Thursday, January 05, 2006

On Kuspit's introduction

As after reading this post from Edward Winkleman, I took a quick look at Donald Kuspit's IntroductionTwentieth Century Art: An Overview of Critical Opinion. Happily, it's easier to read and digest than some of the other Kuspit works I've read in the past, and raises some interesting ideas.

Quick notes, since I haven't had time to really think about it yet:

  • If I had written this, my undergraduate professors would have got on my back for numerous run-on sentances of doom such as:
    How can a "movement formed in part or in whole to agitate against something or someone,"(27) suggesting its "spirit of hostility and opposition" -- the "antagonism" that becomes a "permanent tendency. . . of the avant-garde movement," and eventually a "transcendental antagonism," which "finds joynot merely in the inebriation of movement, but even more in the act of beatingdown barriers, razing obstacles, destroying whatever stands in its way," finally driving itself "beyond the point of control by any convention or reservation, scruple or limit," and thus becoming a kind of totalitarian or tyrannical nihilism -- be anything but self-defeating and spiritually and socially bankrupt, however much it may rationalize itself by a pseudo-pious attitude of agonism?
  • Also, as obvious from the previous quote, much of the first half of this essay relies on stringing quotes together. To a ridiculous extent. The information Kuspit cites is illluminating, but it gave me the feeling that I was reading someone's note-cards. Yes, it's a literature review of sorts ("overview") but geez.

  • Oddly, the critical opinions Kuspit reviews are without exception fifteen years or older - comeon, hasn't there been any decent criticism on this subject in a decade? Moreover, the majority of the works he cites are from the 1950s and 60s. I wouldn't quibble (everyone has their favorite sources) but he claims in the title that this is a overview of the subject. One might think from his essay that critical thought on Modernism ended in the Seventies.

Once he gets over his initial quote-dropping rampage, the essay gets more interesting. One point I admired was

...on the one hand modern art is healing and enlightening, for it teaches us to recognize and accept the contradictions that abound in society and human beings, and to resolve them artistically.... But on the other hand modern art enslaves us to our most infantile, destructive, anti-social attitudes... encouraging us to remain emotionally immature.... It is simultaneously facilitating and debilitating.
Another insight is

In their different ways, Barzun and Bell are saying the same thing: that avant-garde art -- art at its supposedly most "advanced" -- does not speak to the problem of being human.
He doesn't really come back to that point in the introduction, and I think it's a vital one.

I kept thinking again and again of Suzi Gablik, who at first glance seems diametrically opposed to Kuspit's high academia theorizing. However, deep down, aren't Gablik and Kuspit asking some of the same questions? Twenty years ago Gablik published Has Modernism Failed, where she addressed many of the issues in Kuspit's essay, albeit in a less rigorous fashion.

I'll have to read Kuspit's essay again. It can be hard to follow his point among all of the quotations.


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