PRINT May 1986


Inside the White Cube.

WRITING ABOUT YOUR PAST IS the closest you get to coming back from the dead. You assume a false superiority over your previous self, who did all the work. So looking back at these articles, now revived between their own pasteboard, what do I have to add? A great deal.

In the past ten years so much has been buried as if it never happened. Art does not progress by having a good memory. And New York is the locus of some radical forgetting. You can reinvent the past, suitably disguised, if no one remembers it. Thus is originality, that patented fetish of the self, defined. What has been buried? One of the art community’s conceivably noble efforts: the concerted move of a generation to question, through a matrix of styles, ideas, and quasi movements, the context of its activity. Back in the ’60s the attempt to dispense with illusions was dangerous and could not be tolerated for long. So the art industry has since devalued the effort. Illusions are back, contradictions tolerated, the art world’s in its place and all’s well with that world.

When the economics of a field are disturbed, or subverted, the value system becomes confused. The economic model in place for a hundred years in Europe and the Americas has been one of product filtered through galleries, offered to collectors and public institutions, written about in magazines partially supported by the galleries, and drifting toward the academic apparatus which stabilizes “history”—certifying, much as banks do, the holdings of its major repository, the museum. History in art is, ultimately, worth money. Thus do we get not the art we deserve but the art we pay for.

This comfortable system once went virtually unquestioned by the key figure it is based upon: the artist. The avant-garde artist’s relation to his or her social context is made up of contradictions because visual art has a tin can tied to its tail. It makes things. And to switch Ralph Waldo Emerson around, man is in the saddle and rides these things to the bank. The vicissitudes of this product as it tracks from studio to museum provoke occasional comment, usually of a vaguely Marxist kind. The idealism implicit in Marxism has little attraction for devoted empiricists, among whom I include myself. Every system construes human nature according to its desired ends, but ignoring the grubbier aspects of our nature, or disguising them, is every ideology’s basic attraction. It sells us on the idea that we are better than we are. The varieties of capitalism at least recognize our basic selfishness; this is their strength. The comedies of ideology and the object (whether it be artwork, television set, car, washing machine) are played out on a field rampant with the usual false hopes, lies, and megalomania.

Art is of course implicated in all this, usually as an innocent bystander. For no one is more innocent than the professional intellectual who has never had to decide between two evils, and to whom compromise is synonymous with having his or her epaulets torn off. It was the avant-garde that developed the self-protective idea that its product had a mystical and redeeming esthetic, social, and moral value. This idea arose from the fusion of idealist philosophy’s remnants with idealistic social programs at the beginning of Modernism. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) must be the ideal text for justifying any avant-garde, whether of right or left, whether Futurist or Surrealist. But locating moral energy in a salable object is like selling indulgences, and we know what reforms that provoked.

Whatever its heroic virtues, the avant-garde notion has, we now see, liabilities. For its peculiar relation to the bourgeoisie (first cited by Charles Baudelaire in his preface to the Salon of 1846) is interdependent and ultimately parodic. The cult of originality, the determination of value, the economics of scarcity, of supply and demand, apply themselves with a particular poignancy to visual art. It is the only art in which the artist’s death causes a profound economic shudder. The avant-garde artist’s marginal social position and the slow move of his or her work, like some unmanned craft, to the centers of wealth and power suited perfectly the prevailing economic system. With any valuable product, the first task is to effect its separation from its maker. Modernism’s social program, if one can call it that, ignored its immediate context to call for large reforms, on the basis that it spoke with a privileged voice. This is the “fame” fallacy: ask Babe Ruth for solutions to the Great Depression.

We now know that the maker has limited control over the content of his or her art. The original content, if we look at the history of Modernism, doesn’t have any massive ideological effect. It is its reception that ultimately determines its content, and that content, as we see from revisionist scholarship, is frighteningly retroactive. The retroactive provision of content to art is now a cottage industry. And it is cumulative. Everyone shoehorns in his or her little bit of content. Modernism transformed perception, but the politics of perception remain unwritten.

In the ’60s and ’70s, during the art community’s dissent on Vietnam and Cambodia, a new insight took hold: the system through which the work of artists was passed had to be examined. This is a key marker, to my mind, of what is clumsily called Post-Modernism (is death postlife?) in visual art. This was radical. Sometimes it’s safer to sound off about large political matters than to clean up your own kitchen. Political courage is measured by the degree to which your position can, if prudently pursued, hurt you. It’s less comfortable to begin the political process at home. Postwar American artists, with some exceptions (e.g., Stuart Davis and David Smith), had a poor understanding of the politics of art’s reception. But several artists of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly those of the Minimal/Conceptual generation, understood very well. Their concern involved a curious transposition. Art’s self-referential examination became, almost overnight, an examination of its social and economic context.

Several matters provoked this. Many artists were irritated by the audience available for art; it seemed numb to everything but, at best, connoisseurship. And the expensive compound (gallery, collector, auction house, museum) into which art inevitably was delivered muffled its voice. Art’s internal development began to press against several conventional boundaries, inviting contextual readings. All was occurring in a restless social context in which protest and radical formulations were an everyday presence. A potentially revolutionary situation existed. That quasi revolution failed, as it had to. But some of its insights and lessons remain, though, as I said before, there is a vested interest in suppressing them.

It is an unanswered question—and will probably remain so—whether the art’s responses to this situation were teleological or political. The artwork was the key unit of discourse, both esthetic and economic; therefore, the thinking then went, remove it. Let the system close in a spasm around a vacuum. Let there be nothing or very little to buy, and to buy, of course, is the sacramental infinitive. Make the art difficult; that will hinder its assimilation. If art lives by criticism, make art more like criticism, turn it into words. And then have people pay for that. Examine the collector, including the provenance of his or her bank account; study what Nancy Hanks used to call the museum’s greatest enemy: the trustee. Study the corporate drift of the museum and how the museum director, the most consistently persecuted member of the bourgeoisie, rudely fired, becomes a gypsy with a tie and a suit. Study art’s monetary fate, the protectionism that surrounds great investment. See the auction house at work, where the living artist may witness his or her authentication but not partake in it. See the contradictions inherent in the place where art is shown and sold. And note the self-selection implicit in this system, whereby the art of the museums is very different from what Paul Cézanne talked about when he wanted to do over Impressionism. Just as formalism led to art made up by prescription (and just as the New Criticism used to generate its own poetic specimens), so museums have drawn forth a kind of museum art, to that degree an official art, appropriate for mass viewing. I suspect that there is a sinking landscape of good art that evades this process. The thought that there may be serious losses remains troubling, especially of the art that in its passion for the temporary forced our attention on the present. Above all (we were reminded), we must be aware of the arbitrary and manipulative nature of assigning value.

What was the nature of this curious outburst of insight? Apart from the usual mild socialism, was it a desire that the producers of art would control its content? Or an attempt to separate art from its consumers? Now we can see that this, intentionally or not, led to the breakup of the mainstream in the ’70s into multiple styles, movements, activities. This pluralism was and is intolerable to esthetic purists, whose position helps marketing—not the first time that esthetic idealism and commerce have superimposed perfectly.

The system has always maintained its certainty of new product by a peculiar imperative I call “slotting,” unique to the visual arts. Most artists become time-bound to the moment of their greatest contribution, and are not allowed out of it. The present rushes by, leaving them curating their investment—sad imperialists of the esthetic self. Nor is any change tolerated; change is considered a moral failure unless its morality can be convincingly demonstrated. Removed from contemporary discourse, such artists wait for random breezes from the present. Originality becomes reified; so does its creator. The art scene in any great center is always a necropolis of styles and artists, a columbarium visited and studied by critics, historians, and collectors.

What a grand irony that these insights into the system led in the ’80s to a redoubled confirmation of all that had been laid bare and rejected. For product and consumption returned with a plethora of content for those starved of it. The best new work’s defense against smooth consumption is in its various masks, in which complex internal ironies are decipherable. Subject matter exploits itself, and some of the paradoxes of Pop return, often serviced by a criticism that brilliantly questions the basis for value judgments. The gallery space has again become the unchallenged arena of discourse. But that is the subject of this book. Suffice it to say here that the elusive and dangerous art of the period between 1964 and 1976 is sinking with its lessons out of sight, as, given the conditions of our culture it must.

Brian O’Doherty exhibits his work under the name Patrick Ireland. His “Drawings 1965–1985” opened last month at the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., and continues through August 17.