December 6, 2007

The Evil Twin Narrative

A few weeks ago a young curator asked my opinion on how one determines artwork worthy of purchase. Although the context of our conversation concerned informed art collecting, I realized this week after re-reading Suzi Gablik’s “Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom” that a ubiquitous subjectivity pervades both collecting and exhibiting art. My personal response to her question on the nature of collectable art is undoubtedly influenced by my own judgments of taste. However, and this thought was provoked by the Gablik essay, should art making (and art collecting) adhere to any art historical narrative?

A progressive narrative of art is especially relevant to Modernism. One can trace a solidly theoretical and linear history, proceeding from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, from Suprematism to Abstract Expressionism. Yet it is right around 1956 that the Modernist narrative appears to grind to a halt as Pop Art interrupts the grand narrative of art as a progressive development of the individual artist’s “self-expression.”(1)

Supplanting personal embodiments and exultations of self-expression with the wholesale “borrowing” of appropriated media images, Pop Art used media reproductions of mass culture as both reference point and signifier for the prevailing social and cultural conditions. As an art movement or style, Pop might easily be cast as “postmodern,” as its approach to content had less to do with the artist’s individual need to express the self and more to do with the circulation of the image. Later, this was enthusiastically supported by Guy Debord’s ideas of image as spectacle, replacing the “authentic” social lives of individuals with “social relation[s] among people, mediated by images.”(2)

It may be pure conjecture but an alternate and simultaneous postmodernist narrative might be traced from Pop Art through the photo-text works of the 1970s to full-bloom Appropriation by the 1980s. We might also include “post-sculptural” and “simulationist” artists like Jorge Pardo, Franz West, Haim Steinbach and R. M. Fisher, who either transform diverse commodity objects into new “exhibition value” or create their own commodity objects that intentionally blur distinctions between art and design.

If we return to the central question – should art making adhere to art historical narratives – we can see that other art historical narratives are thus running simultaneously. Assuming that it matters, how then do we determine which narrative has credence, value and authenticity?

If we refer to the Gablik essay, we can see that in 1984 she had a problem with postmodernism’s eclecticism and its appropriation of prior art historical models. She criticizes postmodernism’s skillful assimilation of “all forms of style and genre,” and presents postmodernism as being “tolerant of multiplicity and conflicting values.”(3) However, these precepts of postmodernism, and as a proposed postmodernist art historical narrative, might also be seen as achievements and strengths, instead of failures and weaknesses.

For example, one of the ideas of post-structural linguistics was the suspicion of the binary. Clear-cut distinctions between opposites, i.e., true and false, were questioned through explorations of meaning within language. This aversion to binaries helped establish the tolerance for multiplicity and “conflicting values” in language, and were also empowering to postmodern artists. Which would help explain postmodernism’s eclecticism as the “tendency in architecture and the decorative arts to mix various historical styles with modern elements with the aim of combining the virtues of many styles or increasing allusive content.”(4)

The current situation in visual arts would suggest that a plurality of visual styles is not only rampant but encouraged by today’s art market. Figurative art, abstraction, realism, conceptualism, minimalism, new media, installation and video are equally valued, exhibited and collected. The socio-economic institutional triumvirate of critic-gallery-collector positions artists within the various styles for multiple validations regardless of art theoretical conflicts.

Gablik suggests that pluralism had potential: “In many ways the abandonment of ideology in favor of a pluralist situation seems to offer colossal and unparalleled opportunities for every kind of artistic expression; it would seem, moreover, to be a liberating release from intolerant exclusiveness and from the avant-garde imperative of continual innovation.”(5) Thus, the Modernist tropes of exclusivity and elitism would be eliminated in the pluralist world of “overoptioned” styles. Yet she argues that this would still “threaten our art with the imprint of meaninglessness.”(6)

Critics of postmodernist theory often charge it with using double-talk that represents the question of meaning as a belief in “meaninglessness.” On the contrary, the postmodern definition of meaning as being “infinitely deferred” has the ultimate fullness of possibility, with a multiplicity of meanings opening all systems of representation (including art) to infinite meanings.

Our proposed postmodernist alternative to the modernist one (call it the “evil twin” narrative) might reveal Gablik’s reluctance to recognize the importance of conceptual art when she states: “Nearly all art today is the product of energies freed from direct social purpose or obligation.”(7) Gablik forgets that the original conceptual art of the 1970s sought a fully engaged social “use value” for their art. Kosuth, Lewitt, Weiner and others refused to continue making precious objects as commodities, choosing instead to imbue their art with definition, idea and language. Indeed, the relationships of art to language (and to the world of commodity production) are counter to the Modernist ideology of the spirit. As avant-gardian themes, these prefigure conceptual art and yet have become our postmodernist tropes.

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1. Coincidentally, Jackson Pollock and James Dean were killed in car crashes that year (September ’55 to August ’56) and Charlie Parker overdosed on heroin six months earlier (March ’55).

2. Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle”, Black and Red, 1967, 7.

3. Gablik, Suzi. Has Modernism Failed?, New York, 1984, 73.

4. Dictionary.com

5. Op. cit., 75.

6. Op. cit., 75.

7. Op. cit., 74.

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