PRINT December 1985


History is still bunk.

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

So which is it in art today: the historical overload or the historical blank-out? Either way, we bask in the glamour of apocalypse, the exhilarating fear that it doesn’t matter whether we’re too innocent or too sophisticated because, in any case, history is about to come to an end. Tomorrow’s artists make art after the end of history. Take the East Village scene. First it’s said that the artists there have no sense of the past; the East Village is an exercise in cultural amnesia. Then it’s said, no, that’s obviously not right. The East Village labors along from Sunday to Sunday under a back-breaking burden of historical knowledge, which in its free-floating manipulability is the same as no knowledge at all.

Note all the bright references to Expressionism, ’50s moderne, Surrealism, the pantheon of superheroes (Jackson Pollock and company), and so much more. East Village artists use SoHo the way Edouard Manet used the Prado. The Museum of Modern Art is to them as ancient Rome to the neoclassicists. But a command of history’s contents doesn’t necessarily generate a historical vision, in the East Village or anywhere else.

Throughout the modern period a few artists have discovered the past, learned to love it, gone native. At play in the rubble, they have offered themselves to us either as Modern art–weary sophisticates or as noble savages—Giorgio de Chirico or Paul Gauguin. Artists such as these were exceptions because they had no faith in the utopian future promised by Modernism. Now nearly every artist is de Chirico or Gauguin, or both at once. By making the entire repertory of historical gestures immediately available, the ’80s collapse history’s narrative into a data bank floating somewhere outside time.

Artists aren’t the only ones plugged into the data bank. Most of the art world is plugged in. So is most of the literary world, the architectural establishment, the “culture” in general. The history machine provides each world with the bits and pieces, the memory bank, it needs to get from day to day, from Flaubert to Judith Krantz, Palladio to Philip Johnson, de Chirico to Imants Tillers, Nietzsche to Susan Sontag, Garbo to Glenn Close. These are pointless linkups, histories made manageable, mundane—yet compelling, because they divert us from the present, like the histories that animate the game called Trivial Pursuit.

Trivial Pursuit asks, “What star of The Mating Game served as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s bridal attendants at her wedding to Mike Todd?” (Debbie Reynolds.) The information is indeed trivial, but the ability to recall it wins you a point. (What recently opened disco features a Mike Todd room complete with art? The Palladium.) The categories that order the information are oppressive, but a knowledge of the categories is basic to survival in the game. (What current architectural trend revives the Baroque, Palladianism, and other pre-Modernist styles? The Postmodern.) Pick your category, master its contents, and you possess in miniature form a practical substitute for a historical past. Produce the right bits and pieces of that past on cue, and you get to keep your place in the hysterical, artificial present created by the game.

These days, when a hot painting can look like the right answer to an especially complicated question in Trivial Pursuit, a hip response to a hot painting often sounds like an answer to the same sort of question. A simple question: How can we face the banality of all this? We don’t know yet. Meanwhile, we keep track of developments in our favorite art categories (you can’t make your move unless you have the right answer). And when, hopping along the board, we come up against artists who dispense with trivia and glamour alike, we try to shrink them down to the scale of players in the game whose rules they break. Or if that’s impossible, we cry foul.

Carter Ratcliff’s most recent book is Robert Longo (Rizzoli). He writes on the topic of modern life for Artforum.