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The Art of the
Last Man

by Miles Mathis

In a recent New Yorker article Louis Menand cites a poll on the definition of art and shares the answer given by several well-known people "in the arts" (curators and critics, but no artists). The consensus is that everything is art. This poll is used to confirm what Mr. Menand calls "pluralism," an art theory of all-inclusion. Mr. Menand subtly undercuts some of the assumptions of this theory, but like all printable journalists in this age of "fairness" he does not strongly advance his opinion, or any opinion. He makes a few observations: leaving us to our own greater wisdom, one supposes.

I might have passed over this article, in the sagacious silence we have all adopted toward art, had he not quoted Robert Rosenblum, the curator at the Guggenheim. Rosenblum said this: "By now the idea of defining art is so remote I don't think anyone would dare to do it." I considered what this might mean. We have apparently become so afraid of dogma that we have put the discussion of a whole field of enterprise off-limits. We are allowed to to say "I like it," or "I don't like it." But to become personally interested in art to the extent of making judgments is now considered not just presumptuous, but regressive, atavistic. What kind of humunculi and homunculae have we become?

Of course the discussion is not really being closed to prevent dogma or guarantee progress, although that is what we are meant to think. "Tolerance" is simply the current pseudo-political shibboleth disguising job-protection. What Rosenblum is really saying is this: "Art Moderne is so entrenched, its definition so useful to so many people, from curators and gallery owners to critics and magazine editors, from MFA candidates and college faculty to art historians and book publishers, that it is now absurdly quixotic for anyone who aspires to any position in the arts to even open his mouth. It is professional suicide. The opposition has been successfully and completely predefined as intellectually inferior, emotionally unrealized, and politically recidivistic. Only a beserker would attack now."

Well, I suppose artists have always been madmen. They do not weigh the costs very well. Van Gogh said,

But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean, must I consider this when I love? No—no reckoning; one loves because one loves. Then we keep our heads clear, and do not cloud our minds, nor do we hide our feelings, nor smother the fire and light, but simply say, "Thank God I love."

Foolish sentimentalism in this day and age, perhaps. Still, I think I will take his side. I will take Rosenblum's "dare." I will offer a definition of art. Not as a final pronouncement, but as a re-entry into the historical dialogue of artists. I am not afraid of an argument. Nor am I afraid of offending the avant garde, the institutionalization of offense. Modernism, which boasts of rising on the ashes of the past, should not be so easily burned.

Nietzsche called the human product of cultural decadence "the last man." The victim of an atrophied will, this psychological resultant of an all-engulfing egalite would be incapable of art or polemic. The last man would demur, and blink.

Pluralism is the art of the last man. Creativity, like all else, has been subsumed within fraternite, and no one would now be so cruel as to deny that his brother is also an artist. Art is everything. And nothing. The only sin is pride, the mistake of eminence. And the discussion of art has followed the example of art itself. Those in the arts have become droopy-eyed cynics, who, like Bartleby, "prefer not to." In this soporific milieu, beneath the opiate-umbra of Modernism, it has already been made it clear what may be art and what may not be art in the future, so that those on the inside would only be harming themselves by any dissention; and those on the outside—that is, the public—must be kept in a constant laissez-faire posture, for their disinterest suits Modernism just fine. If everyone can be kept sleeping for just a while longer, the Cheshire Cat will be nothing but grin, and only criticism will know the joke.

But once, quoth the Hyperborean, the spoiler of festivals, art was one thing and not another. There was both the signifier and the signified. Once, when the Muse still rose from the belly of the sea to anoint her lovers, to breathe salt-kisses into the mouths of the dreaming, the traveler kept a log—he knew where he had been. The artist defined art. He did not pause to consult committees or curators. He did not wait for a hearty thumbs-up from those on shore. He fortified a precise position, not as an advocate but as a believer, because it was his, and began building the most lofty structure that might bear its own weight. As Nietzsche said,

This is my good. This I love. It pleases me wholly. Thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need; it shall not be a signpost for me to over-earths and paradises. It is an earthly virtue I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all the reason of all men.

In Nietzche's time it was considered a sign of health for a field to have high levels of contention and disagreement, protagonists and antagonists going at eachother in high emotion. Then, strong attachment was not necessarily a sign of intolerance or ignorance, but might be a sign of intimacy, of privity or perception. Now, assurance is allowed only on the radio, never in the upper reaches of scholarship. The "Olympian malice" of a Goethe now defines the buffoon, never the genius. But was philosophy healthier, more productive, when Hegel was going after Kant, and Schopenhauer going after both, and Nietzsche pouncing on all, or is it healthier now, in the reign of the Nains, the tiny? Was art healthier when Ingres and Delacroix were at eachother's throats, and when Whistler and Courbet and Manet and Zola and Baudelaire were vying for laurels, or now, when art theory is taboo? Art cannot exist in a cultural and theoretical vacuum. Nor can it exist within a square ruled off by the insignificant. Pluralism is not a liberating, equal-opportunity advance in art-historical awareness. It is an enervating sign that no one gives a damn one way or the other. A thousand articles on "the end of art" don't seem to be leaving anyone in tears, as long as criticism survives. The game is self-perpetuating as long as something, anything, is being analyzed. Duchamp long ago proved that the object, and therefore the artist, is immaterial. Once we accept Brillo boxes or cows as interesting artifacts, we have thereby also eviscerated the creative impulse of the artist. When art has devolved to the level of a sixth-grade science project, or show-and-tell, one might as well play chess.

Mr. Menand makes the philosophical-sounding statement that "art is whatever people say it is." This is not an assertion, though, it is a truism. Meaning that, as an argument, it says nothing. It is polemically neutral. Of course art is whatever people say it is. The question is "what is art when people refuse to say what art is?" Or, to put it another way, "what does it mean for a culture when that culture, by default, says everything is art?" I maintain that it means the culture is approaching Last Manhood. Scientifically and Economically we still show some signs of life. We still demand that "physics" means something. We demand that "mathematics" means something. We demand that "money" means something. But our creative needs and our creative abilities seem to be devolving simultaneously. It is not surprising that some of us can't offer more interesting "creations" than cowheads: talent has never been distributed equally. What is disturbing is that the near-complete disappearance of high art has not caused an outcry. I define high art as the marriage of great skill and deep emotion. Our museums and our museum goers have not noticed, or find it relatively unimportant, that almost no 20th century artists have delivered, or even attempted, high art.

Many seem to retain some residual need for this old-fashioned sort of art. How else to explain the continued popularity of Michelangelo and Rodin, Bach and Mozart, Rembrandt and van Gogh? But as a people we seem satisfied with the death of that art. We watch the killing of the sacred cow with a detached bemusement. As if a dead cow will last forever. But Mr. Hirst has shown us that it is not so.

Robert Hughes has called art a "source of spiritual replenishment." Bach and van Gogh may be such sources, but Warhol and Hirst, Freud and Bacon cannot be. Warhol was purposefully a wellspring of nothing; and the others, although perhaps rich in content, are admittedly messengers of another sort.

But we, as the "people who say what art is," are not required to embrace the messenger just because he arrives with a package he has labelled art. I contend that we do more damage to ourselves and our culture by refusing to discriminate, than any damage we could possibly do through discrimination. I say that I not only have a right to my opinion on art beyond "I don't like it," I enrich art by finding it important enough to have a considered opinion on, and offering that opinion to the art-historical dialectic. I do not propose legislating or censoring any art. I propose arguing about art, artist to artist, because only automatons want a closed discussion, a final contract. I propose encouraging art that we choose to encourage. Making decisions based on our own desires and needs, as people have always done, and fine-tuning or changing those decisions as they become unworkable or indefensible.

I maintain that this is not being done. Robert Hughes occasionally draws the line with the antics of a Schnabel or a Finley, and I find his powers of deflation refreshing. But so much of 20th century art is sacred—not artistically convincing, but a brick in the theoretical wall—and therefore still hands-off, even for Hughes. It is not that I want Hughes to become a theorist: the last thing art needs is another Clement Greenberg. But artists need to attack contemporary art theory, not in snide pseudo-creative reactions to their 20th century precursors, but in admittedly ex post facto contextualizing of works they have created for their own artistic reasons. That is, first, artists need to relearn their craft and, dipping into their emotional wells—ignoring criticism and recent art history—again offer self-justifying artifacts. Then, once they have done this, they need to gain acceptance for these works by reinventing a modern theory to contain them and to defeat all standing theories—theories promulgated by critics, not artists.

The dialogue among artists was more interesting in the 19th century, when artists were their own theorists. Many conflicting opinions were advanced, opinions backed up by works, and artists were capable of both art and art criticism. Emile Zola, Charles Baudelaire, James Whistler, Leo Tolstoy, Auguste Rodin: all these creators also wrote important articles or books about art. Even then, the word tended to usurp the visual image (think of Tennyson's overbearing influence on the Pre-Raphaelites, or Baudelaire's illogical influence on painting). But I think it is much less destructive to have painting influenced by poetry than by criticism. Poetry and painting are both synthetic. They are closely related forms of creativity. But criticism is analytic, its methods just the opposite of inspiration. Criticism is born in the frontal lobes, circumscribed by language and reason. Poetry and painting arise in the Id, resonate from the limbic system, surrounded by dreams. In the 19th century, even when the theories were wrong, as in some of Baudelaire or Zola, they were wrong about art's necessary social implications, not about art's definition, art's impulse. Baudelaire and Zola, as fond as they were of theory, would never have thought of arguing that art arose from theory. Art remained primary; its uses and explication, secondary. The artist's analysis was preceded and informed by his synthesis, by his superior forms of creation, and these creations justified his position as theorist.

Now, though, theory is the source, the mother of all creations. Social criticism supplies the rubric and art supplies the examples. Art has become the last religion of social reformation, and the critic is its self-appointed priest. Art is now just a tool of agitprop, but this degraded role appears to shame no one. On the contrary, the contemporary artist revels in his own vulgarity, flaunts his artistic disabilities: he is already forgiven his sins to art by the casuistry of the critic/cardinal, flush with indulgences. He is convinced of his heroic status as dismantler of the machine of oppression.

And so the ends justify the meanness of modern art. The ends being, first, the extinction of talent as a concept in art, and second, the resulting freedom of all people to be creatively enfranchised in the remolding of the artworld. Art may never again be exclusive. It must always be inclusive. No one wants to admit, though, that this anti-hierarchical approach is finally childish and nihilistic, and that it has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy is about equal opportunity and fairness. By extension, it may also be about the logic of compassion and cooperation. But it is not about enforced sameness. It is not about blindness to differing abilities and to the need for the very-abled. We may pretend that everyone is equally artistic, but I fail to see how this does anyone any good. The Getty Center and other powerful institutions lobby for art education that does not discriminate based on talent. How is this progressive, much less logical? The unartistic are not fooled by such patronizing: their inferiority complexes will rage on regardless. But the artistic thereby become pariahs. And no one, neither the masses, nor the intellectuals, nor the unartistic artists, gets to live with art. All of them must steal time with the old masters, sneaking a guilty peek under the covers as with a dirty magazine. That or let the soul continue to shrivel along with the genitals, and pass it off as historical necessity.

But eminence is not exclusionary, and to continue to pretend that it is, is simply invidious. Great art is a boon to all, not just to the great. As an example, what viewer does Michelangelo's David exclude? Those who truly love this sculpture love it not for its biblical theme or its place in the politics of Florence. It is loved for its beauty and grandeur. Only the truly troubled could find fault with such a work. If beauty and grandeur are to be stamped out because they oppress the pinched and homely, then we had better attack the clouds and the stars as well. The moon should be theoretically disabled; and everything sleek and healthy removed as an eyesore (it might be argued that we are near to doing all these things as well.) But the David excludes no viewer. Nor does it exclude any competitor. Less ambitious creations have always co-existed with the more ambitious, and no classical artist ever argued for the suppression of crafts, or the exclusionary right to self-expression. In fact, among the healthy, excellence has always been an encouragement to further achievement, of whatever level. Nietzsche called the "overman" the bridge by which future artists could cross over. Not a wall; a bridge. A high-water mark for the ambitious; not a ceiling looming over the puny. Clement Greenberg complained that the Renaissance masters, by virtue of their accomplishments, squelched future creativity. But this is the most ridiculous claim in the history of criticism. Every artist you could name for 400 years, from 1500 to 1900, was encouraged by the examples of the Renaissance, and entered the field from a love and respect for the works of the great artists of history. Did Rodin create the Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais because he was oppressed by Michelangelo and Ghiberti? To disdain, like Duchamp, the works of your ancestors because they are beyond you was once tantamount to announcing your own tininess, and was grounds for being permanently ignored. Now it is a sign of of distinction. What other proof of lastmanhood is necessary?

Art is the creation of extraordinary artifacts; and definite abilities, innate and acquired, are necessary to the production of art. Abilities that are not universal. Abilities that are rare. To deny this is not to be progressive, it is to be evasive. To deny this is not a sign of tolerance or inclusion, it is a sign of envy. Or, as Nietzsche said, ressentiment.

Resentment, for Nietzsche, was the defining character of the decadent. Decadence is not (as we are told by the immodest lastpeople) the pseudo-glamour of sexual perversion or the "gothic" descendence into anti-style or the philosophic polymorphism of the esoterically confused or even the glittering neuroticism of the always newly-interesting. In this context it is simply the reaction to real achievement. Duchamp and Warhol are the epitomes of this attitude. I need not prove it here; they admitted it, revelled in it. Even Picasso, infinitely more talented than them, conceded in one of his moments of candor that he had simply accepted the degraded position of a "condemned" art and had "satisfied the critics with all the many bizarre notions which have come into my head and the less they understood the more they admired them. . . . I am only the entertainer of a public which understands its age."

What Picasso understood was that decadence is the hallmark of 20th century art. Now, to the preternaturally pierced lastcult, decadence is imagined to be progressive, the key to the future. Even Camille Paglia, whom I otherwise admire, embraces decadence, preferring to be "of her time." One cannot be authentic unless one is au courant. To be healthy among the diseased is to lack sympathy. And of course it limits ones ability to become famous. But, one may point out, for destruction to be progressive requires a turnaround at some point. It requires rebuilding. Decadents, however, do not build. Healthy people build. Contemporary art and criticism are not qualified to rebuild because they are theoretically predetermined to analyze, to deconstruct, to "clear the way." Now, after all the lovely leveling and libel and scarification and tattooing, after the century of implosion, we must ask, "To clear the way for what?" It is pointless to continue strafing barren ground, bombing the surface of the moon. Criticism has proven in the last decade that it needs no grist to grind out its living: it can apparently exist on air, analyzing its own eyeballs ad infinitum. But artists must break the cycle or smother.

Criticism has cleared the way only for itself, for a reflexive, self-generating criticism that requires no art. One of the reasons that criticism has become so tame, so blasé, is that the big battles are deemed to have been won. It does not need to flinch because no one is attacking it. Critics like Greenberg so thoroughly overpowered all opposition that contemporary criticism need only coast. Modernism is so deep-dyed in the universities and journals that the enemy has nowhere to exist. Writers critical of 20th century art have been marginalized to the point of extinction. And artists simply do not publish. The artists of the avant garde do not need to, with allies in ink everywhere; and other artists cannot. Southwest Art and American Artist are no place to discuss theory. In part this is the fault of the artists, of course. Traditional art is at least as anemic as Modern art, and there are admittedly precious few who have anything to say beyond questions of technique. But this is equally true of the artists of the avant garde, who without the mountain of exegesis and PR elevating them would also appear below sea level.

The Maginot line in art right now is not between artists and the government or between artists and the masses. Pluralism is an invention not of the common man—who remains impressed by what he cannot do—but of the intellectual. The prestigious and lucrative field of art has fallen to invaders: those who want its protective umbra without having to create anything memorable or to be judged by meaningful standards. With the death of the humanities in our colleges, every liberal arts major flirts with criticism as one of the last available jobs, and every critic flirts with the idea of being an artist, making it in New York City. It is therefore no surprise that the analytical abilities of the intellectual now define art. The critic has remade the artist in his own image. Greenberg promotes Barnett Newman: who is the critical talent and who is the artistic talent? Who is creating what, or who is creating whom? Warhol's Brillo boxes: artifacts or examples of art theory? Who can tell? What real artist would give a damn? In the 19th century, the artists were also critics. In the 20th century, the critics are also artists. It is this closed circle that real artists must now circumnavigate, transcend.

Let visual art no longer be confused with social criticism, with journalism, with acting, with political activism. Art is not the handmaiden or the accomplice of any of these forms. Art is not a sub-category. It is a category of its own. Art is not criticism. Art is the opposite of criticism. Art is synthetic; it springs from the imagination. Its origins are pre-cognitive; its mechanism, ineffable; its consorts, symbol and myth. Criticism is analytic; its methods are rational. It meets art like matter meets anti-matter. Art is always arrayed in mystery; criticism cannot abide mystery. When criticism becomes more powerful than art, its methods begin to systematically destroy the foundations of art. Reason, continually watered, crowds out an etiolated imagination, and our dreams become desiccated. But for art to be healthy, synthesis must precede analysis, passion must precede cognition. Art must precede theory. Artists must regain control of art.

No one would argue that Michelangelo and van Gogh were not artists. Why does theory disallow such art now? Why do Modern forms exist to the exclusion of traditional forms? Or, to put it another way, why has art moderne spent such enormous amounts of energy distancing itself from art pre-moderne? It has nothing to do with teleology and everything to do with protectionism. Realism as decorative art, as cowboys and Indians and facile landscapes and still lifes, is no threat to Modernism: it is easily dismissed as bourgeois. But a powerfully expressive realism, a great painting or sculpture with real emotional content, is a threat to Modernism as a whole. It simultaneously undercuts Modern art's claims to equal achievement and criticism's raison d'etre. David or Starry Night needs no verbal retelling or critical explication, requires no middleman, no priest. If a Michelangelo emerged today, Modernism would fall like a house of cards. But many walls have been built for just such an emergency. Goethe said,

Oh my dear friend, would you like to know why genius so rarely breaks its bonds, why it so seldom bursts upon us like a raging torrent to shatter our astounded souls? My friend, it is because of the sober gentlemen who reside on either side of the river, whose precious little summerhouses, tulip beds, and vegetable gardens would be ruined by it, and who know so well how to build dams and direct all such threatening danger in good time.

Criticism is not the encouragement of art, it is its discouragement. Criticism's replacement of emotion with cognition has effectively revolutionized art, and all expectations from it. Art of the old sort may be dismissed out of hand, regardless of quality or content, and this is just as Modernism wants it. Among all the political and careerist agendas of those in the arts, an artistic agenda, the very existence of art, is an intrusion. Like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, the critic, professedly to "save" everyone concerned, must define art as the opposite of art. For him, art is pluralistic: that is, it may be everything but that which it is. It may be defined by politics, or novelty, or theory. It may make one think, it may be a puzzle, it may be gigantic, it may be random, it may "move to action," it may titillate or annoy, it may be purposely trite or decadent or banal. But it must never pretend to eminence or beauty or elevation or subtlety or depth. It should not be personal, nor should it be universal. It must not betray any positive virtues or the belief in any positive virtues, no matter how well-expressed. Above all it must not be well-expressed. How can it be elucidated by criticism if it is not already turbid?

I have approached the definition of art from several directions, describing it both positively and negatively, opening myself up on all points of the compass. The definition of "artist" follows from these. An artist, to my mind, is the opposite of the Modern artist. He does not listen to critics or curators, read ARTnews, psychoanalyze himself, or make political "statements." He does not need to. He does not find analyzing art more interesting than creating art, because he can create it. And because he needs no help creating it, he takes the presumptions of theory and theorists with an ill humor. Finally, an artist dares to do what he can do. If he can paint, he paints. If he can sculpt, he sculpts. If he can also argue, then he leaps out of his cave like a badger on a grizzly bear. Or like David on Goliath.

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