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]

“Queer” Art and AIDS, Part One

WHAT IS “HOMOSEXUAL ART?”

Part One

Once again, the question arises. Like the questions of what is “Black Art?” What is “Chicano Art” What is Women’s Art?’ the query demands a neat definition that is impossible to give. Is “Homosexual Art” art that is made by homosexuals? Or is “Homosexual Art” art that is about homosexuality, regardless of the sexual preferences of the makers? The absurdity of the dialogue is depended when one extends such questions to other professions, from literature, to finance, to manufacture. Does an automobile become “gay” because the designer was homosexual? Does your home mortgage become “lesbian” because of the same-sex inclination of the loan officer? On the other hand, there are artists who have deliberately chosen to present themselves as “homosexual artists” who presented works of art with homosexual content. As was noted earlier, such displays of Otherness have been political acts and will continue to be as long as the culture is bifurcated between the One and the Other.

“Homosexual art” is different from art done by homosexuals. Like “queer” the designation is “auto-descriptive,” that is, an identification taken by the artist, not given to the artist by society. Therefore there are many homosexuals who made art and who are making art and who prefer not to give themselves a label that either reveals their sexual preference or limits the interpretation of their art. There are a number of reasons for a decision to remain artistically “in the closet.” For example, during the Fifties and the Sixties, being gay was illegal and its was simply unsafe to “come out.” Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chose to not discuss their homosexuality for their entire careers. Many works of art done by both Johns and Rauschenberg referred obliquely to the homosexual culture of their time.

The art critical climate of the fifties and sixties in New York City did not allow for discussions of homosexual content in art works and artists who dared to be open about their sexuality met with an unfavorable response. For example, Andy Warholbegan his career making frankly homosexual art but received critical disapproval. Making a smart decision to change his content, Warhol’s subsequent public art featured consumerism and mass media advertising and his career took off. Another point needs to be made here. By the seventies, lesbians, in contrast, found a hospitable home in the feminist movement and lesbian artists were simply folded into the larger feminist discourse. The male homosexuals had no outlet for homosexual subject matter until the eighties.

Although it was well known in the art world who was “straight” and who was “gay,” no disapproval was attached to gay artists or to the Gay Liberation movement in the Sixties, but the art public was not ready for “gay” art. It took the AIDS crisis to bright about some public acceptance of homosexuals, who were the first and most visible victims. The source of AIDS is a matter of some dispute but an individual proclaimed “Patient Zero” was identified. This man was a steward on a French airline and his career as a world traveler allowed him to spread AIDS to a number of other men.

Because of this identification of “patient zero,” accurate or not, during the early 1980s, AIDS in America was called the “gay disease.” Due to the pressures from conservative constituencies, President Ronald Reagan, a veteran of Hollywood, another refuge for gay men, remained silent on the subject of AIDS. The Reagan administration ignored the dangerous epidemic until it was proved that AIDS was spreading to the “general population.” The implication of the inaction was that gays could and should die for their “deviant” “lifestyle,” but when women and children proved to be equally susceptible to the disease then the medical community in America rallied for a cure.

The story of the American neglect of an epidemic is told in the film And the Band Played On. The film’s judgment is a bit harsh but it contains a grain of truth. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS until the good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. By that time, it was too late for thousands of gay men who died during the early to mid Eighties. The art world lost a generation of gay artists in the visual and performing arts. The decimation of a community rallied the art world behind the victims and, after years of being underground, gay and lesbian art emerged on the scene.

For the general public, AIDS awareness came about thorough graphic activism, most notably from the group, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987. Although the group would later have chapters in every state in America, its most visible activities were focused in New York. For example, ACT UP led a protest that shut down Wall Street to speak out against the way in which the financial and pharmaceutical powers were profiting from a national tragedy. ACT UP and Gran Fury (named after a popular Plymouth model) presented powerful graphic designs to educate gay men on how to prevent AIDS and to inform the public about the basic humanity of homosexual people.

The target of this agit-prop art were diverse, the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, the FDA, Wall Street, and other institutions that labeled AIDS inaccurately as a “gay cancer” and displayed an immoral range of behavior from indifference to condemnation to stigmatization to profiteering (AZT cost $8,000 a year). One of the most powerful graphic images was the pink triangle with the strong words: “Silence = Death” underneath. The pink triangle was worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, interned due to their sexual preferences. Gran Fury used this powerful and simple image as an installation above the entrance to the New Museum as a protest against the statement by conservative journalist William Buckley who proposed a draconian and punitive action towards homosexuals, who, he said, “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.”

The artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, took up this simple graphic and elaborated it in his own signature style of “street” art: “Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death/Fight AIDS.” Donald Moffett designed a very famous poster featuring a target on the right and a photograph of Reagan on the right with the phrase “He Kills Me.” Gran Fury mimicked the international and interracial Benneton fashion advertising campaign with a memorable series of “kissing” images of same sex and interracial kissing. The message was loud and clear: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” Gran Fury also appropriated the famous (and broken) promise of President Bush, “Read My Lips” to educate the public on the true causes of AIDS and the price of inaction.

Undoubtedly what saved many lives was the fact that many of the victims and their friends had powerful positions in the worlds of fine arts, graphic design, and popular culture. They had voices, talent, and the backing of an important constituency: the art world. Their activism, whether on Wall Street or on the sides of busses or in movie theaters forced a resolution to a crisis that ultimately killed a generation of artists. Although Gran Fury and ACT UP (sometimes under different names) are still active, the center for AIDS in America is far from their New York roots—the American South. The South is the epicenter for AIDS in 2012 and the main victims are poor, often Black, without health care, without health insurance, without public education. In a conservative region where sex education is against the law and there are no funds for women’s health, the epidemic has moved on and is reaching crisis proportions. The graphic art campaign of ACT UP and Gran Fury would not be allowed to appear in this environment.

Thanks for the mobilization of the arts communities and the power of the arts, the tide against AIDS (in certain parts of the nation) began to turn. The public was educated on “queer people” and their humanity through popular movies such as, Philadelphia, starring a “straight” actor, Tom Hanks, and In and Out, starring straight actors, Kevin Klein and Tom Selleck, and popular television shows such as Will and Grace and Modern Family brought about public acceptance of homosexuals. Today “homophobia” has been named a psychological disease, and multiple and continuing examples indicate that those who are the most opposed to gay rights are also those who are most likely to be homosexuals still “in the closet,” because these individuals belong to conservative cultures.

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

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

[email protected]

Characteristics of Pop Art

WHAT WAS POP ART?

Before it was anything else, Pop Art was American…and white…and urban….and male…and middle class…and straight. Pop Art was about affluence, about money and all the things that the middle class white male could afford to buy and everything the man of affluence wanted to look at. Mainstream art history has tended to present Pop Art as if it were ungendered and unclassed and uncolored, while at the same time, stressing the “American-ness” of a movement that eliminated color, exploited the images of women and ignored the plight of the poor. The exception that proved the rule of Pop’s machismo was the now-celebrated “queer” artist, Andy Warhol, who had to got to the Left Coast to get his first show of Pop Art, his now famous soup cans, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

Pop Art as Reification

The so-called “Classic Pop Movement” from 1961 to 1964 were precisely the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, the years of highest violence against African-Americans. The “Freedom Riders” began their dangerous, life-threatening bus trips into the Deep South in 1961. In 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And four little girls died in a Birmingham basement when their church was bombed in 1963. Except for Andy Warhol’s powerful Race Riot series, few Pop artists took notice. The important invention of the 20th century that changed the social construction, the political make-up and economic power of the Western world—the Pill—passed without notice on the part of a group of artmakers who were largely male.

Fifty years ago, it was possible to gaze innocently upon art and declare it “not political,” because it was “art.” Today, we look at Pop Art in a far more critical fashion. No one is naïve enough to claim that images are innocent; images mean more than the makers intended. If Pop Art was anything, it was a movement of excess and surplus and a plentitude of meaning, exceeding any attempt to control the signifiers. Therefore one of the major characteristics of Pop Art is the linkages between the New York artists and New York Advertising and the post-war consumer culture fueled by a government policy that shifted resources from one group, women, to another: white males. In its studiously muscular assertions of conventional masculinity, Pop Art managed to elide the increasing pressure on an oppressed population of homosexuals, both male and female.

While the female nudes of the San Francisco artist, Mel Ramos, were more modest than those of the New York artist, Tom Wesselman, both artists are typical in their equation of women with consumer goods. Women were presented as objects to be consumed. Always nude, always stripped of power or agency, always preening and presenting their open mouths, bared breasts, and pubic areas to the voyeuristic gaze of the avid male viewer, the women were pink and pornographic. Claes Oldenburg’s vision of Pop Art also displays a fixation on oral pleasure. Much of his early art recreates food, mostly American food, mostly junk food and mostly fast food—giant furry popsicles and looming hamburgers. Oldenburg’s art vacillated between the hard and erect, the phallic lipstick mounted on top of a tank pedestal, and the dysfunctionally flaccid toilet.

The focus on male performance only reflected American bellicose foreign policy which feminized its foes. The Soviet Union, as George Kennan expressed it, must be contained in its “flow” by the potency of the United States which courted this misguided empire with the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Pop Art was inherently conservative, reinforcing the dominant culture of the well-paid white male who had unexamined privileges withheld from women and people of color. For Roy Lichtenstein, couples are always heterosexual. Men disappoint women, not men; women die for the love of men, not women. His parodies of Romance comics for girls are the mirror image of his reification of war and violence found in post-war comics for boys. In popular literature, women seek romance and men seek combat, thus reinforcing gender roles—a particularly urgent task given the presence of women in the workplace, newly empowered by the Pill. Thus, in returning to representation, Pop Art was an unmediated revelation of the values of an affluent culture dedicated to the preservation of the power of the heterosexual white male.

Pop Art as a Changing of the Guard

Fifty years ago, typical accounts of Pop Art excluded the art produced in Europe and in Los Angeles. It took years to include the so-called “Pop artists” of the overlooked centers of popular culture. The reason for this neglect of important art is two fold: first, Pop Art in Los Angeles and Berlin or Paris differs from locale to locale. Pop Art was always an art of the local, the popular culture of a particular society. Post-war Los Angeles was a very different place from Berlin which was a very different place from Paris and so on. (These cities and their popular culture will be discussed in more detail in subsequent posts.) The second issue has to do with those who produce the discourse on Pop Art—art writers in New York. Because of their place in the art world, these writers constructed what were actually quite fractured accounts of Pop Art. Hidden beneath the master narrative of an art of popular culture was an Oedipal sub-text of a new generation beginning to challenge the old gatekeepers of art, headed by Clement Greenberg.

When one re-reads the early writers on Pop, it quickly becomes clear that the defining characteristics of Pop Art in New York were understood through a filter of the kind of art that Clement Greenberg had excluded in his definition of “Modernism.” Greenberg’s theory of the evolution of art towards a material and moral purity demanded that figuration and representation be eliminated from “fine art.” Beginning with Neo-Dada, there was a dramatic change in art: a return to the object through a new kind of literalism, an appropriation of the image of a common object without change or alteration. The cool, detached acceptance of the low and the ordinary by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg signaled a new depersonalization in art, a rebuke to the stress on the artist’s personality seen in Abstract Expressionism.

Like the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists borrowed, quoted, and appropriated already available subject matter that was timely, topical, concerned with ordinary life. Unlike the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists were less inclined towards found objects and were more deliberatively selective of what they purloined. The artists sacrificed individuality creativity in favor of consuming advertising, mostly invented in the offices and studios of New York ad agencies. Pop Art reveled in banal imagery of commodification and consumerism and celebrated post-War affluence in America. Therefore, in contrast to Ab Ex’s European-based influences, Pop was a return to American art subject matter in America. Pop was cosmopolitan, especially concerned with the sophisticated urban environment of a New York culture of persuasion, and uses quotations, translations, imitations, visual double-takes in a witty and youthful fashion.

In 1957, the British artist, Richard Hamilton, defined Pop Art as “1. popular: designed for mass audience, 2. Transient: short-term solution, 3. Expendable: easily forgotten, 4. Low Cost, 5. Mass Produced, 6. Young: aimed at youth, 7. Witty 8. Sexy 9. Gimmacky 10. Glamorous and 11. Big Business.” In other words, Pop Art does not take itself seriously. American Pop Art in New York was concerned with reacting against gestural Abstract Expressionist painting and against Modernist spiritualization of art. Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating a once-disparaged low culture.

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many observers were repelled by the vulgar sources favored by the artists. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers transformed Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. As early as 1939, Greenberg had campaigned against “kitsch,” the natural enemy of the avant-garde. Many subsequently linked Pop Art to kitsch, thinking popular culture, but kitsch, as Greenberg explained, is a debased form of high art: an Alexandre Cabanal reaction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That said, Pop Art in its built-in marketability was a form of temptation for artists who refused to risk their income or “stardom” in favor of difficult experimental art and the sheer popularity of Pop Art would draw the ire of Greenberg.

Reprinted in Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, Greenberg’s 1971 lecture, “Night Eight,” summed up his problems with Pop.

…Pop Art appealed to a lower, obvious order of literary of literary taste–making fun of advertising, making fun of pinup girls, making fun of labels on cans. and so forth—which is so easy to make fun of and we are all in on it anyhow…I think some of Pop Art is respectful academic art. It will probably last the same way the small pictures of Gérome or Bouguereau—and probably not was well as some of the small pictures of Meissonier—have lasted…(Pop Art) is nice small art and it is respectable, but it is not good enough to keep high art going…

Earlier in his remarks, Greenberg claimed that Pop Art was “academic” because it was from “the art school Cubist grid,” clearly defining Pop Art as “kitsch.” However, it is possible that because of his age—Greenberg was born in 1909—he could not see the sheer joy the artists took in popular culture. He assumed that the painters were making fun of the imagery. The conceptual basis of Pop was that the art was not serious, not intellectual, not a critique. By its very nature, Pop Art was an art of the status quo. On the other hand, Greenberg would have understood Pop Art within the structure of the dialectic. Pop Art was the linear answer to the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art was the figurative antithesis to the abstract thesis of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art, as originally written, was a discursive repudiation of Clement Greenberg, the Father of American Art Criticism.

Pop Art as Mass Culture

As a lived condition of real artists, Pop Art was a less Oedipal reaction, not to art, but to the real world as it was coming into being on the cusp of the early sixties. When one looks at the white plaster sculptures of George Segal, Pop Art seems an art of the ordinary, examining the colorless and uncelebrated lives of “real life.” But Segal is an outlier, lumped, perhaps inaccurately, within the Pop movement because of a coincidence of time and place. Segal, unlike many of the Pop artists, commented upon contemporary events—the Holocaust, Kent State, homosexual rights. From the perspective of hindsight, some artists, from Segal to Marisol, lie uneasily within the precincts of Pop. It is helpful to think of Pop Art, not as a revival of 19th century Realism but as a thoroughly modern movement, an art of mass media; and specifically an art of the kind of media that, for the first time in history, could be omnipotent in everyday life because of a technology that had never existed before. The Pop Art of mass media had two main themes: desire, the kind of desire that can never be fulfilled, the kind of desire that is endlessly displaced and projected onto another consumer object through advertising, the kind of advertising that is a fantasy swallowed whole, the kind of advertising that is capable of selling anything, as long as the jingles are jaunty and the colors are jumping, because the spectacle offers the second theme: fulfillment.

Unlike Realism of Courbet, Pop Art was noticeably passive: it observed and it seized and re-gifted the object of its desire without comment, like Manet. But unlike Manet, Pop Art did not attempt a new style to signify the salient characteristics of the new era—the transient nature of modernité, instead, it simply reified the nature of post-war life—the elevation of an artificial manufactured culture of desire into high art. To quote Jean Baudrillard on simulacra, Pop Art was an art of the simulated—it was a simulation of something that is simulated from something that never existed. As a simulacra of a simulacra—Warhol’s Evis paintings—Pop Art reiterated an image of an image, gleefully recapitulating to its glorified artificiality—Warhol’s Marilyn paintings.

James Rosenquist was a rarity among Pop artists, an artist who critiqued aspects of the American society that fed his art. Like Lichtenstein replicated the Ben-Day dots of four color printing, Rosenquist used the creamy sensuous appearance of mass advertising of the fifties as the starting point for his version of Pop Art. Working like an editor enamored of montage, the artist sliced and diced found images like a bricoleur on a rampage. President Elect, painted in 1961 with the smiling picture of Kennedy, a luscious piece of cake offered to the open mouth of the public and the yellow car, completely changed in its meaning after November of 1963. After that date, one could not see a car juxtaposed with Kennedy without shuddering. Such are the dangers of using contemporary images—they can go beyond fashionable banality and sink to irrelevancy or they can rise to the historical occasion and remain potent and powerful like Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. President Elect became tragic two years after it was painted, a morning wall for a grieving public.

F-111 was Rosenquist’s most eloquent statement against the official foreign policy of America, the doctrine called MAD and the Viet Nam War. Only Robert Heineken, his contemporary who was never included in Pop Art, was as fearless in his denunciation of a highly contentious war. A large multi-paneled installation, F-111 was painted in 1964, years before the nation rose up in anger against the latest manifestation of the Cold War. Although for decades art writers and curators would stoutly deny the political content of this painting, Rosenquist was very frank in his intentions. The mock billboard was, as the artist said, “…flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”

The painting was a consummate statement on mass culture, showing that mass advertising, mass popular art—advertising—can sell anything, even death through nuclear annihilation, even death in a remote rice paddy for purposes unknown. F-111 refers to a new and expensive fighter jet awaiting its Top Guns. Its tail and its tip are the beginning and end of the painting which is propelled along its four panels by tire tracks that roll past a little girl sheltered beneath the nose cone of a missile. Along the way, atomic blooms and an umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction are way stations on a deadly journey ending in a close up of gut-like spaghetti. With its sophisticated manipulation of propaganda, advertising, the raw material for Pop Art, was an art of all things urban, successfully wiping out folk art and sweeping humble craft to the margins. In its time, even when reinforcing an old and tired patriarchal system, Pop Art represented all things shiny and new.

Pop Art as Mass Media

Fifty years later, the dust of history has settled on Pop Art. Some of the artists are dead–Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, some are still alive and well and making art—Ruscha and Hockney, but the time of Pop Art has past. Some of the art has not worn well and exists only as a blue chip “example” of Pop Art, but the movement itself remains relevant. Pop Art in America presaged things to come: the fact that our social lives, our economic well-being, our very culture in the West would be based upon mass culture driven by mass advertising fueled by the technology of mass media that impels us to consume our way to happiness.

Many observers have linked Pop Art to the 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in an Age of Reproduction,” and indeed there is much merit in this correspondence. Pop Art replicated the style of mass reproduction as it existed in the sixties, slick and clean lines, strong and sharp colors, subliminal mash-ups to form connections among objects of abundance and signs of affluence and insatiable desire. Not only did Pop Art reject the painterly surfaces and the high seriousness of Abstract Expression, it also rejected the shared sacrifice of the Second World Two and its patriotic rationing. Pop Art is a art of cheerful greed, targeted like advertising, toward those whom society rewards and ignored those whom society punishes. Pop Art reproduced the reproducibility of advertising. It was an art to be looked at, an art to be seen, an art to be enjoyed. Like the consumer goods it advertised, Pop Art was consumed, first by avid viewers and be acquisitive collectors and then, at last, by history.

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Introduction to Pop Art

DEFINING ART AS POPULAR CULTURE

DEFINING POPULAR CULTURE AS ART

Introduction

“A walk down 14th street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art,” commented Allan Kaprow, a Pop artist in New York. This statement sums up what Pop Art was reacting to and what this movement was against—the “artiness” of “art,” the “masterpiece,” the “artist as genius,” creating art out of the personality and out of the history of “art.” Pop Art emerged out of an American post-War materialism and its ranks were swelled by young and irreverent artists who had not known the deprivation of the Depression and had been too young to be concerned with the moral questions raised Second World War. They had grown up in a world so new that the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, referred to the social space between these children and their parents as “The Generation Gap.” These artists were children of the material age of rock ‘n’ roll, sock hops, drive-in movies, comic books, mass media advertising and the mass-produced omnipresent culture called “popular.”

Reaching their maturity, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these artists faced an art world increasingly commercialized and internationalized and could clearly see the bankruptcy of an Abstract Expressionism which had become academic and absorbed by the commodity machine called the “avant-garde.” The Pop artists had little patience with their predecessors’ seriousness and repudiated their concepts of High Art. Instead they looked to the streets, to Low Culture, to the vernacular, to Popular Culture, and incorporated this previously disparaged and intellectually degraded material into the sacred precincts of the gallery and museum. The magic metamorphosis was achieved by translating a style purloined from commercial art transferred onto an “art signal,” a canvas, upon which an image was made by an art world approved medium, oil or acrylic paint; and then the object would be placed in a gallery or museum. Any element of popular culture could be elevated into high art by changing the materials and by changing the location of the image. The delighted public was pleased to see, at long last, art they could recognize and understand.

This change from high to low in cultural perspective can be seen in the photographic work of Robert Frank, whose major body of photographs, The Americans, was completed in 1955, the same year as Jasper Johns’s Targets and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. The Americans was nothing less than a deadpan, dead-eyed social critique of the overlooked “America,” famously seen through the curious eyes of a Holocaust survivor. In “looking at the overlooked,” as Norman Bryson would say, the Swiss photographer photographed, seemingly at random, but Frank ultimately selected which of the 7,000 works to publish with the ruthless perspective of a non-believer. In borrowing and quoting the already ready, the already seen, and the already known, Jasper Johns assaulted the citadel of Originality, and in pinning his paint spattered bed to the wall, Robert Rauschenberg mocked the vaunted ideal of Creativity. These works of art herald the shift from an art of feeling, such as De Kooning’s slashes of paint on women, to an art of detachment. It was now hip to be cool.

Some art historians have selected certain precursors to Pop Art—Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy—American artists of the 1920s who utilized advertising in their art. Like the American artists, Italian Futurism, in its concern with technology and modern life, used the stylistics of Cubism to celebrate the dynamic modernité of everyday life. Other historians might also include Purism in Paris between the wars and its interest in objects produced via mass technology or Francis Picabia’s hybrid machine-human forms resembling mass produced products. However, the best precedent would be Dada, particularly the (anti)art of Marcel Duchamp, and his discovery of every day objects: the Readymades, the ordinary mass-produced objects the artist “found” by chance and dubbed with a “new thought.” It took decades for the ideas of Duchamp and everyday life to be assimilated by the art world and, in the twilight of his long life, the underground artist began, at long last, to be understood by the Neo-Dada artists.

After the death of Pollock, the art world of New York had its first martyr and Abstract Expressionism was consecrated. With the rise in the prices of American art, it was clear that, the center of gravity of the art world had shifted from Paris to an American scene, and once-quiet neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, became thriving areas for ateliers and galleries and a new generation of dealers. Buoyed on a wave of prosperity and rising expectations, the art market boomed and art became a commodity, like stocks and bonds, and artists became stars, receiving instant glory, fame, and fortune.

The struggle for the acceptance of “modern” art was over and the struggle for commercial success had begun. But this new situation was not as favorable to the generation of Jackson Pollock. The new generation of dealers were looking for something “new” and Abstract Expressionism was not new, hence the swift success of Rauschenberg and Johns. No sooner than had Abstract Expressionism become accepted (if not loved) by the art audience than a new group of artists arose in an Oedipal rejection. Pop Art was a leading indicator of changing times and new attitudes. Although Neo-Dada may have been a precursor to Pop Art, it would not be the beginning of Pop Art.

British Pop Art

In the 1950s Europe lay prostrated and in ruins; and, during the next two decades could do little more than respond weakly to American innovations in art. But Pop Art was a notable exception. True Pop Art came from American sources, but Pop Art would be inaugurated and would be christened in a most unlikely place, England, in its “austerity” season, following a war it supposedly won. Although “Pop” art is a phrase coined in response to a certain strain of British art, Pop Art was specifically and uniquely American in content and style, for it was America which had taken the lead in creating kitsch–the lowering of high art–the raw material of the Pop artists. The American culture that reached the British people, who were still on rationing, was a culture of abundance. The English consumers leafed through magazines from America and encountered a visual feast of advertising products for the post-war Paradise that was America. The only message was “buy” and the only moral was to “enjoy.”

The post-war artists in England were, like most artists after the Second World War, casting about for a new way to make new art, were dazzled by American products and American graphic design. A group of artists from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London who were interested in American culture began to come together to discuss the barrage of American popular culture. Their leader, Lawrence Alloway, was an art critic and an organizer who was enamored with all things American and absorbed the snappy patter of advertising. It was he who used the phrase “pop art,” it was he who explained how “the aesthetics of plenty” had created a “continuum” between fine art and mass culture, and it was Alloway who rejected the traditional boundaries between high and low culture.

The ICA artists preceded the Pop artists in New York by almost a decade in their experiments with popular culture. Unencumbered by the weight of Abstract Expressionism, unburdened by a mission to supplant Paris as the capital of the art world, these young artists laid the groundwork for the project of how to make art out of life. Many of the most famous British Pop “icons,” were made, not as works of art, however, but as occasions for discussions. As early as 1947 Edouardo Palozzi pasted together American tabloids and advertising in I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The small collage made in 1956 by Richard Hamilton raised the question, What is it about Today’s Homes that make them so Different, so Appealing? and featured a new Garden of Eden full of American personalities and American products from television to canned ham. The works of Hamilton and Palozzi were small in scale and hand made. Their collages, careful cutouts from American magazines, were extensions of pre-war Photomontages. Totally lacking in social critique, their exuberant exaltation of the vernacular and their innocent pleasure in visual stimulation would characterize Pop Art.

Formally titled the Independent Group, these artists mounted as series of important exhibitions in the early fifties, before Johns or Rauschenberg had become recognized artists. The exhibitions included Parallels of Life and Art, 1953, Man, Machine, and Motion, 1955, and This is Tomorrow, 1956—all were derived from the world of commerce. In a uniquely British approach, these exhibitions of things that existed in the now for America were cast in the future, something that England would aspire to. As Alloway said, “movies, science fiction, advertising, Pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically.” Indeed soon the city of London would begin to “swing” in the Sixties and the Beatles would conquer the world.

French Pop Art

In Paris Pop Art was called Le Nouveau Réalisme (“New Realism”), a term coined by Pierre Restany in 1960. Sidney Janis used this title for his 1962 exhibition in New York which introduced the then-scattered American Pop artists to the art world. However, besides the title, Pop Art in France was quite different from Pop Art in New York. In Paris, Restany issued manifestos and these statements of purpose were signed by artists–like in Dada or Surrealism—in a nostalgic replay of art before the war. Indeed when art critic Lucy Lippard viewed the works of these Parisian Pop artists in 1962, she saw the traces of Surrealism. Indeed the so-called “Pop” artists had little in common with American or British artists beyond making art in the same time period. The French group was so disparate that they had to justify their affiliation under the concept of “collective singularity.”

It is difficult to think of an American or British counterpart to artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Mimmo Rotella or Niki de Saint Phalle. It seems apparent that New Realism in Paris is closer to Neo-Dada in New York, for these artists also merged art and life, a key goal of the Neo-Dada artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg. In fact, Rauschenberg was well acquainted with some of the artists, such as Niki de Saint Phalle. All of these Parisian artists were better grouped within Fluxus where their “recycling of industrial and advertising reality,” as Restany described it, would be channeled into “events” the equivalent to “Happenings” and installations and performances.

New Realism in New York and Paris introduced new issues in art, concerned with an aspect of the real, or realism without transcription or interpretation. “New Realism” and earlier terms, such as “Neo-Dada,” and “New American Sign Painters,” were quickly replaced by the more upbeat and less formal sounding British term—Pop Art. However, the term New Realism had an important story to tell: Pop Art or New Realism was a return to representation, a return to realism, a return to figuration. By the 1950s, in the wake of European modernism, it was impossible to bring back an academic way of making art—traditional realism—but a new form of popular realism could be smuggled into art through the appropriation of “life” and its preexisting detritus.

Pop Art in New York

In New York, Pop Art was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism and all its high art pretensions and a celebration of all that had been banished from Fine Art. It was a rebel movement of art outlaws that celebrated the commercial consumerist aspects of post-war art. Although it was thought of as “American,” Pop Art was also a regional art, born and bred in the advertising agencies of New York City. Only Andy Warhol referred to the pop culture of Hollywood; the rest of the artists were embedded in the world of New York commercialism. They used, abused and denied the crass origins and adopted the look of advertising, the bright attention-getting colors and the sharp legible lines and the simple centered designs.

In contrast to the angst of creation suffered so dramatically by the Abstract Expressionist artists, Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was cheekily un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating low culture. Pop Art insisted on leveling the playing field and made the point that all things from life were suitable materials for artists. But it would be to facile to insist that Pop Art was a juvenile rebellion of an adolescent. Pop Art was cobbled together from the raw materials of that way the artists grew up and lived. Pop culture was their culture and the artists merely reflected their own times.

Pop Art signaled a “Return to the Object” and a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism. In contrast to the un-readability and transcendence of Ab Ex, Pop Art was easily identifiable, using specific and recognizable images, from low art mass media sources. Andy Warhol did copies of diagrams of dance steps. George Segal cast his friends and neighbors in their everyday lives. In 1961 Claes Oldenburg sold his papier maché Pop Art objects in his own establishment, The Store. The curators of these earlier exhibitions pulled together this new generation of artists, many of whom were working with popular culture without knowledge of each other. Only when they saw each other’s work in shows, such as New Realism, did they realize a “new” “ movement” had begun and that they were part of “Pop Art.”

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many art writers were repelled by the vulgar sources. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers made Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. The art audiences who had never really embraced Abstract Expressionism loved Pop Art; it was art of their own time. Pop Art in America was the first really popular movement in Avant-Garde art.

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Jasper Johns and “Things the Mind Already Knows”

JASPER JOHNS (1930 –)

When Jasper Johns left his native South Carolina for the mean streets of New York, he claimed to have arrived at his Pearl Street Studio knowing nothing about art history. In fact, he later destroyed some of his early work when he realized that it resembled too closely, in his eyes, the work of the Hanover Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters. Nevertheless, despite knowing little of his antecedents, Johns, along with his artistic partner, Robert Rauschenberg, was part of the two-person movement, Neo-Dada, which carried on Dada of the 1920s. Both artists were part of the New York “underground” of artists who were swerving away from Modernism and grappling with the ideas of Marcel Duchamp. In their very important book, Difference/Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, authors Moira Roth and Jonathan Katz wrote of the Aesthetic of Indifference that prevailed in this group of art makers.

Indifference, also defined as Cool Intelligence, was a reaction against the overheated politics of the period—the rhetoric of the Cold War and the Red Scare—and the overvaluation of the artist as creative genius. Using Duchamp’s concept of Chance, Rauschenberg and Johns worked with randomly (non) selected examples of visual culture, both high and low, both loaded with meaning or devoid of significance. They were indifferent as to the materials they appropriated and to the content they drifted into. But it would be a mistake to conflate indifference or coolness with disengagement. Jasper Johns was a very thoughtful and deliberate artist and the key to his art, as with that of Duchamp, lies more with choice than with chance.

When art goes blank, so to speak, and the artist withdraws into silence, a space is opened for the spectator, who now becomes a reader and a participant. Indeed, many of Johns’ early hybrid objects demanded physical participation form the viewer. Tango was a blue painted collaged painting with a key at the bottom. The spectator was invited to turn the key, which was attached to a music box on the back of the painting. The painting would then play a familiar song, Blue Tango. Target with Four Faces was a verbal-visual (Duchampian) pun with the lower part of four faces that would not “see” being covered by a lid, which had to be opened (like an eye) by the viewer.

The technique and materials of Jasper Johns also refused the assertion of the artist’s personality. As an artist, Johns shunned the dominant art world, which was still under the spell of Abstract Expressionism, the “touch” of the artist, the “gesture” of the brush, and the “spiritual” and redemptive potential for art. The surfaces of Johns’ early paintings were first covered with squares of torn newspapers which provided a textured surface for the over coating of encaustic paint, or pigment suspended in wax. His painting technique was slow and careful and absent of signature marks. After decades of abstraction, this return to figuration and to the object was a shock and other artists and critics hardly knew how to read Johns’ laconic workman-like brush work and his deadpan imagery. His painting (non) techniques did not look like painting and his paintings did not look like paintings.

The artist had developed a third way, slipping his work in the in-between rule-bound space of painting and sculpture, a territory for poetic or semiotic objects. Johns claimed that he did not know of Duchamp during the 50’s but the two met later. Despite the superficial resemblance of methods—the use of mundane objects from “life,” the objects presented by Johns are in a very different category from Duchamp’s Readymades. Rather than simply chose an object from a store, Johns re-created the Targets and the Flags as hybrid objects, neither painting nor sculpture but both/and, inhabiting a zone of categorical indifference. In comparison to Pollock, who grandiosely and sincerely stated, “I am Nature, ” Johns was “culture.” Instead of aspiring to the heights of human nobility, this artist’s aims were at once more humble and more complex. Johns deliberately chose “Things the mind already knows” in an attempt to force the viewer’s attention away from painting as an act, a process and an art and redirected the spectator’s thought towards the conceptual nature of vision.

We know the target or the flag in a Gestalt moment of instant recognition in which we grasp the image and its meaning whole, but these images are in fact quite fragmented internally. So ingrained is the idea of “flag” upon our minds, that it is difficult to “see” the “flag”—any flag—as an arrangement of colors. With his indifference to aesthetic balancing, Johns inspired a new generation of Minimalist artists, such as Frank Stella, with his indifference to composition, structure, or design. In choosing the American flag, a thing already ready, already seen and known, he also jettisoned the problem of color relations. The flag is red, white, and blue and the design is pre-given, courtesy of Betsy Ross. However, in the 1950s when Johns was painting his series of flags, the American flag was a politically potent image. For those who were concerned with the threat of Communism, the flag took on an almost sacred meaning and the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. For others, forced to sign loyalty oaths, black listed, and accused of being “un-American,” the flag became an ironic symbol of the loss of Liberty and Freedom of Speech and Assembly.

The targets are less obviously rooted in Cold War mythology and it is more profitable to examine these works as part of the artist’s larger semiotic project. Through the irresistible force of cultural habit, the target insists on pulling the human gaze to the bull’s eye, but in Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts, both of 1955, Johns fights the viewer’s natural tendency to look at the center. Each of these encaustic targets has a row of plaster cast above the canvas. Visually speaking, Johns made two targets, one with the chin and mouth body parts in the compartments and the other, the target itself below. One looks above the target to the body parts and faces, which hover uneasily above the target. The body parts seem in danger but they are also safe because our aim is inexorably pulled to the bull’s eye. Johns is playing with the viewer who expects a center and a composition and a decided viewpoint. Once again, the play is a between what is seen—the target—and what is not seen—the rest of the face or the rest of the body.

If Rauschenberg was inspired by Duchamp’s use of Chance, Johns was inspired by Duchamp’s word play (fountain-urinal) and understood, as did the famous Dada artist, that art was a language. By remaking unremarkable objects—beer cans, flashlights, shoes, and so on, Johns came close to Duchamp in asking “questions” about what kind of subject, which objects are “appropriate” for High Art. The mundanity of the objects he reproduced should not detract from what is a low-key virtuoso performance on the part of the artist as a master craftsperson, a remarkable sculptor, painter, drawer, renderer, as though he was reiterating academic skills and lavishing them upon an unworthy and indifferent light bulb or ale can. In an age before the art of Andy Warhol gave rise to the questionable concept of “de-skilling,” Johns quietly allowed the ordinary object’s identity to overlay his extraordinary dexterity.

If his works raise questions, Johns rarely gave answers to his questions, only more works of art; and if one asked what the subject of his art was, the artist would allow the viewer the freedom to speculate and contemplate. In his False Start of 1959 shows Johns’ interest in the works of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although Johns did not start reading Wittgenstein until 1961, this and later works suggest his growing interest in meaning as a cultural construct. “The meaning of a word,” Wittgenstein stated, “is its use in the language.” Philosophical Investigations had been published in 1953 and the idea that language is a mere convention and that words have no absolute meaning was a new one. Johns brushed on a grid of colors with ironic Abstract Expressionist verve and then proceeded to stencil on labels that “named” the colors with the “wrong” names. Thwarted by the authority of the stencils we have learned to trust, the viewer struggles to make sense of the “false” naming of “red” on an orange patch, of “white” on a blue section. (For a more complete discussion of the unlikely pairing of Jasper Johns and Ludwig Wittgenstein, see Peter Higginson’s 1974 book on the subject.) The result of False Start is to remind the viewer that the relationship between word and object is arbitrary and exists only because of a cultural agreement. This essential insight of arbitrariness from philosopher Fernand de Saussure suggests that “reality” is also an agreed upon construction and could be “renamed” at any moment.

What Jasper Johns contributed to the art world was an intellectual and conceptual, even philosophical, worldview. However, it is important to not read too much into the manifold “influences” on Jasper Johns as he was, like all artists, consuming the available ideas moving through the culture and making them his own. He shifted the “use” of art from something that was looked at, gazed upon, and contemplated to an object with which the viewer engaged. Like Rauschenberg, Johns broke with the received wisdom that an artist was a creator. For the Neo-Dada artists, the artist was a collector who borrowed and appropriated the pre-exisiting visual culture. Whether Johns chose with Indifference or with a coded passion, the rupture with Abstract Expressionism and the meta-narrative of Clement Greenberg was decisive and complete. From the very beginnings of Neo-Dada, Greenberg rejected these artists and complained into the 1960s of the “confusion” generated by the “obliteration” of boundaries, noting that “high art is on the way to becoming low art and vice versa.”

Neo-Dada opened the way for the return of representation and figuration, albeit from the strategy of quotation. They avoided the apparent back-step of Willem de Kooning who smuggled Woman into Abstract Expressionism in the early fifties and Rauschenberg and Johns did not bother to “represent” in the expected fashion. Jasper Johns took what he found and acted upon it: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” It is this idea—to “take” instead of to “make” that was of such significance. The lasting importance of Neo-Dada and the art of Johns and Rauschenberg was the decisive break with confident creativity of Modernism and with the elitism of high art and the articulation of a new way of being an artist. The art historian, Leo Steinberg, was one of the first to write of these two artists in his collection of essays, Other Criteria. Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art. As a historian of Renaissance art, Steinberg was able to deal with the problem of the social or culture or semiotic meaning of art at at time when the modern art historians and art critics were able to write only of the formal elements of art. In writing of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Steinberg said that the idea of the “flatbed picture plane” was more than a “symptom.” “It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories.”

Steinberg pointed out that the objects appropriated by Johns were essentially “passive,” objects to which things were done—flags, targets, maps, alphabets and numbers: we salute the flag, we shoot the target, we unfold the map, we use the alphabet and we count with numbers. With all these “objects” it is the viewer who brings the flag the target, the map, the number and so into being. Without the user, these objects, like language, are inert. Once installed, the hybrid objects of Jasper Johns defy traditional placement. They do not rest easily on the wall, they must be put on a pedestal, they must be walked around like freestanding sculpture, and, contrary to the artist’s “instructions” they must not be touched. The Flag appears in several guises, in two and three dimensions, and always raising questions: “Is it a flag or a painting or a painted flag?” “Do we salute this object? Do we pledge allegiance to it?” “When is a flag not a flag?”

Not only did the two Neo-Dada artists bring back representation by borrowing images already ready in the vernacular culture but they also rejected the Modernist idea of a unified art meaning for a work of art. Their art was full of meanings, plural; and these meanings came, not from an art tradition but from a low tradition of low culture or from the familiar world of popular culture. In so doing, Jasper Johns made art familiar and understandable to the average museumgoer, but he also made the familiar unfamiliar and confounded the average museumgoer. For both Johns and Rauschenberg, the glory days of their loose collaboration were the 1950s and with the new decade the two went their separate ways. While Rauschenberg explored many areas of art and many techniques, Johns remained fairly consistent to his philosophy of dealing with “Things the mind already knows.”

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Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG (1925-2008)

Robert Rauschenberg had served in the Navy, as a nurse, during the Second World War, and, like many men of his generation, went to college on the G.I Bill. After studying in Paris and New York, he found himself at the famous Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in Asheville, North Carolina. The small secluded College boasted of an extraordinary faculty of famous artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willelm deKooning, John Cage, and the refugee artists, Annieand Josef Albers from the Bauhaus. Albers despised Rauschenberg and would never talk about him in later years, but he taught the artist about the importance of materials. When he was a teacher in the Foundation year at the Bauhaus, Albers trained his students to create “combinations,” that is, works of art that were collages and assemblages, made of anything or combined from everything. Any kind of material could be used. Rauschenberg would later call his hybrid works “combines” in homage to his bad tempered teacher.

In 1951 Rauschenberg had gained enough self confidence to write excitedly to the New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, of a new body of work, the White Paintings. As Brandon Wayne Joseph recounted in Random Order, the young artist insisted that the paintings were so “exceptional” that they constituted “a state of emergency.” The artist also began to participate in performance art, working with John Cage, who, in turn, was inspired by one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The way the shadows played on and changed the white surface reminded Cage of his interest in silence, a fascination that had been growing since the late 1940s. According to Cage, “The white paintings were airports for lights, shadows and particles.” Thus the white paintings are “performed” by the ambient environment and the presence of the viewer. Having explored the ideas of Zen, the concept of chance as acted out in the recently published English version of I Ching, a valuable association with Marcel Duchamp, Cage was prepared to understand the spiritual implications of the “silence” of Rauchenberg’s work. In the essay “Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the confrontation resulted in what Art Institute of Chicago’s music scholar, Peter Gena, described as

..the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first “happening.” Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

Cage and Rauschenberg continued their collaborations in New York. Like their associate and Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, these Neo-Dada artists re-defined traditional art forms. Rauschenberg redefined “print” when he glued pieces of typewriter paper into a twenty foot long scroll and guided Cage when he drove his Model A Ford over the line of pages. The front tire was “inked” with black house paint poured in front of the tire and thus, when Cage, now the “printer” and the “press,” drove in a straight line, the tire left a “print” of the car’s “journey” along the scroll. Automobile Tire Print (1953) was made on a weekend on Fulton Street, which was deserted on those days. According to Rauschenberg, “it rained” and the glue did not hold, so he had to “salvage” the pages and piece them back together into what he thinks of as a Tibetan “prayer flag.”

By the time he had returned to New York City, Rauschenberg was forced to face the failure of his marriage and divorced his wife. His next partner was an artist he met at Black Mountain, Cy Twombly. Although Twombly later married an heiress to an Italian fortune, his heart was broken when Rauschenberg met a newcomer to New York, Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg quickly became a couple, impacting each other’s art. Both artists began to make works that were hybrid in quality—neither paintings nor sculptures but both. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg made several series of White, Black, and Red paintings. Charlene (1954), a huge collaged painting, is one of the last red paintings, combining an umbrella, found prints of famous works of art, comic strips, and other collaged objects. Charlene was poised between painting, collage and an Albers “combination.” Another object that dated back to Black Mountain was Bed (1955) made when Rauschenberg was so broke he could not afford canvas. Looking like a murder scene, Bed was literally a sheet, covered with a quilt, with a pillow at the top. The artist then splattered paint, like Jackson Pollock, on the bed and hung the “painting” on the wall, making it into a work of art.

The sardonic slap at Abstract Expressionism was a “gesture” on the part of a brash artist who was clearly challenging his elders. Although Rauschenberg claimed to mean no disrespect, his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) was but one of a line of provocative works which made fun of the Modernist claim of authenticity and originality. Rauschenberg “erased” the cult of the artist in his months long erasure project and demonstrated that any gesture could be copied in Factum I and Factum II (1957). As a further refusal of originality and inner experiences, Rauschenberg, possibly under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, picked up an important but neglected tradition, Dada. The Modernist tradition of painting could not fruitfully incorporate Dada into its meta-narrative of evolution, and Rauschenberg, as a member of the Neo-Dada underground, began living off the land of discards.

As a resident of the Lower East Side, Rauschenberg collected the city’s detritus and used it to create large combines, some of which could hang on the wall, some of which were intended as floor pieces, while others were confined in boxes. As the artist reported later, “I actually had a kind of house rule. If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction–but that was it.” Probably due to his upbringing on a farm in Port Arthur, Texas, the artist was particularly fond of animals stuffed by a taxidermist. As a high school student, he was so sensitive to the fate of animals, he refused to dissect a frog in biology class. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combines often incorporated animals, and the most famous being Monogram, a large floor combine, featuring an Afghan goat, far from home, perched on a failed canvas. The goat has a car tire around his middle, and, like many of Rauschenberg’s works of the Fifties, is painted (on its broken nose) in a mock Abstract Expressionist style of drip painting. The goat stands on a large collaged painting, which, recycled by the artist, now became a mocking “field,” complete with a tennis ball.

Man with White Shoes, Odalisk, and Interview, all of the early fifties, were assemblages that were free-standing and were based on Cornell-like tall boxes, acting as containers of random objects and as carriers of found images. In one of the finest essays on Rauschenberg’s art, in Other Criteria, art historian Leo Steinberg referred to the artist’s “flatbed picture plane,” meaning that he simply placed images on a flat surface as one would tack notices on a bulletin board. However gritty and random these images appeared, Rauschenberg’s combines could be “read” by the attentive viewer. Many of his appropriated pictures were reproductions of famous works of art, others were from degraded popular culture, suggesting an art world dialectic between creativity and appropriation. Although many of these combines concealed codes with queer content, art historians were silent about the gay subject matter of both Johns and Rauschenberg until recently.

Canyon (1959) tells a story of gay love: the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy loved by the god who, disguised as an eagle, kidnapped the child. Perched on a ledge at the bottom of the painting is a stuffed eagle. Above the eagle is a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son as an infant, reaching up to the sky. Hanging from the bottom of the canvas is a pillow, divided in half with a rope, giving the pillow the look of human buttocks. Looking back on the definitive phase of Rauschenberg’s career, artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, wrote of the artist’s “vernacular glance.”

“The vernacular glance doesn’t recognize categories of the beautiful and ugly. It just deals with what’s there. Easily surfeited, cynical about big occasions, the vernacular glance develops a taste for anything, often notices or creates the momentarily humorous, but doesn’t follow it up…Nor does it pause to remark on unusual juxtapositions, because the unusual is what it is geared to recognize, without thinking about it. It dispenses with hierarchies of importance, since they are constantly changing to where you are and what you need.”

Although O’Doherty described the “vernacular” as a means to topple Modernist hierarchies of “high” and “low,” the notion of “glance” implies a new way of seeing—a quick scanning that seized upon random elements. In looking at these works of the Fifties from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Rauschenberg’s combines seem to predict the type of looking disciplined by the internet: a skimming of the screen, searching for key words. Rauschenberg’s combines, regardless of concealed content or not, were harbingers of things to come: hybrid, impure, painting-sculpture-objects-installation art based upon commercial and low art imagery found in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York. With hindsight, it is clear that Rauschenberg was making a stronger break with Modernism than his anti-art gestures would suggest. He deviated from the cherished ideology of Modernism, that the avant-garde is based in the kind of originality that was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie.

Composed of fragments of low culture and reproductions of high culture, the artist’s collaged paintings were predictors of Postmodern strategies of appropriation and quotation. Rauschenberg’s works were perfectly legible and familiar because their bones are borrowed. With their constellations of ephemera, his works echo the “allegories” of Walter Benjamin and foretell the encyclopedic approach of Andy Warhol. There was nothing High Art about Rauschenberg’s work and when Leo Castelli exhibited Rauschenberg’s combines in 1958, the art world was aghast. Sadly, his debut at one of the great galleries of Pop Art would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Jasper Johns. Castelli, who seemed to prefer the works of Johns over that of the older and more experienced artist, gave him the first show of his new gallery. The order of “preference” was too much for Rauschenberg and the two great artists soon went their separate ways. In his later years, Robert Rauschenberg spoke one or twice of the “affection” the two artists had for each other, but Johns, to this date, has remained discrete.

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

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Neo-Dada

NEO-DADA—1950-1960

Neo or new Dada was named after Marcel Duchamp who, in the fifties, began to emerge from the underground to the surface of cutting edged art in New York. Neo-Dada did not come neatly “after” the leading movement, Abstract Expressionism, instead the new approach to art appeared suddenly in the midst of the celebration of America’s seizure of European modernism. The reason for the clash of these two styles was the generational lag experienced by the Abstract Expressionist artists. At the very moment when they were experiencing success, these artists were near or close to retirement or “master’s” age—forties or fifties—-but their careers had been retarded by the slow development of an art scene in New York. After the decade of recovery after the war, money entered into the art world, just in time for investors to snap up the newest art—-not Abstract Expressionism but Neo-Dada. And keep in mind that the Color Field group had yet to emerge. The Abstract Expressionists were angered but, suddenly, their time had passed.

Neo-Dada was a New York phenomenon of the underground art world consisting of a group of performers, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and painters, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Neo Dada can be dated from late 1940s to late 1950s, from the early works of Cage and Rauschenberg, who worked together at the famous Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Cage and Rauschenberg were influenced by Marcel Duchamp and by his idea of redefining. The younger artist inspired the musician with his “redefinition” of painting. Rauschenberg covered four canvases with white paint and put them together into a four part square that changed and altered according to changing light and shadows and interactions with the shadows of passing viewers. The result was a painting that changed through ambience. Rauschenberg’s white painting is less famous than what it inspired: Cages’ experiment in ambient sound, 4’30” a piano recital in which the performer allowed the sounds of the environment to become a new kind of sound or “music.”

Upon return to New York, Rauschenberg and Cage continued their collaboration, such as the print of an inked tire driven over sheets of paper. The idea was that of Rauschenberg and the driving was that of Cage and the resulting new definition of “print”—Automobile Tire Print (1953). Then Rauschenberg met Jasper Johns who had come to New York after a stint in the army of occupation in Japan, unsure of whether he wanted to be an artist or a writer. Although Johns did not know him well in the beginning of his career, Duchamp’s ideas were circulating in New York at the time and he probably absorbed Duchampian thought from Rauschenberg who did know Duchamp. Johns was not well educated in art history and later he destroyed some of his early works when he learned that they resembled the Merz collages of Kurt Schwitters.

Using the inspiration of Duchamp, Johns and Rauschenberg began to challenge the rules of High Art. Cage re-defined music as sound and silence, Cunningham re-defined dance as movement through space, Rauschenberg re-defined art as life, Johns redefined art as an intellectual proposition, art as language according to the ideas of philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like the original Dada, Neo-Dada challenged the separation of art from life, so important to the definition of a Modernist work of art. At a time when abstract art dominated, Neo-Dada reintroduced the ordinary object and the figurative image and cultural or social meaning back into art. The significant contribution of Neo-Dada was the return to representation. But the representation of Neo-Dada artists was of a new kind: they did not copy what they saw, instead they simply appropriated, borrowed, or quoted images already available and already circulating in the culture.

Neo-Dada incorporated what the art historian and artist, Brian O’Doherty, called “the vernacular glance”—a kind of casual scanning of random glances. Inspired by the concept of the found object, Rauschenberg literally picked up objects he found discarded on the streets of lower east side New York and put them into collaged paintings or “combines.” The result of Rauschenberg’s collection of pre-made images from popular throw-away images and the way he pasted or posted them onto an upright canvas was termed “the flat bed picture plane” by art historian Leo Steinberg. Johns also used what he called “things the mind already knows” but these “things” were infinitely more banal and more famous than the discards picked up by Rauschenberg. Johns appropriated Flags and Targets and turned them into paintings, which had an ambiguous and hybrid nature. Was it a flag or a painting of a flag or a painted flag?

The result of the strategy of Rauschenberg and Johns, to borrow rather than to create, was a work of art that was hybrid on many levels, blurring the boundaries between sculpture and painting and art and life, and also an object in its own right. Unlike a Modernist work of art, which was pure, a Neo-Dada work is impure. Not only does the Neo-Dada artist use non-art materials and non-art images, the meanings of each object are non-art meanings. In addition to its anti-modernist hybridity, Neo-Dada was deeply involved in Performance Art, due to the presence of Cage and Cunningham. The most famous artists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, both performed with Cage and Cunningham and lived in the Pearl Street studios in New York, sharing space with performance artist, Rachael Rosenthal.

Performance Art is not theatrical in the sense of a traditional play, which is scripted and acted and performed regularly as repeated performances. Performance Art is planned but not scripted, cannot be repeated precisely, and, in contrast to the “theater,” involved the audience as participants. During the Fifties, performances were called “Events” or “Happenings,” many produced by Allan Kaprow. Kaprow was interested in the experiments of John Cage of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which foregrounded unplanned situations and audience participation. The development of art out of action, related back to the principles of collage, construction, and assemblage in that the Happenings were simple events that used everyday situations, just as a collage used everyday materials. Cage’s experiments re-examined the nature of art, for he saw art not as separate objects in museums but as an experience in any physical or social context. Happenings stressed audience over artistic experience and audience participation and interaction, joining the artist, life, and society.

Neo-Dada was also referred to as Proto-Pop, from 1955 to 1960. Other artists who could be termed Neo-Dada included the elusive and legendary, Ray Johnson and Larry Rivers, both in New York, and Jess, from Long Beach, who was working in San Francisco as an important gay artist. That said, the art history of Neo-Dada is usually focused on the work of Rauschenberg and Johns, both of whom were in the gallery of a new dealer named Leo Castelli, who would make them both famous or infamous. Although it was a secret at the time, the two men were lovers and were a well-known couple on the New York art scene. Their relationship was put under stress when Leo Castelli, who preferred the work of Jasper Johns, gave Johns the first show in his new gallery. Rauschenberg, an older, more experienced and better known artist than Johns, was hurt that he had to come second to his lover whom he had discovered working in a book store. Rauschenberg, who died spring of 2008, spoke only once of the “affection” he and Johns had of each other; Johns never spoke of their relationship at all. The two went their separate ways by 1963 and never spoke to each other again.

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

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

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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.

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

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The Beats, Art and Literature

BEAT CULTURE

1950s

Most cultural movements are large-scale shifts in thinking due to a collective action on the part of many people. Beat Culture is unusual in that the concept of what it meant to be a Beat was based upon the writings and activities of a very few people who had an extraordinary impact upon America. Despite their small numbers, the original Beats tapped into something beneath the surface of American society in the 1950s, giving voice to unspoken feelings. The term “beat” comes from black culture and from jazz. However, “beat” does not refer to a musical beat, but to the way those who were black in America felt: “beat.” “Beat” means “beat down,” “beaten up by life,” down and depressed, in a state of despair.

When a black person said, “I am beat,” s/he was making a profound statement, not of fatigue, but of alienation and of hopelessness. Whites, in the segregated Fifties, would come into contact with blacks on the musical scene, coming to black jazz clubs to listen to the music. To whites, outsiders and spectators of a culture they could hardly understand, blacks were the ultimate “cool” cats, possessing an impressive machismo that whites could only admire. The coolness of the “hep cats” was copied by the whites to the extent that the famous author, Norman Mailer, wrote an essay in 1957 called, “The White Negro” about wanna-be coolness.

White men wanted to be as cool as black men because the black culture seemed to offer a freedom from the conformity of the Fifties. Whites did not realize that the “freedom” from behavioral rules was the result of enforced segregation and exclusion from the larger mainstream society. But the reason for the cool freedom was not important to the white admirers of black culture. What the Beats wanted was freedom from the Fifties. Writer Gore Vidal once characterized the Fifties as “the worst decade in the history of the world.” If one was gay, like Vidal, the Fifties was catastrophic, and the only place society offered to someone who was “queer” was in the closet. Being gay was grounds for dismissal from jobs and many gay men “passed” into straight society through marriage and children.

The plight of gays and lesbians who were forced to live a stunted and inauthentic existence was an extreme version of the life society demanded you live. There were few choices in that decade, but the proscribed lifestyle was possible only for middle class whites. Thanks to huge government programs, the white middle class prospered in suburbs, in a single-family home with a white picket fence, with a husband and wife, two children, a dog, a cat, a station wagon. After a horrible Depression and a frightening war, suburbia and a lawn to mow seemed like paradise, but with paradise came a price. Many people felt that their options were too limited and strained against the conformity and the conservative, even retrograde, attitudes of the Eisenhower years.

The Beats were those who rebelled against the complacency and the materialism that marked the years that Eisenhower was the President. There were two Beat centers, New York and San Francisco, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles. The attraction for the Beats was the Jazz scene and black musicians had migrated to the West Coast where they hoped they would find less hostility. In his book Art After 1940, Jonathan Fineberg writes as though the Beats and the Neo-Dada artists were part of the same culture in New York. They actually were not.

The only thing these two groups had in common was that both the Beat and the Neo-Dada figures were part of the New York underground. There is little evidence that the groups had any impact upon each other’s art. They would have known of each other but their differences would have kept them apart. The Neo-Dada artists were underground because they were not yet accepted into the mainstream, an event that happened in 1958 when Leo Castelli debuted Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in his gallery. The artists’ time in the underground ended.

The term “Beat” would have been applied to them long after the fact and not during the Fifties. The Beats were not visual artists, but literary artists and were few in number. The Beats never wanted to be part of the mainstream, never sought success or acceptance. The main “leaders” were a novelist, Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road (published 1957) and Allen Ginsberg, a poet who wrote Howl. The two had met at Columbia University where neither fit in. Kerouac was a nonconformist and Ginsberg was gay. Although the University recognized their gifts, these rebels could not be absorbed into a formal system. The third member of the literary trio was William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, published in 1959. But the first of the three to achieve literary notoriety was Ginsberg, who debuted his famous poem Howl in San Francisco in 1955.

Fineberg stresses the New York art world and completely leaves out the significance of the West Coast. This kind of neglect is common for East Coast art historians, but in the case of the Beat culture, leaving out the importance of San Francisco leaves a large blank space. The visual artist who had the most connection with the literary Beats was a photographer, Robert Frank, who published his seminal, The Americans (1958). Jack Kerouac wrote the preface for Frank’s book, which became the most famous book of photography of the Twentieth Century. Frank took a road trip across America, photographing the country from his perspective as a Swiss expatriate and was in San Francisco for the first reading of Howl.

Howl is a great American poem—an updating of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. At the time, it was considered “obscene,” but today, like all Beat literature, it is considered a “classic” and is part of the American literary canon. Ginsberg read his poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco to shouts of “Go!” from Kerouac. Also present was local poet, Michael McClure, who introduced Ginsberg, and Los Angeles artist, Wallace Berman, a Beat artist from L. A., who had far closer ties to the New York Beats than did the artists in New York itself. Most publishers would refuse to publish a poem with “dirty words,” but one brave publisher and bookstore operator dared.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the famous City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, published the poem and was promptly tried for obscenity in 1957. Defended by the ACLU, Ferlinghetti was allowed to publish the book and continued his career as a poet and as a defender of civil liberties, including the Chicano Civil Rights movement. Once a place of scandal, City Lights Bookstore is located at the corner of Broadway and Kerouac Alley, one of several streets in San Francisco named after writers, including via Ferlinghetti.

Ironically, the year that Howl got the seal of approval, one of the attendees at the reading, Wallace Berman, was also accused of obscenity for a show he did at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Tried and convicted and humiliated, Berman left Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco, a more open-minded town where he lived for years before returning to L. A. where he died in 1970.

The year Howl was published, On the Road appeared. Kerouac had written the autobiographical novel from a road trip he took in the 1940s. Although the book claimed to be about one journey, it was actually composed of three separate trips. He was accompanied on the primary road trip by Neal Cassady. The Beat movement was all male with a few women on the fringes. As a result of the sexual repression of the Fifties, the sexual torments and yearnings of the confused men are present in this book. Written in 1951 on twelve-foot strips of paper, linked into a one hundred twenty foot scroll, the novel was finally published, with name changes, to instant success.

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs followed. With a keen ear for the language of drug culture, Burroughs tapped into the lingo and introduced white American readers to key terms, still in use today. Burroughs had much experience with drugs, having operated a marijuana farm in Texas, and with death, having accidentally shot his wife to death. One of the most interesting terms to come from the novel was the name of a dildo, “Steely Dan,” taken up twenty years as the name for a famous avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll group, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The real underground Beat artists were the artists in San Francisco scene, such as Bruce Connor, Jay de Feo and her husband, Wally Hedrick, and in the Los Angeles scene, such as Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz. The movement of the Beat artists in San Francisco’s North Beach evolved into the “funk”’ movement in the next two decades.

These Beat writers of the Fifties awoke something in American readers, who, despite the quietude of the decade, apparently yearned to hear dissident voices. Beats became famous and were renamed when the Soviet Union launched a tiny satellite named “Sputnik” in 1957. Americans were alarmed, to say the least, and reacted by getting into the space race and by reinforcing math in school curriculums. Beats were renamed “Beatniks,” perhaps to make them appear less threatening. Mainstream Americans were horrified at the attire of male Beatniks: beards, black clothing, and sandals.

In order to absorb this dire invasion from the coffee houses, Hollywood invented its own tame Beatnik, “Maynard G. Krebs,” a character on a television show. But an unknown group of young teenage musicians took the Beats as role models. Wearing long hair, another establishment no-no, and black leather jackets, the leader of the band decided their new name would be the BEATles. It is often said that the Beats inspired the Counter-Culture movement, but the connection seems to be questionable.

Certainly the Beats served as an inspiration for the Sixties youth culture. But the original Beats were social critics did not want to be part of the mainstream culture; however, they were not social dropouts. Kerouac scorned the hippies and disapproved of their “turn on” and “tune out” attitudes. The counter-culture was politically active and the Beats preferred to stay outside of the political realm. That said, Ginsberg was one of the first Americans to take LSD and Burroughs was a part of the East Village Scene in the Eighties that included Jean-Michel Basquiat who was a great admirer of the old druggie. For a black, being “beat” meant being alienated for racial reasons, for a white being “beat” meant being alienated for social reasons. Beatniks were literary artists who refused to enter the establishment and, despite their success, were never part of the mainstream. Unlike the artists of the New York underground, they stayed underground, anti-heroes to the counter-culture, even today.

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 47: Postmodern Painting—The Return of the Repressed

POSTMODERN PAINTING AS BRICOLAGE

Postmodern painting can be characterized as a reaction against the “rule” of Modernist painting. Using the art of David Salle, Julian Schanbel, Carol Maria Mariani, MarkTansey and Eric Fischl, this podcast discusses the deliberate lack of originality in Postmodern art. Whether the artists were addressing the “language of painting,” (Salle) or nostalgically revisiting Expressionism (Schanbel) or refitting the past through “dead languages,” (Mariani and Tansey) or indulging in the “forbiddens” of personal biography and buried secrets, (Fischl) the resurgence of Postmodern painting was indeed the Return of the Repressed.

 

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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