David Green

The cult of the revolutionary idea in art.

              A reaction to current art criticism as exemplified by the article
                 "Idol Thoughts" in the Village Voice 2006

Jerry Saltz's article on Marcel Duchamp's "fountain", and the associated piece "Idiot Wind" see: Idol Thoughts is an excellent starting point for examining some of the assumptions explicit and implicit that inform much of current art criticism.  These assumptions are:

1)    Only "groundbreaking" or revolutionary art is valid.

2)    If it is groundbreaking it is automatically "real" art.

3)    What makes art good or bad is not what  any given work communicates on its own, not its inherent esthetics,  but the ideas that underlie,  or can be associated with it....especially its place in the evolution of art.

     Mr. Saltz condemns Mr. Pinoncelli's taking a hammer to Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", a urinal cunningly commandeered by Duchamp to be the flagship of the new art. . He condemns it because Mr. Pinoncelli desecrated a pivotal icon of modernism, and because while doing so he was only making bad art.


Photo by Stieglitz

     Now Duchamp found something interesting in the urinal which made a statement; it demonstrated (not for the first time)  that the taken for granted common objects around us can be art.   Also, it demonstrated that it doesn't have to be made by the artist to be art.   So be it...point well taken... and granted. One need only look at a picture of some porcelain bowls by Paul Strand taken in the same year as the fountain (1917) to see a much a much more compelling example of these ideas.  In Strand's hands the household dishes become a serene and luminous still life.



By Paul Strand

      In his later years, Duchamp seems to have gone a step further, coming to believe that only the historically groundbreaking and/or the "ready made" was valid art, and that beauty was totally beside the point.

     This was taken up with the usual enthusiasm by zealots desperate and determined to be on the cutting edge, a cult with its own rigid dogma:  only the revolutionary statement is art.  This led in turn to the glut of hollow pretentious crap that has so impoverished the current art scene. Recently a British artist got a hefty grant for a "conceptual" performance piece consisting of kicking an empty Chinese food takeout container down the street. I assume it was groundbreaking at least in the literal sense when his foot missed the container.

     What these enthusiasts don't get is that innovation which has as its primary or sole motivation  the desire to be revolutionary is hollow.  True revolution happens when the artist is trying to convey something which is an organic development, an unfolding of an interior state.  When this evolution is blocked by the current conventions, an act of real innovation can free it of constraints. When this takes place deeply meaningful new art can happen. On the other hand, to do something new just for the sake of being new produces merely the strained, the desperate, or more commonly nowadays, crude attempts to shock the jaded.
     I am not assuming that Saltz is an example of the complete loyalty to the novel that many critics exhibit; after all, he did credit the Van Gogh drawing show at the Met with worth, but he does seem to at least imply that it's the most important thing about a work of art. When he argues against Lance Esplund's criticism of Rauschenberg, he does so not by making counter-arguments based on his own esthetics, but by pointing out that Rauschenberg is "groundbreaking", as if it's understood that this alone carries the day for Rauschenberg.

     Next comes the idea that it's the idea that makes art good.  To Saltz,  Duchamp's urinal is a great moment because it represents a "Copernican shift" and "cosmic coitus of the imagination", etc.  In other words, art is good if it provides fodder for fancy descriptions by art critics.  If the ideas that can be associated with it can be thrown around with sufficient panache, then that's good art.
     Some fuddy -duddies like me might think that the whole point of a piece of art is to speak for itself,  that if a painting doesn't communicate its intent and meaning directly then it has failed.  Since the urinal would  be quite likely to fail to move an art audience without a critic telling them it represented something Cosmic , it would count in such a pre-Duchamp antediluvian scheme as just that….a failure. For many of the post-post modernist art critics in power today it is just such a direct evaluation that is against their religion.  For them, only the worst fools and Philistines look at a piece of art in order to see it. It is not what the piece says, it is what can be said about it that counts. Specifically, its value comes from how it can be embedded in any  particular critic's personal philosophic, historical or conceptual matrix, its STATEMENT, its place in our evolving culture.  And art is only to be understood, its true meaning revealed , on the basis of where it fits into all this. Or so they say.
     Now from this point of view the urinal is the ideal springboard for their program and Saltz wastes no time. After mentioning that it was Duchamp's intention to de-deify the artist and that Duchamp objected to the "aura" around art, and without any sense of irony whatsoever,  he launches into the ionosphere without hesitation.
        "Fountain is not hewn or made in any traditional sense.
        In effect, it is an unbegotten work, a kind of virgin birth,
        a cosmic coitus of imagination and intellect".
And a little later:

        "Word made Flesh: It is an incarnation of the invisible essence
        of art, an object in which the distance between image and prototype
        is narrowed to a scintillating sliver"       

     This is some of the most aura freighted description I have ever come across, and the de-deifying has failed so badly that Saltz follows with direct comparisons of the urinal to the life of Christianity's founder.

     Of course, it's not the artist being deified here, it's the pisspot,
or more accurately, its SIGNIFICANCE, and that's a completely different thing, or so we are told.                                                  

     The point here is not that Mr Saltz is caught in some inconsistency with Duchamp's stated goals, because an argument could be advanced that Mr Saltz's analysis is in keeping with Duchamp's mission, and Duchamp was such a complex character that it is hard to say for sure whether he would laugh, rage at, or applaud the foregoing. (Or all three).  No, the real issue (for this discussion), is the domain of the writing:    The urinal's place in the realm of paradigm breaking ideas.  It's the idea of the urinal as a "moment" that Saltz gets so religiously ecstatic about - "word made flesh", etc.
     This material gives ultra avant garde art writers a whole lot more to write about than just the art itself and their esthetic reaction to it, and it certainly provides a bouncier springboard for hyperbole.
     The trouble is, it excludes some of the best art being done from consideration.

             What would one want then, out of a truly enlightened critic?

     I would say:  A stance that set no a priori limitations to what could, or could not, be art, but that did not make innovation the main or sole criterion for art's worth. Sure, a urinal can be art, in the hands of Stieglitz it was, but that does not mean only this sort of statement piece is real art, or that any piece that makes a statement without accompanying esthetic force is good art.
     Also, one could ask for less talk about the social and philosophical place and more about what a given piece evoked in the critic and why, what exactly were the qualities the piece had that moved the viewer, not what it represented in some Platonic realm of ideas, not its significance, but its innate power to convey.  One should save what it all means in cosmic terms for philosophy books; that's where words and ideas have their true domain.  I have to remind the modern critic that the visual arts are actually about the non-verbal truths of life.

     I am most explicitly not saying that only representational art (or any other form) is good and that revolutionary art is all bad or hollow - I think Rothko and Klee were (and are) some of the greatest painters, and Noguchi our greatest modern sculptor. It is, in fact, an argument for greater inclusiveness I am making, not simply to reverse the current mode of exclusion.

     A good example of the limitations of the current mode of art criticism can be found in the recent reviews of critics of the Russian painting exhibit in the Guggenheim this year. Most of the critics talked more about the politics of the art than the art itself. When they did talk about the art, they only noticed the "groundbreaking" pieces like Malevich's black square.
     Representational work and landscapes were dismissed as kitsch politically enslaved, or just not registered at all, just not art.

     If you take the work of a painter like Levitan who was exhibited there, you will see some of the greatest work to come out of Russia.  Now although Levitan’s work was considered to be somewhat avant guard when it was first presented in Russia, He was not inventing new forms or styles. He had seen The impressionists and also Van Gogh in his travels, and although he may have come up with his style independently, in the global perspective he was not first, and therefore not “groundbreaking”. Historically he could be written off as working within established forms, and most modern critics would waste no time in doing so. Therefore he was invisible to the critics. The readers of these reviews are cheated, because Levitan will retain his power to evoke subtle and powerful feelings not quite duplicated by any other painter, after many of the groundbreaking works become dated.  His is not revolutionary art, merely great art.

     The art writers for whom all such works simply don't exist should remember the admonition:

"He who allows himself to be whored by fashion will be whored by time"