PRINT February 1986


the Manet tapes and more recent dupes.

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

Around 1979 the art world rewound its tape to bring us back to the figure, to narrative, to painting. Those were the early days of the “Italian Invasion,” the ”German Invasion’: the American response, and a pervasive confusion about the relations between past and present. How could the figure be recalled to painting when it had never gone away? What is it to remember, with ecstatic fanfare, a possibility that has never been forgotten?

Now the return-to-abstraction promoters are getting ready to run another section of the tape in reverse. How far? Back to the future—I mean, to the time before history discredited the old promises of utopia as a worn-out scam. But not every artist in the Modernist tradition was a utopian. The best spun no fantasies about art as the agent of a better tomorrow, psychic or social. Nor did they restrict art to a narrow zone for the preservation of fantasies about a purely formal utopia. Edouard Manet was too refined to believe in art progress, Pollock too impatient and too shrewd. But with its second Frank Stella retrospective in the works, the Museum of Modern Art gets ready to rewind to the reductive ’60s, one of those times when the promise of purely formal progress glittered.

Hilton Kramer’s neoconservatism also runs the tape backward, to a make-believe time of stable, unquestionable standards of judgment and taste. When he endows his artist heroes with absolute significance, he denies that their value resides in their doubts. I think Manet’s great too, but not because he makes everything clear. Just the opposite: he throws the entire enterprise of Modern painting into question, and from his questioning follow crucial questions about modern life. In fact, we see in Manet a “neo-Velázquezism” that signals the power of an individual’s will to reshape our vision of history. Even the tactics of “neo” don’t necessarily deaden the meaning of history, then—they can enliven it, as did neoclassicism, which retrieved ancient ideals basic to whatever is enlightened in modern culture. At its early best, neo-Expressionism exorcised some of the most effectively repressed 20th-century demons. But in 1986 the pervasive routines of neo have solidified into a set of reflexes. Neo no longer revitalizes what it claims to retrieve, but signals heretofore unseen varieties of regression and selective amnesia which pretend that history and consciousness are reversible.

Our cult of neo could teach us a lesson: mechanically running the tape backward or forward, we eventually lose large portions of the past that led us to this moment. We not only garble history, we lose our bearings in the present. And a livable future becomes less and less possible to conceive. To keep playing with the tape is to generate so much static, so much bad cognitive weather, that we can’t help regressing to semiconsciousness. In the land of neo we lie in a daze, able to respond to tag lines and labels and not much else.

That daze is an anesthetic, carefully cultivated for a specific purpose: to blur and muffle and dampen our sense of the history we and our culture have lived through. Since that history is often unbearably difficult, the need fora weakening of the historical sense is obvious. Furthermore, it is a need easily met. Even at its most powerful, art gives us only oblique glimpses of historical reality.

But it won’t even give us those if we show ourselves satisfied with—or willing to be distracted by—visual clichés, critical jargon, and curatorial policies designed to deepen our ahistorical daze, to rewind the tape to some unbelievable Golden Age in the past where Expressionists were noble savages, where Karl Marx and his Frankfurt School heirs were unquestionable, Merlin-like sages, and where “major” Modernist styles like Cubism and geometric abstraction contained in full the very essence of Modernity. The trouble with winding the tape back to such delusions is that there is no tape, not even a reel of film, that registers the message of contemporary life. Yet the metaphor of a reversible tape is so seductive we’re hardly conscious that it guides whatever consciousness we still possess.

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