So it was that in April of 1970 an artist named Lawrence Weiner typed up a work of art that appeared in Arts Magazine -- as a work of art -- with no visual experience before or after whatsoever, and to wit:
- The artist may construct the piece
- The piece may be fabricated
- The piece need not be built
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership
And there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a "receiver" that may or may not be a person or may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just "the artist" in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, for nothing is demanded fo him, nothing at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode -- and in that moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture... and came out the other side as Art Theory!... Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision inivisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.
-- Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, 1975
The tragedy of re-reading Wolfe's short masterpiece today, 29 years after I first encountered it, is its sad failure in predicting the future of artistic taste. Back in the mid-seventies, The Man in the White Suit felt confident that the world would come to its senses by the year 2000, that artists and collectors and writers would look back on the artistic period 1945-1975 with head-shaking wonder. "What happy hours await them all!" he wrote. "With what sniggers, laughter and good-humored amazement will they look back upon the era of the Painted Word!"
Sadly, Old Tom failed to appreciate the gravity of our 20th century intellectual failures, for we remain incapable of escaping their black-hole pull. The Grand Duchy of Art Theory that Wolfe skewered wasn't some post-war aberration: it was an Event Horizon, a point-of-no-return from which a once-cohesive culture doesn't simply recover. From art to literature to political science, the intellectuals of the mid-to-late 20th century pursued abstraction for the sake of theoretical purity, rendered their fields impotent and irrelevant, and then hid the keys to understanding within an arcane codex of self-referential gibberish that only members of their self-selecting academy could hope to understand.
It is this reason more than any other -- more than mass media, more than politics, more than economics, science or religion -- that accounts for the fraying of our current culture. As I wrote in 2005:
- When what is on the canvas alone is not enough to make a judgment on its quality, then art has been replaced by theory.
- When theory is less important than the theorist, then art has been replaced by fashion.
- When only fashion determines success, then art has been replaced by conformity.
And so it is. When our most educated classes -- the stewards of 5,000 years of civilization -- adopt untestable theories that cannot be held accountable to anything beyond the whims of their own cliques, then the connection between our culture and its traditions breaks. The rest of us lose our access to the realm of ideas and art, leaving most Americans a fast-food culture of consumerist commercial kitsch. Any potential rebels within the academy find themselves isolated within their departments, but also cut-off from the larger society, from the very people who might give them vitality, support and strength.
Intent and fashion
This line of thinking began for me several weeks ago when I heard my wife ask an artist friend of ours what made one photograph great art and another photograph trash. And this intelligent, caring, talented man gave my wife a particular look -- a look that many of us have given others, a look that conveys a polite but weary condescension -- and said, "It's the intent of the artist that makes it art."
Au contraire, Pierre.
When someone says that intent is what makes a thing art, he is correct. It's only when we ascribe that intent to the artist that we leap into arrogant absurdity, because the intent of a third party is both unknowable and irrelevant.
In fact it is the intent of the observer that determines whether an object is art or trash, and that intent in modern society is shaped by fashion, status, ambition, insecurity, resentment and fear -- shaped by everything except the higher callings we claim with our laughable abstractions, our wryly ironic po-mo angels dancing on the heads of so many mis-imagined quantum pins. This is what William Irwin Thompson addressed when he spoke about the unavailability of modern intellectualism. This is the fundamental disconnect that so fascinates Louis Menand.
We cannot search for beauty, because our art theorists tell us that "art" disdains beauty as irrelevant. We cannot search for truth, because our intellectuals tell us truth is immaterial, too subtle for us to comprehend, and above our pay grade, regardless. The price of understanding and relevance in the humanities is a PhD, a degree that can only be granted by other PhDs, a title that is rarely offered to heretics.
Is it any wonder that the populist wing of American politics aggressively disputes everything from evolution to global warming to the roots of our current fiscal problems? That millions of Americans enthusiastically embrace the psychotic nonsense of a Glenn Beck? That our most popular painter is Thomas Kincaide? That our best-selling writers are typically pulp-showmen who deal in cardboard and cliches?
Don't blame Fox News for manipulating the fearful and confused -- blame those of us who know better. Our anti-borgeois elitism wound up separating us from working-class society decades ago, creating a vacuum of meaning and trust that Roger Ailes was only too happy to exploit. Blame every upscale Manhattan socialite whoever feigned cocktail admiration for the paintings of Barnett Newman (that's his 1966 painting "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?" on the right). Because yes, the common man may not be all that sophisticated, but he can plainly see that the pompous emperors of the art world have been parading around naked for the last 50 years. And if the "so-called elites" can be so wrong about that, then... well, where's their credibility about anything? Which is actually an excellent question.
The century ahead
I'm serious when I say that there is no healing this culture, no steady-state solution, no bridging this divide back to a stable Amerian society, I'm also at peace with the belief that our old culture needed to be broken. Its coherence was based on exclusion -- of blacks, of women, of queer-thinkers of various stripes -- and its power was based on a historic anomaly we're unlikely to experience again.
What I've come to realize with ever-expanding awe is that the Media Interregnum I've written about previously is not merely an industry transition -- it's part of a societal interregnum that began with the collapse of our old order in 2008 and will continue until the emergence of a new global coherence of ideas and art and economics and science. Politics will follow, not lead these changes, and a period of dark regression is as likely as an other scenario.
But I am also hopeful. In the 20th century we deconstructed our beliefs until we had nothing left but existential angst and the dark entropy of rubble, but in the 21st century new insights are emerging quietly all around us. No, we're unlikely to find new absolutes, yet nature keeps revealing elegant Fibonacci numbers in all manner of living things. Neuroscience, physics and biology keep discovering deeper structures and profound connections. The artificial dualism of subject and object is being challenged by science, opening new pathways to exploring those big questions we long-ago abandoned as sophomoric. Chaos gives way to pattern.
In the meantime, we are stuck in that most horrible and exciting of moments -- the pause before the beginning. I hope some of us will find ways to make the most of it.