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|The Avant-Garde Dies
by Donald Kuspit
|Eric Hobsbawm, Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the 20th-Century Avant-Gardes (London, Thames and Hudson, 1998), 48 pages.
In The Age of Extremes, A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York, Vintage, 1996), the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm described "the death of 'modernism' which had ... legitimated the practice of non-utilitarian artistic creation and certainly had provided the justification for the artist's claim to freedom from all constraints" (p. 514). In Behind The Times, the most recent of a series of lectures commemorating Walter Neurath, the founder of Thames and Hudson, Hobsbawm expands his argument, and hammers it home with a contempt for the avant-garde and general insensitivity to visual art that makes one wonder why such a prominent art publishing house sponsored it. No doubt controversy is better than business as usual, and no doubt Hobsbawm is "one of the few genuinely great historians of our century," as New Republic hype states. But, it seems, if the Library of Congress exhibition of some materials from the Freud archives could be brought into question because it didn't question Freud -- which was remedied by a scattering of skeptical quotations placed strategically around the exhibition -- then one wonders why Thames and Hudson didn't sponsor a parallel counter-lecture to offset Hobsbawm's gleeful dance on the grave of avant-garde art.
In The Age of the Extremes Hobsbawm tells us the death of modernism occurred around 1950, and connects it with the rise of popular entertainment, spurred on by the development of television and media in general, the fact that "the old European centres of the arts were showing signs of battle-fatigue" (p. 503), the "growing esotericism of the highbrow arts, for they were themselves commentaries upon and critiques of earlier interpretations, and not fully comprehensible except to initiates" (p. 510), and the corresponding decline in artistic quality. Hobsbawm doubts that a "later 20th-century list" of "major figures," "even if it included several leaders of the New York School of 'abstract expressionists,' Francis Bacon and a couple of Germans," could stand up to a list that included Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Chagall, Rouault, Klee, "two or three Russians and Germans, and one of two Spaniards and Mexicans" (p. 511).
As though to escape this situation of diminishing avant-garde returns, "the modernist avant-gardes ... extended the limits of what could claim to be 'art' (or, at any rate, yield products that could be sold or leased or otherwise profitably separated from their creators as 'art') almost to infinity" (p. 518). This accorded well with the "postmodernisms," which "had in common an essential scepticism about the existence of an objective reality, and/or the possibility of arriving at an agreed understanding of it by rational means. All tended to a radical relativism" (p. 517). If there is no objective reality to art and no agreed understanding of what it is, then art is relative to the extent that anyone can declare himself or herself to be an artist, and indeed become one by declaring that something or other is art. Art and artist are determined by fiat and faith (supported by a coterie of true believers), whether tongue-in-cheek or not.
Postmodernism, which can be regarded as a kind of intellectual decadence, justified the decadence of avant-garde art. To the extent it became mindlessly open-ended, that is, regarded anything as art, with no clarity about what that meant, the avant-garde furthered scepticism about it. This already existed, but was now carried to the brink of dismissal, making the avant-garde all the more ingeniously self-destructive. Such openness, when not delusionary, or a naive and desperate search for novelty (as though to keep alive the old creative momentum when it no longer existed), was a sign of self-doubt. It ultimately led to self-defeat (not to say suicide), for if everything is art then nothing is art, or art means nothing -- makes no "difference." At the least, avant-garde art backed itself into a corner of irrelevance, for if it took its identity from life, without offering insight into it or suggesting that it could be changed for the better, why did one need avant-garde art? Indeed, it was a pest that kept itself alive by rapaciously preying on life, and like all such pests should be exterminated so that can life can flourish.
But as Hobsbawm argues the avant-garde died not only because it had grown old and weary, and all too ironical and cynical for its own good, and began to repeat itself in however refined a way -- a classic symptom of decadence -- which made it all the more inaccessible and meaningless for the masses, but for external reasons. In a society of mass consumption it is hard for artists to resist the tide. Why should they? They too are eager to consume and join the masses. Artists began to borrow their credibility from an economic reality that subsumed -- indeed, consumed -- art: "It is not surprising that in the 1950s, in the heartland of consumer democracy, the leading school of painters abdicated before image-makers so much more powerful than old-fashioned art. 'Pop art' (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg), spent its time reproducing, with as much accuracy and insensitivity as possible, the visual trappings of American commercialism: soup cans, flags, Coca-Cola bottles, Marilyn Monroe."
In Behind the Times Hobsbawm not only stresses the capitalist assimilation of avant-garde art -- it "became a subdepartment of marketing" (p. 7) -- but argues that it never was, in fact, of its times, as it claimed and struggled to be. For it paid only minimal lip service to science and technology, the dominant intellectual and practical forces of modern times -- Hobsbawm cites Léger, Tatlin, Heartfield and the Futurists as trivial examples, who barely understood the "machine-modernity" they superficially acknowledged in ignorant illustrations (p. 11) -- and made art that was inaccessible to the masses, the dominant social force of modern times. The point is avant-garde art really had no use, intellectual or human. "The non-utilitarian visual arts in the 20th century -- I mean painting and sculpture -- ... are a minority interest" (p. 13), the damning words here being "non-utilitarian" and "minority." While "architecture ... has been largely immune to the problems that beset the other visual arts" (p. 15) -- because of its alliance with money, that is, capitalism, he implies in The Age of Extremes and because "on the whole, big is beautiful, or, at any rate, more likely to get into the guidebooks" (p. 509) -- "more than any other form of creative art, the visual arts have suffered from technological obsolescence" (p. 15). (In Behind the Times Hobsbawm writes that because architecture "continues ... to rely on [capitalist] patronage, ... it continues happily to produce jumbo-sized one-off prodigies, with or without modern technology" (p. 17).)
Why then, is there any interest in avant-garde visual art? For capitalist reasons, as he reiterates, as already implied in The Age of Extremes. Avant-garde art has increasingly become "the sort of art which was primarily bought for investment" (p. 516). His example is "minimal art," which in his description involves "adding an individual's name to piles of brick or soil" (p. 516). As he says in Behind the Times, the avant-garde "mode of production," which involves "the one-off product, ascribable to one and only one maker," regarded as a "high-status 'artist,' as distinct from the journeyman artisan or 'hack,'" "belongs typically to a society of patronage or of small groups competing in conspicuous expenditure, and indeed these are still the foundation of the really lucrative art trade" (p. 17).
What, then, does avant-garde art offer that modern science and technology can't offer? Expressionism "infuse[s] reality with emotion -- all the more powerfully once the bonds of naturalism were relaxed, as witness van Gogh and Munch" (p. 21). But "the cinema achieves the same emotional intensity through naturalistic means," as his comparison of Munch's The Scream (1893) with the image of the screaming woman in the Odessa steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) is meant to show. (But what about the extra intensity possible without naturalism? He himself acknowledges it.) Cézanne, Seurat and Pissarro claimed "to get closer to perceived reality than the machine could, by appealing to science against technology" (p. 21). "The drawback of this procedure was that it removed painting from what the eye saw ... to the conventional codes of what skies, trees, people were supposed to look like" (p. 21). That is, just what Cézanne, Seurat and Pissarro claimed to do -- render "the physical perception of ever-changing light on objects, or the relations of planes and shapes or geological structure" (p. 21) -- they failed to do, for they were too bound to the conventions and clichés of perception, that is, to social expectations of appearance.
There is no escape from them. "What could painting do once it abandoned the traditional language of representation, or moved sufficiently far from its conventional idiom to make it incomprehensible? What could it communicate? Where was the new art going? The half-century from the Fauves to Pop Art was filled with desperate attempts to answer this question by means of an endless succession of new styles and their often associated and often impenetrable manifestoes. Contrary to the conventional belief, they had nothing in common except the conviction that it was important to be an artist and, once representation was left to cameras, that anything was legitimate as art, so long as the artist claimed it as a personal creation" (p. 24). Thus for Hobsbawm, avant-garde art's claim to emotional and perceptual authenticity is, if not fraudulent, then misleading. The paintings of van Gogh, Munch, Cézanne, Seurat and Pissarro are at best "personal creations" -- creations that presumably tell us something about their person. Is that of no human interest? Does that not communicate, if not to Hobsbawm's masses, then to other people who are aware of their personhood, or of the problem of trying to be an individual person in a world of masses? Hobsbawm does not answer and is not interested. The questions are beside his point. A "personal creation" is somehow trivial compared to an impersonal mass "creation," if such a product can still be called that. Avant-garde art is behind the times, and the times are about mass communication by means of technology built on the back of science. The artist's individual or personal creation is secondary to this hard fact and ultimately irrelevant, not only because it does not speak to and for any other individual or person -- at least in any socially essential way -- but also because it does not bespeak collective production.
If one reads Hobsbawm carefully we see that nowhere does he talk about esthetics, individuality, the character and reason for avant-garde art's concern for emotional and perceptual authenticity. Does he think they are there for the asking, or are they beside the point in mass society? Indeed, he is indifferent to the difference between authentic personhood and inauthentic mass society that so much has been made of in modern thought. Hobsbawm writes that "this essay is not about esthetic judgments on the 20th-century avant-gardes," and then adds, with Marxist cynicism and philistinism, "whatever that means" (p. 7). He seems indifferent to the vast literature on esthetic experience, and he makes no reference to avant-garde esthetic ideas. He sweeps away the stylistic and conceptual differences between avant-garde movements and artists, and has nothing to say about the esthetic difference between avant-garde art, which for him is largely and implicitly non-representational art -- damning in itself from the point of view of "representing" reality to the masses, and "representing" their interests -- and mass consumption art, which presumably represents the true consumer interests of the public. (Hobsbawm's trivialization of esthetics -- not to say his blindness -- is particularly evident in his comparison of Rodchenko's Portrait of the Artist Alexander Svenchenko (1924) and Picasso's Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910). He argues that Rodchenko's use of "double exposure to achieve a multidimensional effect" instantly communicates, through familiar means, what Picasso laboriously aimed at with unfamiliar means. Hobsbawm clearly prefers the movies, which "almost simultaneously with Cubism, that is from 1907 on, ... began to develop those techniques of multiple perspective" that analytical Cubism is supposed to have developed, or rather that art historians try to convince us it developed (p. 28). The esthetic and expressive difference between Picasso's intricate construction and Rodchenko's simplistic device is beside the point to him. In general, he seems to prefer the visually simple to the visually complex -- fast information to slow perception. There are no nuances to savor for Hobsbawm, only images that directly communicate.)
There is no sign of sensibility anywhere in Hobsbawm's essay -- he probably would say "whatever that means" -- and, although he declares that it is "not about my own tastes and preferences in the arts" (p. 7), he makes them very clear. They have largely to do with socially critical movies and proto-modern art -- visual activity which not only involves "the democratization of esthetic consumption" (p. 30), but raises our social consciousness, as it were. It uses so-called esthetics to increase both its communicative and critical power. Thus, while Hobsbawm declares that he is only interested in proving his point -- "the historic failure in our century of the sort of visual art which Moholy-Nagy of the Bauhaus once described as 'confined to picture-frame and pedestal'" (p. 7) -- he attacks "the recent 'Sensation' exhibition catalogue [that] tried to mobilize the status of Géricault, Manet, Goya and Bosch in favour of the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman" (p. 25). More particularly, he singles out their Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994) as a degrading parody of an image from Goya's Disasters of War (ca. 1810). Géricault, Manet, Goya and Bosch presented visions of all too human frailty and suffering -- man's inhumanity to man -- suggestive of a critical humanism, while the Chapman brothers appropriate an image without understanding its import. They sensationalize it, in lieu of finding a contemporary image of suffering they can artistically communicate so that it moves people to social reflection and action. They are not witnesses to their times, but exploiters -- Hobsbawm's word -- of the art of their artistic and human betters.
I happen to agree with Hobsbawm about the Chapmans -- their waxworks esthetic is certainly appropriate for a dead avant-garde -- and I also agree with his assertion that "the pointless adaptation" of the map of the London underground system in Simon Patterson's The Great Bear (1992) is also emblematic of "the bankruptcy of the avant-garde" (p. 39). (He misses its mockery and vulgarization of abstraction -- its attempt to suggest the stereotyping and irrelevance of abstraction.) But the decadent end does not devalue the creative beginning -- the creative achievement that makes the avant-garde humanly as well as artistically important, and that in itself amounts to a critique of the society in which it occurred and of the mass art that represented that society. However much the market appropriates avant-garde art for its own purpose -- and money preserves art, and also facilitated avant-garde artists, suggesting that it is not entirely cynical, and does not necessarily corrupt and blinker perception and understanding -- the best avant-garde art remains a telling revelation of modern times, however much that revelation may not be immediately comprehensible to the so-called masses.
Hobsbawm's book is profoundly confused: he wants a mass communicative art on the one hand, on the assumption that it is necessarily of its times, but on the other he wants a critically significant humanistic art. What makes him think the movies are the latter? No doubt some films are significantly humanistic and critical, offering insight into social conditions, and more broadly the human condition, and conveying that insight through their emotional effect on the audience, but most mass-consumption movies have exactly the decadent capitalist qualities Hobsbawm deplores: rank commercialism and deliberately uncritical reiteration and manipulation of the status quo of perception and feeling, dogmatically exaggerated into unchangeable truths. Hobsbawm never questions whether the commercial and collective appropriation of the avant-garde that he describes does it justice. Why blame it for what it cannot control in a consumer democracy? Again and again we see Hobsbawm making telling points about modern times, but few or none about the human rationale for and substance of avant-garde art, perhaps because he is blind to the critical character of its esthetics.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.