Sunday, April 20, 2014

The kitschification of abstract expressionism


Is there a term for the process whereby art that was once avant-garde becomes bourgeois kitsch? I had a minor epiphany yesterday at the Modern Masters show at the Denver Art Museum, an exhibit spanning Western art from Post-Impressionism to Pop Art and focusing on "20th century icons." Walking through the show, I suddenly realized I'm no longer moved at all by Abstract Expressionism, which I used to love.

The disenchantment is twofold: First, most of the Abstract Expressionist paintings have taken on the look of bad hotel art. I think this movement (once so radical!) has been "appreciated" to the point that it's the realm of contemporary hack artists, basically the same thing that happened to Impressionism 40 years or so ago, where the style became a symbol of bland "good taste," so commodified I associate Van Gogh with coffee mugs and mouse pads; not the museum but the museum store. That's what so many of these Abstract Expressionist masterworks look like to me now: calendars.

Second, I despise the rhetoric of the artists from that era. Part of the project of this exhibit was to display quotes from the artists alongside critics' remarks from the time (invariably they quoted conservative critics who hated the work). The artists' quotes were all about feelings, along the lines of "A painting succeeds if you understand how the artist felt." I'm suddenly appalled by this. Who cares how the artist felt? And how simplistic: We don't experience movies or music this way, as a one-time "guess the emotion" puzzle. I don't look at a Kandinsky and say "Sadness. Got it" and move on. (I'm reminded of Mary Karr's claim that the primary purpose of poetry is to "stir emotion," as if most people need help having emotions.) Then there was Rothko's suggestion that people should "weep" before his paintings. Really? This feels cultish to me. Would anyone weep before an orange canvas if we didn't know that Rothko committed suicide?

There should be a term, also, for this effect: you come to hate a type of art or an artist not because of anything inherent in the work itself, but because of its fan base. As with the Eagles or the Grateful Dead or Dave Matthews Band, the fans are arguably more annoying than the music itself. So much iconic art gets ruined through association this way; Dali, for example, has been ruined by the kind of entitled nerds who had Dali posters in the their dorm rooms, somehow always the same guys who loved A Clockwork Orange and wanted you to know they did drugs.

All that aside, it was a really good show. They also had a great, small exhibit of Polish posters for American westerns.


Who knew?

25 comments:

  1. I had a similar thought about despising art because of the audience reaction when I saw "Beasts of the Southern Wild." The movie is basically despicable, but it would be a great work of art if the audience understood its message to be repugnant. Since the audience actually seemed to embrace its retrograde racial politics, I found it to be extremely icky.

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    1. I haven't seen it, but interesting -- I'm trying to think of other examples of popular art (movies for example) that fail by being misread by the audience?

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    2. Well I mean, I don't think this quite counts, but there is the phenomenon where works are misinterpreted and used as the justification for crimes - Taxi Driver by John Hinckley, Dogville by Anders Breivik. But admittedly this is not what I was getting at, and it doesn't seem like a good reason to dislike the work. Maybe "Born in the U.S.A."? But even in that case, I'm inclined to like the work despite it being miscast as some kind of xenophobic anthem. (Probably this is because it is so obviously not xenophobic.)

      Speaking for myself, Breaking Bad was problematic inasmuch as people sympathized with Walter instead of Hank. But I only watched maybe one and a half seasons, and I thought it was problematic for lots of reasons. But I think I would have liked it better if the audience had agreed with me that Walter is a terrible person.

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    3. Ah, yeah, and then there's people using U2's "One" or "Every Breath You Take" as a wedding song.

      I haven't seen Breaking Bad either but I thought the idea was that he becomes more and more of an anti-hero as the show goes on.

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  2. "So much iconic art gets ruined through association this way; Dali, for example, has been ruined by the kind of entitled nerds who had Dali posters in the their dorm rooms, somehow always the same guys who loved A Clockwork Orange and wanted you to know they did drugs."

    True. Sorry, every guy I went to college with.

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    1. My brother was kind of one of these guys, God love him. I think it's a late bloomer thing.

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    2. Oh, I was friends with some of those guys. They grow out of it, I think, if they keep self-educating. And full disclosure: I had a Van Gogh sunflowers poster in my college dorm room.

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    3. I had a framed poster of Suburbs of a Paranoiac Critical Town on my wall. It was a gift, but I liked it. And I loved A Clockwork Orange--preferred the novel and invariably complained that the movie didn't measure up, but privately Ioved the movie too. And I would've wanted you to know that I took drugs. I would've hoped you'd find that interesting.

      Maybe some day I'll grow out of all this.

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    4. My hubs is wearing a Clockwork Orange t-shirt right now. I got it for him as a joke -- he did his master's thesis on Anthony Burgess so it always annoys him that it's the only book by him anyone has read.

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  4. Interesting how various expressions of "modernism" can seem quaint now--I think about this with surrealist poetry, though I (obviously) find some of it exciting even today.

    I have definitely teared up in front of a Rothko while not thinking about his biography, but I still dislike a lot of the rhetoric of the period.

    Dali himself seemed like a "prick," and that has ruined his work for me, which it probably shouldn't have.

    Finally, I have to take issue with the Eagles ever being mentioned in the same breath as the Grateful Dead, but I guess, though I love the Dead, you're right in that their fans are probably MORE annoying than Eagles fans.

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    1. Hi Heather!

      You should have seen me at the Rothko chapel .. could not have been more bored. :)

      So many artists, poets, etc. turn out to be assholes...it's a shame.

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  5. I doubt that I've ever been "moved" by an abex painting, but I like to think about the historical importance of abex--its affinity with bebop and method acting, the way it encouraged Michael McClure to stop worrying about form and make the poem a record of the poet in the act of writing. About the pop- art reaction. I look at a Pollock and I'm not moved; rather, it's like reading a new poem and thinking, "What it means is how she wrote it." A Pollock means how he painted it, that native-American sand-painter style you see in Hans Namuth's footage, the rebelliousness of that. All this seems to me tremendously important, so I'd enjoy the show even if I shed no tears. Whether the artist was a prick is irrelevant; whether his work is as popular as the Eagles or known only to the cognoscenti is irrelevant. The behavior of fans is irrelevant. All fans are annoying. People in general are annoying.

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    1. It's much more interesting in context of the history of Western art than it is as a record of individual artists' "feelings." Like I said, it was a good show, even if I didn't like all the art.

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  6. The "cultish" feeling you point out makes even more sense when you think about how the CIA was funding abstract expressionism: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html It was the celebration--and weaponization--of the cult of the individual and a demonstration that "...the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement..."

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    1. It's so bizarre. Seems too "good" to be true in a way.

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  7. The way I conceive of what artist (painters, poets, musicians, etc.) are doing when we make the things we make, is that we're taking something of our own experience, and transforming it into an object, a created piece of work (a poem, a painting, a song), and, if the created thing does its work effectively enough (closely related to all of the considerations of how the maker has made it), a person who looks at the painting or reads the poem or hears the song may then experience something of the original experience that moved the maker to make the piece of art.

    So in other words: not to understand how the artist feels, and not to "stir emotion," but rather to experience something (at least) of what the artist experienced that moved the artist to make the art, or from which the art is drawn or formed or written or sung. Not simply communicating experience, but recreating the experience in the viewer/reader/listener.

    The phenomenon you describe here, where a lot of abstract expressionist art has (by now) come to resemble bad hotel art, may be as much because of the proliferation of lesser imitations of the art -- one could say, maybe, a mannerist or academic degeneration of the original aesthetic impulses, whereby the innumerable hack artists you speak about imitated only the surface characteristics of the art, without concern for conveying any sort of experience to the viewer.

    Your comments about associating Van Gogh (for instance) with the coffee mugs in the museum shop brought to mind John Berger's book Ways of Seeing, in which he spends some time specifically talking about (among much else) how the mass reproduction of an image can affect the content and context of an image, and how we see the image. (The Mona Lisa printed on ten thousand T-shirts, etc.) It can both increase the presence of the image in the consciousness of many people, at least at a surface level, while also reducing the potential depth with which we tend to perceive the image -- at any rate, it may require more concentration and attention to really see an image that we've gotten used to seeing on a hundred coffee mugs.

    I've tended to feel that mind-altered experiences (most of the ones I've had, at least) tended more to resemble some of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch -- Bosch's painting of the Millennium, for instance, with the great busy detail and random scattering of cluttered this-and-that -- rather than any of Dali's paintings I've seen, which seem to me to neat and ordered to resemble such mindbent experiences very much.

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    1. Benjamin of course talks about that too, in "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." There was a time when I felt a "real" Van Gogh had "aura" for days ... actually I probably still do. Van Gogh is pretty great, in person. They're so 3D.

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    2. I don't quite remember offhand, but it's possible that Berger made mention, at least, of Benjamin's writing on this.

      I've seen just a couple of Van Gogh's originals over the years. It took me a little while to warm to him, but eventually I came to love his work. The one original painting of his that I specifically and strong remember seeing, numerous times, is called "Olive Orchard" and is in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of the large art museums here. It's a painting of trees and ground, with a bright round yellow sun at the upper edge of the painting, midway between the left and right sides. And in the original, the yellow light from the sun is painted as small bits of yellow showering down, almost as if the sun is raining drops of yellow light, down into the tops of the trees.

      I have a bunch of small postcard and greeting card size prints of paintings scattered around the walls of my apartment, and they include a couple of Van Gogh paintings -- the Olive Orchard (the one I just described above), and a painting of a sidewalk cafe at night. (In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent commented about the sidewalk cafe painting that he had succeeded in painting a night scene without using any black color in the painting.)

      Other paintings on my walls include a couple of Picassos, a couple of Georgia O'Keeffe's, three or four pieces of early 20th century Russian Constructivist art, a Winslow Homer, a couple by Maxfield Parrish, a couple of details from murals by Siqueiros, a couple of woodblocks by Kawase Hasui, a Monet sunrise over water, these among others.

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  8. I felt that way about Van Gogh until I actually saw one. I had no idea how vivid his colors were. Color rather than form is an emotional key for me. I have never turned down a Kandinsky. I have always been bored by Rothko. I cried in front of the first Pollock I saw. I went to art school. It didn't change how I felt about artists' work. I could never stand Klimpt but I adore Egon Schiele and I'm very interested in Vienna -- in the cultural vortex of the fin de siècle in which both of these painters were caught up. Love it if you love it. Everything else is bullshit. I had a poster of Jim Morrison btw.
    xo

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    1. I had a poster of Francis Bacon's Figure with Meat and posters of Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain. I used to hang my own drawings and collages too. (Now the drawings just stay in the sketchbook. Hanging's too good for them.) Being a caffeine addict I put a lot of teabags and coffee-cup handguards in the collages. I saw this cool Bruce Connor collage: a myriad women in various stages of deshabille, many of them with a Betty Page-like retroness, as if cut from 60s stag mags. I did something like that myself, and then I decided to do it again at work. I had this boring job in a book warehouse, so I decided to make it more fun by turning my computer tower into a kiosk. None of the photos was pornographic, but some were edgy, e.g. one of Patti Smith leaning on a men's urinal with her pants open. Eventually I had little poems and drawings and newspaper snippets and quotations stuck all over my monitor and keyboard as well. Then one morning I came in and saw that someone had torn all this craziness off my computer and left it in a crumpled heap on my desk!

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    2. RK, I'm sort of coming back around to a lot of impressionist stuff actually, after finding it annoying for years. Van Gogh is pretty special in person. So glad you think Rothko is boring though.

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  9. I think may go to said Chapel tomorrow--and I've been told there's a wonderful minimalist yet still very Catholic actual one nearby. I'm curious to see if there's validity to the general thesis that Rothko is blah other than in person, but that if one is close to them what looks like one swatch of whatever color actually consists of numerous gradations and if this is the case it seems possible I'll be engaged. Yah the one you post doesn't grab me though, grins.

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  10. Chapel is closed till 10 am tomorrow, lol.

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