Joe Masheck Your statements have surprising overlaps of concern. One of the themes that preoccupies people more than any other is the theme of tradition because we’re all painters here which means that some folks already feel that whatever we say is antediluvian. I think it’s useful that nobody’s statement fusses too much over the terms modernism or post-modernism so that we don’t have to start out by defining those words. We can see that some of us use those words differently, but we can see how they are being used. There is an understanding in all of us coming together that this is a free and open discussion—anything can be placed on the table. I think the matter of tradition is really pertinent to our dilemma today whether you want to call it post-modern or not. I would like to kick off by saying something that particularly struck me in your texts and something that I see as a question. Jack’s (Barth) paper comes first.
A most arresting pictorial example of historical place is Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Eternal Rome. It is exactly at this spot that for our own time, the origin of time and the origin of history unite. Piranesi’s Rome was a storehouse of examples, the scene of fulfillment between modern and classical worlds. When we look into Piranesi’s impressions of Rome, we apprehend orders of existence which are compressed from pictorial perspectives that pull the revolutionary cycle of creation and decay into the depths of historical time. (Recall Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 1776.)
Piranesi and Gibbon find man anxiously situated in the Enlightenment awareness of temporality. Pulled to and fro between memory and anticipation, between past and future, man can no longer give himself over to the state of nature without reflecting upon culture—to do so would be to live in the eternal present. Instead, man must now fulfill the order of Empire and regain entry into the realms of history and of time. As Piranesi reveals, whenever we follow the course of empire and are drawn into the imaginative realms of history and time, decaying images and phantoms of historic memory must follow. Time future and time past, despite promethean gifts, fortune, and providence, are in tension with man’s sense of his temporal limits.
Piranesi agonizes over the meaninglessness caused by this separation of history from temporality. This is what makes Piranesi poignant for our own moment. In him, we sense a man for whom man-made history and temporality have become irreconcilable. His impressions of timeless masonry bear witness to the catastrophic collapse of substantive historical vision, by which meaning, history, and the very coherence of human affairs is threatened.
The parallels between Piranesi’s Eternal Rome and our own contemporary scene are strikingly similar. Vanguardist movements perpetually stage a willful rebelliousness against the continuance of history. In doing so, they dispossess themselves of a “past” without every gaining a “future.” It would appear, therefore, that modernism is forever in great haste to get on with a “future” without making a positive advance. To some people, this predicament passes as an infinite regress in which they rationalize their failure to advance as sublime. For having disinherited tradition they deceive themselves with vanguard movements, a practice which belies a desperate optimism, acting as nothing more than a proxy in absentia. But as we have now seen, history and time are matters of much wider significance.
Tradition is a word often used as a phrase of censorship, as when works are dismissed as “too traditional.” But in the sense that T. S. Eliot chose to use this word, it takes on a new resonance. Eliot sees tradition as a perception of a historical dimension not only of a “past” but of a present” and, by implication and reflection, of a future of yet to be existing orders.
Joseph Masheck I want to say that I found this statement of yours particularly interesting—“it would appear therefore that modernism is forever in great haste to get on with a ‘future’ without making a positive advance. To some people this predicament passes as an infinite regress in which they rationalize their failure to advance as sublime.”
I did want to ask you though, how would it change the meaning? I can’t be sure here. “To some people, this predicament passes as an infinite regress in which they rationalize their failure to advance.” You really mean their failure to get anywhere, like running in place.
Saul Ostrow Is it individuated? You see, I didn’t read it as an individuated “they.” I read it as a collective “they,” the address of a sort of collective failure. It’s funny to pick that out in that it’s the type of failure which, say, something like fascism addresses. Fascism which claims to rationalize in advance its own totality, its own subordination. It is within that realm, and that sort of crisis of modernism that I read that statement.
Jack Barth Well, it’s a crisis of modernism, it’s a crisis of defining the sublime. I think that’s what I was trying to get at. I was thinking in terms of negative and positive sublimes and I was also trying to figure out what …
SO The pleasure and the terror?
JB Well, the romantic view of the sublime which is the awesome sublime and then I keep thinking what happens after World War II to that word. Along with what happens to certain kinds of definitions of modern, after World War II. And this puts a lot of weight on what the abstract expressionists were trying—not all of them, but say, Newman—
JM And what happend to the art, too? Maybe two things changed. In other words, I think one problem now is the link between whether the painting is sublime and whether someone finds it sublime. There’s a whole generation that doesn’t even seem to know that some people did find, did discover, sublimity present in those works of art. You would think that it was just a game about terms, in which the argument was just that someone had come up with the cleverest possible term to use in Art News to push a certain kind of painting.
Stephen Westfall The question has a lot to do with a sense of urgency in the ages that we’re talking about. These terms classicism, romano-classicism, romanticism, modern, post-modernism—as we discuss it, we pose a kind of succession and sometimes the temptation is to see them as a set of clearly defined steps and not as things that literally lead into each other, interpretative matrices that—There wasn’t a point where romanticism ceased to be a guiding intellectual concept and modernism took over. And even the notion of post-modernism—in a sense I see them all as sometimes being subheads to the preceding interpretation. And the fact that we’re worrying about the sublime in a period of seeming post-modernism is an indication to me that at least on one level we’re still, much of our concerns, are still directed by a romantic agenda.
I just read Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in BOMB Magazine where he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he was really turned on when he first saw a Newman painting because he had never seen so much space in a painting before. Now the notion of space linked up with the sublime, not that Jeremy said the word sublime, but there seems to be a linkage to the 19th century version of the word. The notion of endlessness or limitlessness—both as an illusion and an abstraction …
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe I’m talking out of turn here, but I’m having a little problem with the way the word sublime is being used because I just want to draw everyone’s attention to the sense in which—the sublime was invented in the 18th century as a way of getting out of classicism. But now in 1987 I’m not at all comfortable with the notion that we can preserve the concept unchanged. The idea that romanticism in some way could continue to survive in some paradigmatic possibility despite everything that’s happened since, and more particularly, despite where we are. It’s problematic to me, particularly because I don’t agree with the notion that art or intellectual life is able to reverse history. It seems to me that it functions in irreversibilities. I’m making a pedantic point. I just remember they asked Mallarmé who’s the greatest French poet and his answer was, “Hugo, alas.” That is to say, the greatest French poet is still the great poet of romanticism, but it’s a pity. And that would be the point. If it’s the case that the sublime still proposes this enormous problematic, it’s a problematic that’s changing.
JB The present informs the past. How much of the word “sublime” can we take to this moment? I think, in Newman’s case, after World War II, in this devastation, the holocaust, the loss of faith in religion, I think he was trying to resurrect a grand narrative. Now, that narrative doesn’t necessarily start with the romantics. But once it starts can we just discard it because it doesn’t feel prescient? I don’t know if I would agree that history is irreversible and then whose history …
JGR The sort of thing I had in mind was this, and then I’ll shut up again. When Barnett Newman had the idea of the sublime he was living 40 years ago, 1947 or something, and now it’s 1987, and it seems to me that after the problematization of the origin of meaning and the concept of essence by people like Derrida, the notion of sublime becomes curious because the notion of the subject becomes something else. We have to ask, if we’re going to talk about this idea of the self, whether it exists in some space that’s larger than the self or whether it’s a self that’s being proposed as both a decentered self and a self that formulates itself with regard to that space of which it stands in awe.
SO Barnett Newman means a satori like Clyfford Still talking about destroying men’s minds with his paintings in terms of the satori, the experience of awe, of revelation without a loss of oneself, a moment of awareness. That’s not quite the same as the transcendental sublime, where you lose yourself.
JM What about this? I think that the notion of irreversibility of history may be important. How is this as a characterization of what’s emerging: That there is a historical problem with the sublime and a critical problem. The historical problem is like the notion of the picturesque which similarly in the 18th century arose as a way to bust out of conventional beauty and expand the territory, once it did expand the territory everything inside the new widened frontiers became just plain beautiful again. Then the sublime busts out and then sublime just becomes one way to be beautiful. But the critical problem, and they’re linked by the irreversibility question, is that there’s no turning back. And just as we would be the last people to say, “The trouble with painting now is that it’s not picturesque enough,” we’re not saying, “Go out there and make those things look sublime,” either. In fact, what we’re driving at is that works of art really have had these qualities as integral parts of what they are. Both picturesqueness and sublimity may be washed up, but works of art can still have such qualities. So maybe there’s something for art to do.
Suzanne Joelson The question was how do you avoid clichés without giving in to an infatuation with novelty? How do you get away from novelty for its own sake, not merely some cliché of the picturesque.
JB You’ve just collapsed the beautiful and the sublime. They’re separate.
SW It seems to me that the plain reality is that all these terms are very slippery and they have different purposes depending on who’s wielding them in what context. I think one of the difficulties of a discussion like the one we’re having is that we’re engaging enormous concepts, so that it’s impossible to focus—it’s not that the terms have become meaningless, but that they have proliferated meanings.
SJ In my reading of Kant…I keep wondering, and maybe it’s because I’m such a generalist, at how different Derrida’s reading a text is from Kant’s reading of the sublime and the notion that the sublime is something that is graphic. That the sublime is not standing on a cliff looking into deep fabulous space or standing in awe of scary space but that the sublime is making that into an art work and bracketing it, bringing it back into architecture. And that bracketing is the same thing as reading a text.
SW What we’re talking about is that kind of sublime where one apprehends the danger of losing sense of one’s self—in the first book of the Prelude, when Wordsworth steps out of the boat at night on this lake and sees these huge rocks. They are like some pre-Christian gods and he feels threatened. He feels that he’s going to lose his sense of self-identity. That’s what classically happens in the description of the sublime. And it does not have to happen in a natural setting.
SO Kant raises the question of the sublime as the presentation of the unpresentable: the loss and the awe.
Paintings are terribly vulnerable to language. Is the “desolation” ascribed to Rothko’s late work significantly different from Malevich’s exalted “spiritual desert?” I doubt it.
… More interesting is the question of mindfulness versus ambiguity in the visual image. Do we over direct or over determine content as a defense against others doing it for us? Do we limit our inquiries by over managing them? There are other questions that I’m particularly haunted by: Do we witness to our own mortality through our art or do we propose an alternative? Can our awe at the grace of our privilege coexist with our guilt? Why is abstraction so mystifying? Can art be “personal” anymore? Do we address history through our paintings? If so, what history, or whose history? Should the fact that for many of us the act of painting actually “feels good” be peripheral to the reasons we cite for continuing the practice? How much of what we recognize to be our own worst tendencies can we blame on our culture?
Gary Stephan I want to know the utility and the personal responsibility and veracity of these issues. Let me give you a concrete example: Peter (Halley) and I were on a panel together and we were talking about history. I believe it. I believe in the utility of the continuity of experience. And—I think I have this right—but if I’m wrong, Peter will obviously correct me. Peter said something along the lines, that history was a fiction kept in place by historians to prevent us from confronting the truth of our history-less-ness. I thought it was very interesting. I don’t believe it, but it’s a position that’s in real time as it were.
Peter Halley What I probably said was that history was an invention of the power structures of the present and not necessarily a professional …
GS But didn’t you suggest that it had no objective reality—that in a sense there was nothing back there, except whatever was fabricated by whomever was in a position to fabricate it.
PH Not back then—now. I don’t think it has an objective reality.
Joseph Masheck Why was it different then? Why would it ever have been different? Why would Machiavelli have said anything more ideal? Why do you suppose that Machiavelli was more idealistic than we can afford to be. It’s always a story.
PH I’m skeptical about the historical record as a whole. Why certain things survived—whether people ever said what we think they said—I can’t accept any of that.
JM Isn’t that the reason why it goes on?
Saul Ostrow Isn’t there a difference between the historical record and history? For me, history is a culmination of material conditions that allows our practice. The historical record is something that attempts to explain to us the process by which those conditions came about or the story of those conditions. Ultimately, history is lived in the present because it creates the conditions by which we live.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe For the historicist it does.
SO Jeremy! You are not wearing a toga! You may want to. History is the lived experience.
JM Somebody says here’s a piece of paper that shows the Donation of Constantine and that shows that the Pope’s supposed to rule the Papal states. But then the question that it’s a forgery is part of history too.
SO It’s consequential only in that it’s a question of how that forgery affects the life of the lived. That’s what I’m saying is the difference between the documents of history and the lived experience.
JM Apparently some folks think that history would mean just the phony document. But I take history to mean the fascination, the suspicion, and the proving of the forgery.
SO I would claim it’s the effect of the forgery.
PH I’m talking more generally of the study of the past as opposed to history, as opposed to so many associations of certain lineages—and secondly certain kinds of utopian aspirations. What I’m trying to say is that there are very real barriers to the past and that has to be taken into account.
David Reed I heard an interesting talk over the summer about Caravaggio’s paintings which I had always read as some kind of advocacy of the poor in general terms. In this talk a Marxist historian was relating the paintings to the specific issues of the time. It turned out that Caravaggio was supporting the new bureaucratic class in their taking over the allocation of money to the poor. A power that the church wanted to keep and had taken away from the nobility. It made me understand the paintings in a completely different way. So it was a specific revision of history that brought up issues in the paintings that really interested me. And brought them to life again. I thought less of them after that.
Jack Barth They lost their sublimity.
SO I would raise the point that history is a modernist context. The modern view of history is one of totalizing and completing the story. Previously, myth, any number of structures from the folk level to the court functioned as our history. And one did see it as this unruptured fabric. The beginning of the triumph of the bourgeoisie, which starts someplace for me, in the 16th century, begins to claim an unruptured surface. They would be the ones to give the complete story and they were the end of that complete story. And modernism as we inherit it as painters begins to produce a history of art that claims to reproduce that same linearity, that same unruptured this to that to that. Although, yes, there’s this aberration over here, but we always see that that aberration is usable 50 years later so we’re able to weave it in here …
Will Mentor Engaged in any conversation, engaged in any relation to any topic, there’s always these two things: we have an emotional relationship to it, we have an intellectual relationship to it. So, when we talk about history we ask; how is it a power of the ruling class and how is it not?
DR The Modern doesn’t hang all their Van Gogh’s because they don’t fit into their definition of modernism. They hang all their Cézanne’s because he does.
WM I’m saying when one looks at any act or relationship to history there is that aspect to it which is completely about power brokerage. Someone has more money than someone else. Someone somehow got to a point of power and decided to show those paintings. And fine. I love that kind of reality.
SO One side of history is what we do and the other side of it is what is done to us.
WM I think that most people with street smarts would consider what their relationship to the market is: who’s going to buy it, where you are going to show it, how you are participating in things you don’t want to participate in. And at the same time, you’re in your studio alone. You have a private life going on with a private relationship with your work that is emotional, it’s intuitive, you don’t know what’s going on, it’s—can you get both of those things. Any time you talk about history, anything, you have those two aspects going on.
So where in painting can we find meaning outside of reductive modernism? For myself, the doubt, awkwardness, and schizophrenia produced by living through the end of a system of meaning holds the possibility of meaning in and of itself. That this system is at least in part predicated on my exclusion and lack of representation holds the possibility of passion. And I find the point of identification as I always have, in the physical body. Where does the body and construction of meaning meet?
Here we arrive at specifically the painter’s “problem.” Painting, now in a defensive position, has come, along with abstraction to signify modernism and its value. But painting, the handmade object, was here before modernism. And as long as artists invest in the unique object in any form, painting will be there after. Just as language can be consciously used to undermine its sexist, racist, and colonial constructions, so can painting undermine its own analogous agendas and myths. Within the practice of painting is the possibility of creating modernism, the possibility of criticality, and the potential to investigate the very construction of meaning, its cultural uses and abuses. I believe this is the challenge of painting now.
Gary Stephan I want to know, in fact, what people do to solve these problems in the present. Deb, (Kass) you said in your paper, “what do I do with a history that is not my history?” In a practical way, what do you in fact do to fill in the blanks?
Deborah Kass … I’m born into it. It’s all I have. When it’s all you have, all you can do is try and find a way within it. In fact by being in it and using it, it has to open up, because I’m insisting that it does. To use the vocabulary and reconstitute it to approximate my experience as closely as possible, has to structurally open the vocabulary up.
Lydia Dona One of the writers that I find really interesting as far as being reevaluated through the linguistic attempt of Foucault and Derrida is Georges Bataille. Which is a peculiar re-evaluation of someone who was directly excluded from the surrealist tradition through the Breton Doctrine of what’s right or what’s wrong. In a particular way we can look at this as another equivalent of what’s happened to the Greenbergian Formalism, the kind of rigidity of right or wrong, policemen styles, gestapo orientation.
So in a certain way, the body that is re-entering through Bataille into language starts by being re-evaluated through its own sexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality … the whole aspect that Foucault addresses or accepts or redefines is maybe bringing us to this idea of not relating to the body as is, but redefining the participation of the body as an abstract phenomenon. Which in another way means, really reconnecting the spectator as a part of the Other. So maybe making the painting or making a creativity that is in this kind of language, a recreation of the aspect of experience. Which really engages again, in the question of loss of experience, loss of directness, loss of participation of author, death, etc. I find this whole discussion of what is the body as a specific thing really narrowing the possibility of the body as a participant, because the body is really an abstract concept.
Q We’re talking about the body, we’re not talking about representations of the body.
LD I’m talking about the representation of the body, the abstraction of the representation—the issue of the body as a real thing.
… I’m talking about the recreation of a sexual participation through the sexual, being a regenerative force, not about the elimination of sexuality. Maybe in a certain way, by being a participant in a carnal tradition. Maybe it’s about bringing the possibility of experience back without claiming the smaltz of authenticity, but somehow filling the void. And discussing the possibilities we’ve lost meaning, but what are we going to do, masturbate the whole day? We’ve got to find something to go on, as we are doomed to live.
If the Post-Modern condition can be defined though the collapse of the Grand Narratives such as History, Scientific Euphoria, Truth, God, and Theological Transcendence (the positive sides of consciousness), then Capital, Sex, and Power are the necrophilia of Ultramodernity. This generates the disjunction within the option for a narrative. We are looking then at the body and at the rematerialized space around it which, as a result of the new technologies and the electronic age, become a self-imposed punishment, and a torture system of its own referentiality.
It is clear that because of the modernist shift from being a “production society” to being an “information society,” we have set up the conflicts of the paradigms of progress versus regression and degradation within the Post-Modern syndrome. Therefore, within this posture the body and its disjunction from the text loses its option and validates its reproductive potential as a metaphor. It becomes static, unproductive, and without conflicts.
Declaring the void, and with some important circuits of clashes of lack of originality, the empty attempts to touch upon its own emptiness, concentrating on ready-mades as objects of desire (that do not incorporate a human touch declare the failure of humanism). What remains the only form of interest to criticize and operate within is consumerism and the capitalist “dream.” This form of desire defines itself very specifically in a category which drains desire from the body. The body has lost its awareness of its mortality, as it is born dead into the world, has no gaze, and is optically non visual.
If we are talking about the liquidation of the metaphoric body and the loss of its own image (where the body stands as a mode of different models of social and private functions or branches of information) the image itself is a mirage. The questions of re-duplicating, the real remain semantic, and start to exclude rather than open up the systems and signs. The modes describe rather than inscribe, and neo-utopia replaces the imagistic icon of utopia.
When the body passes through its compositional fractures through the informational fractures and the transparencies of its own architecture, the phase of a post-digital space can allow the body to re-enter the discourse to form the corner of an apparition, and the participation of the spectator.
—Lydia Dona October, 1987
I follow the historian’s definition that the era of modernity spanned the centuries from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. This was the era of western hegemony, of colonial expansion, and of the growth of the state. It was this era that wholeheartedly participated in the idea of progress. I see modernism as a point-of-view that developed in the late 19th century in response to the collapse of modernity’s confidence. Thus the present is still involved with the ideas behind modernism—if modernism is defined as an art of doubt and questioning.
Are we to be troubled that art no longer today refers to the possibility of material and spiritual emancipation? Such utopian art, to my mind, only provided the bourgeois audience with a symbolic resolution of contradictions in capitalist culture that are impossible to resolve in the “real” world. That art no longer offers its audience an impossible promise of emancipation only indicates a new sense of responsibility on the part of the artist and an emancipation for art itself from such a futile role.
David Craven Peter, (Halley) you ended your paper with what I thought was an open-ended discussion which was your notion of responsibility. Actually, I think that has a lot to do with this panel discussion, a sense of sorting out our urgencies about why certain things matter. I would like to ask you, responsibility to whom and how and what will you accept and not accept?
Peter Halley Well, my pet peeve is when the word of the artist or various kinds of art are used as a kind of escape hatch from commodification; that it proposes the elimination of capitalist orders. Art has been used that way ever since romanticism and more and more I feel that art that does that is offering only the illusion of an escape hatch.
Suzanne Joelson The opiate of the people.
PH The opiate of the managers, anyway. And my own concern vis à vis that responsibility is trying to make art that throws these issues back to the realities that they are coming out of rather than offering some elusive solution.
Will Mentor Can you do both?
DC That’s what I was going to say. Are we at a point somewhere between going through huge swings between Greenberg’s notion of autonomy and other people’s notions of collective responsibility? Is that your point?
PH That doesn’t bother me so much. I’m not really complaining about autonomy as opposed to utopianism …
DC But they are both solutions …
Joseph Masheck Because autonomy can still be analogous to individualism. Let’s say it’s still a possible beneficial psychology of what’s autonomous. It doesn’t necessarily mean catatonic.
PH Indeed, or within its own parameters it can also be responsible or nonromantic.
DC Do we have that sense of responsibility as artists? Are we naturally involved in that? Inherently involved in the sense that we can’t divorce ourselves from the aspect of painting within a society that constantly demands messages, sometimes superfluous ones, but also demands from certain “populations,” meaningful ones. And we’re in a position of always having to prove ourselves. Not only to prove to ourselves that we’re not just dumb painters, whatever that means, but there is constantly a stigma attached that carries a passage of expectations through that continuum into the idea of responsibility—that inherently we would, by symbolic messages, ease a capitalist guilt.
We are always within that continuum between public and private issues. I want to find out where the cut-off point is—because I think we’re also dealing with the pressures of expectations from it.
PH Just to go one step further, I’d also say that most of the art I like, at least in the 20th century has seized that sense of responsibility.
DC Who tackled responsibility in the past and how has it entered our present in terms of working on a painting now in our studios. For example, what painters …
JM … have that integrity?
PH Perhaps for all of us, responsible work is Barnett Newman’s. Abstract expressionism in general I think of as trying to tackle issues like that. Ad Reinhardt … The issue is the relationship between responsiblity and a post-utopian line such as post-modernism.
JM The core of the problem that in many ways we may be trying to ask is, is it possible to push integrity against all of the inertia of alienation without that becoming just some kind of useless romantic mush?
Lydia Dona Are you suggesting that utopia and integrity are the same thing?
Stephen Westfall It seems we defend the terms romanticism and modernism against our sense of their narrow utopianism. Certainly, romanticism was not a focused utopian ideology.
JM Escapist, in fact.
SW I’m not even so sure how escapist it was. It rose in response to a dissatisfaction like what’s happening to us today—today it rises up in response to a dissatisfaction—it seems to me that what Peter just said I thought was really nice,—his distinguishing say of post-utopian modernism from a post-modernism. I think we’re in the middle of modernism, and yet we’re having a real hard time sort of seeing over it—it’s the idea that modernism—this word is not just in the hands of Greenberg. This word is not just in the hands …
JM Since everybody shows such an interesting sense of being able to make a distinction between genuine modernity and this fetishized modernism, why don’t we just stop talking about modernism? And let it go away. Mary (Boochever) made this remark: “A good deal of source material is being cut back to the quick and being sentenced to withering doom. Here’s how it relates … whether poetry is still possible or whether all poetry is lies?”