Modern art is so ancient it’s practically a joke. It is older than my great grandmother, and I’m a geezer myself. The birth of Cubism, say, is actually closer in time to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony than it is to us.
Modernism was a bender our culture went on; Postmodernism is the hangover we are just now getting over.
Of course, a lot of wonderful art was created in that century, but a lot of piffle was written, too, in support of the theories and ideologies that tried to argue the presumed supremacy of Modernism. Now, we look back at the wreckage and see it all as drunk-talk.
One of the arguments was over what was “appropriate” for any art form: the issue of “medium specificity,” as critic Clement Greenberg called it. Greenberg was one of the greatest pifflers at the bar, holding forth with a stein sloshing in his hand and willing to take on anyone in the bar, if they would just step outside. Here, hold my coat.
The idea was that each variety of art, whether painting, sculpture, theater or poetry, had its proper vocabulary and content. The lines between genres were defensive walls that should not be breached. Good walls make good neighbors, as it were.
All effects borrowed from any other medium should be proscribed, leaving the art form “pure.” Purity becomes the sign of quality. All foreign effects must be exterminated. Esthetic cleansing, we might call it.
That means, painting must not tell a story; stories belong to literature. Sculpture must work in the round; sculpture that is meant to be seen from a single point of view is borrowing too much from painting and is therefore bad sculpture. Music that attempts to describe a scene is straying from the purity of musical expression and trying to be a picture. “Ut pictura poesis?: Not on my watch.
All this talk of purity makes us cringe now: If nothing else, the 20th century and its wars and pogroms have given the idea of purity some really bad karma.
It hadn’t always been that way: Purity didn’t used to be a shibboleth.
The issue of medium specificity is one of those generational pendulums that swings back and forth over time. The question is whether each art has a special message that can only be delivered in its language, or whether all the arts have the same message, only tell it in different languages.
The puritanism of the 20th century was a reaction to the promiscuous genre-mixing of the previous century, just as the pervasive tone of irony in the 20th century was an antidote to the cloying sincerity of Victorianism.
In the 19th century, it was clear that art — all art — had a single message, although there was not always agreement on what that message might be. Shelley wrote about this, Baudelaire wrote of the “perfume” of his poetry; Whistler painted “nocturnes,” as if he were Chopin on canvas; Franz Liszt gave concerts that were as much theater as music. (Nowadays, when we hear that a pianist has eliminated the hoopla and “found the music” in Liszt, we can be sure he has completely misunderstood Liszt.)
And let’s not forget that it was the 19th century that brought us that greatest of artistic mash-ups, Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk — the use of all the arts at a single blow in a grand design that ultimately included even architecture, in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. All set to a single purpose — albeit the purpose may have been the glorification of Wagner himself.
I said this was a pendulum. In the 18th century, a hundred years before Wagner, there was a sentiment, parallel to Greenberg’s, that the arts should not fraternize.
In his 1766 work, Laocoon: An Essay on the limits of poetry and painting, German critic Gotthold Lessing maintained, “that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.”
He was reacting to the classic line by the Roman poet, Horace, that “ut pictura poesis” — “as is painting, so is poetry” — arguing that these arts are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space (forgetting that in a larger frame, both exist in the mind and imagination).
So, do we now use our scalpels and surgically separate music from poetry, painting from dance, and say unequivocally that what we get from Balanchine bears no relation to what we get from Philip Roth? Or is there some quality they share that gives them value and worth?
As the pendulum swings back, we recognize that all art is about becoming more fully human, more aware of the world and our place in it. That awareness can be through compassion, through beauty, through politics, or through irony. It saves us from isolation, from ignorance, from emptiness. These are the big issues we face, in contrast, mutable public issues of politics or career are trivial: When we come to the end of our lives, what remains of the fustian of our existence has little to do with annual income or who got elected; it is how much we have loved and been loved, whether we have become larger in our hearts, or shrunken and dried up.
And it is art — in all its various plumage, each of its forms — that provides the imagery to do this. This is their common message.
And purity is a kind of puritanical and sanctimonious defense of the impotent notion of “good taste” that is anathema to the creation of vital art.
It is what Sir Kenneth Clark called the “fatal defect of purity.”
And as Pablo Neruda reminds us in his 1935 essay, Toward and Impure Poetry, “Those who shun the ‘bad taste’ of things will fall flat on the ice.”