As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does.
What reminds me of this is a reproduction in the New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.”
Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.
I have always had my problems with abstract, or nonrepresentational, art, though realizing that when Tom Wolfe published The Painted Word he was, and still is, reviled as a philistine. The Still painting, not to be confused with a still life, is described as “a canvas of thick, jagged brushstrokes in deep reds and black,” perhaps indicating that nonsense in two colors is worth twice as much as another, like the Kline, in just one.
It ought to be evident that when painting was solely representational, even if skewed by an eccentric point of view or offering a dream vision of fantasy beings, or indulging in grotesque caricature, it still had some bearing on reality.
But the moment that art becomes pure abstraction—the honorific by which daubs, drippings, squiggles, gallimaufries are tendentiously labeled—what standards can apply? Preponderant difference, i.e., novelty. So it is that with the arrival of new mediums such as excrement and urine joining the more conventional (not to say outmoded) ones of oil, watercolor, tempera, charcoal and such, my retort to Franz Kline would have lost its sting.
Yet there is something unsettling about “new” becoming a synonym for “good,” and “different” tantamount to “worthy.” Of course, differences differ in degree of what, for lack of a better word, may be termed legitimacy. A Pontuormo differs from a Titian, a Cezanne differs from a Goya, and a Rothko differs from a Kline—though in that particular case I wouldn’t give two cents for either. Still, a cunning art critic could read something out of or into a Rothko that even he or she couldn’t honorably out of a Kline.
The problem for most arts is that so very much has already been done in them, propelling more recent practitioners into horrible distortions, obscure byways, or downright dead ends. This is true also in music, otherwise we would have been spared Stockhausen, Cage, Glass and their likes. This despite the fact that major talents can still find their own valid ways without lapsing into cacophony. I suspect that Thomas Adès can do it, though I haven’t heard enough of his work.
But back to the fine arts. Architecture, arguably one of them, still leaves room for justifiable novelty. In painting, however, the road is all but closed also by extensive, easily available reproductions by photography and widely diffused magazines and books with decent illustrations. The time when the only way to experience a painting was to seek it out for yourself in person is long gone. And once seen in good reproduction it remains, if worthy, duly remembered.
Then what about literature, which still has abundant openings left? Memory has much to do with it. Unlike a painting or statue, a work of literature, other than some poems, does not stay in clear recollection. A novel we read in college, say, will stick in general outline, but not in the details of style, hence seeming novelty can thrive. The devil in the details replicated escapes detection.
And then there is the matter of what words, uniquely, can do. They can be resurrected, recombined and reinterpreted in new ways more readily than your paintings. Thus even a book read some years ago will strike us in many ways different in the rereading. And a current novel, unless a manifest imitation, even more so. Whereas any clear echo of a Schiele landscape or a Modigliani nude will be readily recognized as old hat.
So where does this leave us in the fine arts? In a pretty pickle for the most part. But still (not Still), the best will be able to affect us as new. Even the abstractions may find ways in which some shapes and shades, some juxtapositions or eliminations may significantly impress us. The only monkey wrench is that, whereas almost everyone will agree that a Botticelli woman is beautiful, even a near-consensus about a Picasso is unreachable, unless there is large-scale dishonesty or self-delusion. Which, unfortunately, there is.
One thing, though, I am fairly sure of. Be very wary of anything called “Untitled” or “1949-A-No. 1.” Unless you can sustain a lifelong lie to yourself and others, it bodes no good.