December 7, 2006

Authority of Historicity

It is unfortunate that we had to end our discussion yesterday, as I was just beginning to enjoy what would surely have become our long critique of Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom. Suzi Gablik’s essay is problematic for a couple of reasons that I want to quickly mention here, and I expect that I may not use this particular reading in future Theory NOW coursework as the scant insights of the piece are plagued by her insistent premise regarding a moral imperative that she assigns to the postmodern artist.

Gablik’s position is at least partially based on her misrepresentation of Aristotelian principles regarding ethics, as evidenced by the following:

To us, productivity means efficiency of output – works of art coming off an ethically blank assembly line like automobiles – but not the individual’s potential for creating himself, for becoming, as Aristotle proposed, an excellent person.(1)

In my own humble and academic understanding of Aristotle’s practical intellect I recall a definite separation of doing and making, as we taught “doing is to human conduct, as making is to an object.” This established that in Aristotelian art theory the activity of making art was concerned only with the “good” of the work, not the “good” of mankind. So those assembly line autos are rightly non-ethical as determined by Aristotle and this principle was continued at least through the Medieval period by Aquinas as recta ratio factibilium, i.e., “the right [straight] making [reason] of the thing to be made.”(2)

Clearly Gablik has used this principle incorrectly to suggest that postmodern artists ought to make art that is ethical to set an “example of high spiritual devotion” and to give “one’s mode of life an ethical stamp.”(3) Gablik’s confused supposition may reflect her personal hope that we cast-off the “anything goes” character of the current pluralistic modus operandi but it muddies the true issue of pluralism which is its utter disregard for art history and its discourse as the validating “higher authority.”

Let us first begin with one good point, however. I will agree that our present “unlimited freedom of expression” has weakened the “importance of what is expressed,” and that the “overavailability of options actually lowers the degree of innovation possible.”(4) This makes perfect sense, in that without an authoritative comprehension of what has been previously validated as substantive art, any and all artworks apparently are granted a “pass” under the “freedom of expression” rule, albeit temporarily. Gablik then puts forth an indefensible suggestion that with the “accommodation” of these expressions the “plausibility of tradition collapses” and, further, this “disintegration is not merely of this or that aesthetic assumption, but of the overall pattern of meaning.”(5) Remarkably, she appears to believe that art still has a “meaning-giving” role, and this essay was written after the “linguistic turn” of the poststructuralists quite successfully evaporated all definitive signifieds, in art as well as in that other system of representation - language. That this is a postmodern trope ought to be quite evident to any student of visual art of the last twenty years.

Continuing this line of thought, Gablik derides the “contingency” of modernism as “mere self-expression.”(6) Clement Greenberg’s work would disprove that assumption, given that the modernist painter was chiefly charged with critical awareness of the medium and its possible uses. Greenberg felt that the “essence” of modernism was the “use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.”(6) Certainly self-expression was allowed but the theoretical thrust of “literality” was an adherence to “medium-specificity” as an aesthetic directive, an “authority higher” than that of the individual painter. Yet it “needed the accumulation over decades of a good deal of individual achievement to reveal the self-critical tendency of modernist painting.”(7)

I am only suggesting that Gablik revisit recent art history to recognize that it is that “higher authority” that she wishes for the postmodern artist to follow. The history of art and the constant discourse about art has an as yet unrealized potential to enable a full reassessment of the pluralist and myriad styles, possibly even leveling the field to a few essential trajectories that may prove to have significant historicity. If in Greenberg’s view “modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art,”(8) then postmodernist art, or certainly one or two of its movements, would have a lucid thread that can be traced forward from that initial modernist narrative.

I am not saying that history is infallible – only that it has infinite and enduring duration over stylistics as well as individuals.


1. Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, New York, 1984, 82.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 57, 3, c, replies to Obj. 1-3, translation: V. J. Bourke.

3. Op. cit: 82.

4. Op. cit: 75.

5. Op. cit: 76.

6. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”, Art and Literature, No. 4, Spring 1965, 193.

7. Ibid., 200.

8. Ibid., 201.

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