Thursday, September 17, 2009

Comparing apples with oranges

Alfredo Triff

The development of art in this century has ended in a pluralism that relativizes everything, makes everything possible at all times, and no longer allows for critically grounded judgment. This analysis certainly seems plausible. But today's pluralism is itself artificial through and through. Boris Groys (Artforum International, Vol. 36, October 1997).

I just bumped into Boris Groys' clayey paragraph -above. He's comparing apples and oranges.

Pluralism is a thesis of inclusion:* There are different ways of evaluating a given issue. But that does not mean one cannot tell what's better and worse. A pluralist can set up relevant differences of value between competing assessments. For example, Greenberg 's criticism is ideal for Abstract Expressionism and Post-painterly Abstraction. Harold Rosenberg has excellent essays on these topics as well, but in general Greenberg's style is more focused, elegant and precise. Yet, Greenberg's evaluation of Conceptual Art is not as relevant as Kuspit's. Why? A quick answer is that the formalist scope of his thesis was challenged by Conceptual Art. Another way to put it is that his evaluations didn't properly fit this new development.**

The reason one cannot have one "super-discourse" to deal with all developments in art is trivial: There are just too many different styles (each with distinctive features) often in tension with one another (think of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art). One single discourse defining two different (contrasting) styles would have to be either too inclusive to accommodate both of them (with the danger of becoming unspecific), or develop such a specific fit that the other style cannot be included.

Tonal music and twelve-tone music demand different understanding. The Neo-classical style in architecture shun Baroque excess. Symbolism and Constructivism belong in different political worlds. Nouvelle Cuisine and Cuisine Classique require different approaches and discussions. The list goes on and on.

What's the purpose of having a single privileged method for evaluating all these different forms?***

*Critics Lawrence Alloway and Harold Rosenberg had somewhat similar methodological approaches to Pop Art. They explained the iconographic, stylistic, and formal features of this movement in terms technological and economic characteristics of post-war Western urban society: mass communications and Capitalist consumerism (they also disagreed with the then prevailing modernist paradigm of Greenbergian formalism). Both descriptions can coexist and enrich one another. Yet, I prefer Alloway's. Why? He's an excellent observer of American mass communication phenomenon during the late 1950's. Alloway sees art in a non-ideological manner. On the other hand, Rosenberg's idea of art's anxious condition is too existentialist. It's fashionable, but it doesn't look forward. Rosenberg reminds one of Dwight McDonald's ponderous statement: "the destruction of a minority aristocratic high culture by the coming of mass industrial society … the occasion for an irreversible disintegration and decline of culture." Rosenberg's well-known essay Art and Work (1965) misses the point: He attributed the excitement caused by Pop to a lack of knowledge among art professionals. Rosenberg missed Pop Art because he expected art to be essentially political. He could not understand Warhol's smooth artificiality. **In the case of Conceptual Art, Greenberg's formalism had -mistakenly- predicated aesthetic forms emptied of ideas and meaning. Conceptual art abandoned aesthetic forms entirely in favor of ideas. ***Even in science, the effort seems trivial. 


Anonymous said...

So far so good. But I wouldn't go so fast when it comes to moral evaluations. Just a thought.

A.T. said...

But I wouldn't go so fast when it comes to moral evaluations.

I find it better than monism and relativism. What's your take?

Anonymous said...

hey triff: artists don't respond too eagerly to these kinds of posts, it's just too heavy man.

sammy o.

hope you remember me from art design class from 2 yrs ago.

miamibourbaki said...

Sammy: Of course I remember. However, don't underestimate artists. They're a rare breed.