Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Modernist Hangover: The Masterpiece

Robert Smithson, Arial Map Proposal for Dallas -Fort Worth Reginal Airport (1967); Spiral Jetty (1970)

For the past two days a number of people I follow on Twitter are wrapped up making lists of Post War masterpieces (check out what is going on at Two Coats of Paint). The challenge seems to be to produce a list with more than 3 female artists - which is laudable. I've looked over a couple lists that have been emailed to me and I can't help but grind my teeth over this weirdly Modernist exercise. A masterpiece assumes timeless quality, universal appreciation. I imagine Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty will make almost every list, but it shouldn't. No Post War American art should. There is no such thing  a Post War American masterpiece because there is no such thing as a masterpiece. It is a totally bogus category.

If Robert Smithson had never been invited to propose works of art to be a part of the Dallas Fort Worth airport would we have earth art? Yes. Dozens of other artists were thinking along the same lines as Smithson. For his Air Terminal Site Proposal Smithson lined up a series of "Arial Art" works - Robert Morris agreed to build a circular berm that looked a bit like a condom in it's wrapper, Carl Andre proposed creating a crater by dropping a 5000 pound bomb from a passing plane (or alternatively to plant a field of blue bells, the Texas state flower, a hilariously transparent insurance policy in case his more bad-boy proposal didn't make the cut he would have a more palatable piece to offer - dude probably really needed a commission), and Smithson himself wanted to make a spiral of parking lot sized triangular slabs that would have created a spiral shape when seen from the air. Had Robert Smithson been run down by joy riders on the still incomplete Jersey Turnpike in 1952 instead of plane crash in 1973 we would still have earth art, because it was primarily an ariel art.
Robert Morris, Project in Earth and Sod (1966); Georgia O'Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds IV (1965)

Georgia O'keef's huge canvas at the Art Institute of Chicago was the first painting inspired by viewing clouds from above. For her generation a plane trip was still a rarity. She was painting at the birth of the jet age, by the time Smithson began making art the jet age was a done deal. The Dallas-Fort Worth airport was one of the last major hubs built in the United States (Denver, completed a couple years later, was the last). Air travel was no longer reserved for a tiny elite. It was inevitable that artists would look out the windows of jetliners at the vast tracks of the American Southwest and imagine marking it with berms, slabs and excavations. The idea was "in the air." Additionally these artists of the late 1960s had access to cars and earth movers that could be depended on in the desert, to cheap fuel, well paved roads, and a booming economy - things that didn't exist for an American artists before the war.

As I have been writing about Art as a technology I have been reading lists of scientific innovations and inventions made by Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson, but what is striking is that they both avoiding remythologizing genius, these Middle Modernists argue convincingly that all inventions are interdependent, all inventors are redundant. The exact same thing can be said about any great artistic innovation. 
Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin

Kelly argues the inevitable order of technological breakthroughs by documenting the redundancy of invention. He recalls that Charles Darwin was spurred to publish On the Origin of Species only after Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Darwin with the same theory of evolution inspired by the same book that inspired Darwin (Thomas Malthus on Population). Kelly points out that Darwin could have easily have died at sea without ever having published and that Wallace's survival was equally unlikely, but that the theory of evolution was never in jeopardy:
If poor Wallace too had succumbed to his Indonesian infection and Darwin had died, it is clear from other naturalists' notebooks that someone would have arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection, even if they never read Malthus. Some think Malthus himself was close to recognizing the idea. None of them would have written up the theory in the same way, or used the same arguments, or cited the same evidence, but one way or another today we would be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the mechanics of natural evolution. 
Kelly goes on to list dozens of other instances of "independent, equivalent, and simultaneous invention." Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray applied for patents on the telephone on the same day - the idea was in the air. In 1611 sunspots were discovered by Galileo and three others. The list goes on and on. Kelly argues that once the needed parts of an idea have been developed it is inevitable that that idea will be conceived - evolution was inevitable, even if Darwinism wasn't. Earth art was inevitable, even if Spiral Jetty wasn't.
Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray

Steven Johnson writes that while we still hold on to the myth of the isolated genius and the eureka moment, that in fact, if you drill down into the story behind any breakthrough or invention you are going to find a network of association and slow building connections. "One of the major failings of traditional studies that rely on retrospective interview" Johnson says, is that " people tend to condense the origin stories of their ideas into tidy narratives, forgetting the messy convoluted routs to inspiration that they actually followed." And that studies of scientists working in the wild (as apposed to the petri dish of hindsight) by the phycologist Kevin Dunbar have shown that the most fertile spaces are not a lone stool infront of a lab bench, but crowded conference room tables:
With science like molecular biology, we inevitably have n image in our heads of the scientist alone in the lab, hunched over a microscope, and stumbling across a major new finding. But Dunbar's study showed that those isolated eureka moments were rarities. Instead the most important ideas emerged durring regular lab meetings, where dozens of ideas emerged durring regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their latest work. If you looked at the map of idea formation Dunbar created, the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table.
Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner;  3D Map of the brain

Scientific creativity and artistic creativity may use simular parts of the brain but the setting within which take place and the motivations that drive them could not be more dissimular. I can't point to any scientific studies of artists at work in their natural environments - it is natural for scientists to be interested in explaining their own creativity, and understandable why they would be weary of trying to study artistic creativity. Artists' origin stories are even more suspect than scientific ones - after all an artist's is suppose to misbehave, our responsibility is to be irresponsible. We can't be trusted. Or authority comes from undermining authority.

Without spending the next 15 years video taping artists at work in their studios in the hope of capturing and decoding a moment of artistic breakthrough, I believe it is possible to examine three moments of artistic innovation. The first, according to David Hockney,  is the development of the "photographic look" in painting that appears and takes hold for the first time in Northern Europe in the mid 15th century. It did not appear as a singular perfect and timeless masterpiece, but instead was a technique that was copied passed around and steadily developed over the next four hundred years, culminating in the invention of chemical photography in the 19th century. We could move through that history and pick out a best-of list, or a list of innovative works, and while there would be some overlap they would be two very different lists. The best examples we might have may not turn out to be all that innovative, they may simply be using innovative techniques borrowed from lesser works. 
Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky

The second innovation I would draw your attention to was the development of Abstract art. Like technological invention, we have "independent, equivalent, and simultaneous invention."Abstracted imagery had been passed around for quite some time when the first wholly abstract works began to appear - both Mondrian and Kandinsky (with some helpful, if dishonest, back dating) made claims on having produced the first abstract paintings. But Like Wallace and Darwin that inovation did not rest on those men's shoulders. Malevich got there fast on their heels and there were lots of others all around the world working on the same problem. Like the theory of evolution by natural selection, it was inevitable.  

These are massive innovations - chaining them together are manny lesser innovations, some material (paint in tubes made painting out doors in fields possible for Vincent Van Gogh and others), financial (Europeans became wealthy enough that artists could look to more adventurous patrons out side the church), others conceptual (no matter how false they were, the importance of theories of universal beauty and transcendent truth were crucial to developing abstract painting). If Art is different from science in the ways and reasons it is produced, it is not all together different. Kevin Kelly defines science as a system:
It is designed to increase the order and organization of knowledge we generate about the world. Science creates "tools" - techniques and methods - that manipulate information such that it can be tested, compared, recorded, recalled in an orderly fashion, and related to other knowledge.
19th Century Fang mask; Pablo Picasso Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

As I have argued elsewhere, the modern conception of Art is a simular system of knowledge. Like science Art is a technology of accumulating structured global knowledge, that takes its power from the number and strength of relationships between facts - or more pointedly, between artifacts. When Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 it would have still been strange to think of an African mask as anything other than ritual paraphernalia (the original context), or an ethnographic evidence (it's scientific context). It is now entirely normal to think of an African mask as Art. No one would be surprised to find that along with its collection of Old Master paintings the Metropolitan Museum also houses a collection of African tribal Art and treats both collections with the exact same ethic of conservation and care - that is a conceptual inovation. A widening of the definition of what is Art that has taken places in small steady steps over the past century.

Jenn Dalton, one of the people I follow on twitter, seems to be doing what a lot of others are - compiling a best of list - that is not at all the same as a list of masterpieces. And Dalton's remark that that her "list of 32 greatest artworks is a transparent aggregate portrait of the artist I aspire to be"perfectly explains the difference. Calling something a masterpiece is a claim at perfection, immutable and timeless quality. A best of list is a sort of self portrait - it can also be a political statement. Answering a list of greatest hits that is dominated by men with a list that is not isn't much of a rebuttal. As rejoinders go it has all the punch of an "Oh yeah!?" Why should a list that has more woman artists on it be any less arbitrary? Why should any list that focuses on masterpieces be anything but lame? Innovation is a more meaningful way to look back for value beyond he-said-she-said judgements.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels (1976): East Coast West Coast (1969)

My suggestion for the greatest American artistic innovation introduced in the Post War period is the conceptual device of looking at all art objects as objects. In a recent interview the NYT's art critic Ken Johnson was asked about judging art by looking at pictures of it on his computer. "You mean if I look at something that is supposed to be seen in a gallery?" he asked, "Oh yeah well no." I had no sense that Johnson was concerned about the aura of the original, he just meant it was crucial to see the object. Like the mid-15th century inovation of creating the picture plane that allowed artists to paint images of the world as seen (instead of symbols for the world), and the abstractionists of the early 19th century who were anxious to see beyond the world of appearances and capture a vision of the transcendent, the American Post War Innovation was to see the picture plane as a thing - no realism or idealism - to begin to look at abstract paintings as things and even more crucially to look at all art objects with the same intense focus that had been given to abstract painting.

We now look at video installations as things. drawings on paper as things, prints as things. We circle art objects, turn them over in our mind, weigh them, but we never surrender to the image they present without also measuring the thing itself. That innovation is one that no one man can make claim to. It is an innovation that was the product of many minds, male and female. As I am finishing this Two Coats has posted a series of lists and they are all fun to read. I wonder what the game would be like if we were trying to list inovations instead of masterpieces. The nature of artistic innovation is such that, like scientific inovation, authorship will always be dispersed, the mythic lonely genius will be the great exception, not the rule. Additionally it removes the distortion of art historical imprimatur that privileges male artists.
Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning (1960); Vic Muniz, Pictures of Dust, Tony Smith, Die, 1961 (2000)


  1. Enjoyed this thoughtful post. But do you not agree there are pivotal works which change the direction of art, or are epic feats of greatness which should be hailed as extremely important? My list excludes, say Pollock or Nauman. But both of them reinvented art for us. And it can sometimes begin or conclude with a great, master work. While Louise Bourgeois was off in her corner churning out work over the years, she finally nailed it with "Cell" and then "Maman". The spider is epic, it's aesthetically stunning, it communicates her message simply, yet scary and daunting. "Maman" is breathtaking, as Richard Serra's torques are breathtaking. It took years for both artists to figure this out. Why should these not be heralded masterpieces?

  2. There is a myth around art production that demands we believe that only Pollock could have done what he did, but in fact America was looking for a Pollock, working hard to make him appear, and once he did appear, making damn sure he became what was needed in that moment. If Pollock had died of polio as a child someone else would have been held up as the American answer to Paris.

    A friend of mine was working for Serra when he made the first couple rounds of Torqued Elipses. Franks Stella sent Serra a three page hand written letter congratulating him for "Doing what we have all been trying to do." - those aren't Stella's exact words, just what I can remember years later. Others were and are pressing against the same set of problems and have come up with similar expressions. Stella is as particular as Darwin in the complexity of associations and grace of expression he has drawn around himself, but had he been brained by a piece of steel at 19, someone else would have been accepted to Yale, championed by Rosalind Krauss, commissioned by Roger Davidson, and valorized by Hal Foster - maybe a woman.

  3. I don't deny that a zeitgeist can happen within art, just like in other explorations. But in the West, we tend to mark greatness with labels. The iPhone is a master invention, the Spiral Jetty is a masterpiece.

    It doesn't matter if Stella was thinking torques (for years) and then Serra actually produced them. In our post-post modern art world now, so much of it is layered and informed by the past, while striving to break new ground for the future. The mediums keep growing, the possibilities keep expanding. To think art historians and curators are going to cease labeling historical objects/works is wishful thinking, yes? And I would never want to.

    I like a world where I can point to a work and say, "This is mind-boggling genius. Bravo/brava!". I'm not saying only one person conspired this idea, but perhaps one artist put it on the map, or produced it in a superior way. A signifier, the thing we point to.

  4. enjoyed reading this john.
    danielle mysliwiec

  5. ... you still end up with Benjamin's thesis, now 70 years old. But how come cultures like Chinese didn't have these 'inevitable' innovations? How about a more global view of intellectual evolution, not just white man's (perhaps woman's)? Also, if as an artist one doesn't believe in importance of a purely individual pursuit, how come you aren't working in a collective?
    I'd love to see commentary on Godzilla since it seems a lot more apropos then modernist art and best of lists...
    Thanks for the great writing!

  6. Surely the Chinese had different nearly inevitable innovations born of the conditions of their flavour of the zeitgeist and broader culture - Xu Beihong's horses, Lao She's Teahouse, Lu Xun's A Madman's Diary, the baidu search engine, etc. China has gone through and is still going through an extraordinary grappling with the modern, flattening, returning to vulgarity; it seems to add to rather than refute the point.

  7. Michelle, I was not suggesting that we should stop loving the things we love, just that there are other rubrics that we could use to discuss them. That if you think of Art as a conceptual devise, the masterpiece begins to look arbitrary, and innovations that shift and broaden the ways we think about art highlight aspects of art history (like the importance of air travel to earth art) that are otherwise invisible.

    emunit, I think I haven't made myself clear there at the end if you think I am back-to-Benjamin. To look at an object with the same critical attention that was for a long time reserved for a painting has nothing to do with the originality of the object - I am not talking about aura. It has to do with the expectations we bring as modern viewers, that we understand that important information is carried by the materials used, the handling, placement and the scale of an object.

    As for collectives. I try to be a good son, brother and friend. I love NYC, and I try to be a good AMerican, and want America to be a good member of the world community, that I very much feel a part of - I don't claim autonomy from any of these bodies, I just like working alone.

    Adam, thanks to coming to my aid, your examples are fantastic. Pollock was not inevitable in the sense that all of history lead up to the drip paintings - When I wrote that "America needed Pollock," and that he was "inevitable" I had in mind something very specific: The calculated effort by Americans to wrest the Art World from Paris in the aftermath of WWII (Check out Serge Guilbaut's book "How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art") and used AbEx painting as an "ambassadorial commodity" during the Cold War (Max Kozloff's essay in "Pollock & After").