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A CRITICAL HISTORY
OF 20TH-CENTURY ART

by Donald Kuspit
 
Chapter 9: Aspirational Esthetics and Empathic Painting: The Search for Authenticity and the Rebellion against Conceptual Pseudo-Art: The Ninth Decade

Every art that philosophizes is lost.

Theodor Lipps(1)

The esthetic object is nothing more than the sensuous in all its glory, whose form, ordering it, manifests plenitude and necessity, and which carries within itself and immediately reveals the meaning that animates it.

Mikel Dufrenne(2)

The belief that the organic is the chief criterion of what is authentic in art and life  continues, it need hardly be said, to have great force with us, the more as we become   alarmed by the deterioration of the organic environment. . . . In an increasingly urban and technological society, the natural processes of human existence have acquired a moral status in the degree that they are thwarted.

Lionel Trilling(3)

Those wishing to be called artists, in order to have some or all of their acts and ideas considered art, only have to drop an artistic thought around them, announce the fact and persuade others to believe it. That's advertising. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, "Art is what you can get away with."

Allan Kaprow(4)

The last artist who successfully blurred the boundary between art and life, in effect -- if not in principle -- reconciling them, was Joseph Beuys. What Allan Kaprow hoped to do, and did abortively in his happenings, Beuys did brilliantly in his performances, largely because he had a healthy respect for the evocative power of sensuous detail that Kaprow lacked and a tragic sense of life that was altogether beyond Kaprow. For Kaprow life was ordinary, for Beuys, who had experienced the Second World War firsthand, it was extraordinary because it was inseparable from death. Beuys had sensibility and suffering on his side, Kaprow plunged into everyday life, which he even claimed, with Pollyanna-like fervor, was dazzling. He was looking for the old surprise/shock of the new, but his "discovery" of the everyday seems somewhat forced and labored -- hardly a spontaneous epiphany -- suggesting his false consciousness, and his submission to the false consciousness that dailiness represents. Kaprow seemed to be struggling to overcome tedium vitae, while Beuys was defiantly vital in the face of the living death which was everyday social life. Nothing was "just" everyday for Beuys -- everyday life as usual could never be taken for granted, certainly not after its Nazi and capitalist control, standardization and regimentation -- while for Kaprow the everyday was never questioned nor for that matter seriously investigated. The status quo was always suspect for Beuys, while for Kaprow it was an indisputable fact of life. He was critical of art, but he had no critical awareness of the ideological and emotional underpinnings of everyday life. Unlike Beuys, he had no understanding of it as a kind of existential straightjacket, inhibiting human nature and stifling natural process. He did not understand that the artistic disordering of the senses that Rimbaud advocated and that Beuys carried to an expressionistic extreme, was an attempt to counteract the social ordering that had deadened them, thus restoring them to the healthy perceptiveness that everyday socially pathological life had robbed them of.  

For Kaprow art could not keep pace with technological innovation -- he lavished praise on it, as though it was infallible -- which was the driving force of society. He was clearly awestruck by technology, which cast its shadow over art to the extent of trivializing it. He may have admired its ambition, but trashed it, as George Segal said. Technology put creative individuality to shame, as his many ironic comparisons of the products of the former to those of the latter suggest. Technology was sublime, art ridiculous in comparison. Kaprow is perhaps the climax of a long line of modern artist-thinkers who preferred the "swiftness. . . of the mobile machine" to "the gradual processes" of organic existence.(5) Marinetti was his ancestor, and conceptual pseudo-art is his legacy. In contrast, for Beuys art was a means of achieving and asserting even creating individuality in a society indifferent to it -- initially the Nazi society he grew up in, later the wealthy society that post-Nazi Germany became, more broadly technocratic-bureaucratic modern society, which demanded complete subservience from the individual. He understood how completely the fate of the individual hinged on the character of society. Beuys regarded his work as "social sculpture": it was his way of being actively involved in reshaping society, or at least its attitude to the individual. Instead of Duchamp's indifference, which Beuys famously said was "overrated," he was empathic and socially concerned, to the extent of actively participating in politics. Indeed, Beuys understood the political realities and economic structure of society as Kaprow never did. At the Düsseldorf Academy Beuys accepted every student who applied -- leading to a legal action against him by the other professors, presumably more discriminating -- in recognition of the student's individuality and creative potential. He eventually founded a Free International University as an alternative to the conventional academic environment, all the more so because it was openly concerned with social change, or, as Beuys said, tried to fuse individual and social evolution and revolution. Kaprow's attitude to society, individuality, and creativity was superficial in comparison.

One only has to compare Beuys' performance How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare (Nov. 26, 1965) to Kaprow's happening Fluids (1967) to see the difference between Beuys' profundity and Kaprow's shallowness. Beuys performed in a gallery. It is a space apart from the everyday world. In Beuys' hands it became more of a sacred space than commercial showroom, however much it remains ambiguously both. Kaprow's happening occurred in urban space. It was an impersonal event: like a puppeteer or impressario, Kaprow sent various "actors" out into the city, assigning them different tasks -- all banal -- to "perform" at different locations. They were anonymous participants in a mass event rather than desperate individuals -- world-weary and above all war-weary -- attempting to renew themselves and communicate with others through art, and perhaps failing at both. Kaprow's "happeners" were not creating art and themselves, but ironically involved -- however tame the irony -- in the everyday world that created them and which they blindly accepted as the theatrical truth about life.

Beuys' performance was no doubt narcissistic, but it was also idealistic and despairing -- full of self-doubt as well as self-assertion. It was emotionally and sensuously rich and subtle. His shaven head anointed with honey and crowned with gold leaf, and cradling a dead hare in his arms, Beuys walked from painting to painting, touching each with the hare's paw. He then sat in a chair and explained his works to the hare "because I do not like to explain them to people." Art is meaningless to society -- except, perhaps, as an especially entertaining spectacle, that is, an unusually novel performance -- however instinctively meaningful. Indeed, it is more meaningful to a dead hare than to living people. Beuys could achieve greater intimacy with a dead hare -- an unconscious animal -- than with conscious people. Art was a shamanistic activity for Beuys -- a way of awakening people to such existential inevitabilities as death and suffering, especially the suffering of not being understood and respected. Society's way of dealing with such "organic" truths -- truths inherent to the process of human life -- was of crucial importance to him. If it did not seriously acknowledge existential truths -- and for Beuys, who began his career making religious art, art was the religion in and through which society could acknowledge, contain and accept them -- it had a disintegrative effect on our sense of self. If it helped us to recognize them, and set aside a special space in which they could be contemplated, it made the annihilative emotions they induced less terrifying -- more tolerable -- if not less painful.                

Honey had a special meaning for Beuys: it is the most nourishing of foods, and can be stored in a solid state until needed, which is what bees do. (For Beuys they had an ideal society, implicitly socialist however matriarchal. Beuys acknowledged a debt to the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner's lecture on bees.) Readily changing from fluid to solid and back again, and being sublimely nourishing, it shows natural process at its most constructive and life-supporting. The hare also had a special meaning: it was a mercurial messenger from the underworld, that is, the unconscious. In a kind of trance-like state, Beuys makes direct contact with the lower animal powers, as though in search of unconscious inspiration -- or rather to be reassured by them that his paintings are in fact inspired, that is, rooted in the unconscious, and as such authentic and "natural." The dead hare is Beuys' ideal spectator, authenticating his works by his unconscious understanding of them. It is also implicitly Beuys: like the dead hare, he is in contact with the unconscious of nature -- the organically given unconscious. The performance is Beuys' medium; indeed, he functions as a medium between the world of the unconscious and the everyday world.

The fact that he is able to explain his paintings to a dead hare -- they are not incomprehensible to the animal, as they are to living people -- indicates that they are in fact inspired. The hare symbolizes the unconscious inspiration that makes Beuys an authentic artist -- a person able to descend into the underworld, where he learns the existential truth about life. He tells the Faustian tale in his art, which is where he really lives. Alive to the truth in his art, he is more fully alive than he can ever be in everyday life. Creativity is rooted in the depths of unconscious nature rather than in the kind of everyday consciousness society creates. How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare is a modern mystical version of Albrecht Dürer's more traditionally mystic Melencolia I (1514), which uses a different set of symbols to make the same point about the melancholy situation of the artist: he is bound to the underworld of the unconscious even as he aspires to the higher world of self-conscious spirit. But there is an important difference in Beuys' work: for him the spirit is in the unconscious -- in organic human nature and nature as such -- rather than in any higher world, to which it is defensively displaced. Also, for Beuys the artist is not trapped between the animal and the spirit, but finds the spirit in the animal. It is the inspired animal in us that aspires to become self-conscious spirit, that is, ideal being. The artist is trapped between the everyday world and the inspired world of natural animal or instinctive knowledge, which is a higher world of insight compared to the everyday world. Beuys' explanation is not in vain, because he and the dead hare have the same unconscious knowledge. They are attuned to their unconscious nature which is why they can attune to each other.

Everyday people find Beuys' paintings -- and behavior (performance) -- inexplicable because to be everyday means to be uninspired, that is, to lose contact with the spiritual animal in the unconscious. Kaprow's so-called art -- his conceptual pseudo-art -- is entirely a matter of everyday consciousness and consciousness of the everyday, which is why it is uninspired, which means to be banal. It is not an art of inspiration, altering our consciousness so that it makes contact with the ordinarily unconscious animal spirit within us. It is only this animal spirit -- Beuys' hare -- who can safely guide the self through the unconscious, the way Virgil guided Dante. It is the only realm in which we can learn, by firsthand experience, the organic truths of existence. Seeing through animal eyes, as Beuys did, or seeing through Virgil's eyes, as Dante did, one is not blinded by what one sees. In contrast to Beuys' performance, Kaprow's happening looks like a simple-minded reification of everyday life. That is why it is pseudo-art -- one-dimensional art, that is, art without any unconscious depth. The unconscious is the most uncanny, imaginative of dimensions, which is why Kaprow's happening is matter-of-fact rather than uncannily imaginative. Kaprow claims a debt to Pollock's "action paintings," arguing that the action mattered more to Pollock than the painting, but Kaprow's happenings reify everyday actions, which is to deny that they can ever be transformed into uncanny art.

Beuys' art is aspirational: it aspires to self and social transformation. His famous fat and felt -- the former stores energy, the latter insulates and warms (both are in the service of life) -- are part of an expressionistic process of performance. Beuys performs his self-renewal, emblematic of the renewal of German society. He is in fact on a rescue mission, as his sleds make clear. Rescuing himself, he can rescue German society from itself, from its past: it is Beuys' social fate to be a German who experienced fascism firsthand, who was unwittingly victimized, body and soul, by fascism. His art is a heroic attempt to save himself and German society from their history by a kind of return to the basics of human existence -- in effect a return to nature under the auspices of organic existential experience. Art for him is a therapeutic enterprise, or at least has therapeutic potential, for both the individual and the collective. If the gist of romanticism is the belief that art can effect profound human change -- ironically by acknowledging what is inevitable in human nature and the unconscious, which is what makes the process of change dialectical -- then Beuys is a romantic artist.

In contrast, Kaprow's art has no healing intention -- it does not offer the individual the possibility of self-transformation, and with that, implicitly, transcendence of inorganic everyday society and mechanically collective consciousness -- but rather affirms that the individual is rooted in inescapable everydayness. Kaprow participates, with a naive responsiveness, in the everyday world, in effect losing himself in it -- which is one way of reconciling oneself to it -- rather than struggles to transcend it through self-transformation. As Kaprow says, in what might be called a mystical vision of everyday life -- a sense of harmonious merger it, in which the self loses its independence, individuality, critical consciousness and creative power of transformation -- "The actual, probably global, environment will engage us in an increasingly participational way. . . . we'll act in response to the given natural and urban environments."(6) Kaprow was unwittingly descendental because he had no idea of what it meant to ascend artistically by plunging into the unconscious depths. He leveled art until it could no longer be said to exist as a transformative activity.   

Beuys is the ancestor of the aspirational esthetic painting that emerged with a desperate vengeance in the 1980s and Kaprow is the ancestor of the conceptual pseudo-art that also emerged, largely in the form of appropriation art. It at once valorized the rhetoric of objects out of which everyday life is constructed and used those objects as art, often in installations. (Appropriation art is rooted in Duchamp's appropriation of everyday objects which he "assisted" into becoming art by giving them witty titles and installing them in art contexts.) Where the painters struggled to sustain an inspired response to social and personal reality -- to make contact with and sensuously and imaginatively express their unconscious sense of reality -- the conceptual pseudo-artists reduced art to the condition of everyday life and treated it as just another social event, indeed, used art objects in social spectacles, in effect de-individuating them. The Neo-Expressionist work that first seriously appeared in "A New Spirit of Painting" exhibition (London, Royal Academy, 1981) and Joseph Kosuth's Neo-Conceptual "Play of the Unsayable. Ludwig Wittgenstein" (Secession, Vienna, 1989) exemplify these extremes. Neo-Expressionism is also apparent in the social expressionism of Jörg Immendorff, in which his individuality as well as German society are at risk (both are divided against themselves), and the personal expressionism of Francesco Clemente, in which the mythic fiction of the self and his highly idiosyncratic sense of self converge. John Baldessari's and Gerard Richter's de-individualizing and de-authenticating portraits are examples of Neo-Conceptual appropriation. However individual and authentic the persons portrayed, these pseudo-artists' techniques deny their personhood, individuality and experiential reality in a manner reminiscent of Warhol. (Baldessari often blocks out a face and Richter blurs his figures and scenes.)

Neo-Expressionist painting involves an empathic response to its subject matter, Neo-Conceptualist appropriation art is completely unempathic to its medium as well as subject matter. Neo-Expressionism is a spirited re-assertion of art's commitment to the unconscious -- gospel since Surrealism, and already explicit in Symbolism. It shows that it is still possible to make inspired art, affording an unadministerable sensuous and personal experience, evocative of unconscious feelings and fantasies, in esthetic defiance of the leveling and appropriative tendencies of the administrative society, to which Neo-Conceptualism capitulates. Indeed, Neo-Expressionism is an art of feeling and fantasy, rather than an art that emulates the indifference ingrained in everyday life, which is what occurs in Neo-Conceptualism. It strips art of unconscious import, reducing it to institutional site specificity and social objectivity, indeed, into a token case of an ideological or theoretical position. Neo-Expressionism represents the rebellion and possibility of being a True Self in a false world, to use Winnicott's idea. Embedded in and emboldened by viscerality, the True Self expresses its vitality in personalized ideas and spontaneous gestures. Its creativity makes it feel real and alive. In contrast, Neo-Conceptualism unwittingly complies with the false world by intellectualizing it, declaring art to be false in the process, and thus contradicting itself to the extent it claims to be art.                        

Functioning as a curator, Kosuth appropriated works by more than 100 artists, all of whom had at some point been influenced by Wittgenstein. There were familiar avant-gardists, such as Malevich, Picabia and Man Ray, all historical figures, and such contemporary neo-avant-gardists as Daniel Buren, Robert Gober, Imi Knoebel and Sherrie Levine, all of whose works, however "intellectually" interesting -- as with Duchamp, it depends on what one means by "intellectual" -- derive from and manipulate traditional avant-garde ideas. But they were all leveled in the context of Kosuth's grab-bag installation, which had the tacky nihilistic look of a mass society spectacle. Indeed, they all lost in auratic value what they gained in exhibition value, to use Walter Benjamin's distinction. They lost their artistic reality and became social appearances. All lost their individual meaning and particular identity subserving Wittgenstein, with whom Kosuth clearly identifies, and certainly tries to emulate. Completely subsumed by Wittgenstein and Kosuth -- the point was made explicit by the fact that Kosuth copied sentences from Wittgenstein's writing, locating them at ground level, while the works were grouped together on the wall above, as though the sentences were the pedestal that elevated them to the dignity and status of art -- the works became empty examples of Wittgensteinean thought. It was as though each was a toy tail pinned on the philosopher-donkey Wittgenstein, the only common thread in what was otherwise a chaotic (however superficially organized) demonstration of the humbling of art by philosophy -- Kosuth's overriding idea from the beginning (1965) of his supposedly thinking man's art.

Kosuth, who has attacked and repudiated painting, stripped the paintings he used of the painterly particularity that gave them sensuous individuality -- most noteworthily in the case of Robert Ryman, who was probably included in the installation as an ironical foil to the more "conceptually advanced" works. He not only appropriated art for his nihilistic purpose but also the museum and Wittgenstein. He became artist-curator-philosopher-art historian in one -- a pseudo-artist, pseudo-curator, pseudo-philosopher, pseudo-art historian. Blurring the significance of each by synthesizing them in his person without understanding their significance and relationship, he demonstrates the arrogance, grandiosity and ignorance of appropriation art. Resold as an intellectual bill of goods, art that is intellectually appropriated automatically becomes stale and second hand -- used (and abused) art, and as such peculiarly inauthentic and impotent. It is in effect discredited and "dematerialized" by being intellectualized -- or rather victimized by a pseudo-intellectual act of appropriation.

But the act of appropriation is itself a sign of creative impotence -- of artistic inadequacy and failure -- and its result is pseudo art, that is, conceptual art. Kosuth in fact never made creative art -- as distinct from manufactured conceptual pseudo-art (or what Kaprow called "postart") -- and was probably incapable of doing so. (He hides his incapacity behind his pseudo-intellectualizing, and probably preferred language as his medium, as he said, because, like Duchamp, he could not paint creatively. But Kosuth is not even particularly creative with language, as Duchamp was, in however limited a way, with his puns. He was inspired by Jules Laforgue, indicating that he had a poetic streak, while Kosuth is prosaic all the way.) Nor was Kosuth philosophically original and insightful, and his exhibition offered no unusual insights into the history of art. He was also a failure as a curator. For instead of freshly differentiating works by contrasting and comparing them, he simplified their meaning by reducing them to illustrations of Wittgenstein's ideas -- presented in another grab bag, so that no particular connection was made between this particular work and that particular idea -- much the way he had earlier said that Smithson's material works were dispensable illustrations of his writings, which were his real indispensable "art."

Kosuth, incidentally, offered no new insight into the works, nor for that matter into Wittgenstein, for he simply quoted Wittgenstein and accepted the artists' assertion that they had all been influenced by Wittgenstein. The exhibition involved virtually no "research." Nor for that matter, did it offer fresh insight into the complex relationship between visual art and philosophy. What is the effect of each on the other? What happens to visual art when it is regarded simply as an illustration of philosophy and what happens to philosophy when it is visually illustrated? What happens to seeing when one "sees" a philosophy and what happens to philosophy when it becomes "visible?" Is there the one-to-one fit that Kosuth seems to think there is? There was a certain intellectual shabbiness and immaturity to the exhibition, which seemed to have more to do with adulating a celebrity philosopher than with critically understanding his ideas and the art that was supposedly influenced by them. 

Neo-Expressionist painting has been called decadent because of its revival of an old, indeed, pre-World War I, idea of modern painting, but it integrates all the abstract painting, both gestural and geometrical, that has developed since then, complicating and changing painting, and making it once again a serious experience -- esthetically shocking. But if there is an aura of dèjá vu -- the already painted -- hanging over Neo-Expressionist painting, there is an aura of Duchampian Dadaism and Surrealism hanging over Neo-Conceptualism, suggesting that it also is decadent, that is, reiterates, with whatever cleverness, the old idea of art in the service of the mind (the same old ironical mind). As has been said, the modern "new" has become the postmodern "neo" -- which, depending on how one conceives decadence, means decay or preciousness, perhaps decay into preciousness, implying Alexandrian codification and polishing of artistic gains rather than inspired esthetic innovation. But the real tragedy of the '80s situation is that it suggests the ongoing dissociation of sensibility -- the separation of feeling and thinking -- that T. S. Eliot thought was the modern disease (a virtual plague in postmodernity) and that a number of psychoanalysts, particularly Gilbert Rose, thought that it was art's task to remedy. The flexible unity of affect and idea is in fact one of the signs of mental health, suggesting the unhealthiness of modern and postmodern art as a whole. But the Neo-Expressionists claimed to be making conceptual painting -- painting that was at once intellectual and empathic without being fixated on one at the expense of the other and without reifying either -- suggesting they were determined to heal the split between feeling and thinking. (The German Neo-Expressionists have convincingly done so.) In contrast, the Neo-Conceptualists maintained an attitude of ironic indifference to feeling -- a seemingly intellectual detachment from and skepticism about it -- however much their ostensible feelinglessness is itself an expression of feeling. Indeed, their emotional nihilism -- their militant eradication of all sensuous-affective expressive traces from their work -- is inseparable from the feeling of self-defeat and self-loss. In contrast, the Neo-Expressionists tried to retrieve, repair, and recapitulate, in an excruciatingly personal, experiential way, the feelings of self-defeat and self-loss -- the sense of the meaninglessness of the self (implicit in the idea of the split between feeling and thinking, that is, the self-division which announces the impending disintegration of the self) -- endemic to modern society and epidemic in postmodern society. They were particularly evident in post-war Germany and post-war Europe in general. One might say that European Neo-Expressionism was an attempt to counteract them by an angry joie de vivre, however subliminally conveyed, without denying their depressing, disorienting character.  

Rhapsodic, rapturous painting, sometimes morbidly oppressive, sometimes violently grotesque, emerged in the '80s in Europe and secondarily in the United States. Much of it was figural, some of it dealt with unspoiled landscape. Sometimes the atmosphere was gloomy, as though perpetually overcast, at other times it was colorful and luminous. Everyday life was ironically rendered, more often the works had a dream-like, even hallucinatory quality and sensuous directness. They seemed to spring from some altered state of consciousness. Many seemed like newborn infants still attached to the umbilical cord of the unconscious. Bursting with life, they had a raw, fresh excitement, as though driven by forces beyond their control. They tended to be manically intense, as though in a process of perpetual self-transformation. The labile new painterliness and the dramatic new images often bordered on the bizarre. The Berlin Neue Wilden were notoriously intense, the Cologne Mühlheimer Freiheit notoriously absurd. Some Neo-Expressionists seem like caricaturists, others are profoundly humanistic. All the Neo-Expressionists have an urgent seriousness. The self seems at risk in their images; it often seems to be taking pleasure in pain. There is an aura of unprocessed feeling and sensation, however much they are artistically processed. Neo-Expressionist painting does not completely perform what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion calls the alpha function -- transform incomprehensible, painfully primitive feelings and sensations into manageable memories, containing them so that they can analyzed and mastered -- but it nonetheless is imbued with memory and organic cognition (as distinct from the routinized intellectualism -- a kind of pseudo-knowledge -- of Neo-Conceptualism). There is even a hint of idealism -- perhaps most noteworthily in Markus Lüpertz's so-called dithyrambic paintings (heavy objects lyrically rise, defying the gravity of history) -- however down to emotional earth the works tend to be.

Martin Disler seems to revive Nolde, but with much more expressionist ferment -- clearly influenced by American Abstract Expressionism -- and a greater sense of Germanic grotesqueness, and, one might add, picturesqueness, as numerous untitled paintings made between 1981 and 1985 indicate. Stefan Szczesny seems to revive Matisse, but his landscape is Northern rather than Mediterranean, as Red Bather (1985) makes clear, and his scenes have an aura of morbidity and absurdity that is at once Germanic and surrealistic, as Remarkable Still Life II and In the Shadow Of The City (both 1984), indicate. Rainer Fetting's Paul Mäuser (1984) and Lighthouse (1985) dramatize isolation, or rather show, through their clash of gestures and pungent colors, the conflict within the feeling of social isolation. The male figure in Sandro Chia's Youth and Dog (1983) is at once heroic and everyday, and The Woman and the Hero (1983) are ghosts from an old mythology. They exist in a vertiginous, hallucinatory swirl, suggesting that the picture is a dream. They are in effect mirages in an emotional desert. Even landscapes have a dream-like -- nightmarish? -- quality, as Bernd Zimmer's Rushing Stream (1981) and Yellow Cloud (1983) make clear. Bold evocations of the uncanny, like so many of the Neo-Expressionist paintings, their aggressive handling serves a mystical purpose: excited immersion in nature, still a source of inspiration. The expressionistic/organic sublime, as it might be called, is evident even in Peter Bömmels' surrealistic figures, as Three Chalices, Which Mean the World and The Return of the Happiness Maker (both 1982) show. Alois Mosbacher's Creeperhead (1984) and The Dare (1985) integrate the human and the natural, suggesting that each is part of the narrative of the other, sometimes tragically, sometimes comically.

Hans Peter Adamski, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Walter Dahn and Volker Tannert, among others, manage to breathe organic life into imagistic stereotypes, perversely bringing them to life in the act of artistically exploiting their clichéd character. For a stereotype may be a fatalistic embodiment of an existential truth. Dokoupil's Death and Clown (1981) -- the former fiddling, the latter grimly melancholy, both mythically set among the stars -- makes the point succinctly. It is a brilliant addition to the German tradition of Triumph of Death images, which seem to come spontaneously to the Germans, perhaps because of their history. Indeed, almost all German Neo-Expressionist painting is death-infected, suggesting that for the Germans death is the most existentially relevant issue of life. Dokoupil is a master of incongruity, as many modernists have been, contrasting figures and moods as well as colors and shapes. His juxtapositions, like those of David Salle, make us aware of unconscious truths we'd rather forget -- truths that aren't as convincing in words as they are in dreamlike images.

In general, there is an aura of ironic misery to German Neo-Expressionist painting, as Dahn's You Are Guility and Tannert's Self-Help (both 1981) show. These mocking works, at once cartoonlike and expressionistic -- they might be called expressionistic cartoons -- take on the self-absorption of the times. The penis is guilty in Dahn's work, but also a joke -- a cartoon figure, rescued from clichédom by Dahn's wild, mock-spontaneous handling -- and self-help is a kind of joke one plays on oneself, especially when one thinks one can help oneself by becoming a painter, like the little figure at work in the upper right corner of Tannert's image. Neo-Expressionistic paintings are more absurd fantasies than social representations, whatever social point they ironically make. Enzo Cucchi's works, particularly the untitled paintings he made in 1985, convey a sense of being adrift in a sea of stormy emotions, whether symbolized by the compulsive repetition of anonymous objects or painterly gestures. The landscape is always brooding and morbid, the paintings unsettling and dramatic, and the sense of the tragic palpable. Perception of emotion is not compromised by politics, even when there is a politically correct point being made subliminally, as in Elvira Bach's images of women, particularly the ironically lurid fantasy of sexual liberation pictured in the triptych When It Is Night in Berlin (1983), a polymorphous perverse nightclub scene become a polymorphous perverse painting. Similarly, Dark and Pale (1986), depicting two women, one black, one white, both naked, both with demonic tails emanating from their heads, and making love, has a certain self-mocking irony as well as confrontational vigor and erotic daring.

There is a sense of existential desperation to German Neo-Expressionist painting, broadly conceived as a mode of imagery as well as a style of handling. It may have to do with Germany's self-destructive history. Many paintings suggest this, among them Karl-Heinz Hödicke's Beauty and the Beast (1979), a dream picture of the Berlin Wall and glamorous legs, with dark space on the East German side, bright space on the West German side. The difference between the West's sexual liberation and the East's social repression is all but explicit. Similarly, Dieter Hacker's The Boundary (1983) shows a pitch black Berlin Wall, virtually impenetrable. It is a symbol of the tragedy that Germany has become -- a tragedy that poisons its life down to the erotic depths, as Hacker's The Black Room (1985), the image of a voluptuous black nude asleep in a brilliantly illuminated prison cell, suggests. As in so many German Neo-Expressionist paintings, libido surges in the tormented Promethean painterliness, but the over-all mood is black -- depressing and oppressive. Dahn and Dokoupil's German Forest (1981) shows a comic German figure with legs that are swastika wheels -- a vulgar little Hitler with a swastika for a moustache -- cutting through the forest like a juggernaut. Hitler may be a figure of fun, but there was nothing funny about his destructive effect on Germany, which he left divided and in ruins. There seems to be an echo of Heartfield's Hitler cartoons, made inwardly dramatic by the painterly handling, but the nightmare of Hitler has become real and done its dirty work.

Already in Lüpertz's Black-Red-Gold--Dithyrambic (1974), with its Nazi helmet mounted on armor, standing abandoned in an empty field, there is a sense that the Nazi past has to be dealt with. The German war machine has been stopped and is in ruins: Lüpertz's painting is a memento mori. The psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich famously argued that the Germans were unable to mourn for their destructive deeds because of their blind obedience to the state, internalized as the absolute authority and power, but the German Neo-Expressionists seem to be trying to mourn, with whatever difficulty and however awkwardly -- and mourning is socially disruptive and awkward, and hard emotional work. Kiefer's Mark Heath (1974), Ways of World Wisdom (1976-77) and The Mastersingers (1982) are also awkward with mournfulness, however tempered -- defended against -- by irony. Even earlier, Baselitz's The Great Friends (1965) -- two gigantic manneristic figues with signs of the stigmata standing amid the ruins of Germany, reminding us that in World War II the Germans were as much the victims of themselves as they were of the allies who defeated them -- suggests the process of mourning, or at least the need to mourn. But it seems to turn into mourning for the German losers, who look rather heroic however tarnished. What happened to the victims of Germany? Has the Jewish Holocaust become the German Holocaust? All these works are allegories of German history, nationalism and imperialism, carried to a self-destructive extreme by the Nazis. It is the fascination with the German self that is at it issue in these paintings -- its misery and suffering, rather than the misery and suffering it inflicted on the world. Nonetheless, Neo-Expressionist paintings are clearly a rebellion against the authority and power of the state and the complacent status quo of postwar German society, as well as the status quo of art at the time, dominated by American Minimalism and Conceptualism.  

The Nazi epoch clearly haunts postwar German painters, who find themselves the unwilling heirs to the Nazi past. They seem to be working through it and its consequences with painterly fury and irony. But painting is not equal to history, and the problem is ultimately more personal and existential than particularly German, although being a German makes it more difficult: the problem is the meaning and place of the self in a world that is indifferent to it. It is pointless to have a self in a society that regards people as instruments, however much one must have a strong sense of self to avoid becoming an instrument. The German self is one ambiguous case in point. But the morbid self that appears in Fetting's Self-Portrait as Indian (1982), Helmut Middendorf's Floating Figure--Red (1981), Salomé's Blood Bath (1979), Werner Buttner's Self-Portrait Masturbating in the Movies (1980), Dokoupil's Portrait of a Young Musician (W.D.) (1982), Gerard Kever's Dance in the Kitchen (1980), Immendorf's Cafe Deutschland III (1978), and even earlier in Horst Antes' famously grotesque Kopffüssler figures, begun in 1962-63, and Baselitz's notorious The Big Night Down the Drain (1962-63) is more universally existential than particularly German, however much it grew like a weed in the decadent soil of postwar German society. The war forced German artists to face themselves, but the self they faced was more generic than particularly German: being German became a springboard for conveying the tragic sense of life, which American Pop art as well as Minimalism and Conceptualism denied. After all, there is nothing tragic about America, however ironically pathetic it may be, which is the point Warhol's death imagery -- including his death masks of the socially successful, their self-deception on ironic display -- makes. No tragic depth in America, only shallow self-consciousness to accompany a shallow sense of self, however much suffering there is in America -- a suffering hidden by its pursuit of success.  

The problem of the self is the "metaphysical" problem of all art that is convincingly modern, as Harold Rosenberg argued. The self is at risk in modernity: it has fewer and fewer social supports, and no transcendental ones at all, and thus little to facilitate its development and give it strength and self-belief. It must address its own riskiness if it is to survive, if only in a risky art. The self -- and the art that supports and even seems to invent it in the course of dealing with the annihilative anxiety aroused by its awareness of its riskiness -- is a tightwire act over a social abyss. It must realize its precarious social position -- acknowledge its suffering -- if it is to find the courage to continue its act of being a self. German Neo-Expressionistic painting is urgently modern because it presents the self at its most nihilistic -- dangerously defiant and above all outraged by the world, whose violence and death wish are satirically mimicked by its artistic violence. It is as though it is compulsively expelling the world's violence in the act of angrily assimilating it. Neo-Expressionist violence is a kind of pyrrhic victory over the world's violence, artistically transcending it in the act of emotionally submitting to its inescapability. The Neo-Expressionists are angry fatalists, acutely aware of death. But their consciousness of death is a source of self and artistic renewal -- indeed, the only consciousness that prods them to ecstatic life. Underneath their sardonically violent surface and seemingly ridiculous images, they are eschatologically serious and sublime artists.

Their means are familiar: flatness and gesture, tongue-in-cheek irony and callous black humor, distortion and improvisation, épater le bourgeois vulgarity and ecstatic estheticism. But they are used with a fresh dialectical flair that restores their avant-garde unfamiliarity. The larger point is that old avant-garde means of artistic differentiation and individuation are enlisted in the service of self-differentiation and individuation. The unresolvable problem of being a unique self in the ever more anonymous modern world is articulated through avant-garde methods that make a fetish of unresolvability. They continue to be the best means of artistic and self survival in the postmodern world, where empathy has become rarer and rarer because administration has become total -- including administration of the self (perhaps the ultimate administrative feat). Avant-garde means continue to de-administrate art, even as the avant-garde -- and art in general, like the self -- has become overadministered in the postmodern world, intensifying the malaise of the self and subverting creativity while seeming to support it. Thus the avant-garde remains a symbol of alienation, even when it is no longer esthetically and emotional alien. It continues to testify to the incompatibility of self and society in a world in which each seems to have outgrown the need for the other.

The self that appears in German Neo-Expressionist painting, perhaps most compulsively in Dokoupil's 1983 series of depressing portraits -- and also in such American Neo-Expressionist works as David Wojnarowicz's Rimbaud in New York (1978-79), Eric Fischl's masturbating Sleepwalker (1979), Jean-Michel Basquiat's Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982), Julian Schnabel's melodramatic King of the Wood (1984) and Cindy Sherman's theatrical representations of women, 1977 ongoing, among many others -- suffers from what the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl calls existential neurosis. While these artists ironically address particular social issues -- homosexuality in Wojnarowicz, adolescence in Fischl, racism in Basquiat, the social status of the artist in Schnabel, the social role of women in Sherman and, in the Germans, social reality at its most horrifically banal -- the deeper, more pressing issue that haunts their work is the problematic character of the self. Wojnarowicz and Basquiat are street-smart, Fischl and Sherman are wise to the ways of Hollywood sensationalism, Schnabel's plate paintings are abstract expressionist collages, and the Germans are virtuosos of gesturalism, suavely mingling garish, raw and refined, even elegant brushwork -- but their artistic know-how and ideological interests are the means to a bitter end: the representation of the Tragic Self. An identity is artistically performed -- a social role is played, with whatever irony -- to hide the absence of a True Self. This is the case even when the True Self seems viscerally expressed and spontaneously performed, as in the German painters: they invoke it with their painterliness, but what arises from the passionate depths is the Tragic Self -- the ghost of a True Self that has lost its bearings and meaning in a false world. On the surface Neo-Expressionist works are social critiques of standard modes of prejudicial representation, but underneath they enact the emptiness of a self that has no meaning to itself. The defensive irony of the Neo-Expressionists gives the game away: there is nothing behind the irony but a void of human meaning. Irony is the intellectual filler of the empty self. It is a weak finger in a poorly built intellectual dam holding back a world that seems overwhelming in its insanity.

For Frankl, the will-to-meaning is more fundamental than the will-to-pleasure and the will-to-power. "The will to meaning is the most human phenomenon of all, since an animal certainly never worries about the meaning of its existence."(7) "Frustration of the will-to-meaning" or "existential frustration" is a "spiritual" sickness, Frankl says, where "'spiritual' does not have a religious connotation but refers to the specifically human dimension," namely, the human need for meaning. German Neo-Expressionism is obsessed with spiritual sickness, masquerading as physical sickness, compensated for by the pursuit of pleasure and power. Adamski's The Appeal of the Little Illness I and II (both 1982) makes the point clearly, along with the two macabre heads, bloody and blackened, as though buried alive, that he painted in 1983. So does, in their different ways, Middendorf's Loneliness of the Heads and The Insane Ones--Yellow (both 1983), Bömmels' The Self-Eater (1982) -- an ironic reference to Kafka's story The Hunger Artist? -- and Dokoupil's The Incurable Metamorphosis of the Russian People (1982), as well as Kiefer's earlier Painting is Sick. The very bizarreness of these works conveys incurable spiritual sickness.  

What is the meaning of the self in post-Nazi Germany?, the Neo-Expressionists ask. More broadly, they deal with the self's loss of the will-to-meaning -- its will to give itself meaning -- in contemporary society. Neo-Expresssionism shows the failure of heroism in modern life, to recall Baudelaire's phrase, or rather the meaninglessness of heroism in modern life -- certainly in view of the grotesquely distorted form it took in Hitler and the Nazis. (For the Neo-Expressionists fascism seems to be a perverse longing for a perverse version of the mythical hero. The Aryan hero is a perversion of the classical heroic ideal, just as Aryan architecture is a perversion of heroic classical architecture.) In short, the self portrayed in Neo-Expressionism is a self in the throes of an existential crisis of meaning. It is struggling to keep its meaning and spirit, to make its existence meaningful and vital -- to will its own meaning, and with that give life meaning -- but it seems to be a losing battle. The Neo-Expressionist self struggles to be meaningful, but it knows it has no meaning in society, which is the ultimate arbiter of the individual's meaningfulness. Because of this life seems cheap and existence absurd in Neo-Expressionist painting, however much their meaninglessness is rationalized by irony.

"Men give meaning to their lives by realizing. . . creative values, by achieving tasks," writes Frankl. For the Neo-Expressionists the dialectical task of art is to transform a meaningless self into a meaningful self -- to work through the meaninglessness that the self experiences in the world in order to generate a sense of the individual's meaning. The intense painterliness, ambivalently libidinous and aggressive -- inherently absurd -- of the Neo-Expressionists suggests vigorous working through. It generates a kind of atmosphere of meaningfulness in what otherwise seems an ironically meaningless scene. It forms an aura of meaningful activity around peculiarly meaningless figures -- silly token human beings, sometimes bizarrely distorted so that they seem nonhuman, sometimes abandoned or thrown in space, as though to suggest their irrelevance. The Neo-Expressionist self transforms meaninglessness into meaningfulness through a process of suffering, expressed by the turbulent painterly process itself, with its self-conflicted Dionysianism, throwing all esthetic caution to the winds in an effort to achieve a new esthetic urgency and poignancy. The most annihilative suffering is the experience of the loss of meaningfulness -- of overwhelming spiritlessness. Ironically, Neo-Expressionist painterliness makes the loss of meaningfulness vividly meaningful, as though the resulting emotional vacuum had special existential presence. One might say that Neo-Expressionism gives meaningless existence meaning by artistically recreating its meaninglessness in art. Acquiring absurd artistic value, it becomes creatively valuable.

The artistic will-to-meaning -- or is it the will to artistic meaning? -- is the last hope of the will-to-meaning. Neo-Expressionism suggests it may be the last gasp -- the final tragic expression -- of the will-to-meaning. It strongly suggests that in the modern world one must create one's own meaning or have no meaning: the only source of meaning is the self that feels it has none -- the paradoxical modern self. In modernity, which has demystified the world, there is no stable sense of human meaning. Is it possible to believe that human existence is unquestionably meaningful when it ends in death? Nonetheless, the self must heal itself of the will to meaninglessness that has become epidemic in modern society, if it wants to enjoy its life. The world's demystifying knowledge can't cure the disease of meaninglessness; only the self's own mystifying -- and necessarily narcissistic -- art can do so. For the Neo-Expressionists, artistic expression of the self's inexpressible suffering -- fear of annihilation -- is the only way to give it meaning and value.  

The point that Frankl is making is deceptively simple and paradoxical: there is no guaranteed foundation of meaningfulness in modern society, which is why the self is forced to create the meaning of existence, including its own, or become sick unto death, that is, spiritually hollow to the extent of losing value to itself and others. The young German artists who emerged after the Second World War realized that the existence of Germany was no longer meaningful. There was no foundation of existential meaning in defeated Germany. To be German was to be existentially absurd. Nazi Germany had already demonstrated profound annihilative indifference to existence -- ultimately to the existence of Germany itself. It systematically attempted to break the will-to-meaning -- the human spirit -- of whomever it believed did not measure up to Aryan standards of human existence. Thus Germany, which had sacrificed itself to the will-to-power, dehumanizing itself in the process -- ironically it was projecting its own non-humanity into its victims, whom it regarded as sub-human -- was spiritually bankrupt before it lost the war. Thus the Neo-Expressionists were born into an existentially frustrated society. They wanted existential satisfaction because they grew up in a society that had lost its reason for existing, and with that its spirit. (The Nazi annihilation of subhuman -- non-Aryan -- existences ironically heralded Germany's own annihilation. After the Nazis, Germany no longer had to be anxious about the meaning of its existence because it lost the right to exist.)

At its deepest, Neo-Expressionist painting is an attempt to integrate the tragic sense of life, which is the inner truth of history in general and German history in particular, with the esthetic sense of life, which is the inner truth of art and existence at its most ontologically meaningful. More broadly, it is an attempt to fuse serious human interest and serious esthetic interest to create a serious artistic-existential experience. Middendorf's Airplane Dream (1982) -- a haunting memory of the Berlin Airlift, and thus of survival despite adversity -- makes the point brilliantly. It is at once tragic and esthetic -- existentially unsettling and sensuously rich. Middendorf transforms the mechanical reality of the airplane into the organic fantasy of the dream image, signaling Neo-Expressionist rebellion against technology -- a futile but nonetheless artistically fertile rebellion. Neo-Expressionism reasserts organic feeling and organic art in a mechanical world and in rebellion against the inorganic "engineered" art of Minimalism and Conceptualism. (The latter uses the machine of language to manufacture pseudo-artistic products.) For the Neo-Expressionists art is an organically open system, responsive to the dialectic of society and self, rather than a closed system obsessed with its own medium, as though searching for its own essence, which is what Clement Greenberg understood it to be, and what it is in Minimalism and Conceptualism. Neo-Expressionism incorporates the emotionally and socially ugly to achieve lurid beauty, confirming the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal's theory of creativity as a tragic enterprise in which the ugly is contained by and assimilated into the beautiful, resulting in an esthetic integrity emblematic of the existentially undivided self. Middendorf turns a traumatic scene into an exquisite image: the threatening airplane, dominating the scene, has become a symbol of his new self, able to master the trauma by giving it esthetic significance. The child in Middendorf no longer feels helpless and powerless, however awed he remains by the airplane. Thus Neo-Expressionist creativity is a symbolic self-healing through the artistic internalization of a traumatic historical reality. Artistic illusion gives one esthetic power over one's feelings, if not over the horribly real world.

The Neo-Expressionist concern with the self has its precedents, particularly in the Auto-Polaroids and Self-Transformations of Lucas Samaras, and perhaps most of all his early boxes, which were known in Germany. Esthetically ingenious, they show a tragic self emerging from the depths -- a sort of jack-in-the-box popping out of a hell of its own making. Samaras, a kind of imp of the perverse, is implicitly a model for the Neo-Expressionists, and their perverse attitude to everyday life and society. Clemente's sense of self owes a great deal to Samaras, particularly in its idiosyncracy, irony and playfulness, although Clemente does not have the same emotional depth, intellectual complexity, and for that matter artistic versatility and esthetic skill, as Samaras. Similarly, Arnulf Rainer's Face Farces (1973) owe something to Samaras. From the Neo-Expressionist performances of the Viennese action artists (most notoriously Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch, who assiduously mixed mysticism and violence, ecstatic self-destruction and manic self-glorification) through Maria Lassnig's Sciencefiction-Selfportrait (1980) and beyond, the Austrian Neo-Expressionists have been consistently preoccupied with healing the narcissistically injured self. Rainer's Face of an Unknown Dead Man (1980-81) -- like Samaras, Rainer works over photographs -- is a startling existential-esthetic work, confirming the Germanic fascination with death, evident also in the death's-heads that seductively proliferate in many Neo-Expressionist works. Death is implicit in Samaras' X-ray self-portraits, and in their atmosphere of violence, and, more subtly and dialectically, in their esthetic mysticism: esthetically transfiguring his body, Samaras resurrects himself as a god (dying flesh becomes eternally vibrant, alive color). Samaras' obsession with the body and color, and the performative character of his images -- he performs himself, as it were, exposing his wounded self while healing it by intensive artistic care, reverberates in Austrian and German Neo-Expressionism. Certainly Samaras and the Neo-Expressionists offer a more penetrating sense of self -- a greater awareness of its inner dynamics, its constant psychodramatic process -- than any portrait produced by Duane Hanson and Chuck Close, however much there is an unnerving, all-American pathos -- a sense of disillusionment that falls short of existential frustration and the melancholy of meaninglessness -- in their depersonalized, not to say dehumanized figures and faces.

The work of the so-called Neo-Geo painters who emerged in the '80s, perhaps most noteworthily Peter Halley, with his clever use of the computer chip as a geometrical form, pale in comparison to the paintings of the Neo-Expressionists, even when the Neo-Geo painters use glow-in-the-dark type colors. Similarly the conceptualist installations of Hans Haacke and other social activists -- whatever their cause -- look esthetically and existentially inadequate next to the Neo-Expressionist paintings, whatever critical points the former score on the side of sociopolitical correctness. Sociopolitical activism is not the issue of art; esthetic-existential creativity and impact is. Social critique is embedded in Neo-Expressionism; it does not compensate for the failure of creative nerve: art becomes the platform for an ideological message when it is unable to make an esthetic-existential difference. The message compensates for artistic weakness -- artistic amateurism. Indeed, social message art is built on a shaky artistic foundation, which is why it is bad art whatever good it intends. Haim Steinbach's conceptual installations are meant to criticize consumer society, but exhibiting consumer products -- ostensibly well-made but existentially trivial and esthetically simplistic -- as art mocks art as much as it mocks them. Steinbach's pseudo-art is as exploitive and superficial as the consumer society it exploits. Incapable of offering imaginative insight into the commodity -- of grasping its unconscious meaning and existential import -- he glamorizes its superficiality with superficial irony. His installations are ingratiating artistic embarrassments -- conceptual art at its most flamboyantly nihilistic. 

Neo-Expressionist paintings work both as social critique and esthetic-existential experience, while social activist conceptual installations tend to look like propaganda -- ironically for what they're criticizing as well as for the particular theoretical and ideological perspective they're advocating. Steinbach, for example, endorses what he attacks, however unwittingly: exhibiting commodities as art, he makes them more meaningful -- he apotheosizes them -- than they were when they were sold on store shelves. He legitimates rather than undermines consumer society: he plays into its hands, revealing his critical inconsequence, especially because his art takes on the identity of the commodity it supposedly criticizes, thus losing whatever esthetic and existential edge it might have had. The esthetic and existential are in themselves radical critiques of everyday consumer society.

Social activist conceptual installations fit society into a procrustean bed of ideology rather than offer new insights into it. They tend to conform to pre-existing, not to say obsolete agendas for social revolution, thus short-circuiting consciousness of the complexity and subtlety of social experience. They are peculiarly naive, for all their theoretical grandiosity. It may be that Charles Saatchi and Peter Ludwig use art to whitewash their capitalist manipulations, as Haacke suggests in several works, but it is not clear that the art they collect is reducible to "boutique" status, as Haacke once publicly said it was. Haacke discredits art in general, not only by showing its links to exploitive capitalism, but by reducing it to another media phenomenon, which plays into the hands of capitalism by denying it humanizing esthetic and existential meaning -- just as capitalism and its media undermine them. Haacke -- along with Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, to mention two other prominent pseudo-artists who make social activist conceptual installations -- have the same degraded cynical consciousness of art as the capitalist media he ironically uses to make his critical point.

From Ana Mendieta to David Hammons, ideologically inclined artists tend to make esthetically and existentially simplistic art, however unexpectedly moving it may sometimes be -- for reasons that have nothing to do with its ideological stance. It is the interplay of Mendieta's thin naked body, all the more organic and vulnerable covered in mud, with her arms raised as though crucified, and the huge tree she leans against -- adding its organic majesty to her flesh, which seems to have risen from the grave -- in her Tree of Life series (1977) that makes her earth-body work esthetically and existentially convincing, not her feminist ideology. Her work is authentic not because of its ideology but because of the existential esthetics that give it evocative power -- that make it resonate in the unconscious. Like Frieda Kahlo's work, Mendieta's work deals with life and death more than it deals with woman's rights. Similarly, it is the black hair that becomes ironically expressive in Hammons' performative works -- organically alive hair that suddenly becomes abstract expressionist art -- that makes it esthetically and existentially convincing, not the ideological import it has because it is an African-American signifier.

The abysmal black and morbid luminosity of Rudolf Baranik's Napalm Elegies, with their ghostly head that looks like a moonscape, makes them esthetically and existentially important, not their anti-war rhetoric. Dramatic chiaroscuro, also emblematic of annihilative anxiety, also makes May Stevens' paintings of her emotionally disturbed working class mother and the Communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg -- they sit side by side, in different historical, social and emotional spaces -- an upsetting nightmare. Stevens' feminism and leftism seem beside the point of her poignant image, however much they inform it through her iconography. Like Baranik, Stevens transforms a traumatic, memorable photograph -- her schizophrenic mother as she looked in the mental hospital in which she spent the last two decades of her life -- into esthetically and existentially memorable art. Stevens' hallucinatory work is a human document before -- and after -- we recognize its feminist import. For Stevens, both Luxemburg and her mother were murdered by patriarchial society. But it is her esthetics that makes their lives existentially meaningful, not their tragic deaths. The bitter black atmosphere is death -- and depression -- incarnate, but it is death in general not her mother's and Luxemberg's particular deaths. A work of art is not a social statement -- it is not just another way of taking a social stand, a soapbox from which one can preach to the unconverted and indifferent -- but a dream in which the self registers through its emotions the unconscious meaning of being in a world not of its own making, the existential effects of traumatic experience that expressively linger in esthetic traces.

Notes
            (1) Quoted in Mark Jarzombek, The Psychologizing of Modernity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 73
            (2) Mikel Dufrenne, In the Presence of the Sensuous: Essays in Aesthetics (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987), p. 5
            (3) Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 127-28
            (4) Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), p. 109
            (5) Trilling, p. 132
            (6) Kaprow, p. 108
            (7) Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (New York: Bantam, 1967), pp. x-xii

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



 



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