Avant-Garde Art: What’S Going On Here?

To the uninitiated, modern art is distressingly ambiguous. “What in the world is this artist trying to say?” There may be no answer to this question. The artist himself may not know what he is “saying.” Or he may feel that whatever is being said is as much up to the viewer as to the artist. Many artists today think that the creative process is as important as the created product. Furthermore, they point out that since art is a social process, the artist can only begin the work; the viewer must finish it, or “get out of it” what he will. Modern art is notable for its lack of closure. (In an excellent article, David Jeffrey argued—from a clearly Christian perspective—that this is true of modern poetry as well; see “Conclusion and the Form of the Personal in Modern Poetry,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June, 1975, pages 153–163.)

The artist no longer considers himself a prophet, burning with a message for the people. He is rather someone with an unusual sensitivity to life and its experiences. Ideally, everyone ought to be as creative as everyone else, and some modern artists want to encourage this. “I think it would be great,” said Andy Warhol, “if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.” But of course if one person is as creative as the next, it soon will follow that one object is as much “art” as another—which is exactly what has happened. Consider a random sampling of “subjects” displayed in New York galleries last summer: wall formations of real tree branches, postage stamps of imaginary countries, sculpture of huge feet (the artist’s?), easels and chalkboards with notes for pictures, and simple rope dipped in primary colors and stretched taut between walls and floor.

Allan Kaprow, who is now considered one of the “old masters” in the move to take art off the pedestal, believes art is simply the choice of certain experiences rather than others, experiences removed from their (inhibiting?) functional framework. The outcome of these experiences, or happenings, unpredictable, and often fascinating. In one happening that I attended, Kaprow distributed a large and a small mirror to each of several teams of participants. They were told to go out to the street, whenever they liked, early or late. They were then to walk away from each other to see how long, and in what way, they could keep each other in view, using the mirrors. Later they all came together to “report,” or give their particular ending. Perhaps this is the sort of thing existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had in mind when he said in 1947: “Man … is nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.”

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In any case, traditional art adjectives—beautiful, ugly, colorful—have come to be considered inappropriate. And the divisions between the arts no longer apply. When an artist draws lines on the gallery walls or lays out a mile-long strip in the desert, is it painting? Or sculpture? Or perhaps theater?

Carl Andre is a “sculptor” but calls himself the first post-studio artist. He denies that art is something separate from life, and so for him there can be no work necessary to prepare art. In his work he limits himself to the complexities and texture of the material itself. Sometimes speech itself is his “material”; he has written “operas” for speakers who recite rhythmically and alphabetically related words. One critic commented that “the basis for the choice of specific words is not readily apparent.” Indeed it isn’t, for Andre has no interest in communication or meaning. He uses things as elements in themselves, rather than things in relation to other things.

His evolution as a sculptor has taken him from the traditional interest in form to an interest in structure, and finally to a concern with “place” alone. Forms, he explains, stand for, signify, and therefore mitigate the impact of the material itself. Of late he has been attempting only to amplify the quality of the material itself. To do this he has avoided verticality in his sculpture. Whenever something rises in space, structure supersedes materials, he says; it becomes a sign. He prefers what he calls “anaxial symmetry” where one part can replace any other. In the words of another critic: “His works … do not exemplify a theory; they propose a real experience to the spectator.” Again the viewer finishes the work.

The accompanying illustration on page 20 is one of his “works.” He has taken photographs of materials as they happen to have been found on the streets of New York. We are, one supposes, to “enjoy” the impact of the material. But is this all? Perhaps he is unconsciously making a comment about signs. There are two sorts of signs in the picture. One is denotative—“No Right Turn.” The other is merest connotation—the materiality of a pile of bricks, weight, texture, and so on. But even to say this may be more than Andre intends. For he has chosen his “place” for reasons only he knows. Perhaps the most we ought to do is assign a kind of personal value—its having-been-chosen-by-Andre.

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What is going on here? Critic Gregoire Muller (writing in The New Avant-garde) explains what he believes is the significance of Andre’s art. Our civilization has chosen an arbitrary system of signs, he says, to place between our mind and reality. By this system we have ordered and arranged our experience into traditional wholes. When we say “tree,” everyone understands that we mean that leafy object in the yard. Why is it, he wonders, that this “word” must always stand between us and the real object? The real challenge facing modern man is to break down this traditional system, which many believe has produced much evil and suffering. When this gap between life experience and intellectual experience has been eliminated, we will be able to integrate everything into one unified whole. (We are assured there are societies that have done this, though they are not identified.)

Does meaning lie in an immediate contact with reality? Muller believes that when we insist on using signs we are having false and unreal experiences. But one wonders what possible meaning such pure experience might have, or how one could share it with someone else. This of course is just what the critic cannot tell us, for my experience will not be the same as his. To each his own “conclusion.” If we were to follow these rules strictly, no one would be able to talk to anyone else at all. This is a hard game to play. How hard is illustrated by the careful use of the “traditional symbols” these critics make in order to explain to us how this symbolic system is to be destroyed!

Man by nature is a symbol-maker. In the Genesis account of creation, Adam was told to “name”—that is, order—the world into which he was placed. One can of course destroy one set of symbols, but if society is to continue, another set will rise in its place. Community life depends on symbols. The loneliness of modern life may in part reflect the destruction of many of our traditional symbols—family dinner at six, church on Sunday, and so forth. Anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that upsetting our symbolic structure weakens the basis of relationships and eventually the sense of personal identity, of who I am.

There is something fearfully promethean here. Rather than submit to a world whose structures and meaning have been built in by a loving God, we are left free to go our own way. Again one cannot help wondering what such “freedom” might mean in a world bereft of love and beauty, even the possibility of communication. Is this freedom worth its horrible price? Or is it only another name for slavery to instinct and the rule of the strong?

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But our last word must be one of understanding and not judgment. “Personal value” after all is not without importance. For however much artists may disdain traditional values, they still carry with them this precious treasure: they can still value, choose. They bear this indelible mark that the Bible calls the “image” of their Maker. How important this mark is to God is seen in the great cost he went to to redeem it, so that it might come to reflect something of his Goodness.


William A. Dyrness is professor of theology at Asian Theological Seminary, Manila, the Philippines.

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