American Art. American Sickness? (1980s)



 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1978:

"There are tell-tale symptoms by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, a decline of the arts or a lack of great statesmen."


 Carl Jung, 1928:

"I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that modern man has suffered an almost fatal shock, psychologically speaking, and as a result has fallen into profound uncertainty."


 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a commencement address at Harvard University, June 8, 1978, entitled "A World Split Apart," stated that " a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites (in the West), causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There remain many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life."


 It is clear that too high a percentage of exhibiting artists, published critics, galleries and museums are lacking in courage, lacking the inner freedom to move beyond the restrictions of fashionable contemporary aesthetics. And, just as surely,, there are courageous artists and critics, who, because they refuse to limit themselves by fad or fashion, find themselves isolated -- unexhibitable and unpublishable -- because unacceptable to the art establishment.


 The educated elite too often allow themselves to be twisted into uncritical acceptance of art expressive of intellectual emotional and spiritual decay simply because it is fashionable in intellectual circles to do so. Thus, a sickness evident throughout the controlling segments of society, manifesting itself in excessive greed, self-interest, exploitation, cynicism, materialistic perversion of values, and nihilism appears in the art and art criticism of our time.


 We're all guilty as charged to one degree or another. But governmental, corporate, educational and cultural leaders -- the intelligentsia of the day -- are the most guilty of all because it is to them that we look for leadership. The sickness of fashion and misdirection of many of our establishment artists, critics, curators and gallery directors is a danger not only to the health of art, but society generally.


 Solzhenitsyn says: "Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and idea are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges...(This) gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block successful development."


 There has been talk over the years of a conspiracy in the art world to keep certain kinds of art from being shown. Looming large as an element in the apparent conspiracy is surely the psychic disease of dehumanization afflicting broad areas of the gallery, critical and museum world who, in the natural process of things, simply seek like spirits in the artists they select. Thus, sickness gravitates toward, identifies with, sickness. The inevitability of this process easily fills the exhibition calendar.


 This dehumanization is a loss of responsiveness to -- a loss of faith in -- the totality of life, the result of the difficulties of our time and a lack of courage in dealing with them. Most art world figures cling, petrified with fear, to the tag-end aesthetics of the petered-out modern tradition which ended as T. S. Eliot predicted the world would end, "not with a bang but a whimper."


 Contemporary art has lost the inner necessity, spiritual search and emotional intensity motivating artists earlier in the century. Compared to the power of a Picasso, Mondrian or Soutine, most present-day artists are pathetic weaklings. We may wish to extend our sympathy to them on a human level, but it is not possible to condone their artistic position. They are like the offspring of a dynamic first generation who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, only to see the second and third generations corrupted by the ease of the wealth they were born into.


 Empty aesthetic manipulation, a puttering, a fiddling with a melange of post-cubist, post-dadaist, post-surrealist, post-expressionist mannerisms has resulted in a bloodless hybrid incapable of reproducing itself. A slavish, rather witless game of the intellect has arisen, trying to give meaning to the emptiness of contemporary art. "The celebration of emptiness," one critic cries in admiration of a neon tube. "The picture as object," calls another, referring to an empty canvas.


 Abstraction and the nihilism of dada, dual manifestations of dehumanization and alienation from life, have led art into the contemporary blind alley, have clearly ceased to be viable art alternatives for the 1980s. Abstraction was an escape to an inner, almost non-world away from the chaos of the single most destructive century in human history -- that upheaval resulting in the anti-art sickness that is dada.


 The chaos of our world also led many artists and critics to seek an artificial unity of the arts. Painting was like music -- they said -- was like poetry, was like sculpture, was like architecture, was like dance, theater, you name it. This search for an artificial paradise of wholeness and integration in an unwhole, fragmented, disintegrating world, has resulted in contemporary cultural chaos and confusion, the breakdown of the related, yes, but separate identities of the various arts.


 The composer John Cage, for example, must bear a large responsibility as a middleman of Duchampian anti-art, anti-human, anti-life ideas. He and far too many others espouse the view that everything is art if only we were lovable and sensitive enough to realize it. The only catch is that not every kind of art is considered art by these types. Only that art which has an essentially disruptive, dadaist, anti-societal morbidity qualifies for people of this persuasion: pop art cleverness, minimal coldness, conceptual aberration.


 Not a few of the art figures of the day exemplify a desire to control the world and other human beings. A not so subtle form of intimidation, really outright hostility in the guise of avant-garde experimentalism, is practiced, for example, on an audience forced to sit through four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence in John Cage's "musical" composition 4'33", or minimal and conceptual exhibitions and "lectures."


 Contemporary simplistic conceptual and minimalist tendencies, apparently anti-rococo, are in fact mired in the obsessive complexities and sentimental weavings of fantasy inherent in that latter art tendency at its weakest. There is a cloying effeteness at the heart of this art and the art criticism that extols it, which is masked by a super-macho surface hardness and emptiness akin to the wearing of black leather jackets and motorcycle boots.


 Who are the "immortals" of today, if that is not too grand a concept for an age such as ours? Who are the artists in America who will be looked up to, whose work will serve as an inspiration, a touchstone for the learning of young future artists, the development and enrichment of perceptivity and character of all who later view it?


 The pop artists? The geometric painters? The minimalists, conceptualists and earth artists? Funk art? Video art, computer art? Happenings, performance art? The dadaist-surrealist illustrators of our time? The photo-realists?


 Those contemporary "artists" who have canned and exhibited their own excrement, masturbated in the gallery, mutilated their sex organs, had themselves shot? Stained, masked, poured and splattered their paint; slashed their canvases; refused to paint, deciding to talk instead?


 Carl Jung, the eminent psychologist, wrote in a 1928 essay, "The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man," that 20th Century man is adrift, in pain, facing new problems in difficult times, needing new levels of consciousness to deal with them. According to Jung, too many people skip the intermediate steps and hard choices necessary to becoming developed individuals effectively part of the world.


 "A great horde of worthless people," he says, "do in fact...give themselves a deceptive air of modernity by skipping the various stages of development and the tasks of life they represent. ...I know that the idea of proficiency is especially repugnant to the pseudo-moderns, for it reminds them unpleasantly of their trickery. ...Many people call themselves modern -- especially the pseudo-moderns."


 Is there any connection between these thoughts of Jung and the rootless modernists of the American (and world) art present?






Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms