PRINT May 1969

Problems of Criticism VI: The Politics of Art, Part III

We are revealing new pages of art in anarchy’s new dawns . . . You who are bold and young, make haste to remove the fragments of the disintegrating rudder.
Wash off the touch of the dominating authorities.
––Kasimir Malevich, To the New Limit, 1918

The same fat surplus which burns in Viet Nam feeds us. Let the art armies be disbanded. In the wake of the anarch, all marches are up . . . Art is what we do; culture is what is done to us.
––Carl Andre, statement in “Sensibility of the Sixties,” Art in America, 1967.

IF THE PRAGMATIC METHOD IS, as William James describes it, “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories’, supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts,” then a pragmatic criticism might begin by examining the consequences of current artistic activity. To begin with, we might list a number of current art objects, or more precisely non-objects:

––arrangements of identical units that exist as an art object only when assembled as such in the proper context (Andre).
––a room full of dirt (De Maria).
––a pile of dirt, grease and metal odds and ends (Morris).
—a grave-size ditch in Central Park (Oldenburg).
—written descriptions for non-sites (Smithson).
—projects for rearranging the surface of the earth (Morris, Heiser, Oppenheim, De Maria, et a/.).
—proposals for the erection of non-existent monuments (Oldenburg).
—piles of folded felt (Kaltenbach, Morris, Le Va).
—floors and walls of gallery covered with graphite chalkings and sweepings (Bollinger).
—drawings pencilled onto gallery walls (LeWitt).
—paintings stapled to gallery walls (Gourfain, Ryman).
—works for sale for the price of materials or labor (Morris, Andre, LeWitt).
—loose piles of chemicals (Saret, Heiser).
—blown-up statements regarding the nature of art (Kosuth, Baldessari).
—the gradual removal of strips of curved plastic from a vacant lot (Levine).
—a “sculpture” made of steam (Morris).
—photographs, documentation, description of non-existent “work” (Barry, Heubler, Kosuth, Ruscha, Smithson, et al.).
—a standard Air Force dye marker thrown into the sea (Weiner).
—paint sprayed directly onto floor (Serra, Weiner)
—limp piles of materials, randomly distributed (Morris, Serra, Saret, Hesse, Le Va, et al.)
—trenches dug in the desert (De Maria; collection R. Scull).
—ditches dug in driveways (Weiner; collection Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Topol).
—a series of ellipses scattered throughout the Whitney Museum (Artschwager).
—a label on a bench at the Whitney Museum identifying it as an art work (Anonymous).

We may best test the intention of art “works” such as the above perhaps by considering their practical consequences. What is the outcome, we may ask, of conceiving an “art” not dependent on the creation of objects or discrete material entities? Denying that art is a trading commodity with measurable intrinsic quality translatable into real value erodes the very foundation of the art market. By making immaterial, ephemeral or extra-objective work, the artist eliminates intrinsic quality. This challenges not only the market mechanism, but also the authority of the critic by rendering superfluous or irrelevant his role of connoisseur of value or gourmet of quality.

If criticism is going to exist at all in relation to this art—and whether it should is a question I intend to consider—then it can no longer function as gourmandise or fingersputzengefühl, but only as a form of heightened sensitivity or perception, which is not to deprive it ultimately of a judgmental function.1 Perception, however, must precede evaluation, as opposed to being pursuant to it, because to be a true measure it must proceed, not from an idealist base of fixed absolutes and mechanical theories, but from pragmatic considerations of intention, effect and concrete consequence in practice and experience. Criticism must re-orient itself at this time because younger artists are responding to a new world view which holds far more in common with pragmatism than with idealism. In place of metaphysical absolutes, compartmentalized essences and abstractions, the new art, like pragmatism, focuses on use, function and behavior, both perceptual and experiential.

Interestingly enough, the reaction of many young American artists against the rigidities and proscriptions of an idealist esthetic was anticipated by John Dewey’s own rejection of Kant. Before today’s revolutionaries saw formal criticism as the cornerstone of the market mechanism they despise (could Marx have foreseen that pictures would. be one of the staples of late capitalism?), Dewey was taking Kant apart, implying that Kantian idealism was tied to a specific set of social, political and economic factors.2 In Art as Experience, Dewey wrote: “The compartmentalized psychology that holds to an intrinsic separation between completeness or perceptual experience is, then, itself a reflection of dominant social institutions that have deeply affected both production and consumption or use.”

For today’s pragmatists, as for Dewey, the esthetic is differentiated from ordinary experience in that the latter is typified by apathy, lassitude and stereotype, where art provokes attention, interest and variance. We have seen that the pragmatic focus on art as a kind of human activity rather than an ideal category with norms of decorum provides a point of departure for new esthetic attitudes. That such a view meshes perfectly with Duchamp’s notion of art as defined by context and completed by the spectator’s response makes pragmatist esthetics that much more apposite today.

Dewey’s original objections to Kant are equally relevant at this moment: “To define the emotional element of esthetic perception merely as the pleasure taken in the act of contemplation independent of what is excited by the matter contemplated, results . . . in a thoroughly anemic conception of art,” he wrote in an early attack on the idealist position that is the basis of formal criticism. The bridge connecting Dewey and Duchamp, or more simply, pragmatism and Dada, is an odd one, but it is increasingly well-traveled. Its keystones are Cage, McLuhan, Fuller, Norman O. Brown, and, most recently, Morse Peckham. In Man’s Rage for Chaos, Peckham implies that the purpose of art in the technological society will be the same as that of art in earlier societies: to provide what life does not. Pursuing this argument, however, he concludes that what will be missing in life will not be control, order and rationality, but release, disorder, variation, and spontaneity. For Peckham, art is a “rehearsal” for life situations, and an art based on disorientation, chance, randomness, innovation and ingenuity is the best teacher of adaptive behavior.3 Such a conception assumes a primarily didactic, although not necessarily moralizing, function for art, placing us back again on the favorite terrain of American artists, who have felt so often that art must transcend the “merely” esthetic to inform experience more directly.

Given this kind of definition, the primary role of art shifts from self-expression or decoration to disinterested imaginative play. Until recently, the notion of imaginative play in art was more or less linked to the play of images. The Abstract Expressionist use of automatism extended play to form. But the new art demands an even larger area for the free play of the imagination, one that extends beyond objects to a series of possibilities, alternatives or hypotheses which may remain mere speculation. Given this, the application of absolute, invariable, non-relative criteria developed by formal critics from idealist esthetics must inevitably fail to deal with quality differentiations in an art predicated on variability and discontinuity. The critical criteria for such an art obviously are not the adherence to categorical imperatives, but the variety of experiences and the range of imaginative play offered.

Dewey’s rejection of Kant’s “ivory tower” definition of Beauty as remote from all desire, action and stir of emotion in favor of an esthetic response integrated into life, dealing with acts, decisions, and experience is seeing its fulfillment today. The recrudescence of certain fundamentally American attitudes toward art would not in itself be remarkable were the context and form of their reappearance not unexpected, to say the least.

II. Pragma is Greek for Action
Instead of continuing to produce art, Dada, in direct contrast to abstract art, went out and found an adversary. Emphasis was laid on the movement, on struggle . . . The Dadaist exploits the psychological possibilities inherent in his faculty for flinging out his own personality as one flings a lasso or lets a cloak flutter in the wind . . .
—Richard Huelsenbeck, “En Avant Dada,” The Dada Painters and Poets, 1951.

With traditional esthetic references discarded as irrelevant, what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data but role, the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation. The interest lies in the kind of act taking place in the four-sided arena, a dramatic interest . . .
An action is not a matter of taste.
You don’t let taste decide the firing of a pistol or the building of a maze.
—Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News, 1952.

Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us, but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies, seen in store windows and on the streets . . . all will become materials for this new concrete art.
—Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Art News, October, 1958.

The creation of “works” that do not result in a given product or object, but remain purely conceptual or immaterial processes answers, in a sense, the question of how one can hang an “event,” which Mary McCarthy posed in her review of Harold Rosenberg’s essays on action painting. The notion that art-making should result, not in the creation of objects, but in the creation of gestures has obvious antecedents in Dada, “action” painting and Happenings. Rosenberg’s reformulation of the Dada notion of art as geste made his celebrated article the main channel through which Dada ideology and esthetics entered the New York School.4 When the anthology Dada Painters and Poets appeared in 1951, Huelsenbeck’s 1936 text “Dada Lives!”, predicting “a great future for Dada a golden age, but in another form than the one imagined by the Paris Dadaists” sounded a little crazy. Today the phrase has the ring of prophecy come true. The attempt to pin a pejorative label of “neo-Dada” to the works of Rauschenberg and Kaprow missed the point that a critic—Rosenberg in this case—rather than an artist was the actual matchmaker in the liaison between Dada and painterly abstraction.

Once Rosenberg had established that art consists mainly in the act, the gesture, rather than in the completed object, an art that went beyond the object in the direction of pure gesture was but a step away. This step was taken by Rauschenberg, the first artist to create an art combining elements of painterly abstraction and pure gesture, an art that sought to present itself in terms not analyzable by means of the conventional criteria for quality. Rauschenberg initiated the aggressive assault against such criteria in the mid-fifties by erasing a de Kooning drawing, subtracting from the original “masterpiece” where Duchamp had added to a reproduction of one. His telegram to the Parisian dealer Iris Clert announcing that “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” was an early non art-object (as opposed to a non-art object like the bottle-rack). In 1957, he duplicated the “spontaneity” of an action painting in Factum I and its nearly identical twin replica Factum II. Rauschenberg’s actes gratuits, to borrow an analogous literary term for such gestures, questioned the status of the masterpiece, the uniqueness of the art object, or even the necessity for making objects. His “earthwork”—a painting with a patch of sod on its surface—was the first New York statement about process. (Although the notion of a mutable work of art had been posited earlier by Duchamp, it was not tested, to my knowledge, by American artists until Rauschenberg became interested in such a possibility).

In the sixties, the principal artists involved with such extra-objective considerations have been Andre, Morris, and above all, Oldenburg, whose projects for monuments are the source for most of the recent examples of pure theoretical propositions. Andre’s projects for earth sculptures for Philip Johnson and Betty Parsons, although unexecuted, were widely discussed in the art world in the mid-sixties; and his public gesture of eating a five dollar bill at the Cedar Bar had been a scandal of the late fifties. Robert Morris’s documents changing the status of works of art by fiat were equally common currency. I also remember Walter De Maria using documents and proposals at an early date. Environments were explored first by Kaprow, Oldenburg and Dine from 1958–60 in an Expressionist form; in the mid-sixties, Morris, Flavin and Andre changed the inflection from Expressionism to Constructivism and created abstract environments. Andre stacked and piled beams in 1961; Oldenburg began making soft sculpture “composed” by gravity in 1962. From these sources, the vast proliferation of environmental, anti-formal, earth works, project art, site and non-site proposals which are the latest wrinkle on the art scene developed.5

That there is art that does not traffic in objects but in conceptions has both economic and political consequences. If no object is produced, there is nothing to be traded on the commercial market. This obvious consequence defines at least part of the intention of current anti formal tendencies. The artist does not cooperate with the art market. Such non-cooperation can be seen as reflective of certain political attitudes. It is the esthetic equivalent of the wholesale refusal of the young to participate in compromised situations (e.g., the Vietnam war). But work which cannot be absorbed by the museum-gallery patronage situation still needs an audience to exist.

The perfect audience for any kind of art aimed at creating a series of novel encounters is, of course, the media. The intention of a good deal of art being done now—to disrupt or frustrate expectations, to create situations forcing new types of psychological or perceptual adaptation, above all, not to repeat itself—is, however, inevitably distorted by the media. For the single critical criterion of the media is newsworthiness. Whether the news is good or bad, trivial or portentous, is irrelevant.

The relationship of the media to art today is the great differentiating factor between the current situation and earlier anti-formal manifestations. Yet this relationship is compromised because the media must distort as it transmits. To take several specific examples: the original intent of Pop art was not an unqualified celebration of the American Dream, yet written interpretation and media presentation soon neutralized any kind of critical or satirical charge Pop may have intended. Now the new art, originally motivated by moral revulsion against the baseness of American society, particularly as it is represented in the manipulation and exploitation of art, has also been quickly assimilated into the existing structure. Its original negative stance has either become diffused, or is serving as the departure point for another esthetic attitude. In either case, it is utterly robbed of any critical sting. Although the object or decorative abstraction may have been rejected originally in an act of defiance, the act of rejection is quickly forgotten as it too is swallowed by the society and market it rejects.

The advanced state of permissiveness that now exists concerning art is largely the result of media acceptance and coverage of radical art. Media approval of radical art rang down the curtain on the social institution of the avant-garde as a coterie club. Media coverage made art public once more. Media participation in art creates a situation in which the would-be radical artist is left stranded: even if he can make art sufficiently far-out to exceed the museum-gallery context, he can’t come up with anything unacceptable to the media. But the existence of the media as audience has its advantage since it allows the artist to speak directly to the mass public without recourse to the screening process of critics or cultural institutions. This situation corresponds to Buckminster Fuller’s metapolitics, by means of which political change, is seen as issuing inevitably from the interaction between the information media and technology, both of which are independent of political institutions, even if they are not independent of politics. Thus we arrive at a situation in which the artist may erode existing cultural institutions by overriding their authority and going straight to the media. Oldenburg, for example, has been a master of this strategy. He is also the only artist I can think of clever enough to use the media for his own purposes.

Thus the situation in which the Futurists demanded the destruction of the museums has been superseded by a situation in which there is no need to burn the museums if you can just ignore them, since they follow rather than lead the media. The media audience, unlike the museum audience, does not need objects. It can be fed with fantastic ideas, theoretical propositions and unrealizable projects. Art of this nature could not exist in fact without the media audience, which presents the possibility of an entirely immaterial art, which seeks to subvert traditional art and its institutions.

Even more ironic is the degree to which these institutions are collaborating in their own extinction. The Whitney Museum of American Art, that bastion of naiveté and misplaced goodwill, proudly announced recently that “Dennis Oppenheim has used actual samples of the various building materials of the new Whitney Museum building in his Decomposition—Whitney Museum.” A press release describes another project in which Mike Heiser will remove four stone paving blocks from the Whitney sculpture court. Surely no Greek ever welcomed any Trojan Horse with more open arms, nor was any Weimar burgher more hospitable to George Grosz. (The analogies between the openly permissive cultural situation in Weimar and present-day America are in fact too numerous and too depressing to contemplate.)

An overview of the current situation reveals a series of moves on the part of artists who aspire to radicality to take positions so extreme that they will finally be found unacceptable. In each instance, the artist has failed, and another option has been cancelled out. Eventually it should become clear that this kind of activity is doomed to failure, on one level at least, because it defines radicality in relation to an audience. The existence of the media as audience for the novel means that nothing can ever challenge art from the stance of the far-out again. The minute Pollock ceased to be “Jack the Dripper” for the Luce publications, the radicality of extremism was doomed. In the past, lack of patronage, institutional approval and critical support has defined avant-garde art. The end of the avant-garde was not announced by the return of patronage or critical approval to radical art, but by the intrusion of the media into the art world. The moment private acts became public, subversion was not only applauded but given a platform.

The Dadaists, because they had only partial media cooperation, continued to create or enshrine objects, privately or semi-privately. “Systems esthetics,” as Jack Burnham has called extra-objective art, is as I have suggested, the latest reformulation of Dada. But the actual extinction of the object supersedes Duchamp’s found objects, in that it criticizes not only art but an entire social, political and economic structure. A dissatisfaction with the current social and political system results in an unwillingness to produce commodities which gratify and perpetuate that system. Here the sphere of ethics and esthetics merge.

Dada was mainly out to shock the middle class. Today the taste of the middle class, in which I include virtually all curators, is shaped primarily by the media. In a situation where anything goes, whose taste, then, is there left to challenge? In general, current anti-formal tendencies direct their challenge in two directions; the cultural institutions they attempt to undermine, and the present critical apparatus they seek to render irrelevant. These two attacks are related, in that criticism, like existing cultural institutions, is seen as authoritarian and hence undemocratic. The practice of criticism itself becomes suspect, because it presupposes a notion of elite taste.

Obviously, there is no point at all in attempting to come to grips with the new art in terms of the conventions of formal analysis. To begin with, you can’t talk about a picture plane if there isn’t any picture plane, or the significance of a form if there is no form. The first question a critic has to resolve is whether to bother to deal with this new work at all, and if so, why.

Since I have spent this much time trying to reconstruct the rationale and intentions of the new work, I must think it has to be dealt with. The reason I believe one cannot write off the whole business as irrelevant, meaningless novelty not worthy of serious critical consideration is because at the moment some of the strongest and most original young artists have chosen, for reasons I’ve tried to pin down, to express themselves in a fashion that does not conform to traditional art definitions. Keith Sonnier; Eva Hesse, Bill Bollinger, Richard Tuttle, Barry Le Va, and Alan Saret are making statements more challenging and genuinely unsettling than young artists working in the traditional modes. The real critical case, however, is the work of Richard Serra, which simply has more substance, sophistication, logic and cohesion than that of virtually any young artist to appear recently—which is not to say that there may not be better young artists who have not yet appeared.

Serra’s is an art of overt materiality. The burden of expression is located in the ability of purely physical characteristics—the specific qualities of materials, the perception of weight and the force of gravity—to be sensed by the viewer. Chance is not exploited by Serra as an effect or a proposition to be illustrated: it is experienced as actual. Part of Serra’s success, I think, is in the boldness of his conception. Other artists working in the same vein have chosen fragile materials, which tends toward sentimentality because the use of such materials illustrates ephemeralness, rather than focusing on the actual ephemeral nature of placement, order and distribution. There is both an economy and a directness in Serra’s work I miss elsewhere, as well as a complexity, based, strangely enough, on his forcible insistence on relationships. This is somewhat ironic since the minimal phase of this new art attacked internal relationships of any kind. The types of relationships in Serra’s work are mainly contrasts of material, as well as contrasting types of spatial relationships.

Serra’s distinction also lies in his ability to expunge pictorial qualities from his art. This is partially achieved through the choice of materials, which are assertively heavy, dense, and monochromatic or reduced in color or reflectiveness. Scraps of materials neither create shapes nor give the impression they could as easily be arranged pictorially on the wall. Scale, three-dimensionality and physicality are aggressively stated. Moreover, to my surprise, I found his art capable of generating memorable images, which were curious to retain because the main experience of the work is physical rather than emotive or cerebral. Metal is felt to be this or that weight, the precarious balance of tube against sheet is sensed as precarious, and the provisional nature of the distribution is experienced as provisional, yet not tentative, as it seems in more timid examples of this kind of work. Another big difference between Serra’s work and that of lesser lights is that Serra’s work is active: it acts upon space, controlling or defining a situation, clearly in command of the environment, rather than vice versa. So much of the new work seems to me bad because it lies around, passively and dismally, defensively retreating from engagement with the environment rather than actively and aggressively demanding confrontation.

Yet despite the involvement called forth by Serra’s work, by its very nature an art that does not result in the production of an object, but essentially pictures a series of acts, has built-in limitations. The emphasis on art as gesture recalls Dada, as I have pointed out, but more specifically and more unfortunately, it recalls the Tenth Street phase of Abstract Expressionism. The revolt against the standards of an uptown establishment, the use of cheap, ephemeral materials, the experiments in new forms and new media, and the crisis climate in which these possibilities are played out are familiar enough to anyone who remembers Tenth Street. The irony is that the artists who are reviving the Tenth Street style, in life as well as in art, are too young to remember. Once more, the lack of awareness of the historical context and identifiable antecedents causes history to repeat itself.

Ultimately the innovational qualities of the new art are obvious and familiar. They depend on the literalization of certain elements in Pollock’s paintings, such as the coincidence of making and forming, and the cultivation of random and chance effects, as well as the assertion of the physical qualities of materials. Moreover, an art posited on an ideal of “permanent revolution,” of radical stylistic discontinuity, not only of the given work from the tradition, but of work from work must necessarily orient itself toward the media, intentionally or not. Yet, as we have seen, the media rob the artist of the possibility of creating such a perpetually radical art which moves from one extreme position to another without ever stopping long enough to consolidate a revolution and build on it. In this case, innovation becomes a totally relative phenomenon: the instant diffusion of “news” means that an idea can only be temporarily upsetting. As the ante is upped by the media demanding greater and greater outrages, the impact of novelty itself is diminished, until it is ultimately destroyed.

The most important objection one can have to the new work, however, is that the esthetic it is attempting to create is better expressed elsewhere. The fugitive, the ephemeral, the state of change and flux, non-repetition, process, and mutability can at best only be illustrated or pictured in plastic art. For their full expression, they demand a time art. This is something I had not realized until I saw Yvonne Rainer’s recent concert. The extraordinary degree of moment to moment and point to point liveness Miss Rainer was able to generate, the actual freedom and spontaneity of an art that is not an object but fundamentally and from the outset a series of acts or gestures made it clear that she was actually achieving in a time and space art what was not available to a space art alone.

One need not claim the necessity for purity of medium or conclude, as Michael Fried has, that theater or literalism is the enemy of art. Oldenburg’s art, which is intensely theatrical, is not compromised by the introduction of qualities better expressed in a time art, perhaps because when he has an urge to express a time metaphor, he creates a happening. Lessing’s classical distinction between the time and space arts holds today only insofar as literalist demands for a correspondence between appearance and reality are better fulfilled, if a time element is involved, in a performance art, which can incorporate spatial relations more easily than a space art is able to incorporate fugitiveness, gesture, and mutability. If contemporary experience continues to feel the need for an ephemeral art of process consumed as it is executed, much more energy may be channelled off from the visual arts in the direction of the performing arts, especially if this were an economically feasible possibility.

III. Beyond Painting: The Dream of the Tabula Rasa

Our contemporary life should have as its slogan: “All that we have made is for the crematorium.”
—Kasimir Malevich, On The Museum, 1919.

The dream of a transitory art, one which wipes out the past without necessarily replacing its forms, but proposes rather a radical discontinuity with tradition, is not a new one. When I first wrote of Minimal art, I realized it was a synthesis of Dada and Constructivist elements. But at the time, I did not understand why this union had occurred. Seen in the present social context, however, it becomes clear that Minimal and anti-formal art is reacting to a revolutionary political climate in many ways analogous with the period that created Dada and Constructivism. Even links between Dada and Constructivism themselves become clearer when viewed from the vantage point of current events.6

Both Dada and Constructivism proposed a tabula rasa as far as history was concerned; toward this end both movements went further consciously, even programmatically, to cut ties with traditional art than any previous movements. And both sought to deny the past in the same way: by going beyond painting. It is no accident, when one thinks about it, that Schwitters proclaimed Tatlin a Dada hero, contending that “art” (i.e. painting) was dead.

The desire to erase the past so that a new art may flourish at the expense of the decimation of the Renaissance or Classical tradition is a recurrent dream in 20th-century art. It is the implicit message of the erased de Kooning, and it parallels the wish to efface the boundaries between art and life, another goal shared in common by Constructivism and Dada. According to Camilla Gray, “The theory of Constructivism was not only an esthetic, but a philosophy of life. It affected not only man’s environment, but man himself . . . This Utopia envisaged a world in which art was no longer a dream-world to which the working man retired for relaxation and to regain his balance, but became the very stuff of his life.”

Disgust with the decadence of Western civilization has prompted innumerable 20th-century artists to adopt the estamos hartos (we are fed up) attitude Mexican sculptor Mathias Goeritz announced in the fifties with his blank gold slabs. Both the monolith in 2001 and Minimal art, like Goeritz’s slabs, symbolize the tabula rasa of the dawn of a new age. The reunion of Dada and Constructivist elements in current American art signals another—conceivably this time successful—demand for a tabula rasa, a dramatic break with the past and traditional forms.7 The Dada element results from the frustration of revolutionary Constructivist aims, and is evidence of the contradictory existence of a Utopian socialist esthetic in a late capitalist political economy.

Once we see the obvious connections between current tendencies and Dada and Constructivist attitudes, we begin to understand how these stem from coincidences in political beliefs that art must be owned collectively, and that elite art, itself the foremost symptom of a decadent culture, must perish along with its institutions. The real enemy of elite art, if one is looking for enemies, is not theater, which has often been compatible with high art in the past, but the revolution, with its challenge to established authority and traditional institutions.

The typical literary idea of the current threat to art is that art is being transformed into an “instrument of lesser goals.” Given the evidence, this typical Sunday Times—New York Review of Books analysis is both simpleminded and belated. Art has already been converted into the instrument of lesser goals, and many artists are reacting to the use to which their work is put by refusing to cooperate. The first instance of such an obdurate stance were Reinhardt’s unreproducible, virtually invisible black paintings. Because of the instant diffusion of information, artists are forced to be aware of what these uses are, and they are rebelling in ways that challenge the survival of art in a much deeper fashion than ever before.

The real change that evokes a certain amount of justifiable paranoia on the part of the defenders of elite culture is not a superficial change in the forms art will assume. Criticism can eventually face up to and assimilate, if only in retrospect, formal change of any kind. The real change is not in the forms of art, but in the function of art and the role of the artist in society, which poses an absolute threat to the existence of critical authority. The assumption that art can be made to bear the burden of the entire complex of spiritual and philosophical meaning of an age, which is at the heart of much current criticism, is in itself a symptom of decadence, for it means that the age lacks any other kind of coherent value structure. The denial that art can or should bear this burden any longer predicates an entirely new relationship of art to the total culture, in which art is assigned a position of far less prominence than it has ever held in the Western world. In this case a commitment to the survival of elite culture logically means a reactionary political attitude and vice versa. Which may explain why we have not heard much lately from Clement Greenberg on the subject of socialism, while John Cage is preaching revolution.8

It is inevitable that these changes in the role and function of art should occur first in America, although they were announced in Russia. Certain factors within the American tradition, which I have enumerated, contribute greatly to the evolution of a levelled, collective, equalized art. This is not to say that the traditional forms of elite art cannot survive in America, whatever the politics of its future. But their survival will very much depend on the emergence of a patron class so powerful and so enlightened as to be willing and able to commission either public or private large decorative complexes.9

Whether or not the traditional forms are capable of compelling conviction does not depend on the amount of conviction any given critic has in them, but in their ability to attract the most energetic, intelligent and moral artists to work within their limits. I do not see this happening now in most instances. It appears that the traditional arts are being so compromised by the role they are forced to play in our society, that only a rejection of that role can satisfy the moral integrity of many artists. Undoubtedly the role of art in earlier cultures, the ancien régime for example, was equally compromised. But the artist who worked within such cultures first of all shared its dominant values, no matter how frivolous and materialistic, and secondly, need not necessarily have been aware of the use to which his art was being put. The constant awareness of how his work is being abused by the culture, however, haunts the contemporary artist, who simply cannot feign ignorance of the destiny of his work as a blue chip investment in an inflationary war economy.

IV. The Religion of Art

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, do not believe those who speak to you of other worldly hopes! Despisers of life are they, decayed and poisoned themselves of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died and these sinners died with him.
—Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Art is dead.
Long live Tatlin’s machine art.
—Kurt Schwitters

It is obvious that the new art I have described, constantly reactive to political, social, and environmental as well as esthetic factors, defying absolutes and fixed definitions as well as traditional forms and standards, does not aspire to achieve transcendence. By definition, it cannot be timeless and immortal. And this, rather than the recapitulation of certain Dada, Constructivist and Tenth Street attitudes is what is crucial about the new art. The willingness to renounce aspirations of timelessness and immortality posits an entirely new world view, one which shifts cultural values from a death-oriented, commemorative, past-enshrining culture to a life- and present-oriented civilization with a taste for the immediacy experienced in a temporary art consumed as it is created. In this sense, Oldenburg’s monuments do represent, as he has contended, not the appearance of something, but its disappearance.10

The tomb, the memorial, the shrine, the monument all belong to cultures that commemorate. There are no modernist examples of these forms worth mentioning. To make an art that is programmatically and not just incidentally of the moment indicates far more than a search for mere novelty. It means an attempt to create an art as fragile, as unpredictable, as fugitive, as pulsating and as responsive as life itself. For the reasons I have cited above, I think this desire is better expressed in the performing arts, but that does not mean it will not continue to be expressed visually.

I see the current efflorescence of ephemeral art as the second stage in the secularization of art, of which Duchamp was the prophet. The initial secularization of art coincided with the beginning of modernism, itself an indication that religion could no longer compel conviction. The religious images of Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh, to name the most prominent examples, are eloquent testimony to the acuteness of the crisis provoked by the discovery that “God is dead.”

One of the fundamental assumptions of modernism is that art can replace religion as the repository of the spiritual, and the bearer of moral conviction. The origins of abstraction itself are shrouded in mystical speculation. Art becomes acutely conscious of the ineffable, the mysterious, and the transcendental—above all of its own need to compel conviction—at precisely the point when religion can no longer do so. Of the assaults we are currently witnessing—against critical authority, against existing institutions, against the notion of art as private property—the revolt against modernism as the religion of art is, I believe, the most significant, the most profound and possibly the most lasting. What we are witnessing is the demythification of art and the desanctification of the artist, as art is brought down to earth and forced to approximate more and more closely the mundane world of non-art. The message of the bicycle wheel is a prophecy of increasing relevance. The artist who does not create but who chooses from the preformed refuses to play God; he is no hero-creator, but a common man among men. The only difference between him and the man in the street is that he has found a self-proclaimed identity. His art is not a mystery but a fact; it may have content, but that content is not absolute, not transcendent, above all, not spiritual.

In keeping with looking at last things first, we may ask, what is the bicycle wheel? It is a manufactured multiple, a means of transportation that allows man to “extend,” to use a fashionable term, his own powers of locomotion through industrial production. If the bicycle wheel is art, then our art is not in the galleries and museums, it is literally in the factories, the garages and the airports. This is a conclusion that a great deal of radical opinion has pointed to, and it represents the final point of contact between Dada and Constructivism, which together proposed the destruction of the religion of art.

Both the complexity and the genuineness of the current crisis, which is above all a crisis of belief, are evidence of further cultural fragmentation. The present split between “revolutionary” function and “radical” form constitutes yet another step in the decomposition of modern culture. Chalked, sprayed, pencilled or stapled to gallery interiors, art is literally, figuratively and symbolically up against the wall, like everything else in this society. The revolution challenges elite art, while the traditional forms themselves are petering out or at best desperately hanging on, poised between the easel convention and a full-scale decorative muralism, demanding an architectural context which shows no signs of appearing. The agony of criticism is the necessity for maintaining full consciousness while not flinching at the truth. And the truth is, we are not going to see the “return” of this or that or the other thing, nor possibly the survival of much of our own tradition. There are in fact many indications that art, or at least art of any spiritual depth, is, for the mass of humanity, if not for the surviving “happy few,” about to follow religion as an illusion without a future.

Barbara Rose



1. An art that deliberately defines itself in opposition to existing critical values was the aim of both Dada and Surrealism. This is explicit in Tzara’s original 1918 Dada Manifesto: “A work of art is never beautiful by decree, objectively and for all. Hence criticism is useless, it exists only subjectively, for each man separately, without the slightest character of universality.” The revolutionary demands of Dada and Surrealism attempted to downgrade and discredit art as a bourgeois institution in the eyes of the common man by making art as hermetic and, in terms of everyday experience, absurd as possible. The point of this nihilistic activity was to democratize art by robbing it of its mystery, in order to gain freedom from, as Malevich had put it in another revolutionary context, the hold of “the dominating authorities.” Toward this end, Malevich proposed a culture of immediacy, consumed as it is created. “Life has torn life and what they were not conserving from the hands of the museum keepers. We can collect it while it is life and link it directly to life, without giving it to be conserved,” Malevich wrote, in a passage prophetic of “Process” art. Today canons of critical judgment are being called into question in a similar manner by certain artists as well as by advocates of mass culture, like the sociologist John McHale. In “The Plastic Parthenon,” an article on the future of mass culture that amounted to a manifesto, McHale challenged “past traditional canons of literary and artistic judgment” oriented to unique objects. In his view “they in no way enable one to relate adequately to our present situation.” He concluded that “The arts, as traditionally regarded, are no longer a ‘Canonical’ form of communication. Their canonizing elites and critical audiences are only one sector of a network of ingroups . . . The figure of art seems no longer to lie with the creation of enduring masterworks but with defining alternative cultural strategies, through series of communicative gestures in multimedia forms.” This is essentially the point of view of many who are challenging the authority of traditional elite institutions like the museums as well as that of the critical elite that determines its taste and policy.

2. Dewey asks not whether art corresponds to an a priori idea of beauty, but whether it leads to repose or restlessness, the satisfaction or awakening of desires. “Not absence of desire and thought but their thorough incorporation into perceptual experience characterizes esthetic experience in its distinction from experiences that are especially ‘intellectual’ and ‘practical,’ ” Dewey writes, anticipating a great deal of current thought. The most telling coincidence between Dewey’s position and that of many young artists today, however, is Dewey’s rejection of the Kantian definition of the esthetic experience as exclusive of all other modes of experience. For Dewey, the opposite is true: “The (esthetic) experience is marked by a greater inclusiveness of all psychological factors than occurs in ordinary experience, not by reduction of them to a single response. Such a reduction is an impoverishment.” That Michael Fried has been successful in establishing a phenomenological approach to criticism, enables him at least to reject the dualism implicit in a naive idealist criticism, for on the issue of anti-dualism pragmatism and phenomenology coincide. Indeed, there are American philosophers who would see a great contribution on the part of pragmatism to phenomenology.

3. The downgrading of art to a position in which it is nothing more than a rehearsal for life is the most disturbing aspect of Peckham’s theory. Yet this view of art tallies exactly with the demythification, desanctification and despiritualization of art that begins in Dada and Aids in “process” art.

4. In many respects the Rosenberg-Greenberg polemic boils down to an opposition of classicism vs. anti-classicism; for Dada, Surrealism, Pop and Happenings are but the anti-classicism of the 20th century.

5. Normally, tracing the source of a presumed innovation or locating what Kubler calls a “prime” attaches some special kind of importance to such an object. But this is clearly no longer the case in post-object, process, didactic or theoretical art. Obviously it means little or nothing to say that X first piled fabric or rubber on the floor while Y received the attention for doing so. Because the media can assimilate any kind of radicality––social, political and artistic––to the existing structure almost instantaneously, the possibility for making a radical critical gesture has been so diminished as to be nearly non existent. The consequence has been to drive many so called “radical” artists back to more conventional, and traditional, if not downright retardataire positions within the traditional modes of painting and sculpture and, on the other hand, to induce a kind of hysteria and desperation amounting to paralysis among many young artists who finally cannot bring themselves to produce an object at all.

6. The number of coincidences and parallels between Malevich and Duchamp are striking, and leads one to suspect some actual connection. In “On the Museums,” Malevich wrote, “We can make a concession to the conservative by offering that they burn all past epochs, since they are dead, and set up one pharmacy.” Duchamp’s altered mass image Pharmacy thus suddenly evokes Malevich. In the same article Malevich predicted “Our path lies in space, and not in the suitcase of what has been outlived . . . And if we do not have collections it will he easier to fly away with the whirlwind of life.” Seen in this context, Duchamp is the light traveler par excellence, with his portable personal museum, the boîte-en-valise, ready for the next air connection.

7. One of the main ways contemporary American art differs from Dada sources is in its consistent use of new materials that are clearly manufactured by industry, which is obviously a Constructivist approach. Although the sentiment and nostalgia that clings to the old, the worn and the used continues to be important in an art of literary overtones like Assemblage, it is absolutely rejected by younger Minimalists. Robert Morris goes furthest in attempting a curious application of functionalist notions, when he maintains that structure when it occurs is the result ’of “methods of production (forming) and not vice versa.”

8. In A Year from Monday, a recent book largely concerned with politics, Cage writes: “Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution.” Cage’s revolution is, of course, the post-ideological revolution that by-passes politics completely, creating the revolution within the current structure through the media and technology itself. Not Freud and Marx, but Norman O. Brown and Marshall McLuhan are the prophets of the post-political revolution. The Surrealists, synthesizing Freud with Marx, introduced the concept of the cultural revolution or more accurately the revolution in consciousness as a necessary antecedent of a political revolution. Art in their view was to act as a catalyst to the revolution—a view related to David’s, except that the emphasis is displaced from art objects as propaganda to art as acts of cultural subversion. Undermining the psychology on which unjust political systems are built thus became an esthetic as well as a political goal.

Greenberg’s profound and continued antagonism to any Dada or Surrealist content conceivably issues from his realization that the revolutionary goals they esthetically posit lead to the destruction of high art. In order that it not be adulterated, Greenberg would encapsulate high art. For Cage, on the other hand, art is to serve as a model for cooperative enterprises, a kind of cathartic and therapeutic activity which is both communal and collective, as in primitive societies. “Art, instead of being an object made by one person is a process set in motion by a group of people,” Cage advises. Cage demands a complete reversal in the traditional relationship between art and society. He sees art as the expression of everything society has been. Art should be random, disorganized and irrational, while society should take on the order, rationality and logic that was previously the province of art. Thus attacked, the exclusivity fundamental to any idealist view of art, necessary to defend art’s purity, becomes in the current revolutionary situation that much more desperate to maintain and determines the besieged and threatened tone of so much recent criticism.

9. For the fundamental problems of decorative color abstraction as a viable mode, see Greenberg’s “The Crisis of Easel Painting,” and Sidney Tillim’s “Gauguin and the Decorative Style.” Their arguments point to the conclusion that the increased scale of current abstract painting begins to demand an architectural-mural context. It is interesting to note that the two painters I feel are best dealing with finding viability for abstraction, Ronald Davis and Darby Bannard, have chosen to decrease size and pictorial expanse. It seems to me more and more that the continued life of painting is in their hands.

10. This does not, of course, mean that the traditional forms cannot survive, although I see sculpture petering out and being absorbed directly by architecture, not as applied decoration but as habitable form. The great architects are more than ever today the great sculptors. The Guggenheim Museum is, in many respects, the greatest work of 20th-century sculpture. This inevitable development is unfortunate at this time, however, when the most original architects often quit the profession for economic reasons only to express themselves inappropriately in painting or sculpture.

Painting, on the other hand, may well be the “bead game” of the elite which Hermann Hesse describes in Magister Ludi––a novel, like Fahrenheit 451, that is a fantasy about the survival of high culture in a mass age. For it is obviously possible for high culture to survive in a mass age. The question is, whether it can survive as more than a game that, with its priests and masters, is essentially a surrogate for religion.