Apropos the avant-garde

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Apropos the avant-garde

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Greg Scheckler wrote:
Since I work very closely sometimes with some of the hottest 'contemporary art' and artists in the world, I have a thing or two to say about this set of ideas. The first is that the better contemporary artists who are making today's experimental work long ago abandoned the ideas of Modernism, and for the most part, abandoned the ideals of Postmodern deconstructivism and other fanciful philosophies that reached their apex in the 1990's. For most artists those approaches to art are no longer relevant. I don't encounter many who buy into the idea of the avant garde. There are a lot of contemporary artists who are still deeply involved with those mid and late 20th century ideals, of course, but I find that they are fewer than ever and championed only by a small group of curators. This is sort of a relief, although it's unclear to me what exactly is replacing these outdated ideals - it seems like contemporary art has a way that contemporary art looks, and that that set of appearances (found object, installation, video, collage/assemblage, etc.) is today a cliché.

It is a cliché of course, and I have seen the kind of anti-intellectualism you are describing as well. In a way this mirrors the anti-intellectualism that followed in the wake of the fall of Communism. The official formal rules of modernism/post-modernism/deconstructionism of course could never stand up to scrutiny and they have been abandoned, but as yet there's nothing else being taught in schools as a replacement or alternative, so most people just blindly go along by inertia doing more or less the same thing they had been doing but without the intellectual commitment that it's actually right.
I think that this intellectual vacuum is something we can seriously benefit from. Of course our ideas are at odds with the remnants of the modernist orthodoxy and the premises behind it, but people have a strong need for a framework through which they can understand what is going on and at least we have one that makes sense.

So, artists need to teach audiences what's important, what good craft and good skill is, and what it means. Even incredibly good contemporary realist painting won't speak for itself. It's not made relevant because so much 20th century work was bad or so much art philosophy of the past was so idiotic. Realist painting is made relevant because the imagery, symbolism, and process of art-making are meaningful to people - relevant when people can connect with the artwork. If they don't know how to read the imagery, or what goes into the process, etc., then we need to carefully teach and reveal what these things mean.

While that's true, and I am very much in favor of helping the general public understand the nuts and bolts behind the creation of works of art, I don't think that much of that kind of knowledge is a truly necessity. I think an analogy with automobiles would be appropriate here. Cars require a huge amount of very technical effort in order to have them come out nicely. Combustion chemistry, paint chemistry, metallurgy, physics, electronics, aerodynamics, and a thousand other technical areas need to be considered before a design is complete. But when the car companies sell the cars they focus on two things, the end effects of all of that work (how comfortable it is, how fast it accelerates, etc.) and a few technical details that allow for convenient classification and comparison (like engine displacement, how many cylinders, whether it is turbo-charged or not, etc.). Understanding a good work of art (or a good car) shouldn't require reading a thousand page technical manual, it just needs to provide the experience directly to the consumer for evaluation on its own merits.

But we're not going to be rid of new media that artists can use for expressive purposes: computers, robots, acrylic paint, etc.

Nor do we need to "get rid of" them. There's nothing wrong with using new media. The difficulty is that often the fact that they are using something new is used as an excuse to produce garbage and to expect praise for it.

What the 20th Century did, I think, is blast the doors open for all sorts of media and many totally new approaches to art to be considered as worthy of use as art.

Some people might consider it "worthy" but the obliteration of every standard and use of good judgment is certainly not a good thing. We could "consider worthy" any kind of nonsense in the world but that wouldn't make it so.

So what can artists who use traditional oil painting speak to?

Anything they want to of course. Better ideas are of course better than worse ones, relevant ideas are better than irrelevant ones, and significant ideas are better than insignificant ones, but the particulars that fit any of those categories are nearly limitless.

Just as an aside, I very much dislike the use of the term "speak to" as you used it here. I find that academics just love it for the same reason I hate it... it is extremely vague but sort of hints at a subject without coming right out and saying something clearly. What if painting has something as its subject or "speaks about" something instead?

I'd like to see more who speak to what people have in common with each other, what we share, what is our common ground. That common ground is reality itself [...]

I think that's fine as far as it goes, and I think that our common experience with reality is ultimately the only foundation of a common understanding of what is going on in the world. On the other hand, I think that the best subject matter in painting and in the other arts as well is not about the concrete reality around us, but rather about abstract concepts related to how we react to that reality. Principles like virtue, vice, justice, and success are real things in the world, but they aren't concrete things like rocks, trees, and human bodies. Emotions like joy, regret, anticipation, and loneliness are likewise real things that can't be seen directly the way that we can see the moon or a frying pan, but artists can allow us to see all of these things if they do their jobs well. No doubt portraying things we share in common is worthy, but so is portraying that which makes some events or people or ideas better or worse than the norm. In fact, drawing such distinctions is one of the things that art does best.

--Brian