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This weekend Vladimir Umanets attacked a painting by Mark Rothko spraying it with a crudely dripping statement of ‘yellowism’, which refers to his manifesto of a new kind of art—evidently quite a political, even fundamentalist species
According to the Manifesto of Yellowism, ‘Yellowism is not art or anti-art. Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art is already art. The context for Yellowism is nothing but yellowism.’ This kind of labyrinthine thinking recalls the intricate cogitations of philosophy which have for so long permeated the modern (Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx) and postmodern (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan) fine art communities. In other words it sounds ‘right’, a little bizarre but then that was never really any great problem in the sphere of modern/postmodern art.
Which is to say we need to take Yellowism seriously. When Umanets claims that he added value to the Rothko he has a point. Mark Rothko is of course one of the ‘great modern masters’, or more precisely a great American ‘modern master’, in fact one of the first—after Jackson Pollock—to be canonised as such. The crucial question here, when considering Yellowism, is who did the canonising? The answer would be the fine art system.
One recalls Serge Guilbaut’s groundbreaking 1983 text, How New York stole the idea of modern art: abstract expressionism, freedom, and the cold war (University of Chicago Press). There Guilbaut reveals how the American cold war propaganda machine used Abstract Expressionism such as that of Pollock’s drip paintings and Rothko’s sublime blurriness as a sign of freedom of expression in contrast to the imposition of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union.
There is certainly some truth in the fabric of this propaganda. Russia was perpetrating a state dictatorship over what artists could produce whereas America was extremely laissez-faire. But Guilbaut’s text does foreground the politics of art, the reason why governments would give any money at all to the arts and the reason why art attains any value in the first place.
Rothko has value because it was promoted by the American ’empire’. But even that empire couldn’t have added value to Rothko in the absence of the fact that European artists developed abstraction beginning with the liberation of the brush mark in Turner that inspired French Impressionism etc. The development of abstraction is a complex story, and the development of value in art is also a very complex story that is intimately interwoven into the practice of modern/postmodern art.
After abstraction the next revolution was conceptual art specifically the self-reflexive approach to art invented by Duchamp via his Readymades. Duchamp’s urinal in particular was mentioned in the British Channel 4 television news reporting of Unamet’s attack on Rothko (Oct 8, 2012). As soon as Duchamp invented the Readymade, art that questioned art became the highest form of art, even higher than the sublimity of abstraction.
And the questioning can never stop. What is the sublime anyway? Why should blurred rectangles of oil paint on a canvas be placed in a room in Tate Modern with dimmed light as if it were a crypt in a church? Isn’t this pure theatre?
The Readymade spat on the sublime—which was an invention of Romanticism and its sophisticated interplay between philosophy and art. Which is not to say that Duchamp wasn’t also involved in the sublime—his Large Glass testifies to that—and so the ridiculousness of the Readymade, the proposition that literally anything could be art, was in itself sublime. Which returns us to the labyrinthine discourse of the Yellowism Manifesto.
We need to take Unamets’ action seriously. He actually did add value to Rothko who was effectively buried in a darkened crypt. Now Unamets’ ‘intervention’—and it certainly can be considered as a species of performance art—has enlivened our appreciation not only of Rothko but of art in general. We begin to grasp its complexity and the need for disruption. It is too easy for art to lapse into academicism and that is certainly a danger in terms of the thousands of somewhat self-satisfied practitioners of ‘postmodern’ art. Unamets by his very Russian, very radical, action has injected a spark of life into a discourse that is now so old (stretching back into Romanticism of the late 18c) that it is definitely in danger of academicisation, professionalisation and a general assimilation and absorption into the fabric of commodity capitalism.