What’s old is also new

Picasso's Goya

I got two thoughtful responses, via email, to my posts about Arthur Danto. Rick Harrington reacted as a practitioner suspicious of theories divorced from the actual practice of art. I agree that theory ought to arise as a response to art, not the other way around. (Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, suggested that in the middle of the 20th century, criticism began to be the basis of a lot of art, rather than a response to it—and, as conceptual art began to emerge, his notions seemed to be confirmed. Art can often becomes little more than the illustration of an idea. Once you understand what’s being conveyed, you’ve exhausted the act of looking at it.) Yet Rick is saying something more practical, that an artist creates out of a struggle to make a work of art in a certain way, physically and emotionally, and if that means working in ways artists from previous eras have worked, then it’s a perfectly vital way to create art. To prohibit any attempt to immerse oneself in past art and internalize it, and even to try to create art in the same way as previous artists, seems like hubris on the part of a critical theorist. To say it’s pointless to paint as Caravaggio painted, using his techniques, would ignore the work of an artist who might  have something illuminating to offer by doing just that. Superficially, the work might look anachronistic, yet it might also seem alive and rich because of that. Dave Hickey, in The Invisible Dragon, talks about distinguishing what an artwork embodies, in its formal qualities, and what it denotes or signifies—the meaning a work of art assumes in one age can be transformed when future generations look at it with new eyes, but what remains the same, and what enables it to endure, is what it embodies, the craft and physical qualities of the work that continue to convey the same indefinite energy and awareness to a viewer. Great work stays alive from one era to the next, precisely because of its formal qualities, not because of what it is assumed to mean. In other words, the work’s beauty survives its ostensible significance to a particular generation. And because of that, a new generation can find new “meaning” in the image. I think Rick is suggesting something similar. Danto, it seems to me, equates the forms of previous art with their meaning, as if a Byzantine mosaic must mean only one thing to a viewer, and was most meaningful only within a certain historical period, and has no value whatsoever to a 21st century Buddhist, say. Rick says,

If you . . . . try to come up with something uniquely new, I don’t think you’re going to get much done. You might be able to make an intellectual argument for it’s merit, but I may well find it too boring to listen to. I want good strong work and strong craft within the medium . . .. I don’t think the history of art should be ignored, but I think it should be studied for the same reason we study the rest of history. To learn from the past . . . to provide building blocks or a jump start.  Ultimately I think it comes down to . . .  the actual execution. Back to your sentence When it was painted hardly matters at all except to the academic.

I think Danto’s point was largely a matter of defining and categorizing elements of art so it could be discussed and criticized. Ultimately I guess my opinion probably mirrors the way I feel about history vs. fiction. History is the study of what happens. Fiction seems to lay out possibilities of what could happen. Wasn’t it John Gardener that said there are only two stories? Somebody goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Yet it seems as if there are a million good versions of those two stories re-imagined every year. I don’t see why visual art doesn’t work the same way.

Jim Mott, my friend who got a personal reply  from Danto when he asked him about painting landscapes, thought that Danto’s thinking supports the art establishment by setting limits and suggesting that certain ways of making art would be unacceptable now.

Many thoughts come to mind while reading your critique of Danto. I think Danto means well but does not see how enmeshed in the Artworld he is, how his closing remarks pull back sort of fatally from the radical pronouncement he seemed to be making. It would be great if he’d train his critical sights directly on the art establishment.

It sounds like Danto’s trying to liberate art from history . . . yet without wanting to abdicate critical authority for the priesthood of critics, curators, and dealers….or, more generously interpreted, without wanting to endorse an anarchistic free-for-all with no standards or handles for making sense of things.

It strikes me that Danto (whom I admire) writes to support the spirit and value of contemporary art, not to endorse the art establishment. Yet one has to question how well he can now serve art itself without critically examining and questioning his own place and privilege within the existing establishment… and without allowing art to be alive first and foremost in relation to the artist and the audience – on its own unpredictable terms, not his.

I think it’s fair for a critic to hold onto an awareness of the critic’s potential use in interpreting or even guiding art. I think there’s a huge and constructive role for interpretation and analysis.  But creative authenticity is of primary importance, and that, really, is for the artist to seek and find, and not for anyone else to put limits on.

 In recent decades, art criticism has become increasingly important in giving dealers, critics, buyers, etc. not only a means to sort out and make sense of the culture’s creative output but also a way to exercise control over it and derive wealth and power from it.  I think Danto sees that art criticism can’t meaningfully keep up with what’s going on without being either ineffectually diffuse or transparently arbitrary and self-serving. That the art establishment has become, for the most part, decisively elitist rather than oriented toward some sort of common good has probably become too apparent for a thoughtful critic like Danto to ignore.  What he may not see is that the established arrangements and explanations are cutting “Art” off from the aspirations of many artists and the interests of most people who are open to looking at and maybe being enriched by the experience of art.

Jim’s phrase, “creative authenticity,” is what all artists I know are trying to achieve. It’s certainly a well-worn term. But that’s only because it describes a universal aspiration. Usually, it means adopting techniques and approaches from previously artists you love, assimilating these methods over a number of years, and then struggling to create art in a way all your own that feels effective and powerful, without trying either to be do something consciously new nor simply imitate or mock the previous work. The relationship with the past is more subtle than either copying the past or some kind of rebellion against it or ironic commentary on it—no one I know, and no artists I really love, are trying to subvert what has come before them in the history of art. They’re struggling to live up to what they most admire in that previous work, regardless of its position on the timeline of art history, and do something personally genuine that draws from earlier art, as a source of energy, not as an oppressive book of rules the artist and his world has outgrown. The past is where the future comes from.



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