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by Donald Kuspit
Twentieth Century Art: An Overview of Critical Opinion

"The real problem of modernity is the problem of belief," writes Daniel Bell, the sociologist and political theorist. "To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchorages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged. It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism; lacking a past or a future, there is only a void."(1) Modern art, in all its seemingless limitless variety, presents itself as one solution to the problem, indeed, as some think, the only important solution. As Bell says, it has become a "substitute for religion,"(2) a spiritual antidote to social poisons, the esthetic alternative to moral nihilism. This view is seconded by the historian Jacques Barzun, who, discussing "the rise of art as religion" in the 19th century -- initially the equation of art and religion, and finally the substitution of art for religion(3) -- remarks that "Art. . . became the gateway to the realm of spirit for all those over whom the old religions have lost their hold. Most romantic artists needed nothing higher. Art was sufficient and supreme."(4) The poet Wallace Stevens adds: "The paramount relation between poetry and painting today, between modern man and modern art, is simply this: that in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost."(5)

The question, of course, is whether these claims have any substance. Is belief in art really adequate compensation for loss of belief in God -- to put the issue in the starkest terms? Is the religion of art -- more particularly, avant-garde art, for many the most genuine modern art, that is, the only art of the 20th century that accurately reflects the tenor and ideas of modern times -- as spiritual, morally concerned, and emotionally uplifting, supportive, and consoling as the old religion? Are avant-garde artists really our new prophets and saints? No doubt the new religion of avant-garde art is sometimes as dogmatic in its claims as traditional religion, but is it as re-assuring and emotionally convincing? Does it sometimes also involve a failure of reality testing, if also offering in its stead more sublime and subtle pleasures -- spiritual rather than grossly physical satisfactions -- than are usually available in everyday life?

For some, the "advances" of avant-garde art are inseparable from those of modern science and technology. Indeed, the critic Clement Greenberg believes that Cubism is the first truly 20th-century art because it "was the first to accept the modern, industrializing world with enthusiasm."(6) While it was at the height of its influence just before the first world war -- "1912. . . was the great year for Cubism"(7) -- it remains, for Greenberg, the quintessential modern art, not simply because of its industrial aura -- Robert Delaunay’s "Eiffel Tower" paintings celebrate an engineering triumph, and Fernand Léger’s robot figures, with their "technological form,"(8) seem like industrial inventions -- but more broadly because of its positivism, its belief in facts, which for him is the core ideology of modernity. According to Greenberg, Cubism’s unique emphasis on "formal facts" is central to "modernist" art practice, that is, "autonomous, inward, self-referential and self-critical artistic practice."(9) If, as Greenberg thinks, self-criticality is the gist of the modern mentality, then the only art that is authentically modern is art that brings its own identity as art into question -- "radically questions its essence as art," to use the philosopher T. W. Adorno’s words(10) -- even as it does so, paradoxically, by purifying its means, that is, essentializing itself so that it seems self-identical.

Throughout this book I will use the term "avant-garde" to refer to any art that claims to establish a critical, questioning relationship -- whatever the ironies and dialectical complexities of the relationship -- with what it regards as the modern world or with existing, institutionalized art (traditional art, which includes new art that suddenly seems traditional because of newer art), or with both at once. Such a critique is invariably entangled with what it critiques, but it is nonetheless uncompromising in its pursuit of the "truth." If, as Adorno writes, "criticism recognizes the truth content of works in their spirit, or alternatively denies that they have any truth content because they have no spirit,"(11) then avant-garde art -- critical art -- searches for the truth of the modern world and art, that is, their spiritual meaning.

I will argue that the irony of avant-garde art is that it transcends whatever it critiques, indicating that it is neither entirely of the modern world nor exactly art. The subliminal point of avant-garde innovation -- and in the history of 20th-century art it is the avant-garde innovators who made the spiritual as well as artistic difference, that is, who showed that to take an artistic risk was also to take a spiritual risk, that one ventured into unknown artistic territory to make spiritual discoveries -- is to express dissatisfaction with both, finally dismissing them as beside the larger spiritual point. Avant-garde innovation sheds social and artistic identity, working through them in a struggle to become self-identical -- convey a sense of unique, hard won selfhood, fulfilling what Erik H. Erikson calls "the promise of an assured wholeness."(12) It is the intimation of wholeness in a psychosocial situation in which wholeness seems impossible -- in which the avant-garde work of art is itself a vulnerable fragment of an inconceivable whole, as Adorno suggests(13) -- that makes avant-garde art peculiarly tragic, that is, all too human and poignantly modern, however grand its spiritual and artistic aspiration.

At first glance, avant-garde art looks like the rebellious assertion of what Erikson calls "negative identity. . . the sum of all those identifications and identity fragments which the individual had to submerge in himself as undesirable or irreconcilable or which his group had taught him to perceive as the mark of fatal ‘difference’."(14) But at second glance one realizes that it is an attempt to restate, in novel terms, "the language of the uncorrupted core of all spiritual tradition," which holds that "‘the identity of knowing transcendence’ can only be discovered by man when the possibility for any social definition of identity is shattered beyond restoration."(15) Negative identity may seem like the root of the identity of knowing transcendence, but it is an anti-social identity, the shadow of a positive social identity -- it is defined by its opposite -- which is why it also must be shattered beyond restoration.

But is the art of radical critique a true religion, however much it aims at transcendence of the world and itself? Not exactly, Barzun remarks, for it is "the enemy within, bent on destroying the house."(16) It is its negative identity he notices, rather than its transcendental potential. Avant-garde art may be "the last hope for purpose and meaning,"(17) but its "adversary position. . . toward society,"(18) involving the use of "shock and insult. . . unsettles the self and destroys confidence and spontaneity in individual conduct."(19) As Barzun remarks, "to a godless age, the negative [is] potent. [It] perpetuates itself as a habit of thought -- it becomes the highest form of self-consciousness -- and it destroys everything in the most direct way, not by physical means, but by corrosion at the seat of faith and action, the human mind."(20) Art in fact "ends by destroying itself."(21) "Destruction by novelty becomes an incessant function of art."(22) If avant-garde art cannot cure itself of its corrosive negativity, which it finally turns on itself, it certainly cannot "cure the [social] wound it sedulously kept open. Art is not a religion; it cannot make promises of grace, or fulfill them if it made them."(23)

The literary historian Renato Poggioli agrees, noting the "agonistic sacrifice" of avant-garde art, "an anonymous and collective sacrifice, but also. . . the self-immolation of the isolated creative personality" for the sake of "the art of the future."(24) Poggioli calls agonism a "hyperbolic passion, a bow bent toward the impossible, a paradoxical and positive form of spiritual defeatism."(25) It is an attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of self-defeat -- "to transform the catastrophe into a miracle," as Poggioli writes(26) -- but it is the catastrophe that is more conspicuous than the miracle. As he says, agonism is failure’s attempt to justify and transcend itself, as though the result of failure was success -- which is an absurdity, a perverse contradiction in terms, a pseudo-dialectical resolution of irreconcilable opposites. Agonism involves a fantastic blurring and obfuscation of the boundaries between failure and success, confusing a personal sense of creative failure -- and, more deeply, the unconscious conviction that the avant-garde self has no future, no appeal except to the avant-garde artist who must bear it -- with the wish for social success after one’s death, in the future. The agonistic belief is compensation for an overwhelming sense of spiritual inadequacy.

How can a "movement formed in part or in whole to agitate against something or someone,"(27) suggesting its "spirit of hostility and opposition" -- the "antagonism" that becomes a "permanent tendency. . . of the avant-garde movement," and eventually a "transcendental antagonism," which "finds joy not merely in the inebriation of movement, but even more in the act of beating down barriers, razing obstacles, destroying whatever stands in its way," finally driving itself "beyond the point of control by any convention or reservation, scruple or limit," and thus becoming a kind of totalitarian or tyrannical nihilism -- be anything but self-defeating and spiritually and socially bankrupt, however much it may rationalize itself by a pseudo-pious attitude of agonism?(28) As Bell says, complete and total nihilism is "the end product of the cultural impulses to strike down all conventions."(29)

"A major part of contemporary art declares itself on the side of chaos, gesticulates in a void, or tells the story of its own barren soul," the poet and playwright Zbigniew Herbert writes.(30) Agonism is nihilism -- the sense of a void of belief, of spiritual barrenness, the   confirmation of Barzun’s idea, in his concluding chapter on "art in the vacuum of belief," that avant-garde art involves not only the "absence of faith," but "its studied rejection."(31) How, then, can one have faith in it? Why should one have faith in it? From this point of view, it is clearly not the answer to the spiritual crisis and nihilism that Bell regards as characteristic of modernity.

"Modernism is exhausted and the various kinds of post-modernism. . . are simply the decomposition of the self in an effort to erase individual ego," Bell thinks.(32) It is a decomposition that seemed foreordained -- that Poggiolo describes: postmodernism ends what modernism began, according to this theory. For Bell, culture is "the arena of expressive symbolism: those efforts. . . to explore and express the meaning of human existence in imaginative form."(33) If "modernism as a cultural mode" is bankrupt, then its imaginative forms no longer have anything to tell us about the meaning of human existence. They no longer seem an apt response to "the existential situations which confront all human beings, through all times. . . .: how one meets death, the nature of tragedy and the character of heroism, the definition of loyalty and obligation, the redemption of the soul, the meaning of love and of sacrifice, the understanding of compassion, the tension between an animal and a human nature, the claims of instinct and restraint."(34) In their different ways, Barzun and Bell are saying the same thing: that avant-garde art -- art at its supposedly most "advanced" -- does not speak to the problem of being human.

The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset makes the same point, however indirectly, when he remarks that the "dehumanization and disgust for living forms" evident in avant-garde art "is inspired by. . . an aversion against the traditional interpretation of realities."(35) The question is: what is the new avant-garde interpretation? A second question: how valid and accurate is it? Above all, avant-garde art wants "candor," he says, "that is, the absence of tradition."(36) He notes that "to assail all previous art [means] to turn against Art itself"(37) -- "the new art ridicules art itself," "laugh[s] off everything, itself included," reduces art to "farce"(38) -- but he construes this "iconoclasm" in a positive way: it is "an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world."(39) This does not exactly make avant-garde art reassuring -- it is not exactly a reason to have faith in art, although it does make it sound as though avant-garde art is the faith of youth, that is, youth’s expression of its own belief in itself -- but it does give its destructiveness a positive purpose.

Like Poggioli and Ortega y Gasset, the critic Harold Rosenberg also puts a positive spin on the negativism -- whether it be understood as spiritual defeatism in a vacuum of belief or the subversion of tradition, both equally nihilistic -- of avant-garde art. For Rosenberg, the avant-garde work of art is an "anxious object," which means that it "persists without a secure identity."(40) Rosenberg argues that "the anxiety of art embodies the freedom of art to remake itself at will," but he also notes that "it is an objective reflection of the indefiniteness of the function of art in present-day society and the possibility of the displacement of art by newer forms of expression, emotional stimulation and communication."(41) Nihilistic uncertainty -- radical self-doubt, to the point of self-destruction -- is built into this anxiety: the avant-garde work of art is forced to ask itself: "Am I a masterpiece. . . or an assemblage of junk?"(42) The question can be re-phrased: "Am I really high art or non-art masquerading as art -- calling myself art because I have convinced everybody else to call me art?" Rosenberg has written: "In the chaos of the 20th century, the metaphysical theme of identity has entered into art,"(43) but art for him does not have a clear identity as art -- it has become a philosophical problem, that is, a problem with no solution, a problem with many theories few of which address practice, and thus remain naively speculative however intellectually sophisticated -- even though he argues that becoming an "action painter" is a way of gaining a unique identity, that is, an authentic sense of self or "total personality."(44)

Even the art historian Hans Sedlmayr, who "diagnoses from the facts of [modern] art that the disrupted relationship with God is at the heart of the disturbance. . . in the condition of man" which avant-garde art reflects,(45) and who quotes with approval Nicholas Berdyaev’s assertion that "Picasso overcomes the human element within himself through the destruction of its original subjective center. . . . And so humanism dies,"(46) declares that "there are enormous possibilities even in despair."(47) He writes: "There begins to exist in the 19th century an entirely new type of man, that of the suffering artist. . . . All suffer because God has become distant or, perhaps, dead -- and because man is degraded. And greatest of all is the suffering of the West. That is why there is in the West still spiritual hope."(48)

All of this strongly suggests the paradoxical ambivalence toward avant-garde art that pervades the critical and theoretical literature of those who are its advocates. On the one hand they recognize its destructiveness, on the other hand they celebrate its creativity. It is innovative through negativity, but negativity takes a heavy toll on the self and society -- even as it may reflect them. After all, as Barzun says, "Art is of this world, and though it is creative and formative in the exact sense of those words, it is also reflexive. In some fashion, crude or fine, it reenacts our lives -- the hidden life, or the public life, or the collective life. As Henry James said: "art is our flounderings shown. And in the light of contemporary art one might even say: our flounderings shown up."(49)

There are two particularly striking examples of this contradictory attitude to art. "A picture used to be a sum of additions," Pablo Picasso stated. "In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture -- then I destroy it." Nonetheless, says the avant-garde artist who for many is the greatest of the 20th century, "In the end, though, nothing is lost: the red I took away from one place turns up somewhere else,"(50) presumably all the better for the harrowing change of place it endured. Picasso destroys to re-create, but the value of the re-creation is not always clear. It seems to serve Picasso’s sense of power over his picture rather than any subtler perception of red. Nothing may be lost, but it is not clear what is gained, except perhaps for Picasso.

All one has to do is look at Picasso’s Nude Woman (1910) to realize the full import of his destructiveness. It as though "the material elements of industrial-culture," changed into "volume, plane, color, space, and light,"(51) have been brought to bear -- rather heavily -- on the ordinary appearance of a body. The ordinariness has been crushed out of it: what is left has a certain mysterious fabricated look, with elusive remnants of recognizable reality. It is not simply that the woman’s body has been reduced to a suggestion or transformed into a sign(52) -- a kind of linguistic mirage -- or even transformed beyond recognition, so that it becomes an epistemological problem, but that its reality -- reading it as in any way "real" -- is no longer an issue. The nude woman is relevant as the starting point, even catalyst, of the picture, but irrelevant to its final effect. She has been consumed by the process of painting, or rather destroyed by it. What we have is not an image, but the dismantling of an image, the absurd dregs of an image, and finally the discrediting of the idea of imaging, and more broadly a demonstration of the naiveté of the idea of representation, indeed, of the impossibility of adequate representation. The search for artistic "equivalence" -- the iconic in any form --is in effect abandoned.

We also have an irreparably ruined body, suggesting that it too must be abandoned, both as form and symbol, for human presence is beside the point of artistic presence, that is, it distracts from the presence of the work of art itself. The body is no longer the profane means to sacred art it often was in the past, but has become a stumbling block on the way to the self-sufficiency of art. Reference to reality -- even in the diminished form of residual recognizability, suggesting a blurred memory of something that was once experienced as real -- is an obstacle to artistic purity and perfection. Picasso has taken a woman’s body -- is it really naked? (certainly not the way I remember nakedness) -- and reduced it to an anonymous, genderless cluster of forms which we can read as esthetically pure, as though that was the saving grace of a picture that could otherwise be regarded as an artistic murder. Picasso’s figure, nominally a nude woman -- who are we to doubt his say so? -- is a sort of Humpty Dumpty that has had a bad artistic fall and cannot be put back together again, at least the way we once knew her. The picture may be a Cubist masterpiece, but it is also a vision of the human body as a desert full of bones of form that do not exactly dance, however much they be choreographed to perform "esthetically." Picasso’s so-called female figure is macabre and grotesque, however brilliant an innovation the blur that is left of her appearance may be.

Greenberg once wrote that Picasso’s Guernica (1937) looks like "a battle scene from a pediment that has been flattened under a defective steam-roller."(53) Cubist works in general look as though they had flattened by some powerful force, and however much they may have what Greenberg calls a "conclusive unity,"(54) there is the sense of something amiss and something lost -- of the sense of reality sacrificed for a novel sense of art, that seems less novel once one realizes that its organization has something "industrial" and constructed, that is, manufactured and invented, about it. The only reality is the picture’s constructed look, with its ironical space and quixotic shapes. In Cubist pictures the raw material of perceptual experience seems to have been forced into poorly constructed yet nonetheless procrustean geometrical -- "conceptual" -- template, like dough poured into a cracked mold. Whatever doesn’t fit becomes a marginal aspect of what seems like a precariously built structure. Picasso is not exactly The Constructor, to refer to El Lissitzky’s photographic self-portrait of 1924, that is, the "constructivist technician," as the Russian Productivist Group called the new, advanced artist.(55) But he is clearly influenced by technocratic thinking, even scientism -- Barzun notes the huge influence of modern science on modern art, and the ironic parallels between them(56) -- making Cubist pictures that at first glance seem as analytic and abstract as theoretical science, and seem to involve as much technical innovation as any modern invention. Indeed, like many avant-garde works, they share in the 20th century’s extraordinary inventiveness. Many works of avant-garde art in fact look as though they are new inventions, and many are machine-made rather than handmade. It is not always clear what human purpose they serve, but many have a technological look, as though they were fashioned by eccentric engineers. (The idea of the artist-engineer emerged with a vengeance, as though to sweep away the remnants of the traditional idea of the artist as a god-like creator, which seemed obsolete -- not to say nonsensical -- in an industrial age.)

Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits have that look, even as they remain powerfully expressive, that is, emotionally evocative apart from their suppressed representation. But for Greenberg the "flattened forms" of Cubism are autonomous, whatever their expressive dimension -- their preconscious and unconscious effect, as he called it. Extra-artistic reality, subjective and objective, doesn’t matter: for him Picasso undermines any reference to them to assert art as such -- the pure spirit and truth of art, as it were. And yet the ambiguity remains: there is art, but there is also the figure shipwrecked on it.

The second example relates to the first. The psychoanalyst Michael Balint points out that "modern art" has made an immense contribution to human maturity by demonstrating that we need not repress the fact that in and around us. . . discordant features exist. Moreover it has taught us not only that such discordances can be resolved by artistic methods, but also that it can be learned to tolerate such unresolved discordances without pain," resulting in "less fear, greater emotional freedom."(57) However, modern art can involve "narcissistic withdrawal" from objects, bringing with it "the danger of regression." There can be a return to "immature pre-genital" forms of relationship. "The treatment of the object, or the artist’s attitude to it, i.e., his phantasies, feelings, emotions, ideas, images, etc., when stimulated by his chosen object, are conspicuously on what psychoanalysis would describe as the anal-sadistic level. The objects are dismembered, split, cruelly twisted, deformed, messed about; the dirty, ugly qualities of the objects are ‘realistically’ and even  ’surrealistically’ revealed; some forms and methods of representation in ’modern art’ are highly reminiscent of primitive ‘anal’ messing; less and less regard is paid to the object’s feelings, interests and sensitivities; kind consideration for, and ‘idealization’ of, the object becomes less and less important."(58)

Thus, on the one hand modern art is healing and enlightening, for it teaches us to recognize and accept the contradictions that abound in society and human beings, and to resolve them artistically, that is, sublimate them, as it were, to a higher plane of perception and conception, working them through in a medium other than life. But on the other hand modern art enslaves us to our most infantile, destructive, anti-social attitudes -- our own negative tendencies -- encouraging us to remain emotionally immature, or legitimating our emotional immaturity. It is simultaneously facilitating and debilitating. It makes us aware of violent contrast even as it seems permissive toward our own inner violence. Like Picasso’s love-hate relationship with the picture, Balint’s analysis of modern art suggests a love-hate relationship with it. Both are symptomatic of modern art’s own love-hate relationship with the modern world.

This ultimately has to do with its nihilism: the modern world, to maintain its modernity, must repeatedly shed its old skin, apparently becoming new -- or at least looking new. As the philosopher Karl Löwith writes, "Nihilism, as such, can have two meanings: it can be a symptom of final and complete downfall and aversion to existence; but it can also be a first symptom of recovery and a new will for existence -- a nihilism of weakness or of strength. This ambiguity of nihilism [is] the origin of modernity."(59) That is, nihilism can be the climax of decadence or it can be the beginning of rebirth. Modernity is always nihilistic in this double sense -- always in decline, always in renewal, which is read as always changing -- so-called "permanent revolution." Avant-garde art reenacts the nihilism of modernity -- the tension between decline and advance in the modern world -- in its own condition of permanent revolution. It is constantly changing, with one movement rapidly replacing the other, and no movement enduring. Indeed, some theorists have argued that avant-gardism, which they understand as the artistic correlate of entrepreneurial capitalism, is simply a matter of change for the sake of change, difference for the sake of difference, novelty for the sake of novelty (novelty not being exactly purposeful innovation), as though that was what drove capitalist enterprise. Each movement is by necessity short-lived -- inherently short-lived, making its limited contribution then dying into academicism and mannerism, and quickly trampled by the movement that develops in its wake -- that tries to outdo it in nihilistic modernity, indeed, nihilistic intensity. Thus the avant-garde perpetual motion machine seems to exist to mirror and confirm the momentum of the modern world, which becomes greater and greater -- more and more pointlessly hectic. Presumably that is supposed to fill the existential void left by its lack of religion -- its abandonment is built into the idea of being-modern -- or what Bell calls the spiritual crisis caused by the inability to find convincing "modern" answers to the inescapable questions raised by life, indeed, haunting and stalking it.

In fact, avant-garde art and modernity do not believe in permanence, stability, eternity -- in the "essential," durable nature of anything -- but rather only in the exciting passing moment. Describing the inherent instability and lack of permanence in modernity, Marx wrote: "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify."(60) He also wrote: "In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary," noting that "the victories of art seem bought by the loss of character,"(61) presumably that failure of selfhood or loss of subjective center that Sedlmayr notes. The protean character of avant-garde art, which seems to keep changing its identity, suggests that it has no core identity, but is all slippery quicksilver. Which is genuinely avant-garde: Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Purism, Orphism, Futurism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, De Stijl, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, Kinetic Art, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance Art, Body Art, and onward to not yet known and named future movements? The abundance is certainly a vote of creative confidence in modernity, but there is no correct answer -- no one avant-garde art that is more essentially avant-garde than any other avant-garde art. This implies that art as such has no identity in modernity, more particularly, that it has lost its identity because it is not securely centered in any enduring, stable sense of self and thus unable to secure a sense of self for either the artist who makes it or the audience who appreciates it.

I have suggested that this is because avant-garde art is essentially critique -- a ceaseless whirlpool of destablizing criticism, directed toward itself as well as the world. It involves, as Barzun says, a "deepening and spreading self-consciousness by analysis and corrosion" that destroys what it analyzes, and finally the self that does the analysis.(63) It tells the truth about the modern self -- modern self-consciousness -- and the dynamic modern world, but it undermines the spirit of both in the process of doing so, no doubt because, as Bell and Barzun suggest, secular critique knows no higher truth. It leaves itself homeless, which is finally to lose its sense of purpose, although, as I have suggested, it can also lead, unpredictably, to a sense of unique identity, that is, ground a new sense of self, or at least suggest the possibility of being uniquely oneself -- a radical subject for all one’s participation in and engagement with the objective world.

Avant-garde critique is both immanent and transcendent, to use the philosophical terms. That is, it is a search for what is inherent to art as such, and as such genuine art -- even if that means, paradoxically, that genuine art sometimes seems to be extra-artistic or anti-artistic -- as well as an attack on all socially administered definitions and conventionalized conceptions of art, all of which seem to conspire to crush or manipulate creativity, that is, to impede creative freedom or what Meyer Schapiro calls the artist’s "inner freedom," for him the only kind of freedom possible in the modern world.(64)

Immanent critique is typically carried out in the terms of a particular art -- for Greenberg, painting. Artists are the best immanent critics, as the poet T. S. Eliot suggests when he remarks that "so large a part of creation is really criticism,"(65) although he was not thinking specifically of immanent criticism, that is, the critique of art that arises from within art itself in order to "revitalize the creative spirit of the medium" and thus "to return the art to itself," in the words of the philosopher and poet William Gass.(66) In contrast, transcendent critique brings into question conventional understandings of art as such and particular categories of art, a questioning which dead-ends in an unresolvable antinomy. For example, is Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) a urinal or a fountain, a useful object or an abstract sculpture? It is part of the institution of art, so it must be the latter, but it also clearly has a practical use. Both/and seems a better approach than either/or, although the latter leads to clarity and single-mindedness while the former leads to double vision. Duchamp’s "work" is an ambiguous, paradoxical object, steeped in irony yet physically simple.

Immanent and transcendent critique are clearly linked: once the genuine has been determined by immanent critique, it is used to browbeat the non-genuine -- view it from a transcendent perspective, as it were -- which is what Greenberg did when he elevated the avant-garde at the expense of kitsch in his famous 1939 essay on them. In short, immanent critique co-opts authenticity for the avant-garde, while transcendent critique dismisses whatever is not avant-garde as inauthentic. Once one accepts Duchamp’s Fountain as authentic art, all other art becomes peculiarly inauthentic. For by accepting the authenticity of the Fountain -- an immanent critique of the work of art as well as the institutional conventions of art, more pointedly, a nihilistic and thus modern criticism of the assumption that only art made in an institutionally acceptable medium is real art -- one "transcendentally" relegates all art made in the conventional way to tradition, which is beside the point of modern self-consciousness and self-criticality.    

But Duchamp’s work fails in its critique, or rather its critique is short-lived, for the Fountain has been institutionalized, and as such become traditional -- part of the tradition of the new, as Rosenberg called it. Duchamp himself realized that it was a failure -- realized that it is impossible in modernity to make an art that can resist institutionalization, that is inherently uninstitutionalizable (such an art would not be art, and avant-garde art keeps provocatively pushing the borders of art further and further into non-art) -- and he railed against his failure, but there was nothing he could do about it. "I threw the urinoir into their faces," he wrote, "and now they come and admire it for its beauty," which is to treat it as art. "The choice of these Ready-mades was never dictated by any esthetic delectation. Such choice was always based on a reflection of visual indifference and at the same time total absence of good taste."(67) But the Fountain has become tasteful and delectable -- an esthetic phenomenon -- because it has become a celebrated, normative part of the institution of art, indeed, a precious relic of St. Duchamp.

In a sense, the history of 20th-century avant-garde art is the story of the conflict between art struggling to achieve spirit by purifying itself to the point of radical immanence -- one might call this the fundamentalist/formalist tendency in avant-garde art -- and art struggling to radicalize spirit by resisting and finally nihilistically rebelling against the social world, including the world of administered art, in the name of the self. It is thus doubly self-preservative, however much its struggle with itself and society may make it self-destructive. Immanent critique measures art against its own normative ideal, celebrating its autonomy and independent logic -- I am using the language with which Andrew Arato describes "the uneasy, antinomic synthesis of immanent and transcendent critique" in Adorno’s "dialectical critique of culture or ideology"(68) -- while transcendent critique struggles against the reification, social integration, and administration of creativity, which is symbolized by art. It does this despite the fact that it is indifferent to the independent logic of art -- unlike immanent critique, which examines "the particular ‘in its difference’" -- and thus ironically "reproduces. . . the reified totality" of the institution of art.

Avant-garde art only comes into its own through this nihilistic dialectic of immanent and transcendent critique -- this pushing to artistic and social extremes to find a spiritual center that does not exist. It only seems convincing when the two critiques converge: when art that reads like "formalist theology," to use Rosenberg’s felicitous phrase,(69) and art fraught with "the tension of the private myth," involving a "mysticism that avoids ritualizing itself," to use his language again,(70) come together. They do so in defiance of the ritualization, banalization, reification and administration of spontaneous life (in postmodernism by reducing it to spectacle and fashion, that is, recasting it as social conformity).

The moments of genuinely critical avant-garde consciousness are few if not always far between. The year 1914 was one such particularly special if "somewhat disconcerting" time, as Rosenberg writes. "[T]he advanced art of 1914 was far advanced indeed. Art history holds that, looking forward from 1914, the following art movements were still to come: Dada, Surrealism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism. None of these modes, however, made any startling contribution to the formal repertory of 1914, in which Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism were already in full bloom. Besides, some of the effects of Dada (and of later neo-Dada street art) were anticipated. . . in Malevich’s An Englishman in Moscow and by Picabia’s paranoiac mathematics. Surrealism and art brut were present in Chagall’s The Acrobat and in Picasso’s pencil sketch of a seated man, which combines Cubist plane construction with automatic drawing, much as Gorky was to do hesitantly 20 years later. The thesis of Abstract Expressionism was stated by Kandinsky (Painting No. 199) and with somewhat less assurance by Marin."(71) Rosenberg calls "1914 the last year before the Age of Doubt. The subsequent breach of continuity occurs not in the manner of the art, but in the attitude of art to itself."(72) There is indeed "a difference of spirit" between the seminal avant-garde art of 1914 and the later avant-garde art that stretches its logic to the limits. Nonetheless, both remain intransigent in their attitude to the making of art and the institution of art. That is, both involve immanent and transcendent critique, however much the institution of art put up less -- indeed, little or no -- resistance to later avant-garde art, for all its efforts to resist and mock that institution. They seemed to reach a desperate, futile crescendo of sorts in "The Museum as Muse" exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998.

This book is an attempt to give the reader some sense of the dialectical spirit that motivated the creation of avant-garde works, which have become reified with the passage of time -- which seems to move ever more quickly and greedily -- into stylish, expensive commodities, falsifying their meaning. It is a fate that seems to await every genuinely avant-garde work, as Hans Haacke’s study of the rising cost of Seurat’s Les Poseurs suggests.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

  (1)Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976), pp. 28-29
  (2)Ibid., p. 29
  (3)Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 26
  (4)Ibid., p. 30
  (5)Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1951), pp. 170-71
  (6)Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1965), p. 97
  (7)Ibid., p. 96
  (8)Thomas Crow, "Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts," Modernism and Modernity, eds. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut, David Solkin (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983), p. 216
  (9)A. Toporkov, "Technological and Artistic Form" (1921), The Tradition of Constructivism, ed. Stephen Bann (New York: Viking, 1974), p. 26. Toporkov remarks that "technological form is dictated by expediency alone." He yearns for the rapprochement of technological and artistic form -- it is the utopian dream of the Constructivist art he advocates -- even as he repeatedly states that it is impossible. This contradiction haunts a good deal of technologically oriented avant-garde art.
  (10)T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 417. Adorno ironically adds that it "may yet posthumously become art."
  (11)Ibid., p. 131
  (12)Erik H. Erikson, "’Identity Crisis’ in Autobiographic Perspective," Life History and the Historical Moment (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 20
  (13)Adorno, p. 212 argues that modern "art of the highest caliber pushes beyond totality towards a state of fragmentation."
  (14)Erikson, p. 20
  (15)Quoted in Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1983), p. 158
  (16)Barzun, p. 47
  (17)Ibid., p. 53
  (18)Ibid., p. 48
  (19)Ibid., p. 73
  (20)Ibid., p. 51
  (21)Ibid., p. 73
  (22)Ibid., p. 51
  (23)Ibid., p. 126
  (24)Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 67-68
  (25)Ibid., p. 66
  (26)Ibid., pp. 65-66
  (27)Ibid., p. 25
  (28)Ibid., p. 26. It should be noted that some theorists think there is a "radical difference between the strategies of negation within modernism and within the avant-garde. Modernism may be understandable as an attack on traditional [artistic] techniques, but the avant-garde can only be understood as an attack meant to alter the institutionalized commerce with art." Jochen Schulte-Sasse, "Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde," the introduction to Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xv. Schulte-Sass thinks Poggioli is concerned with modernism rather than avant-gardism (unlike Bürger), but it seems to me that when Poggioli writes that the "avant-garde looks and works like a culture of negation" (quoted p. xv), he was arguing for their convergence. That is, an attack on traditional artistic techniques -- and implicitly the traditional use and meaning of art -- is also an attack on the institution of art that traditionalizes whatever it assimilates, according it a status it would not otherwise have. If, as Schulte-Sass suggests, the avant-garde confirms the "precarious status of art in modern societies" (p. xv), then it also confirms the precarious position of the work of art. It is modern uncertainty about the best way to make art that leads to so-called experimentation and innovation. Avant-garde experimentation with new techniques reflects modern experimentation with new techniques, and with them a better way to make a more convincing product.
  Modernity has taught us that "we are only as good as our instruments," to paraphrase the philosopher John Dewey, and part of being avant-garde is to try out new instruments for making art, even if the result does not at first look like art. Greenberg, p. 125 has said that "every fresh and productive impulse in painting since Manet. . . has manhandled into art what seemed until then too intractable, raw and accidental, to be brought within the scope of esthetic purpose." One might add that every fresh and productive impulse in avant-garde art involved the use of new techniques, for example, dripping paint on a canvas in a seemingly random way or assembling familiar objects to make an unfamiliar sculpture. This does not just involve the pursuit of the unexpected, but the recognition that in the modern world every technique sooner or later seems inadequate and old, which is why new techniques must be found.
  (29)Bell, p. 7
  (30)Zbigniew Herbert, Still Life with a Bridle (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1991), p. 36
  (31)Barzun, p. 125
  (32)Bell, p. 29
  (33)Bell, p. 12
  (35)José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), p. 41
  (36)Ibid., p. 42
  (38)Ibid., pp. 44, 45
  (39)Ibid., p. 47
  (40)Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience (New York: Horizon Press, 1966), p. 17
  (43)Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 230
  (44)Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 31
  (45)Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957), p. 261
  (46)Ibid., p. 153
  (47)Ibid., p. 255.
  (49)Barzun, p. 126
  (50)Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 38
  (51)"Program of the Constructivist Group" (1920), The Tradition of Constructivism, ed. Stephen Bann (New York: Viking, 1974), p. 19
  (52)Rosalind E. Krauss, "In the Name of Picasso," The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1985), p. 34 regards the Cubist collage as "the first instance within the pictorial arts of anything like a systematic exploration of the conditions of representability entailed by the sign." For a more elaborate, complete discussion of the Cubist picture as a composite of signs see Francis Frascina, "Realism and Ideology: An Introduction to Semiotics and Cubism," Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early 20th Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Open University, 1993), pp.87-183.
  (53)Greenberg, p. 65
  (54)Ibid., p. 63
  (55)"Program of the Constructivist Group," p. 20
  (56)Calling science the "tempter" of modern art, Barzun, p. 100 writes that the avant-garde artist "seized upon, assimilated, or sometimes simply plagiarized [science] in decorative words." He used science "to bolster up [his] art’s claim to cognitive value" by calling his artistic work "research" and his artistic objects "findings." The avant-garde artist’s "defense against the imperialism of science" -- its attempt to "displace the artist as it had the divine and the philosopher" -- was to declare that "he too ran a laboratory and made discoveries" (p. 101). Thus, when "science became mathematical, statistical, abstract, invisible," art could claim that the abstract turn it took was also somehow "scientific" and thus "progressive." The object disappeared -- "imitation was forbidden under pain of indictment for philistinism and academicism" -- "exactly as in science," suggesting not only that they were "parallel" activities, but somehow the same, at least in underlying purpose.
  (57)Michael Balint, "Dissolution of Object Representation in Modern Art," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 5 (1951):326
  (58)Ibid., pp. 326-27
  (59)Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in 19th Century Thought (London: Constable, 1965), p. 190
  (60)Quoted in Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), p. 21
  (61)Quoted in ibid., p. 20
  (63)Barzun, p. 126
  (64)Meyer Schapiro, "Nature of Abstract Art" (1937), Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1978), Vol. 2, p. 222, writes that abstract art reflects "the pathos of the reduction or fragility of the self within a culture that [is] increasingly organized through industry, economy and the state." It "intensifies the desire of the artist to create forms that will manifest his liberty."
  (65)T. S. Eliot, "The Function of Criticism" (1923), Selected Essays 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932), p. 19
  (66)William Gass, "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde," Finding a Form (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 205
  (67)Quoted in Ursula Meyer, ed., Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. ix
  (68)Andrew Arato in the section on "The Concept of Critique" in his essay on "Esthetic Theory and Cultural Criticism," The Essential Frankfurt School Readers, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), p. 203
  (69)Harold Rosenberg, "Miró," Art on the Edge (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 29
  (70)Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), pp. 31, 32
  (71)Harold Rosenberg, "1914," Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 89-90
  (72)Ibid., p. 91


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