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Defending the Artist as Pygmalion

Aug 10, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 46 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Where does art stand today? Where is it headed? The art world is dark and stormy, visibility is zero, and apocalyptic predictions split the air. Most thoughtful people have barred the door against contemporary art in hopes it will blow over -- which is understandable.

Nevertheless, thinking people ought to know where art is and where it is going. Conservatives have a special duty to know, because the Left has abandoned the always-vulnerable idea of "Art for Art's Sake" and left it in a bundle on the Right's front porch. Today's mainstream art has two main strands: radical politics and postmodernist mockery. In 1985, the critic Hilton Kramer summed up his dispute with the postmodern mainstream in the world of art: "What is primarily at stake is the concept of seriousness."

Jed Perl updated Kramer's claim in a recent piece in the New Republic: Careful looking is out of fashion -- "if not yet lost, then marginalized." "Most of what is getting shown and talked about," Perl writes, "repels curiosity." But Perl and serious people like him "have by and large been shut out of the discussion": The Establishment is closed to them.

If serious art is going to be defended, conservatives will have to defend it. Their reward will be a surprising discovery -- that art's immediate future is brighter than it seems.

Arthur Danto is a valuable guide to the past and present state of art. He is the philosopher and critic who claimed in the mid-1980s that art history is over, and he repeated the claim last year in After the End of Art. Danto is a brilliant, influential writer and superb critic. Everyone ought to understand his argument and why it is wrong. Although he is no party-line leftist, his account is classically left-wing: It tells about an intolerant, authoritarian culture overthrown in the 1960s by tolerance and diversity. The longer you look at this theory, the more upside-down it seems.

Danto holds that art history ended in 1964. He doesn't mean exactly what you might think; he has jazzed up the title a little, and some restrictions apply. But it is hard to deny that art reached a crux in the mid-1960s.

The history of modern art -- painted in the broadest possible strokes -- goes like this. When you look at a painting, you gaze into the imaginary space conjured up by the artist. Starting with Manet in the 1860s, this imaginary space began to flatten out -- like a room where the back wall moves ominously forward. Manet suppressed modeling and shadows to make his paintings shallower; then Cezanne, beginning in the late 1870s, tipped the horizontal plane (of a tabletop, for example) upward and made the background press forward.

In 1907 came the inevitable crash: The wall had moved in so far, it smashed the objects that were supposed to inhabit the painting. This is cubism, where you see objects from many viewpoints at once, because -- like crushed-flat figurines newly uncovered by archaeologists -- they lie in fragments. The rear wall had come all the way forward. Imaginary space has disappeared and paintings are abstract: There is no room inside them for anything real.

Abstract art began in 1912 and blazed brilliantly from the late 1940s through the early 1960s in the "abstract expressionism" of the New York School. It still exists today, shuffling gamely around the dance floor although the band left thirty years ago. Among the few living artists who are famous and also good, most are abstractionists: Frank Stella, Cy Twombley, Andrew Forge, Gerhard Richter. But abstract art's greatest achievements were completed by 1964, and almost nothing has happened since. We have been marking time as we digest abstract expressionism.

Thirty years is a lot of digesting; yet as recently as 1994, the English writer David Anfam claimed that abstract expressionism remains "a shade too serious, strange and extreme" for "outright popularity." In truth we are today finally sorting abstract expressionism out: grasping the pre-eminence of Willem de Kooning and the greatness of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko; realizing that such artists as Arshile Gorky, Hans Hoffman, and Barnett Newman were not great painters but occasionally produced great pictures; seeing that Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, and several others are important and interesting. And we are poised to go forward in a new direction.