in Opinion | 01 OCT 10
Featured in
Issue 134

Shock of the Old

What can the past do for the present?

in Opinion | 01 OCT 10

The Observer recently reported on the unexpected discovery and private purchase of a treasure trove of 500 paintings by the elderly, reclusive Italian artist Pordenone Montanari, which businessman Raja Khara stumbled upon when he viewed his house in Piedmont, which was up for sale. The paintings are said to show influences of Picasso, Braque, Bacon and Chagall, and, according to art historian and critic Edward Lucie-Smith, who was consulted about the collection, it ‘blows apart the conventional story of the development of Italian postwar art’. Khara bought the house and the rights to the artist’s estate with the help of an equity firm; a foundation is currently being set up and exhibitions planned in order to make visible this ‘real addition to the history of 20th-century Italian painting’. Montanari is apparently indifferent to his newfound affluence and plans to continue painting, business as usual.

Every year or so, newspapers churn out these ‘eureka!’ tales of caches of art works found and unknown artistic talent unveiled. A curator friend of mine unceremoniously dismissed my interest in the story with the charge that it’s just another instance of capitalist speculation, and that this vision of the Romantic artist in his garret is perfect fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster. But if we momentarily suspend this critique and look at this newsworthy item from a slightly different angle, a number of questions arise. What is it about our present moment that still allows for instant, serious claims of aesthetic radicality for an unknown artist whose work echoes canonical Modernism? How can Lucie-Smith assert with such confidence that an artist who has had very little critical or commercial recognition and no influence on his peers is of such great historical relevance based solely on his artistic references?

Thinking about Montanari’s story – and especially the rhetoric of discovery, novelty and historical revision that goes along with it – I was reminded of the mordant opening lines of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s 1981 essay ‘Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting’, in which he analyzes how traditional artistic styles may reflect, react to and become complicit in the social, historical and political realities of their times. Buchloh writes: ‘How is it that we are nearly forced to believe that the return to traditional modes of representation in painting around 1915, two years after the Readymade and the Black Square, was a shift of great historical or aesthetic import?’
Despite contemporary art’s current, well-documented fascination with history and with the art-historical past, the word ‘tradition’ – which stands for conservative style and value, not to mention the threat of ‘traditional modes of representation’ – has been nearly thoroughly evacuated from present practice and discourse. Artistically, we seem to be living in highly retrospective and pluralistic times. Yet it somehow goes without saying that the diverse archival, ethnographic, documentary and historiographic impulses, the re-enactments and recalibrations of historical events and narratives, and the widespread references to Modernism and conceptualism that are so representative of our contemporaneity make no restorative or revivalist claims, after Postmodernism. They are somehow all equally uncompromised by the tainted hope of continuity with the past; they do not explicitly align with any notions of artistic tradition.

This is in part due to the fact that our contemporary devotion to forms of historicization is accompanied by a deep scepticism about the nature of historical time under globalization – which Nicolas Bourriaud and Okwui Enwezor have discussed as ‘heterochronicity’ – as well as a critical ambivalence about historical canons, legacies and future progress, which gets formalized in myriad artistic practices and in curatorial projects. Two recent exhibitions, ‘The Promises of the Past: A Discontinuous History of Art in Former Eastern Europe’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and ‘History of Art, the’ at the David Roberts Art Foundation in London, are exemplary in this regard. ‘The Promises of the Past’ combined prominent displays by artists Monika Sosnowska and Tobias Putrih with older works in order to emphasize the fragmented and disjunctive shape of historical time within the experience of viewing art works from the 1950s to the present, while ‘History of Art, the’ opted for a more theoretical approach to the ways in which today’s artists navigate and inscribe themselves in art history, with the aim to perform an ‘institutional critique’ on the institution of art history itself. Both shows highlighted that historical representation is a construct, in order to come to terms with contemporary experiences of historical change and the validity of historical methodologies.

It is a truism that there is nothing new under the sun, in art or elsewhere – the word ‘new’ is as outmoded as the word ‘tradition’ – but what is the point of mining the past if not to tell us something significant and potentially useful about the present, and to allow us to realize our roles as agents within it? The urgency of historical work, whether undertaken by artists or by historians, lies here. Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) opens with an analysis of the 2006 film adaptation of P.D. James’ dystopian novel The Children of Men (1992), in which the end of history is embodied in a human race that has lost the capacity to reproduce, and is therefore destined to wither and die. Fisher argues that the film actually poses two important cultural questions: ‘How long can a culture persist without the new?’ and ‘What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?’ If, as Fisher asserts, ‘Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and relics,’ then perhaps my curator-friend is right about Montanari. Should this story just be ignored or should we take it as symptomatic of the rampant conservatism that neo-liberalism accommodates? Where the most recent art is concerned, are we trapped in this position of consumer-spectators, artistically trudging through the past? How long can art persist without producing surprises? I don’t have clear answers to these questions. But I do think we should pay increasingly close attention to them, and remember to critically differentiate between the specific ways so many artists are returning to the past in the present.