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In most of his work the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto explains the rise of conceptual art. His artistic heroes are Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, who arguably contributed most visibly to make art what it is today: aesthetic in the critical and reflexive ideas it raises about art, not in the way it represents objects. Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s brillo boxes, Danto argues, are not artistic in their materiality. There’s nothing intrinsic to these objects that makes them different from ordinary household objects; from the latrine that Gautier had associated with ugliness and functionality. Their aesthetic qualities, Danto suggests, lie in the way their make us question the nature and existence of art in a radically new and provocative way.

The millennia-old Platonic tradition of understanding art as some kind of inferior mimesis or imitation of reality is clearly gone in such ready-made objects and pop assemblages. Gone is also the equally old tradition, famously initiated by Plato and resurrected by the Romantics and even by Gautier, of art as a special, almost daemonic, inspiration that leads to the creation of beauty. Last but not least, in reading Danto we get the impression that the notion of creativity and originality, defended heatedly by Zola, remains in artists such as Duchamp and Warhol, but it’s hard to match after them. Once originality is pushed so far as to eliminate the intrinsic qualities and extrinsic social functions of art, what’s left of aesthetics? Does art even continue to exist as a separate domain of creativity? Even Danto, the philosophical defender of pop art before it became popular, is not optimistic about the future of art. In After the End of Art and almost all of his other numerous books on the subject, Danto sees no innovation possible after the destruction of the aesthetic object. Tracing the path to this destruction and seeing if it can be, in some ways, reversed or pushed beyond the current impasse hence presents a real challenge.

This is precisely what Suzi Gablik attempts to do in Has Modernism Failed? This book offers a bird’s eye view and critique of Modernist art, focusing in particular upon the effects of claming that art is autonomous from society. Gablik argues that Modernist emphasis upon artistic autonomy—which originally, in the works of Gautier and Zola, claimed nothing more radical than that the artist’s vision should not be subordinate to a social function—has turned into a ceaseless search for formalist experimentation and pushing the envelope of originality as far as it can go. Yet the envelope has become unfolded and, Gablik argues similarly to Danto, it has nowhere further to go:

“Modernism—the term that has been used to describe the art and culture of the past hundred years—appears to be coming to an end. As we live through the unsettling moral and intellectual consequences of what the American critic Irving Howe has called the ‘decline of the new,’ it has become harder and harder to believe in the possibility of yet another stylistic breakthrough, yet another leap into radical form… As long as we are willing to consider anything as art, innovation no longer seems possible, or even desirable.” (13)

Gablik regrets this trend in modern art much more so than Danto, who, as a philosopher, enjoys its conceptual moves. She’s more sympathetic to the general public who, she claims, tends to view modern and contemporary art as “a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fraud or a hoax. …It remains one of the most disturbing facts about Modernism that a sense of fraudulence has, from the very start, hung round its neck like an albatross.” (13) Given that so many people still crowd into museums of contemporary art and that connoisseurs still pay millions of dollars for Modernist and postmodern art, Gablik’s claim may seem an overstatement. Yet her point remains valid in the sense that she’s not arguing that modern and postmodern art are no longer consecrated or that museums featuring such art are empty. Rather, she suggests that the consecration of conceptual art is regarded by the general populace with skepticism and even disrespect: the phenomenon of looking at the Emperor’s new clothes. Such skepticism is not incompatible with the social and cultural consecration of modern and contemporary art described, for instance, by Bourdieu. In fact, what the general public can’t appreciate is usually all the more revered by the critics and by the intellectual and artistic elite. The fact that mostly they are able to see its merit enhances its value even more (as well as theirs).

Gablik attributes the rise of conceptual art to an excessive emphasis upon artistic originality and autonomy. Zola critiqued the rigid teaching of the Ecole de Beaux Arts and praised Manet and the Impressionists for loosening them up a bit; Gablik maintains that they’ve been loosened so far that nowadays they’re practically non-existent:

“The overwhelming spectacle of current art is, at this point, confusing not only to the public, but even to professionals and students, for whom the lack of any clear or validating consensus, established on the basis of a common practice, has ushered in an impenetrable pluralism of competing approaches. It is not easy any more to picture to oneself clearly what art is, or how it got that way, or more importantly, how it can be justified. … Until the modern period, art and artists had always been imbued with a quasi-religious as well as a moral and social mission, and art was very much integrated with the social and spiritual orders.” (13-14)

We took the arguments for the autonomy of art which were used by nineteenth-century critics such as Gautier and Zola to defend some artistic independence and originality to an extreme which renders originality impossible. When art is subservient to social function, Gautier and Zola plausibly showed, it becomes predictable, standard, rigid. Yet, Gablik counters, when art is altogether removed from social functions—even for the beauty, stimulation and pleasure both Gautier and Zola sought in art—it becomes an exercise in futility:

Ever since the advent of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, singularity has been the norm instead of, as in the past, mastery over technique, or skilled knowledge. The overarching principle of Modernism has been autonomy. Liberation from rules and restraints, however, has proven itself to mean alienation from the social dimension itself; and perhaps the time has come against its present condition of arbitrariness and fragility. (24)

According to Gablik, artists and critics of the twentieth-first century need to rethink the relation between art and the social world and abandon the notion of art’s radical autonomy, which has gone far enough, and has nowhere left to go. She defends the return to some homogeneous aesthetic standards in the schools of Fine Arts, warning: “The freedom from all determinants leads to an indeterminacy so total that, finally, one has no reason for choosing anything at all. Pluralism is the norm which cancels all norms.” (77)

To return to some shared criteria and rules and to think about art’s function in society, Gablik suggests, is not to return to the old, rigid and irretrievable criteria of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It is to revive the notion of art by linking it—without subordinating it—to society. It is to pick up where Gautier and Zola left off in their critique of originality without dismantling the relevance, beauty and meaning of art. In finding rule and measure in old yet updated Romantic aesthetic standards and ideals, this is precisely what postromanticism aims to do. For, to end with a citation by none other than Picasso—arguably the most subversive and original modern artist—even subversion cannot exist without tradition, nor can originality exist in the absence of aesthetic standards:

“Today we are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production is submitted to rules. They—the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians—did. Their canon was inescapable because beauty, so-called, was, by definition, contained in those rules. But as soon as art had lost all link with tradition, and the kind of liberation that came in with Impressionism permitted every painter to do what he wanted to do, painting was finished. When they decided it was the painter’s sensations and emotions that mattered, and every man could recreate painting as he understood it from any basis whatever, then there was no more painting; there were only individuals. Sculpture died the same death. … Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must recreate an entire language from A to Z. No criterion can be applied to him a priori, since we don’t believe in rigid standards any longer. In a certain sense, it’s a liberation but at the same time it’s an enormous limitation, because when the individuality of the artist begins to express itself, what the artist gains by way of liberty he loses in the way of order, and when you’re no longer able to attach yourself to an order, basically that’s very bad.” (My life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, 21)

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com