The Shock of the Not So New

John Haber
in New York City

Wally (to his boss): Our stock options are worth a fortune
     now, you miserable bag of crud!
Boss: Oh, look, they're back down to worthless.
Dilbert (over lunch): Try telling him that bags of crud are
     highly valued in some societies.
Wally: Oh, shut up.

      —Scott Adams, Dilbert

Neo-Neo and Sensation

It was déjà vu all over again. The Brooklyn Museum may lie on Eastern Parkway, out where the Dodgers used to play. The art world, however, along with New York's most vocal Yankee fan, must have been following Yogi Berra.

From Dada to David Salle, art has long appropriated the past in the interest of tearing it apart. Now artists, another country, even a politician and museum press office—all appropriate those strategies of appropriation. Museums keep talking about the millennium, but all over town art revisits the recent past. What happens to Modernism and Postmodernism now? And can The Return of the Real, a savvy analysis by Hal Foster, help pin it down? Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary (Brooklyn Museum, 1996)

Play acting

I, too, had better step back a moment in time. Let me fill in the story. The swank Saatchi collection had come to town, after an exhibition at the Royal Academy so popular it stayed open nights. Back in London, the setting and the excitement perfected a nation's tradition of art as public culture, at once a cause for celebrity and a matter of deadly earnest. Here in New York, warnings against adult content had morphed into catchy museum ads, from subways to bus shelters. The mayor, as if he really had spent the past nine months in a limousine, pretended outrage. Why, one artist, Chris Ofili, had taken a dump on the Virgin Mary!

Rudolf Giuliani's tactics paid off, because he knew he could not really block the show or museum funding. He just wanted a tough-guy image—and a vote or two from the religious right. He knew as well how safely he could pretend surprise. Robert Mapplethorpe and his photographs had touched more than "50 Americans" in more than one big city by the time Jesse Helms made them a symbol of godless art.

The museum's tactics paid off, too, and not just with lines longer than any in Manhattan. If art gets caught up in a not-so-instant replay, perhaps it should. A museum can provoke thought and feeling from ruins of the past. It can ask how art goes about mirroring evil or indeed how the Nazis came themselves to offer up "Degenerate Art." And it did. "Sensation," a fun show of contemporary British art, got me thinking about what it means for art to play with the recent past.

Art's brand of looking backward may have begun well before the mayor's. Yet its curiously loaded nostalgia shares something with politics and religion, not to mention mass entertainment. In all of these, obvious pretense can carry weight. Like Giuliani, the Britpack was reenacting something. Paradoxically and wonderfully, art was recreating the postmodern.

Each side had a crowd to draw, each its own well-defined self-interest. Each had a part to play—scripted for a previous encounter and ready to repeat their gestures one more time, too, for the Whitney Biennial just months after. Performance above principle. Hey, this is art.

When Damien Hirst put a cow under glass, it quickly came to stand for British art. Yet he knew that Jeff Koons had done the same for a basketball. He also knew that Koons had been himself seeking to take apart a strategy of appropriation. When El Greco came late to the party of Mannerism, he kept to himself. Today, each player's strategy—appropriated and appropriator alike—hinges on the same thing. We have all been here before.

Déjà nu

Is it tacky to quote Crosby, Stills & Nash? We have all been here before, and reliving the relived begins before the officially postmodern. One had better look first at the 1960s, as when Mike Kelley and Michael Smith head for Burning Man. Only those decades' lush and turbulent sincerity reappears as quotation and camp. Déjà nu?

Ofili's Madonna, better known for its small, distinct, grassy turds, belongs on a tie-dyed T-shirt. It could serve as a model for the perpetual male adolescence of Chelsea fall openings, and yet it, too, looks back—to turd imagery in the unfashionably middle-aged model for Young British Artists, Gilbert & George. In its gentle swirls and smiling face, it looks like a cross between ads for Laugh-In and Aunt Jemima pancakes. Like ads, too, Ofili means no harm. His quotations look back to Barkley L. Hendricks, and he really worships his subjects, so long as they look enough like cartoons.

A smaller, equally turd-laden canvas bears the names of jazz musicians, pretty much all from the heyday of Miles. It would have made a great dorm-room poster for back then. In the painful sincerity of its tribute, it desperately needs a happier time. In his unflagging good nature, Ofili gives new meaning to the phrase good shit. No wonder a spell check on his name turned up offal.

Another Brit, Cecily Brown, turns to the same decade for a slightly different mix of high art and carefree expression. She drops nude women, like a proper Victorian, into gestural abstraction, but not the raunchy intensity of Willem de Kooning classics, much less of Jean-Michel Basquiat's male ego. Increasingly, as in a gallery show a month or so after "Sensation," her naked women have grown cuter and smaller—again, more like 1960s cartoons. Meanwhile, the colors and gestures recall the easy-going beauty of later de Kooning or of Helen Frankenthaler.

In fact, artists everywhere are revisiting that mainstay of post-1960, the snide cartoon. Only, as with cartoons of the new millennium, they have given them overt sexual content. The trend goes beyond the Chapman brothers' infantile sex acts climbing up and down walls out in Brooklyn. It goes beyond Brits who missed "Sensation," such as Stephen Murphy and Vibeke Tandburg. Within a month or two of that show, galleries offered up James Aldridge, Richmond Burton, Mike Cockrill, John Currin, Carroll Dunham, Martin Honert, Fabian Marcaccio, Carl Ostendorp, and Lari Pittman. Over and over, Roy Lichtenstein's bold designs give way to art history from Cranach to Krasner, as seen through the eyes of Marvel Comics, the Road Runner, and Norman Rockwell.

I settle for an alphabetical list because I could live without them all. To celebrate its new Chelsea space, Robert Miller even tried to revive sound sculpture. Harry Bertoia's chiming brass plates and silvery rods needed only lava lamps to finish off the mood.

Testing, one, two . . .

I have started with failures. (In today's intellectual fashions, I suppose that includes the 1960s.) Yet they teach something about the best art I saw in Brooklyn, such as Jenny Saville—or Brown at her best. It all hinges on that same mix of physical threat and almost careless experience of the past.

By now, artists have appropriated pretty much everything. They have plundered modern art, from Walker Evans to Marcel Duchamp. As a brilliant, all-too-loving exhibition made clear to close 1999, Duchamp himself anticipated anything a postmodernist could throw at him. Here in America, he graciously recreated his career under glass for the always willing collector.

When it comes to the shock of the neo-neo or (with thanks to Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl) Neo-Mannerism, though, one justly thinks of Postmodernism and, in particular, the early 1990s. Hal Foster's The Return of the Real delights in it, and his book gives it its finest expression. Have artists merely cheapened Dada's strategies for a mass market? By no means, Foster argues, an argument he also pursues in a textbook on modern art, Art Since 1900 and in a savvy attack on Michael Kimmelman's The Accidental Masterpiece. He is writing about Americans, but his arguments run into curious traps in light of "Sensation."

By repeating the old displacements, Foster claims, artists like Sherrie Levine or the late Duchamp get twice the kick. On the one hand, they finally dispose of the avant-garde, with all its pretensions. They know better than to claim a radical break. At the same time, they recover Dada's biting playfulness, not unlike those 1960s cartoons, not to mention Dada's disdain for the fine arts and commerce. How correct. They have Modernism's cake and eat sensibly, too.

But what happens when appropriation keeps coming back, again and again? Can even raw images of the human body recover its shocks. As fine art and commerce rolled into one, and big time, it draws huge lines. Foster's argument owes much to Rosalind E. Krauss's attack on the "originality of the avant-garde." For all its distrust of radical change, it runs into the same wish to end it all, to step outside the particulars of modern art and of present history.

Levine, best known for her photographs of Evans prints, gave Foster's essay a model for appropriation. Recently, her nostalgia, too, grew more ominous. She presented cast-steel rows of chairs, the kind with built-in desktops, as in my freshman physics lecture hall. Levine wants to associate Minimalism with Modernism—and both with repetition, discipline, and the pressure of a test. But is she the one sending me back to 8:00 A.M. classes? Is her whole decade becoming nothing more than an exam on the past, a world of Ex-AbEx? Will abstract painting's diversity over time liberate its meanings or solidify the monolith?

Commercial anxiety and cartoon pleasures

Perhaps the greatest form of worship is commerce—what another show calls "The Gold Standard." If Ofili could mass produce shit, with his name on each turd as a logo, Giuliani himself might buy one. Ofili could enter the pantheon, welcomed warmly by Jesus, the blessed Virgin, and Lady Di.

The problem is that appropriation works better than Levine ever dreamed. It has never stopped replicating the machinery of the mass market, right along with the art world. Yet today the return of the return does pack a wallop, and it holds out attractions for new artists everywhere. Even worse, both sides of the equation, commerce and recent art, hinge not on the earnestness of ten years ago, but on a more playful spirit. And surprisingly enough, Foster points to just what one needs to sort out why.

Foster's prose—careful, balanced, and painstakingly qualified—mirrors his hope neither to abandon nor to accept Modernism's legacy. John Dewey, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote as God himself would have were he anxious to say something important but temporarily at a loss for words. Holmes could have been talking about Foster, but he had it only half right. I cannot read either Foster or Dewey without being moved by their urgency and anxiety. Paradoxically, that anxiety stems precisely from their care not to seem too urgent, lest it come out simplistic.

When Foster chooses intervention in place of action—or just plain art—he is seeking not the latest critical jargon but the most cautious word. Adept at memorable phrases, he cannot help defusing them with "in a sense." And then the urgency resurfaces, with sentences in italics.

In other words, Foster's prose stands for Modernism's old anxiety after all—just when it is taking up Postmodern critique of the avant-garde. Once again, Modernism's past and present stay alive precisely when they stay most aware of each other.

After the defense of appropriation, the next two chapters complete a sharp, sane look at art trends of a decade ago. The first looks at an art of studied nonmeaning in commercial objects, the world of Jeff Koons. The second tackles a contrary movement, the real of the book's inviting title. Here Foster means art with brutal focus on the body, from the trauma of Warhol car crashes to the theater and abjection of Cindy Sherman. I shall argue that "Sensation" combines them in a manner symptomatic of the present. In the process, it establishes the chain of appropriations to new effect.

Worship, self-abasement, and madness

Foster warns of an easy cynicism behind Postmodern art. He could be describing not just Koons but his appropriators now. What fascinates me still more is the return of his two movements, but now in collision. Damien Hirst replaces the Jeff Koons basketball with a "real" dead cow. Ofili smears shit over his own image, implied in the blackness of his Virgin Mary, as well as those he worships most, from Mary to black jazz greats.

In a sense, Ofili's critics understand him better than he himself. When he protests that his medium has only positive interpretations, I have sometimes felt he cannot be serious. Perhaps we both have missed that the real earth for which he strives necessarily has a dark side, just as the return to the body did for American artists like Chris Burden or Nayland Blake.

Burden and Blake even draws their insight into culture from their playful, naive belief in nature. They turn on the body with the fierce, skeptical attachment of Michel Foucault. Ofili is simply not that good an artist. However, he is revealing all the same, especially in the cuteness of his approach to the same issues.

Everywhere, younger artists combine the flippancy of appropriations art with the physical rawness, violence, and physical risk of performance. It could mean leaders of the Minimalist era, such as Richard Serra, grappling with human form. It could mean Levine's monumental jibe at Minimalism and authority, Glenn Ligon in his increasingly dark play with a black man's words, David Reed's mix of lush abstraction and horror films, or the chaotic video of the 2000 Biennial.

For the Britpack, sure, it means sticking a dead cow into a fish tank or flinging shit at the Virgin. It means adding penises to pop cartoons. Sometimes it even works. Brown's nudes are better the more they open their crotch, as in "Greater New York"—a huge group show at P.S. 1. Rachel Whiteread molds solid forms out of the spaces around things, making Minimalism's openness to the entire room into a thing.

For the British, the combination could harken back to English Modernism's longstanding focus on blood-and-guts. Jenny Saville all but puts tits on an oversized Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud. Then she pushes the images to the edge of a canvas or an entire wall. Besides, close your eyes and think of England. This is the culture that goes into a panic when mad-cow disease scares people off beef.

The doctor is in

Worship, self-abasement, and madness. Repetition of an already imagined, even imaginary past. Displacement of the self in groping for a natural, physical presence. They seem closer and closer, and no wonder. For Freud, no one escapes the compulsion to repeat the past. For Freud, too, that desire culminates in the death wish. It is also a defense against the world, not unlike Modernism or Postmodernism, for that matter.

Somehow Foster misses the connection when it comes to the return of the real. He does so despite a brilliant digression on Jacques Lacan, the psychologist, that makes my primer look pathetically shallow. Foster made the death wish his subject, however, in an even finer, previous book, on Surrealism. And sure enough, British art holds up a sign that the doctor is in. Take the photographs of Sam Taylor-Wood.

Taylor-Wood shows it most clearly in a follow-up show, spanning two gallery spaces blocks apart. One room sets five-foot photos of lonesome figures over a second frame, equally wide but much less tall. The lower shot holds extra-wide-angle panoramas. Their conflicting perspective lead the eye in all directions at once.

In the top, a man tosses in an anxious dream or stands furtively in an always unfamiliar street. A dark-haired woman lies with her back to the camera, facing a small, tilted mirror. Her pose, her slim body, and her setting all come straight from Ingres. The bottom scenes, like their perspective, split wildly. A dozen or so standing figures engage in athletically challenging sex acts.

If the top figures seem immobile or asleep, call the bottom their dreams. For these chic, tormented souls, the ego restlessly overlays the id. I suppose that leaves the sheer size of these photos—and the artist herself—as the superego, proclaiming lofty words like sorrow and ascension. I can hear her now, sternly chiding me for my interest, like Levine with her examination room. How dare I believe in the work's sincerity!

In another gallery, a single video turns the darkened room into a loud party. A half-dozen screens, of irregular size, have even more irregular use of close-ups. One struggles to make out a single word above the music. One struggles as well to turn away from the bottles of booze, from a long-haired woman's frenetic dance, or form the sad, stoic, half-sober stares on two much older faces. As with the first gallery, I found the work more than a little fascinating but disliked feeling chided for interest I had not shown in the first place. I felt chided, too, for not recognizing one of the faces as Marianne Faithful.

Repetition and difference

Like anyone else, I want to keep score. Sure, I wish that Whiteread, Saville, and some of Brown received half the mass-media attention of Hirst, Ofili, and New York's mayor. I could happily trade Taylor-Wood for a photographer who could stage such cryptic nightmares in tight places, but without reference to the artist's own in-crowd. I think of Sherman, but also Deborah Mesa-Pelly, a newcomer who made "Greater New York" after a terrific gallery exhibition.

I want even more, though, to look at the compulsion to repeat Postmodernism's defenses. Maybe that combination is why the British are so influential these days. Recycled a decade later and combined, the old trends have different meaning now.

Once appropriation meant Dada, the promise of an avant-garde, a rebellion. A decade ago, it meant Postmodernism, the refusal of any avant-garde. Foster boasted that Levine, Hans Haacke, and others had somehow pulled off all the insights of Modernism without its fallacies.

But what happens to his theory when the dream of escape and rebellions repeats itself yet another time? It loses something, replicating the gallery system's absorption of everything and anything into commerce. It also gains something decidedly human and traditional, for it starts to call one's attentions to small differences. One sees each version as a permutation on an original that never existed. One sees it, in short, as a carrier of meaning and play.

Structuralists spoke of language that way, as a chain of signifiers always in motion. With each new word, one discovers new particulars in experience, through the very smallest differences in sound and sense. Deconstruction made that word difference into a destroyer of fixed meaning, a tool to unleash the contradictions in every system. I include a particularly ominous system—the art world.

Has the latest round of appropriations unleashed the chain at last? Has art become free to revel in particulars, after decades of knowing irony? Has it instead simply accepted the terms of commerce and museum power? Has it become nothing more than a tool for petty politicians and ad campaigns? Or has it accepted the dark side of both at once, ending up as art's death wish?

The blockbuster today offer up fears, pleasure, power games, and confusion all at once. What looked so important only five years ago now look like passing trends. Artists really have regained the chance to make meanings of their own again. Modernism and Postmodernism still have the chance to face off creatively, the constant awareness of each other. They pay a price for it, though. As the proverb goes, we live in interesting times.

Repetition and criticism

In their own way, Richard Serra and the Minimalist generation have been approaching the same conflicts, but from the other side. Instead of allowing cartoon Madonnas and fish tanks into an obsession with beef and shit, they are bringing the physical into the abstract humanity of another era. Even Levine does something similar, something surprisingly close to Whiteread's white casts.

Denuded starkly of human presence, her exam room brings art's institutions and its very inhumanity to the surface. At the same time, by appropriating the past, in gorgeous grays at that, she immerses art again in human constructs and human society.

On the other hand, all that monumental beauty had a dark side. It spoke of how much of art's openness she can no longer accept. A real Minimalist would have let me sit in those chairs. After all, I could walk on Donald Judd's tiles or bathe in Dan Flavin's light. In short, she cannot believe what I see emerging, in England and elsewhere, as a cartoon sense of play.

Now I know what the dung means. Ofili flings it at tradition, just as a Renaissance work slung dark shadows over the Madonna in place of the gold leaf and hierarchic demeanor more befitting the queen of heaven. He defines tradition as western, in light of his African heritage. Meanwhile, as a Catholic, he reenacts a moment in Western art's greatest achievements. He hardly recognizes the death wish lurking in his art's abjection. Shit happens.

Ofili may not make good art—or even shocking art. But then realism, art, and morality are tough concepts.

Politicians and museum advertising think it elitist to ask what something means before being shocked by it. So call me elitist. Or I could just be repeating the modernist compulsion to escape one elite for another. Trapped in appropriating old ideas about the modern, I could just be reveling in a critic's own death wish.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Sensation" ran at The Brooklyn Museum through January 9, 2000. I draw gratefully on Hal Foster's The Return of the Real (MIT Press, 1996). Among quite a few other gallery exhibitions, I mention in particular winter 2000 shows of Marcel Duchamp at Achim Moeller, Sherrie Levine at Paula Cooper, Deborah Mesa-Pelly at Lombard-Freid, and Sam Taylor-Wood at Matthew Marks. The "Dilbert" strip (© United Feature Syndicate, Inc.) ran September 30, 2000.


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