Sunday, April 10, 2011

The progressive formulas of modern art history

In reading art history, one often comes across an assertions of a certain type, the general form of which is this... "After X, nothing was the same".  In this formulation, the X can stand for any number of things... an artist, an artwork, an art movement, a new philosophy of art, a new way of painting, a new way of thinking about art, a new way of criticizing art, etc.  Let's call this formulation the progressive formula. Below are some examples of the progressive formula.

"After Van Gogh, no one looks at color the same way"

"After Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painting took a new direction"

"After Kandinsky, the object lost it's hold on the mind of the artist"

"After Impressionism, the old ways of seeing were dead"

"After Pollock's drip paintings, the picture plane become flat"

These progressive formulations raise two questions. First, is it literally true that after some event, that the future was never the same. Secondly, how is it that an event might cause one to literally change their view of the future.

I. Was the future really affected as asserted by the progressive formulation?

There is a boldness to the above assertions that is exciting, and if art history is to be believed, these assertions seem very true. After all, each of the artists mentioned above did affect the art that came after them. And each of the artists mentioned above was at the forefront of avant garde art in their times, so their actions had the affect of steering the cutting edge of art in a new direction.

It is no accident that the examples above are from the history of modern art. Modern art is conceived of as a progression, as an evolution, and so there must be points of departure from one stage to the next. The artists who are considered to be the transition from one stage to the next are afforded the highest prestige in this kind of history. This is the official method of describing modern art...that of a historical progression from one breakthrough to the next.

But how it is that new ideas can destroy old ones, when they don't actually contradict the old idea. After all, in the formulation above, "After Van Gough, no one looks at color the same way", I have to wonder, "Why not?" Does Van Gogh's expressionistic use of color really contradict and destroy the previous views on color?  Or is it just something new and different?

It would be one thing if artistic discoveries revealed errors in previous artistic ideas or practices, but that doesn't happen very often. An example might me the Renaissance discover of linear perspective, which revealed the error in how perspective was understood by Gothic painters. But even at that, one could argue that the "incorrect" Gothic perspective functioned artistically within their creations. It seems difficult to criticize art practices as being in error, since even errors can be successfully integrated into the work. The only true errors seem to be those that would prevent successful construction of the artwork itself.

In art history, the meaning and value of artists are inevitably tied up in the way in which they have been woven into the historical narrative. To reevaluate a single artist may raise or lower their status, but to reevaluate the way in which the narrative of art history is conceived is to throw the whole system of artistic prestige out the window. A critical examination of the progressive formula is just such a reevaluation, which is unfortunate, because I have no bones to pick with the artists themselves.

What can be said about the progressive formula then? The first thing, I suppose, is that the formula relies on presumptions about the relevancy of what of what comes AFTER the watershed event. For instance, for the progressive formula "After Van Gogh, no one looks at color the same way", there is a built in presumption about who "no one" consists of.  Obviously, most people continued to look at color the exact same way. For the formula to remain true, those people are not allowed to count. Those who count are those fellow avant garde travelers who picked up on the new thing pioneered by Van Gogh.

What this points out is that art historians do not write a narrative of all the people, only some of the people. The history of modern art is the history of a small stream of avant garde artists and intellectuals, otherwise know as the art world. This group is made to be representative of the entire world through the sheer will of the artists and intellectuals who assert that the avant garde are the only group that matter. Judgments such as this require a morality, and the morality of modern art is clearly the morality of progress. From a post-modern perspective it would be called the mythology of progress.

The progressive formulations of the art world are not surprising. Those with power always write the history. The problem is that power-based histories are not only a selective retelling of events (which is the nature of history in general), but that the power that underlies the narrative crushes alternative narratives. The suppression of alternative points of view perpetuates a cycle of opposition, of continual cultural warfare, with new victors and new histories emerging over time.

If these were real wars, with real dead bodies, people might ask "When will the killing end?" As it is, we dutifully commit to memory the history of cultural warfare, with no concern for the trail of destruction. We call this, being educated. It's a start, at least.

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