Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I'm puzzled about Post-Modern Art, too.

(I would have sworn I posted this about six months ago, but I didn't.  Maybe I ought to read my own blog.)

Isaac Asimov, describing his approach to writing science fiction, once said something like: “Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll write a story in which everything else makes sense.” This strikes me as, with only small modification, a good general purpose statement.

“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll describe a theory of economics in which everything else makes sense.”
“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll build a system of government in which everything else makes sense.”
“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll start a political movement in which everything else makes sense.”

“Grant me a couple of assumptions and I’ll start an art movement in which everything else makes sense.”

Since this is largely a blog about art let’s not go into trickle-down economics, communism, or the tea party. We could take a look at social realism in the former Soviet Union but that horse has already been beaten sufficiently.

I’m re-reading “Criticizing Photographs” by Terry Barrett (an excellent book, by the way) to see how much difference there is between my vintage first edition and the current one.

[Pause here for a short digression. Barrett tells me that the supposed (my adjective) point of Les Krims’ photographs is that he is poking fun at art in general and photography in particular. Krims’ “How to Make Chicken Soup” pokes fun at concerned photography – in his estimation no more effective than chicken soup for a bad cold. Oh, really? I fail to see that point in his book – but then again, I believe that chicken soup is good for a cold. Here endeth the digression.]

Re-reading a book of non-fiction that I really like is an interesting exercise for me — I’m almost always a bit delighted at how much additional insight I get from doing so. In his chapter on the categories into which photographs can be separated he discusses how the post-modern movement fits into his scheme of things. That started a train of thought.

As I understand it, the post-modernists:

• Reject the notion of the genius of the individual artist,

• Reject the notion of the value of art as physical objects,

• Reject the notion of the value of craft in art making,

• Reject the notion of beauty as either a necessary or sufficient component of art.  (But seemingly accepting "ugly" as both.)

If you accept one or more of these assumptions then post-modern art makes sense — from Sherrie Levine’s “appropriation” of Walker Evans (and others) photographs — to Joseph Kosuth’s conceptual “One and Three Chairs” or Ed Ruska’s “Every Building on Sunset Strip” — to the Becher’s catalog of German water towers — to Matthew Barney’s sculpture made of petroleum jelly — to JJ’s (artist in “Doonesbury”) “Bagel on Floor”.

Perhaps the post-modern aesthetic is at least partly responsible for much of what I see and hear in popular culture that puzzles me.

Tens of thousands of photographs are posted to Flickr every hour. If everybody’s work is of equal value then this makes sense (if still an unmanageably large number). I wonder why baseball teams don’t recruit using a post-modern approach – they wouldn’t have to pay such outrageous salaries, tickets would be cheaper, and I would find the games a lot more fun to watch.

I recently read a report of a well-conducted survey of relatively young (as in: still enjoying youthful hearing) music listeners. The prevailing opinion was a preference for MP3 sound – not just that the MP3 player was small and convenient but that they preferred it to a higher-quality recording or even to live music. If craft doesn’t matter this makes sense. Would it be even better to electronically reproduce the sound of an Edison cylinder? That would be an interesting experiment. Parenthetically, I also suspect that the preference for the sound of compressed music would be a lot less strong if the music was typically more complex, nuanced, and subtle – but that’s getting back to the value of the artist.

Pop musical groups are lined up against a concrete block wall and photographed with on-camera flash. Profile portraits in New Yorker look like they were done by Richard Avedon on a particularly spiteful day. Much fashion photography seems to be purposely contrived to make the subject look sullen, unkempt, disheveled – men with three-day beards and torn jeans, women faring no better. If beauty doesn’t matter – or is even a detriment – this makes sense.

What really bothers me is not what’s happening in pop culture but what’s happing in museums and galleries.

Alas, I’m more aligned with Tom Stoppard’s assertion that the whole notion of art depends on the fact that some people do things very well that most of us do badly or not at all. Yes, that is an elitist statement.

The only problem is that if you are not willing to grant the couple of assumptions then nothing that follows makes sense — whether it’s tea-party politics (Oops! Strayed away from the subject there.) or post-modern art..

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