Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sincerity and Popular Art

My father worked in the art history department at the University of Minnesota and at the Walker Art Center when I was a kid. His passion was contemporary art, what would be called modernist art now, and he was fascinated by living artists. Both my parents belonged to the generation that read T.S. Eliot, Pound, Proust, Joyce -- all the high modernists. So I was exposed to avant guard art and artists.

It was art that was self-expressive and self-examining, an art about art and the individual psyche, not easily accessible for the most part, and not intended to be popular.

That was my idea of art as a kid, though I was also exposed to jazz and folk music and grand opera, a popular art in Italy if not the US. On my own, I found comics and science fiction, though my parents might have introduced me to mysteries.

The artists my father knew best, the Abstract Expressionists, had done WPA art during the 30s and were politically progressive. Mark Rothko told my mother in the 1960s that he still carried his IWW card, and you can see Philip Guston's politics in his late art: terrifying images of ruined buildings, ancient battered shoes and the Klu Klux Klan.

I have wondered if these artists became abstract in response to the political reaction after the War. No one could attack them for their politics, if there were no recognisable images in their art.

What they gained was safety and the chance to explore pure style. For the most part, their art is beautiful -- vivid colors, wonderful textures, wonderful patterns and shapes. But they ended with an art which did not reach ordinary people. Instead, it appealed to critics, curators and rich collectors.

Maybe I should cut the artists some slack. This was the generation that went through the Great Depression and World War II. Maybe they needed some simple beauty.

If I am right that they were keeping a low profile in the 1950s, then their art -- lovely as it was -- was not entirely sincere. There were things they were not saying, because they didn't want the hassle. (They did get hassle for being abstract, but that wasn't as bad as the hassle people were getting for being on the left.)

At the time, I was reading science fiction, because its paranoid vision of a future of police states and radioactive wastelands seemed real to me.

I'm not sure where this is leading. Science fiction in the 50s was deeply disturbing and true to the age, as was Mad Magazine and the EC horror comics, and these were all popular art forms.

At one point, I tried to argue that McCarthyism drove art into several defenses: be abstract, be fantastic or be something for kids, since art for kids was not taken seriously. This last is not entirely true, since there were Congressional investigations of comics, and rock music was roundly condemned by most of the white adult world. But corrupting the young is not as bad as being a Communist or Socialist.

Am I arguing that McCarthyism destroyed sincerity in American culture? Maybe.

There is the story about a group of Soviet journalists who travel through the US. At the end of their tour, they say, "How do you do it? Everywhere we go in this country, there is the same message, which is the government's message with only slight variations. In order to get this result in the Soviet Union, we have to jail hundreds of journalists."

One might argue that Geli Korzhev (in my previous post) is sincere the way that Norman Rockwell was sincere. I suspect Rockwell believed in what he painted, though I find his art profoundly dishonest. It was popular because many Americans wanted to see America through Rockwell's rosy, middle class glasses; and because the powers that be -- the Saturday Evening Post -- liked the message his art sent. "We are all white and happy here, and life has no real problems."

Not that Korzhev's gritty, gray art is at all like Rockwell's rosy images of cute, small town Americans.


Blogger delagar said...

I've been following this latest run of posts -- I don't have a real comment yet, except to agree on Rockwell, who has always drawn me like bad porn. mr. delagar is doing a film on a local artist here in the AR area, Kevin Arnorld, who comes over to our house when our issue of New American Paintings arrives, so he can page through it and fume.

6:07 AM  

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