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Friday, September 30, 2011

Freedom of Expression

Very few of us have ever felt it. There have always been bounds. Some would argue that it doesn't exist while just as many would say it shouldn't exist. What I'm talking about is total freedom. In life, it's the freedom to do anything with no negative repercussions to restrict ones actions, no outside rules to stifle urges or whims. In art, it's the liberty to create anything in any way, any size, any shape, any form, in any medium. In life, those who object to total freedom (or claim it doesn't exist) are probably well grounded (though it's said, that with enough money and the will to defy social bounds one might come close). In art, in the early beginnings of the 20th century, practitioners aligned with the Avant-garde movement were beginning to taste the heady thrills of total creative freedom, wading like children into the ocean, learning to swim as they went, unsure of where they were going, how they would get there, and what they'd do if and when they did.  It was an experience as exhilarating as it was frightening. In an age when man was just learning to fly with wings, it was like soaring without them.

Picasso was, perhaps, the chief pilot, but the "flight crew" had dozens of notable members including Matisse, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Delaunay--all testing the waters of abstract, non-representational art--each daring one another to go further afield, floating further from shore, drinking deeper and deeper of the intoxicating ale of "freedom of expression." It went far beyond that mischievous stepchild called Dada. There was a strong disdain for the past and in general the word "can't." The art world was thrilling, if somewhat contentious. The rest of the world was dismayed, even horrified at what they were seeing in galleries and exhibitions. Those who had only recently grown accustomed to Impressionism looked upon this "new art" wondering first of all if it was art, and if so, regardless of whether they personally liked it or not, they wondered if it was any good, or merely a fraud perpetrated by a few artists and gallery owners in search of a free lunch. There seemed to be no cognitive standards against which to measure it qualitatively, and indeed, that was often entire the point of its existence.

There is always a "next generation" of artists waiting and watching in the wings, and the post-WW I generation of artists coming of age in Europe was scared. Avant-garde was going too far. Art seemed to be disintegrating. If not actually losing respect for itself, it certainly was losing the respect of everyone else. There was a backlash. It had several names. In Italy it was called Metaphysical and Novecento. In Germany it was called New Objectivity, and Magic Realism. In France, after the war, the Avant-garde continued to plow ahead, devil be damned, while in the U.S., there was so little in the way of Avant-garde in the first place there was thus little in the way of reaction against it (regionalism largely continued to hold sway). Therefore, it was left to Italian artists such as Georgio de Chirico, Georgio Morandi, Alberto Savino, Carlo Carra, and in Germany, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Marc Chagall, among others, to insist that art have some type of firm grounding in the past; that it have at least some identifiable subject matter; and that, most of all, it have a set of concrete standards against which to judge its viability but also its sensibility.

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