Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations

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.