PRINT April 1984


WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR the artist past 50, largely unsung? All history is quickly limited to a few reputations, and while we know temporal judgment can be off, that hardly compensates the artist who, though generally recognized, nonetheless passes into a kind of limbo, trying hard not to feel left out.

Still, the answer to emptiness is not to latch on to whatever comes along. The answer may be the careful nurturing of illusion, the maintenance of expectation in face of the odds and momentary facts that can’t be denied. Neither can one’s rage be denied. It is, at the very least, a crying shame to have envisioned glory and be denied it for failings even partly one’s own. I’m convinced that assertion is more important than luck, for luck by itself just creates the opportunity it requires assertion to exploit. Should one then pack it in? “Why don’t artists retire?” Isabel Bishop was recently quoted as saying. “Because you’re always looking for a breakthrough.”1

There is no way of telling until you get there, but being 35 is different from being 25, and past 50 one’s perspective is so altered it seems like another beginning. In the art world this sometimes conflicts with not only chronological reality but ideological reality as well. The art world tells time by style. One ages about as fast as one’s style. One’s chronological age is irrelevant if one’s timing is “off”; over the short term a live consensus ahistorically calls the shots. One does not necessarily go out of style—I think of Giovanni Bellini, of Monet and de Kooning—but even good artists can be affected, even eclipsed by sudden shifts of taste. In the ’40s Abstract Expressionism shoved Social Realism and American Scene painting off the stage. Twenty-plus years ago Pop art suddenly made a lot of artists, second- and third-generation abstractionists and their constituencies, feel old. Today the startling congruence of ambition, youth, and fashion has, it would seem, commenced a new chronology, and a veil of obscurity seems poised to descend on another generation.

These are quite literally incredible times. Pop art was certainly a sensation but it was not nearly as ideologically disruptive. Today the fabulous success and celebrity of a few artists barely 30 years old has generated a kind of hysteria with which criticism can barely cope and which history has not yet had time to digest. The irony is that the cultural mind of the present is conditioned to react historically. Some claim a total rupture from the Modernist past with the heightened consciousness of style derived from that very past. There’s something about current trends that is at once a discovery and a cultural reflex. As we watch our own moment turn into a “period,” the electric excitement is already edged with ennui.

All of the preparations for a gross Oedipal assassination appear to have been made. Every celebrity is an assassin because his name appears where yours could have been. Worse, society disgusts, yet its gossip is fascinating, diluting one’s rage with envy.

Some of this hasn’t anything to do with art. As you age, the young seem younger. If you teach, your students are roughly the same age every year that you get one year older. One cannot tell if one just differs or if one is deteriorating and, ironically, doubt becomes the potential source of a new vitality. One has lived, something has sunk in, the instincts take over as we tire. There is a real threat in modern (and postmodern) life of simply being ignored, no matter what one’s qualities, after a certain point in years. Mistrust starts no earlier among the young than it ever did, but the inhibitions that contained it, the respect or even the fear—they are no longer there, at least not in the same strength, and a knack for exploitation is taken for independence. The truth is that as one ages freedom comes down to a choice between several forms of abandonment.

The visibility of the successful artist in America is greater now than at any previous period in our history. The notoriety that sometimes surrounds an artist, as it did Duchamp in 1913 and Jackson Pollock in the ’40s, does not always conclude with material success, though it did with Pop art. The successful artist is not, however, more popular in the sociological sense of the word; he or she is just more successful, more a celebrity than ever before, or at least more nearly a celebrity—though nothing like a real celebrity from the world of the really popular arts—the movies, commercial music, television, big-time sports. What has happened is that overnight—i.e., during the past quarter of a decade, of which Pop art was the catalyst—crucial values of art have changed. The ethic of affluence has simply replaced the ethic of alienation. Alienation once protected artists from rejection by society, rejection that began during the19th century when the “masses” emerged as a social and political force, resulting in a mandate for modern popular culture that inserted itself between an aristocratic bourgeoisie and the fine arts. Alienation created a kind of exclusiveness for the arts—for high art. Perversely, it became a form of validation. Still, all three constituencies, the artist, the artist’s public, and the “masses,” felt the same pressures, which we know mostly in ideological versions because the secular movement in history has simply come to possess more power than God. Freed from divine intervention (and retribution), humankind seeks its own perfection and becomes—litigious.

Rage, in fact, enters the history of Modern art at the same moment it enters the history of modern politics—the late 18th century. Revolutionary Neoclassicism’s argument against the Rococo was as political as it was artistic. In retrospect, aspects of it seem an atrocity. Style in its own time may have done the same work, but in the meantime Fragonard died impoverished. Revolutionaries and reactionaries share the same dynamic with different emphases, but the immediate results are the same—myopia and retribution. And, indeed, profit, great profit for some, for very few. There is much of this aspect in the current scene. But this is not the whole truth or even much of the real truth of current art.

The function of real innovation in art is the reformulation of conventions that are essentially normative. Real conventions are those which can be used. A too broad-based reaction, one that takes too many forms, rules out the normative (inferring its own instability) in favor of a topical élan that ironically is easy to emulate. Too much of what passes for new art looks too much alike—too much “bad” drawing, “bad” taste, self-conscious klutziness, forced outrageousness. It is more clannish than stylish.

But the general intent is not insignificant. New painting, a workably generic term for the moment, wishes to reinstate the dramatic at the expense of the Modernist emphasis on the formal. It does this by violating the majesty of the plane, desecrating the site of the decorative by puncturing it with anecdotal incident, defacing it with neutered pictographs and prefabricated imagery removed from the contexts that contain their representation or fetishizing it through tactile excess. Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings are “punk” mosaics which are unfairly perceived as having no formal intuitions and have, like the artist himself, received so much attention because they so blatantly demonstrate the gravitation toward a personal content—if you reject style, every mark announces the ego—and a trend that has not yet worked out its relationship to the abstract. Nonetheless the critical message about the new art is that it is narrative, representational, and political, but these seem to me means rather than ends, vehicles for personal rather than metaphorical presence.

Style demands deference, but the notion, very prevalent at present, that abstract art reduces to what many critics decry as “self-referential,” devoid of social meaning because of a lack of reference to the environment of production (as a Marxist might put it), strikes me as an error committed in the delirium of an ideological coup that is in advance of any critical texts sufficiently synoptic to contain a credible esthetic of the new iconic expression. An exception is the essay on Francesco Clemente by Edit deAk, which makes crucial and informed cultural and visual distinctions that explain the putative liberation of “imagists” like Clemente from “an inheritance considered weightier than themselves.”2 DeAk interprets the formal for what it is—the metaphorical matrix of history. As such she confirms that what is referred to as self-referential is in fact self-effacing, the actual modesty of high art generally. High Modernism distills (but does not reduce) its means in order to make the work materially specific and affirm not only a formal unity but to enforce its function as a signifier of presence. The identity of the artist is contained in this “presence,” and in no other sign.

In a way style is a sort of scar, the residual of psychosocial trauma. Since Romanticism the artist has had to figure out art more or less alone, while attached to traditions and conventions he or she is compelled to challenge. The self is the given before any social imperative is confronted, yet it is unity with history that is always sought. “We are all going to heaven and Van Dyck is of the company,” said Gainsborough on his deathbed. Scars in art, style, are also graphs of character, of how much has been risked, but different generations risk different things. The wish to be great has its infantile aspect in that one wants the whole world to watch, forever. “What I require,” wrote Marie Bashkirtseff, “is all the recognition that has been denied me since the beginning of time.”3 Yet there is a scale in such thinking that takes root in the imagination; the artist regresses to tap that immensity and comes back to the world with a wholeness that is the discovered self—and the world’s. Materialist trends in revisionist history simply cannot recognize that art is unclear in a way that is obviously related to its value, but never in any way that can be known specifically.

Art always changes, but politics never does. The avant-garde has always attracted a crowd. This is because once Modernism prevailed, artists became as dependent on it for validation as academicians were once dependent on the Salon. Every movement fills up quickly and just as quickly fades, and this is because all the movements since Cubism simply did not generate art that was good enough or radical enough to create a major style. Politics, where it has converged with Modernism, has twice in this century quite consciously supported art that crossed ideological lines—some of it commendable, of course, much more of it forgettable and some of it execrable. It did so in the 1930s and again in the early ’70s. Much of the art in each period reflected its politics, more manifestly in the ’30s, more theoretically in recent times. All of it shared the fantasy, as did Russian Modernism, that it was being made for the masses. But as Eric Hoffer pointed out, the combination of the intellectual and the masses, though a formidable combination, “is not based on a real affinity.”4 The intellectual is inevitably of the elite. This is also true of artists, and the attempt in recent years to “appropriate” the imagery of mass culture marks among other things an effort to infiltrate a culture the artist can dominate, identify with, and feel superior to at the same time. Art-world socialists don’t mind telling us how Modern art was exploited as capitalist propaganda but they then turn around and exploit it as socialist propaganda. And they get away with it since many artists use politics because of their nostalgia for alienation and their need to feel “avant-garde.”

Was it always “feminist” then to represent, say, one’s erogenous zones to a public seen largely as male? In some cases wasn’t it also intended to seduce even as it was supposed to taunt, spurning before being spurned and for being spurned, exhibiting as a way of advertising one’s own withholding? Such seducers were angry not only at men who used them, but for having handed themselves over to weak men. There have been and are equally contradictory male heterosexual and homosexual variants of this syndrome, but feminism in the ’70s was by far the most flagrant example of this kind of politicized rage, even more than the activities of minority activists.

Photography became acceptable as art when all idealism that was not political was proclaimed obsolete. In this sense photography is pernicious, because its intellectual popularity is rooted more in ideology than in culture. Photography has affected perception far less than it has knowledge, and in striving to be art has influenced little that is. Art photography is photography that doesn’t want to look like photography, and its popularity in art coincides with art that doesn’t want to look like art. Literalizing vision, photography is a metaphor of instantaneousness which parallels the speeding up of the modern world, the alteration of desire and the demand for (instant) gratification. (Photography once could not capture anything that moved.) The computer is currently the principal metaphor of immediate accessibility, and inevitably many people want to make art with it. Art always changes but some artists never do.

We may have dropped the issue of time out of art as a result of all this technology, but that simply means that the difference between fashion and style is often and increasingly ignored. The revival of Art Deco compensates a new machine age that lacks plastic and decorative conventions of its own.

This is also a trauma to identity. There are too many objects that are disposable in a world stylized by technology, including style when it is conceived of as a commodity. The obsession with packaging goes hand in hand with a certain heartlessness. The last great irony of Modernism may be that it ended with the Great Recession, blinding us to the restitution of affluence as the imperative of the most technologically advanced society in the world. Did late Modernism really serve the military-industrial complex? OK. What is the relationship between new art and the cocaine culture? This may be the age of the radical sheik. The next word you hear may come from beyond Avenue B.

The competition between the young and the old is about relative sexual attraction as well as prestige and monetary reward. Success has been called an aphrodisiac, but this hardly indicates the subtlety and complexity of any transaction involving it. Success involves a crude form of bartering for favors, political and sexual, and the noblest are subject to temptation. Success eroticizes energy by releasing it. It simply makes so much more—objects and experience—available and creates the desire to possess them—sometimes, perhaps often, through sanguine and copulatory acts, a sort of bulemia of randiness. Or does the sudden access to power create anxiety that translates itself into an even greater need to possess and control?

It also works the other way. One is also “fucked” when one fails, or is merely ignored at the moment of paramount need. The depths are, figuratively speaking, as dreadful as the heights, obversely offering the victim the Sublime of total obscurity.

As Clement Greenberg has said on more than one occasion, many things that are not art can be experienced as art, unwittingly laying the foundation of a potentially new esthetic. Not that yesterday’s kitsch may be today’s beauty; that’s too easy, instantly formulaic. The possibility is more specific and, again, Greenberg is ahead of us (and maybe, in this respect, even of himself). “Connoisseurs of the future,” he wrote thirty years ago, “may prefer the more literal kind of pictorial space. . . . [They] may be more sensitive than we to the imaginative dimensions of the literal, and find in the concreteness of color and shape relations more ‘human interest’ than in the extra-pictorial references of old-time illusionist art.”5 While prognosis is not prophecy, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Greenberg, so much denounced these days, long ago anticipated changing notions of the art object. The analysis portends an increment of phenomenology that ideal esthetic experience need not necessarily exclude. That their coexistence is problematical is confirmed by the prevalence of so much concern with metaphor and allegory. Allegory revives history as recurrent mystery detached from origins that the young cannot have experienced. Formally, this results in indecisive spatial and iconographic disjunctions that pretend to be mature contradictions (which, after all, are built into any dialectic). What should be succinct ends up—or starts out—simplistic. An artist like Cindy Sherman is onto the dialectic, but she cannot always keep the photographic at bay. Ideology limits the dialectic but at the expense of the contingent, which is the source of real surprise—in art and in life. An advocacy consciously extreme always gets noticed, but nothing creates more shadows than the limelight.

Friendship comes under pressure as one’s career waxes and wanes. After more than thirty years of profound intimacy, Emile Zola finally had to abandon his devoted friend, Cézanne, after his own star had risen and, as he concluded, Cézanne’s had not. Cézanne cried at Zola’s death because his loss was then total, but also because Zola had actually done him a favor in rejecting him, liberating him to satisfy his craving to withdraw. Past 50 one might choose to be absent on the occasion of a great success, angry at having had to pay too high a price for it. Professional friendships are uneasy not merely because of the competition for status, but because ambition is in direct ratio to one’s ability to respond to the challenge of deprivation and loss. Space for the artist begins as a void, and to be left by the wayside is not only to feel abandoned but to confront its formal coefficient—a hole. A dramatic reversal of taste, such as we are currently witnessing, tests the character of more than one generation, because history suddenly turns into an abyss. Bashkirtseff, an aristocrat in bohemia, died very young, before her own words could come back to haunt her. She had written in 1879, “I think I can never experience any feeling into which ambition does not enter. I despise insignificant people.”6 But she left a significant journal and so we know.

Sidney Tillim is a painter and critic who lives in New York and teaches at Bennington College.



1. Quoted in Avis Berman, “When Artists Grow Old,” Art News, December, 1983, p. 77.

2. Edit deAk, “A Chameleon in the State of Grace: Francesco Clemente,” Artforum, February, 1981, p. 36.

3. Marie Bashkirtseff, The Journal of a Young Artist, 1860–1884, New York: O.M. Dunham, ca. 1889.

4. Eric Hoffer, “The Intellectual and the Masses,” in The Ordeal of Change, New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 39.

5. Clement Greenberg, “Abstract, Representational, and so forth,” in Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p. 137.

6. Bashkirtseff, Journal of a Young Artist, p. 189.