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Tag Archives: Tom Wolfe

The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.

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Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.

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Art Space Race

I keep on writing about art galleries, a room or series of rooms where art is exhibited, whatever it is called: “gallery”, “projects”, “art space”, or “artist run initiative”. I’m not sure that this has been a good idea. Few galleries state what they are above their door, ACGA members have the association logo sticker on their door, and 45 downstairs now states “a not for profit artspace” above their door. And this raises a important question: does it matter?

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“Projects” are currently in fashion in Melbourne, everyone is starting a project space from Sutton Gallery to Dianne Tanzer. “Projects” is short for “side projects”. What kinds of side projects do commercial galleries? Exhibitions in non-gallery spaces and so some galleries now have non-gallery spaces for exhibitions.

Why do structural analysis of the art world? This structural understanding of the art world has lead to a whole genre of art that refers to this structure. Questioning the institution of the art gallery may have started with Duchamp’s readymades but it became an art movement in the 1970s. Examining the institution revealed issues of power and ownership and cultural and sexual identity – some of this work has been fun but it is not what art is all about. And along with this some people have confused attacking the art gallery with analysis of its role.

Tom Wolfe’s sardonic comments on the emergence of contemporary art outside of the gallery have something of zeitgeist in them. “…the late 1960s, and the New Left was in high gear, and theorists began to hail Earth Art and the like as a blow against ‘the Uptown Museum-Gallery Complex’, after the ‘military industrial complex’ out in the world beyond. If the capitalists, the paternalists of the art world, can’t get their precious art objects into their drawing rooms or even into their biggest museums, they’ve had it.” (Tom Wolfe The Painted World, Bantam, 1976, p.102) Tom Wolfe, the artists, their dealers all knew that this would not be the end of the museum-gallery complex anymore than it would be the end of the military industrial complex but it was a story that would sell.

After all a “gallery” is just a fancy word for a room with some art in it. I don’t know about your house but mine does not look like a contemporary art gallery. The walls are the wrong colour for one thing and then there is all this stuff lying around. I do have art on my walls and a few sculptures around the place but it doesn’t look like any art gallery that I know. Even the serious art collector’s homes don’t look like art galleries.

I sometimes ask people after visiting a major art gallery about what they would most like to have in their home and remind them that it has to fit in their home. Where are you going to put it? Some work of art, like a Duchamp readymade, would mean less alienated from the gallery space. And what are you going to do with all that video art? Buy a flat screen TV and DVD player for each one, or just keep them in a draw?

This is not because I think that art should not respond to the gallery, or that galleries have made art worse but that the obsession over the space, including all my writing about galleries, has been a distraction from the main event – the art. How much does the space, what ever you want to call it, change the art?


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