Apollo on the Muck

by John Link



Night divides the day ...

-- The Doors in Break on Through




The desire for high-class oddities is nothing new in sophisticated society. The educated have always loved this stuff. The eighteenth century English constructed "ruins" in their gardens that they viewed through smoked glass, making them seem older and more romantic. Gentlemen carried human gallstones to social gatherings to use for starting conversations. The French introduced high class kink when they gave us the Marquis de Sade who, twisted as he was, reeked of education and cultivation. Other times have responded to this craving in similar ways. What is new in our time is that the odd and freakish, when they conform to mannerisms laid down by Marcel Duchamp more than 75 years ago, receive greater notice than any other manifestation of visual culture.

Toughness is one facet of modernism that even postmoderns accept. Everyone understands that when consummate skill and control are over indulged, they tie art up in knots and prevent it from going major, as in Harnett and Cornell. Anything that looks "difficult" seems to have an edge, a bravery, a courage, both moral and aesthetic, which puts it ahead of its competition. Slickness and polish are anathemas, leftovers from the late French Academy and minor figures such as Bouguereau and Guys. When refined taste is confronted with a profusion of objects that are artificially sweet and sentimental, the very act of perceiving toughness gives relief from the saccharine stimulation.

Yet that same liberating toughness, carried into sheer silliness, has created unexampled pathology in our culture, a fact middlebrows mistake for a sign of advancedness and originality. Toughness without limit pressures art to go ugly, searching for newness and intensity in the world of the bizarre and the defective. Pollock's alleged urinating in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace had nothing to do with his art, but the idea of it set the tone for the "high" vulgarity that has spread throughout the most refined levels of civilization. Rudeness is taken as a sign of seriousness, so we applaud Vito Acconci masturbating in the gallery and Joseph Beuys filling a museum with decaying fat. These acts are so singular that timid taste can feel certain they are "original." Ours is the first advanced culture to give such a high place to the picayune, rude or otherwise.

The early European avant-garde had used social and political agendas as part of its means. Taking this as a prescription, Americans began to view art and any worthy agenda as the same thing, adding a certain moral righteousness that comes from our puritan heritage. Educated people, including Motherwell himself, began discussing his Elegies, for instance, in terms of the artist's moral stance, as if that was their artistic content, and Pollock's all-overs, as if his social problems were their ultimate meaning. The art world was pleased that it could finally explain its most advanced stuff in terms that validated its importance to society, but failed to notice that these terms are as relevant to bad art as good.

Morris Louis's stain paintings, for instance, still get short shrift because they are too pretty for advanced middlebrows to take seriously. They question his value because his intention was so out of touch with any issue except beauty. His work looks too museum oriented, too comfortable in that cloistered environment. Originality, supposedly, should transform how life is lived in the streets, not in the shelter of a museum. When beauty excludes any value but itself, as it does in Louis, it is suspect because its only possible validation is itself. Middlebrow taste presumes that art, like everything else, must justify itself in terms of life as lived.

Just as painting a picture with words often results in doggerel, so also does forcing a picture to tell a story or examine a problem. When one medium emulates another it looses its nerve and generates inferior products. Joseph Conrad's Marlowe said to make the meaning of a tale glow you surround it with everything except "meaning." But today's most highly regarded artists fill their "works" with unequivocally labeled heroes and villains, like the worst morality plays of the middle ages. The government, Wall Street, social structures, and the like, are all easy targets. The universal hero is the artist him or herself, predictably positioned as the noble antithesis to the scapegoat de jour. There is no inner glow because everything is thickened with obviousness. The artist's intention is everywhere explicit, directing traffic so that "the point" cannot be easily missed.

Progressively more incongruous articles come with each new wave of increasingly freakish art. Most remain silent when these writers tell us that monstrosities are what an advanced culture is expected to deliver, that nonsense is profound. Who will say in public that Barbara Rose's lovingly illustrated essay about Orlan's plastic surgery is simply a potboiler for pseudo-cultivated art junkies? Who will say publishing her article was a waste of cultural resources? Who will say the true critic's vocabulary is validated by art that has muscle, and not vice versa? Everyone is scared stiff by the power of the professional art media.

After art places its premium on issues and prestigious acceptance, it gives up any claim to the detached authority that gives it the freedom to succeed as art. Once you start into how much of a chauvinist Matisse was about the way he painted women - and he was - it is hard to see his pictures as the great works they are. The distance necessary to experience his nearly absolute aesthetic authority sinks under the weight of his perceived disrespect for those who have been "marginalized." But Annie Sprinkle, who is as interesting an anti-artist as there ever has been, comes off as holier than her audience when she takes a douche in public, thanks to the "purity" of her intention and the clarity with which she presents it. She addresses our society's confused attitudes about sex and hygiene. Her success in the didactic realm diverts the audience's attention from her failure as an artist. Everyone is too timid to say that the douche as anti-art is no more valuable than the douche as non-art because in the "performance context" her douche emulates the art of theatre, and pushes theatre towards a place it seldom ventures. That her excursion into theatre is so boorish scores additional marks in the confrontation category. Art-as-confrontation and art-explained-as-confrontation feed off each other in a circle as eerie as it is polite. Sprinkle meets today's arty expectation and gets applause. Matisse could not get a show in New York if he were one of today's young artists.

A new, "higher" type of kitsch has defeated today's Matisses, whoever they are, by serving the needs of our decadent middlebrow cultural structures. Instead of borrowing the products of high culture to dilute and distribute for the sake of profit, high kitsch campaigns against high culture itself. It replaces work of serious quality with eccentric facsimiles that are interesting only because of the manner in which they twist seriousness, a twisting that always complies with the Duchampian schematic.

Never before has art that conforms to a prescription been so tricky and chameleon. It seems innocent, by virtue of its history of audience-abuse, of trying to maneuver anyone. Yet its agenda for art is bigger than any other in our cultural history. Radical kitsch is kitsch for the ages, achieving immortality by assaulting sensibility absolutely, so that it will remain forever rude, forever ugly, and forever unacceptable to the cultivated taste of any time or any place. It is kitsch made over and made up to look like universal eternal art. No longer just for profit, it is kitsch for glory.

Mannered "openness" to ugliness and risk imitates the seeming vulnerability of high culture, adding a new dimension to academicism, clothing its repetitive nature in an aggressive look it never used before. Radical kitsch is the ultimately successful Alexandrianism, one that shrouds its timidity in the trappings of vehemence, putting down taste so that it can be all things to all people, while excusing them from developing their own taste, punishing them if they do. This abuse of taste numbs its response to beauty, just as abusing children numbs their response to love.

Taste that is undergoing deeper and deeper isolation aches for anything that can penetrate its quarantine. Clearly, the art scene sees the gutter as a fertile source for subjects that can get anyone's attention, no matter how bored, no matter how numb. Just as Sprinkle got respect for doing in public what others reserve for their private lives, everyone went for Salle's nudes even though sex in Salle's pictures is sex at the distance, superficially raw, but wholly intellectualized and consequently quite dry and sanitary. It is sex stripped of sensation, sex presented exactly like the Victorians planned it, cut off from everything you feel, hear, smell, and see when you get laid. His crudely divided pictures injure the eye so thoroughly that their pornographic content seems positive by comparison. That someone might get off on them compensates for their impossibility as art. It is a case of redeeming anti-social uncertainty, where an infinitely valueless art is saved from censorship by its reference to a merely probable lack of social value - the sort of "art inspired" speaking in tongues the literary minded mainstream holds so very dear.

Despite finding charm in the gutter and a predictable hatred of censorship, radical kitsch is probably the most puritanical cultural phenomenon in our history. Because it cannot differentiate sentiment from satisfaction, it avoids them both, demanding that art violate taste, not satisfy it. It opposes the sensual pleasure that is the center of aesthetic life, suggesting that denial of aesthetic value is the ultimate aesthetic act, which makes no more sense than a claim that celibacy is the ultimate sexual experience. As profound as this may sound to enlightened middlebrows, it is daydreaming as only the over-educated and under-cultivated can practice, a romanticized attempt to perceive art through the intellect. Their attempt is so serious, so heavy-duty, so self involved. If only it were funny it might not be so pathetic.

But the void this daydream creates has won the battle for culture. It resists everything that is not deadened by Duchamp, and it has made that resistance stick with a thorough vengeance. Just as the abused child becomes angry in the face of love, abused taste becomes furious and vindictive in the face of even mildly successful art. Its fury takes many forms, including an almost obligatory denigration of Clement Greenberg, but the power punch that has been most effective is simply to ignore beauty, to keep it out of the light until it wilts. Angry middlebrow taste is why we don't know if there are any emerging artists of the caliber of Matisse. Angry middlebrow taste may be the reason there are no emerging artists of the caliber of Matisse.

Apollo never speaks to this absurdity, never shows us a path through this muck and mire, never takes the mainstream to the task it so richly deserves. Even the great Greenberg retreated from this mess for the last several decades of his life. Today, any ambitious artist who waits for some higher authority to come in and set things straight, like the young Olitski longed for Picasso's Kahnweiler, must wait in the dark. Our savior, if there is a savior, takes the side roads and lets things just get worse and worse. Art, like life, is not fair.

Apollo's light may part the emptiness from time to time, yet it has not diminished the void's shadowy grip on our cultural resources. Light may outlast the darkness, but it cannot nullify the effect of darkness because darkness is nothing, and therefore not subject to further negation. This suggests that Apollo may be the lessor of the two powers, a suggestion that haunts our most ambitious artists. They are trapped in a long, melancholic tryst with a nebulous destiny that barbarism keeps from their sight.

Plainly, the fabric of a culture weakens when its educated members cease to function intelligently. Our culture has experienced dark ages before and we seem to have started another, an episode of barbarism cleverly disguised as enlightenment. Kitsch for the ages is an eternal dead end; once entered, it appears to allow no exit. Clearly it wants to destroy our most ambitious artists because they are its only natural enemy. Ironically, the chance these artists have at greatness has declined under the "protection" of a free and democratic society, where cultural decisions are more and more under the influence of the educated but tasteless masses.

Sorry to say and devastating to admit, the good stuff has simply been outvoted. The ground Apollo must walk upon to address this scandal is scabrous and stinking, if he is willing to walk at all. The hardness of art requires those who still want to have their go at the heights to do so in isolation, as it has since Impressionism. And now - seemingly - with no help at all from the forces of serious art.

Posted September 6, 2000

© John Link, 2000-2002



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