MASS TAKERS VERSUS ART GIVERS: CONFORMITY AND CRISIS IN AMERICAN PAINTING
“…You paint the way you have to in order to give, that’s life itself, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving.’
Franz Kline, painter
It is time to return to authentic painting, and to the matter of the painting’s subject, which perished in America with the decline of Abstract Expressionism nearly fifty years ago. Once, artists like Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Wilhelm De Kooning, Milton Resnick, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Lee Krassner, Barnett Newman, upheld in their lives and work an art standard that substantively and viscerally engaged with the past even as it moved art hard into revolutionary directions.
Against the emergence of mass cultural conformity, they painted their dissent. Artists like De Kooning, Kline and Guston developed unique brush strokes that were signatures of their very souls. Despite the capitulation of their fellow Americans to the anonymity of the gray flannel suit and the Betty Crocker kitchen, they encountered themselves, their own psyches, spirits, visions, anxieties, myths, and painted it. Their ultimate purpose was not to get but to give to you, me, us, and the future, something of themselves revealed, their meanings excavated.
One day though, a snarky young nihilist named Robert Rauchenberg visited Wilhelm De Kooning with a project not only to take but to destroy. He asked De Kooning for one of his own original drawings to erase.
In the field of visual art the request was extraordinary—no such had ever been made before in all of art history–chiefly because it had nothing whatever to do with art.
Rather, it was the equivalent of going to an author and asking to please have an original manuscript of his or hers to burn, a resentful act of generational hostility translated into a neurotic and immature gesture of actual and also symbolic violence. In fact, Rauchenberg intended to frame it as art, though at the time De Kooning didn’t know it.
De Kooning, widely regarded for his brilliance and integrity was no fool and at some level fathomed Rauchenberg’s Oedipal intention, at least in theory. He saw it as a private exchange between a young artist and his elder, a Freudian passing of the torch. In a gesture of naive collegiality De Kooning gave Rauchenberg an original drawing with the tacit understanding that the erased work would not under any circumstances be displayed. It must be only a personal private act between De Kooning and Rauchenberg. The older artist must have thought that allowing the earnest young man to erase his work would lend the next generation a psychological hand-up.
Instead, it ushered in his own generation’s downfall and that of American painting for the next fifty years. Rauchenberg, of course, hung the effaced De Kooning in a show. With this single gesture, Abstract Expressionism began its journey to irrelevance. ‘Erased De Kooning’ heralded the advent of Pop Art’s trivialities and the almost military-scale mass media and technological occupation of American minds that followed. The young nihilist’s message could not have been clearer. “I have just literally erased Abstract Expressionism and my action –a destruction of meaningful art, and of high art seriousness– is the new art.”
This was akin to declaring book burning to be a literary form.
Thus, with an act of dishonor and betrayal, began the decline and destruction of American painting in our time. The Pandora’s box had been opened as if by the worst sort of magic. America, never much inclined to art to begin with, uneasy with the rise in its midst of Ab Ex’s authentic avant garde–one passionately dedicated to tragic and monumental expression— jumped into Rauchenberg’s void and we have been tumbling head-long into the pit ever since. Suffice to say that no one today much cares about this except, perhaps, scattered here and there, a few hold-outs whom are regarded as joyless nuts with a Luddite martyrdom complex..
If Rauchenberg was the cold-eyed fanatical prophet of emptiness, dedicated to the fall of Ab Ex , Andy Warhol was its most prolific PR hit man, promoting through the metastasizing mass media machine a fun house cultural dispensation of merry disintegration that mocked significance in favor of celebrated meaninglessness, a ridiculing art whose chief subject was the absence of one.
It has been argued– and in some regards this spin has been virtual holy writ until now– that Warhol was subversive, a critic of consumerism. Of course, we who have lived each day of our lives in Warhol World know full well that he was nothing of the kind but only a souless voyeuristic adventurer who succeeded to destroy not only everyone who came within reach of him–from Edie Sedgwick to Jean Michele Basquiat– but the very culture he bestrode like a God of dollars.
He was the Propaganda Minister Supreme of mass conformity, the ruthless hollow America that we suffer in today, in which art of the kind once made by thinking, feeling human beings has virtually vanished, displaced by graphic art technicians and machine-enhanced app manipulators, and in which mass induced superficiality reigns alongside everyone’s right to fifteen seconds of fame. From Warhol’s soup can paintings to American Idol, Facebook, The Internet, Lady GaGa is a short hop; even the craze among curators for the museum as interactive software amusement park, are attributable to him. Even to some degree the official national gallery portrait of Barak Obama plays into this. Our first Google-elected president is immortalized in a silk screened and photo shopped Associated Press photo ripped off by a Warhol knock-off with the self-ridiculing name of Shepard Faery.
Pop Culture, become the new Art Fundamentalism, and its visual art products adorn the cultural Vaticans of America. It is the very DNA of the new conformity in which hypnotized masses sit stationary before screens from morning to night, held voluntary hostage to an electronic dream. Our most deeply held and cherished belief is in the soporific safety and numbing torpor of our own visual superficiality, our equivalent of the 19th Century official French Salons which fostered epidemics of still life pheasants and muskets, portraits of Cocker Spaniels and epic historical panoramas of speechifying generals lying wounded on Hollywood set battlefields. In today’s art world equivalents, the Cocker Spaniels wear bling and instead of pheasants and muskets you’ve got rappers, muscle cars, film stars, squirrels, moose, doe-eyed Manga descendants of the White Rock girl and silhouetted futuristic soldiers ripped off from MARS ATTACK!, all hung deadpan in the new outer space of gallery malls.
In such exhibits, briskly painted movie stars plead absurdly for our sympathy. Imagine what sort of reception would be afforded today to an artist like Rothko who decreed substance of subject–not self-referential MTV news culture or the hallucinated visual delusions of Silicon Valley– but rather human life, our souls and selves, meanings and beliefs, to be the principle point of art. Hostile dead stares would fix him, even as thumbs nervously punched out secret Twitters that, hey,some insane guy is talking nutty boring shit about the integrity of art and the need for a return to painting for paintings sake. In demanding that we measure his art not against current art but against the great past masters, Rothko grasped full well the soul-murdering advent of Rauchenberg and Warhol, the implications for his own monumental quest for meaning. Loaded on booze and tranquilizers, he slashed his wrists with a razor and bled to death on his studio floor.
Superficiality and mass amusements do not enduring subjects make but in a culture of obsolesence, who cares about enduring? If you wanna get paid, laid and catch a monster minute of the culture’s time, best crank out eye candy for the socially lost and the esthetically undiscriminating. Even those mired deep in the cultural mix, who may have something that resembles an actual substantive point of view, fear to seem irrelevant in a society ruled by the technology and economics of obsolescence.
There is no longer in America a culture as culture was once defined, which is, per the Oxford Dictionary, “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. With a few singular exceptions, we do not have in the visual arts (nor in literature for that matter) intellectual achievements that are regarded collectively. We have scandals. Fads. Profusions. Downloads. Massive acts of public visual vandalism that hurt the eye to see and leave no enduring impression. But we have no intellectual achievement. In fact, we have no intellect at all. We have Paris Hiltons with paint brushes who want to be “creative.”.
And we have art relics and degree-certified specialized relic-bearers who, driven by the demands of an ever more rapidly obsolescing academic culture, vaunt the importance of the relics even as they distort their intended meanings so completely that history itself is rendered obsolete. This is cultural appropriation as historical revision for the sake of professional advance. What today is called history is universally acknowledged and ironically accepted as guaranteed distortion. Say the Foucaltian relic bearers, the art critics and art historians responsible for this: distortion itself is the very essence of history, which is written by the victors! The hangar-ons who hung on longest get to have the last word! History is not just a game of reputations but of survivors, a kind of realer then real reality TV marathon! Whomever lasts longest gets to create the historical narrative, even if they were, artistically-speaking, tangential and third-rate.
That this is true these days is of course unarguable. But I ask: must it be so? Is there not a divinely human intuitive faculty which, when matched to intellectual standards of dedicated research, hard-earned skill and ethical diligence succeeds somehow to approximate history as it might really have been? And likewise, is there not a kind of committed painting which operates by a similar compass, dedicated to matters of content rather than to fame and riches and which aims to advance art into the future by proceeding down the very same mysterious corridors as its greatest practitioners, going even further ahead then their predecessors were able to in their own their lifetimes, and daring Medusa to show herself?
There are times in human history when humanity itself seems to have fallen off the very face of the earth. The Holocaust was such a moment, only 65 years ago. In History years, that’s just yesterday. In response to Auschwitz and Treblinka, as well as Hiroshima, the tragic sense of the human left in the wake of these planet-quaking disasters was explored and expressed in the great works of Abstract Expressionism, whether by Rothko, De Kooning, Barnett Newman or Philip Guston. There is no question that underscoring their works was the anxiety induced in the aftermath of the revelations of the death camps, and the questions that arose in the wake of the atomic bomb. Those events had savagely challenged the very essence of the human. Suffuciently shaken, we gave the Ab Exers their say. But also, by no small coincidence, the painters’ day in the sun happened to neatly coincide with our rise as the new world power and needing to field our own team of great artists we chose to tolerate De Koonings unsettling Excavations and Pollack’s terrifying Explosions, if only for a time.
They had succeeded to overtake European Painting by confronting it head on, and extending it into an entirely original American vein but one that retained its roots in Soutine, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh and others. However, once they had gained the modernist crown for American art, it was snatched right off their head and tossed away into the janitors closet. There were no crowns to be worn, the new rising artists declared. Instead, Vox Populi would confer minute-long, mass produced democratic hype titles of pop cultural cred upon whichever comer best succeeded to match and promote the ever changing and latest Capitalist trends in technology and mass amusements. Thus, the Warhol art world of today: a towering trash heap of technologically-fostered instant fame Apocalypso that cuts out an artists heart and throws his corpse down the pyramid, to lie there in the mud, twittering and jerking with holy obsolescence as the masses cheer.
I have met greatly gifted but also clueless and ignorant young painters, made frenzied by the blogging-art fair-gallery-museum-social networking hype machine. They want to know:how can I sell? What is hot? How can I get written up in Art in America, or barring that, Juxtapoz? They are intoxicated by cute, sickened with graffiti and hip hop, mesmerized by high-tech, terrified of the future. Back and forth they rush from Hi-brow to Lo-brow, unsure which to claim, as if, these days, there were any difference. They paint celebrity images from screen-frozen Blockbuster rentals. They declare themselves ultra-cool underground comodifications, bolster their reps by attaching their images to tee-shirts, sneakers, games– as if Van Gogh had decided to bypass the easel and jump directly to refrigerator magnet. They drink a lot and rush around to gallerists who abuse them with dictatorial demands worthy of life under Saadam. Or they scatter shoot their work over the Internet on thousands of blogs with atrocious names like Fecal Face, trying to float their images like a message bottle in a sea of cluttered irrelevance. Their shows hardly matter. They hang so frequently, so thoughtlessly, its become a dizzying blur. Their work does not improve. Rather, it seems increasingly to conform to the curve of a two-headed Warhol-Disney Monster God who must preside over all this from some Satanic Loony Tunes fun house throne in Hell.
Never more than now has the career of visual artist seemed so conducive to a soul-warping drug-addicted decline into meaninglessness. Parents who underwrite to send their kids to such art school charnal houses as The Academy of Art University or Pratt are virtually guaranteeing their destruction. Twenty years from now, the brain-fried homeless casualties of this trend, like vets of Nam and Iraq, will line the streets of American cities, passed out on cardboard.
My jeremiad is aimed, then, at those very few who somehow, for reasons unknown even to me, have succeeded to avoid all this. Whose idea of the art life is not a year spent working for the Man at Google or Bank of America, interrupted by a single week’s vacation roaming stark naked in face paint at Burning Man, flying on X and enslaved, like some Pharoanic bricklayer, to the giddy erection of a multi-million dollar steel and fireworks confection that poops laptops and plays the Star Spangled Banner backwards. I mean artists whom I’ve deemed the DOWNTOWN SCHOOL, like D Young V, Brett Amory, C3, Christopher Burch, Adam Caldwell, Akira Beard, Aaron Meynal, John Felix Arnold, and others who want to to reclaim painting for the painters, art for artists, and to turn the tide with paint brush and pen against conformity –if for no other reason then to rescue their own souls. If they will succeed they must do what the Ab Exers did and pick up where they left off. I don’t mean paint what they paint. But go back to where De Kooking, Kline, Pollack, Rothko, Resnick, Mitchell, Krassner and others halted and see where it’s possible from there to proceed. Expunge from consciousness the last fifty years of American art, beginning with Pop Art, for the genuinely abominable drek that it is. Fuck gaming, skateboards, tees, trucker hats, custom sneaks and computor-generated art. There are certain historical developments such as genocide,social disintegration, alienation, Existentialism, History, School of Paris Painting and so forth that Ab Exers grappled with as essential to their process, but all that was canned by Warhol and company, who favored the beauties of Brillo. The original Ab Exers ‘Great Themes’ yet linger for the new rising generation of artists to pick up and further explore and extend into our time. If they root ever deeper into our collective unconscious, its origins and myths and explore with their brushes the current cause of mass manic unease, our constant American state of implacable malaise, they will attain true greatness.
In formal terms, where did De Kooning leave off? At his height, he had, as artist Wayne Thibaud described it, “Structured Chaos.” But he also explored and exploded gender, tinkered with and revised synthetic cubism, and transferred the human figure into abstract landscapes. Or take Rothko, who insisted that his abstractions were in fact representations! What did he mean? Or what did Franz Kline imply when he said that “To think of ways of disorganizing can be a form of organization”?
A few suggestions to the rising new artists. Live as they lived. Do as they did. Form a community and band together against the world. Endure hardship and neglect. Practice painting as if it were among the most important human acts in the world, which in so many ways it is. Most Ab Exers didn’t show until their mid to late forties. Hans Hoffman didn’t show until he was 60! Rothko was 46. De Kooning, 48. Broke, many of them painted with hardware store Duco. At a time when small paintings sold, they worked on an immense and heroic scale. They rallied together against dealers, museums, newspapers, and took each others side. They worked and lived with a sense of urgency. They kissed nobody’s ass. They talked away the night in cafes and in each others studios, dissecting philosophical matters, arguing points of craft, shoring up each others sense of commitment to the life of art they shared. In the end, they did not come to the art world. The art world came to them.
Painting cannot exist on the Internet. It cannot exist on a laptop. It is not something you text, email, Twit, Photo shop or convert into a download. It is you and the canvas and the long night and out the window the bare light bulbs of your colleagues also brightly burning as they go at their easels. It is nothing on but Bird or Beethoven, or if Snoop Dogg it must be then so be it, and you, alone, grappling with the mysteries within yourself, your very own soul, and with the colors, lines and shapes before you and with Kline and Pollack, Van Gogh and Gauguin, looming over your shoulder, whispering: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”
Alan Kaufman’s books include The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Jew Boy–a memoir, Matches, a novel and The Outlaw Bible of American Literature. His essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, 3AM Magazine, and Evergreen Review. He has written on art for High Fructose, The Reading Room and many other publications. His new memoir, Drunken Angel, will be published in the Fall of 2011 by Cleis Press.