Friday, November 14, 2008

Art by the Numbers

In Komar and Melamid's 1994 focus group which studied democratically created artwork, a participant had stated that, "I don't think you can sit at a table and ask people what they want...the entire concept...is ludicrous. Then you're not an artist." Whether or not asking for public input makes something art may be open for debate, but the process of audience research for films has been around since at least the 1940s. For better or worse, I feel fortunate to have seen this process in action while working in the Disney studios. In regards to changes in the direction of art because of shifts in public sentiment, there are some similarities to be found in Romy Golan's Modernity and Nostalgia. Golan traces the changes in attitude among French artists after the traumas they had experienced during WW1 and the Great Depression, arguing that the popular reactionary sentiment was supported by artists, writers and the national leadership of France whom had suffered a crisis of confidence, regressed into an idealized pre-war self image which sought a "return to the land," and became distrustful of technology and foreign ideas. I picked up this book because I'm generally anxious about why figurative works receive outright hostility in art criticism, if not indifference otherwise. There seems to be an inevitable response that you must be nostalgic about a Golden Age or about an idyllic rural past if you do work that is remotely figurative or depicts the natural landscape. While I do appreciate many artworks of the past, I'm also not particularly nostalgic farming or about the political past. Given that: 1) my early childhood was spent growing up in the idyllic Silicon Valley and 2)that if I had lived in previous eras, I would have been ineligible to vote or to marry my wife, there isn't a whole lot from the past that evokes a longing for the good ole days! During the so called "Golden Age of Illustration," life probably wouldn't have seemed so "golden" working on a plantation or being someone's servant. For #@*sake there is still an Alien-Land Law in Florida...14th Amendment anyone? That said, the book was even more interesting given the time difference between when it was written and the current systemic banking crisis which has since unfolded. At the time Golan's book was published in 1995, the future seemed quite bright - In Charles Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, he describes the 1990s as a "Goldilocks Economy" - among other factors, the government ran surpluses "in excess of $300 billion, the best performance in the postwar era." The US had completed a successful military campaign, the Dow Jones average had risen 167% since October 19, 1987. During the 1990s food production had soared to the point that investment in agricultural research went from 2% in the 1980s to 0.6% in the 1990s. In contrast, our recent history is marked by 9/11, two ongoing wars, an $11.3 trillion deficit and three major drops in the stock market; the most recent crash having fallen 44%. For a number of reasons, the rate of growth in food production has dwindled relative to consumption. According to The New Scientist, grain yields are increasing by 1.1% per year, while the global population is growing by 1.2% per year. As China and India want more and more to live like the West, annual growth is expected to push to 1.6%. With the contrasts between the economy in 1995 and 2008, one wonders what the book would've been about had it been written more recently. After it was published, most reviewers saw it in light of the various philosophical differences between art historians. For instance, Lisa Saltzman, of the The Art Bulletin wrote,"In quite particular yet fundamentally united ways,...Romy Golan can be seen as participating in the project of redressing the deliberate blind spots and resulting lacunae of Greenbergian modernism and its legacy..." One might've never guessed that another Great Depression might be lurking around the corner.










When you look at the economic numbers during the Great Depression in France, there are some similarities: From 1930 to 1936, unemployment in France was 10.2% and by comparison, in the US, we're currently at 6.1%. From 1929 to 1932, GDP in France was down 13.64%; in the US, from the second to third quarter, GDP was down 0.3%. In France, where the base period was 1929, the consumer price index was 93.6. In the US in September 2008, where the base period is 2002, the CPI is 123.2. In regards to food production, the numbers are quite a bit different. In 1929, France was producing 7% of the world's wheat despite the fact that, as Golan writes, "France postponed its 'second' industrial revolution to the 1950s and 1960s." This "return to the land" was supported by the rhetoric of Marshal Petain and in authors such as Gaston Roupnel. In Histoire de la campagne Francaise (1932), Roupnel writes:

"...human work, developed on the theme of natural quiet seasons, realizes the conquest of land, and the adaptation of the earth to the needs and wishes of humans."

In stark contrast to the aspiration for returning to an agricultural past, by comparison, according to the USDA, in 2000 just 23% of the American population lived in rural areas and only 1.9% of the population worked in agriculture. With the rise in the popularity of organic foods and CSAs, apparently Americans want some return of farming culture, but most of us don't know how or have too little time to spend cultivating it.













One of the artists who displayed a more dramatic change from abstraction to naturalism was Auguste Herbin, whose work prior to the end of World War 1 was largely influenced by Cubism. Golan writes, "between 1921 and 1926, (Herbin) featured an equally and unabashedly academic approach to composition and the rendering of forms." Likewise, Fernand Léger also did a dramatic about face in the inter-war years. Whereas in 1928, Léger entitled an essay, "The Machine Aesthetic," which scorned "sentimental...imitative values," in 1932, he wrote a personal letter on his new found appreciation for working on the land:

"An afternoon spent with real peasants - in a rough farm - where everything is stamped by work - the lines of people, the folds of clothes - all marks are made by the repetition of the same movements, the same efforts... I've eaten cheese with raw bread and drunk cider - gone to see the sheep - learned a thousand things about the animals."


















André Derain became a paragon of what French artists should become during this time, having gone from a post-Fauve direction to a naturalistic landscape artist. Golan describes the praise Derain had received for this new direction: "in an article in the popular L'amour de l'Art as the great 'regulator,' the ideal model for the younger generation of French painters if they did not want to surrender to the seductiveness of a colorist like Henri Matisse or the overpowering influence of Picasso's cubism." In 1920, fellow artist and critic, André Lhote wrote in La Nouvelle Revue Française that Derain was "the greatest living French artist." Going by the numbers, the ticker tape of his rise was dramatic; in 1925 he sold paintings for about 10,500 francs, and three years later his works were going for 87,000 francs.


The changes within individual artists these days are not as plainly seen in an environment where images are referenced indiscriminately or for very different personal reasons. Gerhard Richter's comment on his landscapes is telling in this regard: "My landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful'...and by 'untruthful' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature - Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy...Every beauty that we see in landscape...is our projection; and we can switch it off at a moment's notice, to reveal only the appalling horror and ugliness." Some parallel between France's inter-war years and today's post 9/11 climate can perhaps be seen though more sweeping comparisons. It was perhaps revealing that on September 11, 1995, Arthur Danto chose to review an exhibition of Nam June Paik . Danto opened with:

"A dedicated collector of contemporary art told me, not long ago, that she had become enthralled by video now, perhaps to the exclusion of everything else. 'The next time you visit, maybe none of this,' she said, sweeping her arm demonstratively around to take in the large sculptures and paintings with which I identify her taste, 'will be here.' And then, leaning toward me confidingly, she added: ' I am thinking of having nothing in my home but video."

Cut forward a little more than a decade and now we have the New Britain Museum of American Art commissioning Graydon Parrish's mural about 9/11 - an odd mix of something like three parts idealist Neoclassicism, one part erotic Academicism, one part anguished Romanticism, and one part socially-engaged Realism. The changes in the post 9/11, Great Recession era are also telling if you look at the sale prices of Gustave Courbet works; in 1995 a Courbet sold for $261,330 (adjusted for inflation) and in 2007, his work sold for $7,269,434. For those whom find that looking at rural images only evokes retrograde sensibilities, the renewed interest of the "return to the land" couldn't be all bad these days, considering that a 2007 survey found 22% of 1,073 adult Britons didn't know where bacon or sausage came from. Perhaps in the future the point may become irrelevant anyways, when cities end up using vertical and urban farming out of necessity.

No comments: