Let me tell you why this video, and this preaching, is an absolute abomination.
When you’re teaching art, it pretty much goes down to: you don’t have room for opinions. You like Monet but hate Mondrian? Too bad. Both earned a place in the history of art and they both share a spot in the evolution of art. And we owe them both.
As an art historian, if I had a cent for every time I hear people (within and outside the field) praise the ‘old masters’ while solely looking at technique, I would be a millionaire. And as an art historian, the greatest lesson I have learned is to never place myself in the artist’s place, and that all art is art all the same. I usually quote Marcel Duchamp - who contemporaryphobes love to point as being the father of ugly, stupid modern art :
“What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.”
The world seems to have a problem separating what belongs within the sphere of art from the sphere of personal taste. People usually frown at me when I say I don’t like Jean-Luc Goddard’s movies or that the Renaissance doesn’t fancy me. I am not devaluating it, but it somehow affects people. I just don’t feel a connection with it, but nothing within that stops me from acknowledging the value of these names within their own spheres. And that’s what tends to happen with modern/contemporary art haters - if they don’t recognize it immediatly, if there is no fruition within sight, it’s bad art. Then, it’s not art at all.
Well let me tell you what the even greatest lesson being an art historian taught me: you are not the authority on art. No one is. Only the artist is his own authority, and no one else’s.
Then the question poses itself: how can we allow for bad art to exist? And what baffles me is this completely insidious idea that bad art never existed before, until now, our very own time. And that is simply not only not true, but really? Are you such a purist you will refuse to believe people painted shit back in the day?
Time and society takes charge or safekeeping the names that really did change art. Ask Van Gogh. Ask Friedrich, who nobody gave a shit about until the 70s. Ask Cezanne who practically died penniless. Ask any artist who struggled to surpass the canon of his own time to present themselves with new ideas, but now are praised and beheld as masters of their own time.
When talking about these subjects, I like bringing in the cavalry of Art Theory so people get an approach on it on a wider spectrum, and so I ask you to bear with me on this one.
Hans Robert Jauss says that in order for a work of literature to become a classic, it has to be reiterated throughout time, so its specific symbols of its own time become atemporal. We are all alive: we see things being created with no knowledge of the future. So how can we be sure of what will prevail and what will perish? Time will only tell, and that time will carry with it the logic behind this reiteration Jauss talks about: those who challenged will be remembered; those who don’t, won’t. Let’s see how many people remember Alexandre Cabanel and how many remember Gustave Courbet. Or even better, show them a painting by each and ask them if they’ve seen it. Even better: have you ever heard of Henri-Michel Lévy? There we go.
Mukarovsky refered to the object of art an autonomous sign, indicating that it didn’t necessarily refer to its surroundings. This idea isn’t new, specially when we think of Kandinsky who, with the help of Schoppenhauer, sough to create an autonomous language within painting, like music. This is a new research that arises in the 19th century with the advent of photography. If a machine can copy reality, then what worth do artists hold anymore? Groups like the impressionists found the answers, and they kept on being brough forward throughout the 20th century.
That is when the mess starts, of course. But it really makes me cringe when I hear people say that art only sells out of 'shock value’. This argument implies that our society has nothing left to fight for, and whatever political statement being made through a work of art is due worthless. And that is demeaning the artworks for their political statement, implying that apparently curators only care for that tone in art (as opposed to the Holy Graal of art - technique) when in fact you deminish the original statement that needs to be brought out into the public. It’s like art world’s Tone Policing, and it’s pretty disrespectful.
Now picking this stance and transporting it into the 20th century - as this professor so neatly does - let’s think of how demeaning, how insulting it is. The argument destroys art like the expressionists, the dadaists, Die Blaue Reiter, Die Brücke, and many others - many other who, as we all know, were jewish men and women expressing angrily against the war and the holocaust. First World War exiles who protested along-side their anachist views the brutality that Europe underwent. Feminist women who protested against the mysoginy in artist circles. Modern artists who rebelled against a Plan Marshall Europe and capitalism. Land artists who posed the question for the first time of where does the institution end and where does it begin.
Clemens Greenberg wrote a text that became the epitome of American Abstract Expressionism called Avant-Garde and Kitsch. And whenever someone fights so brutally against abstractionism, I remember his words:
It is a platitude that art becomes caviar to the general when the reality it imitates no longer corresponds even roughly to the reality recognized by the general. Even then, however, the resentment the common man may feel is silenced by the awe in which he stands of the patrons of this art. Only when he becomes dissatisfied with the social order they administer does he begin to criticize their culture. Then the plebian finds courage for the first time to voice his opinions openly. Every man, from the Tammany alderman to the Austrian house-painter, finds that he is entitled to his opinion
Greenberg defended that art is only good when we cannot recognize it, meaning, when figuration is present. Today we think this as extremely elitist, but it should be reminded that Greenberg wrote this in 1939. A war had started; Europe had a rise of dictatorships everywhere, and everywhere in the continent, former avant-garde groups were being murdered, persecuted, eliminated from history. And throughout Europe, the so called 'Return to Order’ was taking place: canonical art was being held as symbols of nationalism, purity and superiority.
So it should be worth reading the rest of his paragraph:
Most often this resentment toward culture is to be found where the dissatisfaction with society is a reactionary dissatisfaction which expresses itself in revivalism and puritanism, and latest of all, in fascism. Here revolvers and torches begin to be mentioned in the same breath as culture. In the name of godliness or the blood’s health, in the name of simple ways and solid virtues, the statue-smashing commences.
And if that wasn’t clear enough:
If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects.
There is a whole contest to every artistical episode; art isn’t born out of a blank space, it is created within context. This was Greenberg’s context: the fear of totalitarianism, the fear that recognizable pictures with which people could emphathize could be used as manipulators (a context that kinda lost itself 30 years later, but that’s a whole other episode). And to ignore this context solely for the purpose of preaching that you think that is ugly, therefore is not art, is so demeaning and insulting.
You don’t have to understand. You don’t have to like it. Your personal taste is the fingerprint of your personality. Don’t justify yourself for not liking Rothko or Mondrian, for prefering the old masters. Who cares. But respect art history. And what is baffling to me in this video is the fact that this man teaches, and he teaches kids that everything done after the impressionist movement was bad because it is ugly, when it’s so rich and colorful, and so full of skill and concepts, and so many things that give you such a bright picture of history. And if you don’t think that, fine by me. But respect it and learn it. Do you know how many times I heard people say 'I still hate Malevich, but now that I understand it, it’s so much more interesting’? Give yourself the chance to learn, don’t buy into this bullshit. Please. I beg you
There was no 'decline of artistic standards’. There was a rejection of canonical ideas ingrained in the leading Academy of its time. There was no death of beauty, there was a prevelance of other ideals before beauty (may I suggest Walter Benjamin on this subject). There was no death of art. You know how many authors have claimed the death of art? There’s a new one every year.
And there is a distinction between the art market and the art sphere, and I won’t get into the art market but I will say it has its own debate and, guess what, actually most of us agree with you, it’s fucking ridiculous to spend that much money on a rock. What we debate is how much is a work of art worth in a society that sees art collection, more and more, as an elitist activity ('to see and be seen’) rather then something you make out of pleasure, but again, that’s another debate. And ultimately, what this whole video comes out as is a loser artist who can’t sell a piece of shit of his painting (look them up, they’re garbage. They show great technique for a 50s cinema advertiser) so he turns to the old argument: modern art is shit because I have more technique.
And by the way, to Mr. Robert Florczak: I immediatly realized that wasn’t a Pollock. There is no way that could be a Pollock. Pollock never once used a technique that resembled that. And if you had studied art history, you would know that. Your students aren’t stupid, they just have a terrible teacher.
And by the way, showing Rauschenberg was a terrible idea because he is actually the reason American art diverted from Abstract Expressionism. Rauschenberg was actually incredibily skillful and created incredible works of art, while actually raising a fight against Greenberg. He opened the doors to what we all know as being Minimalism and questioned the limits of the surface of the canvas. And you know what’s funny, he actually questioned so much the idea that Abstract Expressionism was the popular front in the art market he once bought a De Kooning, erased it and exhibited it as an 'Erased de Kooning Drawing’. He literally made your fucking point but you would know this if you had, you know, read a wikipedia article. So you wanna talk trash about him, at least have the balls to destroy this work: