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Theory of modern art: Rationalization

Theory of modern art: Rationalization

admin / January 2, 2019

Buchloh observes the cyclical appearance of action and reaction in art since the advent of Cubism, and infers from this that art reflects somehow the state of society.

In the associated readings, the authors make some similar points about the tidal movement between realism and abstraction, although they are not uniformly as focused on the socio-political content or significance of the current art trends.

In all cases, the authors make a distinction between visually reproducing reality, on the one hand, and ignoring it to some degree, on the other hand. These observations accurately describe the changes that occurred in art over the first decades of the 20th century.

However, it is not always convincing, from the perspective of 2011, to read these often-inflexible assertions about the directional progression of art, and its potential connection to politics.

Buchloh asserts that art responds to the oppression of the regimes then current in the country where the artist lives and/or works. He asks,

“Is there a simple causal connection, a mechanical reaction, by which growing political oppression necessarily and irreversibly generates traditional representation? Does the brutal increase of restrictions in socio-economic and political life unavoidably result in the bleak anonymity and passivity of the compulsively mimetic modes that we witness, for example, in European painting of the mid- 1920s and early I 930s?”[1]

He is contending that artists react to the limiting atmosphere around them by hearkening back to representational styles. He is damning of all figurative content as a throwback, a return to outdated and played-out concepts and goals, formed by the political environment.

While he does not come right out and declare his political affiliation, his attitude towards capitalism is very hostile. He speaks of the “bankruptcy of capitalist economics” and, for example, accuses capitalism of using war as its final economic solution to the persistent problems of utilizing every person’s skills and keeping them fed[2].

He also seems not to be friendly to fascism[3]. What seems to bother him about all political systems is the way that people are managed and controlled, for example via “managed unemployment.” [4]

The authors in the readings all have grasped that something quite significant has changed in art. They all have seen, as Apollinaire notes, that there is occurring either a return to earlier forms of painting, or adoption of a variety of elements from earlier times (Classicism and Romanticism), or from disparate cultures, technologies, or genres[5].

Buchloh regards this sort of re-definition of self as a desperate clinging to a lost role of centrality and importance. He calls the painters of Cubism and its immediate neighbors in time and development, “senile old rulers.”[6]

However all these protestations might also have been simply an effort on the part of artists in the early decades of the 20th century to make sense of the transforming world around them. This was especially a challenge given the demoralizing upset of World War I.

These authors, many of them artists themselves, focus more than Buchloh does on the appearance and content of the art itself. They seem more interested in what comes next in art. This, itself, was a novel question to be asking, after so many centuries of slow, almost indistinguishable change.

Jeanneret and Ozenfant, in particular, appear to be trying to lay out a path for art to follow so that their work can result in, “an objectification of the entire world.” This involves, for them, creating order by selecting from among many elements. They aim to present the viewer with something that is, “free of conventions” and, “universal.”[7]

While the reference to conventions may evoke the hated and reviled bourgeoisie, the main thrust of this article seems to be anti-political. This seems to be a perhaps deliberate attempt to move art distinctly outside the whole mess of politics and social movements.

This does not actually contradict Buchloh’s insistence on a connection between the system of governance and the forms of art. Buchloh would probably contend that wanting to be outside current politics is actually a commentary on the impact of current politics!

Carra focuses on the artist’s treatment of line and color and light[8]. He claims for artists a goal of, “creation, not the imitation of phenomena”. He sees artists as in dialogue only with other artists, “listening to ourselves”[9]. This is another expression of the artist as separate, outside, standing apart from politics and social movements.

Gleizes is the exception to this apparent willful obliviousness of the socio-political universe that surrounds them. He notes in his 1920 essay on the Dadaist movement that the social and political and class situation has been changing rapidly, and that people have being thrown about by the violence of events. His is the most explicit expression, among these readings, of an awareness of art as a marker of class distinctions.

He points out that the upper and lower classes are being deliberately separated and set at odds[10]. This is perhaps not surprising, since the Dadaists were specifically interested in a democratization of art and the de-professionalization of the creation of art[11].

Buchloh is heavy-handed in suggesting that all figurative or representational art is a symptom of oppression. The other authors are looking at art less through the prism of political science than as artists themselves. Both are probably seeing a truth in the situation, but from different perspectives.

Buchloh lays his ideas out at the end of his essay, as follows:

“The aesthetic attraction of these eclectic painting practices originates in a nostalgia of the moment in the past when the painting modes to which they refer had historical authenticity.

But the spectre of derivativeness hovers over every contemporary attempt to resurrect figuration, representation, and traditional modes of production, This is not so much because they actually derive from particular precedents, but because their attempt to re-establish forlorn aesthetic positions immediately situates them in historical secondariness.

That is the price of instant acclaim achieved by affirming the status quo under the guise of innovation. The primary function of such cultural re-presentations is the confirmation of the hieratics of ideological domination.”[12]

Bibliography

Apollinaire, Guillaume. “The New Spirit .” In Art in Theory: 1900 to 2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 228-230. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Buchloh, Benjamin D. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting.” First appeared in the periodical October, volume 16, Spring, 1981, 39-68. Republished in Art in Modern Culture: an Anthology of Critical Texts, by Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, edited by Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, 222-238. London: Phaedon Press, 1992.

Carra, Carlo. “Our Antiquity.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C Harrison and P. Wood, . Carra- Our Antiquity p232-p236. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Gleize, Albert. “The Dada Case.” In Art in Theory, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 242- 245. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Jeanneret, Charles Edouard (Le Corbusier), and Amedee Ozenfant. “Purism.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 239- 242. OXfprd: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Buchloh, Benjamin. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting’”. October. 1981, Volume 16, Spring. Published in Frascina, Francis and Jonathan Harris, eds. Art in Modern Culture: an Anthology of Critical Texts. (London: Phaidon Press, 1992). Page 222.
Buchloh, p. 223
Buchloh, p. 223
Buchloh, p. 223
Apollinaire, Guillaume. “The New Spirit and the Poets”. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Wiley-Blackwell. Page 229. For example, artists incorporated pieces of newspaper text, collage-fashion, into paintings.
Buchloh, Page 233.
Jeanneret, Charles Edouard, and Ozenfant, Amedee. ‘Purism”. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Wiley-Blackwell. Page 242.
Carra, Carlo. “Our Antiquity”. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. 2002. Wiley-Blackwell. Page 244
Carra, page 232.
Gleizes, Albert. “The Dada Case”. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. 2002. Wiley-Blackwell. Page 242.
Gleizes, page 244
Buchloh, page 237

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