Saturday, September 15, 2012
You Are Supposed to hate Modern Art
You are supposed to hate Modern Art, it is one of the internal proofs that Modernism is Modern and that an art style has in effect succeeded. As critics such as Clement Greenberg said and artists such as Jackson Pollock said, for any artwork to be considered Modern it had to be hated at first.
This began with Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, which was art about art. No one could have nude picnics in the park. The nude is not a snapshot of 1870's urban liberty, she is a commentary on the required classical subjects of the Paris Academy. The Academies defined what could be considered as "good art" or "fine art" or even worthy art. Manet was not really a Modern, he did not revolutionize art and break free from the Academy and neoclassicism but his work shows the trend toward "art for art's sake", the impulse to break free from the confining rules of The Academy and to find a "pure" art, as music was able to find some freedom in "pure" music.
Rules were replaced by theories. Overall composition and a grid took the place of continuous contour and trompe l'oiel. Color became more important than form. Color came to define form. Process became more important than subject and subjects did not have to be the "eternal" or "sublime" subjects of the classical world. But, such changes moved away from the established judges, the masters of the Academy, and moved away from established definitions of "good art" and "fine art".
Subsequently, decades of "bad art" were born. The Fauvists, such as Matisse, were ridiculed in the newspapers and threatened with lawsuits and jail for painting like "wild pigs", hence their name of Fauvists. James Abbott McNeill Whistler entered into lengthy lawsuits against John Ruskin, master of the British National Academy, because Ruskin accused Whistler of flinging paint in the public's face. More than a century of finger-pointing followed with many scholars regularly bemoaning "the death of culture" and "the destruction of western civilization".
But, the definition of Western Civilization is rooted in the Greeks and therefore anchored to classicism and was thus the baileywick of the Academies. A diverse population that seeks any change in culture would have to break away from the domination of the Greeks. What had flourished once as a Renaissance had become centuries of servile repetition. One need look no further than a toga-clad George Washington and a marble nude of Pocahontas to see this.
Therefore Modernism was defined by revolution and theory and radical change. It consequently ushered in "bad art" because anything that was good and causing real change had to be hated at first. This inherently means a bit of self-righteous idealism and it wasn't long before Modernism became the kind of dogmatic authoritarian institution it sought to bring down. The culmination of that was either The New York School after World War II or not much later as theory broke down into minimalism and hard-edge abstraction. There is only just so much reduction that reductionism can do. Perhaps Conceptual Art where there wasn't even art at all only an idea ended Modernism.
When PBS ran a series about The New York School this was the mantra that every artist and critic repeated, everyone hated it. There was never any style that people hated more than Abstract Expressionism, and all of those people said that with a smile.
So, for Modern Art to be Modern Art you have to hate it, otherwise the Trojan Horse of the Greeks comes back and freedom fails. Or so would say a true Modernist.