Clem Greenberg said "novelty art" would not last more than two years. That was forty years ago. Novelty art is still with us and Clem is not.
It seems amazing that Clem did not recognize the complacency that lingered within his assertion. Years later, when the allotted two years had stretched to twenty, he still said the best would rise to the top. Along about 1980 he chided me for carrying on a discussion with Darby Bannard one interesting afternoon about the art system's embrace of bad art. He told me it was all just a matter of sharp business practice that was not worth discussing. He would give it maybe five more years, even ten, but no more than that.
It was as though he never heard of the Dark Ages. Clem gloried in the power of highbrow, elitist taste. It might revise itself, admitting its imperfect side now and then, but that only made it better. It might not go over immediately with those of lesser taste, but it would finally prevail because it always had since the Renaissance. The Impressionists had been forced to pay their dues, to wait it out while art inferior to theirs was honored, but they won in the showdown, as he liked to put it. This waiting period was something relatively new for our culture but it would not and could not diminish the steady upward pressure that had always kept the best from falling over the side of the boat. Even the quirky El Greco had been reinstated after a hundred years of neglect. Clem insisted that taste gets it right in the end.
It is impossible to overrate Clem's own taste. He had an eye that went straight to the heart of a work and saw what it saw, leaving others to follow. His capacity to see each tree in the overwhelming forest of artistic output has not been equaled in the practice of art criticism. He refused to look at art works as a group. He could walk down a line of Pollocks and tell you which were good and which were not, Pollock's reputation and market value be damned. His fanatic take on the individual work of art is the core of his legacy.
Like almost everyone else, Clem assumed that culture always renews itself. Unlike everyone else, he had his own view on just how culture would perform this feat. He was unable to understand when the same avant-garde that saved art from the dying academy was itself dying. Instead, he made the distinction between the "true avant-garde" and "the avant-gardists", and asserted the true avant-garde was alive and well. Its tenets had been corrupted and co-opted by its imitators, in wave after wave of "novelty art", but the real thing would continue. And to an extent he was perfectly right; serious art continues to be made to this day, a lot of it by those who might be described as the "true avant-garde", though they now look more like a "rear guard".
But I question Clem's implicit assumption that serious art can go on without recognition by the community of artists, and ultimately, by society at large. This does not mean lowbrows must love good art, as they love Norman Rockwell. This does not mean middlebrows must love good art, as they love David Hockney. But it does mean the group most committed to art, the "art system", has to at least tolerate good art. There must be a center of support - a sense that something important is going on - that extends beyond those who are making the work. Serious art is not the fruit of a solitary genius living on a desert island. (Gauguin is not an exception - he was part of the central group first, then he moved out to the islands, taking his methods and attitudes with him.) High art requires a "critical mass" of support or it will wither, no matter how talented and dedicated any individual artist is.
When the central group is weakened, the sense of belonging to something that is "hot" and valuable is weakened too. Eventually the group disintegrates, leaving pockets of good art and good artists here and there, but the goodness becomes conservatory, a maintenance of a status quo, not the vital renewal that refreshes the best new art. The upward thrust goes sideways, crab-like and awkward. As good as some of this art is, it is like an airplane stuck just short of the speed of sound, shaken by the physics of its predicament. It doesn't quite sing because it never reaches the smooth air just beyond its reach.
The kindest thing I can say about the last 40 years is that good art persisted but went sideways. Clem said, and I agreed, art had slowed down. Larger, less civilized forces have pushed into this vacuum and now the art system celebrates a beheaded cow dropped from a helicopter and five-star restaurant food processed by an "art machine" into ersatz poop that "explores the boundary between biology and ethics". These freakish solemnities cannot be rationalized by the old saw that "new art always looks ugly" (which Clem said) and that we "better get used to it". The evident silliness of what is proffered these days suggests we now face simple, unobstructed regression, and that when the "avant-garde" takes over, as it has, it becomes - let's face it - the mainstream. So called "conservative" art, including art that can be tagged "rear guard", is neglected and maligned just like the original avant-garde was. Irony abounds.
In a 1986 essay for the summer issue of The New Criterion, Clem correctly observed that the center of production for high art was no longer located in New York. But he added that New York "remains the effective center" because it is the place of validation and the "center of attention and attention-giving", that New York "retains its dominance". Clem was not afraid of anybody, but he agreed with the crowd as far as the dominance of New York was concerned. Yet, by that time, New York was much more likely to invalidate good new art than to validate it. That should have been obvious to anyone with an eye who merely noted what was hot and what was not. Clem could not accept this evidence because he stoically believed in the ultimate power of the best art. Nor will most artists accept it today. They would much rather be in the next Whitney Biennial than recognize the decline it represents.
Formalist camps are flung far and wide. Little bands of valiant warriors here and there keep a candle lit in their windows, stay in touch with each other, and remain devoted to the cause of high art. The elephant in their room is the belief that somehow, someday soon, the situation will be put straight. The bigger and stinkier it gets, the less they are willing to take a critical look at it. If my work is great, the art system will include it. If my work is not great, at least the system will present work that lets me see what is great. In either case, there will be a "scene" that is engaging, challenging, inspiring, stimulating, and which above all will respect the aesthetic. The fire will burn hot and stimulate more good art.
This has not been happening. New York may remain the center, but pluralism has left us with a series of wandering tribes, collectively powerful enough to suppress the continuation of Modernism but unable to produce anything compelling to replace it. These ruling tribes have disconnected from the past. "Meaning" and "significance" have taken over from talent. Craft, which always gets in the way, has been tossed out the window. Without these twin pillars, tradition cannot be maintained. Regression is inevitable.
In the 1930s R. N. Elliott conceived his Wave Principle. He held that human behavior is herd like, and the stock market, especially the senior averages, accurately describes how this behavior takes shape. The day to day picture is full of ups and downs, but the longer you look, the easier it is to see the larger patterns. For every five advancing "waves" there are three regressing waves, viewed at the same degree of "magnitude". While advances outnumber regressions, an advance can last a thousand years, so regressions can last several hundred. If you are born in the middle of a regression, you are in for a hard time.
Robert Prechter has developed Elliott's ideas further, especially Elliott's contention that the stock market is a stand-in for far more than economic life. When regressions are underway, wars get nastier, last longer, and begin to threaten civilization itself. Births go down and people respond more to negative entertainment, such as the marathon dance contests of the Great Depression (or "Survivor" today). The stock market is not the cause of these changes, it is the result of them. When herd behavior begins a regressive phase, economic activity turns negative, just like everything else, including culture. After a trend is fully in gear, it looks like it will continue indefinitely despite the lessons of history. Thus, once a dark age is behind us and we return to a positive outlook, we gradually assume it will not return. When we become fully convinced there will never be another dark age, that is when another one can begin.
The golden age of Greece and Rome ended with the Dark Ages, which "corrected" the advance the West had made. The centralization of culture that had made it possible for this aesthetic to prosper was broken up by the barbarians who had nothing to offer as a substitute. It was left for the monks to preserve what they could, while the general population, including artists, lived their lives without any hint of this culture for hundreds of years. Then the Renaissance reconnected the population with "ancient" Greece and Rome and generated the advance that culminated in the "blow-out" we call Modernism, the final fling after 700 years of plenty.
Nothing is forever. Blow-outs are fueled by euphoria, not fundamentals. Some of the most prominent work that drives the final rush to the top does not have legs and becomes the source of the break-up that finally destroys the movement. Duchamp was Modernism's poster child but his legacy led the collapse into what we now call Postmodernism.
The regression of the past 40 years may continue beyond our lifetimes. That does not make it impossible to make good art, but it does mean good art is not likely to prosper, and recognition for it will be scanty. Good art may be forced to live "underground" for a couple of centuries, in far-off pockets, just as culture lived by the efforts of the Irish monks in the Dark Ages. "Tolerance" is reserved for bad art and good art is persecuted by cultural authorities. This is not conducive to a golden age of culture, which has thus been put on hold. Elliott and Prechter teach that only when we are really convinced things will never get better, do they have a chance of turning around. We are not there yet; too many believe cultural salvation is just around the corner. We are sliding down a "slippery slope of hope".
Meantime life goes on. A good life can be lived. Human creativity never dies, even when it is suppressed. It is up to us to either use it or lose it.
Posted June 11, 2004
© John Link, 2004