gall and gumption

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

buckner: Thoroughly Modern Marcel

Marcel Duchamp, who distained what he referred to as “retinal art,” attempted with his readymades and other conceptual antics to create an art that appealed more to the mind than the eye. He wanted to move away from the idea of the artist reflected by the 19th century refrain, “stupid as a painter.” But in spite of his efforts, artists are still stupid; they’ve just adopted a new vocabulary.

Many people recall when the term “Post-modern” was coined and started being used in art magazines and on college campuses. I believe it was first employed in architecture, to refer to the silly decorative cube and mystic pyramid shapes that started to creep into the work of building designers who were tired of blank Bauhaus rectangular boxes. Suddenly everybody was proclaiming the end of Modernism and it’s substitution with a groundbreaking new direction in art. Post-modernism would be more multi-cultural and gender inclusive, and would explore experimental media and content beyond the macho cubist constructions and paint throwing of the antiquated Modernist past.

How stupid is that? At the end of his poem “The White Boat,” Alan Stephens pokes fun at this theory of history:
This is how it is here
And will and will not be
Again, these small doings
Each an end, a beginning,
A middle, overlapping
Momently, here only,

This year, and then next year
Again, especial, late
In the day then, in late
December, this is how
It will be, and not be.
How it is here. (And you,

Keeping to the margins
Still, at your own late hour
And in the last twilight
Of this Modernist, Post-
Modernist [soon Post-Post-
Modernist?] Century—

Still at it, at your age.
With one more ‘impassioned
Natural description,’ still
Hoping only to get
The thing down, without wit
Or imagination.)
And yet, twenty-five years later, I still have 20-year-old college students in my classes, under the influence of their very professional art history professors, referring to Post-modernism as an established development in art. Last night, I (stupid painter) finally read to the end of a book I’ve taught the first hundred pages of many times, but never finished—Harold Rosenberg’s Art on the Edge. I found this quote from his article “The Old Age of Modernism”:
The dilemma of the museum in regard to present-day art is not new, nor is it easy to resolve; the very term “modern art” has always been a troublesome one. All periods, criticism of the term points out, were modern for those who lived in them. In describing its art as modern, our epoch implies that its today will last forever. Implicit in “modern” is the notion of a “continuing present,” a denial of the validity of both yesterday and tomorrow. To be modern is basically to be timeless, to look not toward a future but toward Utopia, toward, as Rimbaud said, “the happiness that none escapes,” a higher condition of man, the “revolution of permanence,” that still living dream conceived by the nineteenth century. “Modern” has never been simply the label of a period, like “Renaissance” or “Baroque.” It is inherently polemical; it declares the obsolescence of the heritage of earlier times, and even forecasts its own obsolescence in the present that is to come. Rimbaud took the pledge to be “absolutely modern” as if he were stiffening himself for an ordeal; can anyone have resolved to be “absolutely Romanesque” or “absolutely Rococo”? Some modern art is already a hundred years old, yet modernism as a concept overlaps upon the art of today. So it seems natural for museums of modern art to include art that is current, and demands by artists that they do so are difficult to reject. A cut-off point that brings modern art to an end somewhere in the past is necessarily arbitrary.
Art on the Edge was copyright in 1975, so this article must have been published in the New Yorker in the early ‘70s—long before Post-modernism was conceived. Perhaps the term was starting to circulate among the people he knew, or he was just prescient. Now how do we untangle this stupid idea from contemporary thought?


At 3:31 AM, Blogger Kia said...

“Modern” has never been simply the label of a period, like “Renaissance” or “Baroque.” It is inherently polemical; it declares the obsolescence of the heritage of earlier times, and even forecasts its own obsolescence in the present that is to come.

I can certainly remember feeling like this, and I don't really know how to account for it. But I've shed it and I'm glad it's gone. I can remember how pleased I was when I realized that the lens of literature looks both ways: I'm looking at it but it's looking at me, and often it has met me before.

I know it changed when I discovered how little I really knew about the (literary and other) art of the past, when I discovered that I didn't even know what it was possible to know. The Al Stephens poems I think of in connection with this subject are those in the "In Plain Air" sonnet sequence where he talks about teaching and about his relationships with poets like Herbert. Did you take his class on the 17th-century English poets? It was extraordinary. I took it twice, the second time just to watch him teach.

Al could raise the specificity and uniqueness, the individuality of the minds of those poets, in an atmosphere of the most intense, absorbed concentration. He was teaching us that this sort of concentration was required, and he was leading us there. -- and I know that this was a very rare experience in grad school, and that it was how I began to learn all of what I didn't know. And what I appreciated was that this was the result of his relationships with the poets under study: that his living with them for years had yielded the specific insights that were opening up for us like happy surprises.

I can tell you that there were maybe four students remotely capable of eventually getting to his level of understanding of Marvell. The rest of them were just listening to what their professors told them. And yet they all marched into the post-modern repudiation of content, without actually having acquired any content to repudiate.

Because on the surface art seems to be all about style, different ways of saying the same banal and uplifting thing that your teacher tells you art is always telling you. And style is easy to repudiate or embrace. Especially if you arm yourself with irony, without which I'm not sure postmodern theory would exist at all. But it's the teachers who are banal, not the art that they haven't succeeded in teaching, for one thing. Second of all, the level of attention to the object of this irony, in so far as the object is previous art, is so superficial that the irony can't be said to have an object at all. Underneath this objectless irony, however, the lizard brain can thrive.

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