Art In History Art Blog
This post is another in my series on the origins of modern art, and my last, at least for a while: I'm not sure who is listening. I hope the title at least is intriguing. I could easily have called it "Modern Art and the Problem of Style", but this title seems sexier! The problem with a sexy title is of course the letdown.
What is the innocence whose loss I see as a major impetus toward modern art? It is the innocence of the artist of his place in the history of art. The villain is historical awareness, and the consequent impossibility of producing art "innocently", without the burden of an everpresent knowledge of one's artistic past.
This became a huge concern in the 19th century in Europe. Awareness of past historical styles, and the styles of other cultures, was an overwhelming presence. Critics bemoaned the inability of their time to find a style of its own, and there was a longing for the simplicity of working unquestioning in the manner of one's culture and time. There was a wave of envy for the tribal artist, unaware of his origins or choices, and of medieval artisans learning their craft from their masters, generation after generation.
In western art, the "problem" of historical awareness can be seen as beginning with the Renaissance. Classical art, both Greek and Roman, were arguably a continuous tradition evolving through two very different cultures but essentially unbroken. With the Italian Renaissance, however, there was a conscious evocation of the classical past, which they were unearthing through deliberate study and exploration. The Renaissance placed itself consciously in an historical tradition.
At first, this choice was a tremendous boon. For 400 years it led to a wonderfully rich and vital artistic tradition, combined as it was with a wide-ranging humanism and an interest in the direct exploration of nature. In painting particularly, since there were almost no classical artifacts to imitate, the tradition imposed very little in the way of limits on artists.
However, over those 400 years, historical and cultural awareness expanded and increased markedly. There was the development of modern archaeology, and vastly increased contact with other cultures, particularly in the far east and Africa. As the Renaissance tradition began to lose steam in the 18th century, it was infiltrated by a myriad of other stylistic choices, tastes and fads.
The 19th century was a cacophony of styles. In architecture particularly, styles were put on like costumes; we can see this is Downing's "Cottage Architcture" which offers alternate styles for basically the same floor plans. Neoclassicism tried to reaffirm the old verities, while a succession of medieval and non-western styles competed for attention. The academic tration in painting likewise was confused and diluted by a kaleidoscope of influences and arbitrary cultural references. We can see this as a cultural relativism, wherre anythng is possible, but it is also a symptom of a loss of integrity and purpose in the Western tradition.
The answer for many young artists was escape, by any means. Monet and the Impressionists escaped by seeking out the purely visual facts of perception, shortcircuiting the interpretation which would allow the contamination of historical awareness to seep in. Personal expression, the painting of inner truth as we see in Van Gogh, is another escape from conventions of the outer world. Of course, by reacting against the tyrany of historical knowledge they also are emphasizing its power.
Modern art is full of fascinating attempts to free the artist from what he knows, from the past. Picasso, in his "Demoiselles D'Avignon" (top) uses the forms and simplifications of african masks to break from the sophistication of the European tradition. Non-representational art cleansed itself of any associations; in architecture the banishment of all ornament is the same impulse. There is a fascinating treatise by an young architect in the first years of the 20th century, which describes ornament as a fetish of the primitive mind, and the cleansing of ornament as the surest indication of civilization.
One of my favorite attempts is the use of "automatic drawing" to draw out the preconscious sources of form. This is a version of the automatic writing - writing down words with no intentional connection or direction - by which writers were trying to explore the subconscious. An artist like Klee would begin a drawing with no preconception about what would emerge, and then allow the lines, colors and forms on the page to suggest its further elaboration. In "Ventriloquist" we see a play of line, shape and color in which the recognizable forms appear to be the last things added, except for the title itself.
20th century art represents radical surgery for the plague of historical awareness, for which there is no real cure. It offers to artists many ways to ignore the problem of style, and just paint.