A More Dynamic Canon – by Joseph Bravo
In response to my previous essay titled “The Other Canon,” a question arose regarding the deemphasizing of one aesthetic priority in favor of another. Since the advent of Modernism, this has always been the case. Before the Modern era, the Academy wasn’t so much a place of competing aesthetic priorities and ideas, as a place where people who shared a common set of priorities competed for how well they arguably did the same, or least a substantially similar thing.
As I stated in The Other Canon, with the advent of Modernism a cacophony emerged and with it unprecedented competition for supremacy of aesthetic priorities within Western society. But that competition also emerged among a cohort of bourgeois monopolists who predictably created their own monolithic institutions that favored their aesthetic priorities and historical narratives. They established the parameters of the brand of Modernism and the moving target of a progressive avant-garde.
In the Postwar era the cultural landscape changed. For a time, the Cold War established a context in which the Modernist and avant-garde agenda served a political function in securing the cultural supremacy of Modernism as the official aesthetic of forward-looking liberal capitalism as opposed to an ostensibly backward looking socialist realism. Skilled figurative realism was rebranded by its critics as art of the enemy, either Nazi or Communist. It was dismissed with connotative slanders like “illustrative” or “kitsch” and maligned for its alleged anti-intellectualism and cultural anachronism. Token examples were tolerated so long as their narrative or style was sufficiently transgressive to more conservative tastes. Yet teaching rendering skills largely disappeared from the fine art curriculum and critical theories that would make strong intellectual cases for the continuing cultural relevance of skilled figuration were practically nonexistent. Figurative art theory was essentially an oxymoron. But with the end of the Cold War and the advent of Postmodernism, the underlying political fabric and cultural incentives changed and the Modernist hegemonic agenda came into question.
In the 19th century, precious few people in Western civilization questioned an Academic canon that was largely created by and for European males. But with the changes in culture of the Postwar period, the conservatism of Eurocentric male hegemony even within avant-garde Modernism seemed to be inevitably at odds with emergent multicultural priorities. Marxism morphed in the West to expand its grievances beyond class to race, ethnicity and gender and a Western form of cultural Marxism set its revolutionary critical sights on Modernism and the avant-garde.
One of the problems for the Modernist canon was the linearity of its narrative and the triumphalism inherent in its self-serving tale of its own rise to supremacy. Another problem was the supremacy itself as any hegemonic canon that was promulgated by monolithic institutions funded and dominated by a liberal capitalist bourgeoisie was inherently vulnerable to Marxist critique. Hence, in the contemporary era, especially at the dawn of the 21st century, discourse about whose art is to be afforded the sanctifying auspices of institutional authority has been dominated by discussions of power rather than aesthetics. Consequently, the process of canonization has been unapologetically politicized, often without even the fig leaf of aesthetic priorities. The sociopolitical identity of the artist has become primary as administrators and curators seem ever more aesthetically agnostic and concerned with the political optics of their institutions and gaining prophylaxis from allegedly moral criticism of their curatorial priorities. Museum administrations and university faculties seem to have conceded the point that institutions are epicenters of social power and now see their primary role as to reflect the dominant emergent political narratives in response to an onslaught of sociopolitical criticism. The art itself and its aesthetics have increasingly become secondary and mere instrumentalities in service of socio-political agendas.
The problem for identity oriented Postmodernism is ultimately going to be the same as it was for its Modernist predecessor, namely, the nature of a hegemonic canon itself administered by monolithic institutions in which sociopolitical power is concentrated. Ironically, the Marxist critics seem oblivious to the paradox of their own aspirant triumphalist narrative. Rather than criticizing the concentration of power, they tend to see power as a personnel issue that’s ethical and epistemological challenges can be rectified by positioning the “right” personnel with the “correct” ideological agendas in positions of power. They fail to anticipate the fact that they too will be tempted to abuse their power, will inevitably produce myopic curatorial optics and will author a new triumphalist narrative that is as epistemologically problematic as either its conservative Eurocentric or liberal Modernist precedents.
What all sides, conservative Eurocentric academic, bourgeois liberal Modernist, and revolutionary cultural Marxist Postmodernists all fail to anticipate is a future cultural landscape in which narrative linearity and triumphalism gives way to hypercomplex chaos and a non-hegemonic cacophony of polyphonous voices without an agreed upon dominant epicenter of any kind. This doesn’t mean that each of these emergent aesthetics will be of equivalent cultural resonance or endurance. Rather, their relative influence will tend to be dynamic and transitory, constantly changing in relation to the cultural environment.
Such an anarchic environment is largely inconceivable for those whose conceptual models were derived at the end of the 19th century and centered around hegemonic institutional authority. Whether capitalist or Marxist, dictatorships of oligarchs or dictatorships of proletariats whose priorities are framed by academic elites according to Eurocentric priorities (even if in reaction to them), these hegemonic hierarchical models conceived around centralized authoritarian mechanisms are the legacy of an industrial era and are not sufficiently dynamic to address an emergent Postindustrial society and the fluidity endemic to such a quickly evolving social circumstance.
Hierarchies will be with us for a while longer and those who possess power, as well those who aspire to it, will undoubtedly follow their incentives for as long as the power structures retain their cultural relevance. But those institutional powers have become unwieldy in scale, brittle and inflexible and were designed to serve the needs and priorities of a previous more static era rather than the more dynamic emergent society that will be the product of a post-mass-media age.
An Information Age culture of self-generated media and distribution will be less orthodox, less centralized, more idiosyncratic and virtually impossible to discretely synopsize in a single decipherable cultural narrative. The algorithm of knowledge will increasingly become, and already has become, so hypercomplex that it will unpredictably pivot on cultural strange attractors that catalyze aesthetic trends according to hyper-dynamic contingencies much in the way stories go viral on the Internet regardless of their veracity. This does not mean that we will be necessarily living in a Post-truth Age but that determining a wide-ranging social consensus for what constitutes truth will be increasingly difficult for any authorities to manage.
Power will still tend to concentrate and will still use its resources to try to influence emergent consensus such as it can. Propaganda isn’t going to go away so long as there exists an incentive to produce it. But the producers of propaganda will have more competition than ever before and the self-generation and distribution of media by consumers will tend to make establishing authoritatively dominant narratives more difficult.
Skilled figurative art in all media, including digital, will likely become more ubiquitous and the distinctions between Highbrow and Lowbrow culture will become more opaque. Astute contemporary art connoisseurs already acknowledge that a publication like Juxtapoz is more authoritative on so-called “Lowbrow” aesthetics than Art Forum. Though perhaps less prestigious among elites, publications like Southwest Art, American Art Collector, Fine Art Connoisseur, Hyperallergic, Beautiful Bizarre and a host of others are thriving in an era when more allegedly highbrow art publications are struggling to stay afloat and find audiences. Though you won’t read about their activities in the New York Times or The Guardian, the people who subscribe to these publications also purchase art and their economic activity accounts for more than 50% of the actual art economy.
Yes, billionaires buy more expensive homes, cars, jewelry and contemporary art than other people but they don’t account for the majority of money spent in any of these other markets. Nor do billionaires necessarily have better tastes or are they inherently more intellectual than ordinary people. They just know more about how to accumulate and preserve wealth. But wealth isn’t necessarily the ultimate metric of cultural significance or sophistication. Being able to purchase asset investment advice and then manipulate the market for a relatively small coterie of branded artistic commodities may make them economically relevant but it doesn’t necessarily indicate a wider cultural relevance or intellectual superiority of their tastes. Nor will it likely be a reliable predictor of the enduring cultural resonance of their investments.
People immersed in popular culture realize that MoMA’s, or the Whitney’s credentials for adjudicating the state of contemporary art are increasingly dubious. Contemporary artists are less in need of the sanctifying auspices of a MoMA curator or an Art in America editor than ever before and they can now circumvent these former cultural gatekeepers to reach their own audiences, establish their own cultural constituencies and create their own sufficiently profitable markets without the necessity of a Larry Gagosian. For perhaps the first time in history, artists don’t need the stinking badge of an elite institution and can print their own badges to convey their own legitimacy to their own constituencies who possess their own capacity to evaluate the artworks’ cultural authenticity and technical virtuosity. Contemporary art is becoming more democratic regardless of what the Bluechip art world would have it become. That elite institutional aesthetic is becoming just one more bubble in a bath full of equivalent bubbles and it increasingly represents a less significant indicator of what is actually attaining cultural traction and resonance. Its priorities reflect an increasingly narrow aesthetic microcosm of decreasing cultural pertinence to anyone other than a financial speculator in allegedly Highbrow art commodities.
Skilled figurative realists who can create intriguing narratives also have some particular advantages for gaining an audience much like musicians who have mastered an instrument have advantages over those who haven’t. In a world of flattened hierarchies and hyper-complexity, the skilled artist or musician is on a more level playing field than previous recent generations of artists who could rely on mass media monopolists and institutional authority to secure their reputations and audiences.
They also have another advantage in that human nature tends to favor their aesthetic approach. Humans are both intellectual and emotional creatures. But of these two attributes, emotion is the more powerful behavioral motivator. Contrary to what the Modernist narrative has privileged, the intellectual priorities of academic elites are not necessarily more culturally significant and the presence of sentiment doesn’t actually indicate the absence of profundity. The hyper-intellectualization of art to the point of esotericism has had the perhaps unintended consequence of inviting a superfluity of charlatanism. When ineffable rhetoric supersedes the visual properties of the object then even academics can succumb to the preposterous masquerading as the profound. Just because it is enigmatic doesn’t make it deep even if one can extrapolate some tangential profundity from it through the use of pretentious diction. Conversely, just because the imagery is discernible and the concept is comprehensibly conveyed through the application of skilled technique doesn’t make a work of art shallow or banal nor does it make such work culturally irrelevant. There are plenty of highly skilled realists working in all media and styles who are creating innovative works rich in psychological insights, examining socially relevant subject matter and whose narratives explore concepts that convey profound implications. These artworks often have quite striking visceral appeal and this invites viewers to interrogate the work further thus exploring its meaning in greater depth.
Another advantage of representational art is that it is privileged by evolutionary biology. Human beings have for millennia evolved to recognize the human face and to take particularly detailed notes of the visual attributes of their environment. When artists depict the figure or the natural environment in recognizable ways it is instantly relatable and inspires visceral often subconscious reactions that can be more transcultural than some narrow intellectual hypothesis that requires audiences to have a preexisting initiation into its semiotic code. Esotericism is inherently elitist as well as inherently culturally specific. While perhaps contrary to popular opinion, a great deal of Modernist art was of some intellectual and aesthetic merit and was indeed of legitimate historical significance as a document of the cultural priorities and developments of an era, much of it also had the handicap of being so ineffable as to lack relatability to anyone who was not an intellectual initiate of its arcane philosophical and specialized cultural mysteries. Someone might compose a beautifully profound work of poetry in Esperanto, but if you don’t speak Esperanto it’s gibberish to you. Since the visual language of much of Modernism was to some extent synthetic then those whose visual literacy was limited to more organic modes of visual expression were somewhat disenfranchised by Modernism’s esoteric visual modalities and hence alienated by its indecipherable meanings.
That said, not all figurative art is created equal and not all of it is of equivalent technical virtuosity, cultural relevance or conceptual insight. As with Modernist formalism and Postmodernist conceptual artwork, the vast majority of contemporary realism is mediocre, of unlikely historical significance and will probably never attain an enduring cultural resonance. Most of it isn’t worth a fortune and isn’t worth a second look either. But the most ambitious skilled figurative art is indeed historically important and merits serious consideration. There is a continuing place for connoisseurship in contemporary figurative realisms and for both scholars and collectors who specialize in the various sub-genre of this enduring mode of artistic expression.