Thursday, 2 April 2009

Da Da/Duh? Duh? The Ancien Regime of 20th Century Art

To celebrate the centennial of Alvar Aalto’s birth, I made a Pious Odyssey to Finland to savor once more his great achievements. When I overnight in Helsinki, I always take a constitutional before breakfast around Finlandia. To my dismay, I found that all the travertine cladding had been stripped off its walls.

Holy Moley! It was a Sunday and there were no workers around, but I tracked down an engineer in a hard hat and asked what was going on. "Simple,” he replied with a grin. “Aalto loved travertine too much from his Italian journeys. But the grim fact is that such a fragile stone can’t take Finnish winters. Shards were starting to fall on tourists’ heads. Can’t have that!” “So what are you going to do?” I asked plaintively. “Well, the tough-minded have argued that we must simply replace the cladding with granite which can take the cold. But of course we Finns are not tough-minded when it comes to Aalvar. In honor of his Centennial, we’re doing it the hard way: thicker travertine and tougher adhesives. It will cost us several more millions down the road. But Aalto is Aalto.”

I went back to my hotel to eat breakfast, admiring the Finns for their sentimental ways when it came to great architecture. Then I hiked to the Finnish Museum of Architecture for a retrospective on his work. The epigraph made me laugh: NEVER FORGET: ARCHITECTS CAN MAKE MISTAKES! ALVAR AALTO: That should be inscribed over the entrances to all architecture schools in the world. And art schools!

The recent supershow on “Dada” that began at the Pompidou, moved to our National Gallery and recently closed at MOMA/NY is built on the complacent assumption that innovative artists have carte blanche to do anything that comes to them. It’s called experimentalism, an egregious abuse of the scientific belief that every theory must be tested against evidence. In ART, anything is supposed to go. Let that anti-intellectual fatuity loose in art and architecture schools and you have the esthetic equivalent of a building losing its cladding.

Now I’m not against artists stretching the envelope from Cave Painting to Comic Strips. The entire history of art is a grand and elevating parade of diversity and innovation. But everything doesn’t go. And just because nineteenth century Academicism often (not always!) led to paralysis is no reason to shrug that anything goes. It doesn’t. And mixed in with the admirable masterpieces of the twentieth century are attics full of mini-pieces. Mainly because what I shall call the Art Museum/Art History/Art Market Complex has authorized a Latitudinarianism, we have lost our way towards making art a civilizing factor in modern American life.

You might say we have theologized Art in the twentieth century. The ism Spasm that Modernism engendered has had its chance. Now we’ve got as patrons, curators, and philosophers think freshly about what is for in our techno-happy society. How can we have so many flourishing Museums and such a coarse and vulgar public life. I think in general the unlimited freedom Modernism bestowed on Artists has corrupted the muddled middle and made felonious the underclasses.

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