Contemporary American Art
Whatever happened to the world of visual art?
Once familiar, we knew what art was – or thought we did.
People went to the museum, expecting to find,
Fine statuary, pristine paintings, and intimate prints,
Leading the eye through beauty, truth, and goodness.
Oh! My goodness! What have we there, and why is it here?
Apollo, long since consigned to storage, and the Virgin Mary,
Shows up now, caked in elephant dung. The Crucifixion
Dropped in a tank filled with three gallons of urine – and
I am supposed to introduce students to this weird world?!
Better read up on all the latest trends, for students don’t want
To learn art from some fuddy-duddy, European, chauvinist pig.
One Erica Doss has put it well together, in a fast-moving text
On twentieth-century, American art – Oh! Forget the Europeans!
Cracking it open, I slowly make my way through chapters on a
“Gilded Age,” Early Modernism, Avant-Garde experimentation,
Inter-war years, art and the New Deal, and the grand triumph
Of Abstract Expressionism. New York outshines Paris, and
After war, all the money and the glitter floats to these shores.
Triumph of the Americans! But built on European foundations.
All seemed to be plain sailing, in the moneyed, bourgeois ‘fifties,
But then comes the ‘sixties, riots, Vietnam, and Civil Rights;
Clement Greenberg keeps it esoteric, in a formalist vein,
But the young hippies, disenfranchised, are quick to lash back.
They wont serve the moneyed class, nor be cowed by Clement’s rule,
But break out as Dadists, Pop artists, and then go Conceptual.
Oh my! What a radical transition from perception to conception,
And now the art world will no longer be quite the same.
Doss tells me to hang up my art eyes, for I wont be needing them,
Instead read from political- and social science all you need to know.
Feminists and Blacks climb onto their soap boxes, quickly followed
By every stripe of oppressed minorities: Lesbians, gays, bisexuals,
Transgendered, Chicanos, Asians, American Indians, and more!
Each has smoldering, legitimate grudges, feel pushed into corners,
Or swept under the rug. Now the full force of their venom surges forth,
Directed, with self-righteous anger, against the cringing WASP elite.
Through the eighties and nineties “culture wars” consume the arts,
And museums become battle-grounds for the politically-correct.
Now why am I preparing art students to engage the visual arts,
When art--so politically-engaged—offers little lure to the eye.
I come now to this book’s final chapter: Contemporary Art.
I sharpen my pencil, slurp down some tea, and in I dive.
Woops! Was that water my head hit, or rocky shoals?
I surface, head aching, and gasping for breath. Lets take
A sampler, lest oil-field pollution has dirtied these waters too.
First scanning the illustrations, it’s all ideas they illustrate,
Word-patterns, not images, jump out at my shocked senses:
Difference, marginalization, hybridity, identity politics, ethnicity,
Talk of negotiating race, gender, and sexuality – all possible forms,
Without one trace of texture, line, rhythm, color, or form.
Self-identity, cultural-identity, national-identity are all identified,
Along with questions of America as ‘melting pot’ or ‘tossed salad.’
Museums are called to task for their covert operations, designed
To preserve the prejudices of privileged, white males, while banishing
All others to the ghettos of invisibility. See here the white man’s plot,
Colonialist, Imperialist, acting with cultural blinders, all awhile
Believing that culture rests in the guise of Apollo and the Virgin.
Perhaps in ‘Black History Month’ they will throw a bone to the outcast,
After all, it can only help them raise funds from some other source.
Post-structural, and conceptual, it’s only PC to now give others a turn.
Abjection and the body is now all the mode: the body abject,
Fragmented, lacerated, excreting, or flayed, by one cast in soap and
Chocolate, to be licked and bitten, chewed up, and spat out; another
Offering menstrual fluids, semen, and stained bed-sheets, all as a way
Of calling attention to aspects of human physicality, vulnerability, and
Repression – to say nothing of battles against essentialism, and
Exclusion, for its time for the museumgoer to face suppressed reality:
Not all like their sex with those of different gender, and none agree
What it means to be a woman or a man, or something in between.
Seems many artists find themselves hybrid of one kind or another.
Flipping through the pages, my eyes keep on seeing such phrases:
The body, gendered identity, him in high heels, naked, disaffection;
AIDS, controversy, cultural malaise, raw and aggressive, salvaging
The flotsam and jetsam of American culture. Syncretic identity,
Difference, injustice; the ‘prejudices of art materials,’ Net art,
Piccaninnies, ‘coon art,’ Jim Crow laws, black degradation – all
To be wrung out in the spaces of the Whitney Biennials, and, if
Fortune smiles, in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennial.
Art, it seems, has always been wrapped up in cultural ideology,
But it once used to be a visual art, where eye trumped concept.
E. John Walford August 9, 2010
The Blog of John Walford, British-born, but long resident in The United States. I am an art historian, currently studying satire in Netherlandish art, an amateur photographer, and occasional writer, who writes here about art, photography, and the human condition--some of it ekphratic poetry, responding to works of art. This is to be a site for words and images, interacting on one another, as vehicles of human expression.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Flickr's Walford's "Rauschenberg ponders anew the Triumph of Duchamp over Dali, 2010"
Contemporary American Art
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- John Walford
- United States
- I am a British-born, art historian, teaching in the USA; I studied law, in England,1964-68; worked part-time in the art world, 1968-69; then studied art history at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 1969-76; completed my Ph.D. diss. at the University of Cambridge, 1981; moved to the States in 1981, and have since written, or co-authored, other books. I am currently studying satire in Netherlandish art. My wife, Maria, was born in Milan, Italy, where she worked as an interpreter, in business; she spent seven years in Switzerland, at the University of Lausanne, 1963-70. She came to Amsterdam in 1971, and we soon married. She is a wife, mother, literary critic, of Italian (and French) literature, and completed her Ph. D. diss. in 2002, at the University of Chicago, on Cesare Pavese and His Critics. We have three married children, and eight grandchildren, all of whom we excessively adore! I welcome dialog about art, photography, human behavior, beliefs, and motivation from all comers, regardless of race, color, gender, orientation, values, or beliefs. This is to be a site for words and images, as vehicles of human expression, around topics of mutual interest.