Rough Trade – Vision

“I know what I was told a long time ago. The rainbow is the bridge between heaven and earth. It will shatter at the end of the world, once the devil has crossed it on horseback.” The Club Dumas Arturo Perez-Reverte

The problem is with thought. How we think. The problem begins in 19 Sixty and continues right up until now. Postmodernism started as critique, as a way to poke holes into the dark black edifice of Modernist thought. But by the mid-seventies something about the way this critique was formed had hardened rendering this type of rhetoric brittle and predictable. Maybe it was the cultural fallout after May 1968, maybe it was the Vietnam war and the total collapse of the United States’ government in Nixon’s years, or maybe it was the final economic triumph of corporatist power over democratic institutions. But a new type of power took hold and has been hard at work ever since. Postmodernism, once the locus of theoretical discontent and a tool to affect change, became the comfortable language of power – political, economic and cultural power. We saw this most prominently in the US conservative party’s embrace and promotion of Fukuyama’s POMO rhetorical tract “The End of History.” This love letter to “liberal democratic” society shows how deeply ingrained Postmodernist thought had become in our “new” media culture. It’s still quite a stunning piece of theoretical reversal, contextual argument and revisionist thought – an argument directed from the top down – a tract that maintains and legitimizes the global corporate institution as the true manifestation and final flowering of liberal democratic freedom.

“…I believe that both economics and politics presuppose an autonomous prior state of consciousness that makes them possible. But that state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history if it is underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy. We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.”

This sort of contextual solipsistic thinking inhabits our little world of art as well, and it has been used as a stick to keep us in line. It has shaped how Art is made, how it is discussed and how it is sold. Art and markets go hand in hand – indistinguishable from one another. If it sells it is good and right, and in many cases “advanced,” if not, well, it can hardly be worthwhile. We have had years and years of it – through my entire art life. I’ve watched art become an entertainment industry. We’ve discussed it at length in other posts and other critiques if you care to look. But for now I begin a general discussion of vision and in the 2 upcoming Rough Trade posts I will be very specific.

Let’s start with Jerry Saltz’s recent admissions in his post about the Venice Biennale. I am using Jerry’s work once again because he was/is the preeminent critical voice extolling the virtues of this type of endgame Postmodern art. – “The show… looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions, or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are “about” something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense, or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color, or strangeness… Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting… (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) It’s just another aesthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, aesthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop.”

These are all same critiques we at Henri have been making for a long time. I cut and pasted these segments from his review to make 2 points. One in agreement with Jerry – that if one questions the status quo one is derided as a “conservative” or worse a reactionary. The critique of the critique is not allowed. For the cogniscenti it is their means of maintaining the false assumption that those who are popular with curators, galleries and art fairs are indeed the “avant garde.” It is a way to maintain control while diffusing the question – one never has to reflect if one deflects. On the contrary when we critique the “critique” what we are looking for is a way forward, beyond Postmodernism and Postmodernism’s continuous need to create a Modernist bogeyman. (I think this is a kind of “Cold War” strategy used by the POMOs.) When we question the viability of Postmodernism we are not positing a “return” to anything. We simply want to move forward and out of this visual cul de sac. Postmodernism is moribund, reactionary, a now failed “ism” like any other “ism” of the 20th Century.

The second point I am adamant about is that painting, based on new visual ideas, is the way forward. Jerry’s right – it never did go away, but it hasn’t advanced very far over the last 40 or 50 years either. As we have shown in other posts so-called advanced painting remains in thrall to visual precepts developed in 19 Sixty, generally to Pop and specifically to Warhol – From A to B and Back Again. Painting can not keep repeating itself if it expects to survive. We must first understand that Postmodernism is not going away. Media Culture is not going away. The changes to the way we see and think are not going away. McLuhan and Baudrillard were both correct. What we have to do, must do, is find a way to incorporate an older and deeper way of thinking into the tools we’ve inherited. We must use Pop and Warhol in ways they have not been used. We can not ignore them or skip over them, they are far too powerful. We must find a way to paint that demands visual thinking, critical visual thinking not tied exclusively to reproduction or mediated sensibilities. Painting must be in the first person. What we must attack is the way painters put their works together. The way they compose their works. The way they use materials. The way they use color. The way they remain tied to materialism and physicality. The way they demand nothing of the viewer aside from complicity. We must find links to older, masterful visual work, but we must use that only as a guide and inspiration for what we do now. We must guard against the reactionary. And finally, we must demand that our art, our painting be bigger than the lens based programming world. That our painting be as insistent and engaging as the electronic world.

I realize that this is a tall order. In the next 2 posts I will discuss in detail what I’ve been doing in my studio. I want to show how these goals should be the persistent part of a critique, and a way to liberate one from too many of the doctrines of Postmodern practice.
The devil has crossed and the rainbow shattered.

Stay Tuned…

3 thoughts on “Rough Trade – Vision

  1. PS

    I think only radical street art, street painting and aware of dimension can have a slight chance against/with the digital

  2. Very interesting reading Mark, brilliant, although I doubt it but rather think: Painting is finished for a while, for 50-100 years, just give it a break. It’s too narrow and few dimensional (without to simplify great paintings)- it is not that the loss of skills dries out painting but I think it is the changing visual and communicational environment that brings painting down.

    There is no need and request for painting in the society of today. There is not this amount of a single focused attention anymore to get amazed of a rabbits fur like Dürer was and made others curious.

    Art is as on its closest connected with our understanding and view of the world, and both are changing extremely fast now
    The revolution comes from,with,via digital art works, as it combines the same unknown power and possibility of manipulation, what ones Oil Paint had. Oil painted hand-made art works lost their attention trigger.

    The Dutch artists of the 17th century stood in the focus of magic, in the focus of attention. That is not the case today.

    I made several tests, just upload one of the best contemporary paintings to a service like pic-fog or and compare the view counts with other/ordinary images. It can not compete. Art became in many cases not only visual uninteresting, but also does not initiate any discussion. When did you have your last long discussion about a single art work ??

    I wait for your next posts !
    Best regards, Hans

  3. Hans,

    I know the limitations we face and I understand the joys and wonders of the electronic world. But what I have been doing, what I am proposing, is that we find something visually deeper. I love painting. And that love of painting demands something more of me. I realize this may be a romantic idea of the power of painting and of vision, but I readily admit that I was lost long ago, the minute I stepped into San Rocco.

    My real world job demands that I have a deep understanding of electronic culture, but when I cross into the studio I have to be willing to become flesh and blood again. I find that the divide between these two states of consciousness has become smaller, one pulls into the other and I see things differently. My fear is that painting, or rather painters, have gotten intellectually, visually lazy and reactionary. Hopefully I’ll be able to show that I haven’t done the same in the next posts.

    Again, I agree with you – I think that we’ve moved away from the visual world, the literary man and we are now in a new electronic world. That is why I enjoy your web site. I can see you loading your world onto the net and it’s fascinating.

    As always my Best to you and your family,

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