Abstract Critical

The Rise and Rise of the Modernist Artist

Written by Mark Stone

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On September 15, 2008 Damien Hirst held an auction that officially ended the theoretical legacy of the 20th Century. One can honestly say that Damien’s Day was such a pivotal moment in our Post-historical culture that one can actually track “the before” and “the after” from it. Part of the reason for this watershed moment was the stock market crash that happened on the same day, but let’s not quibble. Yes, there’s been some jostling about this event in the press, but for the most part, it seems, that most of us have just folded this information right into our everyday existence and gone on like nothing had happened. What I’m on about is the fact that on that day the criteria for determining what art actually IS irrevocably changed. Art is now produced, manufactured, valued, traded and admired from an entirely different set of criteria. The old fashioned idea that art should be appraised and vetted through its aesthetic influences, theoretical challenges and art historical importance no longer matters one wit. Instead our long held tenets, those valued by the Modern movement, espousing innovation, aesthetic challenge and radical style change have become passé. Contemporary Art has become more like a financial product, and it’s appraised through market values and economic realities in the same way that a commodity or security is valued. In other words the very concept of Art itself has become redundant.

The rank and file shows go on, of course, as do the polemics (like this one), the discussions, the defenses, the debates. Most of us continue to believe that traditional art concerns still exist, still have meaning for the culture. We blithely indulge in the rehearsed historic programs. We continue to believe in the “power” of style or theoretical daring. Yet, real visual difference remains as elusive as Bigfoot. Our art remains structured around the tenets of Modernism. And this is because we have done none of the things that defined Modernism. The last 50 years of recombinant Postmodern pastiches have created a mannered, clever, impersonal Modernism-Lite. We produce handsome and professional work to be sold in the endless seasonal cycles of art commerce. Our works have become so similar, in fact, that we have come to rely on “name recognition” in order to distinguish them. Thus the rise of the brand name artist, the insatiable quest for media coverage, the personal appearances, the cross branding with entertainment/fashion corporations, etc…

For the most part we all perform in the circus and hope to make a living from it. So we play to the audience’s expectations. We make our works bigger, we pump up the mechanics, reorganize the formulae, or if we’re really feeling expressive, we rub a bit of stank onto something that we find a bit outré. We re-mix, we appropriate, we curate our work into existence from a well-mined history of style. All of it ready for purchase, prêt-à-porter. Culture has come to seem so very rehearsed and familiar, so very predictable, and as Derrida wrote; always-already. And it’s the fact that the culture actually is familiar that makes contemporary art so accessible, so approachable, so “classic.” Koons’ balloon dogs, a mixture of Pop insouciance, Modern classicism and Disney World fabrication play to one’s Postmodern entertainment sensibilities. Hirst’s dots are just that, dots, tastefully riffing on the mechanics of a Modern abstract grid painting. Fischer’s squished clay balls art blown up to gargantuan proportions so one can see his giant-sized fingerprints, a clever pun on Rodin’s “Hand of God.” Josh Smith painting at breakneck speeds whips out a cheesy palm tree landscape in lurid drippy colors accessing both “bad” painting and the history of just plain bad painting. All of it is handsome, smart, light, expensive and tastefully accessible to those schooled in the rudiments of 20th Century culture. Nothing we haven’t seen before, experienced before, or confronted before, and all of it presented to us as if the ground has opened beneath our feet. And the best part is that all of this work looks like Art! The product delivery systems of our art market work overtime to apply a sheen of Madison Avenue glamour and class aimed at the collectors and the publicity outlets. In other words the hierarchy of the gallery system elevates the “status” and “prestige” of the work we see, like a Prada showroom designed by Rem Koolhaus or Lady Gaga trained as an acolyte by Marina Abramovic. The brands collide in a perfect consuming spectacle. 

This new art economy has been transformative, especially in our studios. The “subject matter” of Art, what the narrative might entail, the engagement and poetry of the work, are all incidental to the market value, the means of production and delivery, and the branded import of the art object itself. Today, the most “innovative art” foregoes the avant-garde debates over style change or aesthetic transformation that once raged at the Deux Magots or the Cedar Bar. Rather, our innovators’ “arguments” revolve mostly around business problems, particularly “fair use” and “copyright infringement.” We have been transfixed by the legalities and finances of business, preferring them to issues of aesthetics. Our culture in other words is being determined by institutions whose only skin in our game tends to revolve around who is allowed to profit and for how much. So the art we see remains static, familiar, all too familiar, in the same way that “New Urbanist” communities, drive-time radio shows, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues, 70s fashion statements, and slow motion videos projected on gallery walls are familiar. All of this re-purposing of legally sanctioned processes, of “fair use,” has no real influence on the direction of art itself, but it does create and maintain markets and money. It’s in this way that our contemporary recombinant culture, our Retro-Culture, actually upholds and supports the stability and continuity needed for a thriving economic market.

Most of the Moderns would have found this idea of a purely market driven Art, our Neo-Liberal Art World, incomprehensible. Aside from the fact that they were nearly all lefties, and in some cases, Communists, their main focus was to overthrow the societal/cultural powers then in existence. The avant-garde was experimenting with new aesthetic ideas and iconoclastic theoretics, but mostly, the Moderns wanted to assert the power, sovereignty and worth of individuals, every individual, through new modes of expression, through “emotion.” Nearly every manifesto of those early years lays out this very idea. And this focus on emotion, on emotional connection to vision, was the last and only humanist position an artist should take in the face of unrestrained technological advancement. Think of it. In 40 years, from the first air flight at Kitty Hawk to the breaking of the sound barrier in the Mojave Desert, the world experienced two world wars, a devastating plague, a global economic cataclysm and the splitting of the atom. In the face of these unprecedented challenges a small, engaged and aggressive avant-garde desperately focused on what it meant to be human, what it meant to feel. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. How could it be? Modernism’s human challenge  to the uncompromising technological expansion failed as governments, bureaucracies, institutions and corporations re-formed human existence, captured, categorized and contained humanity. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust effectively ended the Modern movement, and with it, the Modern avant-garde. The Postmodern age would be different, more “practical.” And so it began with a portrait of a Coca-Cola bottle.

“If art cannot tell us about the world we live in then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something that we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on, that nasty question that never used to be asked, because the assumption was that it was answered long ago. What good is art? What use is art? What does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? And an art that is completely monetized the way that its getting these days is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes, “The Mona Lisa Curse”, 2008.

Damien’s Day finally defined the idea that artists are no longer Modern or Postmodern, but simply put, Modernist. And the distinction to be made is found in the way we use the 20th century legacy to make our work. We have no interest in overcoming the Modern, moving beyond it, challenging its theoretics. We do not ask questions, we do not take the 20th Century legacy to task for its failings, for its obvious capitulations, its formulaic visual engagements. We’re, all of us, true believers. We believe that the Modern was correct, its look correct, that its processes and techniques continue to define our time, that its tenets and aesthetics are sanctified, deserve our continued support and allegiance. We are Modernists in the same way that Capitalists, Socialists, Christianists or Islamists unquestioningly believe in the rightness of their tenets, in their right to power. And like them we use our unquestioning belief in the Modern as a path to power, as a monetary right, as an a priori economic artistic precept. And so we continue to ply its long dead principles in our paintings and sculptures, in our theatre and film, in our writing and poetry, and mostly, in our programs and technologies.

I began the current series of articles on Henri Art Magazine entitled “Untethered” in order to find a different take on the Modern Century. I’m still forming my understanding, still open to ideas, but my discontent with our current Modernist era has hardened as I’ve asked questions of the past. I do not have any illusions about what that means, especially when confronting the massive economic order that determines what art is. And I don’t mean for any of this critique to be taken as a paranoid fantasy or a screed from a reactionary. The new paradigm of a purely economically driven art based on the tropes of the 20th Century is the reality and inevitability of our time. That said, I am more convinced than I ever was that Art, and especially for me, abstract painting, must decisively and firmly untether itself from the 20th Century. I am adamant that we find a new humanism within the program, a new way to assert one’s ideas, to innovate, to express, to feel, to create vision, without the strictures of economics and without the worn out and flaccid Modern legacy. It is the only way we will find something new. And so I leave you with a few questions.

Why must we continue to ply the 20th Century’s outdated principles, its tropes, techniques and factures, its cartographic spaces and flat worldview? Why must we follow the rules of Postmodern Art Commerce? Why must we believe and accept that Modernist art, the art preferred by the corporate plutocracy, should set OUR debate, should set the “standards of excellence” for artists today? Why is there so little art, especially abstraction, that directly engages in what it means to be alive, to be human in this, our time, the way Picasso, Matisse, or for that matter Monet and Manet, did in their time? Why do we not innovate instead of transform? Why can we not discuss the way we SEE the world using new abstract images, different visions, rather than continue to make familiar recombinations of Modern productions? Why do we not really question the legacy we all so blindly follow? And as Robert Hughes so succinctly put it, why have we not asked these questions of our work?

 

  1. Peter Stott said…

    The Damien Hirst 100 million quid sale scandal needs putting in its place, today´s context (2014) is that every week, folk are winning 150 million quid on the lottery. It´s not such big news anymore, even if it´s money for junk. So what? The real point of the Hirst sale is to render the value of art meaningless, as such, an attempt to de-balls it in the name of keeping the power of the visual in the hands of the media, to pulverize us all with computer graphic effects, to keep us all in our place, and also to break the will of all the genuine artists out there. So all this ´The world changing stuff is really not the case, it´s same as same as, a pencil is still a pencil etc.

  2. Mark Stone said…

    I usually don’t add a comment, I mean, I’ve had my say already, right? But I was discussing a few of these things with my good friend, Paul Corio (a wonderful painter and a contributor here on Ab Crit,) and we both debated and struggled to find a few answers. It was a really fun conversation. Paul is a terrific optimist especially about the Modern legacy, but sadly, I am a bit more circumspect about its continuing relevance. So I thought I’d share a few of the practical studio questions we explored, and that I hope, might be of some interest to some of you.

    What would an abstraction without Modernism look like? How would you approach it? If you’re in your studio and suddenly had to face your abstraction without the legacy of the Modern, if all you were left with was the idea of an abstraction itself, how would you approach it in this era? Can this even be done? And if that can not be done then what does that say about value of abstraction itself? Would there be any point in continuing it? Would there still be value in making an abstraction if it has nothing new or insightful to say about our times, about the future?

    My thanks to the readers and commenters.
    Mark

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Mark,
      Whilst I broadly agree that abstract art should attempt to leave behind the tropes and clichés of modernism, it seems to me that we will get nowhere new by a discussion of whether abstraction now can have anything new or insightful to say about our times, or about the future. If you are concerned with the relevance of ideas and images to that extent, you are not making abstract art. As I have said before, abstract artists have to make their own culture, not reflect the current state of society or second-guess what is or will be relevant.

      “…the idea of an abstraction itself…” makes no sense at all to me. Give up on ideas and images, start with nothing, think about what the work “does” (or could do), not what it “looks like”. The more one concentrates on and advances what abstract art visually/physically does (and no, I don’t want a restricting definition of that), the more the work will stand a chance of moving into new territory.

      • Mark Stone said…

        Hi Robin,

        I have to say that I respectfully disagree with you on a couple of your points. I believe that artists, particularly Modern artists, were asking questions of their times and of their futures. Their art was not created in a vacuum. The best of them involved themselves in the realities of their times. How could they not? In fact I think that the most progressive artists have always done so.

        And that is part of the problem with our time as it is. We spend a great deal of our time looking back, and in fact, looking back at a very short span of our history. This is part of the reason that our culture feels so stuck, and I think that’s something we both can agree on.

        As for abstraction you and I have very different experiences and ideas of what that term means. For me abstractions run everywhere in our society – social, political, economic and cultural. Consequently I have come to “see” them as things, as a different and pervasive reality. I see this abstract “reality” manifesting in every interaction that we participate in, especially as more and more of our lives occur through lens, screens and programs. One can no longer separate what one thing is from another, public from private – we are all hybrids.

        We have had nearly 100 years of experiencing what Modern abstraction does. And quite frankly, it’s time to rethink our positions, our visions. All of this inherited “Modernism” runs silently through the programs and technologies that we take for granted and engage in day after day. It is high time that we actually confront “the idea of an abstraction itself.” What an abstraction is, what it does, how we “see” an abstraction, how we incorporate and use abstractions in our lives and in our work. All of these questions that I’ve been asking are very exciting, and for me, they open up possibilities for my work that has nothing to do with the continuing Modernist endgames.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        The points you raise are interesting, Mark, no doubt about that; I just don’t see how they go towards making better abstract painting and sculpture, and that’s the name of the game. Nor do I think that your generalised notion of “abstractions”, applied to anything and everything across society, has any bearing on abstract art. Your definition of us all as “hybrids” is in itself a modernist cliché. Of course we can separate the public from private. The world in general, the discourse surrounding art, even the commentary on this website, need not enter your studio, if you so decide.

        The culture of late 19th Century France is now in significant part retrospectively defined by the work of Cezanne, but you could hardly call his still-lives and landscapes of the 1890s a reflection or comment upon French culture as it was experienced by him or anyone else at that time. The wars, the politics, the technologies, the social issues don’t figure at all, yet his contribution, deliberately shielded as it was from his own experience of the contingencies of “modern” life, is massive. He did, in effect, work in a vacuum of his own creation, which he proceeded to fill to the brim with profound painting.

        I think he is a good and sound example to follow. He is the artist who (amongst other things) accelerated more than anyone else the work of stripping out subject-matter from art. I think, consciously or not, it is subject-matter that you crave in what you say and, indeed, what I see of what you do. It seems to be a very common craving. But abstract art doesn’t have a subject, and it cannot in any real way “incorporate and use abstractions”, which would only be another kind of subject. It can and must discover new content free of the very constraints you wish to re-impose. Perhaps, just perhaps, such freedom as we might now discover for abstract art will contribute – as much as anything else you might care to think of – to defining how our present culture will be seen in another hundred years time.

      • Mark Stone said…

        Robin, it’s true that Cezanne led a solitary existence in the backwaters of Southern France in those last years, but until his father died and left him the farm, so to speak, he was back and forth to the Parisian salons and artists haunts. I have no idea how he participated, but he was using railroads, reading newspapers, hanging in cafes and writing letters to Zola. I was also surprised to learn a while ago that many of his advances in abstract “realism” could be traced to his collection of photographs. Some that he may have either taken himself, had taken at his direction or that he had found. His bather, one of his most admired works (and lucky for us, here in NYC,) is in fact based on a photograph. What is interesting is that the technologies of the day had assisted Cezanne in the way he determined and composed his depictions. I may be mistaken, but I do not believe that he was as isolated from society’s influence as the legend lets on. And you’re right, his “withdrawal” may be one that artists should follow, but is that even possible with an electronic universe resting in one’s hands?

        As for abstraction I believe that Modernism, particularly in its Postmodern guise, has been furiously successful! I have great respect for the idea of process and material, for the “non-objective” as “subject matter,” but it leaves out so much. For me Art is always about something. And when I question other artists, my friends among them, I find that even the most “subject-matter-free” artists are hoping to get at something deeper and more abiding, something more human, if you will, in their work. These are all artists profoundly involved in understanding this moment.

        I also have to strongly disagree with you on your final criticism. The nonobjective, the content free abstraction, has had its century, and in the end, it became the perfect tool for corporate power. It galls me at times, that at my day job, the walls are littered with abstractions – perfect, empty, decorative and undemanding. Like you, I believe in the strength and power of a singular vision. But the 21st Century is different. I see and experience the world differently than the Moderns, and I dare say, many of the Postmoderns. I do not seek to limit abstraction. I seek to open it up. I want to make room for different kinds of abstraction, different ideas about what that can be.

        I do appreciate this dialog, Robin. Thanks!

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I appreciate the dialogue too, but oh, come on! I use a MIG welder and an electric toothbrush but that hardly joins me at the hip to the conceptual and virtual zeitgeist.

      • Mark Stone said…

        Robin, we can not escape our times. No artist worth a damn has been able to do such a thing. In fact the best of them have engaged and found deeper meaning for their work – even Paul. As for the toothbrush and the welder, why not? Why can’t those things actually affect they way you think and understand the world around you? But you’re on your own with the hip joinery thing…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        On the contrary, every artist worth a damn has transcended the contingencies of their times. The challenge of abstract art is to discover new intrinsic content regardless of context. That’s a very different kind of “meaning” to that provided by extrinsic subject-matter.

      • anthony seymour said…

        Sounds acutely flinty and no nonsense – maybe abstraction is the behaviour of the artist and the content is the performance of making the work and then having to look at it a long time and wonder what happened?

        I agree about bringing up Cezanne very much but the terrible thing is that most “serious” people now just read theory and have extremely limited experience or ego to actually make anything of their own or outside of received education, but they definitely want a lot of status and they would probably think Cezanne is frankly “not skilfull”!!!!!

        These are the sort of people who will probably move into dominance in this century…..Robin makes far more sense but who has the ability to listen or look regards a way of thinking that is sort of honestly too sophisticated for them all!!!!!

      • Mark Stone said…

        Yes, Robin, but to get to the “intrinsic content” doesn’t one have to live, to be involved in existence in some way? Don’t we have to be involved in the “extrinsic content” of our lives? We are humans, living in the world for whatever time we have, in whatever way we can. I want abstraction, and abstract painting especially, to confront that, to be more “real.” Just as Courbet, Cezanne and Picasso pursued that reality. I want Caravaggio’s dirty nails and feet, I want Michelangelo’s tormented bodies, I want Delacroix’s snarling horses. I think that would make for an exciting abstraction! I leave transcendence for the more evolved artists.

        Anthony, thanks for your comment and I think you’re correct. We do have to let the world in!
        (Apologies for my delayed response – my mac book died and is being repaired at the Genius Bar! Another abstract problem in the real world. What would that painting look like?)

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Go on then. What would that painting look like?

    • Mark Stone said…

      email me your address and I’ll send it to you!

    • Peter Stott said…

      Abstract art is more about cosmology than ‘the times we live in’, Roger Denyson wrote a very good article about the West’s appropriation of abstract art, I provided the link on the re-invention of abstract art at MOMA essay a while back.
      Paint, stuff to aid you to see other stuff, abstract art was supposed to facilitate visions of this other stuff better than paint that already seemed to be stuff, but what other stuff? God or aliens?

      • anthony seymour said…

        Reminds me of John Hoyland & Damien Hirst’s enthusiasm for his work.
        Maybe its like Hoyland said about re-gurgitating rather than sampling modernism and trying to digest it originally, but as he also felt talking about the filigree of painting, Western artists are probably in a lot of trouble if very skilled people outside of it ever get inside!

  3. jenny meehan said…

    Great writing!

  4. Elizabeth said…

    “Why is there so little art, especially abstraction, that directly engages in what it means to be alive, to be human in this, our time…?”

    I believe there is a lot of art (esp. abstraction) – a lot of artists (esp. abstract painters) – doing just that and asking all the questions raised in this article – but largely go unnoticed.

  5. Hans said…

    It would be not dialectical to not trust in the advance of painting

  6. stephen abela said…

    I agree why must we continue this simulationist painting of the present – it feels like the tail-end of a tedious history of copying and pastiching since the introduction of ‘pop’ into art…as if clever, ironic or playful = critical -(i’m not so sure the art buying public and those involved are really concerned ) -I do however imagine it will take more than just more ‘innovative’ painting to get out out of this one..
    i think we need move away from style and re-engage with the precepts of modernism and the avant-garde not as critique but as a way understanding and moving foward..perhaps one place to begin would be to look at one of the main modernist tenants -to take art it off its pedestal..to democratise art. After all painting or art is now hardly the ideal place for ground-breaking innovative ideas and technology..
    yet we still seem have a problem doing that.. perhaps its not in the interest of the art seller? who subsist on outmoded notions of the artistic genius etc..give it time -Amazon with sort them out ;)

  7. Malgorzata said…

    That’s very interesting article. I ask similar questions myself. The art market doesn’t allow for any change. Too much money is involved. Artists became opportunists. I think that it difficult time for the artists who don’t want to be part of this circus.

    • jenny meehan said…

      Yes, helpful to have writing like this which focuses on what the situation almost naturally is, and helps us to discern what exactly we personally want our artworking to be and to mean.

  8. Peter said…

    One of the best articles I have read in a long time. This should be presented to all Fine art students to discuss, dissect and most importantly consider.

  9. Evan Steenson said…

    “The socialist is to free the working class from the domination of property, so that the spiritual can be possessed by all. The function of the artist is to make actual the spiritual, so that it is there to be possessed.”

    - Robert Motherwell, excerpt from his essay “The Modern Painter’s World” August 1944

  10. Peter Stott said…

    pic.twitter.com/BohyuJncW0

  11. Peter Stott said…

    BohyuJncW0

    ‘What if Cubism had never been invented?’ (I’ve attempted to link the twitter image, this is the title)

    • anthony seymour said…

      Mark Stone’s questioning perceptions put forward such a vast blank canvas although I don’t like that term, drives the painter mad as Van Gogth put it, but I can’t help thinking Picasso speculated these issues about Modernism back in the Twenties & Thirties talking about the freedom from rules – possibly in a pejorative sense – leading one day as he reckoned to its probable self-destruction having no tensions or impediments to fight against.

      And then its very interesting in the Sixties and early Seventies when Picasso did the Artist & Model cycles, etc, (speculating Auerbach style), about the little chap in a back room or the poor painter as Picasso put it and trying to “kill Modern Art” AND EVEN an instinct or self-reflex to escape, “down with Picasso even” as his writer Helen Parmelin reported, unravelling it all and looking to create something fresh in formal power whilst processing the content ever more subtle and nuanced, provocative and subversive, very much rooted in the past/alive yet outside the New York discourse/leaping perhaps into the unknown!

      Perhaps its interesting Warhol bought a little Picasso from the early Seventies and more recently Damien Hirst bought a little canvas of a painter from 1967 and appreciating he could never do something in about eight seconds as he perceives it himself. Interesting as well Hockney – always criticising speculating Modernism – bought one in the Seventies and more recently Schnabel had to sell a large late Picasso and a very good one in particular, precisely because of the economic crisis!