Commentary Magazine

A Map of Modern Art

Between the 60’s and today the visual arts ceased to matter to the life of the mind. In living memory, an educated person was expected to know the names of the two or three most prominent painters, sculptors, and architects of the day. Picasso’s studio in liberated Paris was a tourist stop for American GI’s; Frank Lloyd Wright was a celebrity. Today, even well-informed people would have trouble identifying Jenny Holzer or Frank Gehry. There is, of course, an “art world,” but it is as self-contained and remote from the concerns of most educated people as is the fashion world (with which, indeed, it seems to blend at times in a single universe of hype). Now and then, fundamentalist outrage with avant-garde artworks like those of Robert Mapplethorpe attracts attention; even this, though, to many literate Americans, is a war of pygmies and cranes, taking place in a distant country.

How is it that the visual arts have drifted so far from the concerns of people who are manifestly not philistine? One reason is the baffling multiplication of styles; to tell the score, a gallery-goer almost needs a Ph.D. But that is not the entire answer. Underlying the apparent chaos of abstract, neo-expressionist, mixed-media, minimalist, and performance art are a few basic conceptions of the purpose of the visual arts, which can be understood without great difficulty. To understand, however, is not necessarily to approve.

Understanding begins with a rejection of the conventional approaches to the history and discussion of art. For the appreciation and the evaluation of contemporary art are harmed more than helped by boosterish approaches by the “arts community” to educate a public suspicious of and hostile to avant-garde art. Boosters try to make avant-garde art more accessible by playing down its philosophical and political implications and presenting art history as a linear progression of styles, each proceeding in some way from the former, each with a life span of a few decades or in some cases a few years. The sequence of Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, Minimalism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Neo-Geo, and Neo-Expressionism is treated almost as a typology of nature, like the geological sequence or the Hertzprung-Russell diagram in astrophysics.

This art-historical catechism, however, gets things badly wrong. First of all, older styles are not abandoned when new ones become fashionable. Painters did not simultaneously drop abstraction for Campbell’s Soup cans in the 60’s, nor did they march off in unison in the 70’s to build earth monuments. Even worse, the “Whig theory” of art history ignores the fact that successive schools of modern art have represented, not cumulative development within a single modernist tradition, but distinct and incompatible views of what art is.

Even technical categories—painting, sculpture, realism, abstraction—may be misleading. A painting by Balthus and a photo-realist painting may both be “figurative,” but the artists are doing quite different things. Similarly, the category of “landscape art” would lump together the monumental projects of Robert Smithson and Christo. But Smithson’s massive creations, like his 1970 Spiral Jetty, a 1500-foot coil of rocks in Great Salt Lake in Utah, arguably have more in common with some varieties of abstract sculpture and painting than with the metaphysical pranksterism of Christo, who says of his temporary project, “The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A.”: “The financing of the project and its temporariness challenge our notions about the capitalist system geared to profit, and about the so-called immortality of art. Both are part of the aesthetics of the project.” Unlike Smithson’s, then, Christo’s giant projects derive from much the same impulse as has been manifested by other artworks at different scales like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal and the Lipstick Cannon of Claes Oldenburg.

The key to understanding contemporary art is thus not the succession of styles or technical classifications but the aesthetic impulses behind them. Looking at it in this way, we find that much, although not all, modern and contemporary art is primarily informed by one of three such impulses—the formalist, the iconoclastic, and the sacerdotal.

Of these, the formalist impulse has been the most important in 20th-century art. Indeed, much of the glory of postwar American abstraction consists of following this impulse to the limits of expression in various media.

Earlier in this century, abstraction had been mixed up with various kinds of occultism and spiritualism, or had been implicated in the apocalyptic project of creating a new, anti-bourgeois civilization—a project that came to grief in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. But in the democratic West after 1945, modernism ceased finally to be part of a vague civilizational movement, and became, simply, a “style.” Modern artists might continue to express radical political attitudes and bemoan the corruption and materialism of the West, but none any longer seriously expected parliaments, newspapers, popular cinema, and other manifestations of bourgeois and mass culture to be swept away. On the contrary, big business and mass culture showed a distressing willingness to absorb and mass-produce artistic modernism—as a fashion.

In these disenchanting circumstances, “art-for-art’s-sake” formalism became the dominant tradition. The spirit of the age in art was no longer part of a broader Zeitgeist promising revolutionary social change. The artist had no social function other than to produce the great masterpiece. But, in contrast to the masterpieces of the past, these would not be representational images; they would be purged of everything but pure color and pure form.

High modernism held that by contemplating its creations the viewer would be transported from the mundane world of everyday life. In other words, formalist modernism is a kind of devotional art, for the secular soul. And, in fact, many people undoubtedly have undergone what can only be described as spiritual experiences in the presence of the immense paintings of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko (though such a transcendence is partial, at best: as C.S. Lewis observed, “You will not get eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers and music”).

If Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb represent the ascetic side of this formalist tradition, its heroic and monumental side emerges in the sculpture of Richard Serra and the landscape art of Robert Smithson. Such artists have sought to create icons of the sublime by exploiting the effects of scale. But in the absence of a shared communal vision—of the kind that underlay the pyramids, the cathedrals, or for that matter Mount Rushmore—these attempts to express personal vision on a gigantic scale all too easily come to seem megalomaniacal, even antisocial. Serra’s Tilted Arc, deeply hated by the public, was removed in 1989 from Manhattan’s Federal Plaza by the federal government that had commissioned it only after the defeat of a $30-million lawsuit by the artist, who placed his “moral rights” over the wishes of the patron and the sentiments of the public.



Still, in spite of its tendency toward bombastic exaltation of the artwork and the artist, the formalist impulse has tended to have an emancipatory effect—emancipating the imagination from the ephemeral, including the ephemera of politics. But in the past several decades, artists have come to the fore who have no desire to be emancipated in this way and who are dissatisfied with the world view of formalist modernism and its ideal of the artist-as-artist. One such group is made up of the iconoclasts with their definition of the artist as trickster, or as revolutionary.

The iconoclastic modernism of Pop Art and its successors did not grow out of Abstract Expressionism, as the Whig theory of art history would have it; it represents an entirely different school of thought hostile to the exalted claims of the formalist tradition, a school which goes back to Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism in post-World War I Zurich. In fact, there is very little in contemporary iconoclastic art that was not anticipated before World War II, from the Surrealist program of liberating the unconscious from convention through a Rimbaudian dérèglement de tous les sens to the politicized variant of Dada that flourished in Weimar Berlin in the work of George Grosz and others.

In its post-World War II American revival, iconoclasm began rather tamely. In the late 50’s, Robert Rauschenberg borrowed the hoary idea of “ready-mades” from Duchamp and brought forth a stuffed goat; Jasper Johns displayed the American flag; Roy Lichtenstein, quotations from banal mass art; Claes Oldenburg, plaster casts of vegetables. This warmed-over Dadaism was dignified by being presented as an intellectual exploration of aesthetic questions: What is art? Do paintings have to have frames? Does sculpture have to stand on a pedestal? Can found objects be art, too?

Yet to “question” art in such a way as to stress that it is nothing but a tissue of formal conventions is dramatically to announce the obvious. This kind of iconoclasm (which has parallels in deconstruction) could be extended to any conventional form of communication—treaties, for example. Treaties are written in words. Why not in hieroglyphs? What about a treaty that is memorized, then forgotten? In what sense is it a treaty?

Such brain-teasers are deadly dull—and sometimes just plain deadly. During the second part of a “documented performance,” In Search of the Miraculous (1975), which involved a solo New York-Amsterdam yacht voyage, the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader was lost at sea, and not merely metaphorically. (Whether the Miraculous was found remains unknown.)

More interesting, or at least more titillating, is another tendency in iconoclastic art. Inevitably, perhaps, questioning of artistic conventions turns into questioning not only of formal but of social and moral conventions. Just as inevitably, perhaps, this leads to pornography.

The more pretentious sort of pornography, ever since the Marquis de Sade, has always denied that it is merely gratifying the salacious appetite; rather, it is supposed to serve political liberalism and intellectual enlightenment by its antinomian exposure of the artificiality of common social and moral categories. In the case of Jeff Koons, whose depictions of himself having sex with his wife, the Italian ex-porn star and parliamentarian Ilona “La Cicciolina” Staller, were shown at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery last year, such claims can be easily dismissed. (Sonnabend, it might be recalled, is the gallery that in 1972 featured Vito Acconci masturbating underneath a ramp for six hours for the benefit of gallery-goers.) But most of the obscenity in art that has provoked controversy recently is so resolutely untitillating that one must take its antinomian rationale seriously.

Less commented upon, but just as prevalent, is the avant-garde obsession with the obscenely violent—images of traffic accidents, genocide, nuclear war. To distinguish their productions from ordinary pornography and violent cinema, these artistic purveyors of the scandalous claim the prophet’s prerogative of shocking a complacent society. The putative purpose of avant-garde obscenity is to promote Bertolt Brecht’s alienation-effect, to shake the audience loose from its attachment to conventional categories.

For Brecht, of course, this was only the first stage in a two-stage strategy. The audience was to be alienated from bourgeois-capitalist conventions in order to be more easily indoctrinated into Communism. Some contemporary artists evidently still share not only Brecht’s aesthetics but something like Brecht’s politics. For example, last summer, at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, Ann Hamilton filled a garage with 14,000 pounds of folded work clothes. In the words of Arthur C. Danto of the Nation:

Behind this extraordinary presence she placed an individual actively erasing the texts of history books, erasing, as it were, the official history of Charleston—involving generals, antebellum beauties, swaggering planters—and replacing it with the history of nameless laborers.

In the aftermath of Communism’s collapse, it surely says something that contemporary American artists and critics can contemplate the symbolic erasure of history in the name of the proletarian masses with a frisson of approval rather than a shudder of horror.



Class is only one-third of the class/race/gender trinity worshipped by an avant-garde art world that has been “colonized” (to use a favored word) by fashionably leftist academic sociology. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a self-described “border shaman,” seeks to raise our consciousness about Latin and North American cultural differences by such means as speaking in “Spanglish” and dressing as an Aztec. In one performance, this winner of a 1991 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award buried huge steel staples with one prong in the United States and the other in Mexico (get it?). Another artist who focuses on race is Jawole Willa jo Zollar, founder and director of Urban Bush Women. This black American dance ensemble puts on performances like Song of Lawino (1988), in which a group of women in a Ugandan slum discuss the effects of white education on their men.

Then there is gender. Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party sums up a particular strand of contemporary feminism—the attempt to create a “women’s history” by taking a variety of historical women from their social contexts and drafting them (pun intended) as political and artistic predecessors. Somewhat reminiscent on a smaller scale of Chicago’s combination of history and traditionally female imagery are the collages and memory-assemblages which female artists contribute in disproportionate numbers to museums and galleries across the country. By emphasizing personal and family memories and domestic imagery, this kind of art evidently tries to redeem rather than to reject conventional women’s roles. The same cannot be said of the work of Karen Finley, the controversial performance artist who smears herself with symbolic chocolate excrement and puts jello in her bra to symbolize the degradation of women that allegedly is characteristic of our society.

The AIDS epidemic, too, has produced its own agitprop. According to a reviewer in Artforum, Adam Rolston’s 1991 installation, Trojans, is “affiliated with the recent trend among artists concerned with critiques of gender and sexuality to recuperate Minimalist and post-Minimalist paradigms by reinvigorating them with putatively subversive sociopolitical paradigms”—all this about 1,000 stacked condom boxes. Another artist’s creative response to the AIDS crisis is Donald Moffett’s superimposition, on homosexual pornography, of the words: “Call the US Supreme Court 1 (202) 479-3000 ask five of the nine justices if they’re getting any.”

Art with a message need not be bad art. From Goya’s Horrors of War to Picasso’s Guernica, great art has been made from outrage at atrocity, and political propaganda has produced a few certifiable masterpieces, like David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. For propaganda to be great art, though, it must be art; the artist must recognize the independent existence of aesthetic values, if only the better to subordinate them to a political or social message.

Far too much of today’s iconoclastic art simply sacrifices subtlety of conception or quality of execution to the urgency of the message. What is more, all too often such art does not even attempt to convert or persuade; rather, it confirms the small and homogeneous audience of contemporary art in its parochial left-liberal prejudices. Although they may fancy themselves the bearers of uncomfortable truth to the unenlightened public, today’s artistic iconoclasts are—to coin a phrase—screeching to the choir.



Something like a constructive alternative to the dreary particularisms of politicized iconoclasm is offered by the third kind of contemporary art, the sacerdotal, with its conception of the artist as shaman or priest. Unlike formalism, this school rejects the emphasis on the masterpiece and art-for-art’s-sake; unlike iconoclastic modernism, the new sacerdotal art seeks to go beyond questioning conventions and airing grievances and to create and affirm new identities, new communities.

As it happens, the high priests of the sacerdotal impulse have been German: the late Joseph Beuys and his disciple (the word is not too strong) Anselm Kiefer. The earnestness of Kiefer’s attempts to redeem German traditions thought to be tainted by Nazism, along with the weight of his allusions (some of his best-known paintings are inspired by Paul Celan’s moving elegy for Holocaust victims, Todesfuge), have perhaps warded off criticism that might have been directed at his crude execution and even cruder pictorial ideas (the imagination as a winged palette, etc.). A case can be made that Kiefer is not all that superior to the much-hyped American Julian Schnabel, who also specializes in portentous archetypes—the King of the Wood, God. (To be sure, their techniques differ: Schnabel mixes oil paint with broken crockery, spruce roots, and antlers, whereas Kiefer stirs straw into his soup of paint, latex, and shellac.)

The sacerdotal impulse is manifested in media other than painting. Performance art—familiar since the 60’s as a vehicle for iconoclasm—becomes in the work of Beuys and like-minded artists something solemn, indeed self-consciously religious. “It is the transformation of substances that is my concern in art,” Beuys once remarked, “rather than the traditional understanding of beautiful appearances. That is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”

Such a conception of art and the artist blends in easily with a certain kind of American New Age mysticism. Consider the following description by one of the champions of this new sacerdotalism, Suzi Gablik:

At the edge of a frozen lake, a woman dances herself into a visionary state. She wears an extraordinary garment of raffia and string that transforms her into the supernatural being she is impersonating. . . . The woman is Fern Schaffer, an artist from Chicago, enacting an empowerment ritual involving the cleansing of crystals, in the waters of Lake Michigan at the winter solstice.

Now, when a Hopi dancer, a Buddhist monk, an Orthodox rabbi, or a Catholic priest dons an unusual costume and begins a peculiar ritual, each has transcended his ordinary identity and become the embodiment of an established communal archetype. But when Fern Schaffer, artist from Chicago, performs a crystal-dance on the banks of Lake Michigan, she is merely eccentric, because there is not a religion, not even a sect, which has crystal-dances at the winter solstice as one of its rituals. Nor is there ever likely to be, because in real religions both dogma and ritual are established by prophets and saints, not by people with MFA’s in art and design.

Why not?, one might ask. Gautama was a prince, Jesus a carpenter, Muhammad a merchant. Perhaps the next great prophet will be a performance artist. Perhaps; but religions with staying power have the kind of hard armature of morality and metaphysics which is missing from the sentimental New Age/Green mysticism that inspires most of the new sacerdotal artists. “The old seers knew that the earth is a sentient being,” Gablik writes approvingly. “In the past, certain places on the planet were sanctified because of their high magnetic density. . . .” Next to this fin-de-siècle mixture of feminism, eco-mysticism, and Luddism, the weird neo-paganisms of Kandinsky, Malevich, and other early-20th-century artists seem like models of clarity, rigor, and discipline.



Of the three impulses that inform the arts today, only the formalist is likely to produce any work of lasting value. One may wonder whether any purely nonobjective art can ever possess the emotive power of a figurative art that draws on myth and archetype, like the great allegories of Max Beckmann and Picasso. Even so, abstraction can still yield marvels to a talented and persistent artist, as is proven most recently by the elegant wood and rattan sculptures of Martin Puryear (to name only one example). Unlike his fellow MacArthur-grant winner Gómez-Peña, Puryear, though black, has not subordinated his art to tendentious ethnic politics. His work incorporates forms and techniques from various cultures into the international tradition of high modernism. In Puryear’s description of the purpose of his work—to provide “an element of . . . fantasy, escape, imagination, retreat”—one hears an echo of Matisse: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art [which would have] a soothing, calming influence on the mind. . . .”

The work of Puryear and others who abjure the temptations of propaganda and ersatz religion shows that newer notions of the artist as trickster and the artist as shaman have not completely eclipsed the older ideal: the artist as artist. As the great American modernist Stuart Davis observed, there is “nothing like a good ivory tower for the production of art.” Although their work is in danger of being lost in the flotsam of the meretricious and the ephemeral, there are still artists who can understand the unprogressive and asocial sentiments Paul Klee confided once to his diary: “Color has me. That is the meaning of this happy hour. Color and I are one. I am a painter.”

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