Saturday, January 28, 2017

Jerry Saltz and Michael Lind on the stifling, oppressive Western art history narrative and how the Germans of the 19th century are to blame for it

Since Jerry Saltz has made a defense of the material generated by Jeff Koons take this with a few cups of salt.  But ...
...  our art history is not chronological; not neutral or about simultaneous cross-styles, outliers, and other things going on at any given moment. Our art history is organized teleologically — it's an arrow. Things are always said to be going forward, and progress is measured mainly in formal ways by changes in ideas of space, color, composition, subject matter, and the like. Artists and isms follow one another in a Biblical begatting based on progress toward a goal or a higher stage. Cubism was "a race toward flatness"; Suprematism was "the zero point of painting"; Rodchenko said he made "the last painting"; Ad Reinhardt one-upped him saying he was "making the last painting which anyone can make." In this system synthetic shifts and tics combine into things we call movements like Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Art Nouveau, Color Field, etc. The problem is anyone who doesn't fall into this timeline is out of luck. This paradigm has been in place for 200 years.

Saltz, ultimately, signs off on the Romantic fantasy of the artist, though.

... Recently, art has been this high-powered-success-machine mainstream sensation; artists have become celebrities; we’ve been treated to narcissistic pictures of pretty people at glamorous events wearing $2,000 worth of clothes. Outside the world of fine art, too, pop culture swallowed all of culture, and the entire cultural apparatus seemed to reorient itself to orbit the White House. One of the strangest features of the past eight years, which many of us on the left might not have even recognized as strange, was that our biggest pop star and our reigning rapper emeritus were actually friends with the president and First Lady.

I love BeyoncĂ©, but it is not often that great artists do their great work while living so close to the glow of political power. For most of art’s long history, artists have lived on the edge of the village — poor, neglected, commiserating with one another, optical shamans transforming the world in mythic, mysterious, complicated, crazy, renegade ways, processing catastrophes through unexpected lenses, giving comfort, wisdom, relief, wonder, linking us with humanity, emotions, intellectuality, even the infinite. Alienation is the wellspring of art; in fact, feeling alone is often why you become an artist. Which means that, in times of artistic alienation, distress is often repaid to us in the form of great work, much of it galvanizing or clarifying or (believe it or not) empowering. That is because art isn’t a superfluous, elitist escape; it’s a way of knowing the world, a place to find common cause and not fall apart. Adorno said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Yet the very phrase is poetic


why would this startle someone who's made a case for the work of Jeff Koons? Most of art's history has been full of artists living on the edge of the village, poor, neglected, commiserating with one another ... ?  Give me a break.  Now a musician would tend to be reflexively skeptical of this kind of definition of why people become artists.  One of the more annoying clichĂ©d jokes about guitarists is how guitarists took up the instrument to get the attention of the ladies.  Maybe they took up the instrument because it was the most affordable option?  What about ladies who take up the instrument?  At any rate, J. S. Bach was a musician because generations of his family line were musicians before him and he was carrying on the family trade.  He wasn't a court and church musician because of alienation. 

Artists and poets and writers and musicians like to think of themselves as prophets who speak truth to power.  Guess what, it's always been that way.  In case you haven't read the Bible in a few years (or ever) the prophets wrote books strewn from cover to cover with poetry and surrealistic oracles.  The priests who had the power of literacy took care to sound off on the social, economic and political issues of their day.  If literacy on the history of religious thought declines farther than it already has in the last few generations people in the arts might imagine that when they pontificate on politics they are somehow not doing what men and women who had poetic, literary or musical gifts were doing literally thousands of years ago.

Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires
Edited by Alan Lenzi and Jonathan Stokl
Copyright (c) 2014 by the Society of Biblical Literature
ISBN 978-1-58983-997-7 (paper binding)
ISBN 978-1-58983-998-4 (electronic)
ISBN 978-1-58983-997-7 (hardcover binding)

It's a dry read but it's a worthwhile read.  HT to Jim West for mentioning it.  We've got a little review of the book over here.

Which is to say that artists and writers on the Left seem to keep forgetting that the drive to make the creative castes the priesthood of the day has been going on since about the French Revolution.  The aim to make an art-religion that will usher in an era of human kindness hasn't worked out.  If anything it seems that avant garde pioneers could and did latch on to totalitarian regimes or learned to live within them.  But we've got a left and a right in the contemporary West that seems determined to "no true Scotsman" their respective teams out of a history of totalitarianism, whether it's Left types wo try to pretend there's no history of repression in the communist bloc or people on the right who try to downplay just how virulently racist the conservative aristocratic castes have been for centuries.  Thanks to the internet era being what it is it seems the left and the right can only agree on the basic idea that it's only tyranny if someone-not-my-team does it.  Name one executive power that Trump has now that Obama didn't have two weeks ago before him. 

So, back to the Germans.  Salz doesn't blame the Germans for the conundrum of contemporary art historiography, and perhaps that's because ultimately Salz is too beholden to the Romantic ideals of what the artist supposedly is.

For an actually official "I blame the Germans" there's Michael Lind:

In the last century, originality has killed one once-flourishing art form after another, by replacing variation within shared artistic conventions to rebellion against convention itself.
I blame the Germans.

It was the German Romantics who introduced the idea of “original genius” to modern society. The artistic genius, according to 19th-century romantics, is a special kind of human being with unique visionary powers. In ancient Greece and Rome, poets had sometimes claimed vatic powers; the “bard” sometimes posed as a quasi-prophetic figure, not a mere versifier, though this pose was usually not taken seriously. It was only in the 19th century, however, that the notion of this kind of visionary genius was generalized outside of poetry to what became known as the “fine arts,” including painting and sculpture and even architecture. Earlier, all of these arts had been classified among the utilitarian “crafts,” like textile-making and tile-making.

It’s not that originality did not exist in various arts before the German romantic virus corrupted our mental software. But originality took the form of expressive originality within convention. Michelangelo and El Greco created their own distinctive styles, but within the conventions of the European painting of their time.

The moment artists were taught to consider themselves superior mutant creative geniuses rather than practitioners of traditional crafts, it was only a matter of time before some would get tired of creative variation within the inherited conventions of their art and start rejecting the basic conventions.  ...

The German idealists of the 19th century get the blame for insisting upon the idea that the genuine creative genius could cast aside the fusty old traditions and create vital, living art.  If anything there was a historic obligation to do so.  An author by name of David Roberts went so far as to propose that since the Enlightenment European history has been guided by a self-historicizing historicism, that whether progressive or reactionary European thought was fixated on history as a philosophical foundation through which to observe the human condition. 

This might be something for historians of religious thought to play with but what about the possibility that millenarian (as opposed to amillenial) views of history had more sway or dominance in era that can be thought of as the Romantic era?  It doesn't seem impossible to imagine that what a Marxist and a antebellum American Presbyterian could have in common is a kind of postmillennial optimism that takes for granted that "history" has a fixed and indisputable destiny that will usher in the ideal human society.  Now as an amillenialist I find both forms of utopian thought to be terrible but I don't for a minute believe that imperial ambitions can't be defended by an appeal to an amillenial approach; I'm just proposing that certain types of manifest destiny, whether in the arts or in American expansion or in Marxism don't ultimately drink from a common well, the well of an essentially postmillennialist apocalyptic view of history in which those who tell the story of history's ultimate fate for global humanity have written themselves as the redeemers of that narrative.

So in that kind of narrative those with the freshest and most cogent revelations (i.e. innovations within the teleology of an academic history of the arts) have the highest levels of prestige.  The paradoxical irony of this state of affairs is that the academics are the worst perpetrators of artistic canons.  If all we wanted to do was to explore the ways in which the "total work of art" that was the dream of many a 19th century philosopher or artist has been realized in the 20th or 21st century then Wagner's Ring Cycle lives on in the popular cultural world.  There are elements of it in Tolkien's Ring trilogy; in the Star Wars franchise; in Star Tre; in the Marvel cinematic universe (arguably a case study of a total work of art in which a sprawling cinematic franchise tied to comics and toys provides a new unifying civic religion).  But these are branded franchises, not total-works-of-art that might be expected to usher in a new cosmic age of human enlightenment and love like Scriabin's Mysterium.

The denizens and advocates of high culture may want it both ways.  They don't like the stifling restrictions of the art-religion narrative that has been refined since the Romantic era that was officially known as such.  But when push comes to shove they don't want to concede the boundaries between high and low culture are as permeable as they are because you just can't concede the Marvel cinematic universe could be a defining artistic monu7ment for this era.  Anything that could be construed as the product of global capitalism can't be considered real art .... although if we're going to be that way why should the products of 17th century autocratic patronage systems be kept in the art history narrative, exactly?  If Richard Taruskin's polemical Oxford History of Western Music has any number of uses as a conversation starter among musicians one of those uses is how his history walks us through a millennium of dynasties of patronage--there are finally no "off the hook", benevolent dynasties of patronage. 

I do think there's more than a little bit of truth to this polemic about the German romantics.  I adore a great deal of Austrian-German music lineage from the 18th century.  I admire Schutz, Buxtehude, Bach, Haydn.  At the risk of keeping things too simple I find I admire music in the German linguistic tradition that pre-dates when the Germans saw themselves as the heralds of the divine light of civilization on behalf of humanity.  Once we get into the 19th century a lot of German music after about ... Mendelssohn begins to sound bloated and self-important whether we're talking about Schubert (largely loathe his work) or Wagner (loathing might not be strong enough a word).  By contrast I admire Bohemian (Matiegka, Reicha) and Polish (Chopin) and some Hungarian (bits of Lizst) music from the early 19th century.  Taruskin savored the irony a bit too much when he pointed out that the signal composers of what was regarded as the "new German" sound were, none of them, Germans until Wagner came along. 

I mean, it's not categorical--I like quite a bit of Brahms and I admire Hindemith.  Hindemith, the kind of composer most people haven't heard of and wouldn't like when they hear him!  So I guess I like some 18th and 20th century Germans because I even like Schoenberg's Violin Concerto and Berg's Wozzeck is quite a feat ... but Germans had the "we represent the best of humanity" in a way not unlike the same problematic impulse in Anglo-American or French discourse.  Maybe every imperialist culture presumes to embody the best, highest and noblest of humanity.  If that's the case the American Left is no better than the American Right for cultural imperialism.  If anything, at least the Right tends to know what it wants is to restore the greatness of its empire.  Not that that's good ... it's just slightly more self-aware on exactly one issue.

I can agree with writers on the liberal/left side that we need to jettison the German idealist Romantic notion of what art history is but we won't be able to do that if we still embrace the German Romantic ideal of what and who the artist/poet/painter/writer/composer/musician is.   With the collapse of the institutional warrant presumed by the autocratic castes of the Catholic church, the nation-state churches and the royalty/court systems the temptation to elevate the artists as the new caste of priests extolling the new humanistic civic religion that had no need of deities was irresistible, apparently.  That's the problem, we have a caste of professional entertainers who want to speak truth to power without conceding the degree to which they hold the power, if perhaps only within their civic religion of art-as-true-religion.  When artists say they aren't priests they may just be reflecting their own ignorance of history. 
As I get older and possibly too jaded it seems that the Marxists and the fundamentalists are the same in the end, they both derive a lot of their energy by breathlessly anticipating a pending apocalyptic rupture that "changes everything" and assures in a divine new era of fully-realized human potential in the form of an event that, we're constantly assured, will and must take place before this generation has passed and then, generation after generation, doesn't happen.  The Marxist socialist and the fundamentalist Baptist turn out to be remarkably the same and in that respect they both want all of the arts as arts, to the extent that they have to exist, to be in the service of the one true church.

Maybe that's too gloomy an outlook ... .