George Saunders, a Buddhist raised on the South Side of Chicago, is one of America’s great writers. He’s long been hailed for his short stories; his debut novel is Lincoln in the Bardo. Zadie Smith describes it as a “masterpiece.”
The Civil War is in its first year — it’s February 1862 — and Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies. Saunders imagines a polyphonic graveyard chorus during a night the grieving Lincoln returned alone to Willie’s Georgetown cemetery crypt.
I spoke to Saunders on a recent afternoon in Dallas, over the phone. We discussed Lincoln, empathy, having friends and family who voted for Trump, and the problem with the media.
During the period Lincoln in the Bardo is set, the Civil War is a fiasco. What do you think Lincoln would make of what’s going on today?
Lincoln’s got this beautiful quote, in which he’s talking about if you truncate the American equality vision, if you truncate it to exclude black people, the next thing some despot will do is start excluding immigrants. Lincoln knew this, and in his day the opposition party was called the Know Nothings, and they were very much a white power party. I think Lincoln would recognize and be very strongly against the Trump movement, because it’s simply anti-American to be so damn scared all the time.
Lincoln spoke stirringly about “the mystic cords of memory” and the “chorus of the union.” African-American writers like Walter Mosley and Colson Whitehead have emphasized to me that Barack Obama tried to find post-partisan commonality between Republicans and Democrats, and only got scorched-earth opposition as thanks.
I think that’s true, but God bless Obama for making the effort. He’s a tremendous role model, and I think he had a very, very deep understanding of this American project as it’s supposed to be. America was a terrific, beautiful concept as stated in the Constitution, and we’ve never actually done it: to really believe that all beings are created equal. I felt just before this election, going to some Bernie Sanders rallies and talking to my students, that we’re closer than we’ve ever been to realizing the constitutional vision, which is what most of us believe and want.
As sometimes happens when one thing is about to dominate, the opposition has a bit of a death throe. I think that’s what we’re seeing here, a last stand of this white- normative exclusionary, xenophobic vision of America. America as, like, a little island or something. It never was. You can go back to 1780, and we were a multicultural society then. I’m just trying to be optimistic and say that the young people get it.
The vision in the Constitution was always colorblind; it was, “that person is an American because he lives in America, and because he believes in certain ideas.” I think in terms of demographics, and the way that young people understand this country intuitively, I think we’re going to get there. The question is how long is this Trump step backward going to last, and how much damage is it going to do in the process.
There was a memorable piece you did for the New Yorker, following Trump supporters on the Trump campaign trail: “Sometimes it seemed that they were, like me, just slightly spoiled Americans, imbued with unreasonable boomer expectations for autonomy, glory, and ascension, and that their grievances were more theoretical than actual, more media-induced than experience-related.”
My feeling is mostly confused. On the one hand, I’m so angry about these mean-spirited people running our country, and at the same time I also have some sympathy for some of the people who felt left out enough to go to Trump.
In real time, in real chaos, it’s hard to know what to think. It’s always easy with a hundred years of history between you and the object, but in real time the ways that things get fucked up is, there’s such a contradiction in the data that it paralyses us a bit. What I keep thinking is that maybe, for the first time in my life, these eternal verities that I’ve always talked about are actually being asked to stand up and walk.
Defense of democracy, defense of diversity, kindness, empathy: All these things now are really being challenged. And you have to be fierce while being empathetic, which is pretty tricky. You have to think about these groups that are suffering under Trump, and even sort of include these Trump supporters as one of those groups. It’s really morally challenging, and kind of invigorating if it’s the right day.
In the Buddhist sense, when they talk about compassion, that means you don’t want anybody to suffer. In philosophy, that will actually make you a stronger opponent to injustice. If you can remain empathetic, curious, open, you’re actually going to be a better advocate for justice in the long run. As opposed to descending into hyperbole or snark and then standing there ejecting bile at everybody. That’s not a very effective stance.
In your 2007 essay and book The Braindead Megaphone — about the pernicious effects of entertainment and right-wing media — you wrote:“Our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination.”
I think that the Trump movement is a failure of imagination. All these people who are being humiliated and terrified by these stupid proposals. For the Trump people, I have to believe they are just projections. If you think about an actual immigrant, an actual Muslim, no reasonable person could be so energetic in pursuing these harsh policies if they actually knew those people.
I read a Gallup poll about Trump supporters that supports this idea that most Trump supporters don’t know many immigrants. They don’t live near the border or near pockets of immigrants, they don’t know many Muslims, a lot of people of color. It means that these fearful programs that they’re putting in place are mostly based on projection; it’s not based on actual human experience.
One of the purposes of art can be to put flesh on the thing. You think about the big political essays that were written about the Okies in the ’30s that were projective, and then think of The Grapes of Wrath. I have to believe that people who read that book would be moved by the plight of that particular family.
So I think that’s one possibly productive thing that progressives can think about is that the people making a lot of these Trump initiatives don’t seem able to imagine the actual victims of their programs. So those of us who are in the arts or in journalism can do some work to put real people on the other end of this thing.
Do you discuss politics with your friends and family who are Trump voters?
Not so much. Zadie Smith told me a wonderful thing about the way that you can look at a person and see that there are multiplicities. So they may be a Trump supporter, but they may also be a wonderful granddad, or a baseball fan. I’m personally not very comfortable with fighting or with strife. The times when I have raised politics with them, I haven’t made any converts, and it’s probably made it worse. I’m pretty comfortable with just getting along in whatever way I can, and I think they feel the same way about me. I feel like each of us has to figure out a way to protect our own equanimity and our own better self.
I don’t like hating people, I don’t like fighting, I don’t like name-calling, so I’m not going to do it. I have faith that the things I really believe in — which are empathy, and good faith, and a sense of humor — will serve me better than those other things. I don’t know if persuasion is happening, but as long as I can feel that there’s a softening of the border — maybe suddenly we’re not talking about Trump, we’re talking about music.
Even though that feels small considering the stakes, it’s a start: To be able to remind ourselves that we are a country here, and if we can cultivate a little mutual curiosity and affection it might come in handy if the crisis gets worse. I’m trying to stay in a state of confusion every day, so I don’t settle into some kind of false, foul position.
Of course, art is about much more than just politics.
In all honesty, when you’re writing a book, you’re in love with it as an aesthetic exercise. First, you respect the innate energy of the piece; trying to make it truthful and trying to make it fast and funny. Any time you start hitting an idea too hard, you can fuck yourself up as an artist because the real process of writing a book is a lot weirder and a lot more mysterious and maybe unintentioned.
If you start saying what art should do, pretty soon you’re saying what art must do, and then some reactionary comes along and says, “Hey, your art isn’t doing what you said it must do, go to the Gulag.” I think art has to reserve the right to be truly useless. It can do these other wonderful things. But from the point of the practitioner, you have to be a bit understated in terms of intentionality.
Do you have any criticism of liberals?
I think there’s a lot of mutual projection from both sides. If you talk to Trump supporters, they have an idea of progressives that isn’t accurate, and very condescending. But I would say that a lot of progressives that I know have the same idea of Trump supporters; it isn’t quite right.
Progressives are more curious about what Trump supporters are like, and they’re more willing to go out and do the work and are able to self-flagellate for their failure to imagine the Trump supporters. I don’t see much of that coming the other direction. I want to avoid false equivalency.
You believe hard right-wing media is a malign influence on our polity?
Yes. As I wrote in that Braindead Megaphone essay; there are two different mythological universes that are working. It started with Fox, which has become a great mainstream media source for many people. But Fox is pretty far to the wacky right, so that’s disturbing the whole thought system in this country. Fox came along, and Rush Limbaugh and so on, they made a model, which was maybe tapping into something legitimate, but it now exacerbates it by a factor of tens.
I think it’s teaching Americans how to be peevish and how to stereotype one another. The number of times people at these Trump rallies would tell me, “We held this rally in the morning because liberals sleep in.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
It’s very profitable, and I think it creates a pundit class that’d be very unhappy if things were discussed more reasonably, because it doesn’t fit into the programming. I think it’s really dangerous. I think you can trace it back to when I was a kid, when news was considered a public service that they didn’t really want to do but were required to do for a certain number of hours a day. It was not a profit-center, it was a loss-center, and each of the networks absorbed it because they were required to. And instead, then, when it became a profit-center, agitation is great entertainment, as David Foster Wallace wrote about in his book of essays.
What do you think of your late friend Wallace’s media critique?
He had an amazing mind. He had a piece in which he interviewed a right-wing radio host in Los Angeles, and his conclusion, as usual, was so original. He said that while the station was ostensibly right-wing, the actual currency they were using was agitation energy. So they would introduce “grade-school teacher steps on the flag,” or something, and then they would just bring it up every day.
They found that when a person was agitated and outraged, that’s one of the most addictive emotions you can have. It’s much more powerful than political loyalty. This is what Fox does: They throw down these distorted, incendiary versions of the liberal world and they keep bringing it up every day. They have a group of people who are vocationally agitated, and who turn to that show every day to get their fix.
The problem with that is that it isn’t accurate to reality. The actual country is relatively benevolent, actual liberals are pretty sweet and pretty nice people, not so different from conservative people. But the right media has this investment in painting this picture of a diabolical elite, this negative-minded left. You can follow the money: It’s a very profitable enterprise.
Lincoln in the Bardo evokes a moving sense of mortality. What do you hope Wallace’s legacy is?
I hope people will turn again and again to his work, because I don’t know a wiser or more original or more honest thinker. That was always my experience with him. I’d be around him and suddenly I’d acutely feel all the different kinds of falseness in me. He was someone who was not comfortable with lying. I think his influence is maybe stronger now than it was when he passed away. Young writers love him.
I wish I could talk to him about this Trump thing, because he always was 20 percent ahead of the curve, and he had that sort of relentless logic that would lead him to a truth that the rest of us would stumble upon a couple of years later. I so wish that he was still with us. He was also a very dear person, very loving, and was becoming more lovable and loving and funny and wonderful every day. I miss him.
Trumpism, like Lincoln in the Bardo, reminds me of an enduring William Faulkner line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
That Faulkner quote is very true. I had this sense when I was writing of how fragile the country is, and how it’s never quite at peace. Before I started the Lincoln book, like most people in my generation, I thought, “Yeah, a democracy, we did it, great, now we’re just cranking out the product.” Now, after doing this Lincoln book, I’m like, “Wait a minute, we’re not done.” Black Lives Matterscomes directly out of the botched Reconstruction, which comes directly out of historical white racism.
When I finished the book, everything seemed so alive politically, and then along came Trump and I went out on the campaign trail. I have to say that the world has never felt more beautifully politicized than it does right now. That line between the political and the moral, or the political and the artistic, is almost nonexistent now in my mind.
Politics, art, and morality all end up thinking about human suffering. These Trump proposals are really causing a lot of suffering for very nice people, and they’re not really alleviating anybody’s suffering. I don’t think he’s less fearful, or his supporters are less fearful, but you’ve got a bunch of people getting morally beaten up at the border and a lot of good people afraid for no reason.
What happens next?
That’s the sad thing, to get to this stage of one’s life and see how much beauty there is in the world and how much kindness and how, at times, the world seems like a paradise because human beings are so wonderful.
You think about all the people in Syria who could come here to America and find homes and loving communities. The Trump machine has said, “We’re not going to do that”; who profits? Are his supporters less afraid? I don’t think so. Now this great country that I love is basically cranking out misery. And it looks like it’s going to crank out misery for as long as he’s in office. And that’s very sad.
Alexander Bisley writes for Playboy, the Guardian, GQ, BBC,and other outlets. Anthony Bourdain told him America’s opioid crisis was a notable factor in Trump’s election.
There has never been a time when art critics held more power than during the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, with the relocation of the world’s artistic epicenter from Paris to New York, a different kind of war was waged in the pages of magazines across the country. As part of the larger “culture wars” of the mid-century, art critics began to take on greater influence than they’d ever held before. For a time, two critics in particular—who began as friends, and remained in the same social circles for much of their lives—set the stakes of the debates surrounding the maturation of American art that would continue for decades. The ideas about art outlined by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg are still debated today, and the extent to which they were debated in the past has shaped entire movements of the arts. Below are ten works of criticism through which one can trace the mainstreaming of Clement Greenberg’s formalist theory, and how its dismantling led us into institutional critique and conceptual art today.
The American Action Painters
Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950
Harold Rosenberg, a poet who came to art through his involvement with the Artist’s Union and the WPA, was introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre as the “first American existentialist.” Soon, Rosenberg became a contributor to Sartre’s publication in France, for which he first drafted his influential essay. However, when Sartre supported Soviet aggression against Korea, Rosenberg brought his essay to Elaine de Kooning, then the editor of ARTnews, who ran “The American Action Painters” in December, 1952.
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Rosenberg’s essay on the emerging school of American Painters omitted particular names—because they’d have been unfamiliar to its original French audience—but it was nonetheless extraordinarily influential for the burgeoning scene of post-WWII American artists. Jackson Pollock claimed to be the influence of “action painting,” despite Rosenberg’s rumored lack of respect for the artist because Pollock wasn’t particularly well-read. Influenced by Marxist theory and French existentialism, Rosenberg conceives of a painting as an “arena,” in which the artist acts upon, wrestles, or otherwise engages with the canvas, in what ultimately amounts to an expressive record of a struggle. “What was to go on the canvas,” Rosenberg wrote, “was not a picture but an event.”
Weak mysticism, the “Christian Science” side of the new movement, tends … toward easy painting—never so many unearned masterpieces! Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will. When a tube of paint is squeezed by the Absolute, the result can only be a Success. The painter need keep himself on hand solely to collect the benefits of an endless series of strokes of luck. His gesture completes itself without arousing either an opposing movement within itself nor the desire in the artist to make the act more fully his own. Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper.
Frank Stella, Untitled, 1967
Throughout the preceding decade, Clement Greenberg, also a former poet, had established a reputation as a leftist critic through his writings with The Partisan Review—a publication run by the John Reed Club, a New York City-centered organization affiliated with the American Communist Party—and his time as an art critic with The Nation. In 1955, The Partisan Review published Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in which the critic defined the now-ubiquitous term “abstract expressionism.”
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In contrast to Rosenberg’s conception of painting as a performative act, Greenberg’s theory, influenced by Clive Bell and T. S. Eliot, was essentially a formal one—in fact, it eventually evolved into what would be called “formalism.” Greenberg argued that the evolution of painting was one of historical determinacy—that ever since the Renaissance, pictures moved toward flatness, and the painted line moved away from representation. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were two of the landmarks of this view. Pollock, who exhibited his drip paintings in 1951, freeing the line from figuration, was for Greenberg the pinnacle of American Modernism, the most important artist since Picasso. (Pollock’s paintings exhibited in 1954, with which he returned to semi-representational form, were regarded by Greenberg as a regression. This lead him to adopt Barnett Newman as his new poster-boy, despite the artist’s possessing vastly different ideas on the nature of painting. For one, Greenberg mostly ignored the Biblical titles of Newman’s paintings.)
Greenberg’s formalist theories were immensely influential over the subsequent decades. Artforum in particular grew into a locus for formalist discourse, which had the early effect of providing an aesthetic toolkit divorced from politic. Certain curators of the Museum of Modern Art, particularly William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and to an extent Alfred Barr are credited for steering the museum in an essentially formalist direction. Some painters, such as Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland, had even been accused of illustrating Greenberg’s theories (and those of Michael Fried, a prominent Greenbergian disciple) in attempt to embody the theory, which was restrictive in its failure to account for narrative content, figuration, identity, politics, and more. In addition, Greenberg’s theories proved well-suited for a burgeoning art market, which found connoisseurship an easy sell. (As the writer Mary McCarthy said, “You can’t hang an event on your wall.”) In fact, the dominance of the term “abstract expressionism” over “action painting,” which seemed more applicable to Pollock and Willem de Kooning than any other members of the New York School, is emblematic of the influence of formalist discourse.
The justification for the term, “abstract expressionist,” lies in the fact that most of the painters covered by it took their lead from German, Russian, or Jewish expressionism in breaking away from late Cubist abstract art. But they all started from French painting, for their fundamental sense of style from it, and still maintain some sort of continuity with it. Not least of all, they got from it their most vivid notion of an ambitious, major art, and of the general direction in which it had to go in their time.
Donald Judd, Galvanized Iron 17 January, 1973
Like many critics in the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Rose had clearly staked her allegiance to one camp or the other. She was, firmly, a formalist, and along with Fried and Rosalind Krauss is largely credited with expanding the theory beyond abstract expressionist painting. By 1965, however, Rose recognized a limitation of the theory as outlined by Greenberg—that it was reductionist and only capable of account for a certain style of painting, and not much at all in other mediums.
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In “ABC Art,” published in Art in America where Rose was a contributing editor, Rose opens up formalism to encompass sculpture, which Greenberg was largely unable to account for. The simple idea that art moves toward flatness and abstraction leads, for Rose, into Minimalism, and “ABC Art” is often considered the first landmark essay on Minimalist art. By linking the Minimalist sculptures of artists like Donald Judd to the Russian supremacist paintings of Kasimir Malevich and readymades of Duchamp, she extends the determinist history that formalism relies on into sculpture and movements beyond abstract expressionism.
I do not agree with critic Michael Fried’s view that Duchamp, at any rate, was a failed Cubist. Rather, the inevitability of a logical evolution toward a reductive art was obvious to them already. For Malevich, the poetic Slav, this realization forced a turning inward toward an inspirational mysticism, whereas for Duchamp, the rational Frenchman, it meant a fatigue so enervating that finally the wish to paint at all was killed. Both the yearnings of Malevich’s Slavic soul and the deductions of Duchamp’s rationalist mind led both men ultimately to reject and exclude from their work many of the most cherished premises of Western art in favor of an art stripped to its bare, irreducible minimum.
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969
Despite the rhetorical tendency to suggest the social upheaval of the '60s ended with the actual decade, 1970 remained a year of unrest. And Artforum was still the locus of formalist criticism, which was proving increasingly unable to account for art that contributed to larger cultural movements, like Civil Rights, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and more. (Tellingly, The Partisan Review, which birthed formalism, had by then distanced itself from its communist associations and, as an editorial body, was supportive of American Interventionism in Vietnam. Greenberg was a vocal hawk.) Subtitled “Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Utah,” the editor’s note to the September 1970 issue of Artforum, written by Philip Leider, ostensibly recounts a road trip undertaken with Richard Serra and Abbie Hoffman to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in the Nevada desert.
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However, the essay is also an account of an onsetting disillusion with formalism, which Leider found left him woefully unequipped to process the protests that had erupted surrounding an exhibition of prints by Paul Wunderlich at the Phoenix Gallery in Berkeley. Wunderlich’s depictions of nude women were shown concurrently to an exhibition of drawings sold to raise money for Vietnamese orphans. The juxtaposition of a canonical, patriarchal form of representation and liberal posturing, to which the protestors objected, showcased the limitations of a methodology that placed the aesthetic elements of a picture plane far above the actual world in which it existed. Less than a year later, Leider stepped down as editor-in-chief and Artforum began to lose its emphasis on late Modernism.
I thought the women were probably with me—if they were, I was with them. I thought the women were picketing the show because it was reactionary art. To the women, [Piet] Mondrian must be a great revolutionary artist. Abstract art broke all of those chains thirty years ago! What is a Movement gallery showing dumb stuff like this for? But if it were just a matter of reactionary art, why would the women picket it? Why not? Women care as much about art as men do—maybe more. The question is, why weren’t the men right there with them?
Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
Linda Nochlin teaches an art history class at Vassar in 1965
While Artforum, in its early history, had established a reputation as a generator for formalist theory, ARTnews had followed a decidedly more Rosenberg-ian course, emphasizing art as a practice for investigating the world. The January 1971 issue of the magazine was dedicated to “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History” and included an iconoclastic essay by Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
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Nochlin notes that it’s tempting to answer the question “why have there been no great women artists?” by listing examples of those overlooked by critical and institutional organizations (a labor that Nochlin admits has great merit). However, she notes, “by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications,” namely that women are intrinsically less capable of achieving artistic merit than men. Instead, Nochlin’s essay functions as a critique of art institutions, beginning with European salons, which were structured in such a way as to deter women from rising to the highest echelons. Nochlin’s essay is considered the beginning of modern feminist art history and a textbook example of institutional critique.
There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s—and one can’t have it both ways—then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.
But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.
Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief
Exhibition view of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern
One of the many extrapolations of Nochlin’s essay is that contemporary museum institutions continue to reflect the gendered and racist biases of preceding centuries by reinforcing the supremacy of specific master artists. In a 1984 Artforum review, Thomas McEvilley, a classicist new to the world of contemporary art, made the case that the Museum of Modern Art in New York served as an exclusionary temple to certain high-minded Modernists—namely, Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock—who, in fact, took many of their innovations from native cultures.
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In 1984, MoMA organized a blockbuster exhibition. Curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, both of whom were avowed formalists, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” collected works by European painters like Paul Gaugin and Picasso with cultural artifacts from Zaire, arctic communities, and elsewhere. McEvilley takes aim at the “the absolutist view of formalist Modernism” in which MoMA is rooted. He argues that the removal tribal artifacts from their contexts (for example, many were ritual items intended for ceremonies, not display) and placement of them, unattributed, near works by European artists, censors the cultural contributions of non-Western civilizations in deference to an idealized European genius.
The fact that the primitive “looks like” the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counter view is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation. At one level this show undertakes precisely to coopt that question by answering it before it has really been asked, and by burying it under a mass of information.
Please Wait By the Coatroom
Wifredo Lam, The Jungle, 1943
Not content to let MoMA and the last vestiges of formalism off the hook yet, John Yau wrote in 1988 an essay on Wifredo Lam, a Cuban painter who lived and worked in Paris among Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque, and others. Noting Lam’s many influences—his Afro-Cuban mother, Chinese father, and Yoruba godmother—Yau laments the placement of Lam’s The Jungle near the coatroom in the Museum of Modern Art, as opposed to within the Modernist galleries several floors above. The painting was accompanied by a brief entry written by former curator William Rubin, who, Yau argues, adopted Greenberg’s theories because they endowed him with “a connoisseur’s lens with which one can scan all art.”
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Here, as with with McEvilley’s essay, Yau illustrates how formalism, as adapted by museum institutions, became a (perhaps unintentional) method for reinforcing the exclusionary framework that Nochlin argued excluded women and black artists for centuries.
Rubin sees in Lam only what is in his own eyes: colorless or white artists. For Lam to have achieved the status of unique individual, he would have had to successfully adapt to the conditions of imprisonment (the aesthetic standards of a fixed tradition) Rubin and others both construct and watch over. To enter this prison, which takes the alluring form of museums, art history textbooks, galleries, and magazines, an individual must suppress his cultural differences and become a colorless ghost. The bind every hybrid American artist finds themselves in is this: should they try and deal with the constantly changing polymorphous conditions effecting identity, tradition, and reality? Or should they assimilate into the mainstream art world by focusing on approved-of aesthetic issues? Lam’s response to this bind sets an important precedent. Instead of assimilating, Lam infiltrates the syntactical rules of “the exploiters” with his own specific language. He becomes, as he says, “a Trojan horse.”
Black Culture and Postmodernism
The opening up of cultural discourse did not mean that it immediately made room for voices of all dimensions. Cornel West notes as much in his 1989 essay “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” in which he argues that postmodernism, much like Modernism before it, remains primarily ahistorical, which makes it difficult for “oppressed peoples to exercise their opposition to hierarchies of power.” West’s position is that the proliferation of theory and criticism that accompanied the rise of postmodernism provided mechanisms by which black culture could “be conversant with and, to a degree, participants in the debate.” Without their voices, postmodernism would remain yet another exclusionary movements.
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As the consumption cycle of advanced multinational corporate capitalism was sped up in order to sustain the production of luxury goods, cultural production became more and more mass-commodity production. The stress here is not simply on the new and fashionable but also on the exotic and primitive. Black cultural products have historically served as a major source for European and Euro-American exotic interests—interests that issue from a healthy critique of the mechanistic, puritanical, utilitarian, and productivity aspects of modern life.
Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power
Anna C. Chave
Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981
In recent years, formalist analysis has been deployed as a single tool within a more varied approach to art. Its methodology—that of analyzing a picture as an isolated phenomena—remains prevalent, and has its uses. Yet, many of the works and movements that rose to prominence under formalist critics and curators, in no small part because of their institutional acceptance, have since become part of the rearguard rather than the vanguard.
In a 1990 essay for Arts Magazine, Anna Chave analyzes how Minimalist sculpture possesses a “domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric” that was aligned with “both the American military in Vietnam, and the police at home in the streets and on university campuses across the country.” In particular, Chave is concerned with the way Minimalist sculptures define themselves through a process of negation. Of particular relevance to Chave’s argument are the massive steel sculptures by Minimalist artist Richard Serra.
Tilted Arc was installed in Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981. Chave describes the work as a “mammoth, perilously tilted steel arc [that] formed a divisive barrier too tall to see over, and a protracted trip to walk around.” She writes, “it is more often the case with Serra that his work doesn’t simply exemplify aggression or domination, but acts it out.” Tilted Arc was so controversial upon its erecting that the General Services Administration, which commissioned the work, held hearings in response to petitions demanding the work be removed. Worth quoting at length, Chave writes:
A predictable defense of Serra’s work was mounted by critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and some fellow artists…. The principle arguments mustered on Serra’s behalf were old ones concerning the nature and function of the avant-garde…. What Rubin and Serra’s other supporters declined to ask is whether the sculptor really is, in the most meaningful sense of the term, an avant-garde artist. Being avant-garde implies being ahead of, outside, or against the dominant culture; proffering a vision that implicitly stands (at least when it is conceived) as a critique of entrenched forms and structures…. But Serra’s work is securely embedded within the system: when the brouhaha over Arc was at its height, he was enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art…. [The defense’s] arguments locate Serra not with the vanguard but with the standing army or “status quo.” … More thoughtful, sensible, and eloquent testimony at the hearing came instead from some of the uncouth:
My name is Danny Katz and I work in this building as a clerk. My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine. Despite that I am getting up to speak…. I don’t think this issue should be elevated into a dispute between the forces of ignorance and art, or art versus government. I really blame government less because it has long ago outgrown its human dimension. But from the artists I expected a lot more. I didn’t expect to hear them rely on the tired and dangerous reasoning that the government has made a deal, so let the rabble live with the steel because it’s a deal. That kind of mentality leads to wars. We had a deal with Vietnam. I didn’t expect to hear the arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in a plaza. It’s not a great plaza by international standards, but it is a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms, and breathe recirculated air all day. Is the purpose of art in public places to seal off a route of escape, to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can’t believe this was the artistic intention, yet to my sadness this for me has become the dominant effect of the work, and it’s all the fault of its position and location. I can accept anything in art, but I can’t accept physical assault and complete destruction of pathetic human activity. No work of art created with a contempt for ordinary humanity and without respect for the common element of human experience can be great. It will always lack dimension.
The terms Katz associated with Serra’s project include arrogance and contempt, assault, and destruction; he saw the Minimalist idiom, in other words, as continuous with the master discourse of our imperious and violent technocracy.
The End of Art
Andy Warhol carries a Brillo box in his Factory
Like Greenberg, Arthur Danto was an art critic for The Nation. However, Danto was overtly critical of Greenberg’s ideology and the influence he wielded over Modern and contemporary art. Nor was he a follower of Harold Rosenberg, though they shared influences, among them the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Danto’s chief contribution to contemporary art was his advancing of Pop Artists, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
In “The End of Art” Danto argues that society at large determines and accepts art, which no longer progresses linearly, categorized by movements. Instead, viewers each possess a theory or two, which they use to interpret works, and art institutions are largely tasked with developing, testing, and modifying various interpretive methods. In this way, art differs little from philosophy. After decades of infighting regarding the proper way to interpret works of art, Danto essentially sanctioned each approach and the institutions that gave rise to them. He came to call this “pluralism.”
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Similarly, in “Painting, Politics, and Post-Historical Art,” Danto makes the case for an armistice between formalism and the various theories that arose in opposition, noting that postmodern critics like Douglas Crimp in the 1980s, who positioned themselves against formalism, nonetheless adopted the same constrictive air, minus the revolutionary beginnings.
Modernist critical practice was out of phase with what was happening in the art world itself in the late 60s and through the 1970s. It remained the basis for most critical practice, especially on the part of the curatoriat, and the art-history professoriat as well, to the degree that it descended to criticism. It became the language of the museum panel, the catalog essay, the article in the art periodical. It was a daunting paradigm, and it was the counterpart in discourse to the “broadening of taste” which reduced art of all cultures and times to its formalist skeleton, and thus, as I phrased it, transformed every museum into a Museum of Modern Art, whatever that museum’s contents. It was the stable of the docent’s gallery talk and the art appreciation course—and it was replaced, not totally but massively, by the postmodernist discourse that was imported from Paris in the late 70s, in the texts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Lacan, and of the French feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. That is the discourse [Douglas] Crimp internalizes, and it came to be lingua artspeak everywhere. Like modernist discourse, it applied to everything, so that there was room for deconstructive and “archeological” discussion of art of every period.
Editor’s Note: This list was drawn in part from a 2014 seminar taught by Debra Bricker Balken in the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts titled Critical Strategies: Late Modernism/Postmodernism. Additional sources can be found here, here, here (paywall), and here. Also relevant are reviews of the 2008 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” notably those by Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, and Martha Schwendener.