On Second Thought: About Today's Art Environment
Tyranny on Both Sides of the Barricades
Artists often consider themselves revolutionaries. Many impassioned groups have sprung up, such as Fauves, Minimalists, Neo-expressionists, Postmodernists. So many in fact, that for clarity we might marshal them into four super bands. The Vangoghites have an ear for the expressiveness of the individual. Inkandinskyescents follow a spiritual bent. Aesthetikites trace their revolutionary heritage to Cezanne. Uptheestablishmentonions dote on Duchamp. While the first three are in some decline (probably temporarily), there are currently quite a number of Uptheestablishmentonions revolting against older art forms, society, or (jackpot!) both.
Revolutionary bands set up some kind of barricade: tyrant on one side, good guys on the other. From the French Revolution to the Abstract Expressionists, revolutionaries gathered together and built a barricade against "them," the tyrant.
Today, however, the barricade idea does not seem to be working so well. There isn't a tyrant on one side of the barricade and comrades united in noble cause on the other. Rather than a Jean Valjean unifying a lofty revolution a la "Les Miserables," there currently is no clearly understood standard. Rather, the revolutionary leaders take sneaky peek side-glances at each other, to establish what is "correct." For example, check out the Whitney Biennial. There is a word, a strange word, that best describes the choices of the survey's curator, Lawrence R. Rinder. That word is "whimsical." Rinder, like most of the admittedly necessary curators and critics, seems to make picks, acknowledging self-absorption, to impress other curators and critics, rather than making choices on more objective principles. The experts' extremely keen sidelong glancing ability is necessary since there is no longer a sense of Form (apt use of variables like line, shape, value, color, technique, time, space, composition, beauty) to serve as an agreed upon standard. Everyone is free to develop their own rules, up to a point. Woe upon them, however, if their subjective standards are too different from their peers, for respect will be lost, as well as invitations to all the right places.
A soft tyranny exists on the artists' side of the barricades. It is like (switching from the barricade example for a second) a high priesthood who decide matters while the poor slaves cannot read the sacred text. Returning to the image of the barricade: the art taste makers "know the code," and try to intimidate the rest. So too with some codependent followers. These mini-tyrants cause discord on their side of the barricade, because the rules change without having unifying standards. Hence those sidelong glances, making sure they still know "the code." It's a particularly pernicious code because it parades under the guise of "good," and brands those it doesn't agree with as "evil" or "they just don't get it." With objective discussion impossible since Postmodernism decreed it so, there is loosed on the world a tyranny of principle-less whim.
What to do? There is some hope. The Chicago Artists' Coalition and similar groups of artists serious about Form are a plus for the artists' side of the barricade. Principled discussions about shape, value, color, technique do occur, seemingly under the radar of the current anti-"retinal" curators and art establishment. But doesn't the vast written and visual record of this establishment forever canonize the art it has blessed? Hardly. Like the fate of late 18th century art, it is quite possible that the future will see late 20th century art as mostly forgettable. Hope exists for an alternative, for change.
The shape this hope takes is commitment to craft and to Form. For too long concern with craft and Form has been branded as "elitist." Quite the opposite is true. Form actually is democratic. It does not oppress, it frees. It is transparent, not opaque. With Form, artists, critics, and public have a basis for fair discussion. Currently, they live under a subjective subjugation.
If Art is to have as much impact as it had at the beginning of the 20th century, artists should dismiss the standard-less tyrants on their side of the barricade. They would feel better. And the public would have more common ground with art. From TV and major newspapers we know what people think is important. It isn't art. Movies and music get huge amounts of coverage. Even theater and books get way more coverage than art. Might it be that the skimpy TV minutes and meager art reporting are the fault of the tyrannically opaque art world?
Enough, already, of the code-knowing conceit that dominates trendsetting art shows and periodicals. That attitude reveals a lack of principle. Instead, artists should attempt a community of objective and democratic principles on their side of the barricade. They should not have to fear both the tyrant on the other side and mini-tyrants within their own camp.
©2002 Robert Stanley