It's summertime, and the living is easy--so easy, in fact, that I've given myself an assignment. Sooner or later, every bona fide art critic has to tackle the 800-pound intellectual gorilla of modern art, and so my poolside reading consists of the four-volume edition of Clement Greenberg's collected essays and criticism, augmented by the recently published Greenbergian correspondence with Harold Lazarus.
In some ways, the essays are as bad as I expected: printed tryptophan, full of mind-numbing abstractions and sweeping, categorical, unsupported assertions about history. A few aspects of Greenberg's philosophy, like his naïve, midcentury egghead's faith in socialism, are downright quaint. Yet by and large, his theories and observations about modern art hold up surprisingly well. Indeed, walking through the Dallas Museum of Art's current exhibition of the work of Wolfgang Laib, it struck me that both Greenberg and Marx are necessary to help understand how art devolved into hay fever.
"For more than two decades," writes one of the DMA show's organizers, "Wolfgang Laib has been an important presence on the international art scene." The 50-year-old German, in fact, is the very embodiment of the art-historical zeitgeist. His minimalist, temporary installations of organic materials--pollen, beeswax, rice, stone and milk--have been included in all the hip survey shows. Recently Laib, who is trained as a doctor, not an artist, has expanded his oeuvre to include photography and drawing. Just below the posturing, however, Laib remains the modern-day incarnation of a figure with a long and shady past: the artist as shaman.
It was Marx who observed that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Since the mid-19th century, art has turned increasingly inward, focusing on itself rather than the world outside the canvas, or stone, or paper, imitating art rather than life, until it has become little more than philosophy, visual branch. Greenberg was one of the primary intellectual champions of this artistic navel-gazing, on the grounds that he liked it better than the other kind of art produced by decaying societies, to wit the endless, academic recycling of historical themes and styles (a.k.a. postmodernism). Laib's little piles of pollen and rice are the logical result of the high modern search for the sublime advocated by Greenberg, the quest to experience what one critic has called "the art emotion."
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Alas, Laib's bright yellow pollen squares as philosophy-on-the-museum-floor are themselves simply a reworking of past styles and themes. For beneath the high-modern look and the au courant medium (temporary sculpture), Laib's work is so much warmed-over German romanticism. He is but the latest in a long line of earnest young men of artistic temperament reacting against the modern world, with a bloodline running from Caspar David Friedrich to Joseph Beuys. His cousins include the Pre-Raphaelites and abstract expressionists, especially Rothko.
There are a few moderately clever twists. Rather than yearning to return art to the crafts and guilds, Laib regards nature as the ultimate art; instead of making art that imitates nature, however, Laib's shtick is making nature imitate art. The result is a high-modern art version of religious art. The divine, Laib asserts, can be found anywhere: in a rock, or pollen, or beeswax, or even a museum. God is in the details; Laib himself has called the pollen from which he makes "mountains" a "detail of the infinity." He molds these materials into a few fundamental shapes: allegorical ships symbolizing life's voyage, rice symbolizing life's sustenance, wigwams standing in for shelter, ziggurats signifying man's search for the transcendental. Obsessed with ritual and repetition, he carves white marble and pours milk into the surface indentations, a regimen that is repeated daily.
The catalog's authors claim the repetition in Laib's work "relates less to the serial arrangements of Minimalism than to non-Western notions of repetition." True enough, the value attached to an "original" work of art--or, for that matter, an original piece of intellectual property--is very much a Western construct. On the other hand, repetition is a favorite modernist device, favored by artists including Rothko, to whom Laib is often compared. At best, Laib's installations have a luminescence that recalls Rothko's painting; some of the floor-bound pollen works, especially, achieve a certain ab-ex or color field resonance.
Lest we miss the point of all this modern, reductive, endlessly repeated symbolism, Laib throws in photos from his wanderings to Indian holy sites, Buddhist temples and other points mystical. He does koanlike pastels and sketches--not even drawings, really--of the same figures that appear on the floor. He even builds a memento mori: a walk-in beeswax crypt, with walls at vaguely coffinlike angles. Subtle, it isn't. Utterly, stultifyingly sincere, it is. Like most romantics, Laib is at bottom a spiritual fundamentalist: serious, pedantic. There's no postmodern irony here, no clever art-historical quotes, no mugging and of course no humor allowed--no intentional humor, that is.
Such conviction, such absolute faith, such a sense of mission. You have to admire it--for about two minutes. And then, you have to laugh. For there are farcical elements aplenty in Laib's work, in the forced seriousness, the artsy posturing, the catalog's thick philosophical jargon, complete with introductory quotes from Nietzsche (from Thus Spake Zarathustra, naturally, his loopiest tome) and Wittgenstein. The conversation between Laib and Harald Szeemann, who curated an early exhibition of Laib's work, reads like a parody of artsy interviewing. It could almost be a script for Mike Myers' black-clad German host of "Sprockets."
Not surprisingly, Laib and his curators would like to claim a "king's X" from historical comparison. Invoking the thick jargon of phenomenology, a justifiably obscure branch of philosophy, they suggest Laib's "work demands...that any appraisal of it begin with the work itself, rather than its historical context." Laib's work cannot be fairly judged by narrowly rational traditions of Western thought or of history, naturally. It belongs in the realm of the "essential and universal," leaving the "perspectival principles of the Renaissance behind, turning instead to the lived perspective of non-Western and pre-Renaissance visual practices." Needless to say, the art world and academe eat this vague bullstuff up, because to understand is to permit critical judgment, and critical judgment, that nasty habit of Western thought, is to be suspended at all costs.
And there are costs. The sterility and end-of-history desperation of art like Laib's is one. Sixty years ago, Greenberg suggested another. Noting that "high culture" has always belonged to the upper classes--those with the "security, leisure and comfort indispensable to the cultivation of taste"--he sounded a presciently ominous note. "Today [high] culture is being abandoned by those to whom it belongs--our ruling class," Greenberg wrote in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." "For it is to the latter that the avant-garde belongs...Since the avant-garde forms the only living culture we now have, the survival in the near future of culture in general is thus threatened." In the last decades of the 20th century, the last known examples of the avant-garde have been taken off life support and buried. Like the dodo, it has ceased to exist, and, as the DMA's Laib show suggests, the implications are dire.
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