sábado, 13 de julho de 2013

A Farewell to the Future That Was by Robert Hughes


What Art Is

 “We finish where modernism began, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and perhaps the etiquette now demands that I should try and prognosticate about what is coming next. Well, I won’t because I don’t know. History teaches us one certain thing: that critics, when they fish out the crystal ball and start trying to guess what the future will be, are almost invariably wrong. I don’t think there’s ever been such a rush towards insignificance in the name of the historical future as we’ve seen in the last fifteen years. The famous radicalism of sixties and seventies art turns out to have been a kind of dumbshow, a charade of toughness, a way of avoiding feeling. And I don’t think we are ever again obliged to look at a plywood box, or a row of bricks on the floor, or a video tape of some twit from the University of Central Paranoia sticking pins in himself, and think: ‘This is the real thing. This is the necessary art of our time. This needs respect.’ Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and nobody cares. The fact is that anyone except a child can make such things, because children have the kind of direct, sensuous and complex relationship with the world around them that modernism, in its declining years, was trying to deny. That relationship is the lost paradise that art wants to give back to us, not as children but as adults. It’s also what the modern and the old have in common: Pollock with Turner, Matisse with Rubens, or Braque with Poussin. And the basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling. And then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way to pass from feeling to meaning. It is not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world. This task is literally endless and so, although we don’t have an avant-garde any more, we’re always going to have art.”
Robert Hughes in ’The Shock of the New‘


The '70s are gone, and where is their typical art? Nobody seems to know. Everyone still knows what the art of the '60s looked like. It looked like Claes Oldenburg's giant Mickey Mouse, like Andy Warhol's cans or Roy Lichtenstein's enlarged comic strips. Such pieces now have a period air of things meant to be consumed quickly—EAT ME! as the lettering on Alice's cake read. They constitute an art of rapid memorable icons that expected to be assimilated and exhausted in quick bursts, as indeed they were.

The art of the '70s had no such homogeneous "look." It was not a decade for movements. Movements belonged to the '60s: op, pop, color-field, minimalism and so on. By 1975 all the isms were wasms. The '70s were pluralistic; every kind of art suddenly found room to coexist. The idea of a "mainstream," beloved of formalist criticism in the '60s, vanished into the sand: "At last the Dodo said, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.' " And although the decade produced its meed of good art, some very interesting indeed, the most striking thing to happen was agreement on a level below the art itself: that modernism, which had been the cultural bedrock of Europe and America for 100 years, was over, and in the course of becoming a period style. As Art Critic Hilton Kramer put it in a deservedly influential essay in 1972, we are at the end of "the Age of the Avant-Garde."

By 1979 the idea of the avant-garde had gone. This sudden metamorphosis of one of the popular clichés of art criticism into an unword took a great many people by surprise. For those who still believed that art had some practical revolutionary function, it was as baffling as the evaporation of the American radical left after 1970. But ideas exist for as long as people use them, and by 1976 "avant-garde" was a useless concept: social reality and actual behavior had rendered it obsolete. The ideal—social renewal by cultural challenge—had lasted 100 years, and its vanishing marked the end of an entire relationship, eagerly sought but not attained, of art to life.

Where did it begin? The idea of a cultural avant-garde was unimaginable before 1800. It was fostered by the rise of the European bourgeoisie and its liberal beliefs. In the 19th century, instead of seeing the work of one artist selected as an exemplary voice by king or pontiff, one could go to the salon and there find a veritable Babel of competing images, styles and manners. Within certain limits, the burden of aesthetic choice—what one preferred to look at and judge superior as art—was put more directly on the salon visitor than it had ever been on a churchgoer looking at the parish Last Judgment. The salon encouraged comparison; the commissioned work, belief.

The bourgeois audience did not invent the salon (the first one was held under the auspices of the Académic Royale in 1667). But the middle class did create the permissions within which the salon's artistic variety could ferment and nourish an avantgarde. The bourgeoisie, butt and nominal enemy of the avantgarde, was also its main audience. Everyone knows of the cloud of scandal and abuse that burst on the impressionists in the 1870s. But who became the audience for Monet's and Renoir's work?

None other than the children of its original bourgeois mockers, for whom those idyllic, light-soaked pastoral vistas became a landscape of the mind, a terrestrial paradise. Impressionism was created by the middle class for the middle class, as surely as rococo boiseries were made by craftsmen for aristocrats. In turn, collectors raised on impressionism might jeer at the fauve Matisses in 1905, but their children would not. And so it went, the audience usually a generation behind the art but rarely more, down the historical line to the point where, around 1970, the middle-class audience finally enfolded every aspect of "advanced" art in its embrace. The newness of a work of art thus became one of the conditions of its acceptability. Compared with the indignities art had to suffer under Marxist and Nazi governments, the incomprehensions of the various middle classes from the time of Napoleon III onward were the merest tickling. They were the withholding of favors, or at worst a witless, jeering philistinism, but not forced exile or the Gulag.

The first representative avant-garde painter, in the full sense of the word, who offered both newness and confrontation was Gustave Courbet (1819-77). In Courbet, the committed socialist and the determined materialist, the image of the artist-against-the system was, in every sense, rounded out. Aspects of his art that we glide over inattentively today seemed threatening to his audience. He was, accordingly, thought to be either a primitive or a revolutionary, or both.

Courbet relished this reputation: "I am the first and unique artist of this century. The others are students and drivelers." No artist, up to then, had ever set himself so firmly against the reigning taste of his day, and none since Jacques-Louis David had had a stronger sense of political mission. Moreover, unlike the great salon artists who went before him, Courbet was capable of lavishing enormous trouble on a work doomed to unsalability, since it had no comprehensible message: this was his masterpiece, The Studio of the Artist, 1855, which he subtitled "a real allegory, setting forth a span of seven years of my artistic life." But although he changed the history of art, his effect on the history of social stress was negligible. The struggles between left and right in France up to Courbet's death in 1877 would have turned out very much the same whether he had painted or not. For art does not act directly on politics in the way that the engagé wing of the avantgarde, from Courbet onward, expected it to do. All it can do is provide examples of radical feeling and models of dissent, unless it simply wishes to confirm the status quo.

Nevertheless, the idea of a fusion between radical art and radical politics, of art as a direct means of social subversion and reconstruction, has haunted the avant-garde since Courbet's time. On the face of it, it has a kind of logic. By changing the language of art. you affect the modes of thought; and by changing thought, you change life. The history of the avant-garde up to 1930 was suffused with various, ultimately futile, calls to revolutionary action and moral renewal. They were all formed by the belief that painting and sculpture were still the primary, dominant forms of social speech that they had been 80 years before. In uttering them, some brilliant talents of the avant-garde condemned themselves to self-deception about the limits of their art. Though it hardly alters their aesthetic achievement, it makes the legend of their deeds seem inflated.

One is used to reading how the Dadaists in Zurich during World War I struck alarm into the hearts of the Swiss burghers with their antic cabaret turns in the Café Voltaire, their sound-poems and chance-collages. But their real impact on Zurich was negligible, scarcely a ruffle on the lake, in contrast to the importance that the Dada wood reliefs of Jean Arp have since assumed within the history of art. Even when Dada was politicized after the war, its actual effect on German politics was nil, and its impact on radical thought probably much smaller than the modernist legend would have us think.

The only avant-garde movement in our century that can be shown to have had some formative effect on politics, and even that is debatable, acted on the right, not on the left. It was futurism, whose ideas and rhetoric (rather than the works of art actually painted by Balla, Severini or Boccioni) bodied forth some of the mythology of Italian Fascism. The futurist ethos expressed by Marinetti before World War I, with its cult of speed, male potency, antifeminism and violent struggle, supplied the oratorical framework for Mussolini's rise to power and set the stage for his appearance. But this may say no more than that the impact of technology on the more febrile nationalist-romantic minds of Italy produced remarkably similar effusions, in art as in politics.

As for the tragic fate of the Russian avantgarde: the group of artists and artisans known as the constructivists wanted to change their country through art and design, creating not just a style but a new "rational" man. All the conditions in which art can be politically effective—illiteracy, no mass media, belief in icons and so forth—were there in Russia; and yet the efforts of this supremely gifted nucleus of artists was snuffed out, by 1930, by Stalin.


Artistic avant-gardes wither in totalitarian regimes, whether of the left or the right. The collective efforts of the constructivists Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Tallin and the rest were only possible, one may surmise, because they did not realize how totalitarian Leninism actually was. Oligarchs, whether collective or single, dislike the very idea of avant-garde art because it creates new elites. As Ortega y Gasset remarked, its first effect is to divide; it splits the audience into those who understand it and those who do not. This cleavage does not necessarily run along political lines, and so it may not conform to the existing layers of power. The art of exception stands to its small audience of exception rather like a sacred text; its obscurity binds the coterie to the artist, as pupils are bound to priests. Slowly a sect crystallizes.

To seek such an audience, to think of it as the normal and proper one for avant-garde art, was to take a step back from the ideal of the artist as Public Man that had been embodied in Courbet's career. It meant running for the constituency of the exception and the misfit, not the majority. One main strand of the avantgarde, as it developed in the 19th century and bequeathed its composition to the 20th, hated crowds and democracy, wished to absent itself from the political agora, and stood on its own rights to develop in what Joyce was to call "silence, exile and cunning." It asked the question: Could one create anything at all out of democratic communion with one's age?

The realism of a Flaubert, a Manet, a Degas thought not. This kind of realism was expository, not didactic. It did not aim to show things as they might be—the argument of political art — but as they actually were. Its model, often invoked by Flaubert, was the objective procedure of scientific thought, and its aim was to produce a perfectly limpid art in which the world would be mirrored. There is everything in common between the relentless detail in which the boredom and pointlessness of Emma Bovary's life was built up, and the minutely articulated jumble of reflections behind the blank-faced nana in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882. Both works, in a sense, point forward to the "objective," molecular constellations of dabbed light from which Seurat assembled his figures on the speckled lawn of the Grande Jatte. If the origins of one aspect of the avant-garde lie with Courbet, those of the other are to be found in Manet: in detachment and irony, art contemplates its nature as a language, without hope of changing the world. The quest for formal perfection and the renewal of visual speech are enough.

From 1880 on, much advanced art would be more gratuitous, relativistic, ironic and self-sufficient (in the sense of its indifference to the traditional social aims of painting or sculpture) than it had ever been. The very idea of avant-garde activity was of something "special," open to small coteries of people who needed to know a lot of other art in order to appreciate the subtleties of the New. Modern art looked esoteric because it was.

To see how a cubist Braque or Picasso from 1911 connected to the realities of modern Life, with its quick shuttle of multiple viewpoints, its play between solids and transparency, its odd tensions between signs, letters and numbers on the one hand and extreme painterly ambiguity on the other, demanded the kind of sympathetic attention that very few people were prepared to give.

This change is not imaginable without the intellectual permissions and opportunities for irony given to bourgeois artists by a bourgeois society. Under such a dispensation, art claimed the same rights as the sciences that Flaubert took as a Literary model: in particular, the right not to be understood too quickly or by too many. Unpopularity and marginality — "uselessness" — gave the new work of art a chance to develop its resonances before it faced the full stress of public inspection.

In the past 30 years, vanguard art seems to have lost its "political" role. At the same time, although we still have lots of art — a stream of it, feeding an apparently insatiable market and providing endless opportunities for argument, exegesis and comparison — painting and sculpture have ceased to act with the urgency that was once part of the modernist contract.

They change, but their changing no longer seems as important as it did in 1900, or 1930, or even 1960. When one speaks of the end of modernism, one does not invoke a sudden historical terminus. Histories do not break off clean, like a glass rod; they fray, stretch and come undone, like rope. There was no specific year in which the Renaissance ended; but it did end, although culture is still permeated with the active remnants of Renaissance thought.

So it is with modernism, only more so, because we are much closer to it. Its reflexes still jerk, the severed limbs twitch; the parts are still there, but they no longer connect or function as a live whole. The modernist achievement will continue to affect culture for another century at least, because it was large, so imposing and so irrefutably convincing. But its dynamic is gone, and our relationship to it is becoming archaeological. Picasso is no longer a contemporary, or a father figure; he is a remote ancestor, who can inspire admiration but not opposition. The age of the New, like that of Pericles, has entered history.

In: New York Times, 16.02.1981.

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