Ruins of Taste by John Link


I am going to look at a certain visual taste, the taste of the avant-garde, and how it has changed. I will look at a deceived taste, a wandering, meandering taste, the taste of the official art system and its press; a look by one who has decided to evaluate art for himself, who has learned to know what he sees. True taste can’t be imposed. It can’t be demonstrated. It can’t be explained part by part. It must be acquired for oneself, by looking for oneself. The art world is stirring with signs that something is happening. Some of us are beginning to look for ourselves.

Composition No.II 1920 by Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian, Composition No.II 1920

Avant-garde, avant-gardism, and the avant-gardists are each distinct. The avant-garde is the cultural “cutting edge,” the elite group of artists who are responsible for carrying on the tradition of high art. The term came into use around the turn of the century, but it pertains to the entire history of urbanized art.

Avant-gardism is a quasi-aesthetic strategy, introduced by Marcel Duchamp, which substitutes confrontation for inspiration. Intrusive newness is put forth as an end in itself, to be valued for its own sake. Avant-gardism supports a level of culture that is neither elite nor philistine. It is essentially the culture of the middle-brow, and is served up and supported by the official art system. It infiltrates every nook and cranny of today’s cultural countryside. Avant-gardism is imitation avant-garde, kept shocking enough to titillate the cultural hubris of the educated bourgeoisie. It plays on the uncritical, naive and parochial readiness of educated artists and art officials to identify good art as whatever everybody agrees is good art, for fear of being retardataire, out of it, not “with it.” It maintains the “look” of radicalism while following the crowd. Avant-gardism is Bouguereau dressed in wolf’s clothing.

Avant-gardists are the artists and art officials who embrace avant-gardism. They have existed since the term avant-garde came into use, but became numerous after 1960.

The 50’s were a period of slow change in taste in America, a reluctant but true reshaping into a taste which accepted the superiority of the Abstract Expressionists. It was not an easy change. Jackson Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists were not accepted at first. By 1960, however, the international art world had recognized that Pollock was a great artist. Educated taste in America changed to accommodate the rightness of that judgment.

In doing so, we realized that we had spawned an artist as good as there ever was. Pollock had not migrated to our country, like Mondrian and others. He was born in Wyoming and brought up in Southern California, which made him as American as anyone could possibly be. Europe had no new artists as good as he. Paris was forced to surrender. New York abandoned its provincialism and formed an alliance with an avant-garde which appeared to be inextricably tied to modern high art, and set about to open its taste to the best art that could be made. And it recognized that its initial rejection of the Abstract Expressionists had been a huge mistake.

What actually happened, however, was that New York replaced its native provincial taste with the avant-gardism of Marcel Duchamp, as if any art meeting the test of being “avant-garde” would be of the highest order. In doing so, New York assumed that it transcended the provincialism which held back the recognition of American artists for so many years.


Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q.

Duchamp’s achievement was to gather together the several strategies developed by the early modern cultural anarchists into a code. His theoretical framework was used later by American cultural institutions to strip the avant-garde of its aesthetic power and put it up before the world as a harmless and domesticated caricature of its former self.

Under the influence of Duchamp, avant-gardism became a formula for making “major” art. Art had become, for him and his followers, an act of the will rather than inspiration, as Clement Greenberg so beautifully described it in his 1971 essay “Counter-Avant-Garde.” Duchamp replaced the true originality of great art with gestures designed to confront cultural expectations. He made a game of the process, a game which, like fashion, seeks to guarantee its own existence by consigning itself to continuous obsolescence. The resultant collection of avant-gardist confrontations has become a modern charactery, in which the best is by definition the latest element.

True originality does not confront culture. It does challenge taste. It builds culture by opening taste to unfamiliar experiences. Originality does not deliberately provoke resistance. It wants to be received, not resisted, and isn’t complete until that occurs. Then it endures as a source of satisfaction rather than of disturbance; it is durable, not transient; its power to compel an aesthetic response gains recognition over time. Eventually, it becomes familiar, though it never becomes easy to explain. It repeats itself in the art of its own time, and in the art which follows in its tradition.

Keeping score among the avant-gardists is straightforward. High art is not a matter of the quality of the object. Instead, the act of choosing itself is valued. The only questions of value for avant-gardism are whether the artist was the first to make a particular choice, whether the choice reflects the temper of the present moment, and whether its confrontation with the culture is pointed enough. “Innovation” is the key factor in this legacy of aesthetic pranksterism. The innovative, as such, wears off and becomes dated soon after it first appears. Consequently, being the first to play a certain trick on the culture is more important than the trick itself. Both are matters of quantity, not quality. They are simple questions to settle, because their answers are obvious. Duchamp was the first to draw a mustache on a print of the Mona Lisa, which gave him exclusive rights to that “aesthetic” territory forever. Avant-gardist doctrine will not permit a second mustache to be taken seriously. When newness is valued for its own sake, its role in the future is closed off, because then it will be old and no longer relevant. For this reason, avant-gardism has been unable to establish a visual tradition. Instead, it has given us a random succession of isms, each of which tried to deny most of what went before it. Duchamp’s strategy of confrontation is all that binds them together.

Duchamp was a smart game designer. He knew that convention often supports what is most common about any given culture. He proposed that anything unconventional gets at those base aspects, and that therefore any opposition to low culture is part of high culture. Institutions, the natural home of convention, were thus relegated to the low road, to the company of the unenlightened philistines. This ensured that they would always lose the avant-gardist game. Thus Duchamp reserved the high road for himself and his followers.

But institutions found that by dropping their resistance to confrontation they could escape the onus. Instead of automatically opposing the radical they learned to automatically celebrate it. And the more radical the better. Soon, they began competing with each other to be the first to endorse the newest fads. Today there is hardly anything for some museum or gallery somewhere to take seriously.

Before long, avant-gardism was enjoying all the privilege and influence formerly granted to American provincialism, and new provincialism was born: codified anarchy, the institutionalized avant-garde. However intensely anti-provincial on the surface, it operated underneath just like any other provincial system, using its privilege as the officially sanctioned art to every possible advantage.

Some artists resisted at first, as would be expected; but soon they began to see the light, particularly those who were young, ambitious, and without an established audience. They were eager to gain as much recognition for themselves as they possibly could, effectively and decisively. Thousands of them joined the avant-gardists.

Special edition Campbell's soup cans with Andy Warhol's autograph.

Andy Warhol, Special edition Campbell’s soup cans with autograph

Artists looked intently at the art reproduced in the art press, because what they saw was going over big. The magazines were showing the way. Avant-gardism was working. By 1962, Pop art had replaced Abstract Expressionism. Soon Op tried to unseat Pop, to become the new light. It didn’t last long. Primary Structures and Minimalism followed. They didn’t replace Pop either, but they crowded it out of center stage, giving credence to their claim of being the latest and the best. They too faded. Then came Conceptualism, the most radical of the new lights. Photo Realism took off; Pattern and Decoration; New Image; and now, Postmodernism. Each of these was given to the world as the very best that art had to offer.

You could see the newest stuff in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; and you could see it in Montreal, in Toledo, and in Kalamazoo, where I live. If those shows were not frequent enough – and they weren’t – you could always see the latest thing reproduced in the magazines. Reproductions had been around for a long time, but never in such great number, never in such wide circulation, and never so focused on art of the present day, the present hour.

Most of us recognize that reproductions don’t do justice to art. What makes reproductions dangerous is that they do such a good job of conveying intention. In reproduction, intention displaces aesthetic value. Intention is what is left when beauty is taken away by the process of photographing, printing, and shrinking down. To the unsuspecting reader, intention looks like what the art is about.

When I look at a reproduction of a great Pollock and a reproduction of one of Lichtenstein’s spoofs of the brush stroke and paint drip, what comes across is the difference in intention. When I see those same two pictures in the flesh, what comes across is the difference in aesthetic goodness. Pollock’s picture is major, Lichtenstein’s is not. Lichtenstein’s can’t generate the same “burn” as the Pollock. Quality is the most important difference between the two, not the difference in intention.

All works of art express intention in one way or another. Often a reference to the immediate culture is their starting point, and this is of interest to art historians. Sometimes intention will serve to differentiate one work of art from another, but sheer differentiation is not the point of art. Intention is a side issue. Who cares what an artist wanted to do? Other artists shared Pollock’s intentions. How many of them were as great? Pollock’s greatness puts him apart, not his intentions. Any art limited to just its intention soon loses its relevance. Go back and read early 70’s art magazines. There is nothing more dated than a work of art whose sole point was to define a new intention.

The damnable efficiency of the art magazines for conveying artistic intent at the expense of aesthetic quality was reinforced because art writers can easily understand and discuss intention, and too often identify “significant intention” with “significant achievement.” Most of these writers were visually illiterate. It is much easier to write about intention than it is to write about aesthetic quality, particularly if you don’t care about aesthetic quality, particularly if you don’t care if quality is missing. Particularly if you don’t even notice. It is much easier for the reader to grasp intention than quality. The educated members of the art world were steeped in articles and reproductions focused on intentions, and news about which intention was replacing which other intention.

No wonder. No one has ever analyzed aesthetic experience. No one has ever explained why some works of art are great and others are not. Art experts explain artistic intention every day of the week. They do it well, too, because intention is a legitimate subject of intellectual analysis. Language is an adequate tool here. All it takes is someone who knows how to use words and how to recognize the intentions of the various schools and movements.


Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

The avant-gardist intention, the “aesthetics” of confrontation, permeated each of the movements which followed Abstract Expressionism. Pop art challenged the seriousness of high art. Minimalism confronted the convention that art was a source of variety and interest. Photo Realism told us hyperrealism was naughty enough to count. Conceptualism was an extreme form of the avant-gardist strategy, attacking all the conventions of painting and sculpture at once, seeking to close down the entire history of art by substituting cerebral pranks for looking. Today, postmodernism attacks the expectation that art must be good.

The intentions of these movements were featured in the magazines. The question of good or bad became beside the point. Avant-garde art was presumed to be good because it was written about. The imitation avant-garde’s assumptions used to evaluate, defend and explain artistic intention as the equivalent of aesthetic quality went largely unchallenged, in New York and everywhere. New York’s misunderstanding of the importance of intentionality metastasized all over the art world, serving as a new dogmatic provincialism, nurtured by the official art system, disguised as a sophisticated and urbane cynicism, pitted against the tradition of high art and the quality which sustains it, broadcasting the arrogance of successful name-brand artists who, with their comfortable incomes and inflated reputations, act out their avant-gardist fantasies against the institutions which keep them so well-protected from the realities of life and art.

But great art is never replaced. A good Rubens is as good today as it was while still wet. Sixties avant-gardism tried to deny this. Pollock was great, said the avant-gardists, but his time was over. Pop art was more “relevant.” Then Op moved against Pop, and Minimalism replaced them both. None of that art was as good as Pollock’s best. But it would not matter if it were. It Xcouldn’t be better; that is the point. It couldn’t be more “relevant” than Pollock; good art is always relevant, period, whether it is old or new. But the avant-gardists insisted Pollock had been “replaced” by a succession of isms, each expressing a newer intention more of its own time. Their taste confused the intention expressed by the art it supported with the quality of that art. The imitation avant-garde fell for imitation art.

Then came the 70’s and pluralism. Avant-gardism declared that there could be more than one valid point of attack against conventionality at any given moment, thus providing that each artist within its legions could have his or her own private “cutting edge.” Pluralism showed how everyone can be important because aesthetic “progress” is made on multiple fronts.

Brushstroke 1965 by Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Brushstroke’ 1965

Perhaps art opinion was trying to correct itself, recant the mistakes of the 60’s, make up for dropping so many isms so soon from its favor. But pluralism was an even bigger mistake. It held that all art was aesthetically equal. An utterly wrong assertion, but one which nonetheless contained an element of truth: all artistic intentions are of equal value, in theory, anyway. Pluralism was not conscious that identifying intention with quality was a mistake it shared with the taste of the 60’s, and so the element of truth was obscured. So long as pluralism could not tell the difference between quality and intention, it was forced to say all art was equal, without proper qualification. Pluralistic taste does not allow conviction. Its doctrine of permissiveness denies the eye’s right to distinguish between works which are troublesome because they are good and works which are troublesome because they are inferior. Pluralistic taste and the trends it supported continued to follow the false path of “anything goes.”

High art is not democratic, nor is it politic. It is not kind to everyone. It is full of conviction. It excludes inferior art with a vengeance. It is merciless on whatever does not meet the standard set by the best its tradition has produced. The pluralists did not understand this. Their taste wandered aimlessly. They never looked seriously enough, hard enough. Quality was there to be found, as always. They were just too soft on art to find it. By being soft, they set the stage for the current outrage against good taste. After years of giving short shrift to goodness in art, art opinion has decided not to just let it die peacefully, but to celebrate its passing as a great art-historical event, declaring it to be the beginning of yet another new ism, and naming it Postmodernism.

The dominating taste of the past 25 years, the deceived taste of the imitation avant-garde which I have described, is a meandering taste, going here, then there, then somewhere else, in search of satisfaction. The art it likes, the art that it has certified as the newest and the best, has gotten worse and worse. Robert Rauschenberg, who was bad enough, still beats Kenny Scharf, one of its latest discoveries. That this taste would hold up Scharf is a sign that the identification of intention with quality has succeeded, that avant-gardist taste no longer knows its own proper object. If it is “generous” enough to accept Scharf’s pictures because their “meaning” compensates for the way they look, or worse, because their “meaning” is the way they look, it can accept anything.

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

Good taste is not charitable. It does not accept facsimiles. It is hard on the art it looks at. It is strict and tough, demanding the best, in order to be open to goodness, open to true originality, open to the highest levels of aesthetic satisfaction. But it isn’t perfect. It makes mistakes. Yet it corrects itself; it develops; it is shaped by its encounters with the best art. Always. It changes its judgments when it must. But true taste does not meander like a moron, feeling here, feeling there, finally settling on whatever is most obvious. Sensible and sensitive people, whether they live in the provinces, as I do, or in the art capital itself, ought to be suspicious of such nonsense. And they ought to be angry because that nonsense wants them to follow along to maintain its position of influence.

The past 25 years of taste, shaped by avant-gardist mistakes, may have served some purpose, even though it has derailed many artists of sensibility and talent, and misled many art lovers who anted art to be an important part of their lives. It is not easy to resist the pressures created by an official art system, but that may be its value. It has made us harder on art than we would have been otherwise, made us demand more from art, so that we are better prepared to receive the satisfaction art alone can afford. But the most important lesson of the imitation avant-garde and the art it likes is that we must look for ourselves.

Published May, 1985 in Arts Magazine. © John Link

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