In September, I experienced a landmark in my life as an artist: the opening of a room in a museum in which a painting of mine is permanently installed. The painting is Day, my first painting of Leah, a muse and friend I have worked with almost every week since 2009. The museum is the New Britain Museum of American Art. And the room is what I'd like to talk about with you today -- it was the room for the Post-Contemporary Art collection.
Post-Contemporary Art sounds very official, doesn't it? I'm not sure who came up with the term, but I know that painter Graydon Parrish pushed for its use to describe something which, in its current state, is very loose and amorphous. You could call it an art movement, except that the only things about it which everyone interested in participating seems to agree on are that the art called Post-Contemporary should show three qualities:
Absent any stricter definition, I guess I'll tell you what I think it is, and why it's important. For a sense of it, we start with the famous third chapter of Ecclesiastes, verses 1-3:
1. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
This is the start of a poignant tapestry of opposites, developing the idea of cyclic time. It describes the world, and life, but it applies to art as well. I think we can all agree that for Western art, since the hour of that famous urinal, this has been a verse 3b1 kind of time: a season of breaking down. There have been fancy names for the principles involved - modernism and postmodernism, deconstructionism, critical theory - but what it comes to in the end is breaking down, breaking down the past, breaking down tradition, breaking down assumptions and mores.
It has been a long season of breaking down, and I think we are about at the end of it. Post-Contemporary is a name for the dawning season, for springtime, a time to build up. We have been through an age of doubt. But to build, one must give up doubt in certain very important ways: one must trust in one's foundations. The three qualities above - skill, creativity, empathy - are the Post-Contemporary proposal for foundations to be trusted. You can build walls and floors upon them without fear that they will crumble.
TOWARD THE BURDEN LIMIT
Before we discuss springtime, let's review winter.
Set before the eye of your imagining the heirs, for instance, to a vast steel fortune. The generations before have exerted themselves in endless labors, accumulating great wealth through thrift and industry. Over time, however, the descendants have gradually forgotten the homely virtues that earned their family's fame. At last we come to the end of the line, a generation of profligate hedonists determined to burn through their inheritance in a sustained, astonishing performance of libertinism.
This last generation is possessed by dark virtues -- some might even call them vices -- but they are not without a kind of infernal creativity. They carry out their willful destruction of the family business with one dazzling spectacle of decadence after another. There is a terrible beauty to their creations, not only in their specific forms, but in their medium; for their medium is the scandalous waste of resources painfully husbanded by an unbroken line of disciplined, self-denying ancestors. There is a stomach-churning giddiness to be had in beholding their raucous frivolities. There is a genius to their bloody-minded work.
This is not a simile for today's avant garde art. It is a simile for the avant garde art of a century ago. Dada is already 102 years old. The readymade is closer to the battle of Antietam than it is to us.
Who is the other half of the simile, the old industrious family? This: up until the dawn of "anti-art," Western art had undergone about 650 years of more or less continuous upward struggle. The goals of this struggle were never entirely agreed upon, and yet many steps in the struggle built upon older ones. Even the failures were treated with respect. It was understood they had been pursued in a spirit of hope and hard work.
The early 20th century saw an end to that fellow feeling, even before the all-is-forgiven trauma of the First World War. Aspiration was replaced with spite; skill with impulse; empathy with scorn; veneration with derision; and above all, hope with mania, and ultimately with despair.
What came of this violent attitude? Great art. It birthed magnificent art such as the world had never seen. Revolution on revolution, chain earthquakes, upheavals and revelations.
But that first generation was a generation of geniuses, and the fortune they set out to burn was the treasure-house of the West itself. It could hardly have gone otherwise.
I once read a fascinating analysis of sadism. This analysis claimed that without being animated by a living Catholic faith, sadism is impossible. Sadism depends on desecration, and without the holy, there is no desecration. Similarly, those early, radical works of the now-distant avant garde depended on the continued vitality of the Western tradition. Without it, how could Tristan Tzara have kept a straight face as he wrote:
Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition.
(Dada Manifesto, 1918)1
He could not. And yet he won; the great negative work of destruction was accomplished. In the end, it was all bandits, and no centuries left to destroy. Witness the past sixty years of artists scrambling after any crumb of respectable tradition left to shit on -- "to shit in different colors" (Tzara) -- a desperate scramble against the entropic end-state of decadence, which is boredom: one really great orgasm, a second, not as good, and then an eternal refractory period. The family fortune has been consumed, the seed grain was used to bake yesteryear's bread.
The permanent revolution inevitably spawns the Institutional Revolutionary Party. So too did this take place in art. The institutionalization of the avant garde ruled out any art but the so-called revolutionary: smashing the past while creating a new language. Read any really glowing highbrow review from the past couple generations, and odds are good the artist will be claimed to have created a new way of seeing, a new language, a new medium, or a new art form. Who is capable of so heroic an effort? Only a genius. The revolutionary logic of the institutional avant garde makes it a cult of geniuses. And yet, when everything is new, the scope of ingenuity must ever broaden in order to continue the revolution. I'd argue the last genius, in his eating-an-earthworm way, was Chris Burden. Both revolutionary logic and common sense, however, dictate that you can only shoot yourself in the arm for art once before it's tired. This kind of destructive act of genius is the artistic equivalent of clearing a kiloton of rainforest for a single hamburger. It might be a very tasty hamburger, but it's the opposite of sustainable.
After the scathing nihilism of the gunshot to the arm, there are only a few more moves available. Burden lacked the insight or the nerve to make those moves. After Shoot, the stunt with the car descends into the realm of twee socio-economic critique.
The moves, of course, are all those remaining which extend Tzara's demand for "the great negative work of destruction." After Burden flirted with self-destruction, the list was whittled down to these: suicide, destruction of art, rape, murder and mass-murder.
To my knowledge we have not yet witnessed the art-suicide, nor the art-rape, the art-murder, or the art mass-murder. But we have witnessed the attempted appropriation of the non-art mass-murder for art. Recall composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's press conference of September 16, 2001, in which he discussed certain events of five days earlier:
"Well, what happened there is, of course -- now all of you must adjust your brains--the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers."2
And yet, we have seen plenty of destruction of art for art. Let me pass over the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the bulldozing of Palmyra, because those were at least proper iconoclasms. Similarly the enterprising art criticism involved in butchering Theo Van Gogh or gunning down the senior staff of Charlie Hebdo. I also pass over Ai Weiwei's interference with those Han dynasty vases. I am a little more interested in Walter Gropius convening his students at Harvard in the 1950's to smash up the plaster casts of classical sculptures.3 But what I really want to bring to your attention is the personal account of painter F. Scott Hess4:
"In 1974, as a freshman at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, I sat through many an art history lecture in a darkened auditorium where they also displayed the university art collection. Included was a large Bouguereau of two little sisters. As he was consistently denigrated in lectures as the 'boogie man' of modern art (everything painting shouldn't be, pure kitsch) the painting was abused. I remember it having about a dozen puncture wounds from students' pencils."
This, my friends, is the end state of this particular chain of logic. Not the bracing bonfires of books and paintings, but the petty, normalized follow-ons, the Milgram's 37 of art: undergrads with No. 2 pencils, mimicking authority.
At the cannibalistic dead end of the road Tzara planned, we finally come near to answering the question, "What isn't art?"
If incineration is your paintbrush, then human beings cannot be your medium.
If penetration by sharp objects is your paintbrush, then existing paintings cannot be your medium.
Art itself does not preclude such art. Art has no formal limits. Only our morality as civilized human beings does.
After Tzara, Duchamp, and Burden, the deconstructionist revolution yields only phenomena that are not art. If they do not exceed the Burden Limit, they are not revolutionary. And if they deconstruct beyond this limit, they are not art.
The "time to break down" left the realm of art -- morally, if not formally -- with a gunshot to the arm in 1971. The 44 years since then have been nothing but trivia and monstrosities.
Now let us leave behind the musty abattoir, and breathe the fresh air of the Post-Contemporary. Through the long darkness of the modern era, a thread ran. It is like a chain buried underneath a barren shore. Some pilgrim, reaching the sea at last, finds a single rusty link upon the ground. He stoops to pick it up. But a tug on the first link reveals a second; the second, a third; and the third, a fourth. The pilgrim makes his way along the strand, unearthing the hundreds of links of an enormous chain. At the end of the chain, a vast form lies buried. It is a shipwreck, and the chain once held its anchor. In the hold of the ship are skeletons, and treasure. They went through a period of desiccation and decay, but they have been quietly reassembling themselves. The tarnish has fallen off the coins, and flesh has knit itself over dry bones. All this lay hidden underneath the featureless waste, indicated by a single rusty link.
Tristan Tzara and his heirs proclaimed the annihilation, and then the utopia. They overlooked the same thing all utopians overlook: that human nature is not entirely malleable. Some things about it may be prodded and molded by the temper of the age, but it will always have in it a chamber for love, and another for hate. It will always harbor hope and fear, longing and regret, anticipation and nostalgia. It must retain its aspiration toward the good, and its temptation toward evil. There is a place in it for the utopian's thrill in destruction and creation, but the experience of this thrill does not transform human nature. There is always a day after the epiphany.
There is no New Man. There is only us.
Walking alongside this immutable humanity is art. Art is nothing more than the vessel of a human search for meaning. Just as human nature does not change, so art does not change -- not really. Its methods may change. Some may increase in power, and others fall into disuse. But the needs it answers to remain the same. The pathos of a dying lion carved on a Mesopotamian wall has surely changed since Ashurbanipal commissioned it, but the force of the image has not.
The sterile Contemporary age ultimately gave us a light bulb flickering on and off in an empty room, an aesthetic equivalent to that abandoned shore. But the age, and the room, and the shore, were illusions. As Freud points out, the repressed returns. Underneath modernity, the chain lay buried, waiting to lead us back to the ship. The ship was human art, and its hull and crew have nearly healed themselves, in their century underground.
Human art depicts, because the eye thirsts to see. It depicts human beings, because we are social animals, and understand ourselves in the faces and bodies of our fellows. It depicts stories, because human beings tell stories to make sense of their world. It depicts landscapes, because we come from the land, and live on the land, and die on the land and return to it. It depicts still lives, because we sanctify our objects and find the soulfulness in them. It depicts animals, because animals have been our companions since the beginning, and we raised them, and they raised us. It depicts visions and fancies, because we have always sought to make our imaginings more convincing, and that meant cloaking them in the forms of the real. Genius forms the skeleton of human art, but love is its flesh.
The Post-Contemporary age throws off the shackles of a small cabal of embittered rejectionists, who stridently sought to delegitimize human nature and its works, to replace the hunger for eternity with an addiction to novelty, to replace the search for meaning with the cleverness of critique, to replace the beauty of the truth with the glamor of destruction. Art does not belong to cliques, or insiders, or aesthetes. It belongs to everyone who yearns for it, which is to say, some form of it belongs to everyone.
Returning to the Post-Contemporary proposal for foundations to be trusted:
Art is meaningful. All things have some meaning, but there is a special aspect to the meaningfulness of art. When we say that art is meaningful, what we mean is that a conscious human being made the thing, and made it in on purpose. The art may result from intention, in which the mind makes a choice and the hand follows. Or it may result from inspiration, in which the soul receives an insight, and the artist becomes its slave. Whether intention or inspiration triggers the artwork, the artist cannot serve the artwork without proceeding from a foundation of skill. Skill ramps up and down to match the demands of the vision. A lack of skill hampers the expression of that vision. The guarantee of skill in general indicates that when a particular skill is not used, it is not used because the nature of the work, and not the limit of the worker, demands that it be set aside.
The mature, self-described artist who makes a mark without skill is already partway devolved back to the meaningfulness of nature. That artist may make a magnificent work, but without skill it has no human on-purposeness, and without this, it lacks human meaning. Its magnificence is of a kind with the cloud, the lightning, the sand dune, and the sea. But it is less than these, so why should anyone look at it?
"But," argues one partisan of deskilling, "the genius invents new forms of art; what need has he or she of skills?" To which I answer: true. But only somebody who has never created anything could sustain the naive and romantic notion that there is a real genius, who wakes up one morning with a vision of the new world - and then manages to implement or communicate it at all without a tremendous basis in the same pedestrian skills that have served lesser goals a thousand years and more. It has never happened, and will never happen. The unskilled genius may have the vision, but he or she is condemned to failing it, without first acquiring the eloquence of skill.
"But," argues another partisan of deskilling, "skill diminishes the pure impulse. It's easy. It substitutes an automatized set of rules for the genuine flash of originality." Not so; not at all. Two responses to this argument. The first response is that skill, in the hands of an artist, does not automatize art-making. Rather, it makes it more difficult. It offers a thousand tools, and no guide what to do with them. It strips the artist naked before the demands of the art, without the contributions of incapacity to muddy the waters. Bad skilled art is much, much easier to recognize than bad unskilled art.
The second response is that clearly skill carries with it a temptation to deadening, to the rote. One must, in the face of this temptation, persevere in fiery consciousness. Conclusion: art is hard. What did everybody expect? In a few ways, art is harder than anything. Maintaining the original flash in the face of the acquisition of skill is one of those things about art that is nothing but hard.
A serious artist masters skill, and is not mastered by it. He or she understands that skills are tools. There is much joy in them, but they serve a goal. They are not themselves the goal. The serious artist pursues a very difficult program: on the one hand, spending years to acquire skills, and on the other hand, throughout that entire time, grasping, as to the tree of life, his or her original and unique reasons for wanting to make art. This leads to the second foundation of Post-Contemporary art.
This fiery consciousness, this original reason, this tree of life, is of course what we call creativity. It arises differently in different people. In some it is a blaze which lights from an early age; over time it may sustain itself in a torrent, or it may calm to a workable glow. In others it emerges alongside skill, with skill feeding it, and it feeding skill. In still others it appears as a sudden and startling realization later in life. There is no end to possible forms of creativity.
The Post-Contemporary concept does not function without the application of creativity to the question of making art. Creativity drives the impulse to make art. It is the ichor that flows down the channels provided by skill.
It is also one of those very fundamental concepts which is difficult to define in a rigorous way. I have my own intuition about it, but I wanted a different perspective, so I wrote to Graydon Parrish to ask what he had to say. Most of us are friends with one another. More on this later. Graydon says this:
"Contemporary art emphasizes being original as the sine qua non of art and has pursued it at all costs. This program has been a failure. All we see is painful conformity. Being original is a difficult if not impossible goal from the start. And it isn't really sustainable. However, creativity is. To ask artists to be creative, rather than original (or novel) is a good thing. Creativity implies life, joy and exploration without the burden of coming up with something that no one has ever made before.
"Creativity is also linked to skill. Daniel C. Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking affirms what many of us know already: one cannot be creative without knowledge and tradition. That is, I am actually more creative as a trained and skillful musician, artist or writer than I would be at large without skills and parameters. The brain just needs fuel in order to create and in the world of art, this is learning how to draw, to paint or sculpt, art history and perhaps, now, science.
"Creativity is risky. To try something new means failure most of the time. Of course, having a set of skills helps, but one still has to strive to think differently, and this is difficult. It is the struggle here that breads an empathetic response to others who have tried and failed. In order to have empathy, one must have done something hard, gotten in the ring, so to speak, rather than sat on the sidelines. (Your offer to Saltz was a way for him to gain empathy for the artists he derides.)
"As I see it, there is a deep connection between the three 'pillars' of PoCo: skill, creativity and empathy. Learning a craft unlocks creativity, and being creative connects you to others. This connection helps you make art not only for yourself, but for an audience you care about."
Thus Graydon. His mention of Saltz (Jerry) is a reference to an article on drawing in which I invited Jerry to come life drawing with me,5 an offer he turned down.6 Graydon's mention of this episode makes me think I ought to name at least one living name myself. How are you going to get your movement going without burning a bridge or two? So let me nominate Matthew Barney as a shining instance of Graydon's idea of a tension between originality and creativity.
I restrict myself here to the Cremaster films. I am unfamiliar with the rest of Barney's work, which may well contradict much of what I have to say.
There is little disputing that the Cremaster cycle is an original work. Nobody else has made anything quite like it -- a sprawling cinematic epic, shot radically out of sequence, with wildly varying degrees of production value and an inconstant narrative format, from the classical to the surreal to the dadaist, expressed overall in a clinical tone evocative, at times explicitly, of profound sexual anxiety. It is shown as an art object, not a film, so it is difficult to get a chance to see it. When I had my chance, some years ago, I leapt to go.
And I found it utterly mystifying. Why? Because it brims with images, and yet bears the icily fastidious mark of a person who is not creative. The images are messy and gregarious, but their maker is stiff and dry. I have never seen these things go together: the psychology of the art, as manifested in the content, and its maker, as manifested in the style, at irreconcilable odds.
There it lay for years, Matthew Barney a question mark in my mind, my opinion suspended pending more information. Then one day, I got it. An ancient legal dispute over distribution rights was resolved, and Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 movie Holy Mountain came out of film history limbo and returned to theaters, where it belonged. I went to see this too. I happened to be with my friend Bob. Watching the movie, I experienced a strange double-emotion: on the one hand, elation at discovering a masterpiece. And on the other hand, dismayed insult. Virtually every key image in Cremaster, including the logo,7 proved to be a copy of an original in Holy Mountain. Except, unlike Cremaster, Holy Mountain is a unified work. Unlike Cremaster, it has a coherent narrative served by each of the same set of images. It conceptualizes itself, as Graydon discusses, as an innovation within the traditions it inhabits - chief among them the hermetic tradition. Unlike Cremaster, it boils with vitality. Holy Mountain is joyful and experimental and urgently affectionate, the work of a laughing madman who runs up to you to give you a hug. As the credits rolled, I turned frowning to Bob, and Bob turned frowning to me. He said, "Cremaster?"
Matthew Barney is original, but he is not creative. The Cremaster cycle is a fake, a lockstep ripoff of an unacknowledged and far superior original. To be fair, there was no reason at the time to expect that anyone except a very few film fanatics would ever see Holy Mountain again. Ironically, that sad fate now awaits Cremaster, which insists it is a delicacy for the few, and not an iTunes download for the many.
The uncreative property of contemporary art has led to a flowering of so-called "appropriation" art, in which the charm of the new work derives from the charm of some original work or object which the artist has appropriated and recontextualized. "Recontextualization" is academic jargon for the shabby practice of messing with an original in a carefully calibrated dance which stops just short of annihilating the charm of the original; for any new elements are charmless, because the artist who made them is not creative. Richard Prince and Jeff Koons are the chief swindlers currently linked to this particular practice, with Prince having descended in his dotage to image-theft from random strangers over Instagram. This project is said to be frightfully clever by the fawning herd of critics and academics, and simple fraud by anyone with taste or decency.
Apart from the miserable practice of appropriation and recontextualization, the lack of creativity of the contemporary scene reveals itself in the dismal panorama of the gallery/artfair/auction/museum complex: packed with endless, joyless variations on the same narrow set of barren configurations and practices. Nobody likes these dead things, not even the buyers (we will discuss the role of the buyers in a future article).
The Post-Contemporary program asserts that creativity is needed, that the universe's storehouse of great and resonant images is not yet exhausted, that the species that gave us the unsettling dimness of Velazquez's Las Meninas, the demanding and redeeming light of Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew, the fearfully patterned flames of Botticelli's Inferno, or even the blinding spike of broken glass that arcs across Hunt's Lady of Shalott - that that species is not finished creating great things and, in fact, that nothing less than great things is what we ought to demand of ourselves.
And finally, there is empathy, the famous Einfühlung: the in-feeling, the in-suffering, the overall sense that what you have felt and suffered, I have as well, and what I have felt and suffered, you have undergone. Empathy as a concept is closely linked to art appreciation; it is the connection made through art which binds us to one another, and punctures the sour borders of our loneliness, allowing us to commune with one another.
To my way of thinking, this is the weakest tenet of Post-Contemporary art. Consider how much energy the Contemporary apparatus has spent attacking the ethos of skill and the concept of creativity. But what partisan of the Contemporary has bothered himself about empathy? It is a less obvious and direct trait of art, it does not so much address what art is made of, but what it is made for. Empathy as a characteristic of art depends, in some sense, on applying concepts outside the proper scope of art itself. Setting the Burden Limit invokes similarly extrinsic concerns. Because empathy is the weakest tenet, it is the most poignant. It cannot defend itself. It makes demands upon our humanity, it begs of us that we show humanity, and it leads us on the way toward vulnerability by itself being radically vulnerable - it is unjustifiable.
In Graydon's passage above, he discusses one axis of empathy - that between critic and art. He suggests that the critic should open himself to his own vulnerability, in order to empathize with the vulnerability of the artist and the art. This, to me, is a problematic argument, because it suggests criticism on the basis of some factor apart from the quality of the work. And yet, I cannot reject Graydon's argument for this reason: the criticism of the modern age has a sorry record as regards evaluating the quality of work. It has done quite badly all on its own, without any empathy at all. At least with empathy it might not have been indecent. And it is entirely possible that empathy leads to good taste.
But the important axes of empathy are these: between artist and art, and between artist and viewer. The artist must make himself or herself vulnerable to the work, in order to allow the work to begin to breathe with life. And the artist must empathize with the viewer, in order to learn to speak with the viewer, and to share common experiences and new ones.
Consider for a moment the father and son in Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son. Having returned to his father, the son kneels, clothes tattered, one foot bare where his shoe has fallen apart. He slumps against his father, head shaven and bowed, eyes closed. The father hunches over the son, bowed as well, worn with age and concern, blinded by his emotion. He has returned to the realm of touch: he rests his hands on his son's shoulders, in an all-encompassing gesture of relief, of forgiveness and ingathering. It is impossible to look at this painting without being struck blind, like the father, and awakened to the inner truths it conveys: that we are all going home, that we all need to be forgiven and don't deserve it - and that we are all waiting for those who have left, and that we have already forgiven them for their part in whatever it was that drove us apart.
This painting teaches a lesson in empathy which has never been exceeded. Rembrandt is tender with his art, and compassionate with his viewer. He recognizes the things he and his viewer have both suffered, and understands that the entirety of his wisdom is to have seen a few steps farther along the path of the spirit, and refined an ability to summarize and communicate what he knows in images of heartbreaking clarity. He respects his situation, and does his best. Nobody can do more.
His achievement calls out to us. We are free to shirk the challenge of finding, in our own way and for our own time, so mighty a testament to empathy and humanity. But the odds are very, very poor we will find some better thing to do. Geniuses have been trying, and failing, for over a century.
These three then: skill - creativity - empathy. These are the bare minima. Post-Contemporary is not a philosophy, a style, or, ultimately, much of a movement. It is a course correction. Certain essential things about art have been forgotten or willfully obscured. Art has suffered for it, and our culture has suffered for it. People depend on art, and art has scorned their needs and pushed them away. The Post-Contemporary course correction says, "Enough."
The odds are very high that if you are among the first round of people to have gotten this far in this particular article, we actually know one another. Because I like to look at all kinds of art, and have become friends with the artists who make it, no doubt some of you are looking at my denigration of contemporary art and asking yourselves, "Is he talking about me?" The answer is almost entirely "no."
I don't hang out with the kind of empty-souled con men and heartless scenesters who make the art I've been criticizing. I know they exist, but I know very few of them personally. Virtually all of you, working as you are in your diverse fields of expression and abstraction and what-have-you, have, in your own ways, forged a sincere path - you may not be Post-Contemporary, but you are not cynical.
More importantly, however, each of you has failed to further the Tzarist program. As I said before, it is a program in need of a terminally small number of pieces of art, to carry it from inception to the Burden Limit. Every one of those pieces has been made, and you did not make them. From the perspective of pure modernity and postmodernity, your work is superfluous. Even those of you following one Tzarist art-making model or another are repeating a chess move executed long ago. This means that your interest is more aesthetic than political - and so you are already a reactionary. You have let down Tzara.
Against whom, precisely, have I been inveighing? It's a good question, and I have reflected on it for a long time. We are all stuck down here in the trenches, where we pick sides, or sides will be picked for us. I would like all of the artists to sit together at one table, and exchange ideas and inspirations in an atmosphere of friendship. But I recognize that not everyone would like to extend me and my work the same respect. Consider the following comment, tweeted to an art critic friend who is broadly of like mind with me:
>Afraid the idea of "expression" has been almost entirely deconstructed and debunked, as cliche, among art historians
A respected and widely-published critic (no, not Jerry) wrote this dismissive little rabbit shit of a thought. It would appear that a cadre of academics somewhere has deduced to their satisfaction what I am, and am not, allowed to do. These academics are like Susanna Clarke's scholarly magicians of York:
"...not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one's head."
(Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, p. 1)
She continues, describing the current state of the academy quite well:
"But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire."
It is hollow theorists such as these who have broken down everything in art except the walls between artists and other artists, and between artists and art, and between art and the public. These walls they have built high, with ideas bearing the weight and texture of bricks, and they have set themselves up as traffic cops and toll collectors in their suffocating labyrinth. You would call them petty tyrants, if the territory they had filched were petty. But it isn't. It's some of the most important real estate there is. So they're just tyrants. These sonsofbitches must go.
They are, however, only one node of an interlocked network of persons interested in maintaining a stultifyingly narrow status quo. The professors operate hand-in-palm with curators, critics, museum directors, dealers, and buyers. As I said, we will discuss the buyer ecosystem in greater detail soon, and this will touch on the rest of the sorry legion.
An anecdote: I know an individual who is very highly placed in the network I am describing here. He is involved in maneuvering large resources at a high level in the art world. He is a perceptive, intelligent, and thoughtful guy, and like me, he is interested in discussion. He follows my writing, and describes himself as respecting my work, despite it not being his thing; I believe him. I once asked him how I could tailor my presentation to make my work acceptable to people in his sector. He said there was nothing I could do, because the work was categorically irrelevant. It had nothing to do with presentation. Seeking to soften this assessment, he noted that there are collectors, galleries, and publications operating in my sector, and that surely I can find a full life in it, among those with outlooks similar to mine.
I pondered his response for a long time. There is much of value in it. It is true that I have a sector, and that this is a flourishing sector with its own customs, events, stars, and so forth. But for all that, it is a ghetto. My acquaintance is interfaced with the dominant museums, auction houses, collectors, and media outlets. I suppose I have developed an amount of access to them myself which would be enviable to most artists. But I have to fight a categorical exclusion every inch of the way. I want unbiased access. I resent walking a gauntlet of contempt and disparagement. I do not want this access because I want fame or money, although I do want them - but the "I" here is corporate: I would be content if my own work failed the quality test for access but my kind of work got in. I want it in not because I want fame and money, but because I want history and culture. The dominant art network is busy writing art history, and I will not accept categorical exclusion from it. Nor will I abandon culture. The broad mass of people needs art, and art needs them. Filing in to Van Gogh spectaculars and glitzy fashion retrospectives does not count. The public deserves a vibrant world of new art that neither scorns nor entertains it, but rather delivers those necessary things art particularly can: transcendence, uplift, enlightenment.
Why doesn't my acquaintance, who is so thoughtful and open to discussion, help with this program? At the most pragmatic level, why isn't he interested in getting in at the curatorial and investment ground floor of my scene, before his colleagues? I have reflected on this as well. And my conclusion is: it's not his job. His job is not to create culture, but to facilitate its flow. That means it's my job. It's my job to change the terrain underneath his feet. Once the watershed changes, he will change, and if not him, then his colleagues. And that's fine. That's what I'm here doing. I've treated this as my job for some years now, and I think it is producing results. The New Britain Museum of American Art's accession and installation of a Post-Contemporary collection would tend to argue that I am not entirely incorrect about how things are going; nor, increasingly, is the NBMAA alone in this type of decision.
The question, though, was "against whom?" Let's try to define it from another angle. Here's an experience I have been having for a long time, which will be familiar to several of you. Some art world person asks what you do. You tell them that you are an artist. They ask what kind of work you do. You describe your figurative work to them, or show it to them. Then they give you a jaundiced squint, and you find that you must defend your work - not against the charge that it is bad, but against the charge that it is wrong. You must defend the premise of your work, the legitimacy of highly-rendered sincere figurative or representational painting itself.
This must end.
To each of you jaundiced squinters, then, here is notice. I am against you. Your dominion has played itself out. Your assumption of entitlement is undone, and your entitlement depends entirely on that assumption. Therefore you are finished. Inertia may carry you along a little longer, but you will have no peace. You will have no peace from the ghosts of the dead, and you will have no peace from the ghosts of the living.
I am against those who squint. The legitimacy of my work is not in question. From a great distance, over tremendous spans of effort and time, I and my friends have carried and developed a culture which was left for dead. It is not dead. It is a great and living culture, and it is coming home.
I and the program I am describing are for three somewhat overlapping groups of people: Post-Contemporary artists, artists who are not Post-Contemporary, and everyone. Let me explain what I think the Post-Contemporary concept offers each of these groups.
For Post-Contemporary Artists
An anecdote: a different guy I know, also highly placed in the dominant art sector. One time he made a social media post about a particularly impressive artwork which had passed through his establishment. I commented how enviable it was that he got to interact so closely with such great art. He joked, "I didn't get into the art world for the personalities."
Now that's very telling. He might have friends in the art world, or not, but the joke was there at the front of his mind to make. It suggests that among his colleagues, he finds himself feeling revulsion, or loneliness.
Let's move to a different community for a moment. I have spent a certain amount of time among skydivers. There is an interesting thing about the core skydiving community which, once you notice it, you feel you should have anticipated. Skydiving is addictive to a certain small wedge of humanity. But who is most likely to follow up on this addiction and build a life around the drop zone? Two demographics: hippies and ex-military. As one would imagine, the hippies tend to be on the left side of the political spectrum, and the special forces types on the right. But they all have to share the drop zone. So they have learned to respect one another's differences of opinion and live together anyway. This is a model of fraternity which much of the country used to follow. A glance at Facebook or Twitter will reveal that mediated communication has encouraged many to slip away from this practice of tolerance.
Tolerance is not about celebrating a diversity that you love. It is about accepting differences that you despise. It is not an unlimited virtue, but it is much broader than is commonly practiced today. Tolerance allows one to find friendship and love not because of differences, but despite them. The skydivers have created a community rooted in shared passion and political tolerance, and their friendships are rare and profound.
Tolerance does not pertain to political difference alone. Eighteenth and nineteenth century England is understood to have been the golden age of eccentricity. Not many, but some, people behaved in very odd ways, and their oddity was apparently accepted without much fuss. There is something marvelous about this, an open-hearted tolerance for the outer limits of harmless, or even somewhat harmful, weirdness; a deep attitude of live and let live.
I find our modern age rigidly conformist, especially in the arts. Groups in society at large have sorted themselves into monoliths, and the arts in particular foster a compulsive mutual agreement. To be a Post-Contemporary artist is to swim against the tide. It assumes a degree of nonconformity from the outset. And so the members of the current figurative and Post-Contemporary communities are among the most tolerant artists I know. They have the confidence in who they are to accept others being different. I am proud to belong to a community in which eccentricity may still be found, and is embraced.
"I didn't get into the art world for the personalities." No, I suppose I didn't either. I got into it because I love art and make art. So the personalities were a bonus. It is a bonus that I am surrounded by so much love, respect, amity, and support. It is a bonus that I am warmly greeted when I walk into a room of artists in my community. There is none of the false good cheer or angry sucking-up I see in the dominant art culture. My own happiness at seeing others in my community is no less genuine. I take joy in following their work. I learn from it and am inspired by it. I am delighted at their successes, even when I envy those successes; and when I can have a part to play in helping them along, I play it gladly.
I am acquaintances with most, friends with some, and share bonds of love with a very few. But I never cease to be grateful for having found such fine companionship.
It is for them that I am kicking up (I hope) such a fuss here.
To address you directly now, you Post-Contemporary painters of various stripes. Understand this: you have already won. There are several fields of competition for the success of artistic movements. Among them are the validation of the establishment, and the adoration of the people. We have persuaded the people. Don't look at the metrics where gate-keepers retain control. Look at the crudely democratic ones. Compare the relative numbers of followers on social media. Compare the magazine circulation numbers. Compare the rates of establishment of new colleges. We make the work that other people want to look at, and learn to make themselves.
The Post-Contemporary has stirred here and there for many years now. But through the cold night of the twentieth century, painters following the path of what has become the Post-Contemporary remained isolated and alone. Even ten or twenty years ago, it was not yet time.
The explosion of social media has pushed the Post-Contemporary from the ever-receding future into the crisp, bright present. That same sorting tendency of Internet-driven socializing which has done so much damage to the country overall, has shown its other, positive, face for us. Suddenly, it is very easy to look up the kind of art you like, and to contact artists directly. Many of us at the older end of the age range recall teachers and professors making us think we were the only one left who wanted to paint stuff to look like stuff. This cruel illusion has been punctured by Facebook and Instagram. One must merely post something well-drawn or well-painted, and fans by the thousands coalesce and begin to discuss ideas and opinions. Suddenly the embittered loneliness of the representational painter is obsolete.
We have persuaded the people, and the establishment is getting older and grayer. It is a clot in the aorta of art, glued in place with a tremendous amount of money. But trends are trends, and the clot must soon break up, and be swept away.
Given these facts, I think it is time the broad swath of us began to reckon with the responsibilities and opportunities of having won. First of all, we must come to terms with our experience on the outside. This is an experience which has impoverished us, and crippled us, and often made us doubt our work and our worth. Many of us lost decades, and not all of us lived to see the far side of it. But it is coming to a close and we have to decide what to do with it. There is a spectrum of possible approaches. I don't know which is right, and we don't all have to agree. For myself, I aspire to the one described so eloquently by Oscar Wilde as he considered his imprisonment, in De Profundis:
"But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.
"It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting-point for a fresh development. It has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time. It could not have come before, nor later. Had any one told me of it, I would have rejected it. Had it been brought to me, I would have refused it. As I found it, I want to keep it. I must do so. It is the one thing that has in it the elements of life, of a new life, VITA NUOVA for me. Of all things it is the strangest. One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things, that one knows that one possesses it.
"Now I have realised that it is in me, I see quite clearly what I ought to do; in fact, must do. And when I use such a phrase as that, I need not say that I am not alluding to any external sanction or command. I admit none. I am far more of an individualist than I ever was. Nothing seems to me of the smallest value except what one gets out of oneself. My nature is seeking a fresh mode of self-realisation. That is all I am concerned with. And the first thing that I have got to do is to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world."
Each element of this formulation strikes me as so correct, and so appropriate, and so productive. Indeed, let what we suffered be not meaningless. Let us learn from having had nothing, that it is in the midst of nothing one identifies the inalienable. Let us identify that humility and its companion, hunger, are inalienable, and never cease being humble or hungry in our work - let us strive always to be great, and understand that we will never be good enough. Let us seek new forms of self-realization. And let us not be bitter against the world. So miserable as we were, those who stood against us were more miserable still. We were consoled by the wisdom we inherited and built upon, but they had nothing to console them, and their chill went straight to the bone.
When it is time - and it is not yet time - let us be kind to those who were merciless toward us.8 They were bad people, but they sometimes made good work. We have had our good work rejected and destroyed; if we should earn power once again, we mustn't become the kind of savage who tormented us when we had none.
I know a painter, who I suppose would call herself Post-Contemporary, who is of a pugnacious character and angrily rounded on me at a bar. She said to me, "My work isn't new or important, and isn't meant to be. I do what I like and I'm lucky to be able to sell it and feed my family. Why do you have to go making it out to be anything more?" She said this, and it is true that she has not been a painter for long and will, later on, be better than she is now. But what she paints now are haunting and dreamlike images of herself and the people she cares about, in gray abandoned landscapes, cut off and adrift from the world. There is a muted anxiety to them, and the kind of daytime silence in which you can hear the blood beat against your eardrums.
She is still bitter against the world, and part of her bitterness results from applying the Contemporary paradigm of criticism to Post-Contemporary work. It is true that she has created no new medium, nor torn down any received wisdom. But it is not true that her work is not new or important. She has reached an arm down into the storm drain of her soul, and groped around until her fingers touched something, something awful. She scrabbled about until she grasped that awful thing, and brought it up, and showed it first to herself, and then to us. It was her fear, a fear that is uniquely hers, but which, once she made it visible, we recognized as belonging to us as well.
Without creativity, she could not have reached down into her soul. Without empathy, she would not have brought out what was there or wanted to give it away. And without skill, she could not have made it visible.
Her work begins the way literature begins. It will get better as she practices. It does not change everything, but most things don't - that is a Contemporary demand. It is not the finest art ever made - that is a Contemporary expectation (and one they never met). There can be nothing more new and important than the work of this self-dismissing painter that I know.
As we relinquish our bitterness, we face two necessities.
The first is that we must develop a new culture of critique. We are remarkably good at giving and taking technical critique - at discussing how well a thing was painted, from the rawest technical aspect to the most abstract compositional principle. This is a wartime model of critique, a starvation model. It is important to preserve it, but letting it be most or all of our critique is stunting us as artists. We need to reckon with our work at the level of art just as intensely and continuously. This includes learning from the best of what modernity and post-modernity produced. I, and you, may have problems with the ideology that defined this long period, but its accomplishments and ambitions are not to be dismissed. I know that many of you do not, and I apologize for belaboring the obvious. We need always to be looking at Post-Contemporary work and saying: Is it good art? If so, how and why? If not, why not and what is missing? When our own work falls short and our peers tell us, we must develop skin thick enough to suck it up and learn whatever there is to be learned and still be friends in the morning. There is a reason we were so easily drummed out of the mainstream of culture, and our fatally weak culture of critique has allowed that reason to persist. If we do not address our core flaw, we will fail ourselves and our public a second time. We must do better.
The second necessity is that we must be good ambassadors. My acquaintance in the mainstream art world, the one who said there was nothing I could accomplish in his sector by tailoring my presentation - well, maybe he had it right. I don't know all the people he knows. I only know the ones I know. Among them, being nice has rarely done me wrong. I have sometimes been taken for a fool or a nobody, because I was nice. And I will gladly admit to being a fool and a nobody. But the overwhelming majority of cases went the other way. Whenever I could get in the room and present myself and my work, I have always found much less resistance to what I do, especially among artists, than the overall tenor of this article suggests. I believe much of my own part in this open reception resulted from simple friendliness. I believe that each of us should be ready to discuss his or her work, ready to listen, and ready to extend a hand - not obsequiously, but with self-respect, and confidence, and good cheer. If we believe in what we do, this is our responsibility, and it is frequently a happy one.
For Artists Who Are Not Post-Contemporary
All of this is for you as well. You know me. Let me tell you the truth: I hide from people who are making work I don't like. I can't bear to lie, and I hate to say I don't like work. So I hide from people who make work I don't like. Since you know me, and we have talked about your work, you can be assured that there was something to your work that I liked. And I am telling you the truth now as well: this essay and this set of ideas are for you too.
When you asked me to discuss your work with you, and we talked about it, you told me that you found what I had to say useful. I think the reason I was able to be of use to you is that I did not apply my own aesthetic categories to your work. I sought out your categories, and compared the work to its ambitions and context. I believe in discovering the aesthetic paradigm in which an artwork locates itself, and evaluating the work in light of that paradigm.
So how is it that I am writing this broadside against, it would seem, everything that you do?
Of course, I think that I am not; this is my sincere position - that even if my logic would seem to militate against my acceptance of your work, I personally welcome your work with gladness.
As far as aesthetics go, I have trained myself to be very open to systems that are different from mine. Your aesthetic system isn't my problem. As I have been saying, its politics are. Many of you - most, even - are working under a political regime in which my work is simply unacceptable. This is bad for me, but it's not good for you either. I'll explain.
Skilled work - the humble and glorious craft of making work well - and let us not pretend we don't know what that means, that we are confused, in some cute way, as to whether De Kooning paints as well as Titian - skilled work is taboo in your world. Certainly you are permitted to display skill, but only if you have heaped an appropriate amount of calumny on it. It is extraordinarily difficult to calibrate the relative intensities of calumny and skill. On top of that, it takes a very special personality to develop real skill, and also to embrace its damnation. We may call this strange combination the Currin Paradox. Far more common among Contemporary artists is simply to avoid getting too close to the taboo.
This has, however, unfortunate effects. At the most basic level, it runs counter to the spirit of art, which is that you follow your creativity. Inside the vast terrain of art, it is illegitimate to cordon off territory and warn, "not here."
That having been done, however, certain skews are introduced. The artist is forced into a toxic chain of lies - and I am moving here from addressing artists I know, to describing the ones I purposely avoid - as I was saying, these artists are forced into a toxic chain of lies. They are aware, at a deep gut level, that good work demands skill. Once the artist has denied skill, they become very defensive about it. They know that the lack of skill is a defect in their work, so they seek strategies for addressing or sidestepping the problem.
One is to over-emphasize the role of irony in the work, to make art badly or awkwardly on purpose. Ironism is not a common or particularly healthy feature of the human personality. Art does not attract a disproportionate number of ironists. It attracts a disproportionate number of very sincere and attached people. There is no bitter ironist like the ironist who started from a place of sincerity. The art world is currently a factory for this type of ironist: people who were denied at school a grounding in skill, and who have distorted the message of their art to accommodate the crippled state of their abilities.
There is a social dimension to the toxic chain of lies as well. The contemporary artist who has accepted the ethos of deskilling naturally resents an artist who has not accepted it. The deskilled artist becomes an enforcer of the anti-skill program, because if they can't have permission to be skilled, nobody else is getting it either.
Irony is one escape from the denial of skill. Conceptualism, and more generally art minimizing or eliminating the work of the hand, also has an unnaturally foregrounded position in Contemporary art: work made by machines, work subcontracted to domestic factory assistants or faraway Chinese laborers, work involving sitting in a chair for a long time or somebody shooting you in the arm. There is a real place for the conceptual and the detached in art, but as with irony, it has come to dominate because it serves to paper over a lack of skill. Art does not naturally appeal to the bloodless and analytic personality. It appeals to people who never got tired of Elmer's glue and popsicle sticks and plasticine and pipe cleaners. Savonarola, in his wildest dreams, could not have stripped the carnality, the sensuality, the profoundly erotic work of the hand, out of art the way that a century of tenured eunuchs have managed.
This alienation, and its resultant personal and artistic neuroses, constitutes the surface layer of contemporary art. But beneath that surface, there is another story. Most of the contemporary artists I know thirst for skill, and easily return to admiring it and everything it makes possible, and tend to quietly attend life drawing workshops.
Thus, I say to all contemporary artists who are suffering quietly and in shame: I am here to offer you permission. I am giving you back your permission to become skilled. Your work has become asymmetrical, because your craving for skill went unfulfilled. I am giving you permission to breathe, to spread out, to grow into the artist you wanted to become.
But you must give me something in return. You have let a lot of things go in your art, because they would have brought you too close to the taboo. You have bought into a lot of very bad ideas, because they told you that your work was going fine, when you knew it wasn't. You have, in public, become very dismissive toward skilled work, because you were secretly afraid that your work would look bad beside it on a wall. Your taste has been determined by a lack of confidence in what you were doing.
What I want from you in return for my permission is your complacence, and your bad ideas, and your lack of confidence. It is time to challenge the limits of your capabilities, and to think clearly and simply and honestly, and to take responsibility for your work without clearing the field of anything you worry might compete with it.
This is why you got into art in the first place. I don't want you to make work that looks like my work. I want you to make work that looks like your work. Some of you are doing a very good job inside the system of artificial constraints your politics have placed on you. But this is not the same as becoming yourself. You didn't get into art to navigate a theoretical minefield, or to destroy. You got into art because of a passion for creation. I don't want to change one petal of your passion. I am not the mutilator that your professors were. And fortunately, your politics are separable from your aesthetics. Many of you have not made your art yet. But you might, and I believe you will.
This article, and this movement, are for everyone. One of the many bad ideas of modernity is that one must join a very exclusive high priesthood in order to understand art. This is a lie, and not only a lie, but a damned lie. If an artwork requires an accompanying text in order to be appreciated at all, then it is a failure. Once Stanley Kubrick had the power not to give interviews, he stopped giving interviews, explaining that his work should speak for itself. Kubrick had the right idea.
Note that an advanced understanding of cinematic grammar and aesthetics yields an almost unbelievable wealth of ideas and revelations in Kubrick's oeuvre. His art rewards specialized study. But it does not require it. Anyone can walk in off the street and watch Paths of Glory or 2001 or Full Metal Jacket and have a complete experience of a functional artwork: comprehensible, captivating, and enlightening.
Contemporary art fails in this respect. Observe the dismay of ordinary people walking into the contemporary section of an art museum. Note how they become bored, how their pace speeds up. This is an art of hostility, of purposeful alienation of its audience. This is art that says, "I am important, and you are not; what I have to offer is not for the likes of you." But the squalid truth is that this is a pose. The work has nothing to offer.
This is tragically insufficient. Art is so important to humanity that we virtually date the emergence of humanity itself to the production of aesthetic objects. That combination of skilled intention, and material uselessness, is a key quality anthropologists seek in ever-more-ancient artifacts. The so-called fertility goddess no less than the adze distinguishes us from our animal ancestors.
The material insufficiency of the world, and the bare cruelty of humanity and too-short life, acts to imprison us in a tiny cage of triviality and tedium. Art is an exit from this cage, a message from a gigantic plane, from a region of insight and beauty which, just as much as entropy, is our common inheritance. Without art, our access to that plane is diminished or cut off. The part of our soul which responds to it shrivels and may die.
The vicious nihilism of art doctrine in the twentieth century sought this outcome. In part, it succeeded; it destroyed the popular art-appreciation culture of America and Europe. But the twentieth century is over, and this, among its many poisons, must not be permitted to sicken the twenty-first.
This essay and these ideas are for everyone - for every one of you - because it is time to give art back to you. Art is not owned by collectors, nor scholars, nor even by artists. Art is an impulse inborn in every human breast. The art object acts only to summon it, to nurture it, and to educate it. Art as an institution has neglected this sacred privilege for a century, but that neglect is coming to an end. The Post-Contemporary is for you. It is too late for the institutional Contemporary, but it is not too late for you, or for me, or for us. Thus we begin.
Because of the limits of the Huffington blogging platform, the notes above may be reached by clicking on the superscript numbers.