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.