Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

ONE MORE TIME—WHAT IS ART?

This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.” Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art. There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form. Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices. By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists. Indeed many street artists, such as JR, pride themselves on keeping a distance from the art market.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art. The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers. The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune. Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics. The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style. Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists. But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one. At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife. He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades. One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or become historical and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf. During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located. Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans. To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone. To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come. Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law. Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled. Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings. The police control the streets. No unauthorized signage is allowed. The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners. For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame. Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits. The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names. He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the French artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris. Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces. Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across. All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity. The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion. But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape. He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts. As “Mr. Brainwash,” he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera. Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines. The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.” In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be. If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is. The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive. Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire. Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters. But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.” The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.” The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts. The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art? Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true. He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone. How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary? All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis. Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial. It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening. As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art. What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes? Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.” An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other. To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter. Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else. But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists. They knew what they were doing and why. But that was decades ago. Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child. He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others. All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London. He learned from Basquiat. A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example. You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans. It will fall, making no sound. Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility. The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight. And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie. His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene. By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible. But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed. The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap. There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Keith Haring, who used white chalk on black paper. The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants. We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces. Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components. Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper. All of this costs money. Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist? From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is. He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place. Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years. But that does not answer the real question: is he making art? The short answer is No. The long answer is No Way. Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art. This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism. I am not condemning the man. I am simply describing how he works. Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.” But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra. What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication? Thierry Guetta. Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion. By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists. If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits. Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not. Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world. He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery. Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition. Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time. They would give their art; the authorities would take it away. Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act. Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor. The art could be seen but not for long. It could not be owned nor possessed. The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach. The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop. But it is Desire that creates art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory

POSTMODERNISM

Coining the Term

“Postmodernism” was a term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. For Toynbee, this new period, beginning in 1875 actually coincided with the modernist avant-garde in the art world of Paris. However, Toynbee examining a larger swarth of history and noted the rise of “mass:” mass culture, mass education and mass culture. When he died in 1975, the “post-modern” was already ninety years old but the intellectual world was just beginning to incorporate the concept. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If Toynbee’s concept of the masses could be applied to the art world it could be seen in the rise of the larger culture of women and people of color and other other artistic impulses to challenge the white male elite who painted large abstract paintings. The masses had come to break down the Modernist hegemony and to scatterer the “rules of art” into the fractured world of pluralism.

The collapse of the dominance of Modernism was a signal that a new questioning was occurring—a questioning of the entire basis of Western philosophy and its products. That new skepticism was called Postmodernism. By 1970 “modern art” had become a period style, a historical entity. The style of Modernism had evolved into a vocabulary of ornament and had developed into a grammar of available forms. Modernism was used as an international art language, which both dispersed its vocabulary but also thinned out its avant-garde origins. This concept of a single “style” or the morality of abstract art as being hegemonic broke down, and painting and sculpture, the best carriers for abstraction, declined as dominant art forms. Self-confined to the museum and gallery, modernist art was vulnerable to being challenged by artistic expressions that were not restricted to artistic traditions. The entry of the “theatrical” with installation art and the flight of environmental art from the “white cube” made the Kantian contemplation of the serenely independent art object impossible.

As art moved out of the museums and into the actual environment and new technologies took center stage, the entire epistemology of Modernist art began to disappear. As the younger generation of artists rejected the old tenets of the meaning and purpose of art, Modernism could no longer hold its own against the expansion of means of art making. Although there are multiple moments in time where one might see a Postmodern direction, this breakdown of Modernism and the rise of Pluralism probably preceded Postmodernism in the s consciousness of the art public. Postmodernism was a time and a period: after Modernism, but over time the differences between the two movements are becoming clearer. Despite Toynbee, the Postmodern in the world of the arts was a short shiver, a shaking off of Modernism for a pseudo style which rapidly aged and dated. While Modernism had a sound philosophical foundation, in the arts it was expressed largely through art criticism, from Stéphane Mallarmé to Clement Greenberg. In contrast Postmodernism was a pluralistic mélange of theoretical position or reinterpretations and re-readings of Modernist theories.

Modernism (1860-1960)

Modernism, as a movement, was opposed to popular or bourgeois taste and espoused the avant-garde stance of the alienated artist. Modernism, as a means of analyzing art, assumes a cultural equality of diverse art, critiqued through a formalist methodology which levels out difference. The work of art is a self-referential object in a self-critical relationship with itself and with its medium. The medium is the crucial determinant in the pursuit of identity, as the problem of art was perceived by Clement Greenberg was to eliminate surplus, such as “realism” or cultural or life-reference, which interferes with that which is qualitatively significant in art. Art must self-identify as a physical object and must suppress metaphor or symbolism–art could not “represent” anything but art. Therefore Modernism rejected what Clement Greenberg called “literary forcing” or a dependence upon the narrative.

The Modernist theories of Clement Greenberg were based upon Enlightenment models: Hegelian and Marxian and Kantian. Because these models were formal and answerable to large forces, such as “history,” art had to be isolated in order to respond appropriately to the critic’s grand narrative. The result is an internal contradiction: either art is relevant because it is an expression of an Enlightenment version of the human spirit or individuality or art is transcendent and is uninvolved with “the world” in which case, how can art be meaningful? As Marx pointed out, everything is pregnant with its own contradiction, and Postmodern artists reacted against transcendence and immanence. Pop artists were, like the Impressionists who worked a hundred years earlier, only reacting to the time honored advice: to be of your own time. By the 1960s, the Modernist imperative of pure art, transcending the ordinariness of banal reality had broken down to the point where aestheticians Arthur Danto and George Dickey had to cobble together a framework for judgment called “the institutional theory of art.”

Pre-Postmodern artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Eliminating Kantian universality of the disinterested judgment of art, the relativistic and pragmatic “institutional theory” had to be asserted in order to create the legitimacy of “copying” a Brillo box by Warhol and the fact that a difference had te be made between representation and resemblance. The idea of “artistic creativity” became re-defined as artists and art historians rediscovered Marcel Duchamp who seemed to answer the need to refute Modernism. Duchamp applied a Kantian disinterest to his art making practice and carried out detachment to the logical extreme of “indifference.” What happened to Modernism was that the critique which was at its heart twisted around and turned upon itself, emptying out its humanistic stance and replacing art with language. Perhaps due to the impact of Marcel Duchamp, postmodern art became more conceptual, exposing the hidden heart of of Modernism: representation. The Modernist artist “represented” humanity by “representing” individuality,” but the postmodern artist, thinking of Duchamp began making art that did not “represent” but was “about” an idea.

After the death of Duchamp, by the rebellious period of the seventies, Modernism became a partisan position, identified with American boosterism, Clement Greenberg, Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and an elitist mission to preserve high art. Modernism also became entangled with the politics of the times, echoing the imperialist attitude for American art and the heroic character of American art, which at the same time attempted to justify its exclusion of women and people of color. Modernism also became caught up in the rising tide of the highly profitable art market in New York which was able to co-opt avant-garde art and to transform a high style into a salable commonplace. Abstract art became vernacularized and with an affluent society invested in an increasingly consumer-based culture, the public lost the need for an “absolute” meaning for art. “Modern art” became another period style that was characterized by a perceptual, sensuous surface that was polyphonic and all over. The assumed self-integrity of the artist collapsed along with the conceit the significance of unity and centrality of consciousness.

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

Modernism’s “will to style” and its hierarchical way of thinking about art was rejected by the concepts of Postmodernism. Postmodernism questioned how value in art is determined and answered that value was a social construct and could never be independent. Human consciousness had always been psychically entangled with fine art, but postmodern philosophers dismantled the notion of the independent subject. Unity of consciousness was impossible to achieve, not necessarily desirable, and there was no final resolution of parts. It was previously assumed that “art” worked and existed in a dialectical situation with art being defined by what is “not art,” but Postmodernism accepts the notion of irresolution and incompleteness by recognizing the interdependent linguistic and conceptual overlap between “high art” and “low art.” Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new historicism of Postmodernism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The only question is—not what it “means”—but how it’s all put together.

In this new age of Indifference, Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over and the disillusionment of something called Late Modernism or Postmodernism took the place of the innocence of pure art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire who could have predicted art functioning as fad, fashion, and consumer good. As Foucauldrian socialist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, an artistic strategy of legitimization, par excellence, was the “return to origins” or to the purity of the first rebellion. This “return” to an art for the people seen so strongly in the art of the Sixties and Seventies, was a form of longing for the comforts of a past that never existed but this nostalgia was one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s desire to look back and not forward.

In rejecting the futuristic position of the avant-garde, Postmodernism re-placed itself into the stream of history and in acknowledging the past, art underwent a sea change. One of the major distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism is based upon the concept of a truth or of a transcendence. Modernism sought to transcend time and place. Modernism desired to be universal by passing over the particular and the local and the peculiar in favor of the absolute. Modernism, in its quest for transcendence will always attempt to remain pure, bounded, contained, seeking closure, to seal itself off from the world in order to rise above it. Modernism was created after the fact by theories, or “truisms,” that were merely ways of looking at and speaking about works of art, all devised and developed self-reflexively during the Modernist period. From the position of post-post-modernity, it seems clear that Postmodernism was a correction to Modernism, a difference obtained by asserting its polar opposite.

Postmodernism is a mega term, suggesting two possibilities. One is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism in that we have moved beyond Modernism and into another era, as not yet understood. The second prospect is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism through a new purification: we perceived the error of our ways. While once a work of art was perceived as an object separated from its context and from its signifying functions, Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the point of view that art stands alone. There is no escaping the literary dimension of all works of art, which are necessarily poetic, referential and metaphorical. Content, not form, becomes crucial and content is always historically mediated, created through and defined by history. Found styles, left over from history, are left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude. Postmodern painter and bricoleur David Salle exerted no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity of meaning.

In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize through a limited vocabulary, Postmodernism combined art and theater in a frank theatricality that beckons to the now activated art audience who recognizes the references and joins in a game of play, sorting through the assemblage of historical quotations. The idea of “style” itself is bankrupt and the work of art is an assemblage, such that of Charles Ray, that refuses unity. Postmodernism, while unsure of its impact or to put it another way is reluctant to announce its self-importance, is concerned with how art communicates. For Rebecca Horn art is language and the relationship of the signifier to the signified depends upon the reaction of the spectator, making the work of art non-hermetic and readable. The result is a doubling of signifiers, a shorthand crowding of givens that are never explained only felt, that empties out art content. The givens of immediate perception have no ability to generate symbolic meaning. When the rhinoceros horns, “detached” from the animal’s theoretical body and crafted by Horn gradually move towards each other, when the tips “kiss” with electric eroticism, the Kiss of the Rhinoceros in 1989 is just a kiss.

Coming after high-flying Modernism, the Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance. All one can do is to comment upon the precursor. Preferring intellectual scorn, postmodernism is ironic rather than openly rebellious. Postmodernist critiques of modern philosophy will note that Enlightenment concepts, such as Structuralism, depend upon figurative models of depth and division. Karl Marx built a model of society resting upon a base, which supported the superstructure, Sigmund Freud built a model of a divided but enclosed mind, segmented into sections and built upon two levels: the conscious and the unconscious, Ferdinand de Saussure built a model of language based upon boundary and enclosure, Claude Lévi-Strauss built a model based upon depth or seeking meaning below the surface of a narrative.

These Modernist philosophical architectonic models would later be critiqued as being figural and constructive metaphors, embedded in Enlightenment discourse, existing in an unquestioned condition. The architectonic tropes of the conceptual models were circular arguments that ignored the history of their own making but were reflections of Enlightenment thinking that sought answers and certainty, based upon the powers of the rational human mind and its powers. The guarantee of the efficacy of these models was the authenticity of presence which in turn was based upon desire–desire to resolve, desire to make sense of the world–that drives the structure of the model. Postmodernism would smash the carefully constructed models by reviewing philosophical writing as writing, as writing, as a form of literature. The theorists would deliberately read against the grain, feeling blindly for the elements that couldn’t quite be suppressed through rational and logical thinking. In a visual answer, postmodern art understood modernist art as a dictionary of dislocated languages to be deconstructed.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Institutional Theory of Art

HOW OBJECTS BECOME “ART”

In writing The Artworld, art writer and philosopher, Arthur Danto, laid out a history of how art history had to change its theories of what art was supposed to be in the face of new objects. He said, “Suppose one thinks of the discovery of a whole new class of artworks as something analogous to the discovery of a whole new class of facts anywhere, viz., as something for theoreticians to explain,” and mentioned the shift away from the Imitation theory of art when Post-Impressionism came on the scene. He continued, “Suppose, then, tests reveal that these hypotheses fail to hold, that the theory, now beyond repair, must be replaced. And a new theory is worked out, capturing what it can of the old theory’s competence, together with the heretofore recalcitrant facts.” This was Danto’s way of laying the groundwork for yet another aesthetic reordering.

By the time Danto was writing in 1964, a new definition of art was long overdue. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp opened the door to a question everyone thought had been answered: “What is art?” If “anything”, even a bicycle wheel, even a bottle rack, even a urinal, could be “art”, then how can the “precincts” of art be protected from “non” or “not” art? The power shifts from the “art” itself to the gatekeepers, those–the artists—who are (self)-empowered to define “art”. Today this outcome seems self-evident, but in the early years of the twentieth century, Duchamp was an underground artist, understood only by a very few individuals. He was absorbed first into Dada and then into Surrealism,where the fact that he had redefined art and artist was interpreted as “anti-art.”

Whether they were influenced by Duchamp or not, both Neo-Dada and Pop artists began (re)making ordinary objects. Danto approached the results with caution. On one hand there was enough artistic intervention—Jasper Johns painted, Robert Rauschenberg dumped paint onto a bed, Claes Oldenburg built a bed, shaped like a rhomboid—to make these objects “art” in the traditional sense. But Danto had doubts, “What, after all, prevents Oldenburg’s creation from being a mis- shapen bed? This is equivalent to asking what makes it art, and with this query we enter a domain of conceptual inquiry…”

Several pages later, Danto reaches the heart of the matter: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, shown at the Stable Gallery. “Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist, displays facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket. They happen to be of wood, painted to look like cardboard, and why not?” Danto asked, “In fact the Brillo people might, at some slight increase in cost, make their boxes out of plywood without these becoming artworks, and Warhol might make his out of cardboard without their ceasing to be art.”

After puzzling over the Brillo Boxes and their status as “art,” Danto concluded,

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art, and in order to see it as part of the artworld, one must have mastered a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting. It could not have been art fifty years ago.

So, art is made by the theory of art which is in turn made by at the art world. Art is what the art world accepts. The concept of the “artworld”—one word—was taken up later by the aesthetician George Dickie who suggested a more complex theory of art that rested upon the institution, which was known as the “institutional theory of art.” As Dickie pointed out later, the artworld was at the heart of the institutional theory. “A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or some persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).” Dickie was concerned about the framework of the institution.

For the philosopher the artist and the audience were the necessary elements of the institution’s framework. The artist is aware that what she is producing is art and the audience is aware that what he is looking at is art. In addition to these two major actors are what Dickie call “supplementary” actors: critics, curators, teachers, directors, and dealers, all of whom are part of the institution. All of these agents and their acts are governed by rules. These “rules” are conventions.

On the surface, it would seem that the theories of Danto and Dickie, who are often coupled, are co-extensive but, in fact, there are important distinctions between the two. Danto, an art critic, had to account for the presence of a set of Brillo Boxes as “art.” Dickie, an aesthetician, had to redefine art. For Dickie the ontology of “art” was its artifactuality, i.e., it had to exist as “art.” The issue of intrinsic or extrinsic properties was neither here nor there as long as the artifact deemed “art” existed. However, after two decades of dealing with the impact of Duchamp on the definition of art, by 1984 Dickie had to rethink this early theory of art as artifact and take into account the fact of an object that was untouched by the artist. In other words, the emphasis shifted to the institution or the artworld.

An art world system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an art world public,” Dickie concluded. In his 2009 book, How to Study Art Worlds, Hans van Maanen, concluded his chapter on George Dickie by explaining the importance of his theory:

Firstly, there is his concept of roles and rules, which clarifies the significance of conventions in making an art world system op- erate; secondly, there is his emphasis on the essential role of the public, a public which exists as a more or less prepared addressee of the artist’s activity.

The modernist or traditional perspective was that art was eternal and absolutely recognizable and independent of the system of cultural production. An institution cannot make art, only an artist can make art. Art comes, not from a site of production but from art itself. Only an artist makes art. However, starting with the belated recognition of the importance of Duchamp, from Neo-Dada to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptual Art, it became clear that the the two hundred year definition of art was untenable.

Danto and Dickie inherited the problem of how to patrol the borders of the art world. For Danto it was a question of who or what was to be admitted to the precincts of the artworld. For Dickie it was the nature of the framework of the artworld and the mode of its reception of the artifact. Who or what would be empowered? Who or what would be would be anointed? When George Dickie implied that an object could become legitimized as “art” if it was “recognized” as such by the art institutions, his institutional theory of art refuted the notion that there was an essential ontology to art.

Art was relative, contingent, and dependent upon the existence of institutional space. The art institution was more than a physical one of museums and galleries, it was also a product of reading about art by an art audience, writing about art by art historians and art critics and current conversations about art–art discourse, all of which contributed to the “making” of an artist or a work of art through naming and designation. With the work of these two writers, “art” was disconnected from its traditional moorings—beauty and Greek art. Suddenly art could be anything; an artist could be anyone; the audience could be everyone; art could be anywhere. All the “institution” had to do was to acknowledge the presence of the artifact and “art” was “made.”

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Conceptual Art

ART AS IDEA—IDEA AS ART

At mid-century, the question of what is art? was raised again for the first time since Emmanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1781. Starting in the mid-fifties, Neo-Dada art and Minimal Art challenged the presumed Modernist definition of “art,” as channeled through Clement Greenberg’s theories. Neo-Dada artists did not create, instead they borrowed and appropriated already available imagery. Pop artists mocked the pretensions of “high” art with their mimicry of “low” art. Minimal artists did not make works of art, they arranged encounters for the audience. If there was no difference between art and life, if there was no difference between the object and the spectator, if there was no such thing as independent art, if there was no sacred art space, then what was art? and why was this object designated as “Art?”

By the end of the Sixties, the art world was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of Modernism and the continuing tributes to Abstract Expressionism and new challenges to the hegemony of European high Modernism and to the aging Greenberg himself. Anti-modernist Pop Art and Minimalist Art and Fluxus and pro-modernist Post-Painterly Abstraction existed side by side, but in 1970, Conceptual Art emerged out of Duchampian-based interrogations of Modernism. As a movement that generated works of art, Conceptual Art might have been less important for its disdain of objects than for the fact that it presided over the final act of Modernism.

In 1964, it was a suite of Brillo boxes re-fashioned by Andy Warhol that stopped critic Arthur Danto in his tracks at the Stable Gallery. Clearly, a new theory of aesthetics—a new definition of “art”—had to be conceived. In his 1964 essay on The Artworld, Danto pondered this state of affairs:

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art…

Independently, philosopher George Dickie began to refashion aesthetic theory and in 1974 something new emerged: the Institutional Theory of Art, which states that “art” is legitimated by institutional processes. Art does not exist on aesthetic grounds and has no inherent or intrinsic properties. Art is an object “annointed” by the art world. The new functional analysis of the suitability of a candidate for the designation as “art” takes place within the institutional frame and destroys any possibility of the nominalism established by Greenberg.

Questioned by the intellectuals and attacked by artists, formalism collapsed. By 1968, Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth completed the destruction of Modernism by revealing that the “quality” upon which high art was based was nothing more than “taste,” and the taste of Clement Greenberg himself—one man with a good eye for art. “Above all,” he wrote, “Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.” In addition, Kosuth pointed out, the “condition” or definition of art rested upon “morphological” grounds—physical attractiveness. In contrast to the formalists who did not question the received concept of art, the role of the artist was to question the very notion that art had to be an object.

Although Kosuth would be connected to Conceptual Art, his essay is a definitive re-positioning of art. Based upon Marcel Duchamp’s criticisms of “retinal art,” Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy,” 1969, was a definitive art critical end to Greenberg’s Modernism. Kosuth suggested that an act of art was an act of language.

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context ± as art ± they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist¶s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.

TRANSITION TO POSTMODERNISM

The late 1960s and the early 1970s is a time marked by an artistic withdrawal from the established art rules and by a distaste for making saleable objects. Conceptual Art was the first important gesture against the highly profitable art market, attracting artists who refused to make things anymore and/or who had a more intellectual bent. Sol LeWitt was an important transitional figure between Minimal and Conceptual art, and many Minimal artists drifted towards Conceptual art. According to LeWitt’s well-known dictum, “The idea is the machine which makes the art.” The term “conceptual” Itself had been around since the early 1960s, meaning art, which was not sufficiently expressive or personal. The German art movement, Fluxus, was considered “conceptual,” but Sol LeWitt’s 1967, essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” gave the term its first theoretical exegesis. By 1969 the term referred to the works of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Thanks to the first exclusively Conceptual exhibition, January 5 – 31, 1969, arranged by Seth Siegelaub, their dealer, Conceptual Art announced itself. The object had been eliminated in favor of the idea.

Art became Philosophy. Art was now understood to be an idea that could be expressed in language and did not need to become an object. The Art-Language group in London published “Art and Language Point of View” in Art-Language magazine in 1967, stressing the fundamental role of language in the development of art. This group consisted of Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Howard Hurrel who worked with Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden. Conceptual artist from London to Tokyo to New York began to foreground the mental processes of the artist and to present, not works of art, but ideas about art in the form of declarations, statements and documentations of artist’s activities. As Raoul Noortmann wrote in 2012,

It can be argued that Art & Language is the most interesting expression of the resistance of conceptual artists against an alleged oppressive discourse in this decade. Their journal stood as an independent force within the artworld of this decade.

Written material, such as artist’s books and dealers’ catalogs, were presented as evidence of the mental activities of the Conceptual artists. Following the lead of the Minimal artists, these Conceptual artists took an active part in art writing. The writing of Conceptual Art was not intended to be either a work of art or of art criticism but an artist’s idea, which takes the place of a now-unnecessary art object. In contrast to Minimal art which had emphasized the perceptual experience of an object, Conceptual art re-located art in the mind of the artist and in the mind of the spectator. Supported by the austere philosophy of British analytical philosophy, particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conceptual Art represented a total withdrawal from object-ness into a discourse about the philosophical nature of art. As Kosuth wrote in “Art After Art Philosophy,”

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example fromwhich we decipher the nature of the general term art. For where there is a contextexisting separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely tofind results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a language with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that language becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came outof Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), andthe least assuming of all the general art concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a family resemblance.

Post Minimal Art or Conceptual Art changed the notion of abstraction in that the art no longer refers to reduction of form only but to Abstraction as an idea for it’s own sake. 1966- 70 was a watershed year in American art, as options derived from Minimalism, from the elimination of the object—Conceptual Art—to an expressionist revival of painterly issues as seen in Process Art which is a break with Minimalism. Process Art restored the non or anti-object resulting in “the de-materialization of art,” as Lucy Lippard said. Both Conceptual Art and Process Art reject the physicality and the literalness of Minimalism. Conceptual Art completely eliminates the object in favor of texts and language. Kosuth produced a series of Photostat texts-as-art, “Art as Idea,” consisting of definitions of, for example, “red” or “water” or “art” as propositions.

Influenced by the analytic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kosuth saw art as a proposition, that is, a statement of reality put forward to be analytically understood. A proposition “creates” the event or the object and comes out of an a priori concept. “Art” is a proposition that must precede any “art object.” If that is the case, that art is, a priori, a proposition, then there is no need to produce the object. All one needs is a text that defines “red,” and there is no need for a red painting. The viewer is intellectually activated far more than s/he was with Minimalism.

As Sol Le Witt expressed it, “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” When one reads one of Weiner’s enigmatic phrases, such as “…the joining of France and Germany by a rope…” written on a gallery wall, one is forced to “think” or “conceive” of what this “joining” would look like. When Robert Barry announces that he is presenting a photograph of a mile high column of air, one must attempt to envision such a column in the mind. The stress on art and language meant that art and language are interchangeable concepts.

Although any account of Conceptual Art must discuss Marcel Duchamp as a precursor, Duchamp was essentially an artist of the object. Duchamp’s main contribution to the end of the Modernist definition of art was to expand meaning beyond the object. “Meaning” in art was no longer inherent in the object or as an art meaning. Duchamp’s work suggested that meaning is multivalent, that meaning exists as a surplus, spilling over the supposed bounds of the object. In contrast, Conceptual Art was not concerned with meaning per se. Meaning is an externality that is of little interest. What concerned the Conceptual artist of the seventies was the tautology that is art. If Art is a Linguistic System and if Art is Information, then Art is Language.

Conceptual Art opened the door for artists who were writers, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer installed a form of communication or speech-making in galleries and museums, directly addressing the audience who “reads” directives and exhortations. “Your body is a battleground,” as Kruger asserted, was not an analytical Wittgensteinian proposition, but a political statement. Kruger was a designer who stamped out slogans. Holzer wanted to write simple sentences. Had these artists begun their careers twenty years earlier, they would have been expected to paint, but after Conceptual Art, the two women had the art world’s “permission” to turn words into objects.

As Holzer stated in her Truisms, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS.

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Pop Art in Europe

EURO POP

American art history has tended to assume that something called “Pop Art” existed in Europe and has introduced a select group of European artists as examples. However, only London wholeheartedly embraced American popular culture, while other major cities were attempting to reconnect with their pre-war artistic roots. Another significant distinction between American and European Pop was the relevant time periods. American Pop Art may have debuted in the 1960s, but it was the early sixties; and thus, American Pop is really an art of the fifties. American Pop artists were responding to the mass culture of their youth and of the advertising created by middle -ged men, also with the fifties mind set. In contrast, European Pop came from the second half of the 1960s and was much closer to the legendary Sixties or what everyone thinks of when one says “The Sixties.” Pop in London is a good example of the generational split in European Pop that simply did not occur in New York, where Minimal Art routed Pop Art by 1965. That was when in Europe, Pop Art was just beginning.

London

Although American art historians tended to give less space to British Pop, London was where Pop Art was introduced. “Pop” evolved out of private group at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where an organization, the Independent Group, casually convened from 1952 to 55. The artists included Allen Jones, Peter Blake, R. J. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, the architect, Reyner Banham and the art critic, Lawrence Alloway who coined the term “Pop Art.” In 1952 a group of artists from the London Institute of Contemporary Art formed Independent Group, which included critic Lawrence Alloway and artists Richard Hamilton (Just What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?), Peter Blake (Everly Wall) and Edouard Paolozzi (It’s a Psychological Fact Pleasure Helps Your Disposition) and the architects, Alison and Peter Smithson and Reyner Banham.

All of the Independent Group participated in a 1956 group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, This is Tomorrow, featuring what they called a “New Eden.” The new Paradise was post-war America with its abundant consumer culture where all things seemed to be possible, from space travel to readily available sex. The exhibition starred Robbie the Robot from the film The Forbidden Planet as “Adam” and Marilyn Monroe from the film The Seven Year Itch as “Eve” and the unlikely couple could apparently live without shame or fig leaves in this Pop Paradise.

The early London Pop artists were a diverse group. Only Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton dealt directly with American advertising cut from American magazines circulating in London. Alan Jones specialized in misogynistic furniture made from female mannequins wearing bits and pieces of bondage costumes while serving as places upon which to sit or rest one’s feet. Peter Blake was London’s Ray Johnson, specializing in collages of American movie stars and pop stars, such as the Everly Brothers. These collages had a nostalgic sensitivity alien to American Pop. David Hockney was briefly aligned with the British Pop movement, but, like Reyner Banham, he ultimately found his true home in Los Angeles where he painted the hedonistic life among beautiful young men, living in modernist homes flanked by palm trees overlooking palm trees.

By the 1960s, London changed from the London that gave rise to a passive reactive British Pop to a London of the “Youth Quake.” England had recovered from the worst deprivations of the War and by the sixties, and London was “swinging.” What is interesting about this decade is that it was not America that was creating the popular culture; England suddenly surged to the fore as a cultural creator for a new generation. These art forms were not connected to the fine arts but came directly out of popular culture itself. In other words, rather than appropriating popular culture and somehow transforming “low” culture to “high” art, Swinging London created the pop “look” for the Baby Boomers, just then coming of age. One of the few major fine artists to achieve prominence was Bridget Riley whose Op Art paintings were quickly subsumed into the burgeoning fashion industry. Unlike the culture of middle-aged white men huddled in smoke filled rooms in New York advertising agencies, this popular art came from the same young people who were both creating and consuming the products.

The new art makers broke class barriers and propelled lower class heroes, such as Michael Caine, to stardom. These newcomers, of many ethnicities and classes, were drawn to London from the hinterlands of Great Britain, such as Paul McCartney from Liverpool, making this new movement a sub-culture, a youth culture that subverted and undermined the adult culture of the establishment. The artists were designers, like Mary Quant, creator of the Mod Look for women, musical groups like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, photographers like David Bailey, movie directors such as Richard Lester, fashion models like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, and Penelope Tree, movie stars like Julie Christie and Alan Bates and the cult BBC series, Doctor Who. America, swamped in Beatle-mania, had lost the lead in popular culture.

Paris

One of the more obscure and interesting members of British Pop was Ralph Rumney who was hardly ever in England. Rumney was like the Zelig of the 1960s in Europe: he married Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter, Pegeen who later committed suicide. Guggenheim was convinced her son-in-law had either aided in the death or had murdered her daughter. Rather than being associated with the London group of Independent artists, Rumney was part of Situationist International, a French movement, his entire life. As a founding member, he gamely carried on even when he was expelled from the group by its leader, Guy Debord, because, distracted by his wife’s deteriorating condition, Rumney turned in his assigned report on the psychogeography of Venice two days late. After his wife’s tragic death, Rumney hid from persistent journalists in a clinic run by Felix Guattari (who would write several books with Giles Deleuze) and eventually remarried Debord’s ex-wife. Rumney was a conceptual artist, avant la lettre, and envisioned creating an interactive environment for the viewer to determine how art impacted the audience.

Rumney’s concern with the interaction of images and the spectator was shared by his fellow founders of Situationist International. Combining with the Lettrists (founded in 1953) in 1957, SI can be best understood as a group that picked up the surviving elements of Dada, Surrealism and Marxism after a long wartime interruption. Jorn who had been a founding member of CoBrA, an early post-war movement which issued a 1946 Manifesto extolling the creative potential of the masses. When CoBrA was dissolved in 1951, Jorn moved on to SI. Despite the rather retardataire aspects of their thought, SI was impactful on the May 1968 uprisings in Nanterre and Paris. As the apparent leader, Debord summarily expelled not just Rumney but also Asger Jorn and most of the original members drifted way over the next ten years.

The Parisian artists of the Lettrist had used the term, Détournement, to describe their actions which were intended to turn manufactured goods and experiences against the system. In the Native American spirit of throwing one’s worldly goods away, these artists published a journal, Potlatch. They wandered about Paris, in “drifts,” rather like Andé Breton searching for the Marvelous. Situationist International was probably more important as proto-Conceptual neo-Marxist thinkers and did not fit well within the idea of Pop artists, such as Minno Ortella, Raymond Hains or Jacques de la Villeglé in France. Although these artists also dealt with everyday life, they were interested in popular culture and mass media as sources for fine art and used décollage (de-collage or tearing away) or “anonymous lacerations” of advertisements that had been defaced by vandals. These “found images” became works of art.

Where SI and the more artistically inclined French artists come together is the belief in investigating the intersection of art and life, a tenet of Neo-Dada in New York. Aggravated by the threat of capitalism to artistic integrity, SI sought to intervene in public process of “consuming” the “spectacle” of daily life. Like the Frankfurt School, which was in the process of regrouping in Frankfurt, the SI artists updated Marxist thought to take into account the impact of post-war consumerism upon daily life. The Spectacle operated somewhat like bread and circuses in the Roman Empire, as a distraction from the fact that life had become suffused with artificially engendered and enhanced pseudo-meaning through mass media.

The pubic consciousness or mode of thinking had been reshaped thanks to the insistent Spectacle of capitalism. The seat of society was no longer production through active but the passive consumption of images. Spectacle is nothing more than the visual reification of Capital itself. There was no way out of this overpowering situation but to intervene though endless divertissement and a refusal to cooperate with the system. In the spirit of the Arcades of Walter Benjamin, Debord created maps of the psychogeometry of Paris or the mind-set and psychological “aura” of a specific place. In 1967 Debord published his Society of the Spectacle in which he laid out the conditions of “spectacle” and its role in daily life.

1. In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation. 2. The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving. 3. The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation. 4. The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. 5. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

The individual is reconstructed by the capitalist system into a consciousness of consumption. One did not work for fulfillment through labor, one worked only to consume. SI understood that it was their role to raise the numbed and beguiled consciousness of the masses. In their desire to intervene, the actions of the members of the group were somewhat reminiscent of defamiliarization or the “estrangement” activities of Berthold Brecht, and for a brief time, during the glory days of May, SI reached the zenith of its power and influence. But by 1972, the members went their separate ways, but one can discern traces of their thought on French philosophers critical of contemporary life, such as Jean Baudrillard.

Dusseldorf

Europe in the 1960s was in a state of rebuilding, and each capital city had its own concerns and each art center reacted in its own fashion towards the post-war world. Austerity Britain dreamed of un-rationed abundance; Paris returned to a past before its years of Nazi Occupation; but Germany, a defeated nation had a more complex response to American occupation. Germany had no option but to wipe its disgraced slate clean and move forward to an unwritten future. Dusseldorf became the leading site for post-war “Pop” art,with the famous Academy at the center. Among its most prominent leaders of an art that could, with a certain stretch of the imagination be defined as “Pop,” were refugees from East Germany, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

Like the artists in Paris, Polke and Richter’s early purchase on American Pop Art was the old Dada interaction of art and life or of art as life/life as art. Situationist International, like Joseph Beuys, a powerful presence at the Academy, conceived of art and poetry as being the providence of the masses rather than of an elite group of talented individuals. Polke and Richter were, early in their careers, close associates and came together to mount an infamous 1963 exhibition in the Berges furniture store in Dusseldorf, Capitalist Realism. The term “Capitalist Realism” was an ironic play on “Socialist Realism,” a phrase often heard in the Soviet precincts of Germany. By the time of the exhibition, the city of Berlin had been divided by the Wall for two years and the former residents of the East, Polke and Richter, were safely esconsed within the monetary arms of capitalism.

For West Germany, capitalism, an economic system that was supposedly apolitical, was a safe place to invest time and energy after the fall of the Third Reich. Thanks to the American Marshall Plan, the nation recovered swiftly and, notoriously, plunged into a society that manufactured and purchased consumer goods and led the good life. Capitalism and consumerism had been good to West Germany’s recovery after the War. Teaming with Konrad Fischer (Konrad Lueg), Polke and Richter titled the exhibition “Life with Pop—A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism,” but the German version of Pop was, like other manifestations of “pop” culture in Germany have less to do with American popular culture and more to do with local social and economic conditions.

Sigmar Polke looked, not to American advertising, but to German means of mass reproduction with his series of paintings, the Rasterbilder series. In the 1996 book, Sigmar Polke, Back to Postmodernity, Joseph E. McHugh explained the artist’s visual source for these paintings: a printing technique, called “rastering,” screens of dots which created a cohesive image with tones out of the Ben-Day dots. Rather than precisely reproduce the neat dots like Roy Litchtenstein, Polke used the dots as an abstract device to distort his images. Art historian Margritt Rowell described Polke’s art as “droll and humorous” and his works were often of food, from his 1965 painting of donuts to his infamous series on Potato Heads. From the very beginning, Polke was witty and iroic, unlike his more serious colleague, Richter, and his paintings are often very amusing, such as Carl Andre in Delft of 1968.

In his essay on Polke, McHugh pointed out that the artists of Capitalist Realism (not a movement but more of an artistic statement) insisted that “…Pop Art is not an American innovation and we do not regard it as an import…” In “Connecting the Dots: Sigmar Polke’s Rasterbilder in Their Socio-political Context,” the author stressed the importance of locale on the work of these West German artists. Both Richter and Polke were quite aware of the role that mass media was playing in constructing a post-war German identity and McHugh made the interesting point that unlike Warhol who quickly began to elevate his images of media stars—Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, Elvis, et.al—Polke simply flattened out any implied hierarchy in his images and apparently “found” them seemingly at random.

Gerhard Richter’s painting techniques during the late sixties were less based upon mass media reproductive technology than Polke’s, for his paintings were lush and often painterly. However, like other Pop artists, Richter used pre-existing imagery, culled from magazines and newspapers of the day. But, unlike Polke and more like Warhol, Richter was selective in his choices and had a taste for high drama. Collecting these found images in his Atlas, his source book of materials, the artist painted some fifty cityscapes of modern cities, all shown from an aerial perspective. In a German context, these black and white paintings of cities look as if they are waiting for the bombs to fall. In his other works, the artist used the visual look of slick detail characteristic of photography and blurred the image by pulling his brush over the wet paint. This look would become his “signature” style, seen in his paintings of fighters and bombers of the Cold War.

The exhibition on Capitalist Realism showed Richter’s most obvious homage to American Pop, his painting of Bridget Bardot’s mouth, entitled Mouth. The artist was ambivalent about the rather hard edged painting, first disavowing it as too “Pop” and then later embracing it as “a very good document” of his early career. Richter also dealt occasionally with American culture, especially its sensational or tragic elements. Eight Student Nurses is somewhat reminiscent of Warhol’s Thirteen Wanted Men, although Richter shows the victims, not the perpetrator, of a 1966 mass murder in Chicago. The painter also captured Jacqueline Kennedy on the occasion of the assassination of the President, but his Woman with Umbrella of 1964 is rarely seen by the casual viewer as a painting of the grieving widow.

Like Richter’s 1965 painting of his Uncle Rudi, the “Nazi in the family,” the blurring technique has a distorting effect akin to Polke’s disorderly dots. These willful distortions are very different from the sharp message-based insistence of American Pop. The artists have a different way of saying “look at me.” The viewer immediately become suspicious of this new form of “realism,” and the painters’ techniques invited the viewer to probe beneath the surface effects—a metaphor for the simulacra of popular culture—to determine why, at this point in time, after a long and tragic war, capitalism and consumerism, driven by mass media, was creating a new culture and to ask what this new society would be. As Arthur Danto, who explained the difference between American and German Pop, put in in his article “History in a Blur,”

German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in post-war Germany was part of the burden of being a German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut their country in two like a mortal wound.

And here is where Pop Art divides, between the winners of the war–America and England—and the losers of the war–occupied France and defeated Germany; one group wholeheartedly embraced the victory of western capitalism and other group viewed this alien popular culture with a more critical eye.

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Post-War Culture in America

FROM MODERNISM TO POST-MODERNISM

POST-WAR ART IN AMERICA

After the Second World War, the art world was characterized by “triumphalism” in New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural war. The French and their School of Paris had been routed. Also defeated was American Scene painting and its nativist illustrations of a naïve nation. Now, the triumphant society would be represented by works of art that expressed America metaphorically, through sheer size or potent symbols. American art, like American culture, was a global phenomenon with New York at its core. There were “secondary” and usually ignored centers in the Midwest (Chicago) and on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York seized the lead, consolidating major art critics, major artists, major art dealers, and major art nstitutions, from museums to art departments, and, perhaps most important of all—important art collectors. Until the 1970s, this scene was the site of rival movements, co-existing and reacting dialectically—Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, Op Art, and so on, until the great seventies dissolve into incoherent Pluralism. It can be said that, after Abstract Expressionism, most of these movements defined and positioned themselves against the aging artists of the New York School and their continuation of the European tradition.

This cacophony of movements was presided over by art critics and art historians who wrote for a small number of magazines that fulfilled the function of legitimation and validation of artists, their art reputations and careers. As a financial town, New York provided the support system willing to invest in contemporary art, but only the art went through the system of approval from what Arthur Danto called “the art world.” Danto and the aesthetician, George Dickie, conceived of the “institutional theory of art,” meaning that “art” was designated, not on an aesthetic basis, but upon the basis of institutional acceptance. From Neo-Dada onwards, the traditional definition of art was in a state of crisis, brought on by the acceptance of Marcel Duchamp’s alternative concepts of art.

Instead of an attractive object, characterized by “taste,” a work of art was a concept. Instead of an artist who worked with hands and heart, the creator was a conceptualist who conceived of art as language. Far more challenging than Duchamp’s insistence that art should be put “in the service of the mind,” was the logical consequences of Dada’s new artistic freedom. If art was a thought manifested by an arbitrarily found object, then any item from the world outside of the confines of fine art could be termed “art.” Once “art” announced itself with its significant presence, its beauty, its grandeur, its profound intentions, by the Sixties, Danto pondered the difference between a “real” Brillo box and a Brillo box by Andy Warhol.

What is the difference between a mural sized field of glorious color titled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950), a painting hanging on the wall, where it belongs, and Monogram (1955) a stuffed goat with a tire girdling its middle, standing proudly on a canvas, laid down like a “field” on the floor? The gap between the two is the distance between generations, the gulf between America before and after World War II. What happened during the fifties and the sixties to produce such a schism between the nobility of “Man, heroic and sublime” and the ignobility of an abandoned goat, straddling a painted arena, where the heroic artist once did battle with the forces of art and tradition?

The Fifties seemed to be Clement Greenberg’s nightmare of popular culture come true, with the invasion of kitsch—Rauschenberg’s goat and stuffed chickens in the museum just one room away from the abstract purity of Newman’s absolute spiritual state. Life had invaded art in a most unexpected way. Newman’s piece is all about the human spirit at its most glorified, idealized, spiritualized form. Rauschenberg’s work is about life, the quotidian, the overlooked, the ignored. But life in all its inglorious aspects, Rauschenberg is asserting, is worthy of our attention. The distance between Newman and Rauschenberg is the long delayed consideration of Duchamp’s challenge to high art and all its serious pretensions. Instead of the involvement of gesture, we have the detachment of gesture. Instead of the triumph of art, we have the success of art’s acceptance of anything and everything as art.

The ground was fertile for the ideas of Duchamp by the 1950s because of the need to debunk Abstract Expressionism and because of the commercial success of American art. The burgeoning demand allowed the artists scope and freedom to defy rather than to extend and re-define tradition. The success of American art was inseparable from the tragedy of Jackson Pollock. Pollock took a deep breath about 1947 and managed to hold it and his life together for about three years. During this dry spell, Pollock produced some of the most sublime images of the century, and then willfully, capriciously, childishly, he exhaled. His life’s breath drifted out and his art drifted away, and one August night in 1956, Pollock drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. Great story. American art now had its martyr. The New York School now had its Grand Récit, complete with the tragic arc. Greenberg would recall Pollock’s “run” of about ten years, leaving behind a cult of personality and a Studio full of relics and a keeper of the flame, “the art widow,” Lee Krasner.

In order for the art world to move on, this hagiography had to be combatted. Piece by piece the vaunted characteristics of Abstract Expressionism would be attacked and discredited and discarded, and by the Eighties, the movement was consigned to a Modernist history. Ironically, the “triumph” of the New York School was immediately followed by the challenge of Neo-Dada. Neo-Dada eschewed originality for appropriation, bringing the jewel in the crown of modernism—creativity—to an end. It is here that Modernism ends and Postmodern begins. The art world’s continuing challenges to Modernism and its defenders, Clement Greenberg and his followers, would be expanded to that of a critique of Enlightenment and all that it had wrought. That critique was Postmodernism. Postmodernism was a re-examination of Modernism and was based in philosophy and literary theory, rather than in the visual arts or aesthetics. Therefore, postmodernism could not generate a style or a movement.

As a philosophical critique, postmodernism or post-structuralism was a European phenomenon, dating from the decade of the mid to late Fifties to Sixties. Fueled by the collapse of the Left, following “May, 1968” in France, postmodernism was a re-reading of Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that had proved inadequate to the challenges of the Twentieth Century. In Germany, postmodernism was really a form of post-Marxism, again, generated by the inadequacy of traditional Marxism to social and cultural changes, especially mass media. As an exercise of re-examination, postmodernism took the stance of “belatedness,” everything had already been done, all had been said, and the kind of historical progress promised by the Enlightenment was unlikely to occur.

For years, most Americans in the art world paid little attention to postmodern theories, whether out of philosophy or literary theory. The reason for this neglect are various and include American self-satisfaction with the leadership position in visual culture, the slowness of translation, and the entrenchment of traditional art historical methods. When Americans became aware of the significance of postmodern thinking in the 1980s, most of the important works had either been written or were well underway. Suddenly belated, American art could only try to respond and to catch up to European thinking. The visual arts shifted into “theory” and language and philosophy, as artists began to critique Modernist art and to reject or re-examine its precepts.

With the occasional exception excluding women and people of color, the post-war art world was an all male, all white enclave. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s challenged the art world and revealed the racism and the sexism that favored the production of white men. After the Stonewall Uprising in 1968 and especially after AIDS, the gay and lesbian community also demanded more visibility. Coincidentally or not, postmodernism became prominent in America during the Reagan presidency, which was characterized by attempts to roll back the gains of women and people of color and by neglect of the AIDS epidemic. Because postmodernism re-reads traditions of the past, it is an inherently conservative study, re-examining the work of white males, mostly dead. That said, “theory,” especially post-Marxist theory provided women, gays and lesbians, and people of color a theoretical basis to challenge the more reactive elements of postmodern theory.

For the visual arts the consequences were profound: there was freedom and anarchy and lack of a center. Without an avant-garde, postmodern artists seemed doomed to reactiveness to the past. But folded into the postmodern period, were Late Enlightenment adaptations of social theories, co-existing with postmodern assertions that revolution was now impossible. The so-called “minorities” had the tools to resist the hegemony of the status quo. The question that begs to be asked is, if late modernism and postmodernism co-mingle, when did postmodernism begin or when did modernism end? The answer depends upon where you are, which culture you come from—the Sixties in Europe, the Eighties in America—in terms of response to Enlightenment philosophy. But if one uses another criteria, “the postmodern condition,” then the shift is more cultural, rooted in mass media, and therefore global. This “condition” that is Postmodernism is a post-war response to the loss of mastery and the disillusionment in a disenchanted world.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

Podcast 44 Painting 10: Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol and “Decorative Art”

Andy Warhol played many roles in the art world of the sixties. Although he produced more films than paintings and sculptures, he re-defined “painting” and “sculpture,” bringing these traditional practices into the modern age. Using serigraphy as a metaphor for commercialism and consumerism, Warhol brought his advertising sensibilities to fine arts. Wooden boxes with purloined logos suggested that the art world was a market place for the high-end consumer. Casting aside hierarchy and judgment, the artist consumed the ubiquitous imagery of his time and put together an encyclopedia for his decade. Acting like a bricoleur, he gathered the pictures of mass media and re-produced and re-presented the already known and the already seen and forced the viewers to examine the overlooked and the banal of the culture.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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