Midterm Examination: Modern and Post-Modernism
Below are my responses to 3 questions posed for my art history midterm
examination. I think the questions are worth posting alone, and I
figure I wrote answers so I may as well post them also...
Given: You are in the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago with a friend (my friend is George Costanza) and he asks "How did we go from that (Seurat) to that (Mondrian)?
Seurat: Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte, 1886
Mondrian: Composition No.1, Gray-Red, 1935
Joe: "We got from Seurat to Mondrian by painting a lot of naked women.
Seriously though, there is tons of porn around here!? Anyway, to
answer your question more specifically. We need to go back to the
other room. Take a look at those Monet's. Pretty, right? Well the
question the impressionists were asking themselves was something like
'What is the point of painting "realistically"? Obviously, the most
accurate thing to paint is the single fleeting instant of light.' The
impressionists were after a different sort of realism. Seurat, who was
hung out with the impressionists, did not like this idea too much.
So, Seurat paints the "Grand Jatte" and essentially ends the
impressionist agenda. He wanted to paint more of what could not be
seen. The "Grand Jatte" is really Seurat's manifesto for a different
kind of art, a more politically active art, in other words it is the
manifestation of the artist's engagement in politics but it is also
painted in such a way that calls attention to the relativity of color.
Each little dot of color looks the way it does only because of the
color next to it. His sort of pixelation approach is a sort of
abstraction. So, we go from one way of seeing to another. Take a look
George: "Oh...I don't really want to look at that...not that there's
anything wrong with that."
Joe: "No, not at the naked man...Not that there's anything wrong with
that...Look at the Cezanne. Cezanne, also
started as an impressionist, but he was smarter than them and probably
not as into nakedness. Anyway, he figures out that if you close one
eye things look different. So, he makes a bunch of paintings with
only one eye."
George: "I've always wanted to be an architect..."
Joe: "No! You don't get to be an architect or a dentist today! George!
Ok. Ok. So, Cezanne's one eyed paintings seem really cool to Picasso and Braque who come around
a bit later. So, Picasso and his buddy, not that there's anything
wrong with that, get to thinking about things like Cezanne. They
decide that he is on to something and they carry on making paintings.
I guess one of them is the 'Des Moiselles D'Avignon'. Which is also
basically just porn. Anyway, the point is that at some point everyone
stops caring about seeing altogether. Which is funny, because they
still are drawing tons of naked ladies. Matisse is another
dude who likes Cezanne but loves the naked ladies. So, he makes a
bunch of paintings of frolicking ladies running around in nice pretty
colors. Matisse decides that painting is no longer about observation
and he makes some paintings about painting (more naked ladies).
Joe: "Ok, George. You are going to listen to me or I am going to stab
you in the eye...I guess where I am going with this is: Artist's
started looking at the world differently and eventually decide that
the world pretty much sucks. But before they come to this conclusion
some of these guys are totally loony talking about burning museums and
speed and stuff. Eventually, all this questioning of what is painting
for and what makes a painting a painting leads people to different
answers. Some of them think they are at the top of a social pyramid
where the artist prophet is at the top leading the stupid masses.
Others decide that life sucks, and what they really want to do is play
irrational games and talk like they don't know how to talk. One guy
even decides that he can't figure out who he is so he takes things he
finds with him places, like a urinal and a bottle rack. I guess he
could'nt be certain of anything, so he could not decide if would need
a pee later. Anyway, ---George! You are not even listening to me
anymore---Mondrian is pretty fed up with all this craziness and he
decides that he is a pimp so he calls his painting "DA STYLE". He rejects
representation completely, meaning no more naked ladies or dudes with
third legs. George! I told you it was a bad idea to try to pick up
ladies at the museum."
George: "It would'nt be so bad if you would let me be an architect."
Select two artists whom you would make a case for including in future classes.
Discuss how the text book analyzes them
Question areas that the textbook does not address
Argue for why they should be included in future classes
The artists Alfred Stieglitz and George Grosz are described in by
the textbook in terms of there respective art movements, straight
photography and New Objectivity respectively. What interests me about
these artists is the larger implications of their art practices.
Stieglitz and Grosz are described as part of movements somewhat larger
than themselves, but, there is relatively little mention of the larger
implications of their work. Both Stieglitz and Grosz should be
included in future classes because of the gateway they open to asking
larger questions and should not be simply relegated to the confines of
another art "ism".
First, Alfred Stieglitz, the straight photographer, magazine
editor, and egomaniac. As the textbook describes Stieglitz, his work
in photography is largely a competitive attempt to keep pace with the
virtuosity of Strand. The textbook underplays the importance of
Stieglitz's notion of "the purity" of the photographic form. As
Stieglitz champions Strand he is also jealous of Strand's success
and---according to the book---therefore inspired to create. The
textbook is also generous in it's description of the famous "The
Steerage". The book describes a "distribution of wealth" in the image
implying that Stieglitz' photo has a specific pro-poor agenda, a false
assumption. This is the larger question of interest in discussing
Stieglitz. How does the subject of the image effect the concept of
the photograph? Did Stieglitz care at all about the division of
classes he photographed? Were Stieglitz' real concerns not simply
formal? Does it matter?
The politics of art and art making are often questions leading
controversy. In addition to these questions of the political
implications of Stieglitz' straight photography are questions about
photography in general which have not been addressed in depth in
class. For example, the effect of photography on other "isms" or
indeed the implications of making art at all in the age of mechanical
reproduction. Of course here I am referring the Walter Benjamin and
wishing that an art history class will someday provide further insight
into the decoding of Benjamin's essay on mechanical reproduction and
ideas of "aura" and "purity".
George Grosz like Stieglitz is described mostly in terms of his
particular ism. In the case of Grosz: New Objectivity. The textbook
characterizes Grosz' work as being one branch of the movement, the
"veristic". The book describes how despite being a movement interested
in depicting the real, it wished first and foremost to do so in terms
of paintings (art) at the exclusion of photography. The book also
describes New Objectivity as a return or perhaps a departure from
"modernism". Or in the case of Grosz an abandonment of Dada. Grosz is
also briefly described in relation to portraiture and photography.
Grosz, according to the book was misguided in his idea of portraiture
and the book says photography becomes the victor of this conceptual
battle because of its "mechanical" nature.
Like Stieglitz, Grosz is of interest to me not because of the
questions which were answered by the book but because of the questions
which were not. I am interested in the success or failure of art and
politics or the political in art. Similar to "The Steerage" is it
possible to ignore the content/subject of the work of art? Should we
totally aestheticize art and ignore the politics of the work? I would
phraze this last question "Can we" but I know we do, as is commonly
the case with the "Grand Jatte". I want answers.
Expand on the statement: "A major theme in the history of modern art
has been the balance between reflecting the world and intervening in
George: "A major theme in the history of modern art has been the
balance of between reflecting the world and intervening in the world."
Joe: "George, stop reading the wall plaques they are mostly nonsense
some old white man wrote."
George: "What's nonsense about this statement?"
Joe: "Well, George, let me explain. Modernism is a particularly long
period to describe by one statement, first of all. Hundreds of
artist's lived and died in the time summarized by this statement. The
idea of the statement in general is a simplification. To understand
art as a "reflection" can be understood to mean: art is a mirror.
That understanding often also takes for granted the idea that a mirror
cannot cause change. An idea I reject. What I am saying is that even
"reflection" is intervention but I do not think that is what this
statement means to imply. The notion that a theme in modern art is a
balance between reflection and intervention I understand to mean, art
that is representational (reflection) versus art that is politically
motivated (intervention). Obviously, we can easily
see that the statement despite its oversimplification can be
illustrated easily by looking at any movement or ism of modernism.
For this purpose I will describe four artists from at least four
distinct episodes in modernism: Picasso, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Duchamp.
First, Picasso, known for his influence in terms of cubism and of
course his porno work, "Des Moiselles D'Avignon." Picasso is
interesting because his career is so long. Long enough to carry
through many isms. Picasso is milestone character in the development
of art in terms seeing in new ways. Cubism sees reality in terms of a
sort of theory of relativity. Picasso painted in terms of some
observation of the "real" world, so, his paintings are in a way a
reflection of the world. At times he even adds bits of the world
(newspaper clippings) to his paintings. Picasso is interested in a
semiotics of painting. Though, later Picasso becomes a painter who
gives up on modernism and returns to neo-classicism this act is also a
reflection of the world. In addition, it is common to ignore the
communist nature of Picasso's personal politics which later are
embodied in his "Guernica" a so-called surrealist painting. Picasso is
an interesting case study because of his well known communist ideals
of which he wrote and spoke. A painting like the "Guernica" is curious
because of its direct relation to an actual event. The painting then
is a reflection, but the power of the anti-war statement can not be
Tatlin like Picasso is spurred to produce largely because of his
political leanings. As Russian Constructivist, Tatlin, hoped to
created works of art that embodied his Marxist ideals. He wished to
create a more universal art. Art which was not a simple reflection of
the world in terms of representation but art which came from the
everyday material of the world. He wished to take basic elements and
make them collectively more than they are. Tatlin's deep connection to
his political ideals inspired him to create work which he saw as
non-alienating and for the working class using the materials of the
working class. Now, to define Tatlin in terms of reflecting the world
is an interesting problem because his work is non-representational.
So, Tatlin then almost by default falls into the intervention in the
Wassily Kandinsky falls somewhere between Picasso and Tatlin. His
painted works are non-representational of the visual world but are
intended to convey a sort musical aspect. Kandinsky
is interested in making visual art more like music, more direct, more
emotional. But Kandinsky does occasionally draw objects which clearly
look like "reflections" of objects in the seen world. Canons for
example. Kandinsky wants to make art which is more universally
accessible like Tatlin, but Kandinsky sees himself as the leader of
the masses. Kandinsky in his writing describes a society with artists
at every level of a social triangle, leading their respective levels,
but with an artist prophet (himself) leading all at the top. Artist's
like Kandinsky believe in universals and ideals. Later artist's like
Marcel Duchamp find themselves in direct opposition to universals.
Duchamp is a famous doubter. He doubts and questions everything.
He questions the validity of the painted form and opens the idea of
art to include practically everything and anything an artist calls
art. Duchamp in some ways is reflecting the doubt of the world after
the destruction of the world wars. His questioning of the expectations
of the work of art eventually lead him to the "ready made." It is by
questioning everything Duchamp is reflecting a world that is in shock
but he is also clearly intervening in that world.
The idea of reflection versus intervention as a theme in modern
art is a prickly problem to dismantle. Artists throughout modernism
have worked representationally or abstractly or expressively.
Regardless of the artists' methods the work is still an in some way an
intervention. In this way even not "making" art objects, like Duchamp,
is at once reflection and intervention.