Thursday, October 27, 2011

Me, Myself, And Post Modernism

Paul Rand is one of my favorite graphic artists. His rigid perfectionism resulted in a greater legacy than any graphic artist, living or dead. He wasn't, and isn't, perfect, though. He had a violent hatred of post-modernism which was, while understandable, not fully founded.

Considering the verve with which he consumed philosophical works on art and art theory, I am not surprised that he developed the opinions that he did. I will talk about that in a bit. Most importantly, though, is that Rand would not accept mediocrity, and post-modernism provides great cover to mediocrity. It was a formula for conflict.

Any philosophy that specifically eschews rules, concepts, and rigidity will obviously allow in many people who don't harbor any strong philsophical beliefs; they simply don't want to bother learning the tools and skills required to be good. It is laziness, and when what is apparently laziness gets defended as high art, the sanctuary has been built.

As I discussed in my earlier post on philosophy, art is fundamentally a qualitative endeavor. Things just "work." And no matter how much we intellectualize it, quantify it, or try to encapsulate it with rules, it will never escape that reality. The rules are an illusion that inevitably get cast aside by the greatest artists.

But as I said in that same post, that doesn't negate the importance of the rules and quantifications to better communicate and understand the underlying principles. The rules might be illusions, but they are illusions which provide rough guidance into an ineffable world of visual communication. Rand, I think, believed that art could be fully quantified, which isn't surprising. He read more works on the philosophy of art and aesthetics than almost anyone alive, and if art cannot be quantified, why bother talking about it? In the work of artistic philosophers is the, frequently implied, assumption that art is somehow based on empirical quanta that can be accurately described with words.

I think that post-modernism is the explicit rejection of artistic quanta. Yes, what they say is that it rejects "narratives," but what they are rejecting are the rules, the quanta, that are birthed from these narratives. Art cannot be accurately described with words or narratives and thus cannot be explained logically.

There are problems with each perspective, though. Rand should not have been so quick to reject post-modernism, and post-modernism is absurd in believing that rules do not serve an important purpose. Art is more than merely expressing and seeing what happens. It is a language that communicates, and that language must be understood.

One element of post-modernism that I think fully explains Rand's dislike is, as Wikipedia's entry on it says, its attempts to blur the distinction between high art and pop art. I think that the distinction existed, and continues to exist in some circles, because high art has skill with the tools of art as a salient element of the construction. It is obvious that Leonardo is a great painter because everyone knows that he painted was really fucking difficult. Or take a more modern artist such as Tamara De Lempicka (who, on a side note, is one of my favorite painters). Very modern, very stylized, but obviously highly skilled.

By rejecting the rules that defined previous artistic movements, post-modernism provided fertile ground for those with skill to gleefully reject what previous artists had preached as gospel, but likewise provided that haven for mediocrity. Just as abstract poetry can be quite good, I could easily write out random words in another language and call it abstract. But since I do not understand the language, there is no content. There is no artistic message. It is a hollow construct. This reminds me of the documentary My Kid Could Paint That, where a five-year-old girl's paintings are hailed by art critics, because when art has no content, there is no way to critique it. It is nothing.

The same problem exists for art that is nothing more than a blue dot on canvas. Or the gazillion Jackson Pollack imitators. The first ones were usually classically-trained and, boldly for the time, rejected that training. Nowadays, artists have a tendency to have little training at all. They dream of grand recognition not for skills, but for some poorly-defined, nebulous "spirit" to their work.

That is where Rand was absolutely correct. It does not matter how artistic one is, how grand her vision, or how bold her spirit; she must have a strong, explicit understanding of the underlying principles. Without that, the message will be nonsense, and without a message, it is not art. It may very well be pretty. It might be arresting, or colorful, or look excellent above your sofa, but it is not true art.

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