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by Donald Kuspit
Chapter 10, Part 2: The Decadence of Advanced Art and the Return of Tradition and Beauty: The New as Tower of Conceptual Babel: The Tenth Decade


Is there any alternative to this art-as-entertainment entertainment-as-art decadence -- to the poseur artist and the ironical pose of art? Was there any alternative in the '90s to the fetishization of technology and cynical reproduction of old avant-garde ideas in novel mechanical translation? Was there an art that did not try to ingratiate itself with spectacle and that was more concerned to be reflective than facilely provocative?

I think so: I call it New Old Master art. It is an attempt to return to the more complete, balanced idea of art offered by tradition. It is an attempt to build a bridge of intelligibility between artist and viewer. In the new traditionalism, the material medium and the artist's concept are re-integrated into an organic whole. So are the work and the viewer: Synchronic interaction, increasingly problematic in advanced art, once again becomes a serious possibility. Significant communication is a relational goal not left to chance.

The Young British Artists tried to force it, but they failed, not because their art was advanced -- if submitting to the everyday is to advance art -- but because the interaction and communication of their works are socially programmed rather than achieved by contemplative work. One relates to the "sensational" work the same unreflective way one relates to "exciting" news: Neither exactly turns one inward (however much they temporarily turn one on) -- that is, makes one aware of one's own consciousness engaged in an act of creative apperception. One never gets beyond the initial sensational communication to its relational significance -- its meaning for one's own particular existence as well as in the lifeworld at large. It has no catalytic effect on consciousness, generating insight, but quickly flows down the drain of everyday time, like every other instantly accessible fact. Indeed, it marks time, signaling the meaninglessness of existence.

But in the New Old Masterism, what is aimed at is subjective and objective depth and insight in a well-crafted, esthetically resonant image -- Conceptualism's hierarchy, which privileges concept over medium, collapses. The New Old Master work may be ideological on the surface, but its effect is existential. Conceptualism and Minimalism eschew unconscious fantasy and intense feeling -- the sense of the uncanny that subtly erupts in everyday life and the passions that unexpectedly disrupt it -- which dramatically return in the New Old Masterism. Feeling is reduced to the dust of Ann Hamilton's Venice installation: The empty space, white walls and political concept are what seriously matter. It is the Minimalism and intellectual righteousness of the installation that have effect: Its depleted look -- underlying miserabilism, to use Breton's term -- is depressing, not the lively, colorful dust. Both Conceptualism and Minimalism have an aura of emotional emptiness, while the New Old Masterism aims at emotional fullness. Vital feeling replaces conceptual irony: The celebratory exploration of emotion replaces its nihilistic denial. Conceptualism and Minimalism offer intellectual compensation in exchange for emotional sterility -- for what seems like the failure to feel, perhaps the inability to feel (the ultimate pathology) -- while the tragic esthetics of the New Old Masterism evokes the fertile emotions of the lifeworld, not always apparent in the mode of everyday consciousness, with its defensive indifference and insensitivity. Indeed, there is a new sensitivity to art and life in the New Old Masterism, in contrast to the insidious insensitivity to both in Conceptualism and Minimalism.

In the Old Masters, material and feeling are indistinguishable -- experientially identical. The material medium seems alive with feeling the way a body is alive with movement. Feeling seems embedded in the medium, and the medium seems to embody feeling. Feeling is a current that charges the medium with life, and the medium seems a direct expression of feeling. The '90s return to Old Master models of art, or at least the Old Master humanistic idea of objective and "interpersonal" art, is implicitly a critique of Conceptualism and Minimalism. They are the last gasp of a spent avant-gardism. The New Old Masterism may seem conservative, even reactionary compared to them, all the more so because avant-gardism has become a cultural habit, uncritically accepted as the standard by which all art is measured. Indeed, to a mind accustomed to avant-garde irony, New Old Masterism looks ironical. Its historicist and narrative character can be understood as an ironical postmodern rebellion against modernist abstraction.

Thus, the New Old Masterism becomes the latest avant-garde strategy. But avant-garde art is no longer revolutionary, however much its revolution is perpetuated by neo-avant-garde art. What looks like advance is reification -- hardening of the avant-garde arteries. Neo-avant-garde art -- particularly '90s conceptual installation art -- turns avant-garde art into a pillar of salt in a desert of its own making. It apotheosizes avant-garde art into a self-aggrandizing spectacle.

Theatricalized Conceptualism (and Minimalism) institutionalizes avant-gardism, implying that its radicalism has become passé and mannered. Today, the distinction between revolution and reaction has blurred. What was once revolutionary is now reactionary, what was once reactionary is now revolutionary. As the Conceptualists insist, art depends on context -- it is relative and timebound -- and the times and context have changed. Indeed, they seem more relative than ever, which is part of the postmodern point.

The New Old Masterism, then, restores everything Conceptualism devalued and repudiated. It struggles to repair the serious connection to tradition broken by avant-gardism. At the same time, it does not discard avant-garde esthetics, but integrates it with Old Master esthetics. The New Old Masterism involves a return to the personal craft of object making, and, more crucially, to the human object and human condition, art's perennial themes. What Greenberg contemptuously dismissed as "human interest" once again becomes of serious interest. Sol LeWitt dogmatically declared that "[w]hen an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art,"(22) but for the New Old Masters one can never learn one's craft too well, and when one does the result is not slick but uncanny.

Superior craft intensifies vision so that it becomes insight, which is what happens in the best Old Master paintings. Superior craft and the restoration of the human figure -- often mangled and mocked in avant-garde art so that it seems like an unhealthy agglomeration of abstract parts from a junked machine -- to organic integrity and bodiliness are the essentials of New Old Masterism. The ideal is a sustained work of art rather than the ironic expression of a concept. The New Old Master work is meant for meditation, not shock. Surprise occurs through discovery, not facile novelty. Shared perceptions and even common sense intelligibility are involved, with the proviso that they result in a nuanced, individualized work of art, indicating an existentially intimate relation with its theme. The New Old Master artist attempts to find a common ground with the audience, rather than bludgeon it with a concept. She doesn't claim to be superior to her audience, nor does she cater to it, but rather establishes a differentiated relationship with it by creating a differentiated work of art.

All is not lurid inauthenticity, routine irony and esthetic bankrupty within the modernist mode. There is still esthetic-existential depth and urgency: Hans Breder, Gary Hill and Bill Viola in video; Tony Cragg, Wolfgang Laib, David Rabinowitch and Kiki Smith in sculpture; the abstract paintings of Herbert Brandl, Helmut Federle, Michiko Itatani, Imi Knoebel, Eugene Leroy, Sean Scully and Pierre Soulages; the realist paintings of William Beckman, Richard Estes and Philip Pearlstein; the surrealist imagery of Louise Bourgeois, Günter Brus, Bruno Gironcoli, Maria Lassnig and Rona Pondick; and Christian Boltanski and Christo in installation and Bernhard and Hilla Becher, Lynn Stern, Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall in photography.

In Gerald Ferguson's drop cloth paintings, ironic chance becomes unexpected beauty, and there is poignant beauty in Wlodzimierz Ksiazek's massacred surfaces. James Turrell's light installations epitomize the "metaphysical" and mystical aspirations of modernism, and Gillian Jagger's installations of animal skeletons epitomize its existential thrust. Sardonic spectacle is not the rule, however much it rules the postmodern mainstream. But the New Old Masters hold the key to the future -- and beauty.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Marinetti declared that an "old [Master] picture" was a "funeral urn."(23) It took the New Old Masters to resurrect them -- to find fresh life in them. "Admiration of the past" is "useless," Marinetti said, but the New Old Masters realized that the past alone is useful -- the only hope for art -- in the decadent present. The "violent gushes of action" that Marinetti celebrated have exhausted art -- the modern itself has exhausted art -- but the beauty of past art is inexhaustible. Beauty is a phoenix that rises from past art however much it looks like ashes to avant-garde eyes. Duchampian avant-gardism repudiated beauty -- Newman thought that modern art sacrificed physical beauty (sentimental) to "metaphysical" truth -- but the New Old Masters realize that the return to beauty is the only way out of decadence. Aspiring to beauty is the only alternative to postmodern cynicism.

As Kant wrote, in the state of disinterestedness called beauty we experience the "free and unimpeded interplay of imagination and understanding. . . the mutual subjective harmony of our cognitive powers"(24) -- just that interplay and harmony that are lost in decadence. In the Young British Artists, imagination degenerates into parasitism -- predatory exploitation of the popular imagination -- and in Conceptual Art understanding becomes a matter of deploying simple concepts in an oblique way that makes them seem profound -- a form of intellectual degeneration. Split apart so that they seem irreconcilable, imagination and understanding become narrow and uncreative.

The result is an art of social and cognitive conformity rather than nonconformist insight. The result is an art that is neither beautiful nor ugly but eschatologically indifferent. It lacks both the "primordial content" that gives art its "arousal potential"(25) and the apocalyptic potential -- premonition of death and catastrophe -- that makes beauty strangely tragic, indeed, subliminally depressing. These things give art its edge of uncanniness -- the uncanny beauty that picturesque sensationalism and intellectualized objects lack. Beauty is an existential insight into fate achieved at a great emotional cost, but neither the Young British artists nor the Conceptualists want to pay the cost -- which is why their art is beside the human point and esthetically worthless.

In disinterested beauty, imagination and understanding integrate into a singular insight into fate. Fate is what has been lost sight of in the modern pursuit of transient novelty -- the result of the demand "to make it new," as Ezra Pound said, or to be part of "the now generation," as an advertisement put it -- and that the New Old Masters ponder through their creation of beauty. Beauty is experienced as fate -- it seems inevitable, impersonal and universal once it is created -- because it mediates fate, even as beauty seems to make fate less harsh and more tolerable than it would otherwise be. Fate is the ugly underpinning of life, but beauty, which creates the illusion that fate is caring rather than indifferent, thus hiding the truth while suggesting it through its own impersonal quality, also creates the disinterestedness and detachment that counteract the feeling of futility aroused by the revelation of fate's indifference and "irresponsibility" -- the feeling of being cheated of ourselves and our freedom when we become aware of the workings of fate in our lives.

Fate, which is usually invisible, has a disastrous emotional effect when it becomes visible through beauty. Nonetheless, beauty is the conscience of fate. Beauty is the sugarcoating on the bitter pill of fate, but it is also the antidote to the poisonous feelings fate induces -- sullen feelings of meaninglessness that poison the water of life, so that it seems to lose all taste, and finally destroys our appetite for life. I am suggesting that the New Old Masterism is a dialectic of fate and beauty -- a meditation on fate as it manifests itself in beauty, which becomes a defense against it, and the only alternative to it. There is something strange in beauty, as has been said, but also something redeeming in its idealism -- its ability to find the ideal in the ultimately real.

David Bierk, Vincent Desiderio, April Gornik, Karen Gunderson, Julie Heffernan, F. Scott Hess, David Ligare, Odd Nerdrum, Joseph Raffael, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, James Valerio, Paul Waldman, Ruth Weisberg and Brenda Zlamany are important New Old Masters. Don Eddy and Eric Fischl have evolved into New Old Masters, and Avigdor Arikha and Lucian Freud are the Deans of New Old Master painting. They are visionary humanists with complete mastery of their craft. They integrate traditional and modernist ideas without slavishly imitating them. Old Masterism is not a mannerism in their work, but a mode of inspiration. For them the Old Masters are not dogmatic academic models -- procrustean standards of perfection. Nerdrum looks to Rembrandt, Fischl to Caravaggio, Saville to Mannerism, Heffernan to Baroque allegory, and Rego, Valerio and Zlamany paint their pictures with a realist precision and intensity that harks back to Velazquez, while Weisberg looks back to the Italian Renaissance. Raffael looks to Impressionism.

Gornik's work encapsulates the history of romantic landscape painting, Gunderson's black paintings touch every register of texture, and Bierk mournfully explores the whole history of art. Idiosyncratically integrating Western and Eastern as well as modernist and traditional ideas of art, Eddy and Waldman are in an esthetic class of their own. So are Freud and Arikha, masters of perceptual dialectics. The former uses expressionist means and the latter linear means to "leaven" reality, as it were, lifting it out of the everyday by excruciating observation, down to the least nuance of concreteness. They preserve the gains of the "sensual painting" Duchamp attempted to destroy with his indifference by incorporating them in a new spiritual painting. They bring love back into art, in whatever strange form, counteracting the hatred -- of existence as well as esthetics -- implicit in Duchampian anti-art.

But, to reiterate, these New Old Masters are not submissive copyists: They study the Old Masters for insight into the process of beauty, as it can be called, not to appropriate forms and images -- certainly not for the sake of their novelty in the avant-garde context. They want to understand the intuitive art inherent in the Old Master transformation of the ugly truth of fate (the irreversible power of innate determinism) into strange beauty (sublime esthetic truth), an ideal reality that makes the enigmatic reality of fate manifest while changing our attitude toward it. If "it is one of the aims of man to increase his capacity for choice and to decrease determinism in every possible way," thus creating a "margin of freedom" in human life, as the psychiatrist Silvano Arieti argues,(26) and if such opposition to "the limitations of nature" -- the refusal "to be subjugated and blindly obedient to the constraints imposed by the biological factor (race), the sociological factor (class), or the psychological factor (characterological type)" -- is the profoundest expression of the human spirit, as Frankl states,(27) then the dialectical transformation of fate into beauty is a spiritual act, and the esthetic consciousness that affords the margin of existential and creative freedom necessary to effect the transformation is spiritual consciousness at its most dynamic. The esthetic dialectic reconciles fate and beauty, which is why beauty always has a tragic aura and seems truthful, however illusory, even as the artist's creation of beauty and the audience's enjoyment of it is a way of accepting fate without despair.

The Old Masters taught themselves to welcome fate, which opened their eyes to the beauty in its necessity: They came to experience its implacable logic as exalted esthetics. Consciously processed rather than unconsciously submitted to, fate manifests itself as beauty. Pure esthetics, the inevitably indwelling element in art as art, evokes the inevitably indwelling element in existence as existence. We tend to forget fate in our fantasy of freedom. But the paradox of the fantasy is that it is a way of resisting fate. In short, the esthetic revelation of fate makes us acutely conscious of its unconscious hold on us. We all experience fate, however unconscious of the experience we may be -- the experience of limitation implicit in life -- but through esthetics, we can become conscious of its absolute power. In short, the aura of inevitability emanating from pure form is as close as we can come to experiencing the inevitability shaping our own emotional and perceptual experience, and thus to freedom from fate -- the paradoxical experience of escaping the inescapable in the act of acknowledging it.

The New Old Masters want to learn the emotional and creative secrets of the Old Masters -- the secret of the transcendental beauty of their art. They are concerned with the creative process of discovering the beauty in the inevitably given, not in any special tradition of beauty, however dated or new, whatever particular tradition becomes the springboard for their own dialectical transformation of fate into beauty. Moving beyond the perversity of irony and the modern grotesque, both equally disintegrative in import -- evident in Picasso's figural constructions and Surrealist incongruity, Francis Bacon's faces and Hamilton's equally morbid, esthetically grotesque installation -- the New Old Masters struggle to produce works with a fresh sense of wholeness: works with the stamp of authenticity. They struggle to produce works whose "silent charm operates with the same force and seems to increase every time you cast your eyes upon them," which is the way Delacroix described a masterpiece.(28) New Old Masterism signals the return of the esthetic masterpiece -- the well-built work of art, integrating sensuous immediacy and imaginative understanding in an ontological epiphany -- and with that, the raising of creative apperception from the grave of Conceptual and Minimalist decadence.

Allowing "access to the substratum of all the emotional colors of life," which Conceptualism and Minimalism lost contact with and never respected, the New Old Masterism offers a fresh "revelation" of the "emotional significance" of our "existence," to use Roger Fry's words.(29) It thus repairs the damage done to art by Conceptualism and Minimalism. They are the artistic symptoms of the emotional damage inflicted by modern life, confirming and contributing to its indifference. In them, what was once a margin of avant-garde freedom has become spiritual failure. Their esthetic indifference suggests that the damage is irreversible.

But the New Old Masterism promises transcendence of indifference in the act of mithridatically acknowledging it. Acknowledging that art and life have become unhealthy, the New Old Masterism helps restore them to health. The best Old Master art does the same thing: The promise of esthetic transcendence is inherent in art at its healthiest. The happiness that Stendhal thought art promised -- that is, the emotional health that results when one rises above what Freud called "everyday unhappiness" -- is the existential consequence of esthetic transcendence.

In a sense, Old Master art heals the wounds of life by esthetically caring for them -- draws the poison from life by applying an esthetic poultice to it. New Old Master art revives this esthetic healing process instead of artistically aggravating and aggrandizing the wounds of life, as a good deal of avant-garde art does.

"Closer to the human heart for seeming to be more material" -- the masterpiece's material as well as expressive achievement according to Delacroix -- the New Old Masterism restores art to the material richness and heartfeltness that Conceptualism and Minimalism mocked. It rises on the ruins of the tower of conceptual Babel that has collapsed under the weight of its absurdity. It appears in the desert of Minimalism like a mirage of life. It is the saving grace in a decadent situation.

Art lost esthetic and existential substance through its Conceptualist dematerialization and Minimalist depersonalization. The New Old Masterism rematerializes and repersonalizes art, hoping to restore it to the human and esthetic meaningfulness and integrity it once had.

  (22) Quoted in Ursula Meyer, ed., Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. 175
  (23) Quoted in Chipp, p. 287
  (24) See my essay "A Psychoanalytic Understanding of esthetic Disinterestedness," Signs of Psyche in Modern and Post-Modern Art (New York: Cambridge University Press), p. 337
  (25) Colin Martindale, quoted in Hans Eysenck, Genius: The Natural History of Creativity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 69
  (26) Silvano Arieti, The Will to Be Human (New York: Quadrangle, 1972), pp. 47-48
  (27) Frankl, p. 17
  (28) Quoted in Michele Hannoosh, Painting and the Journal of Eugène Delacroix (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 30
  (29)Roger Fry, The Artist and Psycho-Analysis (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), p. 19

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