Painting As History, 2010

Matt Wycoff

New York painting. Abstract painting. Contemporary painting. Maybe these have all become false categories. Not false in their most literal sense of establishing place, action or time, but false in the sense that as frames of reference they no longer refer to things as much as they have become things – in the same way Modern Art no longer means art made now. Or perhaps the question is less one of truth or falsity, and more one of use-value. Are these designations useful only in reference to past activities? Is their continuance as practice then limited to pastiche? What, after all, is the purpose of the designation, “New York painting”? To my ear, “New York painting” seems primarily an attempt to channel Pollock and the 1950s. The designation “abstract painting” rings equally old-fashioned. Having been set upon by the inevitability of reference and metaphor made apparent by Minimalism and Postmodernism, “abstract painting” strains uncomfortably in reference to more recent non-figuration. Likewise, “Contemporary” seems poised to go the way of “Modern” connoting as it does the crisp self-importance and Matthew Barneyishness of America between the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11th.

What then, in this light, might be the purpose of the designation, painting-as-history? As a frame of reference painting-as-history does not usefully connote art made in a specific place or time, rather, it seems to equate action with temporality itself, with the past. But is it accurate, in this initial approach, to equate history and the past? At the risk of staking this essay on semantics, the past seems to connote fact, actual actions and events, while history is the interpretation and categorization of those events into textbooks, monuments, museums and public memory – into meaning. In this sense “history” is defined as a process, one that encompasses both past and present with an eye toward the inclinations of the future. This is the “history” to which painting is likened in the formulation painting-as-history. And if this process of acknowledging and enacting – selectively cataloging the past and moving forward simultaneously – is a reasonable frame of reference for “history,” I want to also consider it’s usefulness as a frame in reference to a kind of painting happening now.

I’m walking a fine line to say that, on the one hand, certain designations of painting seem to have been reified into static canonical signposts and are no longer useful for defining current activities, and on the other hand to suggest a new signpost which is tied from the beginning to a certain rearward looking. But the phrase painting-as-history is in large part a way to consider the specific nature of that rearward looking, as it pertains to art, and also to art’s relationship to on-going shifts in dynamics of power, economics, technology, interconnection and perception, which together ultimately define the larger import of artworks in culture over and above any particular works individual content. In this sense, the “rearward looking” implied by the phrase painting-as-history is not isolated to looking back at past art, but simultaneously implies a much larger reassessment of human activity over the past fifty or one-hundred years; from how we think about food and the sustainability of the environment to industrial production, globalization and the roles and responsibilities of the corporation and the nation state. In fact it is this overwhelming sense of assessment, of pragmatism in the wake of Modernism’s over-zealous dogmatism and diligence in response to the vague nihilisms of Postmodernism, which, in my view, most defines the sensibility of the designation painting-as-history.

To image the link between art and “the world” this way is in part only a reaffirmation of the ongoing shift away from a Modern art that proclaimed separateness from “the world” by way of the vanguard, to an art that acknowledges the importance of context and its dependence on the movements of the broader culture. The changes attendant to this shift have altered our perception of art, but also of the nature and role of the artist, of individuality more broadly and of our expectations for the future. I have argued in earlier writing that it is the change in our perception of the future that has, to a large degree, made the notion of “the new” seem an impossibility; that, “what has changed is that the future itself is no longer as thrilling a prospect as it once was.” And that, because the idea of “the new” is inextricably tied to the future, “as the future becomes less desirable, the potential for the ecstasy of “the new” diminishes as well.” This diminishing of our hope for the future (and for newness) is a critical aspect of the rearward looking implied by the phrase painting-as-history, but painting-as-history also gives way to a defining sense of realism in which we can no longer invest our lives with the hypothetical – with the promises of the new ¬– and must, in a sense, get down to work.

To be clear, the kind of painting I have in mind is not limited to painting in the most literal sense. The designation painting-as-history stretches to include sculpture, photography, video and performance, as well as digital and other media of all kinds. It is an opening of the canon of “painting” to include the “painterly.” That said, the use of the word “painting” at all in the phrase painting-as-history is nevertheless intended to draw a link to artistic strategies that, on the continuum between form and content, privilege form as an approach to meaning. But as important as considerations of paint or canvas in the specific, or materially historic sense, painting-as-history must first, by definition, be historical. It must in some sense be a cataloging, a taking part and a working in and around (occasionally outside of) certain (often unwritten but generally intuited or otherwise edified) rules – a composing of reference into formal genealogies. Of equal importance, however, (and maybe this goes without saying) that process of cataloging and composing the past must also mark an assertion of particularity, of distinctness. This is to acknowledge tradition and innovation on a similar plane of importance. Painting-as-history is to move in at least two directions simultaneously, both forward and back.

In some sense this multi-directionality is painfully commonsensical, and certainly not profound. In his great concessionary text “Pragmatism,” published in 1907, William James wrote, “New truths are resultants of new experiences and of old truths combined and mutually modifying one another.” Bingo. But to speak of “composing reference” as an artistic method is to acknowledge a far more encompassing Marxist or Rawlsian exteriority at the root of art than is often acknowledged. It is the import of this acknowledgement on artworks, but also on how we see ourselves in relation to the world, that carry the broadest implications for the meaning of art in our time. For example, Judith Butler frames identity itself in terms that are fundamentally compromised in their origins. “If I can address you,” she writes, “I must first have been addressed, brought into a structure of address as a possibility of language before I was able to find my own way to make use of it.” For individuality to be prefaced in this manner by the other is to begin to construct individuality as porous and dependent rather than primarily rights based and autonomous. This shift in the parameters of identity has equally profound impacts on the meaning of art. It is in this sense that painting-as-history considers what might constitute, or be recognized as, an artwork or an identity from within culture, while at the same time considering the implications of those recognitions (and the changes they may enable) on culture.

To conflate cultural identity and art this way poses a question about the implications of expression on conceiving individuality in the first place, and how individuality, once broadly conceived, shapes culture (the structure of possibility for thought and action). That Abstract Expressionism can be seen as an explication of individuality for the spirit of the 1950s, or Romanticism for the second half of the eighteenth century are good examples. To ask whether art or culture leads this relationship is to miss the point somewhat. The transfer between them is a two-way valve.

In, “Postmodernism,” Fredric Jameson spoke of “the metaphysics of inside and outside,” which is to say that to express at all (to project something onto or into the world) presupposes a duality between interior and exterior that is fluid. In many ways this is the role of art, to reside in the space between inside and outside, individual and culture. In this sense Jameson is also alluding to a fundamental philosophical conundrum. Classical philosophers such as Kant and David Hume were largely concerned with the same question of trying to reason the seeming contradiction between subject and object. Their approach was to question whether our thoughts created things or whether things created our thoughts. Marx later dissolved the dichotomy suggesting that thought was itself an object; external to the self, and that the self is comprised of external relations, which hold its illusion together. This is to say that our sense of interiority, our sense of selfhood and being, is wholly comprised of our relationships to others, rather than being exclusively, or inherently, our own possession.

Over the past forty years our cultural concepts of individuality and identity have changed rapidly as the interconnections between our lives and the lives of others have been cast in greater and greater relief. Our sense of responsibility and scale have expanded as we see the implications of our actions reverberate in communities far away, and likewise as others actions in far away places reverberate in our own lives with increasing clarity, force and regularity. But to say that this shift directly affects how we make and look at art is still a somewhat unglamorous proposition. Many still want an art that changes the world, not one that is changed by it. By accepting this kind of anthropological lens, painting-as-history brings the interconnections between expression and culture within the realm of its interest as a precondition for the work, but more importantly as an aspect of the work itself; not as content per say but as material.

There is perhaps no more relevant illustration of the relationship between art and culture as the relationship between late-Modern Art and America in the 1950s. The pursuit of individual independence and power that has come to define Modern Art is a crisp reflection of the thrust of American culture in the same time period. In his essay “History and Class Consciousness,” Georg Lukacs framed individual freedom as a force that “works at overcoming the present.” The self projected by Modern artworks similarly longed to precede history, particularly through the notion of the avant-garde. The new was an assertion of Modern Art’s autonomy from the quotidian, even when the avant-garde manifested as the desire to subsume art back into ordinary life, as with Duchamp.

For Theodor Adorno, Modern Art’s relationship to the new was necessarily prohibitive. In “Aesthetic Theory” Adorno wrote, “Art’s negatively defined search for autonomy through novelty defines achievement as the attainment of novelty; which is equivalent to saying that only what is future, what is not-yet, is art. Hence art cannot be realized.” But Adorno went further to imagine this duality as the precondition for Modern Art – as both prohibitive and constitutive. “An artwork is real only to the extent that, as an artwork, it is unreal, self-sufficient, and differentiated from the empirical world, of which it nevertheless remains a part.” Abstract Expressionism, for example, can be seen on this continuum between “real” and “unreal” as demanding the designation, more real than real. This is about differentiation, not similitude. If Abstract Expressionism was an assertion of a radical individuality, of potency or thrust separating itself from the ordinary or everyday world, then painting-as-history would locate the self in a process of return. This process of return privileges equation more than differentiation, and is part of the ongoing shift in the meaning of art, from an art striving to separate itself from the everyday to one which acknowledges its existence within culture as fundamentally constituent.

This shift is a critical turning away from the new, towards history. Given Adorno’s insistence on art’s constitutive relationship to the new, a renunciation of the new would seem to carry extraordinary weight. But the paradox of art’s larger relationship to the new redirects the sense of moving backward implied by “re-examination.” As with the avant-garde’s attempts to subsume art into life functioning to distance art from ordinary life, painting-as-history is similarly subsumed by the paradox of the new. This is to glimpse the inevitability of the new. Painting-as-history, then, can be seen in the language of an internal critique; one whose failure (the failure to subvert the new) posits it as art (as opposed to activism or politics), but whose account nevertheless bends the linear thrust of the self projected by artworks into something more like a spiral.

From here, painting-as-history can be seen as a question of how one might reconcile the self projected by Modern artworks which purport a disregard for precedent (for history and the other), with its path through Deconstruction and twenty-first century realities such as climate change and over-population (not to mention feminism or Derrida’s implication of fascism in the aspiration towards individual freedom as such)? Jan Verwoert frames the question this way, “How could we develop the ethos of a mode of performance that acknowledges the debt to the other instead of asserting the illusion of the infinite potency of the self?” If painting-as-history is in part a return to Modernism (to the dialogue of the new), then part of the answer to Verwoert’s question can be found in the act of return itself, rather than its particular destination. The act of return, of re-investigation or re-examination (of looking intently, or searching), becomes the anthropological site of meaning – a place where a distinct individuality or artwork might appear, but also the structure through which it comes to be.

In some sense, this kind of realization can be conflated with the larger project of Postmodernity ¬– a second order attempt to reconcile the failures of Enlightenment (liberal, rights-based individualism and the promise of freedom from tyranny) first borne out by Modernism. This, “second try” aspect of Postmodernism is to begin an account of Modernism’s rage and Postmodernism’s irony. Hal Foster delineates this difference between Modern and Postmodern strategies as art which seeks to “compel conviction” versus one which seeks to “cast doubt”. Along this dichotomy I see painting-as-history acting to compel conviction rather than cast doubt. I also see it as seeking, like Modernism, an essentiality. Why it is not simply a return to a Modernist style is that the essence it seeks is decidedly conditional, and its “conviction” (or belief in a distinct practice of art) does not come at the cost of its isolation from, or irrelevance to, culture or “the world.”

If the return to Modernism is a constituent aspect of painting-as-history so is, for example, its return to Minimalism and Conceptual Art, both of which were largely concerned with positioning the subject in relation to Deconstruction. But whereas Deconstruction spoke of the death of the author, painting-as-history acknowledges the boundaries and contingencies of the artwork, individuality and authorship drawn by Deconstruction, Minimalism and Postmodernism, while at the same time retaining something essentially Modern. In light of all these “returns” one might feel a certain amount of stagnation. But seeing the designation painting-as-history as part of what has been termed “a feedback loop of infinite regress” is only to further reiterate its dependence on art history. That it might be more accurate to imagine its indebtedness closer to the spirit of Hal Foster’s model of return in his genealogy of the recurrent avant-garde is an apt illustration of Postmodernism’s contested relationship with history. But the perception of aimlessness in much Postmodern, or Contemporary, art might begin with a failure to frame history as a material rather than a given linearity or mere index for the new.

To speak of history as a material is to approach it with diligence rather than apathy, irony or indifference. This diligence could be imagined as the performance of debt, a phrase that implies the consideration of precedence or what is owed, but also an active carrying on. This is to see history as both material (what exists prior to and sets the conditions for action) and process (the manipulation of material or action itself). If art’s relationship to the new sustained its distance from the quotidian (from history), then to return art to “history” as such is also to collapse this distance. In this way painting can claim its relationship to culture as both cause and effect. In some ways this is to risk art becoming a kind of mechanistic or propagandistic enterprise (something with a direct cause and effect, or use value), in the same way that Modern art risked irrelevance for art’s autonomy. But it is likewise to acknowledge this risk as fundamentally constitutive of art in our time.

To assess the relationship between art and “the world” with the phrase, painting-as-history is also to suggest that the phrase itself provides some insight for cordoning off artistic activity taking place now, without unnecessarily constraining the activity itself. If the phrase “cordoning off” conjures the yellow tape or chalk outlines of a crime scene perhaps that accurately lends to the sense of cautious searching inherent to the activity I’ve tried to frame-in here. Likewise, referring to a kind of art making as, “the activity,” is similarly indicative of trepidation. Indeed to say anything about art is fraught. I imagine the subtle, ever more precise movements and shifts I characterize here as a kind of horizontal movement, not only in two directions, but in many directions simultaneously. The results of this lateral movement are artworks that seem more aware, closer to embodying the contradictions that enable them, and more conscious of the repercussions that flow from them. As such, they approach what is an ultimately uniterable confluence of cause and effect – the incomprehensible center to which language and reason are drawn but can only orbit. This “uniterability” is, after all, what makes them works of art as opposed to propaganda or instruction manuals. Particularity, then, whether identity or art work, is never something to be inhabited or definitively imaged. Painting-as-history is not to advocate for what individuality or art should be, but to image a process through which they might be.

1 Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 53
2 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991), 11
3 Georg Lukacs, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1971), 316
4 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 191
5 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 279
6 Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 40
7 Jan Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance,” Art Sheffield 08: Yes No and Other Options (2008): 102
8 Foster, The Return of the Real
9 Jerry Saltz, “Reconstruction Zone,” The Village Voice (June 6, 2006)
10 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), 1-32

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