Unreal Nature

August 3, 2015

These Odd and Difficult Things

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… Such art has persisted, and been generative, by failing to fulfill, and thus outstripping, the claims its advocates made …

… This kind of art is conceivable only within a system that is in crucial senses unfixed, inefficient, and unpredictable — a cultural system whose work is done by the play within it …

This is from A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe (1989):

… Perversely, some of the liveliest rhetoric of artists and critics — the manifestoes and battle slogans of a pugnacious new minority out to change the world — has come to nourish the most inert, cardboard notions of what that art means. And though that embattled minority has now spread its domain to extents even its palmiest prophets never dreamed of, friends and enemies alike still look to these shopworn sermons as guides to understanding how it happened, and what it has all been about.

… Grand pronouncements of aesthetic/historical necessity have recurrently proved to be only excuses for a moment’s taste; they invariably scant the complexity of modern art’s origins, and crumble in the face of its ongoing permutations.

… only an infinitesimal percentage of those who jammed Picasso’s 1980 retrospective in The Museum of Modern Art, or who have come to stand before Pollock’s drip paintings in various degrees of bewilderment and thrall, cared an iota about the historical destiny of the picture plane. And yet people — a broad range of ages and types of people — have found in these odd and difficult things a rich spectrum of meanings and uses, in private, social, and civic life.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Those Pollocks, for example, which at first seemed only like spattercloths or chimpanzees’ scribblings, have swiftly come to inform a spectrum of visualization and thought that runs from banal decorative patterns to the most serious efforts to reimagine the sublime, and have served in turn to empower a vast, expanding field of art that in no evident way resembles his. Modern art’s most salient and valued attributes have to do, not with absolutism and exclusivity, but with this heterogeneous inclusiveness and unprecedented open-endedness, in its means, its concerns, and its audience.

The choice between determined, explicit meaning and no meaning at all is a false one. Abstraction, for example, has proved to be an enduringly fecund aspect of the culture of this century, without being either a universal lingua franca, or a code for hidden textual meanings. The willingness to explore such forms, without defined, consensus significance, has been the motor force of modern art. In this regard, the progressive arguments about the search for truth and perfection get things backward: the art has turned out to be more accessible and replete with meaning, more powerful and enduring, than the authoritative systems or historical destinies that supposedly produced it and gave it significance.

[line break added] Such art has persisted, and been generative, by failing to fulfill, and thus outstripping, the claims its advocates made; and even, in many cases, the boldest intentions of its creators. This dissemination, moreover, had nothing to do with destiny. The astonishing thing is that a whole array of outrageous new forms was produced and accepted, proliferated, and eventually radically transformed Western visual culture — though there was no historical necessity, and no foundation in fixed Truth with a capital T, that justified the oddities or validated the attention paid them. In sum, the art works, and the stories do not.

We need better stories.

… This kind of art is conceivable only within a system that is in crucial senses unfixed, inefficient, and unpredictable — a cultural system whose work is done by the play within it, in all senses of the word, in a game where the rules themselves are what is constantly up for grabs. More than the forms themselves, it is this frame of mind, individually and societally, that is crucially new about modern art. That is why those early innovations, those first ruptures of convention that detonated the sequence, remain so fascinating as exemplary acts. If we lose sight of them in the fog of theories, or overrationalize them in the web of art-historical detailing, if we let them get hardened into legends of predestination or reduced to mechanical responses to circumstance, we explain away modern art’s birthright.

-Julie

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