- The following abridgement, which I've introduced ^^
is half of the original word count: 3691;
see numerous links & bibliography in original
What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?
by Michelle Marder Kamhi & 1982 founder of Aristos, Louis Torres
This article was originally published, with endnotes and bibliography, in the March 2008 issue of Art Education, the journal of the National Art Education Association. In the present version the endnotes have been incorporated into the body of the article, and many of the bibliographic references have been replaced with links. A brief bibliography follows.
- It is unfortunate that in current artworld usage contemporary does not simply mean “of the same time as the speaker or writer,” as ordinary usage would lead one to expect. Instead it refers specifically to anti-modernist work —that is, to the unconventional forms typical of postmodernism. Such usage is clearly reflected in museums of “contemporary art.” For example, MASS MoCA [more] (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) —the largest of its kind in the United States— has characterized itself as dedicated to “the creation and presentation of provocative visual and performing arts pieces, and of works that blur conventional distinctions between artistic disciplines,” while also “function[ing] as a laboratory for the contemporary arts, fostering experimentation by artists.” (That statement, from “About MASS MoCA” on the museum’s website last year, has since been revised, but “innovation and experimentation” are still emphasized —see “History.”)
A similar conception governs museums of contemporary art in Los Angeles [more: click on a “classification type” to view thumbnails], Miami, Chicago [more], and elsewhere, as well as the Department of Contemporary Art of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, as is evident from their respective websites. Though such collections often include abstract work created after 1940 or so, their emphasis is on postmodernist genres such as “installation art,” “conceptual art,” and “video art.”
The call for papers for the issue of Art Education in which this article originally appeared —a Special Issue devoted to contemporary art— reflected the same bias. Referring to “interactive art installations,” “sound art,” “ephemeral performances,” and “monumental digital dialogues” as “exploding, expanding, and re-imagining that which is at the center of what we do in art education —Art,” it implied that the age-old art forms of painting and sculpture are now irrelevant and that the concept of art has no boundaries (links are to web pages cited in the call for papers).
Surely teachers of the visual arts might question how and why such things as “sound art,” “performance art,” and “monumental digital dialogues” entered that realm to begin with, and whether they logically belong there. They might also question how and why such forms have largely eclipsed traditional art forms in the contemporary artworld. At the very least, art teachers ought to inform their students of alternative viewpoints regarding these questions.
It is an ironic fact that the unconventional forms regarded as “contemporary art” owe their origin to the anti-art impulses of both the 1960s and the preceding Dada movement. The Dadaists (who inspired the early postmodernists —whose work is often referred to as Neo-Dada) aimed to dispense with art altogether. Contrary to an assumption generally shared by arts professionals and scholars today, the “readymades” of the Dadaists’ fellow traveler Marcel Duchamp should not be regarded as precursors for a new approach to “art,” for he plainly stated that he never intended them to be art. According to the entry on Duchamp in the Grove Dictionary of Art, “his conception of the ready-made decisively altered our understanding of what constitutes an object of art.” Yet when Duchamp was asked, in an interview two years before his death, how he had come “to choose a mass-produced object, a ‘readymade,’ to make a work of art,” he responded:
- Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it…. [W]hen I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a “readymade,” or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it, or describing anything. No, nothing like all that. …
Postmodernist inventions such as “conceptual art” and “performance art” originated expressly as anti-art gestures. As noted by Thomas McEvilley in The Triumph of Anti-Art and by us in What Art Is, they were reactions against Abstract Expressionism, then dominant in the artworld. A reaction against the arbitrary formalism and meaninglessness of abstract painting (which were trenchantly satirized by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word) was surely warranted if one believes that art should be meaningful. But what that reaction produced was often equally arbitrary and baffling —an endless proliferation of alleged new art forms that are, we have argued, the deliberate antithesis of all prior art. Hence, the term anti-art. As noted by McEvilley, countless works of “Conceptual Art,” in particular, have been intended to “resist … interpretation.” He further observes: “These [unprecedented] objects, one feels somewhat eerily, might be meaningful to some unknown aesthetic from some unheard of species or culture.”
By definition, however, “anti-art” is not art (the prefix anti- means “against, opposite, or opposed to”). Indeed, early postmodernist theorists such as Allan Kaprow and Henry Flynt openly declared that the new forms they were advocating had nothing in common with what had previously been termed art and therefore should probably be called something else. Soon, however, the postmodernists were willingly co-opted by the very economic and cultural forces they were reacting against, so that their anti-art has, in McEvilley’s words, “attained … more or less complete dominance in the art world” (on this point, see Louis Torres’s “The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant Garde,” forthcoming).
Just as contemporary works of painting and sculpture, especially those in a traditional “academic” or “classical realist” style, were by implication excluded from consideration for this special issue, so too they are absent from public museums of so-called contemporary art. Yet they are, after all, of our time. Such work —indeed the very existence of the artists who create it— is largely ignored by scholars and teachers, as well as (most tellingly) by critics, whose bias is discernible from a survey conducted a few years ago by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. None of the top 25 individuals ranked by the critics —nor any of the 84 named in the survey— are traditional realist painters or sculptors. And so estimable an artist as Andrew Wyeth [more], whom we consider the greatest living American painter, is not even mentioned.
Only rarely have public exhibitions of the work of such artists been organized, and even then they have generally been relegated by default to out-of-the-way venues. One exhibition, organized in 1982 and pointedly entitled Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century, was first shown at the Springville Museum in Utah, for example, before traveling to other relatively obscure locations. More recently, the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta mounted Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance [more], devoted to an “art movement focused on highly skilled figure painting [harking] back to the Old Masters of Europe.”
Much-needed light was shed on this other face of contemporary art by a series of three panel discussions held at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City in 2005, featuring traditional painters and sculptors. On the whole, the panelists offered a somber assessment of the generally inhospitable nature of today’s art establishment toward work such as theirs. Since we have elsewhere reported in detail on those discussions (“The Other Face of ‘Contemporary Art’,” Aristos, January 2006), we will merely comment here on a few of the salient concerns voiced by this neglected group of contemporary artists.
An overarching theme of the Dahesh discussions was the destructive influence exerted by the tendency to view art history as a linear progression from one new movement to another. Nearly a century ago the painter-critic Kenyon Cox warned, in a lecture before the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts in 1912 (reprinted in Artist and Public), that the notion of linear progress in the arts, unlike that in science, was an unfortunate illusion —one that was prompting an ever-madder stampede for novelty. Yet to find a place in today’s artworld, would-be artists are led to believe that they must, at all costs, be innovative. In its grant-making in the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, places a high premium on “experimentation,” as indicated on the relevant NEA web page. So, too, the chief art critic at the New York Times writes that “about the best, and the rarest, compliment you can give to any artist” is that his work is “new.”
The prevailing emphasis on novelty has not only marginalized traditional painters and sculptors, it has also impeded public recognition of many excellent artists of the past hundred years or so whose work is deemed retrograde. Ask any culturally literate adult “Who sculpted the seated figure of Lincoln [more] at the memorial in the nation’s capital?” for example, and the likely answer will be “I don’t know.” Yet the same person, if asked who made images of Campbell’s Soup cans [more] in the 1960s, would no doubt readily supply the correct answer. We recently posed these questions to a dozen senior-level art educators, one of whom teaches American art history. None of them could name the sculptor of the Lincoln figure —Daniel Chester French. All knew that the paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans were by Andy Warhol.
The assumption that truly contemporary artists must now embrace postmodernism (on the heels of the prior assumption that truly modern artists had to embrace abstraction —as the foremost modernist critic, Clement Greenberg, had proclaimed in 1939 in his seminal essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”) has led to a major irony of today’s artworld. Although drawing has for centuries been considered the foundational skill of visual artists, art training on the college and university level —especially in MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs— has in recent decades deemphasized such basic skills. When Gregory Hedberg, formerly curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, became chief curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum and a trustee of the Hartford Art School, for example, he discovered that the school’s life-drawing class, offered only once each week, consisted merely of the presence of a nude model whom the students were allowed to draw, “unencumbered by any instruction.” In his view, this practice “was typical of most art schools at the time [the 1980s] and was akin to teaching music by allowing students to look at a piano once a week.” Three decades ago, the sculptor Elisabeth Gordon Chandler was moved to found the school that has become the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts [more], because she, too, saw that art departments in colleges and universities were no longer offering adequate training in the fundamentals of art. As she stated: “There were fewer and fewer artists still alive who had studied the basic fundamentals … that every generation of artists from the Renaissance to Picasso had been taught.”
Nonetheless, the MFA is regarded as attesting to one’s professional qualification as an artist. According to the College Art Association’s MFA standards, in fact, the degree serves as “a guarantee of a high level of professional competence in the visual arts” (emphasis in original).
< snip to end >
The entire original article.