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.
But Danto's depressing idea is that, on the contrary, tomorrow will be just like today. For in 1964, says Danto, we entered the "post-historical age," and that's where we are destined to stay -- mired in the Age of Nothing. Although artists go on producing, there is no longer any such thing as a predominant school or leading edge; no artist can be on the right side of history, because there is no more history. "All art," says Danto affably, "is equally and indifferently art" -- thanks to Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes, exhibited in 1964 at the Stable Gallery in Manhattan. They established that art isn't intrinsic to certain things, it is merely a certain way of looking at anything. In the supermarket, a Brillo box isn't art. In the gallery it is; art is the ogle, not the girl.
As Danto understands it, Warhol's coup brought to a close the "Age of Manifestos." The impressionists had announced the unique rightness of impressionism. Likewise the pointillists, fauves, cubists, and many others. But henceforth a thousand flowers would bloom. Notice that, under the covers, this is the Left's all-purpose Creation Myth: the long dark night of meanness leading to the Birth of Tolerance in the golden '60s, like Venus arising (diversely) from the foam.
Danto's claim rests on interesting distortions of history and psychology. He is smart and learned, and knows whereof he fails to speak. He knows that by 1964, tyrannical authority had been dead and "diversity" had reigned supreme in art for over a century. In 1840, Ingres's ivory-cool ice-cream paintings were radically different from the hot chili of Eugene Delacroix -- and both men were admired by serious art lovers. In 1880, Edgar Degas was obsessed with the body as a dynamic machine, Paul Cezanne with the static thingness that bodies share with apples and mountains. In 1910, Pablo Picasso's bone-dry desert-colored cubism stood against Henri Matisse's overgrown jungle lyricism. In 1920, Amedeo Modigliani's intimate boudoir nudes contrasted with Paul Klee's poignantly reserved abstractions. In 1940, the hot Coney Island night of Stuart Davis was met by the stark daylight of Edward Hopper. In 1960, de Kooning's gorgeous abstracts differed from Alberto Giacometti's austere portraits and nudes.
Danto is right that by 1964 the Manifesto Age was over. Artists would no longer issue bold pronouncements celebrating their own methods and patiently explaining how all others stank on ice. But Danto makes the mistake of confusing what artists think with what they feel called upon to say.
Every serious artist is a passionate egomaniac -- but he takes it for granted that his fellow artists are too, and is apt to admire at least a few whose methods are radically unlike his own. Picasso and Matisse in 1910 were two champion prima donnas with mutually opposed practices -- yet Picasso openly (if grudgingly) admired Matisse's work, and Matisse admired his. Piet Mondrian is such a fine example of intolerance that Danto quotes him: "True art like true life takes a single road." Mondrian was famous for the acid clarity of his art and for rejecting such lyrical, spill-your-guts romantics as Jackson Pollock. But Danto doesn't mention that Mondrian, upon examining a Pollock painting in 1943, told the art dealer Peggy Guggenheim, "I have a feeling that this may be the most exciting painting I have seen in a long time." Mondrian conceded that Pollock's work "points in the opposite direction of my painting, my writing." But this was "no reason to declare it invalid."
By and large, the manifestos Danto makes so much of were high-spirited, masculine chest-thumping. Danto mistakes the Age of Mouthing Off (which is history) for an Age of Intolerance that never existed. This is significant. American life has improved since 1964 in obvious and important ways. We are less bigoted, richer, and as a nation far more powerful. But our cultural leadership requires that we not deny the obvious: Life has also gotten worse. Our families, schools, cities, and culture are all in worse shape. This truth threatens the legitimacy of the post-'60s Cultural Revolution and its intellectual leadership: Dare to mention it, and the leaders will shout you down by screaming "nostalgia!" like broken records or demented parrots.
Danto is his own man and no conspirator. Nonetheless, his theory fits neatly into a big picture that is wrong. What the new "post-historical," post-1964 generation actually created was not artistic diversity but ideological uniformity. The uniformity is hard to recognize at first, because the two main strands of Establishment art seem so different.
First there is political art. This enterprise is in keeping with the Stalinist view that artists must serve the people, and to do so -- to explain to the people how bigoted they are, how neglectful for not having cured AIDS, and so on -- artists must produce plain-spoken, straightforward propaganda, for the people are very dumb. At the Whitney Museum's 1993 Biennial, every visitor had to wear lapel pins (each an artwork by Daniel Martinez) that together spelled out: "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white." That is today's "committed" art in a nutshell. (Danto himself has little sympathy for it, on the whole.)
Then there is art based on mockery. Last year's prestigious Venice Biennial, for example, included such artworks as a large stack of identical catalogs, a group of TV sets running test patterns, an installation called "Chandelier" consisting of a chandelier, a collection of underwear to be worn by exhibition guards, and -- at an associated exhibit across town -- a video show installed in the life-sized hindquarters of three fiberglass cows.
The political art and the mock art have this in common: Each is a form of oratory and therefore requires an audience -- to cheer the screaming and snicker along with the mocking, or to be mocked and belabored itself. This requirement reveals in turn the phoniness of postmodern art -- for the only way a true artist can succeed is by working to please himself. If the focuses his efforts on other people, he may become a great popular artist or performer, but never a true artist. Picasso as a young man worked only to please himself. Later he played to the crowd. It is a mark of his intelligence and penetration that he said, toward the end of his life, "Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters; I am only a public entertainer."
All message art is phony, because no one needs to send a message to himself. No one needs to entertain himself with mockery. An artist who puts messages in his art declares that he is not serious.
It's not that an artist doesn't want praise and an audience; it is painful and harrowing to go without them. But he doesn't need them. In 1947, years before the abstract expressionists became famous, the great critic Clement Greenberg described their isolation as "inconceivable, crushing, unbroken." "What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?" he demanded histrionically. They had day jobs, mostly -- de Kooning doing carpentry and house painting, Rothko teaching at Brooklyn College (and being denied tenure), Pollock handling odd jobs at an art museum. But they went on making art.
The story of Pygmalion is art's basic myth. A sculptor makes an ivory woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is impressed and makes the ivory come alive. This plot hinges on the artist's obsession with his own handiwork. (The artist William Scharf reports that Rothko would gaze at his own paintings "sometimes for hours, sometimes for days." Rothko would have been staggered by Jed Perl's report of the "almost universal feeling" in today's Establishment that "art ought to be taken in quickly, instantaneously.")
By describing the artwork as the image of a beautiful woman, the ancient myth makes the artist's obsession comprehensible. The plot is revealing insofar as it deals not only with artistry but with self-absorption and pathetic loneliness. History suggests what you might guess: Few artists live normal social lives. Few are normal in any sense.
But isn't art (as nearly everyone says) a form of communication? Yes -- a deep but narrow form. Picture-making is so cramped and limited a language, it can't even say "yes" or "no." It is wholly effective only in communicating pure emotion. (It can illustrate stories, too -- so long as you already know the stories.) And serious art communicates only second-hand. The painter doesn't address the viewer, he addresses himself; the viewer overhears. Art-making is thinking out loud or, the emotional equivalent, feeling out loud. And the experience of great art is in part the moral equivalent of snooping in someone else's diary -- which helps to make it compelling.
The art world used to be clear on the shaping role of photography in the rise of modern art, but in recent years it seems to have lost the thread. Photography's rise in the mid-nineteenth century was the greatest liberating event in art history. It relieved artists of the quasi-secretarial task of recording appearances -- relieved them not so much of specific duties as of expectations that weighed heavily. Photography played a large part in sending artists off on a spree. From Manet to de Kooning they did crazier and crazier things. Art stayed out all night, made exactly the sort of discoveries you might expect, and came home transformed. And now artists are facing up once more to art's central reality: Human beings care most about other human beings; humans are moved most by human images.
An art that takes account of this truth promises a future much brighter than Danto thinks. The new art is (or will be) dominated by the more-or-less accurate, undistorted human form. But it is the post-de Kooning form: The new figure art draws power from the tension between realistic human shapes and the freedom of post-abstract-expressionist brushwork, color, and sculptural gesture. It is inspired not only by abstract painters but by such artists as Giacometti, who squeezed the human form down to its bare essence and made it tremble with intensity. And if twentieth-century art drew mainly on Cezanne among the Oldish Masters, the new art draws on Degas, the freest-spirited master of human form. (The realist nudes and portraits that are mildly vogueish today are not what the new figure artists have in mind, nor is Lucian Freud's work -- these paintings tend to be dark and broken-spirited and earth-bound, admirable, boring.)
The new figure art won't claim to be the "only valid" style. The serious artist maintains a paradoxical mental balance. He knows he is the best; he knows that other artists know they are the best. He respects them for this knowledge, as they respect him. Danto is right: Art is polyphonic. But one voice always emerges with the melody. And this new figure art that is now emerging will carry the melody, at least for a while.
In her recent biography of Clement Greenberg, Florence Rubenfeld discusses the high aspirations of Pollock, de Kooning, and the other artists Greenberg championed. But when she turns to the art world in 1998, she writes, "Today art no longer aspires to such heights." To which serious artists respond: Like hell! Could a great enterprise reaching back to Giotto (and past Giotto to Periclean Athens) be knocked off the tracks by a gang of snickering nihilists? The drive to make art -- in equal parts mental pathology and spiritual striving -- is incomparably too powerful for that.
Today's serious artists face Establishment indifference. They wish it were otherwise, but, when they step back, they know it usually isn't. They can take it, understanding as they do -- in words today's Establishment knows how to laugh at but could never begin to understand -- that it has always been and will always be anMissing Text
Contributing editor David Gelernter is the art critic of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.