Carter Ratcliff

  • The Big Fight.

    MODERN LIFE HAS TAKEN an odd turn in the last few years. We are Post-Moderns now. That, anyway, is the claim made by some. Among those declaring the end of Modern times are journalists who use “Post-Modern” to signify their professionalism, their command of current trends and buzzwords. Others are theorists who argue that modern life, modernity, and Modernism are all over, that we’ve entered a new cultural period. These thinkers include certain philosophers, critics, artists, and architects, though it is not always clear what “Post-Modern” means to each. So far it is a nebulous, incoherent

  • Close encounters with unidentified flying zeitgeists.

    FROM OUTPOSTS BEYOND THE borders of the art world, observers often accuse art and artists of being fashionable. The charge is old and the defense familiar: what you call a fashion, we call a trend. Trends aren’t just the latest buzz. They’re significant. Read them right and you discover the true nature of the present. You get a glimpse of the future. Trends are patterns to be analyzed, codes to be broken.

    Jean-François Champollion looked like a hero to the Romantics because he deciphered the Rosetta Stone’s Egyptian hieroglyphics. Seeing endless hieroglyphics in the textures of ordinary forms

  • After the loss of Challenger, the cost of instant replay.

    ON FIRST VIEWING, THE IMAGE of the exploding space shuttle Challenger looked ungraspably awful. But instant replay soon turned first viewing into second viewing, then third, and fourth. Repeated over and over, the record of a terrifying malfunction became, with appalling speed, a static emblem. Repetition carried over from television to the covers of magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, which all showed the explosive cloud. Here and abroad, newspapers had already run the same image in edition after edition.

    By the time schoolteacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s face appeared on

  • How Scale Works.

    FOR EVERYONE TO HAVE a computer, or at least to contemplate getting one, the scale of the object had to shrink from room size to the dimensions of a smallish television set. Now that the computer has been shrunk some more, you can carry it like a briefcase.

    Function dictates dimensions, but not without leaving room for thoroughly nonfunctional considerations. Ads for the Apple computer define it as “cute,” an unstated contrast to their competitor IBM’s “Personal Computer” campaign. Guess which computer looks—and, optical effects aside, actually is—larger. And there is no functional advantage to

  • the Manet tapes and more recent dupes.

    MOVIE MARQUEES ONCE READ, “Paul Newman Is Hud.” Today, the art marquee might as well read, ”Is Mike Bidlo Jackson Pollock?" Bidlo signals clearly enough that he’s nothing of the sort, but his Pollock impersonation is sharp enough to offer a warning—something’s up: some of us are still unable to abandon the faith that life travels in some chartable direction, so we try to run the historical tape in reverse.

    Around 1979 the art world rewound its tape to bring us back to the figure, to narrative, to painting. Those were the early days of the “Italian Invasion,” the ”German Invasion’: the American

  • AIDS. The buried allegory.

    Our fear of AIDS mimics the most ancient fears of cholera, bubonic plague, yellow fever. Plague panic feels justified, and simplifies our morality. Judgments arrive with the speed of terrified reflex—judgments about oneself, about others, about the future. That’s how the image of a plague permits us, encourages us, to react. Hope turns to medicine, not as a branch of science but as a latter-day source of miracles. Every lab worker becomes a potential San Gennaro, the saint who rescued Naples from the p]ague of 1656.

    The plague metaphor offers yet another sign that medieval, even pre-historical

  • Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris

    Thomas E. Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 292 pages, 150 black and white and 8 color illustrations.

    Art history struggles to ignore all issues but those raised by iconography, form, and artists’ biography The struggle usually succeeds. As practiced in universities and museums, respectable art history still has little to say about the cultural, social, and economic situations for art. Thus Thomas E. Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris does not count as a work of art history, for it talks in

  • History is still bunk.

    HISTORY IS A repertory of gestures, the rhetoric that shapes the rubble of the past into a plausibly unified structure. To know history too well is to be too fluent in those gestures, and too profligate. When fluency becomes extravagance, history’s images begin to blot one another out. Too much knowledge about history leaves us as blank as total ignorance of history.

    So which is it in art today: the historical overload or the historical blank-out? Either way, we bask in the glamour of apocalypse, the exhilarating fear that it doesn’t matter whether we’re too innocent or too sophisticated because,

  • Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings.

    By Diane Upright, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985, 264 pp., 25 black and white and 741 color illustrations.

    THE NEW YORK formalist critics active in the ’60s got their name because they focused on matters of form: look at pictorial form the right way, they argued, and you can determine whether or not it possesses “quality,” a trait that Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and the other formalists treated like a substance—elusive, of course, but aren’t most precious substances elusive?

    When accused of carrying on like laboratory detectives, the formalists would always hedge: to see quality,

  • Double lives. Paintings in trench coats.

    WE’RE RELUCTANT TO TAKE a work of art seriously unless it leads a double life. On the one hand, we require it to register protests against commodification, reification, alienation—all the evil spells cast by the marketplace. On the other, we expect a work of art to sell well, or at least respectably. Marketplace hits get the most critical ink, especially from the writers who complain the loudest about hype, and the art-loving public accords star status to few artists with reliably sluggish sales records.

    It’s easy to define art world as art market, and to conclude that nothing counts any longer

  • Security check for image hostages. Read this or else.

    THOSE WHO TAKE HOSTAGES make a hostage of television too. It’s their medium of choice.

    Having barricaded himself in a room and aimed a weapon at captives, a man submits to the authorities a list of more or less demented requests. Hardly anyone remembers the deals that are inevitably made. Another hostage crisis is over in a couple of hours, when “trained specialists” talk the man out from behind his barricade. Some hostage crises go on longer—17 days, 444 days. Each inflicts its own torments. We who haven’t felt those torments can’t know much about them. All we know is how the crisis plays on

  • Utopianism become survivalism—the quantum mechanics of body-building, in the West and in the East.

    TO LIVE MODERN LIFE was to feel optimistic. That has changed. Every last impulse of Modernity is now a hostage to post-Modernity and its fears of ultimate destruction. Utopianism has turned into survivalism. Rehearsing for the day after, gun freaks dress up in tiger suits and replay green beret in the foothills. In the cities, architects retrofit their plans with remnants of past glories. Everywhere painters try to rework the avant-garde "isms”—Expressionism, Surrealism, even Cubism. As usual, movies give obsession the most glamorous patina. Hollywood’s biggest hits of the season define the body