The generations of rebels
THE notion that art should of necessity be revolutionary and in advance of the general attitudes and temper of its time is relatively new. And the idea that it should stand or fall exclusively on the totality of its break with the past is scarcely a century old. True enough, the Renaissance, beginning with Cimabue and Giotto, insisted that art should always probe new areas. The history of Western art, in fact, from roughly 1275 to 1875, is a story of great painters and sculptors assimilating their respective traditions and then transcending them in order to fashion work that either blazed or pointed to new trails. It is only stretching things a bit to see Michelangelo finishing the task set by Giotto, clarified by Masaccio, and then capping the Renaissance with such exalted works that only Caravaggio could counter them in paintings that, in turn, planted the seeds of the Baroque, and the art of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Vel'azquez.
Innovative as Giotto and Caravaggio may have been, however, they did not set out to be different just to be so. What they wanted was to be better and more all-encompassing than their predecessors and contemporaries. They saw the limitations of what they were doing, and knew they had to do something to give their own art the greater sense of actuality and authenticity they felt it needed. They did not see themselves as strangers in their own time. The notion that they could or should detach themselves from their clearly defined roles in society, or shape an art whose stance was in spectacular opposition to the cultural ideals and artistic traditions of their age, would never have occurred to them, and indeed did not occur to anyone until deep into the 19th century. Even C'ezanne, that most daring and revolutionary of artists, saw himself as a French classicist in the tradition of Poussin, not as one who destroys all connections with the past in order to separate what has been from what will be.
The perception of the artist as a self-proclaimed refugee from the culture and traditions of his or her own time, and as an enemy of popular or ingrained values and ideals, did not come into focus until the 1890s. Van Gogh and Lautrec may have lived as aliens in bourgeois French society, but that was not a matter of choice. The decision to stand critically apart from society through art was left to a slightly later generation, to such figures as Rilke and Munch.
Once the decision had been made, however, it very quickly caught on. The 20th century abounds in artists who took society's indifference or hostility to their vision of art as sufficient reason to sever all ties with anything established or institutional, and militantly to declare themselves orphans in a culture they saw as increasingly trivial and corrupt.
Furthermore, these ``orphans'' went on the offensive and declared themselves the only authentic voices of their time and the only true prophets of what art was to become. The revolutionary and evangelical fervor of their pronouncements stands unmatched in the entire history of art, with the Futurists advocating the destruction of all ``museum'' art, the Constructivists attempting to create a brand new ``alphabet'' and language for painting, and the members of Dada placing art totally under the dictates of irrationality and chance.
Thanks to all this theorizing and agitation, European painting and sculpture existed in a state of extraordinary ferment during the first three decades of the century. American artists caught the spirit early, and though they moderated the extremes to which the Europeans were willing to go, the work they produced planted the seeds for what would later erupt in New York as this country's most dramatic and far-reaching contribution to the international avant-garde.
Abstract Expressionism exploded with such force that it shifted the center of world art from Paris to New York almost overnight, setting in motion a series of gradually diminishing aftershocks that manifested themselves as Pop Art, Photo-Realism, Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Minimalism, and several other styles and movements. By the late '70s, however, these shock waves had lost most of their impact, leaving the art world more becalmed than it had been in almost 50 years.
Or so it seemed. Actually, it was only the quiet before the storm that would once again turn art upside down and give a new generation of rebels and ``orphans'' a chance at fame and glory.
Originally labeled Neo-Expressionism, and then given the broader designation of Post-Modernism, this storm erupted simultaneously in Italy, West Germany, and the United States. It derived its passion from the frustration felt by many younger artists in what they saw as art's increasingly spiritless and too narrowly formalist direction, and it achieved much of its startling effectiveness by consciously violating many of the cardinal rules laid down by previous generations for the creation of art.
No American upset the applecart more shrewdly or efficiently than Robert Longo. Both his startling juxtapositions of objects and human images and his dramatically black-and-white, photo-inspired studies of men and women seemed as far from art as Pollock's dribblings had seemed in the late '40s. And yet, within a year or so, their inclusion was mandatory in any exhibition claiming to represent the latest developments in contemporary art.