Archive for the Modernism and artistic failure Category

Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Because this site by design is concerned with the lofty idea of chronicling systemic artistic failure–following developments in arts policy, art world economics, the social condition of art, and the like–it may sometimes seem disconnected from the struggles of real artists on the ground. But of course, the reason I look at and write about these forces is because I am truly concerned about their effect on artists.

What I mean to say is, in the midst of my rants and deep investigations of this country’s unjust treatment of the arts I do realize we should remember the struggling artists who have come and gone and are still yet to fail. We should remember them and try to keep others from following in their miserable footsteps.

So, to remember the struggles of artists I’m introducing a new regular feature on CAFA, Favorite Failed Artist Stories.

And here’s the first story, Amedeo Modigliani:

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884–1920) was an Italian artist who, following the long-standing tradition, moved to Paris in 1906 to work as a painter. He worked furiously when he arrived in that town, making myriad images first influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, then, in 1907, by Paul Cezanne. Eventually he developed his own unique style, one that cannot really be grouped with other avant garde artists of the time.

Not only was Modigliani’s style unique, but his behavior also stood out among his peers of the time, even considering the Bohemian standards they upheld. He carried on frequent affairs, drank heavily, and used absinthe and hashish. While drunk at social gatherings, he would sometimes strip himself naked. In time, his childhood tendency toward illness was exacerbated by poverty, overwork, and self-abuse. His health declined. On January 24, 1920, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis. He was 35. The following evening, his common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, leapt to her death from a fifth-story window. She was eight months’ pregnant with their second child,

And here’s the kicker of the story:

During the 1920s, in the wake of Modigliani’s early death and spurred on by comments by the critic Andre Salmon, who credited hashish and absinthe as the progenitors of Modigliani’s unique style, many hopeful young artists tried to emulate this “success” by embarking on a path of Modiglianian substance abuse and bohemian excess. This was encouraged by Salmon’s claim that whereas Modigliani was a rather pedestrian artist when sober, “…from the day he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art.”

This rallying cry—toward debauchery and excess—has grown to become the modern hallmark of the romantic soul longing to be a tragic, doomed artist. For this—the great seed source of failed artists everywhere—we can thank Modigliani and his posthumous propagandist Salmon!

Before I reveal more about how The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America defines the term “artistic failure,” here are two interesting quotations on the matter. The first is very recent, and discusses the built-in tendency of modernist art to “fail.” The second is from the 2005 movie Stay.

From the September, 2007, edition of the Brooklyn Rail, in an interview of Jay Bernstein, Chair and University Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research:

Rail: There’s a point where you speak of art’s necessity to undertake impossible acts.

Bernstein: Modern art is the only kind of art that needs to, and does flag, its own constitutive failure. Every work of modernist art necessarily fails. When I say this I mean not by failing in artistic terms, but in failing at the one thing that art really wants to do: to be part of the world, to be real and not semblance. Art only exists in its distance from everyday life, and yet no art wants that distance. The fundamental impulse, I believe, of every artist is that art should be worldly—not an autonomous area, not stuck in museums, but part of how we make sense of ourselves in the world. The perverse ambition of minimalism to make mere things—which of course art as art cannot do—was a deep and authentic impulse. Even the most successful modernist art, in that very success, necessarily fails. The best of modern art has refined ways of acknowledging this failure. Because we hate the idea of failure and love the idea of success and achievement, it’s not easy to say that art lives off of its incapacity, lives off of its constant failing. But I think that’s right.

From the movie Stay, a character named Henry Letham (played by Ryan Gosling) quotes the imaginary artist Tristan Reveur:

“Bad art is more tragically beautiful than good art, because it documents human failure.”