of my theory that Jack Kirby was highly overrated.

Well, yeah. Pretty much.

While I agree that modern art in general sucks, painting does have one excuse for its derision of realism: photography. Faithfully depicting real objects was the chief goal of the craftsmanship associated with painting for much of its existence but now photography has made this goal practically obsolete. As a result, painters focus on what’s left of the art of painting: creating geometrical arrangements and making socio-politico-religious statements

Of course most people don’t give a rat’s ass about that because they want depictions of real objects – at least as a visual anchor point, if not as the sole purpose for watching pictures – and as a further result this has reduced modern painting to a small intellectual club with little audience and of no consequence outside of causing the occasional outrage.

This technical change has an analogy in modern “serious” music, by the way: it’s no longer necessary to skilfully employ an orchestra or an opera troupe for impressive effects when you can have amplifiers blasting away pre-programmed synthesizer sequences, along with laser shows or video clips or feature films (soundtracks!) for visual stimulation.

And in both cases there’s the big social change that enjoying (or pretending to enjoy) complex art is no longer a necessary part of a middle/upper-class lifestyle. We’ve moved from a bourgeois society (with its many holdovers from aristocratic society including a class system with strict rules for education and behaviour) to a society of proletarian hedonism where what you do for fun does not impact your social status, so people generally do whatever involves the least mental activity.

As the traditional audience for art that combined a pleasing surface with intricate refinement went away, artists specialised in one or the other; and as the artistic communities kept shrinking and forgetting about their old craftsmanship, the artists found they could shed intricacies just like they shed pleasantries, and get by just with peer approval based on propaganda pamphlets. That’s the present situation, and I don’t expect it to change since its underlying social and technical causes aren’t about to go away.

I was under the impression that representational art was undergoing a revival in a certain segment of postmodernism. I’m not real fluent with contemporary artists, but what about Philip Pearlstein for instance? Is he relegated to the cynical anti-art camp just because he is popular with modern art collectors and doesn’t precisely continue the academy line of classicism a’la Michaelangelo, Carravaggio, David, Burne-Jones, etc?

Clearly, for both scholars and collectors, the Impressionists and Expressionists overshadowed the Pre-Raphaelites (although I gather you might object to that categorization). As wonderful as many of Ross’ example works are, I can’t entirely blame people for latching on to something different – fundamentally different – than what they had been looking at for 500 years. Okay, so that may grossly oversimplify all those artists from the last 500 years. My point is, is art not a big enough concept to encompass something outside of the neoclassical aesthetic? Ross seems to think not.

As for your charge of cultural relativism, isn’t it true that if you maintain Ross’ ideals you have to throw out all the art done in Europe before Giotto? Maybe even throw out Giotto himself? Mimetic standards are fine, but they exclude a lot of art and only a small chunk of that is modern.

Snore, snore, zzzz…

Denny said
“I think this is the highfalutin’ equivalent of my theory that Jack Kirby was highly overrated.”

Wha!

Jack Kirby was what?
While I’ll grant you that we wasn’t a great artist (in a realistic or, sometimes, even “attractive” sense) just look at everything that came before him and then everything that came after. He pretty much brought a sense of dynamic movement that completely changed comics forever (and for the better). He is considered “great” for bringing imagination and life to his posing and fight scenes. Not for making faces that look attractive or keeping a sense of photorealism.

Anyway, I love his work. Steve Ditko too.

A good example from a site filled with good examples:
http://www.twomorrows.com/kirby/articles/12cap101.html

It does seem a bit too reactionary. I have problems with both 19th century painting and 20th century.

Considering a realistic rendering in paint to be beautiful and the epitome of an artist is a fake preconception. Why do we want realism?

Creating a realistic 3d depiction in paint on canvas is an excellent example of craft, but it limits painting, for it tries to be something it isn’t. While the depiction may be realistic, and even aesthetically pleasing (otherwise known as “fly”), it’s still just imitating something else. Modern artists, for better or worse, tried to liberate painting, making it an art of its own–a painting is a painting, not an imitation of something else, and that’s a very reasonable goal.

I love Mondrian and Pollock. I also love Gerome, who is quoted in that article. Is one better than the other? I dunno–Gerome makes some beautiful scenes. Not realistic, but beautiful. And if you can divorce your preconceptions that painting is supposed to imitate something else then you can accept that Mondrian and Pollock make beautiful paintings too.

On the other hand, a lot of it is just cleverness for the sake of being clever, or doing something different because it hasn’t been done before. I gotta respect Picasso for exploring Cubism for 10 years, deciding that he had taken it as far it could go, and then moving on to explore other aspects of painting. But I still see artists trying out Cubism today and it doesn’t make any sense.

Whatever. I do think art schools should concentrate on realism first, because it does teach great technique.

Andrew,

Oh, I won’t deny that Kirby contributed very valuable innovation in the areas of layouts, poses, depiction of action, etc.

I just hated his heavily-inked/shaded style, and his bizarre costume/character designs, as a comic-reading kid. As an adult, I can appreciate Kirby for his originality, but I think the art got in the way of the story. When it comes to silver age stories, I’ll take Neil Adams, Cary Bates, or Gil Kane any day.

It’s similar to the Manga-inspired crap art in today’s Superman books. It doesn’t enhance the story because it screams for attention itself.

While it’s true that this sentiment exists and probably, in some part, contributes to the rejection of classical aesthetics in the 20th century (along with the cultural disillusionment that came with World War I, the Depression, World War II, etc.), I don’t agree with that conclusion. There is a difference between the concepts of Realism and Naturalism, in their traditional definitions, and the contemporary concept of photorealism. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find either a painter or a photographer that would agree that painting and photography are interchangeable. Painting, even (especially) Realist painting, can be and have been used to represent themes and subjects in ways that photographs can’t, or at least in ways that photographs are not well suited to. The idea that a painting is analogous to a photo–a moment captured in time–is relatively new. Many of the painters of the Renaissance messed around with similar ideas–the painting as a “window,” which largely grew out of their experiments with linear perspective (many of which literally involved looking through a peephole at a window, and then tracing the scene on the other side onto the window with a grease pencil). But even they used painting as a narrative vehicle–if you look at their work with a photographer’s eye, they make for rather unlikely scenes.

But photography, at its core, is about choosing how to record something that is already there, while painting is about creating it. It’s a pretty significant difference, as much as the difference between drama and documentary. Of course you can blur the lines between the two media pretty easily. I can compose my photographic scenes, or even paint a picture and then capture it on film. Am I then a painter or a photographer? If I choose to make a documentary about fictional events (the Blair Witch Project, for example), is it still a documentary in anything other than name, or is it drama?

Even in strictly literal representation–realist landscapes, or portraiture, the painter chooses what to show and how to show it while the photographer must make those choices within the limitations of the physics of light and film. Ever notice how photos of sunsets never capture how it actually feels to see one in person? That has a lot to do with differences between the way our eyes see (and how out brain interprets) light and color and the way a camera sees it. Even the most stringent Realists compensate for this in their work–they exaggerate some elements and downplay others to control the way you perceive their work. They also add allegorical themes and symbols, and use “theatrical” tricks to impart information. Only the Superrealists of the 20th century valued a literal, photographic representation of their subject matter. I don’t really consider any of these works, for intance, to be obsolete in the face of photography:

http://www.artmagick.com/images/DoNotLinkToThisFolder/morgan/morgan40.jpg
http://www.artmagick.com/images/DoNotLinkToThisFolder/waterhouse/waterhouse27.jpg
http://www.artmagick.com/images/DoNotLinkToThisFolder/burne/burne48.jpg
http://www.artmagick.com/images/DoNotLinkToThisFolder/bouguereau/bouguereau1.jpg

…Because short of wildly unphotographic contrivances, a photograph would portray similar scenes very differently than did any of these paintings.

My point is, is art not a big enough concept to encompass something outside of the neoclassical aesthetic? Ross seems to think not.

Actually, Ross doesn’t say that, precisely. He appreciates the Impressionists, and other modern artists whose work has what he considers to be artistic value, and there are galleries for Impressionist artists on the ARC website.

In any event, there is art outside the neoclassical aesthetic (which actually many of the painters that Ross champions are not a part of anyway–the Romantics certainly weren’t neoclassical painters, other than by way of the definition that all representational art is neoclassical), and there is art that is outside of ANY recognizeable aesthetic. Is a blank canvas or a canvas with a red square painted on it or a pile of elephant dung or a pile of bricks good art, or are they mere spectacle, a thin attempt at making a statement? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and deprived of their context (in the form of art critics or the artist himself explaining to you what the hell these works are supposed to be saying to you), they aren’t even very good statements. There is enough room in literature, for instance, to come up with “something different” without resorting to absurdities such as the elimination of language or the creation of a book with no words but in which every page is smeared with dried vomit. Why not in art?

And, as Ross points out, what’s so special about “something different” anyway? When did we decide that the only work of value is the work that is utterly unlike anything that came before, and why do we not apply this same principle to other creative endeavors such as film or literature?

Simple: because it’s a dumb principle.

I hated it as a kid too. Ditko even more. But now I think it’s my favorite style, I can’t stand the pin-up crap in today’s comics. It’s so vanilla and boring. Todd McFarlane can burn in hell for starting the whole thing. My favorite today is probably Mike Mignola… [size=2](and unlike most I liked Miller’s work on DK2, but agree that it isn’t his best.)[/size]

Because it gives us a context in which to understand the work.

Creating a realistic 3d depiction in paint on canvas is an excellent example of craft, but it limits painting, for it tries to be something it isn’t. While the depiction may be realistic, and even aesthetically pleasing (otherwise known as “fly”), it’s still just imitating something else. Modern artists, for better or worse, tried to liberate painting, making it an art of its own–a painting is a painting, not an imitation of something else, and that’s a very reasonable goal.

Yeah, art imitates life. That’s mimesis. Modern art has replaced it with art imitating nothing, which is merely nihilism. If nihilism is so great, then why don’t we replace all our films with blank film reels, or write books in gibberish? Ah, but people don’t have to sit and watch a painting for 90 minutes. If there is little there worth looking at, they can pause, move on, and comment on how moving it was for posterity. People would (and do) have far less patience for film or literature that eschews the common conventions of mimesis.

And when did we come to have such a derogatory opinion of the concept of craft (which, by etymology, is synonymous with art)? Oh, yeah–when the art world was taken over by a bunch of artists devoid of it.

I love Mondrian and Pollock.

Why?

And if you can divorce your preconceptions that painting is supposed to imitate something else then you can accept that Mondrian and Pollock make beautiful paintings too.

My only preconception about painting is that I must like it, for its own sake, without the need of explanations for why I should like it. Most people must be taught to appreciate modern art. That’s because there is little instrinsic to the art itself for them to appreciate. I create 50% of my own version of Piss Christ every morning when I wake up. Pollock’s work is a bunch of random paint splatters. I have a nearly identical work of art in my office–it’s the dropcloth that I use when I am painting. Is it art? If I tried to sell it in a gallery, would it fetch $40 million dollars, like Pollock’s last auctioned painting did? Why not?

I’m on the fence with Kirby. At times I can really appreciate his work. At other times I find him bombastic and self-parodying. One thing that I’ll never forgive is his ruining the otherwise cool design of Galactus by putting a huge “G” in the middle of his chest. And Kirby’s work doesn’t translate into black and white at all (Marvel Essentials). Get rid of the color, and a lot of the panels lose their bombastic effect entirely. The black and white format isn’t nearly as harsh on Gil Kane, and it actually adds to Steve Ditko’s appeal. Ditko in black and white is pretty impressive.

Because it gives us a context in which to understand the work.

[/quote]

Yes, but how much “realism” is required for that purpose? The article linked by Ben elevates line and drawing so much that even the impressionists are dismissed in it. Note the not-so-backhanded slap at Van Gogh. Whether one likes the impressionists are not, their work has plenty of “context.” I don’t need anybody to explain The Starry Night or The Water Lillies to me. There’s also enough “context” in cubism to understand the subject matter, even if one doesn’t care for that particular form.

Of course pure abstraction lacks “context.” I think that’s the idea. However, I don’t understand how it follows that abstraction is “nihilstic.”

I’ve noticed that his work suffers almost every time an inker is brought in. Look at the picture I linked (pure Kirby - in black & white btw) and look at the other Captain America stuff link there where inkers were involved. Not pretty. A lot of his work suffers from his being perpetually rushed too. That was the era though.

But you liked the fact that he was wearing shorts originally? ;-)

Link?

And shorts? I didn’t catch that–you sure? But maybe I was too amazed by the fact that this billion-year-old space god had his celestial pajamas monogrammed.

B.

Depends. Ross exaggerates to make his point, which is that even Van Gogh and Monet had a solid grounding in fundamental principles and techniques in school, something that many artists today do not receive (and are often taught to scorn). Writers at times ignore proper grammar for one reason or another, but that’s hardly proof that grammar is unimportant or unnecessary, or that it should be excised from literature. And as I said, the ARC gallery has plenty of works by artists that do not adhere to a neoclassical realism, such as Monet and Moreau, so obviously they don’t hate them utterly.

Of course pure abstraction lacks “context.” I think that’s the idea. However, I don’t understand how it follows that abstraction is “nihilstic.”

Pillbod wrote that representational art is “merely” imitation, that it limits painting because it is an attept to make the painting something that it isn’t: i.e. the content that it depicts. But because the painting can never really be the subject that it depicts, the solution (according to Pillbod and the conventions of modern art) is to make paintings that don’t try to imitate anything at all, to reject representation altogether in order to “free” art from the limits of it’s own definitions. Thus:

ni·hil·ism Pronunciation Key (n-lzm, n-)
n.
Philosophy.
An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.

It’s practically a definition of post-modern art, which has come to embrace the idea that challenging definitions is a worthy goal in and of itself. Is it? Based on much of the art that passes for “good” today, I’d have to say “no.”

In English, no less.

But because the painting can never really be the subject that it depicts, the solution (according to Pillbod and the conventions of modern art) is to make paintings that don’t try to imitate anything at all, to reject representation altogether in order to “free” art from the limits of it’s own definitions.

But painting can be about painting. It can be about composition, design, and color. Certainly that’s not a repudiation of previous values and beliefs; it’s a more pure form of painting.

And I’m not arguing for modern art and against representational art, since I find both valid. But to disregard modern art because it’s nonrepresentational is ridiculous. Why do you believe that a two dimensional surface needs to be defined by how well it simulate a three dimensional one? What should poetry be about?

Why do I find Mondrian and Pollock beautiful? Because they’re beautifully composed and use color well. Does a painting need to be anything more than beautiful? Apparently some people want it to represent something else.

A sidenote: I never meant my reference to craft to be derogatory, and I think if you look again at my post you won’t find insult. Painting a 3d representation is surely a craft or skill, and a difficult one to master. My point is that it is a skill, and one that can be gauged.