About Me

Garrett Vitanza is a painter living and working in Boston, Massachusetts.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Academic and Modernism Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed some of the motives behind the applications of modernism in painting. One of the main staples was the elimination of the figure from the language of paint, due to its heavy connotation to narrative, art history and its contamination of the purity of the optical flatness that modernist painting demands. As Simon Schama puts it in his series "The Power of Art", " they abandoned painting things.....to strive for a new form of pure expression."

However the defiguration in painting is not so black and white. There were political as well as cultural factors. During the late 1930s-early 1940s, the fascist dictators of Europe had employed figurative artists (and subsequently the figurative tradition) in creating propaganda for the military and their own radical ideals. Mao Zedong, Stalin, and Hitler all implemented the visual arts as a recruiting tactic. This further warranted the figure to be absent from painting in the modernist mind, or at least modernist painting in the United States.

One of the ways the use of the figure in propaganda elaborated on the modernist theory, which required the extraction of the figure, was that it made art easily accessible and easily influential. Propaganda was targeting the easily manipulated which tend to be those who are uneducated. The WHAM SHAZAM illustrations of the heroic war bound figures, that plucked at the patriotic heart strings, and promised a role as a heroic patriot to the viewer. Thus the figure was seen as eye candy, or as a professor of mine put it "a visual sugar rush". So it was a simpletons, easy to understand form of expression.

The amorphous splashes and seamless shapes of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning etc., were a global testament to the free accepting  democracy of the United States, and in fact the paintings of the Irascibles went on a tour of Europe to act as counter insurgence to the fascist propaganda (which is somewhat hypocritical).

This leads to the esoteric reputation that modern art currently has. To further distance modernist painting from its nemesis, figurative propaganda, modern art had to consider its accessibility. As was said above, because of its fairytale like nature, propaganda was accessible to all because, instead of communicating an emotion, which is a complicated and unique experience, it was dictating a command which is non-exclusive. So the work of the abstract expressionists are very much a theoretical rendering, and some knowledge is required to fully grasp their content.

A required education to understand the work, as un artistic as it may sound, is an important factor in the modern mind. Its important because it places a filter on its applicants. If only people who are educated can appreciate modern art, that means only those who are willing to educate themselves in the subject, have access to it which makes it high culture, and it escapes the dull stare of the casual observer. Accordingly if its high culture it is high/fine art. So it is suppose to be difficult to understand because it forces the viewer to be disciplined and not have the painting being a visual buffet. The viewer has to THINK as well as look.

So the roots of modernism were not a goup of untalented and frustrated artist who rebelled at the figure because of lack of ability. On the contrary, many of them had academic training. However what the abstract expressionists were doing was striving to achieve a new form of expression that would transcend all physical borders because it depicted none. To use self reflexive mark making to reveal the process of art making, creation, and in that moment of creation, discover another person, the artist. Which at the time was not only the theoretical and artistic advancement but a political statement.

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful. Although I can't help but think that my criticism stems more from the recent phenomenon where schools have decided not to teach technique at all, and rather jump straight to abstract expressionism without any of the foundational work mastered by those who founded the Modernist movement. I also can't help but compare art with my original discipline, poetry. If one randomly strings together magnetic words on the refrigerator, and lets others decide their own meaning for the "poem," what is the role of the artist? How is this transcendent?