a bit more thought…

Only with hindsight can we now see that tradition and authority may be necessary, even to make a genuine avant-garde possible – in order to provide something to revolt against. ~ Suzi Gablik “Has Modernism Failed”

Suzi Gablik’s book continues to revisit the necessity of tradition. As one without an art background, it had me wondering what exactly is taught in an academic program. If the evolution of art is taught, is that enough, or do students need to attempt old technique in order to gain insight to the new ways. If one is never to be a painter, must they paint?

Perhaps this has nothing to do with the argument at all, but I could not help but question this while watching a Coursera lecture via CalArts on Art History. The Provost teaching it has taken an amazing array of art eras in her lectures in order to make certain points. It helped me to realize that there is a lot going on in the art world -what may seem ridiculous or without purpose, which very much as purpose if you understand their point. That said, if art is making a point about art tradition and it gets lost on the viewer was it successful?

Gablik’s final chapter uses an example of an artist whom she feels is approaching art with ‘spiritual dignity’. What is interesting is this artist is someone whom I’ve oft admired, but knew not his background. German artist, Anselm Kiefer, does create artwork that has a point. The piece I visit every time at our local art centre is a massive composition of a train yard – from that muted train yard there is a ladder that rises up from the canvas, from it hangs a bronzed ballet slipper. The first time I saw this piece, as a teenager, I knew it was a statement about the Holocaust without any context beyond what hung before me. It is a beautifully depressing piece that reimagines the traditional canvas – it takes history and makes it modern.

I would love to say, as Gablik seems to be, that art such as Kiefer is the art to strive to produce because it helps to meld art, society and a spiritual nature, but I cannot. While I strongly believe that purposeful art is a healing tool for our culture and society, it cannot be limited to such a degree. I hope to explore this more, but not tonight…. your thoughts are always welcome. ~ a


Leave a comment


  1. It’s hard to respond to a book I haven’t read. For example, she likes Keifer – who does she not like, who’s an example of what she thinks is wrong, has failed?

    I do know that at the time the book was published the term “postmodernism”, which had been around for a while, was moving fast to a place of prominence in art nomenclature. There was a powerful feeling amongst visual artists that the avant-garde attitudes of modernism were no longer relevant. You could say that modernism’s success became its “failure” — all of the icons that needed smashing had been smashed, there was no need to go on chomping in a vacuum. This led a lot of people to say we were now beyond modernism, but since no one knew what to call it, the term “postmodernism” was used. The term has always been problematic, and many brilliant things have been written about this nebulous, neither-here-nor-there area. All of this doubt and questioning opened up the possibility of taking a larger view of art history. And this is where it becomes very exciting to me. A closer look at many of the great modern artists shows that they had been “post” all along. One sees that throughout the history of modern art there have been artists with a more limited view, those trapped in ideological battles (my Ism is better than your Ism — one might say their modernism has failed), and those with a much larger view who, with de Kooning, dipped into a vast bowl of alphabet soup and spooned out the letters they wanted.

    I maintain that Andy Warhol was a great artist. imitating his moves (rather than the spirit that animated them) is a miserable failure.

  2. Such a great comment, Mark. You know, she never does name names per se. Your comment made me think of a brief video I watched regarding Matisse’s Red Studio – how he was very cutting edge, how brave he was to be self referential, not to mention how bold it was for an artist to take apart the tradition of art layer by layer. You are so much better versed regarding ‘isms’ and movements that I can only agree with what you have posted. I’m inspired to pick up a book I own called “The Neutral” – way beyond my mind, but if I could grasp just a little… ~ a

  3. angela: I’m quite struck by your observation, “While I strongly believe that purposeful art is a healing tool for our culture and society, it cannot be limited to such a degree.” I’m not sure if this is what you were thinking when you wrote it, but what I take from it is the idea about which we’ve had a conversation before: art cannot be merely purposeful. It is the product of an internal creative drive. That it might be healing is a side-effect, not its raison d’ĂȘtre. Or so it seems to me.


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