Still from "History of the Main Complaint"
I enjoyed reading Calvin Tomkins' recent profile of William Kentridge ("Lines of Resistance," The New Yorker, January 18, 2010). Tomkins includes some fascinating details about Kentridge's background and family, and I especially appreciated some of the remarks made by the artist. The following quotation was particularly resonant.
"[Working in South Africa,] I was aware of Joseph Beuys - Beuys and his honey pump, which was supposed to be political art. But politics is not spreading honey around the main building at the Documenta art exhibition. It's putting electrodes on people's testicles, locking them up, putting them in fear of their lives."Kentridge acknowledges his South African perspective (the artist was born into a state of apartheid and is today living through its often grim aftermath), but his observation also speaks to the general disconnect between so much 20th century fine art and "the real world."
Both modernism and postmodernism prioritize iconoclasm and individual achievement over "a system of inherited purpose and patterns."(1) It's thoughtless to dismiss the sibling -isms (both offer valuable insights and fundamentally inform our contemporary world), but the march of globalization is revealing the societal impotence of the philosophies. Absent "inherited purpose" and narrative, postmodern community is soulless, a mere facade. One of many casualties, the artist is but a mote in a vast and turbulent sea of competing sentiments and ideologies. Graphic design and advertising occupy the popular position once given to fine art, but, excellent though some of both may be, these are commodity driven disciplines; as such, they can make no genuine claim to political or moral coherence.
Still, I don't believe that we should bemoan our station as the end of the line. Globalization is in its infancy, and the 21st century will likely see a new concept of cosmopolitan citizen emerge, one that could usher in an era of shared mythos. Back to the future, so to speak.
(1) This definition of pre-modern art is drawn from Adam Gopnik's fantastic essay, "Van Gogh's Ear." (The New Yorker, January 4, 2010)