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On Ambition in Art
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Patricia Emison

Conceptual art and the Renaissance were born together. When Alberti advised in 1434 that the invention of a work of art was pleasing even before its realization, he rendered Sol LeWitt and all his confreres rear-guard. Severing art from craft, he dubbed the artist an intellectual and urged him to develop a literary as well as a Biblical imagination. He also inserted botulism into a can of worms, one that took a long time to ferment but that led eventually to the flagrant disregard for the object that currently reigns quasi-absolutely.

Disregard for the object was de rigeur during the medieval period. It might be supposed that conceptual art owes more to the theory of the medieval icon than to Alberti. In both cases the object is not the locus of value, but a sign that directs the viewer to immaterial value – in Alberti’s case, to the artist; and in the icon’s case, to a saint or divine personage. And that is why Alberti trumps the icon: now, as in the Renaissance, the referent is the artist. And as in the Renaissance an artist wanted to be richly rewarded rather than merely paid, most conceptual artists (and let us define them broadly from Duchamp and Warhol through Tracey Emin) have somehow contrived to make large amounts of money despite ostentatiously disdaining the art market. They have profited qua celebrities rather than as makers of precious objects. They are performers, even if they are not performance artists, and objects, if they are sold, are sold as the detritus of such performances, sometimes for relic-like prices.

The Renaissance idea of pictorial invention was imbued with modesty: the artist attempted to realize what was in the mind, but the sticky material world would impede his efforts and so perfection was impossible. Just as Pliny reported of the painter Apelles in ancient times, so, too, many Renaissance painters would sign their works, “Faciebat,” in the imperfect, to acknowledge that their effort was incomplete. Completion would have implied perfection. Such is the back-story of the sketch: the more modest one became about works that had a high degree of finish, the more allowance there was in the theory for highly unfinished works. All the while, artistic pride versus modesty tended to shift back and forth as unstably as wave and particle. Michelangelo, for instance, tormented himself with his failings yet snapped at anyone around him who wasn’t sufficiently respectful; he faulted his predecessor Donatello for lack of finish and then left his own work even rougher.

Ambition in the Renaissance was not hard to define. It was, however, complex, and entailed competition with the antique, with nature, power of expression, monumentality, a vision of humans as godlike in their beauty and strength, the ability to suck the spectator into a credible space and allow him or her the new thoughts and emotions removal to some other time-space might foster. Renaissance artists tried to position figures of ideal beauty within startlingly real spaces in which real-time actions transpired. No previous artists had set themselves that goal. Their ambition was to do this not for the sake of its newness, but simply for the sake of its being worthwhile. Some of those real-time actions were remarkably mundane, so the ideal sponsored by Renaissance art was sometimes quasi-familiar.

The uninitiated might well wonder what shared ambitions there might be among today’s artists. Some galleries, playgrounds for the leisured rather than commercial establishments in any recognizable sense, show installations clearly not meant for sale even to the wealthy. These galleries are static theatres. Alternatively, they mimic museums, and they echo (with Alberti) Pliny’s accolade of being beyond price. Even to wonder about dollars and cents would be crass. Like major musical compositions, these are the creatures of commissions or grants rather than freelance experiments. They are not offered to the public but rather, the public is allowed to witness them. They aspire to be thought of as formalizing some synecdochical identity for our time, one made out of pure ether, as a cathedral seems to us the emanation of a society, rather than merely the fallible product of one rich man’s taste like Blenheim or Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci. No name but the artist’s is to be attached to these strange conglomerations, often sculptural, in gallery spaces, as no name but the Virgin Mary’s to the cathedrals. Such works of contemporary art move from gallery to museum with never a tarnishing passage as a privately owned object, or alternatively from gallery to gallery to warehouse. Who bothers to remember the contemporary art of five or ten years ago? The rich who matter in this realm have their own gallery or museum, or they have a curator they treat as their spaniel. Sometimes the spaniel’s rich master is the artist himself.

This “public” art is sometimes suggested to be appropriate to a government of the people; it doesn’t assume huge initial investment to get it going or learning to respond to it. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally oligarchical. Art does sometimes reflect society, after all. This art that mocks consumerism mocks consumers as well. The bad art of our time (the decorative paintings and photographs of pleasant sights, the generous swathes of oil paint) wallows in its derivative, fetid stew of mediocrity; the “good” art has a new kind of stark monumentality. It is framed only by its exhibition halls, patrolled by the supercilious young women like some science fiction police force. They dare you to defy their stylish authority. The spaces, as poor cousins of corporate headquarters that assert their oversize yet glass inviolability, dwarf the viewer into submission.

Conceptual art assumes the impermanence of the object. No ancient painting had come down to Alberti, but only verbal descriptions thereof. No wonder he thought words sufficed. Much contemporary art is made as if it were fated to destruction as predictably as a Buddhist sand painting. Craftsmen build for permanence; today’s artists work in the most unpretentious of materials, often found materials, the better to assert the primacy of the concept. If technical skill is needed, like a CEO they hire anonymous courtiers to take care of it. What is a digital age but a time that has rarefied impermanence into a cultural trope? The future, should there be one, is likely to conclude we were anticipating apocalypse. Canny future – though in the Middle Ages, when they were also anticipating apocalypse, they still cared to make things well. But theirs was a respectful society, as ours is not. It’s hard being an artist in an age of disrespect. Perhaps more than by anything, we are divided from our past by layers of cynicism, so it is not so surprising that much of our art taunts us, cynically, to fail to do obeisance.

Alberti said that history or narrative painting was the most ambitious: up to nine figures in a unified, significant action. History painting, larger and larger, more and more populated, became thereafter the staple of Academic agendas for four hundred years. Governments would subsidize such art, for it fed patriotism. When history painting ended, with the terrors of World War I and John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, modernism unmistakably had begun. Whistler and Kandinsky wrote the theory that displaced Alberti and his successors, Reynolds not least; for them modern art vied with music more than with the written word. But the problem of ambition, once Cézanne and his large scale nudes in a landscape were over, was a question without a unified answer. Attention was the objective; ambition was reduced to strategies for gaining attention. Painting became, for a time, interior decoration for modernist machines for living, or set design to go with the ballets whose scores seemed to displace the symphony as locus of musical ambition. Painting shrank in scale, and with Marcel Duchamp and then Jean Arp’s paper collages, it became the record of whim or chance. As with all celebrity, much of the attention garnered sank to the level of gossip: Picasso and his mistresses; Warhol and his hangers on; Carl Andre and his wife; prices; openings. Picasso, whose merest scribble on a napkin he knew to be worth untold amounts, fascinated as much as he impressed anyone. He was a celebrity, whereas Cézanne had been a proud recluse. When Jackson Pollock was filmed and appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, the avant-garde had evolved into a sub-species of high fashion.

Artists either aspire to be quintessentially of their time or to be timeless. Classical art took the latter way; modern art the former. Renaissance artists didn’t realize they needed to make a choice, as they also were blissfully unaware of the divide between art of the establishment and art of the avant-garde. Donatello was at once a rogue artist and the pet of the de facto ruler. He came from the troublesome bottom of society, the wool-carders, and he and his colleagues made images of pain, of pride, of modesty, of humor – some images that seemed to recall the distant past and some images that seemed to come from nowhere. Theirs was an innocent art, and how their successors have envied them that unretrievable innocence! They possessed a simple sense of ambition: they wanted an art of ideas. Not conceptual art, not art that prided itself inordinately on its manual ineptitude, but art that debated whether Christ should look a peasant or a hero, whether St. Louis of Toulouse should appear a meek man or a king, whether religious subjects could be made to fit into scenes of the natural world, whether we could with a good conscience enjoy looking at representations immense suffering, whether subjects we knew well could be made fresh again? To portray ideal beauty in real time and space was a new behest, one that afforded a range of artists an engrossing project and ultimately yielded, arguably, the first society for which art was more than an accessory. The subjects mattered less than they had in medieval times, the materials were typically much less costly, yet the objects – the images – had more valence. The Renaissance gave us imaginations, and then we got all too used to having them.

Currently we have art that aims to be of its own time but also to assert that only the concept matters, an idea inherited from Alberti who was advocating an art like Antiquity’s, an art so naturalistic that it wouldn’t be inflected by historical period. In other words, the highly-publicized high-end art of today pursues a conundrum: to be as pure as the classical, and as topical as the ultra-realistic. It should be made by artists with working class accents or of otherwise intriguing ethnicity; exhibited at the behest of the oligarchy; and milked for petty cash in the museum and gallery shops, in the form of jewelry, mugs, t-shirts and scarves sold to the middle class. Often it mistakes the merely clever for the conceptual – and at worst, the merely cheeky, a project becoming ever more problematic in a world in which uncongenial cultures each jostle for mutual respect. Seldom is there any sign of good hard work or extraordinary skill, as though either of these would degrade the high-flyer status of the artist, and love of one’s materials would constitute a sort of prostitution. Lady Disdain rules the art world. Furthermore, the sycophantic attention of art historians and the mass media have combined to exacerbate what may already have been a tendency toward narcissism among artists. Every utterance by those deemed the prophets of today is recorded and disseminated; such a degree of attentiveness requires a narrow focus on the chosen few.

We need to find the artists who aren’t locked into narcissism. For when artists can see only themselves, what have they to show us? Narcissus, according to one legend, originated painting, but I prefer the other version, according to which a young girl of Corinth drew her lover’s silhouette on the wall before he went to war. Now that was an idea.

2012 © Patricia Emison

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