(Return to Part 7.5)
From my perch on the northwest edge of the lower 48 I followed contemporary art of the early 1990s through the pin hole perspective of art magazines. I was living without running water and apprenticing to learn to cast bronze using lost wax plaster investment, a method of metal fabrication that was pretty well perfected before the Renaissance began. Through that experience I had become intimately acquainted with what it meant to make premodern art. But while I had chose to study a premodern technology, I was raised in a Modernist household, in a Modernist city, and I was interested in contemporary art. I remember arguing over an Artforum story on Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy with a friend at the foundry. My friend and I were in an unheated plywood shack, as far from the white box galleries of Artforum as any place on the planet at the time. Kelley and McCarthy were shown in a mock up of a plywood shack mashing catsup and chocolate sauce into their underpants while wearing cheap rubber masks. I remember thinking that if they could do that, then I could do anything I wanted.
Constantin Brâncuşi, Bird In Space (1923); Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, Secessions (1998)
When I arrived in New York in 1995 I an informal relationship to both premodernist and Modernist art, but had not yet been introduced to Postmodern critiques. That was towards the end of the backlash against the Postmodern backlash. The cold stillness and silence of Modernism had been answered with rushes of words and clusters of images; Modernist authoritative declarations countered by willful misinterpretation. Robert Smithson's crystalline ultramoderne and Rem Koolhaas' delirious Manhattanism offered me a vision into what could have been. Denise Scott-Brown's and Robert Venturi's Learning from Las Vagas ripped apart and exposed the false utilitarianism of Modernist architecture. Max Kozloff and others wrote about the ways Modernist art was used by American Cold Warriors as propaganda.
But even growing up, I was already aware that beauty, grandeur and logic I admired in Modernist art and architecture were stained with the paranoia, violence and racism of Rollback, Containment and Détente. I understood that the clusterfuck aesthetics of Kelley and McCarthy were somehow a reaction to all that and more. That 4 or 5 page magazine spread on Kelley and McCarthy was probably the single greatest influence on my decision to abandon figurative bronze and move to New York. I saw something I wanted for myself, something as different from a king on a horse as my life is different from a king on a horse. But I was also aware that Modernism was not just as disastrously wrong as anything that had gone before it, but anything since. Coming to New York, more than any other place I might have gone, I was forced to grapple with that. I was done with premodernism and wanted to be apart of something childish, playful and vulgar; modern, but not Modernist.
In the wake of American triumphalism, it's easy to forget that between 1921 and 1970 the USSR commanded one of the fastest growing economies in the world. So there was also an understandable intellectual admiration for command economies. In the West managers like the Manhattan Project's Lt Gen Leslie Groves, NASA's Wernher Von Braun and New York's urban planner Robert Moses commanded massive top down hierarchies with total assurance and unquestioned competence.
Western cultural theorist emulated the cool resolve of their intellectual peers. The Modernists partitioned the humanities into top down cantons. Before the war aesthetics had become became a discipline detached from art. Now art was a discipline detached from life, and each individual art was further segregated from every other art. Clement Greenberg, one of most influential art critics in New York art world during the coldest years of the Cold War, valorized the "enclosing shape" and "flatness" of painting and argued for, “the reduction of experience to expression for the sake of expression, the expression mattering more than what is being expressed.” Frank Stella quipped, "What you see is what you see." In art, those denials of relation were not neutral, they were artificial and controlling.
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratification and to watch over their fate. The power is absolute, minute, regular, prudent, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.
Like so many students of art during the postwar years, Castelli had already found at Alfred Barr’s Moma a home and a new religion, with its own liturgy. Barr’s gospel, casting Modernism as a logical sequence of movements, from Post-Impressionism and Pointillism through Fauvism and Cubism to Surrealism and so on, made tendentious sense out of what had seemed, no doubt especially to émigrés more unfortunate than Castelli, an era of heartbreaking and inconsolable chaos. Moma’s story led art as if inexorably from Europe to America, from Paris to New York, the path that Castelli, like those others, traveled.
Modernism, with its implied critique of society, depends both philosophically and financially on sustaining the notion of an inside and an outside. Art simultaneously must provoke the confusion or disapproval of outsiders while flattering insiders who (at least claim to) “get” it. An insider thereby finds fellowship in a theoretically innumerable self-selected community of like-minded cognoscenti, which in principle can include anyone. Insiders become custodians for posterity, owning, caring for, appreciating art that others reject but will eventually admire. This is not like traditional Old World society, open only to those already born into it; nor could it maintain itself, fiscally or otherwise, by admitting solely the rich. It must, or at least must appear to, be fluid, embracing different classes and backgrounds, while ultimately requiring a certain aesthetic and behavioral conformity. And it must have layers...
A time has come in which society, from politics to art, reorganize itself into two orders or ranks: the illustrious and the vulgar. That chaotic, shapeless, an undifferentiated state without discipline and social structure in which Europe has lived these hundred and fifty years cannot go on.
Unfortunately, until the machine age, culture was the exclusive prerogative of a society that lived by the labor of serfs or slaves. They were the real symbols of culture. For one man to spend time and energy creating or listening to poetry meant that another man had to produce enough to keep himself alive and the former in comfort. In Africa today we find that the culture of slave-owning tribes is generally much superior to that of the tribes that possess no slaves.
And it also does not stretch the imagination that this industrialized museum will have more in common with other industrialized areas of leisure - Disneyland say - than it will with older, preindustrial museum. Thus it will be dealing with mass markets, rather than art markets, and with simulacral experience rather than aesthetic immediacy.Like Ortega's false choice between the "illustrious and the vulgar", and Greenberg's failure to recognize what is modern and what is a relic of premodern inheritance. Krauss seems unable to imagine the power of childish leisure. They failed to see that the leisure of modern society is remarkable because for the first time in history it was produced without slavery and serfdom, and its products. Lynn White, who Kevin Kelly describes as a "historian of technology," writes that "The chief glory of the later Middle Ages... was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power." That is a profound shift.
The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is such a monument, set in the center of the Campidoglio to represent by its symbolical presence the relationship between ancient, Imperial Rome and the seat of government of modern, Renaissance Rome... a marker at a particular place for a specific meaning/event. Because they thus function in relation to the logic of representation and marking, sculptures are normally figurative and vertical, their pedestals an important part of the structure since they mediate between actual site and representational sign.
Fixity was not a reality. life changed, and ways of living changed, too. Life was increasingly lived on what we can think of as a horizontal, with man looking behind only to see what had happened before, and forward to see what he could make next. On that horizontal plane, we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than in our ancestors. these beliefs, which we hold still, are part of what we call the modern condition... Darwin and Lincoln didn't make the modern world. But they helped to make our moral modernity.Abraham Lincoln (1865), Charles Darwin (1874)
For Kelly morals are technologies. The moral technology of slavery was at one time ubiquitous, and like knapping stone arrow heads it is no doubt kept alive today by small groups of dedicated amateurs, but Lincoln's great achievement is to have made it a relic more with far less currency than flint knapping. The moral technologies developed by children are qualitatively different from those that are inherited from ancestors.
When I gave up on bronze statuary in favor of playing with blocks I was abandoning an old cultural technology for a new one. I did so because the old technology was to unable to engage the moral universe I saw myself within. Ancestral technologies are refined, puristic and absolute. Honor killings are a grim ancestral technology, figurative bronze is a more benign one, but a technology still heavily freighted with the past. For thousands of years we cast warriors, kings and Gods in bronze. What Krauss blandly calls the vertical function of sculpture, are the conventions of ancestral power. The technologies of childhood are raw, loose and playful. Punk rock is a technology of childhood; so is abstract art.
François Girardon, fragment of Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV (1694); Paul McCarthy, Train, Mechanical (2010)