The Pursuit of Triviality

   In Marcel Duchamp’s found objects of the 1920’s we already see a full statement of the implications of all this, but by and large Modernism’s audience was not yet ready for such radicalism and it was not till the 1960’s that art forms emerge which assert more fully this idea of breaking down the barriers between art and life, by this time also abetted by notions developing in the politics of the time such as anti-elitism which provide a facile support for such tendencies. We thus arrive at a range of work which in various forms seeks actively to bring the ordinary world into the world of art, or art out into the ordinary world, and which is the first (and most extensive) of my three broad categories of Post-Object art. There might be buildings and natural phenomena wrapped in plastic, piles of earth or bricks brought into galleries, real people used as sculpture or the natural environment marked ,drawn upon or otherwise manipulated, to specify just a few of the many ways that this flight from the art object has been played out. It’s worth noting, however, that nobody has come up with anything that “goes” a lot further than Marcel Duchamp’s urinal of 1923.

   The second of my broad categories of Post-Object art can be described as Conceptual and is both less represented in prior Modernist art and has arguably been less fruitful in its derivations than the material just discussed. It was much talked about in the early 1970’s, though, and reached a kind of peak with the New York based Art and Language group whose work achieved rare levels of tedium and pomposity. They exhibited typed pages of their philosophical ramblings on the walls of consenting galleries as if they were prints, making it clear that the “art” was not to be found in the physical object but rather in its conceptual load. Precedents for this in prior Modernist art do exist, however, starting with the published manifestos which so frequently accompanied the birth of the various movements, and including once again Duchamp’s found objects which by their trivialization of the physical aspect of the object throw the weight of attention on to the “meaning” established by its appearance in an art context. The Minimalist movement which to some extent took on the flagship role in the US after Abstract Expressionism can also be seen in this light. Such conceptualizing tendencies were nevertheless out of tune with the thrust of early Modernism which revelled instead in stripping away the conceptual material characteristic of Beaux-Arts painting and sculpture, and so it’s not surprising that it’s less well represented. But there is a sense in which the whole edifice of Modernism, with its tendency to establish the referential focus of art as primarily to do with other art, to load it up with art historical meaning as it were, reinforces conceptuality in art. Tom Wolfe was making a point like this in his book “The Painted Word”  where he made fun of the extent to which language props up the big names in Abstract Expressionism, and the point is valid for a great deal of Modernist Art.

   The third of my broad categories involves the denial that the art object is immutable, that it can’t change over time, and this tendency can be seen in action in a wide range of work that could loosely be described as performance oriented. Back in the late sixties and seventies this was often called a “happening” – how quaint the word sounds now! – and when organized by visual artists who invoked an art context for what they were doing, was clearly a non-object form of visual art. The Surrealists had staged events which were an integral part of their activity, and a sculptor like Alexander Calder introduced movement into his work in the fifties, but it is in the gestural effects which we start to see in Abstract Expressionism and which give rise to the name Action Painting that we can probably find the most consistent preparation for this third main kind of Post-Object art. Looking at the dribbled, splashed and thrown effects in Jackson Pollock’s work, for example, it’s not hard to see how the idea might have developed that the really significant thing was the act of painting itself beside which the painted object was increasingly irrelevant, and so we see in the sixties and seventies a whole range of phenomena which are in one way or another structured in time. The problem here of course is that a real time event is only accessible to whoever happens to be there at the moment, so it’s into this context that film and more specifically video arrive as a way of guaranteeing more audience.

© 2020 Neil Moore

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