BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 02 NOV 06
Featured in
Issue 103

Dumb and Dumber

Have visual rants been turned into jingles?

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 02 NOV 06

Depending on which end of the telescope you look through, modern art has been a story either of boundless progress or of infinite regress. Actually it is both or neither until you subtract the hopeful or doom-laden adjectives added just to get us off to an apocalyptic start. Even then, the telescope collapses space just as linear historical thinking collapses time and contradictions, magically transporting eye and mind across vast distances while leaving the messy remainder of being in the here-and-now.

Periodically – when ‘mainstream’ culture falters because it has taken its own ‘inevitabilities’ for granted, despite the realities it ignores and problems it can’t solve – progress and regress are confounded. In that context the arrière-garde serves as the ideological and institutional catalyst for avant-garde breakthroughs. So it was with Symbolism, Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and on into the late 20th century. Each ‘step forward’ was preceded by one or more ‘steps back’. Rebellion against the status quo was initiated by tactical withdrawals to the status quo ante that were rich in unassimilated challenges to conventional sensibilities. Before art could advance, it had to retreat; before its fruits could ripen, parts of the orchard had to over-ripen; before art could mature, it had to relive its infancy and adolescence.

Thus were modern primitivisms born, in protest against the failed miracles of enlightenment; thus the art of primordial societies, of children and of the insane were mimicked and celebrated as a retort to pompier taste; thus revolutionaries of left and right mingled in the demilitarized zone of the aesthetic a priori while dreaming their mutually exclusive dreams of bringing the house of bourgeois culture down on the heads of its smug architects and servile occupants.

Each unsettled era gets the primitivism its deserves, or the one it ‘discovers’. For example, the genius of the Pop artists was to realize that the ‘advances’ of consumer capitalism had created a ready-made aesthetic of delectably crude image- and object-making that was begging for appropriation. But just as futuristic styles date quickly, so too do retrograde ones. By now Art Brut is so period, which is also why, like Art Deco, its fast-forwarding counter-term, it is so collectable.

In the 1980s and early 1990s the way ahead for the neo-avant-garde seemed pretty clear: more texts, more reprocessed photos, more opaque exegesis all the way to the roseate horizon. The view behind was a jumble of ‘retrogressive’ post-Modernist painting and sculpture that was too heavy in the aggregate to keep pace with ‘progressive’ post-modernity but, example by example, not weighty enough in repressed desire to hold the neo-avant-garde back. Then along came Puerile Pop, the best of which word-master Ralph Rugoff tagged ‘Just Pathetic’. An art-school-savvy rebuke to the pretensions of Schnabelists and October-ists alike, it was a sure-to-offend, hence sure-to-please, mix of Neo and Retro, and its aggressively cheap qualities made it easy to ‘get’ and almost as easy to buy in bulk. Generally intimist, unlike graffiti, with which it shared much, Puerile Pop was graphic art down and dirty. And so, as style maven Roberta Smith reported in the New York Times, ‘drawing [had] become the new painting’.

Don’t get me wrong: as a critic I am fascinated by the paradoxes this work rudely expresses, and at a base level my id craves it in the way it used to hunger for the loudest, angriest music. (Cageian silence now occupies the void cacophony once filled.) In the learned, harrowingly disillusioned and correspondingly pitiless Raymond Pettibon this tendency has found its true, cursed poet. Meanwhile, the chiaroscuro imaginations of a handful of kindred spirits cast shadows and blinding visions on the walls of galleries and art fairs everywhere.

But lately the infernal glow of such work, and the frustration and fury driving it, has been bleached out or diluted by pale imitations and worse, glib commercial illustration masquerading as cheerfully perverse ‘kids’ stuff’ for which industrial-strength cute Manga and anime has much to answer. It is as though banks of white fluorescents were suddenly turned on in a club previously bathed in black light, revealing it as a showroom not a club, and the dancers as groomed professionals not punks.

If slumming were the only problem, there wouldn’t be much to worry about; you’d just look for a place with fewer tourists and different sounds and décor. The depressing part is that gut-guided regressions no longer seem to be the predicate for risk-taking leaps; ‘informe’ no longer presages new form; the pathetic no longer conceals the ambitious; the primitive no longer anticipates the never seen. Instead visual rants have been turned into jingles, hot spots of down-and-dirty have devolved into chequerboard panoramas of dumb, dumber and dinky. It’s enough to provoke a Nauman-like tantrum of ‘No! No! No! No!’

Robert Storr is a critic, curator and Dean of the Yale School of Art. He is Director of the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.