Re-Thinking the Present

Over the course of the last several years, the artistic and critical practices of the Sixties have been getting a lot of attention. Thanks to a number of recent publications and exhibitions devoted to individual artists (Rosenquist, Smithson at LAMoCA and the Whitney) and “movements” (minimalism, conceptual art, earthworks) the complex nature of this transitional period of cultural production can be more fully understood and appreciated.

Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, Amy Newman’s history of the early years of Artforum, fills in part of the rich critical background of the period. By relying almost exclusively on interviews, she shows how the most influential art magazine in the 20th century was shaped by the very specific, and sometimes idiosyncratic, ambitions, ideas, and personal networks of writers and artists in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Last August, in a series of posts, Miguel Sánchez at Modern Kicks commented on Newman’s book, drawing attention to the subjective and occasionally inconsistent chronicle which needs more careful editing. He raises some good points about the prevalence of a moral discourse in art and the contentious relations among principle players such as Philip Leider, Max Kozloff, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, to name a few.

David Cohen, who reviewed the book for the Art Bulletin, begins with Hilton Kramer’s claim that the early Artforum functioned as “a kind of Bible”. Playing out the trope, Cohen characterizes Newman’s book as a Talmudic accompaniment to the Bible which “weaves around the original texts new layers of meaning through a disconcerting but richly rewarding synthesis of legend and lore, philosophical speculation, social analysis, anecdote, telling contradiction, and dialectic.”

What emerges from these “new layers of meaning” is a much clearer sense of the critical dynamics underpinning what, in hindsight, appears to be a dramatic shift in artistic sensibility. Arthur Danto has argued that the transition occurring at this time amounts to “the end of art” — a culminating moment at which art fails to achieve the modernist philosophical goal of self-definition. Through this “failure” comes the realization that anything can be a work of art, an epiphany experienced by Danto in 1964 when reflecting on an exhibition of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. The result is that art, in a profoundly Hegelian gesture, abandons the task of defining art, leaving to philosophy an exercise that properly falls within its domain. Danto claims that art, from this moment on, can longer be subject to a dominant and guiding theme or raison d’être. From here on art will be pluralistic — something for everyone with no constraints on what one ought to do as an artist or critic. The “moral component” referred to above drops out of the picture entirely.

My view is precisely the opposite of Danto’s. While I agree with the claim that a certain kind of modernist practice goes through a radical transition in the early Sixties, I see this not as the end but as the beginning of art. A rough analogy might be that with the culmination of abstraction and formalism at mid-century, western art had, in a sense, earned its MFA and was able finally to set out on its own. The time frames are different, but the pattern may be the same. It is typical of the early postgraduate phase of an artistic career to be a period of exploration and re-examination. (It used to be a rule of thumb that it took ten years after the MFA for an artist to mature. It’s a mark of our commerically reconfigured artworld that one is often preparing for their first retrospective by that time!) The pluralism prevailing since the Sixties may simply be western art’s first attempts at “finding its way”.

While I hestitate to push the analogy too far, I would certainly argue that the recent work on minimalism, conceptualism, pop, and earthworks — all focused on the critical period of the Sixties — provides an opportunity to scavenge through the remains of modernism for the concepts and tools needed to re-think the present.

2 thoughts on “Re-Thinking the Present

  1. In rejecting Danto’s notion of a pluratlistic, posthistorical mode, what do you see as the implications for contemporary criticism? Is it still resigned to cast about in the wake of Western Art’s post-grad growing pains, or should it be capable of a greater agency in working through it? Or is the stagnation of criticism more fundamental to the very “problem” itself?

    As you write, a natural corollary of the rise of pluralism (hmmm, maybe I have that backwards) is the weakening of the “moral component” of discourse (although I’m not so certain it has dropped “out of the picture entirely,” or at least that it necessarily must be so). So it goes for most forms of judgment and certainty.

    Similarly, David Cohen writes at the end of his Art Bulletin review:

    “Many voices in Challenging Art talk of the religious tone of moral certainty that animated the magazine. Leider himself marvels at this quality in Fried. ‘Michael really felt that Western civilization was at stake’ (p. 298). He came to share Fried’s conviction that ‘if the culture was going to go sour, it was our fault’ (p. 174). Such purism and moral fervor seem inimitable for art writing today.”

    An undoubtedly simplistic (and indeed highly unoriginal) question comes to mind (and harks back to the Brenson essay you linked to a while ago)… Just what is at stake today and how do we articulate it?

    Can we reinvigorate judgment without launching into Culture War hysterics? Can we recapture a sense of history or progression without leaning on a need for a sense of necessity that is in such short supply these days?

    Is reevaluating the recent past always the first step toward re-thinking the present?

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