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Even more on Painting

This and other posts are an effort to understand how painting has become a suspect art form, freighted with assumptions of its strong & irredeemable connection to everything that was wrong with art before the post-modern revolution. They are also an attempt to come to term with my own attachment to what is currently referred to in a derogatory way as Modernist painting.

Modernist painting (and less so sculpture) has been singled out as representing the cultural sins of the current epoch and its repudiation is an expiation. However, despite the cleansing fire of post-modernist ire (and irony) the dark side of the art world continues to blossom. What is at the heart of this darkness?

The Market Monster

The problem is, of course, that the standard for gauging excellence in art is the marketplace. A previous post, On Theories of Art, ended with the comment, “Perhaps  the assumption of objectivity in art is clearly unattainable because art is about feelings rather than reason, but feels the need to be justified by some form of reason other than marketability. It’s a quandry.” As in all aspects of life in a capitalist society, the market has skewed relations between artists and their work and between artists and viewers.

Though written in 1975, Harold Rosenberg’s Art on the Edge, contains many ideas that remain highly relevant. Rosenberg calls the influence of the marketplace on the direction of contemporary art “…a process of transformation whose end is not in sight” (p.8) and over 40 years later, this transformation continues to mutate. For an artist, alternatives to the market are either art-as-criticism, (parody, irony, subversion) or making art for oneself. The irony is that ironic, subversive, parodies of art have been absorbed by the establishment so that they happily sponsor shows that are opposed to them. “To create the illusion of an adversary force, everything that has been overthrown must be overthrown again and again”. (p.90)

This relates to a discussion in the previous post describing the current epoch as not a changing culture but a culture of change. The ideology of constant change has, like the end of history, eliminated real change. I’m exploring the possibility that it is not going to be possible to get art out from under the market’s perverse influences through renunciation of artistic sins that went before. It seems naive to believe that one art form or another can have an effect on a pervasive economic system that manipulates every aspect of life.

Pro-Modernism

However, there have been artists who strongly believed that they could create a kinder, gentler world though their art. Piet Mondrian, working during the appalling upheavals in Europe during the 1930’s & 40’s, believed that his work was a “plastic vision” that would help to set up ” …a new type of society composed of balanced relationships”.

According to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, Mondrian’s artistic direction was “Rooted in a strict puritan tradition of Dutch Calvinism and inspired by his theosophical beliefs, he continually strove for purity during his long career, a purity best explained by the double meaning of the Dutch word schoon, which means both “clean” and “beautiful.” Mondrian chose the strict and rigid language of straight line and pure colour to produce first of all an extreme purity, and on another level, a Utopia of superb clarity and force. When, in 1920, Mondrian dedicated Le Néo-plasticisme to “future men,” his dedication implied that art can be a guide to humanity, that it can move beyond depicting the casual, arbitrary facts of everyday appearance and substitute in its place a new, harmonious view of life.” This kind of magical thinking is like a poignant glimmer of a previous culture’s optimism about art and the human imagination. Given the context, it could be thought of as self-indulgent navel-gazing, except for the fact that it produced these astounding works of art and revolutionized thinking about painting.

Modernism

But from a twenty-first century perspective, the conviction that rigidly controlled lines and blocks of colour could contribute to world peace seems laughable. But it has some logic to it, unlike the similar, more prosaic but somewhat obsessive drive for purity by Modernists like Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Kenneth Noland. They seemed to influence and be strongly influenced by the thinking of the American art critic, Clement Greenberg. His theories could be said to have built on the ideas about purity that inspired Mondrian, but lacked the painter’s Calvinist & Theosophical zeal.

posts/Even More on Painting/Frank Stella
Frank Stella – The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959, Enamel paint on canvas, 91 x 133 in.

Greenberg believed in progressively purifying painting of all representation and illusion and promoted the hard-edged and color-field abstractions of his favourite artists. While Mondrian believed that his painting would contribute to a more harmonious & peaceful world, the only rationale provided by the Modernists for cleansing away any spatial depth or sculptural qualities in painting was that it is ridiculous to try to create spatial illusions on a flat surface. Modernists did not feel that art should play a role in the larger world, but believed in “art for art’s sake”. The rise of a consumer culture and the commodification of art during this period was not a concern.

Post-Modernism

The Postmodernists were more aware of consumerism and the emerging role of the art market but the movement tried to neutralize it by absorbing it. Postmodernists reversed the Modernist contempt for popular culture, the mass media and mass consumerism and looked for inspiration in the everyday. In his blog The Postmodern Revolution, David Adams comments that this approach “…seemed much more vital than modernist art. (See for example fig. 7, which also suggests the revival of painting that took place).”

The Contemporary Era

This is a brief and necessarily sketchy overview of attitudes toward the commodification of art over the last 100 years by the three major art movements of that era: Pro-Modernism, Modernism and Post Modernism. The current age is made up of many disparate schools such as Post-Post-Modernism, Anti-Art, Conceptual Art, Site Specific Art, Installation Art, etc. Their commonality is the understanding that easel painting is justifiably dead, or at least irrelevant. But by jettisoning painting these schools have had no effect on the commodification of art and consumerism continues to go from strength to strength. As I update this blog in April of 2024, I include the latest figures for the art market in 2023 from Artsy:

The art market experienced a down year in 2023. Total sales in the art market fell by 4% year over year to $65 billion. The figure represents the lowest since the COVID-blighted year of 2020, but is still higher than pre-pandemic levels when sales were $64.4 billion”.

However, their good news was:

Most dealers and auction houses expect stable or improving sales in 2024, and those predicting lower sales were in the minority both for their own businesses and with their peers.

This is not the harmonious view of life that Mondrian hoped for from art.

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