OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 7, Parts 1, 2 & 3: The Appeal of Popularity, Ideology and Theory: The Objectification of Art and the Abortive Protest of the Subject: The Seventh Decade
Thus publicity is the poetry of Modernity, the reason and pretext for all successful displays. It takes possession of art, literature, all available signifiers and vacant signifieds; it is art and literature, it gleans the leavings of the Festival to recondition them for its own ends; as with trade, which it takes to its logical limits, it confers on all things and all beings the plenitude of duality and duplicity, the dual value of object (utility value) and of consumer goods (trade value), by a carefully organized confusion of these "values" to the advantage of the latter.
Publicity acquires the significance of an ideology, the ideology of trade, and it replaces what was once philosophy, ethics, religion and esthetics. The time is past when advertising tried to condition the consumer by the repetition of slogans; today the subtle forms of publicity represent a whole attitude to life. . .
The essence of ideology is to create illusions, disguise the real, and substitute something unreal for it without this substitution being apparent. . . . Why combat ideology, if not to free; and free whom, if not the individual?. . . Only the individual has to be freed, and precisely because he is alienated. . . . It will still be objected that this anti-ideological discourse, calling on the subject, remains within the confines of ideology. We can only respond with a counterattack: the passion for code also haunts the discourse of those who denounce it; a similar terrorism rages in the interpreters of the system, as in the defenders of deconstruction.
The rule of theory always rises in proportion as creative power falls.
For Judd, Stella and Warhol, the meaning of the work of art is exhausted by its manifest content. It is nothing but manifest content -- altogether lacking in latent content, and as such emotionally empty and inexpressive. The specific object is completely explicit, with nothing implicit, uncanny, mysterious, bizarre -- all those things that signify the strangeness and "difference" of the unconscious as well as the artist's feeling of self-alienation and social alienation, that is, sense of being different. When art becomes object-specific -- when it is completely reduced to irreducible objective terms -- it no longer involves "the irresistible urge to create something imaginary," as Redon put it, art's driving force since Symbolism. "Nothing in art is achieved by will alone," Redon declared. "Everything in art is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the 'unconscious'." This involves "putting -- as far as possible -- the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible," which is what occurs in a dream, as Redon recognized. But in specific object art there is no invisible -- no trace of the unconscious -- only the logic of the visible, only the manipulation of conscious perception.
At their expressive and evocative best, avant-garde inventions restore the sense of the enigma and singularity of existence lost to everyday life, which is why they seem absurd and uncanny. The conventional view that equates them with technological innovations, based on hard science, accords them a certain soundness and authority, as though to deny the suggestiveness that comes with expression and evocation. These latter characteristics tend to be "soft" -- unpredictable and uncertain -- because they depend on lability of feeling and form, more particularly, subjective involvement lured on by inconclusive form. Many avant-garde artists have used science and technology, the dominant modern ideologies, to obscure the sense of seminal mystery their art unconsciously pursues. They want their art to seem as knowledgeable and advanced, not to say credible and prestigious, as science and technology, but they betray only their own radical difference. Specific object artists carry the modern bias in favor science and technology to a reductionist extreme, using a minimum of engineering to make minimal structures. Instead of complex hybrids of the visible and the invisible, the consciously willed and unconsciously felt, the controlled and uncontrolled, specific objects are the sterile result of limited creative will and the limited sense of control afforded by simple geometry. Indeed, their naive visibility makes creativity and art seem easy. Instead of blending the definite and indefinite -- making oddly precise use of accident, chance, the spontaneous, the improvised, the seemingly arbitrary -- they are trivially definite. Instead of being richly evocative -- emotionally resonant and elusive -- they convey flat affect.
Indeed, in splitting off the subjective implications of the work of art, and banishing them into the oblivion of irrelevance, specific object art -- whether in Judd's and Stella's Minimalist version or Warhol's Pop version -- signals the end of the avant-garde ambition to integrate object and subject in a dialectically singular work of art. Specific object art is one-dimensional, self-certain and self-privileging, and as such loses the expressive uncertainty and self-doubt that drove avant-garde development. Specific object art is no longer about differentiation and individuation, but self-sameness. Suggestive nuance is kept to a minimum, for it would unsettle the specificity of the object. Specific object art is the end of the avant-garde road, that is, it is entropic, decadent avant-garde art -- perverted, mocking, inauthentic avant-garde art, pseudo-singular and facilely universal. (Warhol resembles Judd and Stella in his use of the object-like figure as a Minimalist module in a self-reproducing series, thus reifying it into self-defeating self-sameness. Perhaps the classic Minimalist example of this is Carl Andre's grids of squares -- a collective of squares that form a square, in effect over-objectifying it. They are the complete antithesis of Malevich's subjective use of the heroically isolated square.)
Clearly Judd, Stella and Warhol are a long way from Kandinsky's emphasis on the "mood" or "spiritual atmosphere" of the work and his "tendency toward the 'hidden', the concealed," climaxing in his 1925 assertion that "I want people to see finally what lies behind my paintings." They are an even longer way from Beuys' realization of "the part the artist can play in indicating the traumas of a time and initiating a healing process." Two different conceptions of the artist are at stake: on the one hand, the artist as anonymous, detached, completely conscious manufacturer of objects in which there is no difference between outer appearance and inner reality -- and thus objects that are robot-like closed systems (for there is no imaginative feedback from the uncanny, allowing for a certain ambiguity and intensity, indicative of an expressive-cathartic-transformative intention) -- and on the other hand, the artist as someone who, in the words of Beuys expert Caroline Tisdall, suffers "a real illness, the season in hell through which every creative person must go."
The Judd-Stella-Warhol artist makes seemingly rigorous, logical works of art, but they are specious in their rigor and simplistic in their logic, for they result from uncritical submission to the material and a perfunctory idea of form -- the series, as Judd said, a derivative of the grid, which in its modular homogeneity and mechanical redundancy signals entropy, as Rudolf Arnheim noted. The specific object is reified, hygienic art -- art from which all subjective presence has been erased, as though it never existed. The Hesse-Smithson-Beuys artist has a more contradictory conception of art -- a tortured conception of its possibilities, one might say. The object is a Sisyphean means of approaching and expressing the subject in both its universality and individuality. It seems to arrive at its goal, but just when it seems to metamorphosize into the subject -- this is the essence of the object's magic or artfulness -- or at least become a convincing symbol of the subject and self-experience, it becomes, after all, just another object. Not a specific object, but rather one whose specificity has been spoiled, for it seems to have no clear place in art or life.
The Hesse-Smithson-Beuys work of art conveys the conflict and tension endemic to the relationship between object and subject, and with that the difficulty of expressively integrating them in art as well as life. There is something unresolved about Hesse-Smithson-Beuys works, something that makes their "convulsive beauty," as Breton called it, especially anguished. They offer a new kind of surreal convulsiveness: Where traditional Surrealism thought it was possible to reconcile "those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality [Redon's invisible and visible], into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality," to quote Breton's famous words, postwar Surrealism hypostatizes their contradictoriness, implying they can never satisfactorily be reconciled. The eureka effect of surreality, bringing with it the experience of the work of art as absolute reality, now results from the subliminal awareness of irreconcilability rather than the wish for reconciliation. This is what induces "convulsive beauty," that is, the Surrealist idea that artistic expression is a kind of conversion hysteria -- the involuntary conversion of psyche into artistic soma, more particularly, uncontrollable emotion into imagistic form.
But in the new performance surrealism, as it can be called, the conversion is incomplete, leaving a residue of agony. Whatever their resemblance, Smithson's sites and non-sites are irreconcilable, the objects in Hesse's installations are almost chaotically at odds, and Beuys' performances with a dead hare and a live coyote show that animal and human can never reconcile -- especially because the effort to do so arises entirely from the human side. Beuys tries to heal himself by attuning to animal instinct, but it is a futile effort, for the hare is dead and the coyote indifferent to his presence, if tolerant of it. It becomes just another artistic performance, which, however symbolically pregnant, to use Cassirer's term, announces the empathic inadequacy of the narcissistic artist. Strange as it may seem to say so, their work has an affinity with Pollock's Portrait and a Dream (1953) in which dream and reality exist side by side, suggesting a split self on the verge of disintegration. In a sense, for Smithson, Hesse and Beuys, as well as Pollock, the articulation of the split is resistance against complete collapse. The split is an expressionistic scream that signals annihilation even as it defies it.
The Hesse-Smithson-Beuys work of art is impaled on the horns of an epistemological dilemma: How do we really know we are in the presence of the subject, especially when the object's presence is so conspicuous? More particularly, how does a conspicuously material object -- an object whose form serves to display its material rather than subsume it -- suggest or evoke the elusive subject? More generally, how can a work of art reconcile object and subject, that is, how can the subject and object be reconciled in and through the process of making art? Nonetheless, the therapeutic object, as it can be called -- an object that symbolizes a therapeutic process that is implicitly artistic -- is a holding action against the tide of objectification or anti-subjectivism that threatened the integrity of art in the '60s.
In a sense, the objectification of art is a social necessity. To survive, it has to lose its subjective aura and become a historically objective material artifact -- a stage on the way to its becoming a theoretical object. The materially, socially and mechanically objective art of the '60s -- Minimalism and Pop art -- signals historicization and theorization and, with these things, the end of avant-garde art. That is, instead of being resisted, as it was when it seemed full of creative nerve -- when it seemed to overthrow, with revolutionary malice, the traditional objective order of artistic values, replacing it with works that seem valueless and degenerate, to use the Nazis' word, because they seem all too subjective and as such expressively bizarre and incoherent -- it becomes an established fact of cultural life. It becomes, as Adorno says, a cultural industry -- the avant-garde industry -- producing standardized products according to fixed conventions.
It thus loses the experimentation and flexibility that were its original strength -- the daredevil openness and wide-ranging curiosity that were the source of its originality. It no longer attempts to re-originate art by restoring the connection with the origin of being that primitive art was assumed to have -- thus the adulation of its "originality." What was once a freshly "primitive" art," as Franz Marc suggested -- an art that expressed the originality of existence in modern terms -- decays into high design, its inner aliveness lost to outer sophistication. More particularly, avant-garde art is accepted into the social-commercial-intellectual order of things as a luxury consumer product, indeed, the ultimate trophy of speculative capitalism, available only to the economic elite. As Daniel Bell writes, it becomes a powerful market force, so much so that its exchange value becomes its major value, to some speculators, its exclusive value -- its whole meaning. It tends to become pure speculation, in effect reflecting the ups and downs of the market in its identity. It also becomes the object of intellectual speculation by the theoretical elite -- it lacks identity without its intellectual exchange value, just as it lacks identity without its economic exchange value -- suggesting that theoretical and economic speculation have a good deal in common. Intellectually and commercially rationalized, art loses any semblance of originality.
Hesse-Smithson-Beuys resist this engulfing tide of objectification, commodification, intellectualization and sophistication -- the new knowingness about avant-garde art, the new "in-ness" infecting its production as well as reception -- by making works of art that, however vigorously material, have a subjective aura, an odd emotional resonance, if only because their ambiguous vitalism suggests a traumatized individuality. For all their unmistakable, in-your-face materiality -- Hesse's fiberglass, Smithson's earth, Beuys' fat and felt -- they are expressively perplexing, all the more so because they seem gratuitously thrown in space, and as such placeless, abandoned and isolated, even when, as in Smithson's case, site-specific. Hesse, Smithson and Beuys are mystics, implicitly merging with the environment, or making works of art that are environments in themselves -- a kind of artistic cosmos -- in order to restore their sense of self. Traumatized by history -- World War II in the cases of Hesse and Beuys (the former indirectly, the latter directly), America's criminal treatment of nature in Smithson's case -- which they each implicitly repudiate, they empathically identify with their material, as though immersing themselves in it could sustain them, giving them the nourishment society never did. If the misery of history is indicative of the empathetic failure of society, then the expressive use of exposed material is an attempt to recover empathy from nature. For Hesse, fiberglass is as raw and malleable - "natural" -- as Smithson's earth and Beuys' fat and felt. And the emotions it exposes are equally raw.
Hesse, Smithson and Beuys perform themselves (thus bringing out the performative dimension latent in all avant-garde art). Hesse does this through surrogate art objects, Smithson through his writings as well as earth works, and Beuys literally as well as figuratively. (He once told me that his materials were meaningless apart from his performative use of them.) Their performative-transformative works, charged with anxious -- and ambitious -- emotion, are clearly not as empirically reassuring as the inexpressive, unambiguously materialistic works of Judd, Stella and Warhol, which underscore the mechanistic, unabashed materialism of the American culture in which they were produced.
In short, where Judd, Stella and Warhol are complacently conformist, Hesse, Smithson and Beuys are non-conformist because of their expressive poignancy. Their expressive materialism has a tragic import that makes the materialism of Judd, Stella and Warhol seem trivial. To be insecurely expressive -- to express existential and artistic insecurity -- becomes the one way of resisting the avant-garde's new-found social security and success.
No doubt Minimalist monotony is relieved by the color that Judd and Stella use, and by Stella's intricate geometry as well as exotic, provocative titles, but it is a false relief, for the colors and geometry are expressively empty. And when there's a center, it is literally empty, as in Ileana Sonnabend (1963), or oddly displaced, as in Les Indes Galantes (1962), or eccentrically split, as in the Sinjerli Variation series. Stella's works are divided against themselves, not in a Cubist way -- they are not sums of planar fragments that add up to a subliminal, subtly organic whole -- but rather in a quasi-Constructivist way. They have a pre-ordained, technocratic look, in which discovered nuance is sacrificed to prefabricated design. Stella's art is programmed art -- ingeniously programmed, no doubt -- rather than art grounded in lifeworld experience, however distilled into elusive abstractions that confirm the elusiveness of experience, by reason of its dialectical complexity. Stella's abstractions are less elusive than clever, suggesting they have nothing to do with lifeworld experience, whatever their titles. They are brilliantly inventive, but beside the human point, however much they are to the perceptual point, that is, however much they demonstrate the cognitive ironies and uncertainties of perception.
But perception by itself is not human experience -- indeed, to objectify it at the expense of its subjective aspect is to bifurcate it, and finally to misplace its concreteness, to use Whitehead's concept, that is, to elevate one of its factors at the expense of the whole process, simplifying it so that it becomes incomprehensible. If the transformation of human experience into art, or art in the service of revealing the mystery of being human in a world inwardly experienced as an abyss -- thus the empty space in which the greatest Old Masters dared to place isolated figures, in unconscious acknowledgement of the groundlessness of human existence (human presence gaining its poignancy by the surrounding absence) -- has been the purpose of art from its beginning, then Stella is in headlong revolt against the purpose of art. Prehistoric and primitive art make it clear that art is representational and abstract at once. In the best art, to articulate the visible is to symbolize the invisible, to symbolize the invisible is to create a new kind of visibility. Stella has dealt with all too human themes -- for example, the Holocaust, by way of works meditating on the wooden synagogues that were burned by the Nazis in Poland -- but his works end up being about visibility as such. Elusive expression is invariably sacrificed to decisive construction, suggesting that when the only purpose of art is to construct art it is no longer exactly art with a deep purpose.
Constructivism was initially associated with constructive social purpose -- sometimes partisan, as in Tatlin's case, sometimes utopian, as with Pevsner and Gabo -- but Stella's work has no social purpose. It is a decorative constructivism, successfully conveying the ambiguities inherent to perception as such, which means that it is beside the point of lifeworld perception. It is a tactic within pure art rather than that truly rare thing in art, a new perspective on lifeworld experience. In a sense, Stella's abstract art is the consummate realization of Cézanne's representational art, which revealed, with disturbing precision, that we can never be certain of what we are sensing. Cézanne was not simply anxious, as Picasso said, but panic-stricken and terrorized by sense experience, for it embodied his feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, and ultimately of being without a secure ground. Indeed, the more his sensations vibrated, the more groundless and unsupported they became. In the end, they were precariously suspended in the nothingness of the blank canvas, which made itself felt as much they did. In a sense, Stella's work is an eloquent reductio ad absurdum of the uncertainty that made Cézanne's sensations vibrant, but with Cézanne's terror -- which made it a radical uncertainty -- edited out. Stella has no comprehension of terror -- certainly no sense that "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we're still just able to bear," as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the first Duino Elegy -- which is why he is a formalist rather than the subliminal expressionist that Cézanne was.
The twin halves of the ironically titled The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959) (clean thinking and dirty sensing? logical splendor and material misery?) are constructions of lines that echo the edges and shape of the canvas. They make a formal rather than expressive point, however dark and thick the surface and light and however thin the lines. And also despite the metaphor of the title, which raises the age-old existential question: is the marriage of opposites really possible? If it is, will it last? Or will the conflict between the opposites tear it apart? Thus, Stella claims to address the existential dialectic of life. But, apart from its title, the painting is neither dialectical nor existential. It is a minor tour de force of formal irony. Stella constructs a Chinese box of frames -- frames within frames. The halves seem joined by a central line, but it is attached to neither of them, that is, it is not the one side that they have in common. It is a center that does not work as a unifying center. In other words, it is a center in appearance only. The sides are not reconciled, they are decisively separated by the central line, which extends beyond the canvas. Stella said he was painting stripes, with their fixed interval and repetitive rhythm, but he is painting the irrelevance of the center. It is not necessary -- a fact that Pollock's all-over painting made explicit, and that Stella absolutizes.
The center of Les Indes Galantes is a sort of tricky Gordian knot. It seems to tie the four sections of the painting together, but they don't precisely meet in the center. It is a perverse, enigmatic center, oddly out of focus and inconclusive. It has become absurd and tentative -- at odds with itself, as though succumbing to the pressure of the opposing parts of the painting -- rather than the lynch-pin of the work. Pull the lynch-pin and the painting falls apart. It is unclear whether Stella is pulling the lynch-pin or inserting it. His abstractions seem to come apart in the process of being put together -- a display of "creative destruction," as capitalism has been called, or perhaps of destructive creativity. They hold together because of their over-all geometry -- Hatra I (1967) shows this clearly -- but otherwise disintegrate into geometrical fragments. None of them neatly fit together -- displacement is rampant -- even though they look like they belong together. The simultaneity of integration and disintegration -- of wholeness and the piecemeal, of balance and disequilibrium -- is breathtaking, but the point is that the grand, brightly colored circle is a false center, both optically and structurally, for it pulls nothing together. Indeed, its multiple, differently colored diameters, none exactly conforming to the other, announces the self-dividedness of the work. The quasi-center is just another piece of the irresolvable puzzle.
Stella uses stripes to convey lack of cohesiveness and coherence, not only because his stripes are ironically off, but because they show that a work of art doesn't have to have a center. The work of art doesn't have to be centered in itself. It does not have to be balanced around a center. It is not an act of centering and balancing, suggesting that making art is not a way of centering and balancing oneself. The center has become irrelevant -- that is the important statement Stella, and more broadly Minimalism, makes. A repetitive pattern, with no center at all, can be regarded as a work of art. If we take seriously Arnheim's idea that "the visible pattern represents a symbolic statement about the human condition,"(5) then Stella's works, and those of his Minimalist colleagues (their works make this point more obviously), suggest that the modern self has no center or else has a false center, just as Stella's works have the look of a false front or facade with nothing behind it. This links up with Hans Sedlmayr's idea that modern art has lost its center because it no longer sees the human as central to art.
Not all Minimalism involves the abandonment of the center. Kenneth Noland paints centerless stripe patterns, but he also paints chevrons and concentric circles, which clearly have a center. But the center cannot escape the pattern, however autonomous it seems to be. In Cycle (1960) it loses autonomy because its color is repeated in the outer circle. The power of the center is diffused by repetition. Again and again we see works with no center -- works that are all elegant margin and open field, as in Jules Olitski's High A Yellow (1967), or a field of stripes, all the more sensational because they are eccentrically grouped, as in Gene Davis' Raspberry Icicle (1967), or bizarrely placed and convulsively gestural, as in Morris Louis' Sigma (1961), where they radiate from the lower corners. In none of these works is the center necessary, however much it may be implied. The center of the concentric circle work is just another part of the pattern. It is not the unmoved mover of the work. Removed from the work, the pattern of circular stripes would continue to vibrate "sensationally." The elimination of the center is a denial of essence. It seems that Minimalist stripe painting anticipated the attack on logo-centricity in deconstruction, as well as the general tendency towards de-centering in society, indeed, the denial that there is any privileged center to the self.
The Minimalists have elaborately justified their art, as the theoretical writings of Robert Morris indicate, but this does not change the fact that their objects have little to expressively offer, however dramatic they sometimes look. Indeed, many look rather stunning, or at least interesting (if still not particularly engaging), in an architectural setting. Tony Smith's Die (1962), Ronald Bladen's The X (1967), Dan Flavin's fluorescent Monument for V. Tatlin (1968), Richard Serra's lead One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969), as well as Robert Morris' L Beams, Donald Judd's modular objects, Sol LeWitt's open cubes and Keith Sonnier's neon works -- to name only the most prominent of the many Minimalists -- are best understood as responses to architectural space. Many of the works are sited in corners as though in homage to Tatlin's corner reliefs, while others seem like mock buildings. There is an air of programmed randomness to many of the works, perhaps most explicitly in Morris' use of industrial threadwaste and scrap metal in an untitled 1968 installation. It is as though for all their regularity they were gratuitously conceived, an effect heightened by the often stark contrast of white and dark surfaces -- white sculpture and dark floor, or dark materials and the so-called white cube of the modern gallery (a Minimalist work in itself) -- giving the work a kind of abrupt if strangely flimsy sensuousness.
Nonetheless, they hold their own within the Cartesian space of conventional architecture, almost defeating it -- certainly upstaging it -- even as they depend on it for support. Even Minimalist "soft" sculpture -- most noteworthily Robert Morris' industrial felt works, supposedly "determined" by gravity but lately reinterpreted as erotic in import (thus their double-edged, Duchampian heritage, overt in such works as Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961)) -- are a kind of ironical comment on the walls they hang from and the floors to which they fall. They are in effect all installations -- the installational character of Minimalist work is made explicit by LeWitt's transient wall drawings (the first appeared, like geometrical mirages, in 1968, and even the later ones in color have an insubstantial look) -- indicating that their placement counts as much as their materiality and structure, however irregular it sometimes is. In fact, the interplay between regularity and irregularity -- including the regularity of the architectural environment and the material irregularity of some of the surfaces -- seems to be the major point of Minimalist installations.
To call them simply conceptual, as LeWitt did in his 1967 "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," is to miss this dialectic. In "a conceptual form of art," he famously writes, "all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair." But this ignores the tension and seeming discrepancy between the idea -- which LeWitt calls "a machine that makes the art," suggesting the same fascination with the machine that we see in such different early modernists as Duchamp and Schlemmer, Epstein and Gabo (once again the technological model of art, that is, the rule of technology over art) -- and the execution. The effect of the work depends on the difference between the idea and its execution -- their seemingly absolute separateness, yet ironical interrelation -- rather than on the character of the idea (LeWitt acknowledges the simplicity of his geometry) or the visual appearance of the executed idea. The idea is a kind of blueprint, the work a kind of mechanical drawing, whether two- or three-dimensional, and however eccentric and individual its "touch." What counts is the inexact yet exacting fit between them.
Minimalism seems to strip the work down to fundamentals -- concept, structure, space -- in a final act of purification. It seems to be the final fruit of Braque's 1917 conviction that "limitation of means determines style, engenders new form, and gives impulse to creation. . . . Extension, on the contrary, leads the arts to decadence." This is often thought of as the basic idea of modern art. Like LeWitt, Braque emphasizes the primacy of conception: "There is no certitude but in what the mind conceives." But what the mind conceives is a "pictorial fact," not a formalist dead-end. For Braque "painting is a method of representation" not an end in itself. For him "emotion. . . is the seed, the work is the flower." The goal is a noble work of art: "nobility grows out of contained emotion." The emotion is contained by the work, and the act of containing it is the work of the mind. "In my painting I always return to the center," Braque writes in 1954, in an "attempt to reach the core of intensity." "I concentrate," he declares. "The visual reality of painting" is not "shifted. . . to include the space around it," as the Minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly said -- it does not become an adjunct of architecture, like Kelly's planar sculptures, nor does it become a kind of architecture in itself, like Robert Mangold's geometrical paintings -- but remains concentrated in itself, that is, a space apart, nobly expressive. Also, for all his emphasis on what the mind conceives, in practice Braque "work[s] with the material, not with ideas." "I prepare my own colors, I do the pulverizing."
Nobility, emotion, the center, a hands-on approach, a sense of craft, concentration, intensity -- all this is anathema to Minimalism. It clearly betrays the goals of modern art. Limitation has become decadence in it, the concept an end in itself rather than a means of containment, emotion has disappeared, craft is beside the point, one doesn't need hands to make a work of art, and the center disappears into the geometrical gestalt. Nobility has been replaced by what one might call geometrical intimidation. There is something peculiarly passive about Minimalist works. They seem creatively inert, making them a kind of gratuitous art. They are a product with no creative process behind it. This was made decisively clear when Morris gratuitously withdrew the esthetic from his work in a letter -- presumably an act of mind -- and when Andre, in response to what he regarded as the misplacement of one of his sculptures in an exhibition of 200 years of American sculpture in the Whitney Museum of American Art, declared that the work was not art and not his. Andre thought his floor piece was placed too close to a wall hydrant. The Whitney didn't think so, so Andre declared that the work was simply a pile of material worth a certain (small) amount of money. The "real" (and expensive) work would be installed in the Clocktower, a cutting-edge gallery of the day. It was, leaving the Whitney holding the bag, as it were, although it still thinks it owns an Andre.
The lesson here is not only the conceptual license Andre took with his work, but its need for a site -- natural sites as well as architectural sites are frequently used by Minimalists -- to become "meaningful," and thus transcend its trivially hermetic material self-identity. Judd's installations at Marfa, Texas, make this point explicitly. Punctuating the sublime space of the desert, they acquire a significance they would not otherwise have. They borrow their grandeur and value from the natural grandeur in which they are placed. They need the larger environment to have an impact, but it is the environment that has the impact, not them. Also, the fact that most Minimalist work is prefabricated in factories (it has a low-tech look) suggests its imaginative inadequacy. Minimalists are certainly a long way from Baudelaire's and Coleridge's belief in the primacy of the imagination. Minimalism has been celebrated for its intellectuality, but its cognitive appeal is minimal and so is its architectural-environmental finesse. At its best, as in Stella, it is ironically decorative and fanatically geometrical, however sometimes veiled by color, as though to make outwardly alive what is inwardly dead.
Al Held was able to use color and geometry with sufficient idiosyncrasy to integrate them, and Charles Hinman and David Rabinowitch were able to use geometry with sufficient imagination to make objects that transcend their own theory and specificity, in the process making clear the paradoxical character of space: it gives presence to absence, indeed, it is the presence of absence. For them, space is inherently uncanny and dialectical rather than routinely given. They offer an expressive way out of the barrenness of the Minimalist version of purity -- a vital alternative to the Minimalist reification of space -- which perhaps makes them the most engaging of the '60s geometricians.
I think so. It uses socially familiar figures and objects the same inexpressive, idolatrous way Minimalism uses geometry. The irony of the specific object has to do with its relationship to the physical space in which it is sited, the irony of the Pop-specific object has to do with its relationship to the social space from which it is appropriated. Both are slightly at odds with their space, but never seriously question, contradict or threaten it. Minimalist and Pop irony -- if and when they are ironical -- is a needling, insignificant irony that precludes revolutionary consciousness of its object. That is, the object, geometrical or social, is not imaginatively transformed into an esthetic object, affording a kind of perspective on geometry and society as well as objectivity itself -- it is not a transcendental irony -- but rather reified into mock eternity. Warhol's Marilyn Monroe becomes as eternal as Andre's square. Both Minimalism and Pop art offer the illusion of immortality: the immortality of geometry, the immortality of popularity.
But geometry is out of human reach, which makes the autonomy it symbolizes ironical -- Minimalism is the grand climax of the modern pursuit of autonomy through geometry, of the strength of identification with the unchangeable permanence geometry represents -- and popularity is short-lived, suggesting that obsolescence (temporal limitation) is built into it, which is its irony. On the one hand, seduction by the aloofly nonhuman, on the other hand by all too human narcissism -- on the one hand the wish to be absolute, on the other, the wish to be told one is the fairest of all, forever. Only when Minimalism and Pop art become morbid -- when Minimalism suggests the absurdity of the wish to be as eternal as geometry by reminding us of the contingency of space, and Pop art suggests the absurdity of the wish to be popular by reminding us that popularity is fleeting because it is contingent on the fickle crowd -- do they become truly ironical. Minimalism is ironical because it implies the inconsequence of the human, and Pop art is ironical because of its implicit necrophilia. (Exemplified particularly by Warhol's death imagery. In general, the living dead -- those embalmed by fame -- is his subject matter.) Both are nihilistic statements of the irrelevance of being human from the superior point of view of art. In granting immortality, they acknowledge death, giving eternal relevance to what has become irrelevant to life. Minimalism and Pop art carry Duchampian indifference -- perhaps more a symptom of the times, as Sartre implied when he said that human beings are fundamentally indifferent to each other (thus his schizoid morbidity), rather than particular to Duchamp -- to new heights.
Pop art began in London in the '50s and climaxed in New York in the '60s, losing cognitive complexity but becoming more visually spectacular. Beginning as a kind of critique of the consumer society, or at least with an ironical attitude towards it, as Richard Hamilton's Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956) suggests, Pop art became an endorsement of spectacle, that is, the world of commodity illusions that oiled the consumer society's motor. Hamilton's work, like that of Eduardo Paolozzi -- another leading figure in the Independent Group, which advocated what Lawrence Alloway called the fine art/popular culture continuum, in rebellious defiance of Clement Greenberg's elevation of avant-garde abstraction over kitsch representation -- makes it clear, at least to me, that envy of the everyday abundance of America, with its accompanying and presumably enlivening vulgarity, motivated the London group. Greenberg was American, but he wanted a European-type high art in America. Its democracy was acceptable, but not its democracy of imagery. America won the Second World War, and to the winner went the spoils of prosperity, and envy of that prosperity, and the wish to have it by emulating capitalist America, was the lot of wrecked Europe. It was the way to recovery, and an unconscious -- and self-conscious -- endorsement of the American way.
Virtually every object in Hamilton's collage -- from the phallic lollipop muscle builder and the sexy nude lady with a lampshade for a hat, to the vacuum cleaner, tape recorder, Ford logo, Young Romance comic book cover, elder statesman portrait, can of ham, tacky furniture, and movie marquee advertising a blackface Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (the first talkie) -- is American in origin. Hamilton's work is boldly sexual, routinely materialistic, fascinated by mechanical gadgets and generally machine-like in organization, as though each part was a gear in a social machine. Substanceless signifiers prevail -- even the figures are robot-like cutouts or paper dolls -- creating an aura of hallucinatory irreality, a visual space in which things seem simultaneously real and unreal, round and flat, integrated yet incongruous. The brightly colored comic book cover replaces the dark, stodgy traditional portrait in pride of place on the wall, suggesting the dominance of the youth culture -- the very young indeed. Their literature is universally comprehensible -- an international vernacular or visual esperanto -- so why not use it to achieve a new post-esthetic universality, that is, the universality of crowd appeal. The contrast between old and new -- past and present -- is emphasized by the difference between the portrait and automobile logo, in effect a contemporary coat of arms everyone can have, which flank the comic book cover. The whole work is about material success and social license. "Let's have fun," it preaches, however crude and vulgar the fun -- and when isn't fun crude and vulgar?
There is precious little irony in this work, unless the provocation of presenting an assemblage of American kitsch images as serious art and doing so in cultured England is ironical. Hamilton's sensational picture is a destructive assault on high modernist esthetics -- populist sources have been integrated into modern art since Cubism and Surrealism, but they never totally dominated it, and never formed a coherent picture that could stand on its own without esthetic transformation, more particularly, that regarded popular style as sufficient unto itself -- carried out in the name of a new vision of the reconciliation of art and life. This, I think, is the cutting edge of Pop art, and the secret of its success. It was a demonstration of the "parallel of art and life," to refer to the first Independent Group exhibition (1953), and, more particularly, of what Allan Kaprow, the instigator of Happenings -- a kind of informal performance, which opened the way to performance art in general -- called "blurring the boundary between art and life," with life clearly given precedence over art. British Pop, American Pop and Kaprow's Happenings are a new kind of crowd art, attacking supposedly elitist abstract art -- art for the enlightened happy few rather than unhappy, unenlightened masses (although Hamilton's masses aren't unhappy and not particularly concerned about enlightenment, esthetic and otherwise, so long as they have their material goods). Pop happenings, as they can be called, celebrate the postwar welfare-for-all society, which is essentially a commercial society, in the sense that exchange value takes precedence over use value in it -- including emotional use value -- and, perhaps above all, a society in which what Lefebvre calls the ideology of publicity has taken over consciousness, so that to be a celebrity or social idol, which means that one's existence is widely publicized (whatever its content), becomes an ideal. It seems that Marx had to wait for the Pop culture to complete the reduction of all culture to exchange value, the trivialization of culture -- and Pop culture is culture that is accessible to everyone and that everyone can afford and that offers no esthetic-transcendental experience, however imaginative it sometimes seems to be -- that he wrote about in the Communist Manifesto.
The question that haunts Pop art is whether or not it implies critical consciousness of its objects. The best Pop art -- the '60s works of Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Mel Ramos, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Tom Wesselman and Warhol -- is a species of satire. Satire is not merely ironical, but moralistic. But the paradox of satire is that it shares in the decadence it deplores, as Whitehead points out, and thus unwittingly capitulates to it. It attempts to gain a perspective on it, but ends up mirroring it, so that it becomes less a critical judgment on it than an endorsement of its values. It seems no accident that Warhol, who began as a commercial artist, briefly made "this thing called art," as he said, and finally became a "business artist," to use his term (he thought the business of making money was the highest art) celebrates celebrities in his imagery. It is no accident that Warhol became a wealthy celebrity himself, as did Lichtenstein, both leaving estates worth more than half a billion dollars -- much more money than Pollock ever imagined having. It is no accident that they became Heroes of Capitalist Realism, as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter called their version of Pop art -- how humorously is debatable -- and as such role models for a whole generation of artists, perhaps most notably Jeff Koons and Mark Kostabi. They are the most consumer-oriented artists in a rapacious consumer society.
Erich Fromm has written that "the marketing orientation [is] the dominant one. . . in the modern era." It involves "the experience of oneself as a commodity and of one's value as exchange value," an attitude epitomized by the celebrities. The celebrity is the success story of what Fromm calls the "personality market. . . . Success depends largely on how well a person sells himself on the market, how well he personally gets across, how nice a 'package' he is."(6) Warhol depicts commodities, sometimes with a poignancy that suggests they may be human -- the poignancy effect is the result of calculated flaws in his silkscreen technique -- but it is simply part of the packaging. It is a cosmetic human touch, a kind of artificial beauty mark, enhancing the glamour of the commodity personality by adding a patina of expressivity to its otherwise hollow appearance. For Warhol, commodities such as Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup have a marketing personality of their own, that is, an instantly and universally recognizable brand identity, the result of successful advertising. The patina is as manufactured as the appearance, and essential to its seductiveness. The "touching" patina adds to the luster of the object, human or non-human, making it more "gripping" -- and Warhol's human beings have a way of looking non-human, that is, socially constructed objects with no interior life, people completely lacking in subjectivity, and as such mannequins. (Warhol's figures belong to the long history of 20th century fascination with the mannequin, a simulated person, that is, the reductive depersonalization and dehumanization of the individual, evident in Picasso as well as Duchamp, among many other artists. Whether it occurs for formal reasons or as ironical social commentary, it strips the human of value and reality.)
The seductiveness suggests longing for the product, indeed, asserts the product's desirability -- imbues it with desirability, encourages the consumer to emotionally invest in it, as though possessing it would satisfy a deep need. The commodity becomes something like a sticky tar baby -- an adhesive trap. The seductive patina is meant to encourage projective identification with the product. The brilliance of Warhol is that he shows us how celebrity commodities gain power over our lives. His works share in this power -- which is not to liberate us from it. If critical consciousness is emancipatory for the ego, in that it questions whatever claims to have authority over us -- in the case of Pop art, the authority of celebrity commodities -- so that we do not feel compulsively drawn and submissive to it, and thus retain autonomy of judgment, allowing us to determine the existential use value of objects, then Pop art can hardly be regarded as emancipatory. Indeed, Warhol lines up his commodity personalities like so many items in a store display -- thus, his use of the series and grid, in his hands a means of creating an engulfing spectacle -- presenting them for the greater glory of the market.
The secret of Pop art in general is that it worships what William James called the bitch goddess of success. It is fascinated by success, and traffics in symbols of success. Everything it appropriates -- the comic strip (Lichtenstein), the billboard (Rosenquist), the commercial nude (Ramos and Wesselmann), everyday objects (Oldenburg), the signpost (Indiana and Ruscha) -- is socially successful. Pop art applies familiar avant-garde techniques to populist imagery and styles -- to be universally popular is the grand climax of social and commercial success -- in order idolize them. This process of deification or apotheosis popularizes hitherto unpopular avant-garde techniques, turning them into visual clichés, thus conventionalizing what was once unconventional. What was once a breakthrough becomes broken in -- domesticated for everyday use, more particularly, designer art. Pop art often uses avant-garde ideas in a clever but mocking way. Lichtenstein's brushstroke series -- a mechanistic parody of the spontaneous expressionistic gesture that turns it into a celebrated commodity -- is a major example of such witty but destructive appropriation. So is Rosenquist's use of Surrealist incongruity.
I am suggesting that Pop art is as decadent as the popular media representation of reality it appropriates. Popular media representation is decadent because it falsifies reality into ideological familiarity. Presenting it in the mode of everydayness, it precludes critical insight into it. Media consciousness becomes the only legitimate consciousness, all the more so because it seems so communicable and everyday -- a communicability and everydayness that Pop art envies and emulates, even as its use of avant-garde techniques makes it seem to do so ironically. Popular representation presents itself as the only legitimate mode of representation because it is the people's mode of representation -- it is legitimated by its crowd appeal. It is a kind of People's Republic of Art, speaking with the one voice for the people, indeed, constructing that one voice. In short, Pop art is that paradoxical thing, an avant-garde collective art -- collective art dressed up in fancy avant-garde clothes. Indeed, Pop art uses avant-garde tricks of the trade to disguise its collectivization of art. In this strange dialectic of the avant-garde and kitsch -- a prelude to the postmodern version, and for some theorists its beginning -- the avant-garde becomes kitschy and kitsch becomes avant-gardey. Pop art is a triumph of marketing -- the marketing of the avant-garde, and the use of the avant-garde as an instrument of collective marketing.
Thus, Wesselmann uses found objects and everyday signs in his "Great American Nude" series. The nude herself is abstracted into schematic nakedness, with such erotic zones as lips, nipples and loins left intact. They are not only the focus of sexual attention but visceral punctuation marks on a vacuous cliché. Similarly, Lichtenstein brings out the abstract dimension of the comic strip, making it more visually complex by heightening its design. He adds drama to his already dramatic, all-Americanized themes -- love and war, more particularly, sex and death, as We Rose Up Slowly. . . (1964) and Blam (1962) make clear (including the war between the sexes and the sexiness of war) -- by representing them in boldly contrasting colors and shapes. The Ben-Day dots characteristic of the comic strips of his day become an abstract field on which his everyday figures float like mirages, making them strangely magical. Lichtenstein has presented isolated details of his works -- explosions, for example -- as abstract ornaments, in a tour de force demonstration of his visual wit. But at the same time, this trivializes abstraction as well as his subject matter. Pop art may have begun as a hard-hitting commentary on American society, but the more pretentiously artistic it becomes -- the more it becomes a critical commentary on art, that is, the more it becomes art about art -- the less relevance it has as social criticism.
Oldenburg's sculptures are an important example of this. Suggesting the "big" place objects have in American life, Oldenburg transforms them into arty "performances," in a brilliant reprise of Dadaism and Surrealism. Hard objects become soft, small objects become gigantic, and all objects become grotesquely unfamiliar. It is a brilliant tour de force, but the social point gets lost in the artistic wit. The objects are ultimately pawns in a conceptual theater. Oldenburg was, in fact, a conceptual nihilist from the beginning. Responding to an invitation "to participate in a city outdoor sculpture show[,] he 1) suggests calling Manhattan a work of art, 2) proposes a scream monument wherein a piercing scream is broadcast through the streets at 2 a.m., and 3) finally has a 6' x 6' x 3' trench dug behind the Metropolitan Museum by union gravediggers, under his supervision, and then filled up again."(7) The conceptual artist Douglas Huebler once said: "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more."(8) -- unless, of course, they're corny objects, like those Oldenburg made.
The one work that seems to successfully integrate populist imagery and modernist style, with no loss of social consequence, is Rosenquist's F-111 (1965) , a magnificent construction of Baudelaire-like correspondences -- ambiguously equivalent visual tropes that function as objective correlatives of subjective ambivalence -- are used to satirize America's military power. The F-111 fighter airplane has indeed a charismatic marketing-media personality. Rosenquist's installation of paintings on aluminum -- the outer skin of the F-111 -- is a triumph of art as well as criticality.
(1) Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 107
(2) Mikel Dufrenne, "Why Go to the Movies?", In the Presence of the Sensuous: Essays in Esthetics (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1990), pp. 131, 133-34
(3) Max J. Friedländer, Landscape Portrait Still-Life (New York: Schocken, 1963), p. 231
(4) Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1982), p. 4
(5) Ibid., p. xi
(6) Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (New York: Henry Holt, 1947), pp. 69-70
(7) Lucy Lippard, ed., Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973), p. 30
(8) Ibid., p. 74
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here