Mid-twentieth-century paintings like Jackson Pollock's, One, left, astounded the art world and horrified the “real” (read non-art) world. Squint and you see gray. Look closely and you see drips, drops, lines of paint. Influential modernist art critic, Clement Greenberg, applauded the purification of form and the elimination of historical content.
A current exhibit in the National Gallery (October 30, 2010—April 22, 2011, Washington, D.C.), is entitled, “Modern Lab: There is nothing to see here.” The on-line exhibition text begins:
These two images can bring us to the state of the “art world” in the present day, or do they?
First of all, to put it more bluntly, why bother? In the Pollock, there is a lot to see: drips, drops, spatters and lines of paint in different colors, summing up to: drips, drops and spatters. In the Modern Lab, we can take them at their word, there is nothing to see, so asking again, why bother? What’s the payoff?
In Body Language, I am trying to connect us with the principles of art. It would be easy to be dismissive and simply declare that these are not art and we need think no more about them. However, if we want to discover what art is and is not, as if we were putting the concept of art under a microscope and studying its attributes, we cannot, however tempting, eliminate examples of works commonly called art from our field of study, just because we do not like them or understand them.
A second clarification is also in order at this point: there are no bodies in these two art examples. What do these non-representational images have to do with Body Language? The simple fact is that the title, Body Language, refers to us as human, to the primacy of our bodies, the unified existence of body and spirit, and how we communicate with the world. It does not refer to the art we are discussing. Whether this art is non-representational, non-objective, conceptual or only theoretical, humans exist only in their bodies. We can speculate about other realities and eternal life in heaven or hell, but for life on earth, here and now, our bodies cannot be denied. We have our memory and imagination and we can relive the past or imagine other realities, but we cannot deny or long ignore the continuing requirements of our physical existence for survival. Our bodies require food, water, air and sleep to survive. They can exist in a wide range of temperatures, if we can provide external heat to warm them or cool them. So whether our humanity is part of our art does not change the fact that our humanity is part of us, our humanity is us. We can fall prey to accidents, diseases, perils of nature, attacks by others, and old age. If we deny our bodies, we can die, and that’s the reality of life and death.
It is my thesis that our bodies are controlled by our minds, that our mind is the driver and regulator of all our actions, both conscious and unconscious, and that our mind requires self-esteem – the assurance that we are worthy and competent to survive and that survival is a worthwhile goal. Art is just one (of many) of the psychic rewards of survival.
The second thesis of this book is that art mirrors the biology, culture and philosophy in which it is produced, and it cannot be otherwise. It takes artistic genius to crystallize the essence of any era into great art. So we are going to talk about these artworks because they occupy a certain niche in art history – a niche we want to understand and conquer, whether they are representational or not.
There’s a saying in the movie business when the public doesn’t flock to a film which critics acclaim and critical acclaim is accompanied by financial disaster. The public, they say, got off the ride.
When Jackson Pollock’s One appeared 33 years after Matisse’s Auguste Pellerin II, it was ridiculed by many and venerated by a few. For the most part, the public was effectively “off the ride” in 1950. Clement Greenburg, the influential art critic, called any portrayal of subject matter “kitsch,” thus denigrating 3,000 years of art history from the Egyptians, going straight through the Greeks, Romans, Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond, to the Impressionists, and even the radicals like Picasso and Matisse. Greenberg compared Pollock to Picasso, saying that Picasso was dated. This may have helped impel elite collectors to collect, and elite museums to acquire the pieces. In fact, public distaste and distrust of “modern” art may have contributed to the elite mystique of “modernism.” This is the familiar, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it ploy.
Anthropologist, Stuart Plattner, recognizes that “the nominal criterion for high art is some meaningful contribution that advances our cultural vision.” He calls the high art aesthetic experience “transcendental” in that it can “change the way the viewer looks at reality.”
In other words, the best art of our age sums up our age and tells us what we are facing next – it is not about where we have been, but where we, as a culture, as a civilization, are going. In so far as the philosophy of an age determines the path of its civilization’s progress, then we can paraphrase Thomas Aquinas and say that Art is the handmaid of Philosophy.
The third thesis of this book is that time passes, we can look back, but we can never go back. Seeking to re-create the past is impossible. The arrow of time moves in one direction only, forward.
So where is our art going? If we look at these two images as a guide, the answer is: from chaos to nothing. So three thousand years of western art ends with monumental drips and a piece of glass leaning against the wall. Subject matter repudiated, one is left with nothing. The philosophy with the stated goal of achieving nothingness is called Nihilism.
To this, I say, resoundingly, “No!” Although it looks now, in our cultural state of confusion, that most contemporary artists are merely rehashing the past, it is my contention that from within any culture at any given time, it has almost always looked this way. Time passes and cultural trends become visible in perspective. In the course of this book, we will talk about the times of momentous discovery and the period of digestion. Regardless of the times, only a few in each generation are leaders. That is simply a fact of leadership.
Each artist works, and can only work, in his or her style, from his or her psyche, choosing from the world he or she experiences, the materials available, the history of what has gone before, and most importantly, the philosophy and ideas which dominate and permeate the culture, or the new ideas which promise change. These influences define to the artist those images, issues, subjects, and emotions which are important for visual presentation. When you think about it, this might be what Ayn Rand meant when she said, “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” True enough, but Rand insisted that photography and non-objective art were not really art because neither was truly a re-creation. We will come back to question this requirement for “re-creation” as a definitional imperative again.
For now, we concentrate on the trajectory of art history. The art “world” (the world of art elites) diverged from the great mass of humanity and of artists about one hundred years ago, but the history of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and continuing in this decade, has seen a resurgence of subject, of skills, and of human values like truth, life, dignity, personal worth, and even beauty. Images of degradation are not generally valued. The hero with feet of clay is old news. The art of our century seems to show simply people worth knowing, things worth thinking about, emotions worth feeling, art which evokes the spirit of our common humanity. Art which touches us undoubtedly contains strength, insight or truth shining through. Looked at in this light, figurative art is about shared humanity (who am I, who are you?), landscape art is about evoking an emotional sense of place (where am I, where are we?), abstract art is about the experience of the media (what fun can we have with these materials?).
These two images are separated by a gulf of sixty years. The Jackson Pollock became a symbol of the “new” art, and everything wrong with it – it does remain an icon of its age: nihilistic, impenetrable, and to most people, pointless. It still hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, and people stop in front of it from time to time. It took some skill and patience to produce this gigantic canvas of balanced and running drips and splatters in an overall pattern of chaos (if such an expression makes sense). And it probably took some nerve and “creative” thinking to mount a government-sanctioned exhibition which includes the tag line, “there is nothing to see here.”
|Photo of street sign NYC, 2010, ad by MSNBC|
 Many traditional artists and much of the public actually abandoned modern art after Picasso abandoned three dimensional forms in the early 1900’s. Years later, Picasso draws blockbuster crowds of aficionados and tyros alike, principally because the art is now clearly in an historical context and its influence on what followed it is also clear. His early and transitional works are still the major draw for the museum-going public.
 Plattner, Stuart. High Art Down Home: An Economic Ethnography of a Local Art Market. University of Chicago Press. 1996. P.6.
 Ibid, P. 7.
 This entry is a lot more that 500 words! In general, I’ll keep the posts short, but there was a lot to say and it would have been annoying to string it out over multiple posts.