The Avant-Garde and the Delusion of American Exceptionalism, “Blood-drenched Brushes and Golden Easels”
Three Essays on the Limits of Postmodernism after November 2016
“Blood-drenched Brushes and Golden Easels”
Does the art world bear any responsibility for the rise of right-wing nationalism?
Prior to Brexit and the 2016 American presidential election, the question could be dismissed with postmodern nonchalance. It can no longer be avoided, especially if France veers to the extreme Right and others follow the United Kingdom in abandoning the European Union. Furthermore, has the West ceased to believe in the Enlightenment? If that is true, then modernity is indeed over. The Western liberal democracies that kept the global peace while giving rise to the liberation movements we take for granted will surrender to fascism and to a combination of religious fanaticism and anti-humanism. The irony is not lost on writers such as Salman Rushdie and other cosmopolitan intellectuals who know the dangers and sometimes pay with their lives for being genuinely multicultural and therefore capable of thinking critically about everything, including their identities. Under the circumstances, the two questions assume a sense of urgency unknown in the arts since the 1930s, a period when many artists failed to see the Fascist and Stalinist threats while those who fought against the totalitarians either died or had to flee. Have we reached that point?
Addressing the issue fully would require multiple volumes and a perspective not yet available in 2017. Nonetheless, a number of signs pointed to the debacle. The most obvious and easy to attack was the rise of the United States as the preeminent global power after World War II. Critics ranging from Herbert Marcuse to Susan Sontag and Angela Davis to Noam Chomsky pointed to American economic, political, and military power as the primary cause of the world’s ills. Some of their criticism was accurate and well deserved while most was ideologically driven nonsense that overlooked the complexities of the post-war world. For example, who could have predicted, during the Cultural Revolution, that Communist China would become, through mostly capitalist means, the world’s second largest economy in the early twenty-first century? Who could have imagined at the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that the Soviet Union would disappear in 1991 or that Bolshevism would metamorphose into neo-Tsarist industrial feudal- ism replete with a former KGB agent’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. How did the muscular, self-reliant feminism of Betty Friedan devolve into whiny, self-pitying demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings. Why did the secular Arab nationalism of Nasser and the early Arafat give way to Islamist imperialism? Lastly, could any comedian have foreseen that someday the most extreme American liberals would embrace the flag, praise the CIA, and call for a president to be tried for treason due to allegations of collusion with the Russians?
Given these tragicomic twists, Surrealism should be revisited as the one art movement that could have understood the beauty of the pseu- do-drama by stating, Ceci n’est pas un président, or, Ceci n’est pas une identité. If only Magritte were still alive, what would he have made of all this? In truth, not much: Surrealism may have played with the absurd, but the artists themselves were firm- ly grounded in reality. From the 1960s onward, the artists became increasingly solipsistic and absurd while their art moved from the studio to Wall Street as exotic yet often unseen commodities. Duchamp noted the shift when he said, “And then, of course, there is the terrific commercialization. So many artists, so many one-man shows, so many dealers and collectors and critics who are just lice on the back of the artists. […] But today the artist is integrated, and so he has to be paid, and so he has to keep producing for the market. It’s a vicious circle. And the artists are such su*reme egos! It’s disgusting.”1 When those “supreme egos” eventually found validation in the slogan “the personal is political,” the results were disastrous for what little remained of modernist integrity.
Of course, the personal is not automatically political, aesthetic, or even worthy of discussion. Blurring the line between politics and private life erodes the crucial distinction between personal responsibility and collective brutality. It can lead to a non-committal postmodern version of the war criminal whose only defense is that he “followed orders.” It also belongs to a tradition that in modern times justified the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the murderous excesses of the Russian Revolution, and the genocidal frenzy of the Nazis. All three spoke for the oppressed and their personal narratives, and all three butchered in their name. It should be noted that, as with the intercession of saints, the oppressed are merely a tool for access to power. Once the revolution triumphs, they become expendable.
When the art world embraced Jean-François Lyotard’s micro-narrative, it opened a portal to the hypersensitive universe of “alternative facts” and paved the way for the triumph of inductive reasoning at the heart of today’s progressive politics and right-wing conspiracy theories. Whether the boogeyman was the Western patriarchy or Islam made no difference. Dark forces lurked behind every bush in order to victimize women, people of color, sexual minorities, and God-fearing WASPs. Until that moment, artistic subjectivity had exist- ed against a canonical backdrop that provided context, precedent, and resistance. One could rebel against the canon, but one could not escape it. Modernism could be personal without being solipsistic. The cult of the self had limits grounded in objective reality. Even the Dadaists understood that there was a barrier between self-aware irrationality and insanity. That barrier disappeared with the sloppy application of postmodern theories that did not work as socio-aesthetic solutions.
Predictably, the resulting chaos invited absolutist fanatics and opportunistic demagogues who offered concrete answers as an antidote to the relativistic vacuum. While the art world masturbated in front of an audience, the “deplorables” organized, bought guns, lied to pollsters, prayed, waited, and unleashed their fury on Election Day. Yes, the new administration lost the popular vote, but under the American electoral system it was a minor detail. In the end, the votes that truly counted were found in states that a smug and snobbish coastal bourgeoisie dismissed as backward and irrelevant. History was on the side of the first woman president. Hegel had spoken: there could be no other outcome. Everyone, it seems, had forgotten the lessons of the twentieth century. Unfortunately for the Hegelians, reality does not know the meaning of teleology.
If traditional socialism emphasized discipline, stoicism, and hard work as a means to personal and collective good health, then the sixties became a validation of self-pity, self-indulgence, and entitlement maintained through the work of others. The ensuing half-baked Dionysian-Christian-Marxist ideology of debauchery and revolutionary utopianism would, by the twenty-first century, celebrate weakness, illness, and despondency. American postmodernism had rejected Emersonian emotional and moral self-reliance along with the Marxian insistence on the dignity of labor. Yet leftist contempt for the working class did not emerge from twenty-first-century narcissism. It was already evident with the rise of Pop Art in the sixties when seemingly overnight a tribe of passionless esthetes eclipsed the working stiffs of Abstract Expressionism. Pollock never trusted his wealthy patrons: Warhol wooed his like a eunuch in the Forbidden City while playing the liberal with an occasional political piece. His legacy lingers in the obsession with sales, wealth, and fame. Art sells for ever-higher prices while having ever-lower value, as witnessed by the yawn with which what passes for a cultural elite has responded to the destruction of Palmyra and other ancient sites throughout the Middle East.
By the 1970s, the counterculture had split into three branches: the first produced the creative explosion in science and technology that led to the digital revolution of the twenty-first century; the second expanded the commercialization of a once vibrant and original popular culture; and the third infiltrated academia to dismantle critical thinking through the denigration of the Western Canon, the promotion of identity politics, and the implementation of draconian speech codes. The world of high art became a hybrid of the three branches and attached itself to business and government “by an umbilical cord of gold.”
From 1968 onward, the working class would be reduced to a theoretical concept for the aesthetic Left, and it would never be invited to the reception except to serve the vegan canapés and clean the mess. Meanwhile, as the art world protested from the comfort of New York and San Francisco, steelworkers, coal miners, waitresses, farmers, janitors, and maids sent their sons to Vietnam. If the Chicago police turned on the demonstrators with hatred and ferocity during the 1968 Democratic convention, it was in part because the proletarians in its ranks were fed up with the false Left. Unfortunately, only the Right understood the political meaning and potential of an event it exploited with cynical mastery. The Left has yet to grasp its significance as the moment when the working class that had backed FDR and won World War II lost faith in the party of its parents. To this day, the only explanations heard in liberal circles resort to the reductive standbys of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. No, the brushes may not be drenched in blood, but they are far from clean.
Jorge Miguel Benitez Essay 1
Jorge Miguel Benitez holds a master of fine arts degree in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University where he currently teaches drawing, art theory and the history of visual communications. He currently participates in regional and international exhibitions. His work is represented in corporate collections and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Volume 31 no. 4 March / April 2017 pp 13-15