Tradition as “Avant-Garde”

by Donald Kuspit

This essay originally appeared in a catalogue for an exhibition at the New York Academy of Art.

Once, we were told, “execution is a perfunctory affair” (Sol LeWitt). Once, we were told, an “old picture” was a “funeral urn” (F.T. Marinetti). Once, we were told, “human figures, bodies, have no more importance than keys or bicycles” (Fernand Léger). Once, we were told, to be avant-garde means “invading unknown territory, exposing [oneself] to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters” (Jürgen Habermas). Well, it seems that the shock of the new has grown old: “the impulse of modernity is exhausted,” the sociologist Daniel Bell reminds us, “anyone who considers himself avant-garde can read his own death warrant…. Modernism is dominant but it is dead…no longer creative.” It has become another historical style, a devitalized trophy of the past, dogmatic and respectable where it was once anxious and insulting, self-satisfied where it was once dissatisfied with art and the world (can art ever be as dangerous and shocking as the world?), another dictatorship of the art intelligentsia, another revolution that has become an entrenched establishment, another challenge to the tyranny of tradition that has itself become a tyrannical tradition. Its bones may still dance, but it is dancing its own death.
 
The tradition of the new and modern, whose birth the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire witnessed, has become another old tradition, raising the question whether it was ever as creative as the tradition of the old, whose greatest works “leave an eternal trace upon the memory of mankind,” as Baudelaire said. This was because, as he suggested, the great old masters—the beacons of art, as he called them (he added Delacroix to his list of “the rare elect”)—imaginatively explored the elusive, if uncannily familiar territory of the all too human: what remains emotionally constant through social and historical change, unconsciously informing it. By this standard, it seems that the tradition of the new—avant-garde art—will not leave much of a trace on the memory of mankind. How can it, being concerned with the new, which however exciting, is passing —by definition not eternal—a specious present if ever there was one?
 
The drama of the new has become a drag on art and imagination. The all too human is age-old, the new is short-lived: avant-garde works are falling stars—meteoric moments, Icarian flashes—while great old master art has the staying power of the all too human, and of its own imaginative insight. Great old master art is more inherently “avant-garde” than modernist art: imaginatively articulating the intricacies of the all too human is more dangerous and difficult than inventing the new. As Nietzsche said, if one looks into the abyss, the abyss might look into you, that is, you might never be able to get out of it. One needs a guide to explore it—the way Dante needed Virgil to guide him safely through Inferno and Purgatory—which is why the great old masters always built on precedent. No doubt the “anxiety” of Cézanne and the “torment” of van Gogh were Picasso’s guides and precedents, but they are emotional hell, not a way out of it, through imaginative insight into and purging of it. And with that transcendence of it, the way, after his long trip through Inferno and Purgatory, Dante finally came to the artistic heaven symbolized by Beatrice.
 
More crucially, if to be creative means to have “creative apperception…of external reality,” as the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott tells us, which brings with it the feeling of “being alive,” confirming that one has “a personal capacity for creative living,” then avant-garde art is not deeply creative. Does the self-indulgent subjectivity of avant-garde art, evident in Expressionism and Surrealism, and even in Cubism, all of which distort external reality, convey what Winnicott calls the “healthy state of living creatively”? Or does it convey, as the psychoanalyst Michael Balint argues, near-pathological narcissism and withdrawal from external reality, climaxing in its destruction, that is, its fragmented, distorted, even grotesque appearance (completely denaturalized and dehumanized, it cannot help but be monstrous): the reductive shattering of real objects into what psychoanalysts call part objects, which become signifiers of the sadistic feelings responsible for the destruction of external reality.
 
If there is anything that the work of the young painters and sculptors in this exhibition have in common, it is that they return to the representation of the whole objects of external experience, whether they be the figures in Ben Hengst’s painting or in Seul Milac’s sculpture. As such, it is a return to artistic health and creative apperception. This is not entirely the case—we have the part object of the expressive hand in Miles Yoshida’s sculpture (yet it is recognizable as externally real)—but it is more often the case than not. Sometimes the figure is a fantastic female creature, as in Susan Siegel’s painting; sometimes the female figure is a bizarrely posing Susanna observed by elderly males, as in Li Zhang’s painting; sometimes it is seen from an angle that makes its sexual features conspicuous, as in Uzhl Duarte’s painting, but it is always a whole object.
 
I call this the new objectivism, in contrast to what has become the old subjectivism of modern art: it is no longer avant-garde to explore the terra incognita of the unconscious—it is no longer a terra incognita, but has been explored and exploited by both art and science—but rather to develop one’s consciousness and with that observational power. As Freud noted, Dalí’s consciousness was more creatively interesting than his predictable, simulated unconscious. The outer world now calls to us, signaling the inner world, but not submitting to it. The new objectivist art tries to strike a balance between objectivity and subjectivity, using the objectively real to convey the subjectively real, as in traditional old master art—rather than be overwhelmed by it, as in modern avant-garde art—while insisting on the separateness and autonomy of the objectively given. For all its differentiated particularity, it can be consensually validated in a way that idiosyncratic subjectivity cannot be, at least not easily. And, as the work of the women artists mentioned indicates, social concerns as well as personal issues—in their case, the problem of living in a world of male voyeurs, leading to the feeling that one’s body is less than human and not entirely one’s own (leading one to “make a spectacle” of oneself as though to ironically repossess it)—can be more directly addressed through object-oriented art than through subject-oriented art. (It is worth noting that many of the works by female artists are concerned with gender.)
 
A good many of the artists build on precedent, that is, old master models and ancient myths and narratives (pagan and Christian), including, in some cases, modernist models of handling: Casey Concelino, Felicia Feldman, Frances Smokowski, Gregory Tomezsko, Holly Hudson (the Great Goddess is handled with gestural fervor), Yi Wang, Jeremy Johnson (a traditional sculpture has pride of place in a modernist building, whose features are reduced to an outline, in contrast to the richly detailed statue and flourishing garden), John McGrath (an eloquent “re-vision” of a Titian painting), Laness Woods, Lining Taug, Olesya Santypoo and Kyle Manning (a sensationally colored gestural landscape with a surreally mythical creature) are examples. The importance of tradition—both the tradition of the old and the tradition of the new—is explicitly signaled in Sy Kim Zak’s and Michael Meadors’s paintings, with their “quotations” of masterpieces from Caravaggio, Velázquez and Manet.
 
Meadors’s painting is a “re-vision” of Eric Fischl’s Wading Pool, an image of a naked adolescent boy masturbating in a suburban backyard, and much more notorious and formally intricate. For Meadors shows us a clothed, nubile
adolescent girl wearing a blue condom, blown up like a balloon, as an erect penis.
Its diagonal thrust resonates with the baton held by the youth in the Velázquez painting and the sword held by the bullfighter (a female in male clothing) in the Manet painting, thus ironically confirming her enacted fantasy of being a man while remaining a desirable female. Just as Meadors “re-visions” Fischl’s work (an official late avant-garde masterpiece), making it ironically “feminist” and more ingeniously sensational, so Seul Ki Lee “re-visions” Steven Balkenhol’s wooden figure (an official neo-avant-garde masterpiece), making one Chinese, one African and one European (in Balkenhol, they are all European). They are all dressed in different clothing and open-eyed, while holding their hands in the same position. Clearly, the tradition-oriented artists are more socially conscious, not to say politically correct, than the phallocentric and Eurocentric artists—truly an advance in understanding and conscience.
 
Clearly, for the artists in the exhibition, the human body is not like a key or bicycle but has its own aesthetic: an organically differentiated aesthetic and subtle dynamic—and psychodynamic—plasticity, that is, an aesthetic plasticity evolved by nature, not the passive plasticity and static form manufactured in factories, with a mass-produced sameness and straightforwardness. Differentiated realism, psychodynamic tension, narrative complexity and relentless curiosity about the plasticity of the human body are self-evident in numerous figures, whether they be in the couples pictured by Maya Brodsky, Hengst, Lizabeth McCoy (a father and daughter at odds), David Noate, Austin Park and Patrick Romine, or the nude males pictured by Samuel Shenova. In general, there is a preoccupation with the human condition and human character, as the portraits of Julie Elizabeth Brady, Heidi Elbers, Cheryl Klopfenstein, Min-Myn Schaffner and Tamiko Stump show. Narrative, implicit or explicit, is a constant in many of the works, as those of Steven Forster and Deidra Olin make clear. Perhaps the “re-visionist” objectivism of the artists in the exhibition is most explicit in the still lifes of Ayumi Matsuba and Meadors.
 
If ripeness is all—which is the aesthetic message of the great old masters—these artists still have a way to go until they achieve consummate ripeness. And also to the “concision” and “unobtrusive intensity” that Baudelaire said was evident in great old master art, and which Delacroix’s art epitomized. “The model of the poet-painter,” he was “immovably centered,” but “the scope of
his mind”—his creative capacity—was such that it could encompass any subject matter, even religion (out of fashion in modern life), as Baudelaire noted in happy astonishment. Certainly, none of the artists in the exhibition think that execution is perfunctory; they all work hard at it. And they work with more difficult and complex concepts than the Conceptualists do—the simpler and more understandable the concept, the better (for the art? for the public?). LeWitt said: the “avant-garde” traditionalist works with the “concepts” of the human figure and narrative, achieving a dialectic of artistic and human experience. All are as skilled and attentive to their medium as any modernist painter, but also attentive to the all too human figure, which makes their art more consummate.
 
Kandinsky mourned the separation of the “the purely artistic” (abstract, formal) and “the objective” (realistic representation) in modern art, each going its own way to the detriment and loss of the other. It is hard work to restore the “complementarity,” as Kandinsky called it, they had in traditional art, let alone become a poet-painter, but the young masters in the exhibition, sensitive to the formal as well as responsible to the human, are well on their way to doing so. Their art is a regression to the past in the service of the future of art: today, art can only advance by repairing the damage done to traditional art. The repressed will always return, indicating it can never be purged, as the old avant-gardists thought they could do by heaping contempt on and repudiating it as “academic,” especially since they have become academic.

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 27, number 4.