Everything is against them.” Gertrude Stein
The quality of new art has been declining for fifteen years. There are some probable reasons for this, but none which finally explain the fundamental fact of why. There have been almost no first-rate artists in this time. Neither do similar reasons explain why there were so many in the late ’40s and early ’50s and the late ’50s and early ’60s. Despite all that’s wrong in this society it’s the responsibility of the new artists to occur. The explanation that the times and the society are bad is pointless. Probably they have always been and the issue is whether too bad or a little better. The reason for doing nothing is always wrong. There is also the responsibility of the older artists to uphold a high quality. At present they do this in their work, but not otherwise . . . The presence of good artists is exceedingly given by themselves; it’s the ultimate, obdurate fact. Reform may allow new artists but not necessarily. It has been shown many times that more money or a greater audience guarantee nothing. Wide or narrow, the condition in which art is made is much more important. There is a limit to the use of art and art doesn’t tolerate frivolity and abuse.
The most general reasons for the present difficulty of art and for recurrent difficulties are pretty obvious, even trite, but considering the meager knowledge that I plan to complain of they must be stated. One of the main attitudes of the present is that the past is merely a toy store, so some history is necessary. Later I want to emphasize that most of the past is inaccessible to us.
In the last 200 years or so the society has changed from a rural one to an industrial one, and the economic leadership from the top of the one to the top of the other. At the same time the population has grown unimaginably. The majority of the society, as the descendants of peasants, brand new people who remember little, has had to be educated. There were not enough educated people to do this; the group was originally very small. As they taught their much more numerous successors, the level couldn’t be maintained, until finally only bare information was taught, if science, and academic nonsense, if the arts. In Texas I once went with a teacher to a lecture by a woman well-known there for having taught ‘creative writing 1 in high school for a lifetime. Her idea of creative was not even rudimentary, for example, decorate the sentence and never simply say ‘it’s raining.’ Two hundred younger teachers listened to her impoverished schema, understanding, by their questions, even less. Presumably the next day they went to work and taught 4000 students less than that. This is the fundamental knowledge of the society. And some of those students will go on to become rich businessmen, a few the trustees of museums and universities, or politicians. So similarly there is always a lower rising wave curious about art who remember less. And now even artists.
Education is the ultimate problem in the United States, and in Europe too, although better there. It’s the ultimate problem of civilization and everything depends on it, certainly politics and the wars. The Europeans were ignorant and foolish enough to almost destroy each other over matters already obsolescent, and so damaged the world’s only high civilization. This left the world to two large and backward nations bent on being equally ignorant and foolish, and more conclusive. The United States was not so great in the last century, but seems to have been better then than now, with much discussion of purposes and some sense of communality. Now the literature seems like that of another country.
Ever since Bernini no first-rate artist has worked for an institution. Religion as an institution was no longer credible to serious artists. It’s to the credit of artists that for them dying institutions invalidate themselves earlier than for others. Many artists continued to believe in a personal variant of Christianity, but religion was no longer an advance in the understanding of humanity and of nature. By now religion is just another superstition. Before Bernini religion was the nature of the world and of man, and for the most part, despite corruption and suppression, its morality and cosmology opposed commerce and mundane power. For a century there has been no counterforce to power and commerce, nothing to say that the existence of the individual and of the world, their relationship, that between individuals, and activities which signify these, such as art, are not a matter of business and are not to be bought and sold.
Religion was good riddance but art, architecture and music no longer had an institutional support. They could only make and sell and so live within the context of commerce. As the distance increased from the standards of the church and of the nobility, and with the increasing ignorance, there was less and less restraint upon the businessmen, the final one being that it’s after all necessary to understand and maintain the value of the commodity. Today art is only a cut above being an ordinary commodity and close to being manipulated as any compliant commodity should be. [. . .]
At best there’s nothing wrong with commerce. And it’s hard to overrate the importance of economics. Business is often straightforward, and as a source of income for artists, if matter-of-fact, it’s best. Demand is a reality. Business is much preferable to patronage by the central government’s bureaucrats or by the often appalling nouveau riche and their kids, rotten before they are ripe, as Diderot said of the Russians improved by Peter. But buying and selling and even raising or making essentials is just that. It’s a necessary basis for civilization, even a part, but it’s not civilization itself. There’s no real way to glorify business just as it’s hard to glorify eating and sleeping. Business doesn’t deserve the power and prestige surrounding it. Business is only business.
Commerce is nearly the only activity in this society. Even the central government is an aspect of commerce, by selling weapons, an outrageous and despicable business. Virtually a whole civilization, new knowledge and attitudes, must be built to oppose commerce. This counterforce has to be new, can’t be one or all of the ever more debased religions, which are too ignorant to be ethical, political or even ‘spiritual.’ The opposition can’t be an institution but must be lots of diverse and educated people arguing and objecting. These people must have real knowledge and judgment and they must have an influence upon the less educated majority. Art of a high quality should be part of the opposition to commerce but art is close to being forced underground by it, as architecture has been recently, and music and dance throughout this century. And also too much of science, although there is more opposition in science than elsewhere. For a century there have usually been two versions of each art, one real, but poor and underground, and one fake, although rich and conspicuous. The latter ingests the former as needed. [. . .]
Art used to have issues, as Barnett Newman called them. For fifteen years the issues have grown fewer and weaker. Now we’re all supposed to be ‘doing our own thing.’ Art will become the occasional gesture of the isolated person. It’s considered undemocratic to say that someone’s work is more developed or more broad in thought or more advanced, as complex as that term may be, than someone else’s. It’s not nice to say that my work is better than yours. This vapid attitude is part of the same throughout the society. The one small idea in this attitude is that art should be democratic. But politics alone should be democratic. Art is intrinsically a matter of quality. A commitment to democracy in politics is included in the synthesis that is very good art. One ploy in the ongoing destruction of democracy in politics is to pass democracy along to weak groups and activities that are irrelevant to the politicians. If a serious chance for democracy arises in the central government everyone is horrified. [. . . ] Anyway, in art and elsewhere everyone is not equal and it’s hypocrisy and confusion to pretend so. Let the governments allow the citizens to be equal as citizens in the places where they live. Quality of thought and effort, except in the role of citizens, is not part of this. It should be rewarded, not denigrated. [. . . ]
[. . . ] The last general point is that few understand how past and over the past is. But also that the present is presently the past, and all that’s good that arrives there should be conserved assiduously. The people most fond of symbols from the past are also the ones most heedless of its reality. The guy in Tucson with the Spanish-Colonial TV set is the one who bulldozed the adobe houses in the old part of town. This tourist’s view of the past devalues issues and reality in the present. It fits that conservatives in the United States are not real conservatives. (Liberals are not liberals, either.) It’s necessary to life to understand the past and preserve it; it’s life to do something now. [. . . ]
Obviously we understand much, and profoundly, in past art and architecture but it is a delusion to believe that we understand everything. It’s not possible to understand everything about art and architecture even if it’s done now. The full meaning of what’s seen fades quickly. The intrigue of an old style partially supplants the relevance of the present but much is lost. In art and architecture it’s impossible to use forms from the past. They become symbols, and not profound ones either, but on the order of the colonial TV set. Form is a wobbly word to use because form and content is a false division derived from another false division, thought and feeling. Certainly form and content, whatever, are made of generalizations but also they are made of particulars, obdurate and intimate. The particulars tend to escape later understanding. The only instance in which the past is more than usually relevant to the present is when the continuity is very strong, bringing the past to the present. This may be the case in the language and literature of Iceland. It might be so in the architecture of Italy. But few artists and architects now have any experience of even the recent past. Despite differences, we – Europeans, European Colonials, Japanese and some others – grow up in the middle-class industrial society, all with the same government education. The poor are just poor and the rich only have more expensive symbols.
The most recent situations in art and architecture depend on the exploitation of history, done by some who are ignorant and naive for a corresponding audience, but worse, done by some who are cynical. If something new is to look important it has to look like something that has become important, which takes time. The work of Matisse and Newman, of most good artists since Bernini, cannot at first have looked important in this extrinsic sense. Instant importance is a lot easier to make than real importance and far easier to sell. David Rabinowitch said about this air of importance that it’s the essence of academicism.
The audience only remembers that the art resembling what they are looking at is reproduced in all the books. They don’t realize that the work in the books was new and original, and cannot be a type. They don’t understand that the type has been produced afterwards by a few second-rate artists and many mediocre ones, the whole declining steadily to banality, pedantry and insincerity.
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Much is made now of the catchword ‘post-modern,’ which includes more every day. This term has been made by changing the meaning of the word ‘modern’ from ‘now,’ which is all it ever meant, to a meaning as a style, which the word cannot mean, since no style can include such diversity. Wright, van der Rohe and Corbusier are thrown together and tossed off as being ‘modern.’ This ‘modern’ means only earlier and by now opprobriously established, and ‘postmodern’ means modern. I’ve thought of an even better label, ‘post-contemporary.’ ‘Post-modern’ is being used to obscure the issue of quality by claiming a presentness and a popularity supposedly superior to that of acknowledged art and architecture, no matter how good they are and in fact regardless of their pertinence, democracy and acceptance so far. This is cant. It’s hypocrisy to seem to criticize the work of the recent past, especially by ascribing spurious purposes and meanings to it, while indiscriminately mining the greater past. It’s setting up a straw man to supersede to identify ‘modern’ with the ‘international style,’ a commercial simplification of van der Rohe’s work, made by the same architects, Johnson for one, who now say that the style is cold and repetitious, as they made it, and that it must be replaced by another, hopefully diverse and entertaining. The elaboration of the term ‘post-modern’ is not due to real change but is due to naked fashion and the need to cover it with words. [. . . ]
Originally published as ‘A long discussion not about master-pieces but why there are so few of them’ in two parts in Art in America, New York, September 1984.