The dilemma facing artists today is articulated in a work of fiction based loosely on a year-long performance by artist Christopher K Ho.
The character speaking is the protagonist, Hirsch E.P. Rothko, talking to a local biker/skier (Mal) in a small Colorado town who attempts to prod Rothko (who is "taking a break from making art") back into doing what he knows he lives to do. Mal speaks first:
“Dude, there are no breaks from art. You know what Robert Henri said, right? ‘Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable, and we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”’
I realized in that moment that if I was going to exist in this place, with these people, even just until the Saab was fixed, that I needed to let them in, let them know who I was, what I was about. I couldn’t patronize them any longer.
“Listen, Mal, right? Mal, the whole art-life dialogue played itself out in some really interesting ways in the past century, especially with Duchamp. Duchamp’s readymades drew from cubist collage, but instead of incorporating real chair caning or bicycle handles into painting and sculpture, Duchamp simply designated an object an artwork. His move established one core aim of what came to be called the avant-garde: the radical fusion of the aesthetic with the everyday, the merging of art and life.
“After World War II, American painters picked up on something else in Picasso and Braque’s analytic cubism: the fragmenting of Renaissance perspective, leading to an emphasis on the actual flatness of the picture plane. This narrative, which differs from Duchamp’s, had painting withdrawing from actuality and becoming autonomous. This was useful for the abstract expressionists and critics like Clement Greenberg, since it provided a formally and visually verifiable patrimony: de Kooning and Kline were at the tail end of a trajectory that began with Manet, moved to Cézanne, then Matisse, and was developed by Mondrian before jumping the Atlantic. More, Pollock’s allover compositions and Noland’s edged abstractions would trump their European predecessors and contemporaries by making explicit these reductive operations, laying bare, to paraphrase Michael Fried, the historical conditions of possibility of painting itself.
“It would take the specter of the monochrome to return Duchamp to the story. For the monochrome was not only reductivist abstraction’s logical epitome, but also approached the readymade; its emphasis of two-dimensional flatness efficaciously cancelled out the illusion of three-dimensional space, to be sure, but also inadvertently thrust the work into actual three-dimensional space. Painters like Olitski and Louis tried, asymptotically, to supplant ‘flatness’ with terms like ‘opticality,’ but others, later known as minimalists, took Stella and Ryman’s nearblank canvases one step further, and embraced the turn to three-dimensional reality. Indeed, for Judd, Morris, and Andre, modernist painting already implicated the everyday, insofar as the qualities of serialization, deskilling—as it were, of abstraction—were precisely those of industrialization and the rise of capitalism.
“Pop, concurrent with minimalism, would take this notion of abstraction—an abstraction of the signifier rather than of form—and elaborate it, building on the work of Rauschenberg and Johns. Informed by the transition from structuralism to poststructuralism and France, as well as political events such as the ’68 uprisings, the Prague Spring, and the civil rights and feminist movements, art engaged with politics with renewed vigor. The English translation and publication of key texts by Derrida, Barthes, Saussure, and others heralded a new emphasis on making visible the hidden operations of power that underlie language and other supposedly neutral vessels, including museums. What began as mere phenomenology in minimalism soon flourished into site-specificity and then into institutional critique, epitomized by Asher, Haacke, and Buren, which in turn bolstered and was bolstered by the photo-based, feminist work of Kruger and Sherman.
“But this story of art’s reengagement in politics, of the reconvergence of converging art and life (what we can think of as the readymade’s return) ends on a downbeat. Duchampian dada returned, but its core polemic didn’t survive long. While it informed almost every aspect of what gets called postmodernism, its critical purchase had waned by the Reagan-Thatcher eighties. By the time Jeff Koons, a former stockbroker, exhibited an unaltered vacuum cleaner encased in a lit Plexi box, the readymade’s point was entirely obscured. If Duchamp used the use value, the utility, of a urinal to question aesthetic value, Koons took an object that already had exchange value (it was a brand-name vacuum cleaner, and the box referred to a commercial display case) and used its new status as ‘art’ to add prestige value to it, making art the instrument for turning a vacuum cleaner worth a few hundred bucks into something now worth millions.
“This narrative is influenced by ideas from psychoanalysis, but even more so from Marx. Both abstraction and the avant-garde are part of the larger story of assimilation, which gives modern and postmodern alike a peculiar tense: that of the future anterior. Abstraction withdrew into the aesthetic sphere as a defense against industrialization and capitalism only to find that that sphere was already vitiated. The avant-garde entered into the real world in order to change that world (politically and socially) only to find instead that the world changed it, turned it into commodity. Art is weak. If modernism’s project of self-definition ended with the monochrome, postmodernism’s critical project ended with the assimilation of the readymade and of institutional critique.
“So the options that this leaves are basically: 1) you can blithely forge ahead, either as an academic or an ‘outsider’ artist; 2) you can cynically choose to be complicit, accepting your work’s future assimilation and nonetheless performing critique, either ironically or exploitatively; or 3) you can acknowledge your fate (assimilation) and your work as redundant because all it does is demonstrate what’s already been established. So I get where you’re going with the Henri quote, and I really do appreciate it, but I’ve thought a lot about this art and life thing, and I feel like that thinking has basically led me where I am now, to the point where I’m, you know, taking a break.”
Mal had listened attentively to all this. He was standing, his small frame exuding health, twisting a strand of his hair between two fingers, a messy mass of greasy blond hair that looked as if it had never been combed and parted before.
“Hirsch, you’re the Tin Man, aren’t you? You live all up here.” He tapped my forehead gently. His finger was warm. Before I could answer he went on, “You’ve heard this before, Hirsch, a smart dude like you. But you probably haven’t listened to it for years. Listen to it for me this time. Feel it down here.”