Postmodern EclecticismA couple days ago I wrote about Abstract Expressionism and its having taken its rightful place in the pantheon of "other" painting styles in artists' lexicon of ways and means of expressing themselves. After all the other things I've written and said about the so-called "death" of Abstract Expressionism, I was a little taken aback that this relatively benign observation should churn up the kind of response it has. Actually it may have been more the way I said it than what I said. A reader accused me of being condescending in implying that various past styles of painting should be simply discarded after they've past their prime. What I said was, "Abstract Expressionism is just one of dozens of other popular styles." Several readers seem to have taken this as disparaging. At the same time, I guess because I'm a Realist, they inferred I was somehow elevating Realism to some higher, unequivocal plane. Actually, I never even mentioned Realism, and in any case, neither is the case.
It's hard for me to think of any new painting styles in the Post-modern era, thus it would seem, as a reader suggested, that all styles are now derivative, or "retro" being the more common term. Thus the only thing "new" in this era is the way we think about art, and thus its eclecticism. We tend to have fewer preconceived notions about art today; it's less structured, often even unstructured. One reader suggested this might be as a result of Abstract Expressionism, though she wasn't sure if this was a curse or a blessing. I agree, though I'd come down firmly on the side of the latter. Whatever else it did, Abstract Expressionism validated unstructured art. But it didn't mandate it (though it seemed to for a while). And for both we should be grateful and give credit where it's due.
But just as Abstract Expressionism made Non-representational art equally acceptable with every other type of painting ever devised by man, with its ultimate exploration of the "final frontier" in art, it also made painting itself, just another type of art, no more nor less important than any other type of art ever devised by man. Whereas before, painting had always led the search to the new and unexplored, with the passing of Modern Art, it simply fell back into the pack. A case could even be made that today; sculpture (and its definition-stretching conceptual cousins) has taken the lead in exploring previously unknown, even unacceptable areas of art.
With this "evening out" of acceptable painting styles, the menu of options has expanded, seemingly almost uncontrollably. As a result, in terms of media, content, style, and function, we no longer compartmentalise art today the way we have in the past. Starting as far back as the 1600s, but in this past century especially, technology has made art extremely democratic. Good, bad, or indifferent, art in some form or another, is economically available to just about every man, woman, and child in this country at least, and to only a slightly lesser extent, most of the rest of the world. From various electronic media to free calendars, it permeates just about every aspect of our environment and thus our lives. It might be a Monet calendar or a Monet original, the only major differences being size, surface, and circumstances.
Though democracy and rampant eclecticism in art would seem to be good things, they may not be totally positive developments. Democracy, whether in government or art, leads to least-common-denominationalism - a cheapening of all popular elements to appeal as broadly as possible to the myriad constituencies of either democracy. By the same token, eclecticism has made valid art criticism either extremely difficult, or perhaps even impossible. A reader decried the lack of writing about art (especially aesthetics) today as compared to during the Modern era. I think there is a good reason for that. Today we lack the firm, logical and chronological foundation of art development that characterised the Modern Art era. There are no absolutes. If eclecticism rules, then nothing rules eclecticism, including critical analysis. Under such circumstances, writers who define and criticise, subsequently find it difficult, even impossible, to defend themselves. I know. I've just tried.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
29 June 2001