Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Biographical Extraterritoriality

Junkets: Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard (ca 1815); Damien Hirst 
(return to Part III)
When we use the word "art" in its modern sense, we are speaking back and forth through time. We mean the inherited traditions of European aristocracy, but we also mean other traditions from around the world that French King's would have dismissed as savagery, as well as all the things we do today that no savage or French King would have hoped to have understood as art. But because so much of what we have in mind when we conjure "art" to mind are things that belong to the past it is easy to forget how alien a territory we are crossing when we enter that state of mind. an important element of the contemporary art-game is to ignore that the past is the most exotic of all foreign countries, and that even our immediate past is a place we can no longer call home.

Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century the French financier, Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard, was traveling into Spain and reported: "I was leaving a country where all traces of the past had disappeared, where everything dated from the day before." Moving from one country to the next Ouvrard found himself "thrown back several centuries." To our Enlightenment-era Frenchman, Spain "was a representation of the seventeenth century; it was history in action." And while Ouvrard saw himself as a modern, his pre-industrial modernity is more alien to us than Spain could have possibly have been for him. What is even harder to remember, is that whether or not you self-identify as a modern or a post-modern, the modern worlds (plural) that most shaped our contemporary understanding of art (the decades that preceded and followed WWII) are as foreign to us as Spain was to Ouvrard.
Gustave Coubet; Hans Abbing 

Our modern understanding of the art-game grew out of the European aristocratic tradition; a tradition that Ouvrard would have known and understood, but also one that was profoundly transforming itself during his lifetime. Ouvrard's world was one "where everything dated from the day before." According the economist Hans Abbing, by the time Ouvrard traveled to Spain, the refined 'Fine Arts' associated with aristocratic privilege (painting, sculpture, etc) had in Europe, begun to be valued in a new way by a new elite. One way the new bourgeoisie, like Ouvrard, marked themselves as a distinct class was by attending, supporting, and/or collecting Fine Art - marking their difference from the folk art of rural peasants or the crass entertainments of the urban poor. As the 19th century progressed and the Industrial revolution took shape, this new elite class took shape and so did the art world it patronized. Artists didn't emerge as a class, like art they emerge some how outside of the class system.  

Beyond whatever challenging/novel aesthetics that might have put it at odds with more popular art (thereby making it attractive to this still-forming elite), according to Abbing "Fine Art" was marked off as a separate and special sphere by the bourgeoisie economically (illogically high prices), but also by means of etiquette (no cigars at art exhibits), ethics (no talk of money), but also as a matter of esteem; artists weren't just professional specialists, just being an artist had become special. Abbing argues that in the looming shadow of the Industrial Revolution artists began to be esteemed, no longer simply for their individual mastery of a craft (as he believes earlier artists had been), but now on merit of their identity as Artists. (Courbet greeting his patron as a social equal, head held high, is my example, not Abbing's, but it seems like a good one.)
Young Turks: The Communard Gustav Courbet and the Corporate Executive Steve Jobs 

Unlike the newly emerging class of factory workers, but also unlike the members of professional organizations, and the heads of industry - all of whom were essentially interchangeable with their peers - Artists stood apart; distinct and therefore "authentic" individuals: inalienable workers in the first age of alienated labor. Abbing points out that when head of a factory steps down, the new head is expected to continue the work, not start a new product line entirely different from his predecessor's. And Abbing is right, the expectation is that Apple will still be Apple now that Steve Jobs' has died, and that new products will continue to be produced. But that when an artist dies there is an expectation that no more new work is possible. 

Abbing's analysis of Artistic identity is thought provoking, but his economic focus misses an obvious and crucial element of the change. At the moment Abbing argues the change took place, the Industrial Revolution was centered in one place (England), while the capital of the aristocratic fine art traditions were firmly rooted in Paris France. About the time the Industrial Revolution touched off in England, an actual revolution touch off in Paris, and while the European aristocracy would limp along until WWI, when it was then ended in all but name, 1800 was was the birth of an new elite class defined by the terror of being murdered on account of one's wealth and elite status.
Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat (1793), Self Portrait (1791) 

The art historian TJ Clark places Jacques-Louis David's painting of his assassinated revolutionary hero, Marat, at the the fountainhead of modern art - it is a marvelous choice. A heroic image of a new brand of secular martyr, intended for a new kind of mass audience. Marat's bulging forearm muscles (at odds with the bookish reality) would become staples of agritprop - a signal that he was "of the people." Laying the ground work for the expressions of ideology and the mass politics of centuries ahead.  All Coming together in one amazing painting, we can see those premodern aristocratic roots being grafted for the first time to the radicalism revolutionary politics. But there is another paintings of David's that survives from that same Revolutionary period, David's own self portrait.

This is not Agitprop. There are no bulging forearms, or images intended to galvanize the crowd. This is a private man looking haunted and unsure. It is here, with this more modest painting, that we can feel see an self-image very different from the aristocracy. David has no sword, is backed by no hunting trophies or servants. He is well dressed, but not bombastically so. David was famous, a wealthy man, but he chose to picture himself, not costumed for court, but dressed for life in city. The self portrait is shows a less sensational and more personal attachment between politics and person. David's Napolian is a alien creature out of an alien past, but David's David could be anyone alive today. And while Gustave Courbet famously served as a cultural representative during the proto-Communist revolution in Paris a century after David, we remember him for self-portraits and painting of his friends and family. But by the turn of the 20th century the Marxist critique was in full bloom, and Artists had begun to imagine themselves as revolutionary workers, and soon enough as an avant-guard, but their lives, their self portraits form a their images of themselves and those around them for a parallel current. 
Pablo Picasso at work

As young men starting out, the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque famously dressed in workmen's garb while working as a dyad: the two collaborated to develop a single painting style - they left their paintings unsigned, their goal was to make one's indistinguishable from the other's. Together these to would-be-revolutionaries pushed painting far beyond the primitivism and essentialism of 19th century moderns, and into territory, that at least in part, was inspired by the intention to materialize the radical ideas of Marxism. The two young men developed Cubism, a radical new vision that would inspire Mondrian, Kandisky, Marinetti, Malevich and others to develop the first wholly modern artistic movement: abstraction. 

Four years after Picasso and Braque made their aesthetic breakthrough the Bolshevik Revolution gave Marx's theories a national proving ground. The memories that most of us have of Picasso are of a shirtless old man dallying with young women on the beach and in his seaside studio. Picasso remained committed communist his entire life. But the Bolshevik Revolution had graduated from the desperation and radical aesthetics of War Communism and settled into Totalitarianism and orthodoxy. At the same time Picasso graduated from coveralls to expensive suits, and then finally to the leisure wear of beach cloths. The artist became an embarrassment for French Communists, who wanted to claim the famous old bull as one of their own, but could not reconcile Bourgeois life and art of Picasso with their own expectations of how a "man of the people" should behave and what kind of art he should make. As Abbing points out, because Picasso was an artist he was given a pass - rather than revise their expectations when confronted by a contradiction, Picasso was treated as something authentic, outside the class struggle taking place around him. (Continue reading Part V.)
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a Woman with a Mustache (1953); Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman (1933)

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