by Cindy NemserMarch 9, 2012
In the wing mirror of the passenger side of a vehicle, objects are closer than they appear.
The texts re-published in the Rearview series are those that we wish to draw attention to perhaps because they reveal certain “blind spots” in contemporary art criticism. Each month, these “found” reviews (indeed, quasi-artifacts) will be prefaced by one of our writers.
Cindy Nemser’s “The Art of Frustration” warrants a second take because of her critical view onto a time period that is now fetishized almost blindly. At hand of what is most likely the exhibition “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum in 1969, the review reveals a writer coming to terms with the birth of conceptual and process art. Linking both conceptual and process art’s inherent critique of the art “establishment” to the student revolts of the time, Nemser identifies a lack of influence as the root of the frustration. Nemser claims that this privation leads to a self-referential system of art as entertainment that vies for attention via shock while no longer carrying any greater relevancy. Significantly, she doesn’t mention a single artist by name nor does she focus in depth on any of the work. Whether or not one agrees with her sweeping criticism, this type of writing, detached from formal concerns, favors a socio-political analysis that links artistic strategies to measures beyond the art world. Pitching art against technology, Nemser says, “The greatest example of art today is to be found in the IBM building,” a statement which after 40 years still leaves a sting.
“The Art of Frustration”
Last year, on entering a well-known museum, I encountered large chunks of melting ice which blocked my passage, and to get around them I had to wade through a sea of rotting leaves. On gaining the entrance and heading towards the check room, I tripped over a large square of cyclone fencing lying flat on the floor and almost broke my leg. On being told that these artifacts were part of an exhibition of conceptual and process art, I made my way to the fourth floor to behold the rest of the objects featured in this show. As nothing is really capable of eliciting surprise or shock from the seasoned reviewer, I was not taken aback to find myself wandering about amidst masses of mutilated hay, strung-out fiberglass, neon tubing, poorly constructed wooden scaffolding, and even bowls of dog food. Why not? To anyone familiar with the goings-on of the art season just past, this show was the logical culmination of the season’s activities. During the past year, I had surveyed rooms filled with cotton threading, graphite sweepings, air currents, and just plain motionless air. I had also examined walls with newspaper clippings tacked on to them, walls with plaster removed, and walls and floors piled high with grease rocks and even worm-infested dirt. After all that, why not the big museum extravaganza?
A much more difficult question arose in my mind while I was gazing at this perplexing display, a question that has been nagging at me each time I see a larger and wilder display of raw and synthetic materials. If this is art (and it must be, since it is in a museum), just what is it about? The catalogue which accompanied this exhibition stressed that these works had been created right in the museum and were the direct results of the artists’ spontaneous movements. Since so much of the work had to do with the artists’ personal gestures and private conceptions, I decided that an examination of the artist himself might be of great assistance in understanding what his art was trying to communicate. It seemed to me that a deeper comprehension of his social, political, and economic situation might enable a critic like myself to evaluate better the results of this kind of creative effort.
In subsequent meetings with many young so-called “conceptual” or “process” artists, I discovered that, like the students, they were supported by the upper middle class Establishment. Liberal teaching institutions, up and recently downtown galleries, and large industrial concerns act like fond surrogate parents making it possible for their progeny to follow their artistic fancies and experiment with any material or concept that ignites their curiosity. Often these patrons refrain from even intruding personally upon the artist. One young creator of plastic objects admitted that he had only seen the owner of his gallery once over a period of several years; this meeting took place at a large cocktail party given at the man’s apartment.
The leading conceptual artists, again like the university student leaders, are the products of a superior education and live in an environment that is replete with all material goods needed for economic security. Few of these young male artists living in New York are faced with economic deprivation. They live in an insular community, in comfortable lofts, near one another, and seldom need to worry where their next meal is coming from.
Nevertheless, despite this economic security that enables them to experiment with any forms, materials, or methods they choose, these artists have no more respect for or gratitude towards the Establishment than do the insurgent students who appear to be their counterparts. They say the art world is corrupt, and they continually express their contempt for everything it stands for, even as they accept its blessings. Why should artists who are actually making it with the Establishment, be so riddled with resentment towards it?
Since these artists appeared to have so much in common with the university rebels, I wondered if a theory put forth to explain student dissent might not shed light on the motives behind the artists’ belligerent impulse to bite the art Establishment hand that feeds them. According to many social commentators, one of the major causes of the students’ dissatisfaction is their inability to exert any influence on the way our society functions. They have no power to make decisions or direct events which are of immediate concern to them. These students know they are economically secure, but socially and politically bereft. If this is the true state of affairs, one can understand why students of today’s world are impatient with their impotent position.
Artists today are in a similar position. Up until the industrial revolution the artist was the form-giver to the most essential ideas of his culture. His products were of the utmost importance to the members of the power elite. With the introduction of mechanization, the artist was forced to relinquish his vital function to the scientist and technologist, and from that time on, art has played no major role in the social structure. For Barbara Rose to maintain that art has assumed the burdens of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is now tossing them off, is absurd.(1) After all, religion in its heyday reached masses of people and played an essential role in ordering their everyday lives. Modern art has never come anywhere near to playing this role. Most people are only vaguely aware of the art of any period, and as for contemporary art, they are, for the most part, indifferent towards it. The public wants museums as a source of amusement and diversion. For the rich, art is a sophisticated form of entertainment not to be found on the television or cinema screen.
A close look at the functionings of the art world unveils it for the manufacturer of entertainments that it is. Dealers encourage artists to work in ever new, more radical styles in order to catch the attention of the novelty seeking collectors and museums. Museum curators, who measure their success in terms of attendance figures, in turn welcome any radical art that comes their way, as they continually need new lures to catch the fancy of the jaded public constantly demanding “something new.” It is no coincidence that museums are listed under the entertainment sections of tourist guide magazines along with cinema, theatre, and local zoos. Nor is it surprising that many critics, whose main function is to promote this novelty art, had to invent a formalistic jargon that would impress the pleasure-seeking public without giving them anything much to think about.
Many artists today are aware of the peripheral position art holds. Some turn back to older narrative traditions and do figurative art. However, their work is outdated, as it has been superseded by the camera. Others continue to utter rebellious cries in the manner of the early expressionists. They are the angry voices wailing alone in the wilderness. Many others, following the footsteps of Seurat, are still trying to embrace technology. However, so ill equipped are they for this task, that the results of their efforts are feeble. How can they compete with technology when their training and financial backing in most technological fields is so insignificant? The only valid use so far found for technological art is its entertainment value. It has been used to provide diverting visual patterns on major television networks.
Some of the artists involved with process and conceptual art realize the futility of personal expressions of anguish, and they also see the hopelessness of the mad rush to marry with technology. These young people are most acutely aware of the terrible dilemma in which art finds itself today. They know that art cannot usurp the place of technology and science in our materialistic culture. They also realize that no one really cares about expressionistic statements. If people can ignore realistic photographs of the horrors perpetrated in Viet Nam and Biafra, what degree of feeling can painted canvases produce? These young artists, some of the most sensitive, intelligent, spoiled, and frustrated individuals of our day, are tormented by the desire to express their sense of alienation, outrage, and misery towards a materialistic world that has transformed the artist into a court jester. How to express their frustration? The answer: lash out at the public in ways guaranteed to attract its attention. Reveal that you know the public has only given the concept of art lip service for years. Stick out your tongue at the amusement seekers who have been kidding themselves into believing they have been visiting museums to attain “culture” when they only wanted distraction. Turn the museum into a shambles of dirt, grime, and refuse. Pretend you are supplying high art, when you are only delivering the waste products of a viciously destructive environment. Deprive the dealers of consumer goods that can be sold as art, but supply the media with plenty of novelty news strictly for laughs.
This is precisely what these conceptual artists are doing, and though they kid the press, the public, and sometimes even themselves as to their motivations, their feelings are revealed in their art, their actions, and their life style. They dress like hippies: long beards, long hair, mod and work clothes abound. They talk either tough and rebellious or detached and cerebral. Often they are surly in public situations, but in private they cling to each other and to the art Establishment like frightened children. They have nothing else. Forced into the role of entertainers, they need the dealers, the rich collectors, and, above all, the media to keep them going. (Some galleries even supply them with public relations people.) Caught between rage and dependency, they strike out whenever possible, but they still know which side their bread is buttered on. One artist associated with a prominent so-called “far out” gallery vehemently urged his fellow artists to withdraw their works from museums and galleries. The next month he had his annual one-man show at the aforementioned Establishment.
Actually this sort of inconsistency is a direct result of the terrible impasse art has reached. These intelligent, educated, and affluent young artists, raised in a democratic idealistic milieu, cannot accept being the entertainers and decorators of the rich as the sum total of their importance. Once again, like the students, they are furious at being in an impotent position. However, older and more experienced than the students, they also know that outside of this position they have no importance at all.
Some critics have interpreted the activities of these artists as a new and radical challenge to the traditional conceptions of art. Actually, these process and conceptual artists are only another milestone along the road artists have been treading for the past hundred years. Traditional art was under attack as soon as its function was usurped by technology.
The most vital art of our present civilization is not to be found in the museums or art galleries. If we go back to the broader, earlier definition of art which states that art is both “skill in performance acquired by experience, study, or observation,” and “human ingenuity in adapting natural things to man’s use,” then the greatest example of art today is to be found in the IBM building. After all, the highest art of every era was a concrete embodiment of the ideas and values that civilization most respected. The Egyptian pyramids were vast monuments to the spiritual beliefs that controlled every phase of Egyptian life. The same could be said for the Greek temple, the medieval cathedrals, and the sixteenth and seventeenth century churches and palaces. Today technology rules our lives, and its tremendous force takes the forms of gigantic rocket ships and mammoth com-puters. This realization does not hold out much hope for the future of art, as we know it, as an important influence on society. Indeed, it is apparent that museum art is experiencing its final death throes at this very moment. As it grasps for breath, one cannot blame the most sensitive and vigorous of its practitioners for trying to revenge themselves on the materialistic society that has made them members of a dying race.
(Originally published Art Education, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Feb., 1971), pp. 12-15)
(1) Barbara Rose, “Problems of Criticism VI: The Politics of Art, Part III,” Artforum, Vol. VII, No.9, May, 1969, p. 50.
- 1Rafael Ferrer, Untitled, 1969. "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials" Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 19-July 6, 1969. Photo courtesy of Rafael Ferrer. Photo by Peter Moore © Estate of Peter Moore/Licensed by VAGA, NYC.
- 2Rafael Ferrer, Untitled, 1969. "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials" Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 19-July 6, 1969. Courtesy of Rafael Ferrer.
- 3View of, "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 19-July 6, 1969. Left to right: Richard Serra, Casting, 1969; Eva Hesse, Expanded Expansion, 1969; Carl Andre, Untitled, 1969; Robert Lobe, Untitled, 1969; Rafael Ferrer, Untitled, 1969; Keith Sonnier, Double Loop, 1969; Keith Sonnier, Lit Circle, 1969; Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969. Photograph by Peter Moore.
- 4View of, "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 19-July 6, 1969. Left to right: Keith Sonnier, Double Loop,1969; Keith Sonnier Lit Circle, 1969; Keith Sonnier, In Between, 1969; Keith Sonnier, Flocked Wall, 1969. Photograph by Peter Moore.
- 5View of, "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 19-July 6, 1969. Clockwise from center: Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969; Keith Sonnier, Flocked Wall, 1969; Bruce Nauman, Performance Corridor, 1969; Robert Rohm, Untitled, 1969; Eva Hesse, Untitled (Ice Piece), 1969; Richard Serra, Casting, 1969. Photograph by Peter Moore.
DUNDEE CONTEMPORARY ARTS, Dundee
MUSEO TAMAYO, Mexico City
INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART AT VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY, Richmond