Art as Art, Anti-Art, Post-Art

June 30th, 2008  |  Published in Art and Literature

The Museum of Modern Art's survey of the work of Olafur Eliasson was fittingly titled Take Your Time. The best of his installations seem unremarkable at first, and only reveal their depth to those viewers who linger and contemplate them beyond the point when the casual museum-goer has walked away. (Whereas the lesser works pique an immediate interest that is quickly sated.) In Wall eclipse, a light shines onto a rotating mirror, casting shadows and deflected light onto the walls. The complete rotation takes several minutes, and only then does its nature become fully apparent: a cube rotates in a virtual space, black on one side and luminous on the other; at a certain moment, the shadow face blots out an entire wall.

In the gallery above Eliasson there is, by happenstance, a small exhibition of a few works by Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. Only five Reinhardt paintings are represented; of these, only two are really memorable. And yet the show confirms Reinhardt's overlooked importance, for these are two of the most important paintings of the twentieth century. They are among the famous ``black paintings'', compositions of nearly featureless canvasses made up of either solid black or rectangles of nearly indistinguishable near-blacks. They are thrilling to see up close. Moreover, they mark the moment which Reinhardt lived through and memorialized and that, in retrospect, appears as a critical turning point in the history of culture: the end of art.

This not to say the end of the aesthetic, or of painting, or of beauty. Rather, it is the end of a specific historical configuration that corresponds to the capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth century. What has ended is the work of art as an autonomous, detached, and potentially transcendent thing. Art as replacement for God, as beyond politics and everyday life. Eliasson, for example, is not an artist in this sense. His environments are immersive, and yet it is precisely this quality that prevents them from existing as autonomous art objects. He enhances and colors the environment rather than creating something that stands outside of it.

Eliasson's work also fits comfortably within the parameters of contemporary consumer culture. To speak of co-opting or assimilating his work to capital would be redundant: his identity with the needs and prerequisites of commodity production is absolute. The installations are prototypes for the environmental modifications soon to appear in forward thinking cocktail lounges and waterfront condominiums. Works like I only see things when they move, with its kaleidoscope of colors marching across the walls, or Negative quasi brick wall's undulating and glittering interiors, are captivating but ultimately empty. Ignorable background visuals, they become part of the stylish ambience of life in the new professional managerial class. Although perhaps Eliasson's trajectory is better illustrated by another of his projects in New York City: a series of artificial waterfalls, constructed with the blessings of mayor Michael Bloomberg, which will line the East River through the summer of 2008. If Bloomberg is a CEO mayor who has sought to remake the entrepreneurial city into New York, Inc., then Eliasson is just the man to commission for the atrium at corporate headquarters: a spectacle for the masse; a promethean engineering achievement to underscore the organization's power; a pleasant image devoid of subversive or critical content. The roar of the waterfalls cannot mask the sound of real estate capital, valorizing itself.

Faced with the decay of art into commerce, it is tempting to demand something more of Eliasson. But what exactly? Ad Reinhardt's example shows the difficulty of demanding more. He reacted directly to the tendencies that would culminate in an artist like Eliasson, which first burst into view in the 1960's. Then, they were radical and disruptive, advanced with the fervor of those who would break down the stale dogmas of high art. First came the anti-artists: Dada, Fluxus, Situationism. Using parodic forms and recycled cultural fragments, they ridiculed and devalued the heroic pretentions of art, its delusions of autonomy and integrity. Perhaps this is what Reinhardt means when he explains the concept underpinning the black paintings: ``a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless relationless, disinterested painting -- an object that is self-conscious `no unconsciousness' ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art `absolutely no anti-art'.'' He crafts objects that are built to resist the irreverent bricolage of the anti-artists.

In the long run, however, the real threat to art was posed from another side, by the post-art movements that tended to dissolve high art into low, and thereby assimilate it to the logic of commodity production and the culture industry. The Lenin of these revolutionaries, and the key figure in the movement to annihilate art, was Andy Warhol. He announced with characteristic bravado that ``making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art'', and at a stroke he turned the existential anguish of his forbears into a pile of nonsensical false problems, while at the same time re-unifying the imperative of art with the reigning business ethics of capitalist society. No doubt the hedge fund kingpins, surrounded by the abstract expressionist masterpieces hanging in their lobbies, smile serenely to themselves when they contemplate Warhol's prophecy.

Reinhardt's paintings can be seen as an attempt to resist and defy this onrushing order, a last stand in defense of art. Which is not to say that they are anti-capitalist, or political at all in any intelligible way. They are opposed to any subsumption of art beneath a larger social project, whether that of capital or that of the left. For the power of these paintings comes, first of all, from their implacable anonymity, the lack of texture and character that Reinhardt speaks of. They refuse to be anything other than themselves, to have any meaning other than the brute fact of their existence. But more important even than this, the paintings maintain their power because they are essentially resistant to reproduction. They are destroyed by any attempt at a copy: on a postcard or a print, they become meaningless black squares. In their physical presence, however, the blackness takes on depth and richness, demanding the viewer's attention and producing a flickering illusion of shapes and textures. You must go to these paintings, for they cannot come to you. They are singular objects, and cannot be wrenched out of their hiding places and put to use for the polemical or commercial purposes of others.

Reinhardt has this in common with Eliasson: his work, too, demands prolonged engagement and attention before its meaning becomes apparent. But where Eliasson aims only to provoke a pleasant sense of wonder, Reinhardt's black paintings are full of dread and foreboding. Eliasson's Beauty, an indoor rainbow produced by a waterfall in a darkened room, invites introspection and contemplation much as Reinhardt's black rectangles do. But the repose its shimmer invites is one that is shorn of all the disturbing and challenging elements of the black paintings; it turns us into regional vice-presidents, doing a bit of meditation and Buddhist chanting at the end of a long day's work. Reinhardt poses a challenge of an altogether different order, and his paintings unnerve rather than reassure. As objects that can be neither interpreted nor reproduced, they envelop the viewer in a private space without indulging in the illusion that there can be anywhere safe from the relentless march of capital accumulation in the world outside. If the ultimate effect is a sort of nihilist oblivion---if, that is, they ultimately amount to the expression of a kind of living death---then this feels like a depressing but honest settling of accounts with the world in which the paintings exist.

It seems that Reinhardt meant his black paintings to be ramparts, from which to defend what he called ``art as art'', timeless and ``post-historic''. The paintings are not a response or a reaction to anti- and post-art so much as they are an active assault on them, an attempt to dispel their malign force. ``An artist-as-artist / Has always nothing to say, / And he must say this over and over again.'' For ``A fine artist by definition is not a commercial / or industrial or fashion / or applied or useful artist.'' And yet the polemics and pranks of the anti-artists were no alternative; ``A fine artist has nothing to use, / has no need for any meaning, / and would not use himself or his work for anything.'' Only a posture of immoderate refusal, he thought, could overcome the vulgarizing and cheapening forces then being brought to bear on art.

Inasmuch as he produced something that could not be assimilated or re-appropriated by the Warholians and anti-artists, Reinhardt succeeded. And yet the edifice he constructed became, in the end, a tombstone. For Reinhardt could always be ignored. To refuse spectacle, to refuse image, to refuse reproduction: this is, in our times, to remain silent. And he has been silent; his ambitions, if they are remembered at all, are viewed as a curious memento of a time when artists still believed in the world-shaping power of their works. If we let Reinhardt speak in his own words, the ludicrous arrogance of his ambitions only confirms that he bears the message of some social force that was long ago defeated and beaten into submission.

Yet we shut out his voice at the peril of falling into the errors he had already forseen. At MOMA, his paintings stand next to those of Rothko, still celebrated---and who, like Eliasson, was fascinated by light and color, but who still believed in the possibility of transcendent expression in art. After the reproach of Reinhardt's absolute negation of art, Rothko's paintings, for all their beauty, seem quaint and naive. And today, anyone who does ``painting'' in the old way is engaged in a basically fraudulent enterprise, aping a dead style in order to lubricate the circuits of accumulation in a hypertrophied art market. To take refuge in the aesthetic is to prop up an ideology of beauty which, as Fredric Jameson says, can today only be meretricious. And yet a turn to the ``political'' is equally implausible, in the absence of any movement in the deeper layers of society as a whole. Witness, for example, the stale nostalgia politics of the warmed-over ``peace tower'' at the 2006 Whitney biennial---along with the  pathetic intervention of Richard Serra, whose agitprop drawing of an Abu Ghraib prisoner only underscored the art world's isolation from the realities of war and state terror.

All of this leaves the artist with little room to maneuver, and in this context Eliasson's limitations can be viewed more sympathetically. And within those limits, his work is not empty of value. He is, above all, a craftsman who uses light itself as a medium with unequalled facility. The entryway to his exhibition is bathed in a harsh, narrow yellow light; the effect of Room for one colour is to render the entire space monochromatic. The tour de force of the show, however, is 360' room for all colours, a circular room whose blank walls gradually change colors. The piece harnesses the ability of light to shape perceptions and emotions, even as it successfully abstracts light itself, independent of the things it illuminates, as a compositional element. The visitor experiences one mood after another: daybreak; an overcast fall day; the underwater light of an aquarium; the crumbling of sunlight into dusk; the harsh neon of the nightclub. At the auxiliary exhibition at P.S. 1, another piece makes a more focused use of the same technique: The natural light setup uses a light box on the ceiling to immerse the visitor in a sequence of permutations of daylight, each evoking a different emotional state.

In his guise as a phenomenologist of the science of light, Eliasson is perhaps best compared to artists like Albers or Moholy-Nagy, whose abstract and schematic images crossed the line between art and design. Like a typographer or a graphic artist, Eliasson is a technician of everyday life, deconstructing the elements of our surroundings in order to effectively cajole or manipulate an audience. Such skills are adaptable to the advertising agency just as much as the gallery floor. But if he gives no reason to doubt that art as art ceased to exist after Reinhardt, Eliasson's work does suggest that the new art-as-corporate-handmaiden is not without its real pleasures and joys.

At P.S. 1, there is one other juxtaposition that, as with Reinhardt, illuminates Eliasson's position. On a stairway leading up to his galleries, Markus Copper's Kursk occupies a darkened room. Inside, there is barely room to navigate along the walls. The center of the room is taken up with a set of diving suits hung from the ceiling, facing away from the viewer toward a wall. The suits move erratically; lights come on and off from inside their helmets; a hissing sound fills the room; the suits all appear to be looking toward something the viewer cannot see, and periodically there is a loud clanking sound. The effect is disturbing and sometimes terrifying; visitors often exit with distraught expressions. The contrast with Eliasson's lighthearted and non-threatening confections could not be more stark. And yet Copper's work would not be recognizable to Ad Reinhardt as Art, any more than Eliasson's. The purpose of such a brutal display is to provoke unease about the entire museum experience; it reminds us that life is elsewhere, and that it is disturbing.

All of these artists are symptoms of something: the death of the utopian impulse in contemporary culture. Some of this, perhaps, is due to the loss of art's debunking or defamiliarizing function, its mission to lay bare the truth about our cherished national ideologies. Such work is now superfluous for, as Jameson remarks, the project of actively deluding the masses is redundant. ``the mass of people . . . do not themselves have to believe in any hegemonic ideology of the system, but only to be convinced of its permanence". The artists, it seems, are equally convinced. They find themselves caught between the comfortable life of beautifying capitalism, and the unrewarding calling of denouncing one's own career and one's audience, attempting to break the spell of art by repulsing the viewer and forcing them out into the world. Ultimately, neither is a solution to anything. Art, as also politics, must come to recognize ``a better world in birth'', to identify and evangelize for those elements of our present life that point toward some entirely different, better future. Failing that, we are left with Eliasson's inconsequential lights, and Reinhardt's terrible darkness.

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