Renunciation of the Craft

“As for the plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges…
Then again, there are those who anxiously ask, “Is he serious or is he joking?” Perhaps he is both! Is it not possible? In this connection I think it would be well to remember that the sense of the ridiculous as well as “the sense of the tragic increases and declines with sensuousness.” It puts it rather up to you. And there is among us today a spirit of “blague” arising out of the artist’s bitter vision of an over-institutionalized world of stagnant statistics and antique axioms. With a frank creed of immutability the Chinese worshipped their ancestors and dignity took the place of understanding; but we who worship Progress, Speed and Efficiency are like a little dog chasing after his own wagging tail that has dazzled him. Our ancestor-worship is without grace and it is because of our conceited hypocracy that our artists are sometimes sad, and if there is a shade of bitter mockery in some of them it is only there because they know that the joyful spirit of their work is to this age a hidden treasure.” [Louise Norton on The Richard Mutt Case]

Greenberg violently rejected Duchamp and did his best to avoid situating Malevich within his particular conception of the history of modernism, which he saw as culminating in “American-type painting” and in the flat illusionism of Olitski. But, almost in spite of himself, he could not avoid registering the epistemological consequences of their real place in the history of painting. For example, contrary to other critics, he perceived that craft and the abandonment of craft were one and the same thing. He based himself on Pollock or Newman rather than on Malevich, but he always perceived that the border line between what is still painting and what is no longer is a dialectical one that is always being displaced in history. In 1863, for example, a border line was drawn between Ingres and Manet, and in 1947 one was drawn between Pollock and Picasso. Painters themselves displaced it by calling for the public’s retrospective approval of significant pictorial innovations that, at first glance, always present themselves as a renunciation of the craft and conventions of painting. But Greenberg thought that this deconstruction had an end point, which is its involuntary tropism, and that modern painters got rid of the “expendable conventions” of painting only in order to uncover an irreducible remainder consisting of its essential conventions. He thus found himself inevitably drawn to fetishizing the formal characteristics of paintings, and even of the unpainted canvas, as if they held the ultimate power to trace the limit between that which deserves the name painting and that which no longer does. Since, in a pinch, these formal characteristics no longer depended on craft, they had to take refuge in the empirical conventions of easel painting, in the very fact of being a flat and delimited piece of canvas stretched on a frame: “By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture: thus, a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture—though not necessarily as a successful one.” [Thierry de Duve on The Readymade and Abstraction]

For many critics, the absence of stylistic markers indicates the demise of a common culture, a deeply troubling development, which at best implies cultural stasis, and at worst, cultural surrender. “We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times,” lamented the writer Douglas Coupland in an article in which he introduced literary atemporality, which he dubbed “translit.” Pop-music critic Simon Reynolds, who coined the term retro-mania to describe contemporary pop music in the a ugh-ties, also sees the erosion of era-defining genres as an intellectual dead end, “We’re quite deep into a phase of anything-goes, guiltless appropriation, a free-for-all of asset-stripping that ranges all over the globe and all across the span of human history,” he writes. “This leads to the paradoxical combination of speed and standstill.” Although, Reynolds explains, we have the possibility of “rapid movement within a network of knowledge,” he concludes with regret that we lack the modernism-fueled creative moxie that characterized the twentieth century, “the outward-bound drive that propelled an entire system into the unknown.” Without this jet pack driving us to a common creative future, Reynolds is despairing of contemporary music, and by extension, contemporary culture. Both Coupland’s and Reynolds’s observations reveal an acute nostalgia for a time when things were new and a deep mourning for the missing propulsive shot of energy that attended an act of what could be interpreted as cultural progress. But what if, as in William Gibson’s original formulation, atemporality was considered as a strategy of resistance, a way of opting out of the industrialization of novelty,” the syndrome of growth and expansion at any cost? What if abstaining from new aesthetic forms meant gaining new ways of understanding the use of form in light of digital technology and the swift circulation of knowledge? What if the promiscuous mixing of styles has the positive outcome of providing a mechanism to overcome “oppressive traditions [and] xenophobia?” What if atemporality allowed us to roam around, instead of plow forward? [Laura Hoptman Forever Now]

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