“What looked one day like the end proved on the next day to have been only the beginning. Nothing could have been more ingeniously designed to maximize the suffering, and also to insure that as few as possible escaped the common misfortune. The fortunate speculator who had funds to answer the first margin call presently got another and equally urgent one, and if he met that there would still be another. In the end all the money he had was extracted from him and lost.”
“The Great Crash of 1929,” John Kenneth Galbraith, 2009 ed.
All through the Roaring Twenties, especially during the last couple of years leading up to crash, the rising “wealth” of the soaring stock markets was a foregone conclusion in the minds of the general public. Wealth and the accumulation of wealth had become the golden sexy abstraction, the blood-earned “gift” bestowed upon the Modern movement. Those investors that were buying into the game expected fattening balance sheets and rosy futures. It was their “due.” That’s how an abstraction works, especially Modern ones. They redistribute reality, mitigate it, reformat it while simplifying, minimizing, and outright excising any contrary realities. A powerful abstraction creates its own “complete” systemic reality. Its ease and promise will flourish in the minds of its believers. Right up ’til that moment when the entropic nature of lived experience creates an anomaly, a glitch. Then the abstraction falters and what was a once considered a virtue of the system, what was once the point of the abstraction, flips and becomes virulently “real.” We call this a “Black Swan.” Actually, the anomaly comes down to matters of statistical imbalances. Users of the abstraction greedy for more of a good thing will manipulate the rules of the abstraction, customize and game the abstraction for their own benefit. Additionally, as more “users” join the abstraction to participate in the “good times” resources feeding the abstraction begin to tighten. This means more customization of the abstraction to accommodate the new “users,” etc. One feeds into the other. Malthusian complications ensue. Entropy takes hold. The abstraction blows up.
If you watch the clip above you’ll see someone with their “hair on fire.” Well, what hair there is anyway. This is how our sweaty, nervous traders were reacting in 2008 as the Reverend’s pin was poised to pop our huge debt-inflated market bubble – a once magnificent money-making abstraction whipped up by Alan Greenspan and company. But the world was no less volatile and desperate back in ’29. Black Tuesday exploded after months and months of erratic gains and losses, unexpected sell-offs and buy-backs. This wild activity revealed the anomaly in the abstraction, and it hinted that all was not as perfectly “abstract” as was assumed. By the end of October, however, even those who were desperately trying to shore up the failing system, who were frantically holding on to the “reality” of the abstraction, had to admit that the jig was up. The entire market imploded flipping the once gilded economic construct into a new harsh, dark reality. Unlike our contemporary crash there were no “support systems” in place to shore up the resources feeding the abstraction. There was no bank of last resort to lend money to failing institutions, no FDIC to recover one’s savings, no Hank Paulson pulling a Godfather routine with the banking industry, no Bernanke TARP. No Postmodern net. Nope. At the time these kinds of contemporary systemic backups sounded very much like Communist economic policies (still do to a number of market purists,) and after the establishment of the USSR in ’17 anything that looked slightly pinkish made those in Capitalist power positions itch. In ’29 those very same Capitalists still believed that laissez faire controls would fix what had been broken, and the governments in thrall to the flow of those finances staunchly held up that particular party line. At least for a little while. In other words the first thing that the powers-that-be did to shore up the collapsing markets and imploding abstraction was absolutely nothing. And as they continued to hold to this course of ineptitude the common folk, the hoi polloi, began to lose everything; jobs, savings, homes, and mostly, hope. This part of the Modern era came to be known as the “Great Depression,” and even today the mention of that “thing” can still send cold shivers down the spines of middle class families saddled with mortgages, car payments, college tuitions and health insurance premiums, or as it has come to be known, the “American Dream.”
What I find really interesting about Cramer’s televised rant is the moment when Postmodernism, our era of abstraction, steps in. I’m not talking about the very real display of human anger, panic and fear – there was plenty of that going on back in the Modern thirties. Nor is it the terrible temper tantrum of a privileged Baby Boomer experiencing the black impurity of his abstraction as it implodes before his eyes. These are tried and true emotional responses to stress and fear, and these kinds of emotions have been happening to the human race ever since we stood erect. No. The Postmodern moment happens at the very end of the piece when we are presented with an authoritative disclaimer, or as I like to call it, the POMO “deus ex machina.” Basically the disclaimer provides absolution – says that what we’ve just witnessed is someone’s opinion, someone’s subjectivity. This is typical of the way our Postmodern theoretics constantly eviscerates any shared realities, undermines the presence of a thing by refocusing our attention not on the thing itself, but on the spaces around the thing. It is the way we keep abstractions, even failing ones, right on abstracting. The contextual disclaimer splices the thing out of the picture so to speak, and the thing as it is, in this case the problem with the market, is not really the focus of our attention. Instead we look at the “dressings” of the moment – the power relationship between the man and the woman, the media programming running through the obviously fake set decoration and the news crawl at the bottom of the screen, the “performance” of the “actors,” the political, social, cultural, and sexual associations that unwind through these contexts. We are constantly directed to what isn’t rather than what is. In that way we can be comfortable with our own interpretations of the abstraction.
The Postmodern world excised “grand narratives” or “meta-narratives,” destroyed objective realities. Reality does not exist outside of the confines of the abstraction. The “ever-present” disclaimer is, quite literally, a stopgap in the abstraction. And it is employed to contain the anomaly. For instance when our markets finally collapsed on Damien’s Day in September of 2008, the system, the abstraction, hiccuped, stopgaps were employed and the resources running the abstraction were re-booted. By January the abstraction had changed nearly all the accounting rules making the anomalies within the abstraction disappear. By March of 2009 Citibank, whose balance sheets had plummeted to junk status during the slide, suddenly showed profits in the billions of dollars even as its stock remained in the single digits. This is an abstraction of immense power and epic resiliency. Theater of Cruelty indeed…
Thirties – Modern Apogee
In 1930 the Great War generation was having to face diminishing economic prospects and sudden devastating poverty. There were also growing military threats from some very nasty reactionary abstractionists. The USA, Peru, Columbia, Spain, Italy, Germany, the USSR, China and Japan were all experiencing a steeped rise in fiery Nationalist dogma and revolutionary rhetoric while threatening white-knuckle expansionist ambitions. Modern theoretics based in purity, of means, of spirit, of technology, of race, and of privilege had flipped, become something far darker. The leaders of these strong arm political parties were very busy pumping up their bewildered and frightened populations just as the air was escaping from the ballooned economies of the world. Desperate, fearful people do desperate, fearful things, as we all know. And by the mid-thirties a new and dangerous Modern industry based on political, cultural, and quite frankly, racial scapegoating was in full swing. The Modern World was, once again, about to become a very dangerous place to be.
What was new about these splintering abstractions, what was newly Modern in fact, was that all of this activity, these “happenings,” were being followed by the world, for the first time, in what we now call “real time.” New electric technologies captured and broadcasted the vindictive public rhetoric right into the private sanctuary of people’s homes. One could turn on the radio and hear what was happening in the world as it unfolded from the comfort of one’s easy chair. Movie house newsreels and the ubiquity of picture magazine formats brought images of the world right into one’s hands seemingly overnight. In this new culture where public and private were starting to merge people began to discover that Modernity was what one lived with, began the day with, and more important, Modernity was now the last thing one encountered before going to bed at night. The electrified world was creating a new kind of Modern human being, informed, connected, dream-like and surprisingly pliable, infinitely malleable.
The Stasis of Surrealism
“I think the art world is definitely already going in this direction, and my auction is just a fast-forward,” Hirst intended to enact a democratisation of the art market. He explains: “It’s very difficult to buy a work in a gallery, you walk into the gallery, you get put on a waiting list by an intimidating woman or something and they want to know who you are.” Damien Hirst, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008.
In the 1930s’ Art World Surrealism continued to dictate the actions and aesthetic decisions of the avant garde, and Modernism as a once vibrant, daring theoretical artistic movement, stood defiantly still. In this way the thirties became a decade of retrenchment, especially as the stock markets continued to flatten and the unemployed began to multiply. Money dried up faster than a flash rain in the Mojave. It became extremely difficult for artists with new ideas to find collectors and patrons, and these new artists found bohemia all that much more difficult to navigate. You can bet that during these tight years “many a flower was born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” The tried and true avant-garde that came up during the teens and twenties, however, were still fashionable, still financially viable. Those who had been invited to the parties in the ’20s were still being invited in the ’30s. In fact there are very few new faces, new ideas, new styles developing in the Modern canon during the ’30s. How could there be? Innovation, especially in Capitalist systems, needs seed money, and in the thirties no one with money was seeding anything, not in Society, not in the Economy and not in the Art World.
We have a somewhat similar cultural experience happening today with the “seed money” being directed at a very particular kind of art. And this became apparent in 2008 not too long after Cramer’s meltdown. Our static art moment catalyzed, became systemic with Damien Hirst’s massive sale. This auction happened on the very day when the storied investment bank Lehmann Brothers went tets up. As panic set in and the value of the market abstraction deflated a group of exceedingly wealthy oligarchs were bidding up Damien’s works to unprecedented values – hundreds of millions of dollars. Damien’s Day was the most awesome moment in recent cultural history, a watershed like no other. The sale of these luxury goods had absolutely nothing to do with aesthetics or theoretics, nothing to do with way culture had been advanced in the past. Up until this point an artwork’s value was assessed through its cultural significance, whether it was aesthetically daring or vibrantly influential. The value of Art, up until this point, had to be vetted by other artists, by critics, by historians, by institutions. On Damien’s Day the way an artwork was valued, the way it was quantified, was completely untethered from Art History. In other words the Art Object was reprogrammed, the rules were changed so that the object’s value resided in its economic viability rather than its cultural significance. Damien’s Day marks the moment when we witnessed a repudiation of everything theoretically, historically Modern. This is also Postmodernism’s apotheosis, its final encapsulation and evisceration of the Modern abstraction, the actual endpoint of the thirties’ legacy. In fact it marks the end of the entire legacy of Modern Art beginning with Manet. This is the moment of the “flip.”
In the Art World of 2008 suddenly every last Art Gamer (artist, critic, gallerist, curator and collector) with half an online brain realized that the Postmodern program had been resolutely “fixed,” “encrypted.” Specificity of intention and innovation were now only possible through the sanction of auction house cabals intent on dealing with an economic “product” containing Modernist (rather than Modern or Postmodern) Art. And this is the difference that many of us have refused to accept as we struggle and moan in our studios. We no longer make Modern Art or Postmodern Art, but Modernist Art – a radicalized economic based art designed for market participation rather than aesthetic/theoretical innovation. As a very specific luxury product it remains static, locked into the Postmodern economies, technologies and programs of the Business World. Art as it was once known, as it was experienced by artists and their communities, no longer exists.
For our purposes the Thirties are the key to understanding how Modernism and Postmodernism became Modernist. It’s where we’ll find a new direction for Abstraction and for Painting. And we will continue to look deeper into this amazing, frightening decade, making comparisons to our own time and looking for answers. For now I leave you with this…
“You Did That.”
The greatest work of the 1930s and perhaps of the century was painted by Picasso, the reigning grand master of Modern Art. He had been given the task of making work for the upcoming World’s Fair in Paris. Pablo took as his subject the bombing of the small town of Guernica in Spain. The attack by the Fascists had killed and wounded hundreds of innocent, unsuspecting townsfolk going about their market day business. Once again the efficient horrors of Modern technological war came crashing back into view, a frightening premonition for what would come. Since its exhibition Guernica and its creation have grown to mythic proportions in our imaginations. Its visual power, its cultural impact is unrivaled in the 20th Century. It set something off in Picasso as well, and he experienced a new flurry of creativity in its wake. He began to examine himself, his own life, his own actions through very uncomfortable emotions. These new angular, acidic paintings unraveled his intimate life. They came to look more violent, more cruel, more specific and more unforgiving. It is Picasso at his very best and his most revealing.
Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” one of my favorite paintings from this time, is about his relationship with Dora Maar, his discomfort with himself and his complicity with the Modern world. She clutches a handkerchief, dabbing her crying eyes, her mouth gnashing at its corner. The angular, spiky clothing and the strange, folded hat look ill-fitting, sharp, uncomfortable. A too-tight earring painfully shuts her ear against a verbal barrage. She’s made up her eyes and brows, carefully combed her hair, obviously dressed for something “else.” Dora wasn’t expecting this violent surge of unrestrained feeling and the “mask” is slipping. This is what Pablo sees, this is what he experiences, this is the outcome of his own actions, his own provocations. Picasso, an underrated colorist, uses it to intensify the emotional impact of the work. The hat in primaries, solid, heavy and sharp against the secondary greens, purples, oranges and acidy yellows, creates a clash of hue. It heightens the angst in the image, makes this particular domestic spat something more – an existential failing, a terrible sign of fear, regret, and anger, an image of an oppressive and turbulent love affair. Picasso once said that women were “suffering machines” and Dora would always be his “weeping woman.” And indeed, she is.
Pablo painted these kinds of rigorously intimate images all through his life. He abstracted his visual world to emphasize the conceptual tension between line and form, flatness and illusion. But these thoroughly Modern conventions were merely tools used to define the reality of his own experiences. In the end Picasso was the oldest kind of artist working among the Moderns. More than any other painter of the day Pablo was able to create a visceral connection between abstraction, figurative imagery and his own emotional life. Rather than physical size or material precedence he sought out and encountered a singular, powerful image, and through it, a deeper connection to the history of painting. Over and over again Picasso’s paintings would come to grips with the fact that there would never be an escape from the primitive power that a distinctive image can hold over us. His paintings would never be pure objects for distracted contemplation, never sounding boards for spiritual issues, never an easy chair for a tired businessman. They would always be a confrontation, a reckoning. And in this way Picasso would never be wholly, truly Modern, never fit comfortably into the abstraction of Modernity even as he helped to define what Modern Abstraction would look and feel like. I dare say that in our Postmodern Art World this kind of understanding, personification and confrontation with abstraction is truly an heretical idea – an idea that demands that we purposely not be Modern, that we not accept the Modern as an a priori assumption when we create an Abstraction. Picasso, the Modern Prometheus, still has much to teach us all. What this small, powerful painting shows us is that our images do not weep.