Art & Other Serious Matters

I’ve reached the end of my Rosenberg infatuation, having overdosed on his brand of hypercritical holier-than-thou essays about art. Still, this last volume has some interesting ideas, if you can overlook his pedantic lecturing caught up in the whirlwind of a few great men artists as he tries to make sense of the nonsensical art world of the 1960s & 70s.

  • In this age of reproductions, interpretation takes precedence over direct response. The nature of the image itself–for example, its complexity, awesomeness, evocativeness–becomes less and less important.
  • In addition to television, other electronic media–hi-fi sets, tape recorders, home movies–collaborate with electrified gadgets, from elevators to oven timers, and with mechanized appliances and toys to turn the house into a revel of animation in which art can find a place only if it runs, flies, scoots, climbs, wiggles, shakes, or twinkles.
  • Looking at a painting is an intellectual transaction to which the spectator must contribute.
  • The trend toward motion in art reveals the qualitative difference between human and mechanical energy. The supreme kinetic sculpture is, of course, the hydrogen bomb, by which all humanity has been made smaller. This masterpiece of our culture can never be exhibited in its working state, if for no other reason than that if it is, the audience-participants will be in no condition to appreciate it. The great hidden art object of this era, the Bomb is comparable to the Ship of Cheops, which upon completion was buried “forever” in a mountainside.
  • To deal in masterpieces as if they were diamond-studded shit is more culturally destructive than to exhibit shit as if it were a diamond-studded masterpiece.
  • No-art reflects the mixture of crap and crime with which the mass media floods the mind of our time. It attacks this mixture through reproducing it in concentrated images. It is Pop with venom added.
  • The essential characteristic of Hirschhorn’s mammoth gift is the prevalence of what museum people call “gaps”: for all the eight hundred and fifty items in the inaugural show, it is a porous as a moth-eaten blanket in respect to both art-historical coverage and qualitative texture. It is not only that “names” are missing; it is that at every step the spectator is in danger of falling from a height of modernist creation into a crevasse of dullness or eccentricity.
  • The basic difference between art today (1975) and twenty years ago lies in the increasing amalgamation of painting and sculpture into the United States cultural-educational-entertainment system. Not that the earlier art had revolutionary social ideals; but it did have the advantage of leading a separate existence, if only from neglect… 3. University education of artists. In the past, artists were trained by other artists in art schools and studios. The student artist lived, worked, and learned in an environment of creation. All this was changed with the transformation of art into an aspect of cultural education. At the university, the student artist is surrounded by persons engaged not in conceiving works but in accumulating knowledge.

The De-Definition of Art

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This was the book I was originally searching for when I ended up reading Art on the Edge. My initial euphoria w/r/t Rosenberg has dissipated, or perhaps my mood has shifted. Regardless, this book of essays was less enjoyable and somewhat incomprehensible. I felt my attention straying on nearly every page—my own fault, I’m sure.  He’s best when he’s sniping at someone, my favorite in this case was the essay École de New York wherein he takes the Met curator Henry Geldzahler to task for trying to make such a thing as the “New York School.” Here’s his zinger:

Indeed, it was by the frequency with which they had been displayed that the artists in his show presumably met Geldzahler’s criteria: that the works shall have “commanded critical attention or significantly deflected the course of recent art.”… “Critical attention” and historical “deflection” were Gledzahler’s sententious terms for confessing his adherence to the star system. What he was actually saying was: I have been going through museum catalogs and art magazines, and from the artists most talked about I have picked the ones I like best.

Later, “no description could be less relevant to these artists than Geldzahler’s reference to Gorky, Pollock, and Smith as ‘giants.’ Giants do not paint pictures, they roll boulders down hills.” And “it seems evident that for him the significant ideas are those of curators and dealers, and he goes as far as to express the astonishing belief that the fall of the School of Paris was brought about by the absence of enterprising museum personnel: ‘One of the reasons French art weakened so considerably after World War II was that the key paintings and sculptures of the first half of the century were not on view in Paris.’ The decline of Europe could, it seems, have been averted after all if there had been sufficient gallery space. ”

Another essay I enjoyed was Art and Words, dissecting the necessary relationship of current art between materials and words, especially in certain forms like earthworks where the art is inaccessible except through the explanatory text. “Art communicated through documents is a development to the extreme of the Action-painting idea that a painting ought to be considered as a record of the artist’s creative process rather than as a physical object… Logically the work may therefore be invisible—told about but not seen.” Painter Gregoire Müller declares that works are often of “greater intellectual than visual interest.”

Also fun was to read the inscription some previous library patron had added to Rosenberg’s paean to Barnett Newman, accusing Rosenberg of vilifying “Miss” Frankenthaler’s work while building up Newman’s simply because they were in the same social circle. It covers two pages in blue pen.

Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations

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I continue to be grateful for the breadcrumbs dropped for me by authors of books and articles, leading me to other authors. My discovery of Harold Rosenberg came via a Baffler article by Rochelle Gurstein, W(h)ither the New Sensibility. I struck out when attempting to find Rosenberg’s De-definition of Art at the main library (it’s missing from the shelf), but loaded up on a few other titles, including this one. The book consists of essays on art previously published in the New Yorker between 1971-1975.

The collection is worth getting for the first essay alone, a meditation on Duchamp that helped me understand more about his motivations, theories, and antics. Duchamp congratulates himself on never having worked for a living, even as an artist; Rosenberg calls him a squatter in the outskirts of art and details his long effort on the Large Glass: “Like a life, the Large Glass was never finished but simply came to an end. It ‘held me,’ Duchamp said, ‘until 1923, the only thing I was interested in, and I even regret not finishing it, but it became so monotonous, it was a transcription, and toward the end there was no invention. So it just fizzled out.'” … “Duchamp’s denigration of art, his equalizing it with urinals and dog combs, was a matter of principle, he was determined that art should not be overestimated and that the ‘art habit’ should not produce the reactions of blank solemnity that had once been associated with religion.” … “Duchamp accepted almost any means to pay his way (he even functioned briefly as an art critic) except that of becoming a professional artist. Enslavement by art, he was convinced, is no different from enslavement by other tyrannies of work.”

After this, he dives into Miro, Mondrian, Newman, Olitski, Ellsworth Kelly, Hamilton, Lester Johnson, Joan Mitchell, Dubuffet, Warhol, Steinberg, and Giacometti. “With the passage of time and the fading of the Marxist utopia, Mondrian’s paintings have lost their political afterimage. History has diminished them to their bars and rectangles; their social and metaphysical meanings have passed out of the paintings and become data of the biography of the artist…Today, the paintings of Mondrian are in constant need of being filled out with the thought and will of their creator. To dissociate them from their intellectual origins on the ground that the spectator must confine himself to what is presented to him on the canvas is shallow aestheticism.”

Rosenberg spares no clever phrase when it comes to tearing apart the ridiculousness of other critics or curators. He attacks the WPA art project of the 1930s for making art into a profession open to everyone (“before the thirties, the practice of art in America had been limited to the well-to-do and their proteges, and to artists supporting themselves through commercial work… The Depression brought forth the novel idea of the unemployed artist-a radical revision of the traditional conception, for it implied that it was normal for artists to be hired for fees or wages and that in the absence of commissions they were idle.”

In What’s New: Ritual Revolution, Rosenberg warns that with “increasing speed and with little evidence of resistance, ‘art of today’ is becoming whatever attracts crowds to museums or is sold in galleries… An advance in art is considered to take place to the degree that art divests itself of the characteristics of art.”

He’s particularly incensed by the Documenta 5 exhibition in Germany, where curators and art historians were responsible for pushing the boundaries of art, instead of the artists, too eager for theory to leap forward and hope that artists catch up. The fusion of art and words was openly acknowledged without fear of scandal. “Adrift on the measureless ocean of ‘today’s imagery,’ paintings, gestures, environments relied on inflatable cushions of phrases to rescue them from oblivion.” As he sums up his anger, there is “something disturbing about seeing students in beards and long hair wandering through the galleries with their mouths shut… Beyond continuing the modernist questioning of art ‘as a social institution,’ Documenta 5 had no significant message. Certainly, no exhibition on this scale was needed to bring the news that people today are introverted, dreamy, prurient, vulgar, mentally unbalanced, and superficial (kitsch-loving), or to take sides iwth Mao or urge ending the war in Vietnam.”

Looking forward to digesting more of Harold Rosenberg.