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Romanticism and Postromanticism by Claudia Moscovici

Artistic freedom and aesthetic value are interrelated. Art that is not considered valuable by the artistic establishment—art critics, museum curators and art historians—doesn’t even get the chance to be evaluated by the public.  Such art doesn’t make it to museums of contemporary art like the Guggenheim. It also doesn’t get discussed in the art sections of influential newspapers and art magazines. Analogously, literature that is not considered valuable by the publishing establishment—literary agents, editors, publishers and critics—doesn’t get a readership because it never makes it into print. So artistic freedom isn’t just about creating whatever one wants in the privacy of one’s home or studio without the fear of being arrested or shot for it.  Although this basic freedom is very necessary, artistic freedom also entails a correlate liberty: namely, the public’s freedom to be exposed to a wide variety of artistic and literary styles. That way we can make our own choices and express our personal tastes.  When there’s only one politician or political party to vote for on a ballot it generally means there’s no real freedom of choice in politics. When there’s only one artistic current or style displayed in museums of contemporary art it means there’s no real freedom of choice in art.

Artistic freedom requires an openness or pluralism in our cultural environment. It depends upon the artistic and literary establishments giving a variety of styles a fair shake. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that such an open-minded cultural environment exists in the art world in the United States today. I admit right away that I’m not impartial about aesthetic matters.  In 2002, the sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto and I began an international aesthetic movement, called postromanticism.com, which celebrates sensuality, passion and beauty in contemporary art.  But my argument for artistic freedom is more general than my preference for a certain type of art. I’d be curious to know if readers share my impressions of the contemporary art world (or not).

Many art critics are far more optimistic than I am. For instance, scholars who focus on contemporary art describe the liberating effect of “the end of art.” What they mean by this is that the elitist standards associated with the traditional art promoted by art academies and the salons, which made “good” art subject to very specific and rigorous rules, have died since the development of modern and postmodern art. In postmodern art in particular, they claim, artists can do whatever they please in a cultural environment where everything goes. Some scholars and art critics, such as Hal Foster (The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture) and Arthur Danto (After the end of art), celebrate this pluralism or interpret it as an inevitable cultural evolution. Others, like Susi Gablik (Has modernism failed?), tend to be somewhat more critical or at least ambivalent about it. Last but not least, organizations like artrenewal.org, begun by Fred Ross, lament the dissolution of aesthetic standards and promote Realism as an alternative.

In my estimation, this supposed artistic pluralism, or openness to diversity in art, is largely illusory. While it’s no doubt true that the hierarchy between “high art” or “good art” and “low art” or “bad art” has been seriously undermined, the kind of contemporary art that is displayed by museums of contemporary art or discussed by art critics and scholars who specialize in contemporary art remains strikingly uniform, even prescriptive. So while a pluralism in standards of value exists, it’s unfortunately overshadowed by a simultaneous dogmatism in the kind of art that’s being displayed, discussed and taken seriously by the artistic establishment for the past forty years or so. If one visits museums of contemporary art and departments of Studio Art and Design, one is struck by the conformity of thought and the similarity of artistic styles. One notices that only or primarily the art that’s currently considered “cutting-edge” and “postmodern” is presented as a valid part of the contemporary art scene.  By way of contrast, contemporary artistic styles that are more traditional in inspiration—especially Realism and Romanticism—are ignored or dismissed as “antiquated,” “old-fashioned,” “kitsch” or just plain “derivative.” The message of the current art establishment seems to be: “everything goes” as long as it’s not traditional, realist or resembles what the general public conventionally views as “art.”

If all or most contemporary artists created in a postmodern style, then the conformism would not be the direct result of any kind of dogmatism imposed from above by the artistic establishment.  Similarly, if the public only liked postmodern installations and ready-mades, then the fact that museums of contemporary art display such art would also be a reflection of the public taste. But that’s not what actually happens in our culture today. If anything, there seems to be an inverse relation between the art that the public prefers and what critics, scholars and museums curators consecrate. While the public tends to like and buy works in the Realist tradition, this kind of art is rarely featured in museums of contemporary art or discussed by art critics and scholars today. I find this automatic exclusion of certain artistic styles and dogmatic valorization of others a disturbing cultural phenomenon in a supposedly free and democratic society.

Growing up in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime, I remember noticing the uniformity of contemporary art. During the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods, art had to be done in a certain “Social Realist” style. Sculptures and paintings commonly represented in a realistic (yet also idealized) style communist heroes fighting against our country’s invaders or workers combating the bourgeois oppressors. Drama and fiction predictably staged the on-going heroic battle of the proletariat against the threat (or temptation) of bourgeois values.  Granted, the dogmatism in art and literature was not one of the things that bothered our family most about living in totalitarian Romania. Nor was it what led us, ultimately, to immigrate to the United States. We had more pressing concerns than the impoverishment of high culture: we had to deal with the poverty of our daily lives. The lack of food and consumer goods and the constant monitoring by the Secret Police (Securitate) posed much more serious, and pressing, problems, which I depicted in my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism.  Nonetheless, the ideological homogeneity and censorship of art and literature was a symptom of a more general political and cultural repression: of the lack of choice and freedom that characterizes life in totalitarian regimes and that, by way of contrast, constitute two of the most attractive features of democratic societies.

After immigrating to the United States, I became especially interested in the link between artistic/intellectual freedom and political/social freedom. In college and graduate school, I studied literature and art: two aspects of culture that were dictated from above in communist Romania. It was not long before I noticed that contemporary art in Western countries also appears to be homogeneous, even if in a completely different (one could say, opposite) way from the Socialist Realism prescribed in Eastern Europe during the communist era. Rather than being Realist in style and bearing a clear ideological (Marxist) message, Western contemporary art seems to be deliberately anti-representational and anti-interpretation (as Susan Sontag describes the formalism of contemporary literature in her groundbreaking book, Against Interpretation). Some of the most important museums of contemporary art—the Guggenheim and MoMa in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris—consistently display pop art in the style of Andy Warhol and installations made up of trash and other materials and assisted ready-mades that carry the tradition of Duchamp to an extreme—all of which loosely fit into the flexible category of “postmodern art.”

I also noticed that the kind of art that actually sells in American galleries doesn’t seem to be the kind that’s displayed by museums of contemporary art or praised by art critics. If one visits art galleries all over the United States, one is much more likely to find contemporary paintings and sculptures in the Realist and Modernist traditions—up to and including Abstract Expressionism. The contrast between the kind of art that people enjoy seeing, buying and displaying in their homes or offices and the kind of art that critics praise may be a symptom of the fact that since the nineteenth century (more specifically, since Théophile Gauthier’s notion of “art for art’s sake” gained popularity) art has made certain claims to purely aesthetic value. Since then, critics have maintained that artistic value lies not in how well art sells (or its market value), but in its purely “aesthetic” qualities. The influential twentieth-century art critic Clement Greenberg, who popularized Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism in general, made the strongest case for this understanding of art solely on its own terms.

Yet in an era of supposed cultural pluralism, it seems somewhat suspect to assume that the kind of art that a large section of the general public prefers must necessarily be of poor quality. It’s also elitist and dogmatic to assume that only the art that critics and museums of contemporary art favor reflects “real” aesthetic value. Although the process of artistic consecration differs in the West from how art gained value in Eastern Europe during the communist era, the end result is, unfortunately, strikingly similar: artistic uniformity and conformism. Under communism, such uniformity was imposed from above by the state apparatus, through ideological indoctrination and censorship. In the United States, it occurs in a more complex, or “overdetermined” manner, through what the French sociologist of culture, Pierre Bourdieu, calls the processes of “consecration” which give art its “cultural capital”: namely, through the institutions that study, display, discuss and disseminate contemporary art. If art were truly democratic and the field of cultural production were truly pluralistic, as some critics maintain, wouldn’t a wide range of contemporary styles of art be granted value, provided that they were well executed? If I keep the qualifier—if they were well executed—it’s because, in my understanding, cultural pluralism doesn’t imply that all art is necessarily equal in quality. For as long as people will have standards of taste and value, by definition, not all art will be regarded as equally good or equally bad.

In my estimation, pluralism entails a democratization of art, where a wide range of diverse and distinct artistic styles are given a real chance to be considered, discussed and judged by the general public: by being displayed in museums, taught in courses, discussed by art critics and… debated on art and culture blogs, such as this one.  But pluralism in the sense that some postmodern critics use the word today–i.e. as the dissolution of the difference between “good art” and “bad art”—strikes me as dangerously similar to what occurred under the reign of Socialist Realism.  All Socialist art was by definition “good”: declaring that some artists were more talented than others was regarded as an old-fashioned and elitist bourgeois distinction.

Whatever the difference between good and bad art may be, I think that this distinction is worth preserving. A meaningful cultural pluralism doesn’t automatically do away with artistic standards. Instead, it multiplies the choices offered to the public. When a culture eliminates artistic choice and the standards by which people can evaluate different styles of art and presents only a few styles of art as valid—which is what I’m afraid is happening in our country today–the result is the flattening of art to ideology.

This creates a dull conformism that, no matter how much it’s justified or hailed by the artistic establishment, leaves the public feeling deeply skeptical about the value of contemporary art. As the New York art critic Suzi Gablik states, many people tend to view contemporary art “as a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fraud or a hoax…” (Has Modernism Failed?, 13)  For art to be vibrant and alive in a culture, it has to be taken seriously—or at least enjoyed with pleasure—by a large section of the viewing public, not just by a small elite of critics, artists and scholars who appear to many of us to be praising the Emperor’s new clothes.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com