Art in an age without content

In December 2011 Id been watching Andrew Graham Dixon’s BBC4 series Art in America, and it amply illustrated the old adage that ‘advertising is capitalism’s revenge on art’. In the series he demonstrated (unintentionally perhaps) how ad-culture had in fact progressively eviscerated postwar American art by hijacking any attempt to depict complexity, alterity or transcendence, and had systematically obliterated most content or meaning beyond that of a presented surface.

Dixon cited Dan Flavin as the person whose fluorescent light installations finally emptied art of all content.

Immediately after this I visited Nice where Clancy was working at the Opéra and took full advantage of the many galleries of the Côte d’Azur, with Dixon’s ideas buzzing in my mind. Thus it was in the Musée Léger that the penny finally dropt about what the last hundred years of art history had been about. At the time I was reading the psychologist /Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahnemann's book Thinking fast, thinking slow. In it he describes our two ways of seeing: the prima facie glance and the considered  observation.

Seeing Léger’s big crude pictures it fell into place for me that Léger and most subsequent 'art lite' is all about the prima facie glance.

Search as you will in Léger's work there isn't anything else: it's all there on the surface. And that has been the baseline for everything afterwards: this is art in the age of moving images, if it doesn't hit you at once forget explanations, the artist has already lost you. In Léger I see the ideas and shapes as being about a clever manipulation of the semiotics of Modernism. In his early work you see him trying for a style, but once he finds it the work becomes more assured but also lazier and cruder, as if he no longer really needed to bother about meanings because everyone now ‘gets’ him. He has become a brand, as we would say today.

(Exactly the same thing observable in the work of Philip Guston, one of the fathers of US Postmodernism – tho why is beyond me.)

The following day, after a good number of wrong turnings on Cimiez, I finally made it to the Musée Matisse. There I found confirmation of the thesis I was evolving – namely that Matisse was a key figure in the evolution of what might be called ‘high concept’ art (to borrow a phrase from the film industry, meaning a movie which can be summarised in a single sentence, or even just a title) - to wit, the reduction of an art demanding considered observation to one that works adequately as a prima facie glance.

His artistic career may be summarised as the simplification of pictorial content offering transitive multi-layered depth of figuration to a single iconic gesture on an opaque plane - be it a leaf or decorative arrangement of light or coloured paper.
By stripping away content just as the International Style had stript ornament from architecture, Matisse had succeeded in producing exactly what the commercial interests who run the art-world really wanted: a ‘brand’ - which was at once instantly recognisable yet essentially value-neutral, like a Hermès scarf or a Gucci handbag. In other words the perfect commodity for commercial exploitation and reproduction as merchandise in museum shops and on postcards everywhere.

Yet this was about more than creating brands, because this idea of the progressive elimination of moral content (ie ‘intentional meaning’) in art was also the quintessential narrative of Modernism itself – the illusion that humans could disconnect from or obliterate the past - that they could bury once and for all the dark gremlins of Christianity & all its baggage of guilt and sin which had (as they thought) embroiled Europe in the senseless murder of World War One. It’s interesting that between the wars dealers played off Picasso against Matisse, to the extent that one of Matisse’s earliest collectors sold all his works to ‘get into’ Picasso ahead of the market. And of course Picasso’s heirs have carried the process to its apogee by licensing his ‘brand name’ for a range of cars!

The era of Picasso /Matisse /Léger launched artists with a full range of craft skills: but in subsequent generations these skills have become progressively devalued until we have reached the present position where a modern exhibition of ‘drawing’ may not actually contain any hand-made content at all; and the value attached by the professional artworld to craft is epitomised by the appointment of Tracey Emin as professor of drawing at the RA. With the following picture, I rest my case.
The only question must be the velocity of Sir Joshua’s rotation!

Later, when Clancy had a free day, we visited MAMAC (Musée d’art moderne & d’art contemporain), which is in the rear part of the National Theatre of Nice – a 70s complex built over the river Paillion in a style that might euphemistically be described as 'misconceived optimism’, or more straightforwardly as misconceived. The lift having been vandalised we were forced to climb the stairs, but this proved to be as much as Clancy’s knees could manage. So we sat in the foyer and looked at the catalog.

With a couple of exceptions it really was the biggest pile of tat imaginable. Seeing the assembly (collection would be too strong a word) of trivial and meretricious American pop and post-pop artists, and their European imitators, we thought how future ages will surely look at this ugly rubbish and think “what on earth were they on?” before consigning it to a store-room, along with all the insipid Victorian landscapes and interwar Expressionists.

In Dixon's series on modern American art he made the point that most of the guys who 'hit' in the 50s & 60s saw themselves as outsiders. This led me to reflect that, psychologically, so long as they actually were outsiders they had a relationship with an ‘inside’ against which they were rebelling, and which anchored them a kind of counter-balance. But once they themselves, with all their unresolved dissidence and alienation, were hailed as the new mainstream there was no longer anything to counter-balance the energy of their innate negativity. Thus with their bêtes noires vanquished they themselves were in the position not merely of having all their dreams come true, but of foisting those very dreams on others – the unique privilege that being in the mainstream affords the ‘insider’.

Yet that was also a trap, both for them and society as a whole: for if there were no longer a consensual aesthetic criterion of beauty - because the very idea that ‘beauty equals truth’* had been discredited by advertising - then anything goes.
          (*Its deep roots in the human psyche is demonstrated by contemporary celebrity culture, where beauty remains an essential prerequisite of being a ‘personality’.)

And indeed anything did, for Guston, Oldenburg, Warhol et al developed and propagated within the mainstream a deliberate anti-aesthetic concept. Altho this predated the rise of AIDS, it too played a part in the American psyche in leading to an actual distrust of beauty & craft-skill becoming a qualifying statement for those who wished to be taken seriously as avantgardists and (it went without saying) opponents of capitalism and the Vietnam war.
 Academics traced this approach back Duchamp and declared it a valid element in current cultural discourse; but in reality once they and their emulators had created a recognisable style the art world’s commercial imperatives required it to continue producing what had ‘currency’ for curators and collectors. Moreover, those who were successful began to believe their own publicity thus became trapped in a mythography of ‘anti-beauty’ or its transgressive manifestion/s, pace Mapplethorpe and Lou Reed.

I don’t wish to be construed as speaking for or against any particular style of art, my issue is with visionless art. Plenty of figurative art is visionless: plenty of non-representational art is splendidly imaginative. What I have been seeking to do is to draw attention to the way in which today's creative arts are heirs to this progressive elimination from Western Art of the transcendent – horizon-expanding art which challenges lazy humdrum attitudes with new vision and  imagination. As I see it, today that function has been surrendered almost entirely to populist art-forms, whose lingua franca is now the moving image. The custodians of ’Turner Prize art-forms' seem only willing to permit the visionary when it is presented obliquely or incidentally. We are embarrassed by attempts to depict coherent universal meaning/s; we consider duende jejune; and the very idea that the artist might be seeking to respond to the inexpressible mystery of life is regarded as simply puerile. WYSIWYG - there is nothing beyond the material world /consciousness.

The legacy of Modernism is that there is now only the prima facie glance. Yet the absence of the depths of considered observation means that we are without what Jung called an oppositio compensandum, a balancing otherness. Art without roots engaged in the profound meaning/s of life is Art that is incapable of rising above the merely decorative, and at worst is trapt within banality of quotidian imagery. Lazy, hardly begins to describe the work of Sarah Lucas.

 This suits those commercial interests that control journalism and public entertainment, because it is the perfect ‘product’ to be rebranded and remarketed in new guises to a supine public of ‘consumers', fattened on a diet of tech-novelty that keeps them disengaged from the larger questions of their existence. This is materialism in action. Everything that art might be  – a manifestation of the engagement by artists with their daimon &/or the mystery of existence – is dismissed as irrelevant to the Postmodern world.

One may dispute the merits of Ruskin’s long reign over Victorian consciousness and the degree to which it created the illusion of an orthodoxy in cultural values, but the clarity and coherence of his critical perspective influenced the avantgarde of the time as far afield as Ghandi in South Africa, Tagore in Bengal and Tolstoy in Russia. Moreover at least Ruskin and his successors Read and Spencer were social engaged, and saw art as having a valuable function beyond mere game-playing and rhetoric. Part of the problem is that nowadays with the digital world there are very few clear forums which can be treated as the focus of an artform. Alongside this with the financial instability of print-journalism the many layers of debate have left it is equally unclear where /how /for whom criticism is valid. And thus critics qualified to comment authoritatively on the discourse of an artform and interpret trends to the public are themselves on slippery ground, constantly fearful for their own paychecks. We have some excellent critics, Andrew Graham Dixon (Sunday Telegraph, art), Michael Billington (Guardian, Theatre) the late Robert Hughes; but most prefer to stick to writing about big ticket events and few show any real engagement with the dynamic alternatives.

Popular Art/s
There is then the intriguing question as to why ‘curatorial art’ has become so divorced from vernacular taste? And indeed why the professional art world would probably regard such a question as somewhat quaint? Here too this divergence can be traced back to Modernism, with Pound and the Vorticists, Marinetti and the Futurists, or Cocteau and Cubism, not to mention Les Six. Whereas before this hand those pioneering a ’school’ such as the preRaphaelites or the Impressionists saw themselves as standing within a broad tradition, even if they sought to overturn it. From this point tradition itself was seen as the enemy, and artists challenged the public to accept them on their own terms.

But that meant that in order to establish the uniqueness of their ‘brand’, every artist had to invent and ‘copyright’ a trademark. This was a game-changer: whereas previously every age had certain stylistic hallmarks which constituted a lingua franca of which a handful of artists stood out as preeminent exponents. Now in order to invent a gimmick the object was to create a private language and sell this to the public as the latest thing. I came across a very interesting quote of Picasso's: "By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities … and arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame … means sales …. And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I was alone with myself I haven’t the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya were great painters; I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than may appear, but it has the merit of sincerity." Libro Vero 1952.  

Not being driven by the pressures of maintaining a career or making a living the amateur artist who paints for ‘pleasure’ cares nothing for such matters, nor does the average member of the public, and is therefore happy to accept the persistence of traditional æsthetics. For which they are summarily dismissed by the cognoscenti. Yet I have observed in small commercial art galleries around the country there is still a great popular demand for traditional figurative painting which is almost like a subculture flying under the critical radar. And to read magazines aimed at amateur painters is to leave the world of self-styled 21stC art altogether, with their emphasis on traditional painterly craft skills. Ironically nothing demands more vitriol than commercially successful vernacular painters like the self-taught Jack Vettriano or Thomas Kinkade who do not conform to contemporary critical mores, especially the latter who incurs additional ridicule for being a Christian. While I say nothing in defence of their art, I note that the tone of the critical fraternity is more one of sneering outrage at their presumption than of rebuttal of their aesthetic. Unlike music,  the validity of a vernacular discourse in contemporary visual arts has never been acknowledged – possibly because it has never been economically significant. (If Pop art ever was a vernacular form, it quickly became subsumed into the curatorial discourse as soon as it became commercially successful.)

But in music the existence of a dual reality is acknowledged by the distinction between art music and mass market music – indeed, increasingly the latter receives lion’s share of critical attention. On The Independent website you will find a substantial Music category which is entirely devoted to mass market music, and elsewhere a separate section headed Classical. In The Guardian Friday Entertainment revue, 2-3 pages are devoted to mass market music, with one to ‘jazz/world’ and one to ‘classical’. In German this distinction is called Ernst musik & Unterhaltung musik, inspiring the subtitle of ‘E und U’ to Alfred Schnittke’s 1st Symphony, wherein he attempted to reconcile the two. But herein he missed the point because the essence of vernacular music lies not so much in the actual notes used as in the way they are used and the feeling-tone evoked. The essence of popular music is popularity: its function not as a ’text’ demanding consideration, but precisely in its ability to bypass the mind in its skilful manipulation of a limited range of vernacular musical gestures to create what are in effect reworked clichés – the diametric opposite of the principal criterion of art music, whose intellectually-based determination to avoid cliché has the effect of creating a musical ‘gated community’ which denies access to the ‘unqualified'. 

I feel there is one other factor that should be alluded to in decoding the position of the contemporary arts, and that is the level of technical competence that has come in the wake of technology and universal education. Noone, except amateurs, does anything for enjoyment any longer. Indeed it's the hallmark of a professional that they do it as a job - which is 'serious', because making money is serious. Whilst the greatest artists undoubtedly continue, as Odilon Redon did, to work from love and inspiration, and by so doing to honour their daimon or genius; too many think that they themselves are the genius, not that of God within; while other artists follow Picasso in responding to the art game with the same degree of calculated cynicism that businessmen take to trading objects.

I prefer to see the present situation not so much as the decay of an old order, which it is, as the fertile uncertainty from a new paradigm is being constructed. In a situation where almost anything appears valid, the public is expected to survive on a daily diet of junk art, thrown at it by an entertainment industry composed of conmen and chancers, but I still believe that a renewal of artistic vision is possible, if only because life itself is a story of constant renewal, a cycle of remembering and  forgetting and remembering again. Accepting Shelley’s line that
'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world', one has to ask what legacy we are leaving future generations? I believe that until artists themselves come to see that the principal validity of art lies in its celebration of creative artists' role as a mediator of the unconscious aquifer of the imagination, which the majority lack aptitude to express, and depends on their self-discipline and discrimination in giving coherence to that vision.

You would be entitled to ask if the arts matter amid the many forms of communication that now exist? My answer is that it matters immensely - not perhaps to those whose life opinions are already formed, altho even here they reinforce our identity-perception - but the images /sounds which we choose within our surroundings not only define the world young people are preparing to enter, but are exactly what strangers see of /in us. Yet art also offers more coherent ways of questioning and challenging the surfaces of the so-called real world than politics does – for the latter is, and can only exist in, the surface world. And those who talk of ’the real world’ make it a shorthand for lazy &/or venal assumptions which favour the status quo. And if it is the duty of art to do anything it is to suggest that the real real world is infinitely greater and richer than that of quotidian existence.

The Salisbury poet George Herbert put it four centuries ago:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
       Or it he pleaseth, through it pass,
 And then the heav'n espy.  

We are on our way to a new vocabulary of the arts and of society, it matters less what that literally is than that it is compiled by imaginative creative arts working from their true centre as has been true of all art that has stood the test of time.

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