Art, for what purpose?

One of the consequences of being a promiscuous book buyer is that books come into the house more quickly than they can be read. They sit in the ‘to be read’ pile until it becomes clear that they won’t be, at least not just now, and are then moved to a shelf in the hope they are re-discovered at a future date.

And they usually are, eventually. I re-discovered one book recently that I must have bought at least 25 years ago and had never read. And very interesting it turned out to be. The booked is still available and is called ‘Has Modernism Failed?’ by Suzi Gablik.  It is a short and compelling polemic about the state of Modern Art in the early 1980s. And whilst written from an American and specifically New York perspective, its message is of broad relevance.

The argument of the book is that from the mid-C19 to the present day, the development of Modern Art in the West has forged a path which is very different from that which proceeded it. Rather than being closely integrated with the prevailing social and spiritual order, as art historically was, Modern Art stepped outside that order and defined itself in opposition to it; and indeed in opposition to the art which had proceeded it. Gablik quotes for example the early Russian modernist, Malevich saying “Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion. It no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners; it wants to have nothing to do with the object as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without things”.

Black Square, Malevich, 1915. According to Theo van Doesburg “the square is to us what the cross was to the early Christians”. As Goblik comments, “this notion of the artist as the last active carrier of spiritual value in a materialist world remained attached to all abstract art until the end of Abstract Expressionism”.

Art turned inward and became predominantly self-referential; defined largely in terms of how it differed from what came before. It also put itself in opposition to the prevailing social and spiritual order – to be avant-garde implied both aesthetic innovation and social revolt. By the 1970s however, much of the the social revolt had gone. Art was considered by the modernising pioneers as an aesthetic experience only with no social or spiritual meaning. As Gablik puts it “the very idea of content was taken to be a hindrance and a nuisance, and looking for meaning was a form of philistinism”.

PH-929, Clifford Still. Modern Art did not just become self-referential. It also retreated from its audience. When Still was asked whether he was concerned whether his art reached people he responded “Not in the least. That is what the comic strip does”. When asked whether that meant that he painted primarily for himself, the answer was a simple “Yes”.
A Green Thought in a Green Shade, Helen Frankenthaler, 1981. As Gablik says “The stylistic innovations of the colour-field painters … (of which Frankenthaler was one) … are only aesthetic; they harbour no revolutionary pretensions, no religious fervour, no remnants of transcendence hung like clusters of ice on the very trellises of dawn”.

By the 1980s, Gablik asserts, Modern Art had reached a dead end. As each wave of Modern Art had divorced itself increasingly from meaning, had defined itself largely in opposition to whatever had come before and had refused to accept conventional notions of the purpose, quality and value of art, it had gradually demolished  itself. Gablik quotes Gilbert and George in a 1982 film: “They tell us that they are unhealthy, middle-aged, dirty-minded, depressed, cynical, empty, seedy, rotten, badly behaved, arrogant, stubborn, perverted and successful – finishing with ‘we are artists'”. As she then says “If the modern artist once embraced modernism with hope, pride, and a crusading spirit of disobedience, at this stage of the day he seems to cling on with desperation, feeling indefinably sad and shoddy”. The shock of the new has simply become the ability to shock.

Campbell’s Soup, Andy Warhol, 1963. As Goblik comments “it may well be that in his vacancy it is Andy Warhol who provides us with the truest image of the artist in our time. Compulsively addicted to glamour, openly aligned with the competition for money, status, and power, he fits into the culture as though he were made for it”. Thirty years later, exactly the same might be said of Damien Hirst.

As Gablik goes on to conclude: “Once art began its relentless advance into traditionless-ness, every new style serve as a new beginning, a new plunge ahead. Beliefs had to be continually changed, replaced, discarded – always in favour of newer and better ones, which would only be rejected in turn. The ‘new’ became the chief emblem of positive value. ….. But what the early modernists failed to foresee, in their dedication to the new, was that such a conception of history could only be built on sand, since no belief ever had anything solid to support it”.

Gablik was writing in the early 1980s. Since then art has retreated from relentless Modernism and the centre of gravity of the contemporary art world today is much closer to figurative art than abstract expressionism; think Freud, Hockney, Gormley  Auerbach, not Rothko and Motherwell.

But the central problem created by modernism in Western art remains. Once we have discarded the value of tradition, put on a pedestal the importance of being new and unique, undermined the traditional criteria by which to value, assess or even identify a work of art, how is an artist to proceed? They are liberated from all constraints, they can literally do anything, and whilst in theory this is exciting, it is I suspect for many profoundly disorienting. In practice, in order to proceed, an artist must first define not just the focus of their art but the rules by which they wish to be constrained and the values against which they wish to be judged. Most important of all, they have to define their own purpose – for what reason are they making art. And, of course, if they are interested in having an audience for their art, they have to be able to communicate their purpose, values etc to give the audience the context to understand and assess what is being shown. This is a demanding agenda.

Many artists of course produce art entirely for their own satisfaction, and that is a legitimate way to proceed. For my part though, I feel that the audience is a fundamental part of the artistic experience. Something which is not seen, hardly exists; something which is never assessed can hardly be good; and something which is never offered, can never be accepted.