Romanticism – Gray Flannel Artists

What we are doing in this ongoing series on Romanticism is adjusting your vision. We’re not interested in the usual Postmodern discussion formats or the same institutional approaches to the same kind of painting. Nor are we interested in looking back to a golden age. We are simply trying to find and describe a new vision, a new approach that will take us beyond the limits of the 20th Century; Modernism and Postmodernism.

Since the emergence of the Postmodern “executive artists” in the 1960s the way art is made, experienced and perceived has changed dramatically. And as artists have become more invested in the Art Market we’ve seen them espousing philosophies and practices that parallel those cherished by the larger business community. This has brought about an International Style, a Global School, an Institutional economy, and a singular approach to the production, presentation and dissemination of Art. The Romantic artist can not exist as he or she once did, nor can today’s Romantic artist make art (especially painting) in the old ways with the old visions. We are beyond that, we can’t afford that sort of naivety. That being said our “executive artists” can not EVER reach for something higher and grander than the professional world of business art – the market for the Gray Flannel artist can not, will not move beyond the simplicity of advertising, the uniformity of production or the ubiquity of copyright. What has been lost in the age of our executive artists is VISION; personal, grand and thrilling. Something that incorporates both the high and the low, the ridiculous and the sublime, the life of the mind and the emotion of the heart. These have all become scary things to talk about or paint because they require revealing oneself, declaring what one is, what one does. This is anathema for any executive. Maintaining a fluid essence is paramount in a constantly changing economic environment. In business one must cultivate the appearance that one can be all things to all potential customers.

Another change to the making of art since 1960 involved a shift away from aesthetic innovation to legal confrontation. Appropriation is the preferred tool for re-contextualizing the endless torrent of cultural product that is produced in the hyper-replicating lens based programming industry. Everything, every image, every program, book, song or movie is available at anytime in any form or format for a price. The way we define original acts is no longer in their creation but in their re-creation. The problem therefore is not with a history of constant aesthetic innovation; we are in a Post-aesthetic era. The problem is institutional – legal – copyright. There may never be another real uproar over aesthetic change or “dangerous” thought – radical ideas are quickly applied, subsumed or rejected through economic potentialities. Cultural ideas are marketed and tested with the consumer through spectacle and entertainment. (That is part of the reason there are no REAL critics any longer – there are only art writers.) The success of “art” is determined in the market place not through visual power or argument. The cultural uproar over the works of Picasso, Matisse or Pollock, the legal problems that faced James Joyce and Henry Miller – these are now the tattered remnants of aesthetic arguments in the Modernist age. These problems existed because there was a separation between culture, economics and politics. However in the Postmodern age these elements of an advanced society have all been subsumed into a larger institution – Empire. Business determines all aspects of the production and innovation of cultural products. There are no distinctions made between the facets of Empire – one feeds into the other – it is a vast tautological economy designed around the production, distribution and sales of goods and services. The artist no longer works outside the system, no longer works in spite of the system. Everything is business, and therefore, the professional artist is regulated by the same economic, legal and political institutions as any other business professional. Today when an artist breaks the rules he is challenging regulation, legal precedent rather than historical aesthetic precedent. The civil action has become the final arbiter of artistic success. The artist is seen as a “defendant” and if he loses the action the art is sanctified as “illegal” by the court. Litigation has replaced innovation, and in a weird twist, the Courts now decide if a work is “avant grade”. Business is truly the best art in the Postmodern age, and the Gray Flannel Artist works to fulfill business precepts.

I’ve been pulling together some things that may illustrate these points. We are used to reading about and seeing painting about painting, art about art, art about media experience, the end of the personal, the pictures generation, relational aesthetics, extended fields, conceptual practices – you name it, we live in an age of art product. Art has become full of business philosophies about market economies, production practices and executive cultures thinly disguised as art philosophies. These are all things that we must understand if we are to do something else, SEE something else, if we are to make a difference on the “canvas”.

“About what Judd contemptuously called “the salient and most objectionable relics of European art,” he was nothing if not explicit: “It suits me fine,” he said in a radio interview in 1964, “if that’s all down the drain.” He clearly meant it, too, for what was needed, in his view, was an art that would radically occlude all connection not only with the great traditions of the distant past but also with the kind of latter day modernism that he had come to regard as the depleted remnants of a moribund culture. For Judd, art itself had become a utopian project.” Hilton Kramer “Does Abstract Art Have a Future?”

“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Grover Norquist

“With the Schmagoo paintings, I really wanted to be able to be careless … work on them for a while, crumple them up in a ball, throw them in the corner. It was a relief. I like the idea that someone could spill a glass of wine on one of these things and it would be no big deal.” Joe Bradley

“You have enough to worry about…a messy stain should not be one of them!” Oxyclean

“…No subject/No image/No taste/ No object/No beauty/No message/No talent/No technique…I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows…” John Cage on the occasion of a showing of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings.

“…practitioners of the shock doctrine tend to seek a blank slate on which to create their ideal free market economies, which inevitably requires a usually violent destruction of the existing economic order.” Wikipedia entry for the Shock Doctrine.

“The business of America is Business.” Calvin Coolidge

“Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” Andy Warhol

In a free-enterprise, private-property sys­tem, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct re­sponsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. Milton Friedman “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”

“This is about chaos. This is why it’s called Operation Chaos! It’s not called Operation Save Hillary. It’s not called Operation Nominate Obama. It’s called Operation Chaos! The dream end… I mean, if people say what’s your exit strategery, the dream end of this is that this keeps up to the convention and that we have a replay of Chicago 1968, with burning cars, protests, fires, literal riots, and all of that. That’s the objective here.” Rush Limbaugh “Why It’s Called Operation Chaos”

“Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Advanced art today is no longer a cause /it contains no moral imperative. There is no virtue in clinging to principles and standards, no vice in selling or in selling out.” Harold Rosenberg “The Cultural Situation Today”

What would it look like not to repress the concept of the copy? What would it look like to produce a work that acted out the discourse of reproductions without originals, that discourse which could only operate in Mondrian’s work as the inevitable subversion of his purpose, the residue of representationality that he could not sufficiently purge from the domain of his paintings? The answer to this, or at least one answer, is that it would look like a certain kind of play with the notions of photographic reproduction that begins in the silkscreen canvases of Robert Rauschenberg…. Rosalind Kraus “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths”

“Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.” Nassim Taleb “The Black Swan”

Avant-garde art, lately Americanized, is for the first time associated with big money. And this is because its occult aims and uncertain future have been successfully translated into homely terms. For far-out modernism, we can now read ‘speculative growth stock’; for apparent quality, ‘market attractiveness’; and for adverse change of taste, ‘technical obsolesence’. A feat of language to absolve a change of attitude. Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria” 1968

In January the Paris-based A&F Markets launched the online Art Exchange — on which investors can buy and sell shares in individual art-works — to a mixed reception. “Can an online exchange turn artworks into liquid assets?” Judd Tully Art Info

Josh Smith wanted to create a show of paintings that looked like something else. The intention was to make “art without an art object” and to take the commodity out of the art. There is nothing in the exhibition to covet or to buy. The work is only to be looked at. He wanted to “bring painting down.””

“What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece. Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply. At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.” Raphael Rubenstein Provisional Painting

Prince testified that he has no interest in the original meaning of the photographs he uses. See RP Tr. at 338. Prince testified that he doesn’t really have a “message” he attempts to communicate when making art. RP Tr. at 45-46. In creating the Paintings, Prince did not intend to comment on any aspects of the original works or on the broader culture. Cariou v. Prince et al.

The Romantic artist no longer exists and the legacy of engagement, rebellion and innovation OUTSIDE the accepted structures of taste has been lost. These days I’m thinking that it has become time to paint and talk about art that is “presumptuous or inappropriate-maybe even obscene”. Ideas that wouldn’t be understood by the crowds accustomed to institutionally sanctioned critique. Ideas that would fly in the aesthetic face of global brand consciousness and business first attitudes in the Art World. Something that is one’s own, wrought with one’s own sweat and effort and sacrifice, expressing one’s own unique vision, one’s own will to be different, not for the sake of difference but because one is truly different.

2 thoughts on “Romanticism – Gray Flannel Artists

  1. I can’t help but but be reminded that the unintended consequences of any action are far more numerous and likely to be more consequential than the intended ones.

    I just finished reading Thomas Hart Benton’s article “American Regionalism: A History of the Movement” reprinted in the 1969 edition of his “An American in Art.” In it he makes much the same kind of statement as you are making here, although he was at the beginning rather than at the far end of the consequences.
    [The Benton essay was originally published in The University of Kansas City Review, Vol XVIII, no.1 (Autumn 1951)]

  2. OUCH! I would hope that my aesthetic choices would be far different than Benton’s. I’m not making a case for reactionary art in any form, and for me, Benton’s art and ideas are filled with nostalgia, never moving beyond their small ideas of community, fraternity and republicanism – safe, sedate and easy. I’d like to think that we are indeed on the “far end of the consequences” of Postmodernism (which at this point is as derivative as American Regionalism), and we’re trying to make something a bit different in meaning and experience. I was afraid that I hadn’t made my point – the quotations are designed to show the similarities in the way “cutting edge” artists and conservative business people speak about their products and philosophies. I guess the sword swings both ways – I’ll have to make my discussions sharper and clearer in the future! Thanks for the comment June – as always!

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