Thursday, February 10, 2011

Modernism And Post

I just finished a book which challenged or re-framed some cherished beliefs. I love being sent back to remedial education classes. The book is Art and Discontent by Thomas McEvilley.

It is a heady read which lost me for pages at a time with many references to Plato and his buddies along with Hegel, Kant and Hume. The subject is aesthetics and by extension how we stand in relation to the world around us.

First I had to overcome my phobia to toga'd Greeks and Romans with their abstract language and references. Then there was my scant conversancy with art history. Yet enough bubbles got through to light a few bulbs.

I first recognized his materialistic approach as faintly Marxist which is something I was happy to shed many years ago. By the end of the book, however, I was won over by both his common sense and erudition. McEvilley fills the space between formalism and social realism, between the metaphysical and propagandistic. He grounds art, removing it from a worldly beyond while still retaining its inexplicable mystery.

The author comes down on the Art for Art's Sake movement which tended to isolate writers and artists at considerable remove. He argues for content and context being inherent in any art work. Even if the artist sets out to make a statement against realism, as many Abstract Expressionists did, that too becomes a kind of content. Pollock’s drips and Sam Francis’ splatters may be seen as acts against figurative art as well as a rendering of representational concepts.

He denounces the notion that art can attain some sort of spirituality through transcendence. The post-Modern eye refuses to see words or any visual art de-contextualized. Everything exists in a given time and place. The Bushmen of Australia have a way of seeing unlike ours and their art reveals that. We don't see what they see. They live in what Marshall McLuhan called, acoustical space rather than a visual one. As such, pre-literate people can leap into the cyberworld more easily than literate people like us who measure intelligence by print technology.

McEvilley makes the case that the era we call Modernism which began its slow death about 30 years ago followed by Post-Modernism, is not a phenomena new to our time. The Greeks had theirs and the Romans. The Renaissance was another era of Modernism followed by a period of retrenchment. The notion of vertical progress up to an Omega point is replaced by a more cyclical, repetitive paradigm.

Though written twenty years ago the book confronts a vital question for today: how does this post-colonial world change our perceptions. Deconstructing literature and all art reinvigorates language and our entire value system. What we called voyages of discovery from Europe to the Americas can now be seen as voyages of plunder and conquest.

So much of the psychic dislocation experienced by Americans in terms of lost values, is the sense that old terms are no longer relevant. An analogy might be how heavy weaponry is irrelevant in guerrilla warfare.

We become less judgmental and more inclusive as we allow otherness into our lives. In time the grotesque no longer seems grotesque. Art criticism will become a study of cultures much like anthropology dependent on the vectors of time and place.

1 comment:

  1. Norm, I haven't read Art and Discontent by Thomas McEvilley. But I don't agree that Pollack's drips and Sam Francis' splashes are "acts against representational art." Representation has been both enhanced and weakened in our digital age. We get to be present in Tahrir Square for the Egyptian uprising and at the same time point and shoot images invade our living rooms in a sea of kitsch. The abstractionists celebrate process, the act of putting paint on canvas, of making space where there was none before. You might make comparisons with the westward movement in American history, the yearning for open space, for free movement and democracy. That might be stretching things, but surely this art movement has been one of our best contributions to the history and development of art. Like Jazz. Abstract Expressionism is not cyclical, but a unique cultural offering that only Americans could make.