I’m hardly the only person in the arts writing about the America’s cultural suicide, ongoing since the 1950s. I’m just the only person in the art world writing about it. The art world hasn’t the courage to look at itself critically. People might say “Oh! How corrupt it’s become!” Almost invariably followed by “Not like the old days, when it was filled with ‘authentic’ art!””
And those old days will go back back no more than to the 1950s when t was just as corrupt if not more so back then. It just wasn’t on the kind of grand scale it is now. Rothko wrote early on: “57th Street is a stinking mess.” That’s supposed to be the “good old days”? This is when Greenberg was making unchallenged and arbitrary choices that could make and break artists overnight? And when the CIA was funneling money into the art world in collaboration with MoMA? This is only conspiracy theory to the dodoes in the art world who never bother to look at or think about real art history. Perhaps one of you will believe a story in the New York Times, the paper you count on to tell you what is and what isn’t good art? Try this.
There was no more than the most minimal justification why a big canvas with paint poured arbitrarily on it was to be considered a world class masterpiece that would destroy the value system that had prevailed since Giotto in the Western Painting tradition. But in the 1950s painters like Manet or Courbet became entirely irrelevant, as they had narrative content. They were depicting their times and their view subjective view of it. Now the only thing considered relevant were absurdly oversize abstract paintings. And those became irrelevant soon enough with Pop. But the job had been accomplished of entirely divorcing art from social reality, which was the job that Greenberg and his CIA helpers had been tasked to accomplish.
This is all perfectly clear. The most significant artists in America prior to 1948 as reported in Look Magazine were artists like Ben Shahn, George Grosz, Max Beckmann. But these artists were pointing in their work to the maladies of Capitalism. And we were in a culture war to promote the great benefits of Capitalism against the worker’s paradise promise of Communism. One can say this was idealistic and well-intended (although I wouldn’t). But one cannot say that this isn’t exactly what happened.
The promotion and hyping and mythologizing of Abstract Expressionism was done for purely political reasons. That work isn’t remotely the accomplishment it’s been made out to be by culture hustlers and art historians who are totally clueless about art and what might constitute substantive artistic achievement.
As reported in the Guardian yesterday:
[Frank Stella] was born in Malden, a suburb of Boston, to parents who were both painters–his mother studied painting and his father worked as a house painter before becoming a gynecologist. Shortly after Stella started making art, he spotted a Vogue fashion shoot where models posed in front of an abstract painting by Franz Kline. “I saw and thought, ‘I could do that,'” he said of the painting.
Note the sly sarcasm of the reporter writing his parents were both painters. His mother a hobbyist taking lessons. His father painting houses. Nobody in their right minds outside the art world sees a Frank Stella painting as anything much, I can tell you that from talking to them. But within the art world he’s a towering genius. And solely because of the success of Greenberg at touting thoroughly mediocre paintings as manifestly superior to the School of Paris painters that preceded them when they were, in fact, a pale imitation of them. Many of them were simply third rate derivations of Monet’s late paintings without the foggiest notion of how Monet arrived at those paintings.
Jackson Pollock is Austin Osman Spare automatic drawing, only lacking the drafting ability of Spare. Max Ernst did the first drip painting and rightly saw it was little more than a gimmicky spatial effect and never pursued it further. Janet Sobel, the outsider artist, did many drip paintings no different than Pollock outside of the fact Pollock did his on a massive scale and regularized the field. He actually stole the technique from Sobel as he hadn’t been using it when he saw her work along with Greenberg. It’s easy to imagine, and I believe it happened, that Greenberg suggested Pollock try it out on his larger canvases. After that, Greenberg touted it as the breakthrough of the ages casting Pollock into a locked into position that drove him into drink and madness. Pollock tried to reintroduce drawing (as Spare and other automatists did who had academic training) and his deficiencies as a draftsman become apparent. His Portrait and a Dream has a face that’s little better than the low level drawing of Julian Schnabel).
Of course, Greenbergianism dispenses with drawing as being a meaningful part of painting. Entirely irrelevant as of the moment NYC took over the definition of high art. Imagine how far a music critic would have gone promoting the theory that learning to play an instrument was no longer a necessary part of making great music. Imagine a literary critic writing that basic writing skills were no longer necessary for writing great literature. Some of this happened in music and writing certainly, all part of the great Modernist experiment. Now we have Jennifer Weiner and Stephen King and HBO’s Girls in our high culture magazine, The New Yorker. Great literature isn’t much on the agenda these days.
I’m hardly the only one saying this… except, of course, in the art world. The art world simply can’t imagine going back to the 1950s and locating where it went off the rails and drove itself first into the ditch before digging itself down as far into the mud as it could possibly go.
Why not hear from Philip Roth? He used to write literature before deciding it was totally pointless to do so as there was no longer a culture capable of receiving it. A Roth will speak out clearly about where we are. But in the Art World? Vague mumblings? Hardly even that. A population of sycophants too busy kissing the ass of the person above them on the ladder to have an independent opinion, much less to voice it.
Who in the art world would write or say what Roth says in the line below (quoted from Exit Ghost)?
“This is a very backward country, and the people are easily bamboozled.”
“I could not believe what I saw when a creature so rooted in his ruthless pathology, so transparently fraudulent and malicious as Nixon, defeated Humprey in ’68, and when, in the eighties, a self-assured knucklehead whose unsurpassable hollowness and hackneyed sentiments and absolute blindness to every historical complexity became the object of national worship and, esteemed as a ‘great communicator’ no less, won each of his own terms in a landslide.”
“There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think. That time is coming to an end… In the Soviet Union… it was the serious writers who were expelled from literature; now, in America, it is literature that has been expelled as serious influence on how life is perceived.”
“Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era.” (ed: I would add visual artists as well, and we were finished even before that by who else? Reading/writing people. As I keep emphasizing, it was the critics and art writers who destroyed the visual arts turning it into childish scribbles and infantile provocations like Piss Christ and the moronic soft core paintings of John Currin and Eric Fischl. So it serves them all right, Roth included, for not saying anything whatsoever about what was happening in the NYC art world. What goes around comes around.)
And Roth writes: “Destroying reputations is how these little nobodies make their little mark. People’s values and obligations and virtues and rules are [in their view] nothing but a cover.”
But where are Roth and the rest as the little nobody Clement Greenberg smeared and soiled all the great American and European painters that Abstract Expression would declare irrelevant through eternity to make way for Op and Pop and Glop?
Again, Roth and the literary community said not a thing as Pop and Op and Miminimalism reduced the Western Tradition of Painting to nothingness. Roth was, in fact, a good friend of Guston’s and his R. Crumb imitation work. Guston preposterously talked about himself as the inheritor of the legacy of painters like Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. How much more absurd can it get? Pomposity and grandiosity were the hallmarks of those self-absorbed New York School painters in the 1950s. The Me generation hardly started with Ronald Reagan. So I’m afraid I have little sympathy for Philip Roth, Will Self and the others lamenting the loss of culture. Had they fought for its loss in the visual arts instead of supporting the destruction of painting, then the fate of literature could have perhaps been different. No way to know if the collapse could have been forestalled. But it’s clear to me that writers themselves advocating painting which says nothing about the social world we live in set the stage for readers to not give a damn whether writers like Self and Roth tried to describe it either.
Cue Marina Abramovic and David Hockney’s “art lite” and so on.
Baudelaire was surrounded by like-minded visual artists who he supported in his writing. So with the poets around Picasso and the Surrealists. Our writers have gone along with the charade of the Greenberg and Leo Castellis art with visual artists totally abandoning any involvement with social reality or any reality for that matter.
They should try looking into the mirror for having either promoted the situation we live in now by letting the deterioration of visual culture go unremarked or actively promoting as the art critics in art magazines have done ceaselessly. I find the cries of art critics now totally hollow as they lament the current stagnant pool in contemporary museums. The art that exists there now is entirely by their own prescription. The critics themselves established these non-values, this neo-dadaist babbling as the language artists were required to speak in if they were to be “relevant” to the “dialogue”. Ironic detachment is the requirement set by art critics for artists to align themselves with. Go back through art history and try to find the great works of artists of the past based in ironic detachment.
It’s over. They killed it. Artists let them. And nobody says a word.