May 25, 2008

Interrogating the End of Art

Filed under: Abstraction,Theory — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 11:53 am

Berlin Biennial 08 Skulpturenpark sculptureIn my last post I mentioned that I was disappointed to find that the venerable American art critic Donald Kuspit had beat me to the post with the title of his book “The End of Art”.  Even before I read Kuspit’s book, however, I knew that it was antithetical to the position that I would take.  Kuspit is a follower of a conservative  apotheosis of modernist abstraction theorised and championed by the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg. In this post I will engage in a critical enquiry into aspects of Kuspit’s position.

 Cover for catalogue for Modern Starts: People, Places, Things, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2000. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Cover of the exhibition catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1936. 

The first chapter of Kuspit’s book  focuses on an exhibition in 2001 at the Museum of modern Art in New York entitled Modern Starts. The aim of this exhibition was to  deconstruct the ism-based taxonomy of modernist abstraction outlined by the first Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr (click image above right). For his critique Kuspit uses a criticism of the exhibition authored by the pioneer of Minimal Art Frank Stella who Kuspit describes as “one of the luminaries of American abstract art”. Kuspit quotes Stella:

“This exhibition,” Stella asserts, “neither re-evaluates nor re-interprets; it simply plays around with the collection in the spirit … of some fashionable act of de-legitimisation of the ideas of greatness, genius, and uniqueness that the collection embodies”. (in Kuspit 2004: 4)

After reading some reviews of the exhibition, notably one by Hal Foster (Foster 2000) it does appear that Modern Starts was a particularly poor exhibition. But this is not really the point. In the context of The End of Art Modern Starts becomes a straw man that can be used in an argument that points to a broader degeneration of fine art. My criticisms are not, therefore, specifically related to Modern Starts but rather to the issues raised by Stella and Kuspit’s critical commentary.  Given that Stella is fundamentally correct  in perceiving Modern Starts to be a poor show what is more interesting is that his criticism reveals is a position remarkably similar to that of Kuspit and by extension Clement Greenberg.

Stella’s criticism indicates a belief in the concept of artistic genius; a notion which, of course, reflects upon his own  privileged position  within ism-based art history. Stella seems seduced by the promise of immortality bestowed by art history which explains his Greenbergian defence of this institution. Kuspit’s focus on Stella also indicates, in retrospect, that the attempts by the intellectually sophisticated critics of the New York October group were patriotically sophistic when they claimed that American minimal art was fundamentally postmodern and thoroughly distinct from European abstraction of the early 20th-century.

That analysis, epitomised by Rosalind Krauss’ “LeWitt in Progress” (1978), always sounded somewhat suspect to my ears, and in the light of Stella’s comments it becomes even more dubious. One thinks also of a famous interview in 1966 in which Frank Stella and Donald Judd, speaking to Bruce Glaser, strategically mapped out the difference between their brand of American geometric abstraction and the discourse of European geometric abstraction that preceded (and obviously influenced) them. The knockdown argument was that early 20th-century geometric abstraction was Cartesian, which suggested that Stella and Judd were post-Cartesian (Stiles 1996: 118). But when we find Stella elevating the ego to the condition of genius that seems distinctly Cartesian to me.

What Kuspit and Stella do not, and perhaps cannot, do is address and understand why one would want to deconstruct the hierarchical canon of modern art history. I can pose three reasons: firstly, because such classifications are intrinsically artificial; secondly, they are excluding (the instance of women is outstanding); thirdly, when historical art is prepackaged in neat and tidy categories it becomes almost useless as a creative stimulus for contemporary practitioners, or as a source of food for thought for art theory. Art history poses as objective but in fact its taxonomies are fundamentally fabricated. Instead of trying to understand why anyone might question the hierarchical taxonomies of art history we see Kuspit stooping to boo-word arguments by citing the Director of the Museum of Modern Art Glenn Lowry  expressing the opinion that “art is entertainment”.

At face value that utterance might sound like a devastating indictment of the postmodern turn, but why shouldn’t art be entertainment? Shakespeare when originally performed was most definitely entertainment. And it is interesting to note that the Greenbergian art theorist Michael Fried attacked minimal art on the basis that it was too “theatrical”,  as if theatre were somehow lesser form of art than painting or sculpture.

Kuspit also notes that Stella finished his tirade against Modern Starts by stating that “MoMA has become a Center of Cultural Studies.” Kuspit strategically reports that MoMA director Lowry agrees with a “benign smile,” (Kuspit 2004: 8). For Kuspit and Stella cultural studies are anathema—one wonders whether they have ever heard of pop art, collage, the Readymade, or the use of photography and video in art. Cultural studies is a revolutionary intellectual framework that is more broad reaching than art history, due to the fact that it is interdisciplinary. Cultural studies is also informed by much more sophisticated theoretical frameworks (Frankfurt School theory, structuralism, poststructuralism) compared with the nineteenth century romanticist adulation of genius espoused by Kuspit and Stella.

Stella and Kuspit also fails to recognise that cultural studies is fundamentally critical. What is precisely missing from conventional art history is self-criticism. Conventional art history takes for granted notions of genius and the canon, whereas cultural studies is deeply critical of such notions. One gains some insight into the intellectual paucity of Kuspit’s thinking when he states that postmodern art:

has also been undermined by the belief that all one has to do is have a “concept” to be an artist, which suggests that the concept of artist, as well as of art, has lost clear meaning. This is why so many people think of themselves as artists, for everyone, after all, has a favorite “concept,” especially about some person, place, and thing they know. (2004: 8)

This is the most banal concept of “concept” that one could possibly think of. It also indicates a total lack of understanding of the history of conceptual art. So what is a better concept of concept? From the point of view of postmodern theory, semiotics and cultural studies one can point to ideas of metaphor, deconstruction, transposition, recombination, and bricolage. Notions of which Kuspit appears to have little awareness. He prefers to flaunt vaguenesses such as “aesthetic experience” which he defines in terms of an “altered state”, no less. And the fact that Kuspit puts this forward as an answer to society’s ills is so politically naive that it underscores his lack of intellectual prowess when contrasted with the postmodern theorists he decrys in The End of Art.

Kuspit’s concept of creativity is locked in a romantic notion of genius that would fare better in the nineteenth century. A postmodern theory of creativity appropriate to the twenty-first century needs to be much more democratic due not only to urban massification but also the increasingly globalised culture we are living in. The notion of genius which is the bedrock of Kuspit’s old-school standpoint is of little use now as a foundation for aesthetic judgement. Kuspit’s romanticist position is focused on individual genius and utterly antagonistic to a progressive approach to the long-standing problem of addressing the role of art in society.

Kuspit’s focus on genius and the healing power of High Culture is actually a totally ineffective means of bringing art into life in the context of postmodern culture. In Kuspit’s romantic-aestheticist model it is the genius who produces the extra-ordinary aesthetic object and the especially sensistive individual (like Kuspit) who is capable of appreciating it, due to a capacity for “the aesthetic experience”. A similar model can be found in Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1977 orig. 1911) which is an expression of the 19c romanticism that motivated the Symbolist movement. It is a model that is utterly redundant in the context of postmodern culture.

For a considerably more theoretically sophisticated argument (that is quite as pessimistic as Kuspit’s) we can read Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde written three decades ahead of Kuspit and dealing with very similar issues; not from a standpoint of romantic aestheticism but progressive Frankfurt School neo-Marxism (the forerunner of what became Cultural Studies).

Bürger foregrounds the project to bring art into life as the most significant goal of avant-gardism. We can compare this with the Situationist group in the 1950s and ’60s where “the situation” refers to aesthetic-political action of individuals within the everyday. A Situationist position would encourage the subversive influence of creativitity, imagination, eroticism, sexuality, love, the body, difference and deconstructed modes of gender into the cold hard light of the everyday so as to destablise it.  The fundamental difference between Kuspit’s romantic aestheticism and the Situationist stance is that for Situationism there is no concept of genius. It is accepted that human beings in general possess a capacity for imagination, creativity, and desire.

Kuspit, in contrast, focuses on individual genius and especially sensistive individuals who are capable of having his elevated “aesthetic experience”. He is happy therefore for art to remain on a pedestal secured within the hermetically sealed sanctum of the museum and the straightjacket of the art historican canon. Let us examine some of Kuspit’s comments on the everyday which indicate his ignorance of key theorists of the everyday such as Georg Simmel, Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau and the Situationists as well as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes (I could go on):

As reproduction, the painting enters the domain of the everyday. .. The painting can be liberated from the prison of everyday consciousness its reproduction imposes on it, only by a defiant act of aesthetic perception. The serious spectator’s aesthetic re-affirmation of the painting is a kind of re-creation of it, serving the same spiritual purpose as the artist’s creation of it: creativity is the means of escaping from – even decisively breaking with – everyday consciousness of the life-world. (Kuspit 2004: 9)

The everyday, therefore, is  a “prison”  and the reproduction is imprisoned in its ordinariness. Only by seeing the original work of art (which bears the marks made by the hand of the genius himself [sic]) can one have an “affirmative” experience that becomes a “kind of re-creation” of the work of art , “serving the same spiritual purpose as the artist’s creation of it”. 

It is difficult to comprehend that Kuspit is talking about a physical object, a painting. One wonders what kind of drugs this person is taking before he enters an art gallery. But to be more serious, Kuspit is not only mystifying the act of producing paintings he is also mystifying the act of experiencing them. In my previous post (artintelligence) I explored the aesthetic experience and came to the conclusion that it is fundamentally one that many people could have—it is not necessary to mystify it.

In addition, I would also argue that it is entirely possible to have an aesthetic experience while looking at reproductions of works of art. I initially became interested in art via the pathway of reproductions and I believe many people today would say the same thing. The significant point here is that a reproduction of a work of art in does not have to be flat and ordinary compared to the original.  The act of looking at reproductions of works of art can engender aesthetic experience. It can also lead to an enhancement of perception that carries through into the everyday world when one exits the reading room. What happens is that  perception, imagination and cognition attain a certain synchronisation. 

The crucial weakness of Kuspit’s argument lies in his reliance upon aesthetic experience as the indicator of the greatness of art. His argument is weak because aesthetic experience  does not need  to depend upon things such as original works of art. It does not even need reproductions of works of art, it is fundamentally a way of seeing that can be applied to anything.

At the dawn of modernity the 17th century  philosopher David Hume pointed out importance of imagination as a cognitive process and this was reinforced by Kant and by the science of psychology—most recently cognitive psychology. Reproductions are actually more powerful than originals in one sense. We can make a comparison between Hume’s concept of the “impression” and the reproduction. Our immediate experience of sensation is powerful. In contrast, the impressions, or traces, left by this experience in memory are, for Hume, faint or weak.

Their weakness, however, allows them to disintegrate or deconstruct into multiple components that can be recombined to create something new. Deconstructed traces/impressions become the raw material for imagination and cognition, which makes them more powerful—cognitively—than immediate experience. It is our cognitive processes that divide us from other species of animals. Everything we have achieved as a species is dependent upon  those weak and faint traces that can break reality into fragments and recombine to create new visions, new configurations and a new reality. 

Raoul Hausmann, ABCD, 1923-24. Collage, 40.7 x 28.2cm.  Musée national d’art modern, Centre Georges Pompidou.

Reproductions are closer to traces than original works of art,  they are  second-degree;  they are simulacra, they are closer to abstract thought; and they are closer to the core of aesthetic experience which is imagination. But Kuspit continues his romantic attack on the reproduction, on the museum without walls, on the Internet etc:

The reproduced Cézanne is reassuring and appealing because it seems everyday—confirms that everyday consciousness is the only legitimate consciousness—where the real Cézanne is intimidating and discomforting because it disrupts everyday consciousness. We become sentimental about normalizing reproductions but not the de-normalizing real thing, which grates on our nerves and unsettles our consciousness.

To say that the “real Cézanne is intimidating and discomforting” indicates that Kuspit may have an anxiety disorder. I would doubt that most people who look at a “real Cézanne” have this experience. We can appreciate the skill, the composition; and knowledge of the artist can lead to a synchronising of perception and cognition that can be aesthetically rewarding. But to be perfectly honest I do not think that paintings unhinge the everyday. And what Kuspit does not mention about the everyday is that it is social: it is composed of people. And so what Kuspit is really suggesting is that painting is more important than people—which must, from an ethical standpoint, be somewhat perverse. But the way in which the viewer is treated in an art museum; like an intruder, watched by CCTV and guards, kept away from the precious objects by all manner of barriers, indicates that the fine art system may be in tacit agreement with Kuspit.

Kuspit’s fundamental problem is that he is theoretically backward. Here is a man who missed the boat of French theory and Frankfurt School  Marxism.  We can see this clearly in the undoubted intellectual superiority of Peter Burger’s Frankfurt School analysis of the end of the avant-garde in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984 orig. 1974). The latter is, fundamentally, a more intellectual version of The End of Art published 30 years prior to Kuspit’s attempt. 

Kuspit continues his fundamentally elitist assault on the democratising power of the reproduction and everyday life in general, he claims: “Picasso’s abstract sculptures have also been reduced to familiarity by being presented as household products …. They are made to seem more everyday and commonplace than they are, thus stripping them of their aesthetic aura and strangeness’ (2004: 8) [emphasis added]. In this passage Kuspit completely inverts the concept of aura put forward in Walter Benjamin’s 1936 landmark Work of Art essay (Benjamin 1973)—the most important art theoretical text written in the twentieth century. Kuspit places aura in the foreground whereas Benjamin reveals aura for what it is: a myth of romantic aesthetics, a quasi-religious notion that depends upon the political power of the art museum and art history to frame art objects as the products of great masters.

Compared with Kuspit’s moribund romanticism, key postmodern cultural theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are on a different intellectual plane, perhaps a different planet. But, focusing on Kuspit’s denegration of domesticity—i.e. “Picasso [is] reduced to familiarity by being presented as household products” (2004: 8)—leads to an awareness that the knockdown argument comes from feminist thought. Since the 1970s feminist theory has been pointing out that the absence of female artists is not question of genius but a product of social construction, something that stems from everyday life—from pragmatic political concerns that the aesthete deems too ordinary, too human.  

What Kuspit fails to understand is that genius is a cultural construction. Certainly there are people who are exceptionally talented or exceptionally intelligent but not in the numbers we see arrayed in the canon of modern Art history. Most of the artists in the art historical canon are not geniuses, they just good or very good.

And one can be assured that there are many, many more who were just as talented but who did not have the luck to be included in the ranks of the supposedly illustrious. I know this is the case because as an art educator I see a great deal of talent every day (mostly women) and I see a higher degree of talent in some of my students that I see when I go to group exhibitions of contemporary artists who are in commercial galleries due to good networking, luck, and drive—which is ultimately what you need to make it as an artist. Talent and intelligence, never mind genius, is most definitely secondary.

Benjamin, Walter. 1973. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. In Illuminations. London: Fontana. Originally published in German in 1936.
Kandinsky, Wassily. 1977.  Concerning the spiritual in art. New York: Dover Publications.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1978. LeWitt in Progress. October, Vol. 6, Autumn, pp. 46-60.
Kuspit, Donald. 2004. The End of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Stiles, Kristine. 1996. “Questions to Stella and Judd by Bruce Glaser”. In Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings. University of California Press, pp. 117-124. Originally published in Art News 65, no. 5, September 1966, pp. 55-61.


  1. your conclusion is in line with what I have long considered – it is marketing (not love, genius, intelligence or anything else) which makes the world go round…

    Comment by acw — May 29, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  2. very good material for a semester study in multidisciplinary age, graham, thanks. this is my first contact with the _artintelligence.net_ and i like it. all respect. you have done your research and you enjoy put it into writing.
    all things considered, i would say that even if we do love the the _situationist_ attitude of getting life and art mingled we should be always careful not to kill art or get confuse about some basic differences that do exist between those fields. otherwise it may give room for really bad exhibitions or shows – maybe we show talk about the difference between these two terms so used in art, next. we might get some answer about the justification of the entertainment and shock-value in contemporary art. maybe that could be the real possible reasons of the killing of art in a very near future.

    Comment by dontneed — June 19, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  3. Kramer auto Pingback[…] a very good entry from graham coulter-smith in his blogg a really interesting take on the donald kuspit’s book “The End of Art”.some of […]

    Pingback by dontneed: who or what is killing art ??? — July 10, 2008 @ 8:33 am

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