Saturday, January 07, 2012

Picasso: the new Norman Rockwell?

In my previous post, I compared Norman Rockwell unfavorably to Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock. It is possible to see most Rockwell paintings without really noticing them. They are what we still expect a painting to be. However, the works of Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock still take us by some surprise. A painting is never merely "realistic": the artist must choose what to include, and what to exclude, what to emphasize, and what to downplay. In the case of these artists, it is even more clear that this is what they have done. They do not even pretend to be trying to replicate reality as we see it. Thus, they reinvent the art, and make us pay attention.

In this post, Chris Dillow argues that
the dominant cultural form of late capitalism is pastiche - the soulless imitation of past achievements, devoid of conviction
He uses a musical performance in a "music contest" to illustrate this.

There are good commercial reason for this phenomenon. In this tweet, John D. Cook quotes Stanislav Datskovskiy
Employers much prefer that workers be fungible, rather than maximally productive.
A machine for manufacturing musical stars puts performers on notice that there is an endless supply of singers who could replace them, and so keeps them in their places. Recycling old favorites is cheap and safe: the audience knows what to expect, and don't need to apply themselves to decide whether they like what they are listening to. The supply of music to perform is vastly greater than if the performers had to regularly come up with new works to perform: the writers and composers are shown their places.

However, while I adore Dillow's crabby blogging, I fear this post is not up to his usual standards of rigor. He is right when he says that
On the one hand, growth and profitability requires that culture be commodified. For capitalists, it is useless if we merely contemplate past artistic accomplishments. We must instead buy new ones.
He is simply wrong when he says that
On the other hand, though, capitalism is unable or unwilling to innovate, as the benefits of such innovation cannot be reliably captured**.
Capitalism is capacious enough to contain many contradictions. There are markets for reality shows and televised music contests, but there are also markets for original music. Anthologies are published, but so are new works of fiction and poetry, even experimental ones. Entirely new genres emerge, and some move on to become mainstream. This is almost always the work of young people, who become nicely reactionary once they are middle-aged, and the art of their youth has been installed as the new standard from which any deviation is obvious perversion. If, instead of "capitalism", he had written "corporations", or "large corporations", I would have agreed whole-heartedly.

How is this relevant to the discussion of Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, and Rockwell? Just that the distance between Pollock and Rockwell is not a constant, and is growing smaller with time. Several generations have now grown up with Pollock in the cultural background. We can still find people who find such works meaningless and incomprehensible, who won't be satisfied until painting is indistinguishable from photography, but these painters have become canonical: we can look at their work with pleasure, and without (much) shock. The pleasure is welcome, but the absence of shock means that we are probably no longer seeing what those who first encountered them saw. We have grown habituated, and again need someone to show us how to see. Note: I am obviously no professional art critic, and these are hardly original thoughts. There have obviously been many artists, and schools, since Pollock. I think Pop Art is the closest to having gone mainstream. Going "mainstream" isn't a bad thing; it only means that the style has been completely absorbed into the community, its lessons understood; the opposite of this isn't some state of purity, but sterility and failure.

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