Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anarchy reigns in the world of art today*

After four semesters of art history classes, one of the biggest questions I had was "Wait a minute, what exactly was such a big deal about Modernism anyway?" We had looked at a fair number of the better-known Impressionist paintings, and proceeded from there through Matisse and Mondrian and Picasso and the usual famous names, and it all seemed like just a bunch of familiar, slightly dull stuff. More dates to memorize. The teacher was telling us that it was really earth-shaking and revolutionary, but since I'd been seeing these paintings reproduced on a million coffee mugs and tote bags and umbrellas my whole life, that didn't make any sense to me at all.

(Good heavens, the ludicrous verbosity of the book I've been reading seems to have rubbed off a bit. Let me see if I can put this behind a cut.)

And then there was the question of the giant gap in the timeline: art history classes start with the caves at Lascaux, and go through the styles of Egyptian, Grecian, Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque, and then sort of skim over Neo-Classical and briefly mention Romanticism. And then all of a sudden you're elbow-deep in the beginning of the twentieth century, wondering what happened. The Impressionists were actually late nineteenth-century, but the Baroque had mostly finished by the beginning of the eighteenth century, which left about a hundred and fifty years unaccounted for. What were artists doing then, that set things up for Impressionism to be shocking? Surely the painters didn't all just decide to sit those decades out and loaf around drinking wine or something.

I was too busy and distracted to think about it much at the time, but over this past summer I found (at the Goodwill of all places!) an edition of the book that had been my art history text, only this was the first one, from 1926. Art Through the Ages, an Introduction to its History and Significance, by Helen Gardner, A. M. So I was slowly working my way through that, and finding it very gentle, pleasant reading compared to the more recent art commentary I'd had to slog through, when just a couple of weeks ago I found an even more interesting book: Great Works of Art and What Makes Them Great, by F. W. Ruckstull. That's the book that's currently in the process of turning by brain completely inside out, and making more sense of the Modernist movement than any part of art school ever did.

It's an enormous volume, resembling a dictionary in size and bulk. Its stated purpose is to educate the general public in the correct methods of looking at and judging works of art. What it actually does is spend hundreds of pages shouting violently about how terribly hideous, dangerous, insane, degenerate, and wrong the Modernist movement is. Ruckstull was a sculptor, and very much a part of the old established culture of art that the current histories never mention. He accepts nothing but smoothly idealized realistic depictions of human beings and landscapes. He believes that the highest (and only appropriate) function of art is to uplift the spirit of mankind, so as to create a paradise on earth, for the greater glory of God and the human race.

At least I think that's what he's getting at. His prose isn't terribly easy to wade through. But it's clear that he feels very strongly about abstract art. On page 213 he says:
"Abstract," inscrutable, incomprehensible art, therefore, is naught but the product of artists who have gone mad, or who have turned charlatans, and are engaged in "putting over" on the public such "creations" as appeal only to abnormal morons or to speculative, gambling collectors of exotic, weird, pathological things, a class of men of whom there is, unfortunately, always a sufficient number, in the insanity breeding metropolises of the world, from Paris to Tokio and from Peking to New York, and who, sooner or later, unload their collected "creations" on other collectors, until they end by finding houseroom with some dealer in "junk," along with desiccated heads from Peru; dried starfish from China; and rotting mummies from the Nile; and, finally, pass out into oblivion!
It's quite a wonderful description, actually. I like the idea of my own abstract artwork being tucked away in some abandoned warehouse along with a bunch of dried starfish and heads and things.

But he's concerned that maybe this stuff isn't going to be as easily forgotten as he thinks it should. The art that so revolted him wasn't showing any signs of quietly, tactfully, passing into oblivion. In fact, a bit earlier in that same chapter, it was worrying him. From page 204:
This would not be so reprehensible and so dangerous socially if, in the propaganda in favor of this newest aberration, they did not try to undermine the foundations of all sane, healthy, and enduring art, by saying that "representation" has no place in art, even idealized art; that sanely stylized "representation" is totally undesirable; and that creation in art means that the abstraction from the truth of nature should be so extreme that a man is made to look like a wheelbarrow and a woman like a monkey-wrench! And this topsy-turveying is defended by such glib, metaphysical-bunco reasoning, so plausibly done, so well calculated to capture the nouveau-riches morons in the art world, and so many of them as to become dangerous, that we feel it a duty to once for all show the fallacy of the doctrine that representation should not be the basis of all art, especially since the speculators, who have loaded up a stock of this art junk, are now making herculean efforts to force our museums to buy more and more of these aberrations, to show to future generations the "Zeitgeist," the spirit of the age, which prevailed in the world, from 1864 onward!
Horror! The public was buying it! The museums were gathering it into their collections, and corrupting themselves hopelessly thereby! In fact, the new stuff was getting way more attention than his own pure and high-minded work.

And suddenly Modernism makes much more sense to me. If Mr. Ruckstull is a representative of the art establishment of his time, I can't imagine a more perfect target for ridicule. He gets all upset over relatively minor things (like an early sculpture of Rodin's, which was the realistic portrait of a common working man, instead of an idealized god or hero), and so the obvious temptation is to do weirder and more shocking things, just to see how loud he'll squawk. Any kid who's ever dealt with a stuffy teacher or parent or sibling knows this. And of course the public was getting a lot of entertainment out of the bizarre new art, too. Not only did they have unusual new things to look at, but they got to have strong opinions of their own, for or against, and get really passionate about it. I imagine in some ways it must have been a little bit like cheering on your favorite sports team, but with added bonus points for being cultured and up-to-date.

There's lots more to say about Ruckstull. I have a theory of my own, which is that he was a sort of proto-blogger, working within the limits the available technology. And I'm not done with the book yet, so who knows what else I'll turn up. For now, I will give it a rest, pausing only briefly to point out that it might improve the field of art criticism considerably if more people employed the term "bunco."

. . . . . . . . . . .

* First sentence of the Preface.


Samuel Monnier said...

That's a much more subtle pamphlet against modernism that Mr.Ruckstull's one. :)

Gissel Escudero said...

Some modern art looks simply horrible to me. But I don't mind that other people like it :-) To each their own.