Milton Avery’s Art, and Ours
To try to make sense of the art of the past four decades—that is, contemporary or postmodern art—is to risk getting dizzy. There have been so many movements, and they have succeeded one another so quickly, that simply keeping them straight requires some mental effort. Pop, Minimalist, Conceptual, Neo-Realist, Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Dada, Performance, Process, Installation, Computer, Video: the list seemingly goes on and on. And while some of the products of these movements are hard to forget (others, thanks to the large critical, institutional, and financial investment made in them, we will not, I daresay, be permitted to forget), relatively little of this artistic accumulation can be called memorable in the proper sense of the word.
Instead, many contemporary art objects are hard to forget in the same way that certain types of advertising are hard to forget: they grate on our sensibility. Indeed, this quality may be something of a unifying factor in what otherwise seems a vast and disparate outpouring. And just as much of the best advertising depends for its success on precisely this quality, so, too, the art that has increasingly tended to be recognized, celebrated, bid for, and museumified in recent years has succeeded by conforming, in one way or another, to what might be called the principle of aesthetic irritation.
About the Author
Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).