Compelling Scenarios Part 1

The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking. There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way… Thus, the generation of a specific scenario may inhibit the emergence of other scenarios, particularly those that lead to different outcomes.

“Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability”, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232 (1973).




This era’s compelling art scenario, mixed up as it is with an overwrought economy, has created something that we call the Modernist Era. Our scenario is a metastasized belief system born of Modernism’s technical processes and Postmodernism’s market savvy. But let’s not confuse our Modernist era with the Modern one from which it came. Modernism was leftist in flavor, anti-bourgeois in taste and bohemian in attitude. The Modernist Era is centrist in flavor, pro-bourgeois in taste and corporate in attitude. This reversal in theoretical structure has a lot to do with the realities, expectations and tastes of American society.

When Modernism first came to the United States (in 1917 with the Armory Show) it brought a load of social baggage with it. The last thing Americans wanted, then or now for that matter, was leftist ideology or revolutionary fervor. In 1939 when Clem Greenberg wrote Avant-Garde and Kitsch there wasn’t an American Avant-garde. There wasn’t even an advanced form of painting or sculpture being produced in our studios. Basically, there was a bunch of European Modern knock-offs and a few nativist ne’er do wells showing at 291. So Clem took it upon himself to create an avant-garde by producing a compelling scenario.

This avant-garde wasn’t modeled on the revolutionary precepts and rebellious insurrections of European Modernism. It was modeled after the practical entrepreneurship of the American business world. AG&K concentrated on the functions of Modernism itself, how Modernism actually worked as art, leaving out any references to spiritual, societal or political issues. How one produces art would become the point of the Art, the self-referential subject of the work – How not What. If one could then infer other things from the outcomes of this Process, well then, that was just fine and dandy.

Clem determined that advanced art was to be freed of the world of common experience, or in layman’s terms the what. No direct imagery would cloud these pictures, and this ambiguity of subject matter would allow Greenberg to promote advanced art as business friendly, less objectively objectionable to the paying American elites. This new form of Advanced Art aspired to present itself as Fordist in its perfection of process. And in doing so it assured artists that style could become copyrightable, would ensure the rise of a singular branded form of art making. This difference, the emphasis on the how something is produced as opposed to what is produced, created something that the Modernists call Cutting Edge Art rather than the concept of Revolutionary Art used by the Moderns.

“It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at “abstract” or “nonobjective” art — and poetry, too. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape — not its picture — is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself… The very values in the name of which he invokes the absolute are relative values, the values of aesthetics. And so he turns out to be imitating, not God — and here I use “imitate” in its Aristotelian sense — but the disciplines and processes of art and literature themselves. This is the genesis of the “abstract….”

…But today such culture is being abandoned by those to whom it actually belongs — our ruling class. For it is to the latter that the avant-garde belongs. No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.”

“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, Clement Greenberg, 1939 (italics and bold are mine)

This Modernist compelling scenario has underwritten our avant-garde since the 1950s. Clem’s masterful idea of studio production and real-world marketing targeting a particular audience as potential customers was wholly new at the time, and I dare say, radical. No avant-garde that came before had been so outwardly marketed as a “product” meant for a particular kind of  collector. Within a few years his avant-garde had become a huge financial success. Clem’s formula and seal of approval changed the entire game. It turns out he was a genius of marketing and promotion. Painters who had worked in obscurity and poverty for years suddenly found themselves featured in magazines, collected by museums and shipping their work around the world to be shown in other art capitals.

What followed was an explosion of new art, young artists, new professionals, galleries, and the formation of a growing and industrious art world that didn’t need Clem’s imprimatur in order to sell – as long as the work honed to the formula. In fact Clem’s Modernist scenario has been so effective that even to this day his principles defining how Modernist art should work continue to underwrite the recurring Process oriented sub-genres that fuel and dominate our market driven avant-garde. NeoModernists, Postmodernists and now the NeoLiberal Modernists have all successfully employed Clem’s formula to great effect and great success. In fact all “advanced art” made these days conforms to this formula even when employing the world of common experience.


What’s interesting in the Hirst video is how everything presented is about Process: How it’s made, how it’s presented, how it’s perceived, how much it costs, and how the market is involved in every facet of the spectacle. What we are looking at and what that might mean is never fully discussed and is not of any real interest. Logistics, production, presentation, and performance are what matters. The Process, the Market, abstracts everything!

Part 2 to come…

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