… in no period has it been so difficult to discriminate between mere ideological parroting and art of real feeling and genuine intensity.
… Extend the histories we have chronicled to their current incarnations, and, again and again, you encounter old forms reincarnated in a new and calmly embittered spirit: word art that insists on the impossibility of any private language remade from public speech; graffiti art that declares its own inability to make an authentically personal mark; cartoon art that can only repeat, rather than reimagine, popular form; ad art as icy and cynical as anything from Madison Avenue.
[line break added] If in the past the jokes of pop culture had been the templates for the elegies of modern art, now the jokes of modern art have become the templates for a new despairing mannerism. No period in modern history has seen so many artists involved with so many kinds of popular culture as has the last decade — and in no period has it been so difficult to discriminate between mere ideological parroting and art of real feeling and genuine intensity.
… If a newly pessimistic sensibility was coming into focus around the history of pop form, it required a visionary intensity to recast the heroic spirit of Minimalism and Pop as a form of nihilism.
… Minimalism for Smithson was not the style of standardized abundance that it had seemed to be for artists as diverse as Warhol and Ruschia. The impersonal severity of the “new monuments” of late sixties art was, Smithson thought, rooted in the dead zones of the city, and in bleak afternoons spent at seedy cinemas watching B-movies.
… Smithson summed up his vision of modern life in a single word: entropy. The law of thermodynamics which insists that all physical systems devolve inexorably from organization into chaos, from states of heat and energy into cold immobility, seemed to him to apply to civilizations, too. The world grew cold, inanimate matter triumphing over the busy irregularities of life.
[line break added] For Smithson, the triumph of entropy was as certain a destiny for culture as it was for nature. The fate of the galaxy, it was also, by the early seventies, a fact about the rust-belt industrial New Jersey cities where Smithson had grown up. You didn’t have to look at the edge of the universe to glimpse the god of entropy, you could see him already triumphant in Passaic. The commercial and industrial culture that had made modernity was, Smithson thought, running down.
[line break added] And he thought that the ruins of those factories and furnaces looked less pathetic, like the ruined monasteries of Romantic stage properties, than oddly majestic and timeless — Egyptian in their ceremonial solidity. Modernity, Smithson thought, having reached its apex of progress was now moving backwards, and the monuments it would leave behind would be vast and charmless — blast furnaces that had turned into palaces of ice.
“Running out of gas … the fucking world is running out of gas.” Thus begins John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, his peerless evocation of the late 1970s. Smithson’s melodramatic imagination seemed oddly to capture some general shared intuition about the evolution of American life in what seemed to be a new age of limits.
… Yet the moment Updike caught in amber turned out to be less an expiring exhalation than a deep breath before the next big rush.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.