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Friday, September 8, 2017

Why People Hate Art History

The two faces of the Weimar Republic.
One has only to look at the outcome of certain elections here in the U.S. and around the world to realize that most people in the free world today have a deep aversion to history. If "aversion" seems too strong a word, then perhaps we should call this phenomena simply a "disregard" for history. There are plenty of good and bad reasons to hate the study of history. When juxtaposed against even the minor the trials and tribulations of our daily lives, the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic seems quite trivial. When it happened; where it happened, how it happened, and why it happened, not to mention the long-term effects of its having happened as applied to today's world, bring on what's come to be known as MEGO (my eyes glaze over).
Untitled, 1948,  Jean-Paul Riopelle--Art Informel.
If that's the case with history in general, it's double applicable to art history. The differences between Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme are not only of little importance to virtually all people in general, but even to artists and those with a genuine interest in the fine arts. As to art history, let me coin a new acronym, WTHC (who the hell cares?). One of the key ground rules I have always tried to observe in writing a daily dose of art appreciation is to NEVER start out by regurgitating in the reader's lap the stale contents of some rancid old art history text. My rule is to strive first for relevancy. I consider WHTC first and if my topic doesn't pass muster in that regard, I start looking for a topic that does. It's not easy. I can't tell you the number of pretty good artists from the past which I've skipped over simply by asking myself WTHC?.

Red Interior.
Still Life on a Blue Table.
1947. Henri Matisse
One of the most persistent difficulties in avoiding WTHC is the plethora of styles and movements which have come to complicate and pollute Modern Art (roughly the 1860s through the 1960s). Writers, critics, artists, and art historians alike have rightly taken this most complex of art eras apart and put it back together again so many times that trying to help a layman make sense of it all is like nailing down Jell-O. Having said that, let me add that writing about Modern Art is an excellent form of intellectual calisthenics for anyone contemplating Postmodern Art, which is even more frustratingly ambiguous.
Art historians (and critics) give everything a name. Worse, whether needed or not, they then pile on two or three other terms with only slightly different connotations. These are the people who give art history a bad name. We can't get along with them and without them there would be no means of even discussing art. I mentioned Abstract Ex-pressionism earlier, let's take that whole "can of worms" as an example. During that era of about fifteen years during the 1950s and early-1960s the gulf between the so-called "man on the street" and the world of "high art" was wider than it had ever been before and, thankfully, has ever been since.

Willem de Kooning's Abstract Expressionism
It might surprise some to realize that Abstract Expressionism was mostly an American term applying mostly to what art historians have termed "The New York School." Elsewhere in the world it was referred to by the French designation, Art Informel. Actually, the French preferred still another term, Tachisme (derived from the French word for "stain"). The French were also partial to the term "Abstraction Lyrique" a translation from the American Lyrical Abstraction movement. In France this all came to be part and parcel of the "Paris School." In northern Europe virtually the same type of art was propounded by the COBRA movement, the name derived from it's principal cities, COpenhagen, BRussels, and Amsterdam (below, right). In Japan, this art (though more multi-media oriented) was fostered by the Gutai group.

Untitled, Wols, 1946-47
Much of this term mongering had to do with language and culture. Paris had been the capital of the art world for so many centuries that the School of Paris was reluctant to give up hegemony over the new vocabulary needed to discuss Abstract Expressionism. However, the fact was, the war had so gutted the Paris art scene of its most gifted artists that an abstract painting (like a rose) smelled about the same on either side of the Atlantic. (If Picasso had departed to the Hamptons, instead of the South of France, Paris might as well have turned out the lights and lock up the Louvre.)

That's not to say that all the lexicon of terms meant exactly the same. They didn't. There were subtle differences. Tachisme is closely related to Informalism or Art Informel, which, in its 1950s French context, referred not so much to a sense of "informal art" as a lack of form itself–non-formal, or un-form-ulated–rather than a simple reduction of formality. Art Informel was more about the absence of premeditated structure, than a mere casual loosening of art procedure. See; I told you the differences were subtle. Moreover, none of them pass the WTHC filter. However, when artists, and voters in particular, are so "turned off" by studying the past that they choose to ignore the valid lessons it teaches as to the present and the future, then there will inevitably come a far more bitter reckoning, the realization that they DWBC (damned well better care) OR ELSE...
The Busy Life, 1953, Jean Dubuffet

Hotage, 1945, jean Fautrier


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