On Transcendence

Modernisms  & Postmodernisms

The art historian/critic James Elkins made an interesting statement in his 2005 book on Modernisms  & Postmodernisms, Master Narratives and their Discontents (1). The focus of the book is the role of painting in Modernist & Postmodernist theories and the core question of whether painting is irrelevant to contemporary visual arts.

If our understanding of contemporary visual arts is based on the assumption that there is a clear trajectory of progress in art-making where the avant guard reject the outdated, unconscious approach of the past and present and lead us forward into the future through new ways of presenting images, then the Postmodernist rejection of painting is justified.  Postmodernism and painting are mutually exclusive because painting is a creature of Modernist theory and Modernist theories rest on belief in the ability of art, specifically painting, to transcend the human condition.

Postmodern theories suggest that the Modernisms belief that art can transcend entanglement with the political, moral and social failings of the time in which it is created are at the core of paintings irrelevance. From this perspective, the whole history of Modernist painting is its coming painfully to an understanding of its place in the disenchantment of the world.Criticism of Modernism is essential based on the uselessness of the received rules of painting and the hopelessness of proceeding as if painting could be the place where the world is “reenchanted” (2).

In response to modernism and painting’s association with hopeless efforts to re-enchant the world and using useless rules, contemporary art schools and postmodern critics reject painting and favour of other visual art media, such as video and other new media. And those who do dare to paint are careful to avoid using received rules. Elkins touches on the problems with this approach:

“It is certainly much easier to make an acceptable piece of video art than it is to make an acceptable painting, and…the reason for the relative ease of video art is that painting has a longer history: more strictures, more limitations, fewer possibilities, a much denser lexicon of critical terms. Therefore…the ease of video is a reason to keep considering painting, especially when it’s a place where things seem to keep going wrong, or where the artists are deliberately misbehaving themselves, piling kitch on camp on kitch without end”(3). He uses the example of Jeff Koons, whose “…place in the history of twentieth century art is assured in part because of his apparently deeply sincere endorsement of kitch ideas and kitch media”(4) .

Titi, 2004–09, Jeff Koons, High chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating.
Titi, 2004–09, Jeff Koons, High chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating.

The Torment of the Artist

The painful understanding of the disenchantment of the world is captured in a few evocative sentences by my current favourite author, Richard Powers. In his 2009 story, Generosity, he describes the torment of the artist reluctant to contribute to the meaningless torrent of artistic works flooding the world at any given moment. In the face of ecological, social and economic megadisasters an artist can only tell,”…the odds against ever feeling at home in the world again. About huge movements of capital that render self-realization quaint at best. About the catastrophe of collective wisdom getting what we want, at last.”(5) This is the quandry that postmodernism has met with illogic and irrationality.

Powers outlines the decline of modernism through the disenchantment of a budding art historian who “…nurtured the belief that the deepest satisfaction lay in those cultural works that survive the test of Long Time. But a collision with postcolonialism….shook her faith in masterpieces.A course in Marxist interpretation of the Italian Renaissance left her furious. For a little while longer she soldiered on, fighting the good fight for artistic transcendence until she realized that all the commanding officers had already negotiated safe passage away from the rout.” (6)

Elkins describes Postmodernism as not the name of a period with a definable approach such as  postimpressionism but “…a condition of resistance that can arise wherever modernist ideas are in place. Postmodernism works like a dormant illness in the body of modernism: when modernism falters and fails, postmodernism flourishes.” (7)

Elkins’ & Power’s complementary works agree that the assumption that art can transcend the human condition is core value of modernism that the postmodern critique rejects. So how can artists, especially painters, step off the one-dimensional plane of here and now and create works that are timeless, universal and make transcendence viable?

The return of Myth

In his blog, [Re]construction: Metamodern ‘Transcendence’ and the Return of Myth, Brendan Dempsey, a graduate student at Yale University, courageously enters the fray. He suggests that “metamodern mythopoeia reasserts a form of ‘transcendence’ without forfeiting postmodern immanence as it reconstructs artificial paradigmatic models for the twenty-first century. He includes the work of several young artist who he feels are involved in is artistic mythmaking that oscillates between the poles of discredited modernist myths and postmodern superficiality.

The Roses Never Bloomed So Red, Adam Miller, 2013
The Roses Never Bloomed So Red, Adam Miller, 2013

This work by Adam Miler is an example of a painting that Dempsey believes “reconstructs artificial paradigmatic models for the twenty-first century” and “oscillates between the poles of discredited modernist myths and postmodern superficiality”. The artist is clearly well-meaning and may feel he is delivering an impassioned critique late-capitalist decay by depicting a fauness vanquished by the violent spirit of development.

But his high-mindedness has not saved Miller from the same pitfalls that have ensnared artists of earlier epochs. The egregiously voluptuous fauness dooms the work to the level of soft-core porn, despite its censoriousness. And its relentless realism ignores a century of modernism’s struggles to define the role of painting when photography can reproduce reality so much better.

Perhaps myths are not something that can be conjured out of thin air by modern men steeped in a myth-denying culture. Myths are stories that live in our DNA and make sense to us because they are part of the fabric of ourselves as human beings. As Joseph Campbell would say (8), true myths are our ties to the past that help us to understand the world and ourselves.The myths that have come down to us through thousands of years of oral and written history are precious strands of our true selves and attempting to discredit them is like trying to discredit the seasons. This is clearly not a direction that will “reassert a form of transcendence”.

Post-Clement Greenburg

It could perhaps be said that much of Post-modernist theories of have been developed in reaction against Clement Greenburg’s definition of what good painting is and is not. Greenburg simply defined good painting as something that someone with good taste, such as himself, could see was a good painting.  His point of view is at once highly offensive and rather appealing. It is offensive because, because as a Modernist, he was not yet aware of Post-Modernism greatest contribution to criticism in all genres – the awareness of bias.

Scientific research on perception showed that the mere act of observation affects the thing observed. This has led to a general understanding that it is impossible to be objective – that the observer sees based on a set of values and assumptions that influence what is seen. This understanding has led to a cultural revolution in all areas including the arts.

No longer were dead white men automatically considered the “greats” of literature, drama, music and the visual arts. It was no longer intellectually acceptable to assume that women and minorities were grossly under-represented among the “greats” because they were simply incapable of creating masterpieces. Once using the “greats” as a yardstick for excellence was gone, the very concept of excellence came under attack and anything that its creator called art was accepted as such.

But the postmodernist critique, while entirely justified and rationale, has been taken to its extremes, until, as Elkins says, we have been subjected to exhibitions “piling kitch on camp on kitch without end”. So it is worthwhile to revisit Greengerg’s worldview to retrace our steps.

Greenberg never seemed to be interested in examining his assumption that, because he was a person with good taste, what he saw as a good painting was a good painting and he needed to provide no further evidence of this. But the reason his attitude is still appealing is because he is right in saying that the point of art is to abandon oneself to the pleasure of viewing. It is not an intellectual activity that requires several wall-feet of text to understand. Art, is a visual, visceral, sensuous experience that bypasses the busy brain and transcends mundane day-to-day life.

Jackson Pollack was Greenberg’s most famous protégé and is a good example of a painter whose work as a visual experience is not narrative, not conceptual and certainly not banal. It is a pleasure to lose oneself in this artist’s ability to weave a surface of textures and pattens with all the complexity of nature but the intentionality of a human sensibility.

Convergence, 1952, Jackson Pollock
Convergence, 1952, Jackson Pollock

Other painters that Greenberg loved, such as Larry Poons also confirmed his good taste.

Larry Poons, A Sky Filled with Shooting Stars
Larry Poons, A Sky Filled with Shooting Stars

Not all of the painters Greenberg admired are immediately recognizable as a visual, visceral, sensuous experience. Perhaps, as he said, you had to stand in front of them. But the point he was making is that a great painting can transcend entanglement with the political, moral and social failings of the time in which it is created.  Paintings is not and never can be irrelevant because we only have to look at a great painting like those above to know that they can create a place where the world is “reenchanted”.

Footnotes:

  1. Elkins, James, Master Narratives and Their Discontents, New York ; London : Routledge, 2005.
  2. Ibid, pp. 52-55
  3. Ibid p. 164
  4. Ibid p. 70
  5. Powers, Richard, Generosity 2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 152
  6. 6) Ibid p. 61
  7. Op Cit, Elkins p. 89.
  8. Joseph Campbell, The Power Of Myth, Doubleday, 1988
  9. Clement Greenberg, Late Writings, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2003

     

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