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PRINT February 1968

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“The Academy,”Art News Annual #XXXIII

The Academy, Art News Annual #XXXIII, ed. Thomas Hess & John Ashbery (Macmillan, N.Y. 1967), 176 pages, illustrations.

Failed art, as prevalent as forgettable conversation, rarely provides a critical issue. We are success oriented, not inclined to devote much attention to the downbeat and the also-rans. But, (leaving aside simple deficiency of talent), the latter often fall into commingled categories—the sentimental, the rhetorical, and the academic—which are quite worth studying as phenomena that may shift their perimeters at any moment. For every gesture or sensibility in art is now shadowed by the imminence of our satiety, the ever shortening time span when an esthetic vision will come to seem mere formula. At a time when formula itself is being substituted for “vision,” when the most progressive impulses become a matter of displaced stereotypes, almost appearing pre-exhausted of human spontaneity, a re-examination of the relation between artistic success and academicism may broach some surprises. This, in fact, is what the current Art News Annual, “The Academy” (edited by Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery) intermittently offers. But the results do not altogether comprise the positive re-evaluations evidently implied by the editors.

This volume was conceived to rehabilitate, or at the very least, cast sympathetic light upon the history of academic organizations in Western art since the Carracci at the end of the 16th century. It is composed of fourteen essays, written mostly by academics themselves, art historians browsing around in some of the mustier nooks of their specialties. That such an enterprise takes place at this time is not merely witness of a scholastic interest in the academic, but also fruit of a new, hyper-mannered and over-intellectualized receptivity to contemporary art. Not merely can one find growing tolerance for such things as suppressed eroticism, exalted self consciousness, and grandiose intentions, but definite appreciation of serial images, and codified patterns, strokes, and images. All these are possible hallmarks of the academic which have carried over to the present, without, however, their usual accompaniment of a hierarchical value structure, or apparent coordination with a generally authoritarian government policy. Politically liberal, the Annual’s writers have no wish to endorse the repressive auspices of their subjects, though their esthetic liberality makes some of them receptive to rather dubious art. To read between their lines is to detect a certain uneasiness of tone. The problem is not made simpler by modern art’s fairly unregenerate attitude toward tradition as contrasted with academic art’s worshipful allegiance to it.

One of the instructive reminders of this volume, however, is that at their inception, most of the academies were revolutionary. It is hard to reconcile our fond notion of the avant-garde (of which, more, later), with the imperious careerism of Le-Brun or the insipidity of Mengs. Yet both artists crystallized the germinal stylistic cadences and iconographic references for the art of their society, an art that previously had shown itself unfocused on the question of where to channel its primary energies. And, if this can be said of LeBrun, it applies with even greater force to the Carracci, who provided the once vital norms for a whole century of art. Unquestionably, the academic impulse has one thing in common with all ambitious art: the realization of a kind of power.

For a time, when this power was directed to evolving a coherent artistic doctrine that attempted to balance a comprehensive world view with empirical visual standards, as in Jacques Louis David, it had the capacity to reach great heights. Such power, indeed, could have a liberating effect upon a milieu, all the more evident when it succeeded in attaching to itself the most important forms of patronage. One reason why the academic system flourished in France, whereas it did not anywhere near as well in Italy, was the centralization of such patronage, and the compatibility of an idealistic point of view in the arts with the government’s dynastic image of itself. Here, the incipient academy’s struggle to break free from the restrictive guilds and its search to elevate the status of art into a recognized intellectual discipline, eventually merged into the brute need to perpetuate itself, through teaching, mainly, and an award system.

Power, then, began to take on a bureaucratic guise, alien to the development of that individual creativity which had once been the goal of the early academics. With the advent of the 19th century, there was added to this opposition such conflicts as those between style and observation, fidelity to the past and commitment to the present, and assertion of the consensus choice and responsibility of the self, all of which exacerbated the academy, and brought out its worst features. In a word, romantic fragmentation inevitably belied the monolithic pretensions of the academy, discrediting its legitimizing of historical myth simultaneously with its standards of measurable competence.

But there is a level on which one cannot sensibly chart the development of the phenomenon, “five centuries of grandeur and misery,” as the editors sonorously call it. For, a full definition of the academy must include a certain inner condition or attitude, not merely the rise and fall of an organization. Harold Rosenberg is the only writer to isolate this second line of inquiry. “A distinction needs to be made between academic art based on classical and Renaissance models and the academizing process by which all styles are in time tamed and made to perform in the circus of public taste . . . People who speak of ‘academic modernism’ or the ‘modern academy,’ meaning run-of-mill Abstract Expressionism, Pop or Op, confuse the academic convention with art that has become conventional.”

The implications here are quite staggering. It needs to be said, surely, that modern art has the capacity to become “conventionalized” at any moment, that time, in fact, is against it, that its peaks are tiny areas temporarily wrested free from the twin demons of progress and stagnation. Thus, most second generation art in any idiom or movement (art that has made a belated “entrance,” as George Kubler would say), tends to fall into the category of the conventionalized, of which the true sign is no longer an attempt to gain power, but the victory of fatigue within a conservationist perspective. (Fear of change can do nothing against the existence of change.) In any event, if a status quo is here completely illusory, the perennially fluid transformations in any one artistic concept do not necessarily guarantee the “academizing process” any history. On the contrary, it cannot possess a history of its own because fatigue atomizes time, cleaves it of shape and proportion. The outward forms of retrenchment and the clash of isms (after they had become isms), therefore, have only an arbitrary continuity; what really distinguishes them, from a critical standpoint, is not merely their low threshold of invention, but their tone of paralysis and sterility—the most homogeneous psychology imaginable.

Yet, this is not to say that any consciousness of their dilemma is implicit in the biographies of the artists in this book. Often these men exhibit a conviction and radiate an authority, which, in various degrees, misrepresents their actual situation. Even when their work is in perfect accord with the bourgeois prejudices of their audience, which is frequent, the gap between their authenticity as creators and their image of themselves does not have much contemporary visibility: This imparts a considerable and recognizable falseness to the academic spectacle. For its confusion of social improvement or acceptance with the necessities of art is all the more pervasive when unknowing, and hypocritical, when self-aware.

Despite many painterly felicities, too much in pompier art appears to be unctuous or pandering, paternalistic, whorish, bathetic, theatrical and jingoistic. A great deal of this false consciousness stems from the romantic imperative itself, with its emphasis on art as a psychic appeal, in an age in which there is no longer a common appeal, except to the incomprehension of the public. (The 19th century demonstrates the shift of academic art from an elitist to a populist position.) It goes far to explain, not the conventional idioms of the Salon, but their outworn or threadbare look, that officialdom felt obliged to abandon the prerogatives of discovering its own psychological reality. This forced it to vacillate philosophically, too, so that whereas in the early 19th century, the enemy had been materialism and positivism, in the fin-de-siècle, it became symbolism. Nothing better illustrates academicism’s fundamentally reactionary nature than the intractable way it shuns all the living ideas that animate its contemporaries. If, in practice, one finds a Bonvin aping a Courbet, or a Besnard debasing a Redon, this hardly invalidates the closure, the passive aggression of a syndrome to which the deepest menace is self-sufficiency.

Two consequences are noticeable. One is that all idioms in art are nothing other than what they are: modes of which it is completely arbitrary to conclude that they have esthetic importance until it is demonstrated that a man of real independence has worked within them. The habit of mind which sees the history of modern art of the last hundred years as an exclusive progression of “movements,” devalues its one genuinely decisive agent—the artist who, for whatever length of time, keeps the academizing process at bay. (Conversely, the existence of only one such artist “legitimizes” the idiom with which he is associated). The other consequence is that since the greater part of past and present art is compounded of work of extreme academic latency, if not outright academic coloration, the subject of the Art News Annual becomes vaster than anyone really imagined. The Annual’s previous number, “The Grand Eccentrics,” studied that handful of creators whose obsessions involuntarily cashiered them from the mainstream of received ideas (though hardly from artistic conventions as such). The present book examines an infinitely extendible number of artists for whom that same mainstream becomes both a necessary fiction and an unconscious prison—and, above all, a kind of ambivalent paradise regained. In other words, it scrutinizes the normal condition of art.

As a result, what we have is a generally factual exposition of a gallery of familiar types, even if much of the work illustrated is recherché. There is, for instance, the grand bland old man, Reynolds, of whom John Russell writes that “(he) is not loved. He is respected,” and that his theorizing “can . . . be regarded as a vast compensatory operation, just as his dependence upon society can be interpreted as a by-product of fear and anxiety.” Reynolds was, Dr. Johnson is quoted as saying, “zealous for nothing.” At the opposite extreme would be the misunderstood “genius,” represented by A. J. Carstens, Peter Cornelius, and Anselm Feuerbach, “Teutons in Togas,” as Gert Schiff calls them. Intensely eclectic, they wanted either to force the academic mold into an “expressionist” vehicle it was never intended to be, or to humanize or relax it, in some opposition to its current state of rigidity, without voicing any serious disagreement with its basic tenets. Between these poles exist many intermediate and varying positions. There is, for example, Albert Moore, the friend of Whistler, who, as Allen Staley indicates, attempted to redirect the most academic naturalism into what came to be the esthetic movement, mistaking, as he did so, a photographic study of the accoutrements and stance of Hellenized women for the essentials of the Greek pursuit of beauty. Or, one can find in Robert Rosenblum’s thoroughgoing study of the followers of Ingres, a crowd of acolytes who paid the richness and scope of the master the compliment of their innumerable opportunistic and suave “adaptations.” Then again, the complete parvenu is not absent from these pages, being embodied in Charles Garnier, architect of the Grand Opera, that full-blooded miracle of compromise. (John Jacobus does Garnier scrupulous and subtle justice.) Nor can one easily forget the obscenity exuded by Nazi sculptors of whose work Harold Rosenberg, with proper revulsion, says that they “seem born to carry on their faces a peevish emptiness aggressively directed like Nazi politics itself, against every fact and idea of the 20th century. A conscious ennobling of murder exists not too far below the surface in the works of these horrible professors dreaming of the heroic . . .” That the legacy of these 19th century problems is with us even today is witnessed by the fact that one of the Annual’s authors is himself of that era, at least in spirit—Salvador Dali.

Why this concentration on the 19th century? The forms and the subjects of the preponderance of its art are a world removed from us. But not its mentality. Though much is done to minimize its deficiencies (its scholasticism does require special pleading), though the methods and tools employed to examine it are those also used for the great old masters, academic art of the last century is not given any refurbished historical importance. Nor does the undoubted attraction of this self-indulgence for an art as chafing in its chastity as ours, go far to explain our renewed fascination with it. A far better cause of the latter, I suspect, is the fact that the 19th century forced into the open the choice between artistic innovation and retrenchment, and therefore initiated that rootlessness against which the avant-garde and the academy were in equal protest.

Today, we know that the left wing, so to speak, of that protest has been the sole survivor, but we are also becoming increasingly aware that this. has been purchased only at a cost of its tending to be more and more like its one-time antagonist. That is, it has become a medley of individuals accommodating themselves to the simultaneous pressures of continuity and change in ways not dissimilar from Gérome or Fortuny, Chasseriau or Burne Jones.

It is this configuration which interests us, a configuration, I might add, of power forced into self-cannibalization by its own self-consciousness. Undoubtedly, the prototypes for such conflicts had existed prior to the 19th century, but never had they resulted in the stylistic pluralism with which we are now faced, never did they extend very much out of an homogeneous conceptual and social framework to which they could securely relate. In place of that framework, one sees the establishment of a thought control, of virulent ideological pretensions in the last century, more subtle and self-censuring in ours. Consider the description in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities of a 19th century that,

had been clever in technical and commercial matters and in research, but outside these focal points of its energy, it had been quiet and treacherous as a swamp. It had painted like the Old Masters, written like Goethe and Schiller, and built its houses in the Gothic or Renaissance style. Insistence on the Ideal dominated all manifestations of life, like the headquarters of a police force. But by virtue of that secret law that will not permit man any kind of imitation without his getting an exaggeration along with it, everything was at that time done with a correctness of craftsmanship such as the admired prototypes could never have achieved and the traces of which can still be seen in the streets and museums even today . . . It may therefore be useful to be reminded that in bad epochs the most frightful buildings and poems are made according to principles exactly as beautiful as in the best epochs; that all the people who take part in destroying the achievements of a previous good period do so with the feeling that they are improving on them; and that the bloodless young people of such a time think exactly as much of their young blood as the new people of all other times do.

Unquestionably, this is a rather deflating thing to say. In the context in which I want to put it here, it amounts to stating that once the responsibility to be creative had been clarified, and this occurred with Manet in 19th-century art, so too the flight from that responsibility was gradually identified. From then on, it was only a matter of time before the “academic convention” had to collapse into the “academizing process.” Self-perpetuation could no longer be embedded in a wide-ranging program, but could only be undertaken as a more or less self-deceiving way out of an impasse. This did not, and still doesn’t, inhibit highmindedness and protectionism, a kind of moral fatuity; on the contrary, it guarantees their continued presence. But it does expose them as a failure of nerve—and this exposure—actually of a negative potential—is as much a modern feature of that age as the accomplishment of its forward looking geniuses. Again, there was nothing intrinsically new in the phenomenon, except for the edge of desperation and fixation that it gave nostalgia. Yet it could no longer be received as something merely circumstantial. A definite malaise had settled into art, by virtue of the individual’s incapacity to withstand isolation in the face of the isolation to which any creative self-fulfillment would inevitably drive him. A new form of organization of artistic thought had to displace the Salon, and it is therefore no accident that the avant-garde, arm-in-arm with the critic-dealer system, came into prominence, or rather, was enrolled to fill the breach.

It is one tribute to the dragging effect of what I call failure of nerve, that the avant-garde turned into a phenomenon of extremely short-winded sequences of esthetic concepts. Its breathiness, panting almost, is a sign of great strain. Whereas a chief problem of academic artists had been to reconcile a prescribed notion of finish with the proscribed freshness of their unspoiled sketches, the avant-garde artists faced the ever present dissolution of their discoveries into public domain. Their very dedication to originality insured the insatiable desire to consume it at a proportionately faster pace. No sooner had they established something new than it was threatened by a new predator—oncoming conventionality. Here, a terrifying inheritance of the 19th century results in mobility for momentum’s sake.

Obviously, this too emerges as a form of thought control with its own burdens of conformity, as testified by the expanding squeeze made on every significant artistic movement of the 20th century by the “academizing process.” In this instance, acceleration of stylistic change is but the obverse of deceleration, with all its attendant dilemmas. Of late, we have seen the crumbling even of the “movements” themselves, the last noteworthy blocs of artistic classification, as they broke up in the unremitting tension generated by divergent impulses of reaction. But this new dissolution in the way modern art is thought to organize and present itself, if it made the artist for a brief moment Vulnerable to solitude, is bringing forth a radical compensation, of which we are going to see a good deal more in the future. It is taking the form of reculer pour mieux sauter.

Many social and cultural reasons can be advanced to explain the recent growth in the engagement of art with technology. For my purposes, however, the revealing features are the corporate implications of “scientistic” art. The contemporary artists’ ability to see themselves as technicians, once a form of liberation from the cant of artistic heroism during the fifties, now becomes a reversion to, or at least a longing for, the atmosphere of the old guilds. Not merely does a monumental or public art call for a standardization of vocabulary, but it demands a rationalization of procedures, largely ordained by the industrial origin of the new art work, that is, the manufactured processing of its materials. That this retreat from originality often announces itself in futuristic jargon underlines its revivalist ethos. Large scale, highly structured enterprises, of the kind programmed by Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), kinetic art, and prophesized by the municipal patronage of sculpture, wedge through, as their long term outcome, the diminution and neutralization of the artist’s critical obligations—to himself and society.

There are two further consequences of this development. (For the following formulations I am indebted to Harvey Wheeler and Christopher Lasch.) One is the mistake that art and science evolve analogically. The uniqueness of the emotional, imaginative, and humanistic problems with which art is concerned can never be layered into ascending criteria of achievement. Since modern art is always in the process of remaking values before submitting itself to be judged by them, it is a non-cumulative, non deterministic experience, having to be re-created at every new turn of its history. Moreover, what is expressed exists only once, and is in essence communicable, but non-transferable. Science, on the other hand, is an objective body of knowledge which is augmented by the pragmatic checking of suppositions by data. This checking, the constant truth value of science, may invalidate conjecture even as it cumulatively builds information about recurring phenomena. Scientific theory and operation may therefore be said to progress, the known pressing perceptibly into the unknown in a history of ever increasing, step-by-step accomplishment. It has been one of the evident but frustrated dreams of academic art to exchange its non-cumulative status for the cumulative condition and authority, if hardly the content, of science. (Here, differences between idealism and pragmatism are, indeed, academic.) Consistently enough, new work replaces the old genres of still life, landscape, and history with fresh genres: battery, cord and plug, and computer art. And now we are finally on the verge of beholding the artist in his final incarnation as technocrat, driving home the scientific entente with such’ unashamed false consciousness as to establish an academic convention all over again.

Even more disturbing is the repressive element that always chaperons such an event: government patronage. Money, on levels never before available, is needed to materialize the really big projects in future art. It will be coming—already comes—from foundations, official agencies, and government endowments. Further evidence of the academization of contemporary art is easy to find in the absence of any protest to this imminent bureaucratic take-over. On the contrary, the behavior of the artists and sculptors betrays great eagerness to be subsidized, much in the spirit of scientists hungry for grants to conduct ever more sophisticated experiments in “pure research.” It is no coincidence that government begins to sponsor art just when artists are prepared to be “disinterested.” (A great difference, incidentally, exists between impersonality and “disinterestedness” in art. The former is a matter of a stylistic cooling down; the latter is an affair of trial and error, guided by non-personal objectives.) What makes this situation so attractive to government is that such art has no political content, being a series of unintelligible operations that can be manipulated as a tamed form of conspicuous waste. What makes it alluring for artists is the togetherness,the chance to do expensive things, the greater diffusion and prominence of their work, issuing from its centralized sponsor: all this sanctified by the quite justified conviction that it is revolutionary, to boot. At some near point in time, the elaborate gearing and tooling necessary for “creating“ modern art will produce a dependency impossible to relinquish. By then, it will have become evident that the social conditions are not those of the Second Empire, that the criteria of success are not the artist’s own, and that finally, in fact, the miserable game is being played for keeps.

Max Kozloff