Radical’s washed up. It’s been exploited for over a century, trotted out to justify just about anything, and finally ended up a parody of itself. In the same way literally is now commonly used to mean figuratively (“Donald Trump is literally Hitler”), radical has come to signify its antithesis: academic convention.
There are some things in the arts that have become intolerable clichés. If I were an instructor for filmmaking, I would challenge my students to NOT have a gun in their movies. Of course there could be a justifiable reason to have one, and a student could make the case, but generally speaking, it’s a crutch. Similarly, If I were teaching a painting class, or even more appropriately, a digital-art class, I would advise my students to NOT incorporate a gas mask in their work (unless they had an original reason). I’d be bursting a lot of bubbles, but I’d probably wanna’ say, “don’t just get some stock footage of a babe, put wings on her, and a gas mask. Oh, and no giant full moons in the background, either. It’s been done to death”. And if I were teaching a class on art criticism – not that I’m qualified – I’d insist on not using the word radical . Even worse than the chronic overuse of the word itself is the played-out narrative it represents in which artists are philosopher giants who propel civilization forward through unprecedented insights and achievements.
So what the hell does radical mean?
In this instance, the dictionary definitions are very useful and telling. This is the first thing Google gacks up.
(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.
advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social reform; representing or supporting an extreme section of a political party.
There we have it. Radical represents a drastic, fundamental, and complete break with the past.
When I read art criticism, and the critic peppers his or her article with radical, my eyes roll up in their sockets. For how many decades has each successive wave of artists been hailed as radical? I mean, can radical really be followed by radical, radical, radical, radical, sausage, eggs, bacon, and radical? If everything is radical, than radical is to art what Spam is to meat – some unappetizing, generic, unoriginal pap. The art world uses radical as an all-purpose adjective the way my second-cousin (who calls himself “mountain people”) uses gnarly, or the way Trump uses tremendous. It might sound promising at first, but after a while it’s a meaningless prop used to bolster mere posturing.
We haven’t seen a complete overhaul of art, followed by another absolute departure from that point, and that seismic shift trailed by yet another complete revamping of art… You see the problem here?
Please allow me to belabor the point with an analogy everyone can understand. Let’s say you eat a lot of junk food and fast food, and steadfastly avoid fruits and vegetables. If you then decided, for health reasons, to become a vegetarian, you could say you made a radical change in your diet. I wouldn’t nitpick that, though drastic or big would be just as accurate. But if you then decided to be an organic-only vegetarian, that wouldn’t be a radical change. You’d be moving in the same direction towards a presumably healthier diet. If you then decided to eat only raw foods, that would be another development in the same direction and not a radical change from being an organic vegetarian.
However, if after becoming a vegetarian, you decided to adopt the diet of the Inuit – who mostly eat seal, followed by caribou, polar bear, and musk-ox – I’d grant you another radical change in your diet. You could make yet another radical change by following the diet of the astronauts of the Apollo missions, getting your nutrition from tubes, cubes, and powders. A part of being radical is often being flipping wacko.
A radical breakthrough in art is not just a twist with a hint of lime in the same direction as the prior generation’s art. Lemmie show you some examples.
Here’s Andrew Warhola’s “Brillo Boxes”.
Now, this was considered some radical shit. Mind you, it’s from before I was born, and, admittedly, I have a hard time thinking of something that’s older than I am as perpetually startlingly new. In 1986 Jeff Koons shocked the world with his radical stainless steel “Rabbit”.
I’d graduated high school and started college by the time the Jeff Koons factory produced his aluminum “Rabbit”. Is “Rabbit” really a radical departure from “Brillo Boxes”, or is it more like going from being vegan to eating raw foods only ? Instead of reproducing oversized commercial products, Koons reproduced oversized kitsch toys. Holy fucking mind bender! You could never have predicted THAT!
But wait, the hits just keep coming and coming.
If you’re up on your “Contemporary Art 101”, you will recognize this piece:
Tracey Emin had a dark night of the soul following a breakup with her boyfriend, doing a lot of drinking and not tidying up her room, after which she had the inspiration to make her nadir into illuminating art. “My Bed” was radical as all get go in 1998 (18 years ago), and was shortlisted for the Tate Museum’s coveted Turner prize in 1999. It sold for £2.5 million at Christie’s a couple years ago. According to a reviewer in Time Out:
This is the show that every artist wants to put on but doesn’t dare … It’s the funniest and most disturbing show in town, a brilliantly simple idea which takes one step further the fashion for bringing real-life into the galleries … It isn’t an ego trip. It’s ordinary. It’s the Tracey Emin show but here is Everywoman … The show is radical, innocent, crazy, passionate and brave. A coup.
The critic nailed it, and then slipped into leaning on radical. At first the bed “takes one step further the fashion for bringing real-life into the galleries”. Precisely. It’s one step advancing a fashion. One step in a fashion trend does not a radical breakthrough make.
I don’t have a strong feeling about the bed. For my tastes the narcissism is a bit over the top, as we are supposed to register her personal romantic upset as worthy of the world’s attention. But, eh, it’s OK for what it is. There’s an aesthetic to it, and it’s a bit reminiscent of some of Ed and Nancy Keinholz’ work. Emin wasn’t the first to drag a bed into the gallery.
Of course there’s a critical difference – Ed and Nancy created a tableau – but there’s overlap in the content.
“An interior scene depicting a bedroom with a pregnant female figure seated on the edge of a rumpled bed, her attention directed out an open window where there is a glowing sun produced with an electric light. The sculpture is full of symbolism about social and emotional consequences.” ~ Smithsonian Institution.
Emin’s gesture 17 years later was more radical, I guess, because in directly relocating her own bed and accessories, presumably without aestheticization, her message was therefore more crystalline. Because it was about herself, I gather, it was more personal. And Ed and Nancy’s work, which I prefer, wasn’t a “ready-made”, and thus is not in direct lineage to the most radical art of recent centuries, Duchamp’s infamous ready-mades, such as his “Bottle Rack” of 1914.
Duchamp was the first person to haul an everyday object into a gallery and call it fine art. Bottle Rack was
created re-contextualized as art just over 50 years before my father allegedly stayed home to watch football when I took my first breath. This whole “appropriation” thing (or re-contextualization) is more than a century old, but still radical.
The development from Duchamp to Warhol to Koons to Emin does not represent a sequence of radical departures, but rather small steps in a particular, well-established direction or fashion. This sort of thing sometimes gets bundled under the misnomer “the tradition of radical art”. Art can’t be both traditional and a radical departure from tradition simultaneously.
Radical has come to designate a style of art, the way punk refers to a style of music, but does not signal a drastic departure and rejection of the recent past, nor an unprecedented dramatic leap forward. If punk was ever really radical (some trace it neatly back to Iggy Pop), at present it is an established genre, no more or less radical than other styles, such as metal or prog rock.
Radical can be applied to any art, but is usually reserved for appropriation, installation, performance, and hybrids thereof. Radical art was the only thing on the menu when I was in university through grad school, and I produced performance and installation art for my classes nearly a quarter century ago, before many of today’s radical practitioners of the forms were born.
Is radical really being so overused?
The ad nauseam regurgitation of radical appears to have peaked in the late 90’s, and is now mercifully in decline, except in art journals.
Let’s look at a few of the many instances of radical popping up lately.
This from artnet news today, July 12, 2016 [I started this post then].
Unpredictably, this is to the show’s credit. Some of the best presentations come from the most radical contributions Portland has to offer.
Oh, shit, there are apparently even gradations of radical. If you’re wondering what the most radical art looks like, it’s this:
Um. For those who aren’t familiar with radical art, I assure you, THAT is the art.
OK, true, if you didn’t know it was art, you wouldn’t know it was art. Yeah, you have to have the context before you are blown away by the radicality of it. I read the description and I admit I still don’t know what it’s really about. You can give it a try yourself here. I’m not gonna’ attempt to figure it out, as it’s got a couple layers of ironic remove, appears to be an appropriation, and is making a critique of the art show it’s a part of. I guess you had to be there.
Here are several recent radical articles from the online art magazine, Hyperallergic::
- Clyfford Still’s Radical Repetitions
- The Radical Ambiguity of Henry Darger
- ‘Antigone’ Meets 1970s Radical Detroit in a Work of Immersive Theater
- Meet the Sisters of the Valley, California’s Radical Weed-Growing “Nuns”
- The Radical Discos of 1960s Italy and Architectural Innovation
- Looking Back at Toronto’s Radical 1980s Underground Art Scene
- The Asia Pacific Triennial Chooses the Margins as a Radical Space
- Artists Serve Up the Radical Power of Eating
- The Radical Power of Classified Pop Music
If it ain’t radical, it ain’t shit (double entendre intentional).
The real problem with radical is that it presumes that art evolves in a linear progression with one breakthrough following another, and the purpose of art is to advance art. If this is the case than only the most radical art is relevant. This paradigm sees art as equivalent to science: only the newest breakthroughs are important (there’s no use in repeating old experiments), and the only relevant science is that which led to the newest and most relevant developments.
And so it is with art. During the 50’s America displaced France as the center of the art world, and American Abstract Expressionism came to be understood, along with American Capitalism, as the grand, new vision sweeping the world stage. Duchamp was retroactively made crucial as a precursor to artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, whose “combines” of the 50’s incorporated foreign objects into painting and sculpture. Without Duchamp, there would be no Rauschenberg, and since Rauschenberg was a phenomenal American artist, Duchamp had to be resurrected as eminently important, and it didn’t hurt that he expatriated from France to America in 1955.
The result of this kind of thinking, or even belief system, is that artists strive not to make art, but to make art history. They attempt to usher in a new dawn of understanding. Art isn’t really like science, however, and while new developments in science require an understanding of prior scientific developments, and are a continuation of them, radical art theoretically strives to be a departure from prior art, and doesn’t demand an understanding of it, nor an ability to do it. To clarify, radical art closely follows a certain tradition, embellishes it and produces new offshoots, but is perpetually a reaction against the tradition of visual art (painting). Nevertheless, radical art is assumed to encompass all that went before it, including painting, as science essentially does its precursors. THAT is BS. Just as science advanced through mostly incremental developments, is entirely dependent on what was discovered before, and supposed isolated individual achievements actually include an integration of work by contemporaries, so it is with art.
This doesn’t mean that art which is heralded as radical is necessarily bullshit – especially since most anything any good it is retroactively classified as radical – but rather that the paradigm is. Stop and consider how arrogant it is for an artist to presume he or she is moving art forward in an extraordinary leap, and civilization along with it, by canning his shit.
Admittedly I was not impressed by Manzoni’s canned shit shit-canning conventional art until I saw the French version. A year of French in community college and I thought anything I could understand in another language was charming. “Merde d’Artiste” made me laugh. Maybe it’s because I’d read enough French Impressionist painting titles in French. I could recognize the humor, the thumbing of the nose, and even the theoretical underpinnings, scant as they were. I would readily concede that this is good art in a way: it’s creative and funny and puts a spin on “sculpture” and the artist leaving his mark, but I balk at praising it as among the best art because of it’s presumed radical message and import.
If you read my blog you know I cut through all the art-theory crap by comparing art to music. Somehow music didn’t get as caught up in the radical narrative as did art. People listen to music because it’s good. The best music isn’t synonymous with the music that is perceived as making some breakthrough, and thus is important, it’s the music which is the most captivating, profound, transcendent, or realized.
You can appreciate radical art primarily for its avowed importance because you don’t necessarily have to spend any significant time with it. It is a prop signifying an argument. You assay its place in art history and move on. But music has to be absorbed in the realm of time, and if it is not enjoyable or rewarding to listen to, nobody partakes of it. Imagine if the goal of most musicians wasn’t to make good music, but rather to make important music by changing the course of music history, in which case how the result sounds would be less important than how the concept behind the music was contextualized. The context would be more important than the sound, and it’s somehow easier to hear a problem, apparently, than to see one.
The radical paradigm tragically misses the point of art. It reduces art to the mindset of an Art History quiz (who did what when, and why is it important?) but the true appreciation of art is in the enjoying of it, not in an exterior estimation of its intellectual value, or monetary value. Radicality judges art by extrinsic standards, which are variable and can change overnight, not by intrinsic worth. This is part of the reason why some of the best art wasn’t appreciated until after the artist died: during the artist’s lifetime her or his art was outside of the favored paradigm, but eventually, as the paradigm evaporated, only the intrinsic quality of the art remained.
Does anyone really give a flying turd about the overarching paradigm in which Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings were evaluated in his lifetime? We can be fascinated by his technique, and especially his imagination, while largely rejecting his worldview, and that of his time. His paintings are great because of how outlandish they are, and his ability to manifest his imagination in pigment. Most of us will have no idea how his painting related to art immediately prior to it, or what effect it had on the population at the time. We don’t need that information, though it might be enlightening. I probably learned about it in art history, and was able to regurgitate it (I aced all my art history and art theory classes), but that information pales in comparison to the strangeness of the art itself. Without Hieronymus, and probably some of his contemporaries, this vision would not exist. By today’s standards, Bosch’s worldview is unacceptably bleak, backwards, and probably superstitious. But the art still resonates, and it’s over 500 years old. This is because of its high level of realization, and nothing to do with its radicality in relation to its own time.
This is not to say that artists shouldn’t strive to peel back the next layer of the unknown and expand the boundaries of conscious awareness. Bosch did that. What is the point of exploring if you don’t discover anything? But, to go with the science analogy, there’s a critical difference between an experiment that makes a discovery, and an experiment that merely hasn’t been done before. Cooking horse cloppy in a microwave for 5 minutes may be an experiment nobody has attempted before (or, I should say, was at one time an experiment nobody had done before, because surely some moron has done it by now), but the result would add nothing to science. It didn’t require any understanding of the body of scientific knowledge, and the results could largely be predicted anyway. Discovery is not the same thing as mere difference.
Personally, I am of the mind that artists can broaden our horizons, but this would tend to happen incrementally, much like evolution, and not be a series of radical upheavals, each destroying all that went before. Consider the common conception that Marcel Duchamp’s comically named, “The Fountain” radically changed art.
Fountain was many things, apart, obviously, from a mis-described piece of sanitary equipment. It was unexpectedly a rather beautiful object in its own right and a blindingly brilliant logical move, check-mating all conventional ideas about art. But it was also a highly successful practical joke.
Duchamp has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci, as a profound philosopher-artist…” ~ Martin Gayford, for The Telegraph.
Here the philosophical giant, Duchamp, crushed all “conventional ideas of art” as he extinguished his cigarette. I suppose this narrative appeals to people who wish for super powers that would elevate them instantly above all mortals, but it’s worth noting that in recent art history, the radical breakthrough art is often the least fulfilling to engage. Unless you’ve got recordings of John Cage’s 4’33” for piano – during which the pianist sat there for four minutes and thirty three seconds doing nothing, and you were meant to listen to the background noise – on your “favorites” playlist, you probably agree with me, whether you admit it or not. Can you conceive that a musical composition in which nobody played any music “check-mated all conventional ideas about music” and was written by a “profound philosopher composer”? More likely you’d think of it as a clever comment on music, perhaps worth sitting through once. How about a novel in which nothing was written crowned as the “great American novel”?
Speaking of novels, a novelist is by definition nearly incapable of radical art (exceptions are made for radical politics), because the form of the novel is traditional, in which case writing a novel can be dismissed as affirming the patriarchy and status quo. And yet, words are so plastic that a novel could be about anything. I say about painting that the limitations of painting are only the limitations of the imagination. The same goes for the novel.
Radical, by definition, has to be drastic change. But does drastic change insure, or even indicate an expansion of the boundaries of conscious awareness? Is it necessarily an improvement? Is the change from being an organic vegetarian to eating an early astronaut’s diet a positive development? That’s not really a fair comparison because the latter diet can be dismissed as unhealthy, and it’s much harder to determine what is unhealthy for the mind, or for whose mind, and by what criteria.
We can see that the type of art that is usually labeled radical is also the hardest to justify as having intrinsic worth: a silent piano concerto; a urinal; an oversized replica of a box of detergent; an unmade bed; a can of shit. And what if these important revolutionary markers of the progress of art don’t really change anything outside of, and other than, the game of art? If the unmade bed and the aluminum rabbit aren’t changing the way we see, aren’t guiding civilization forward, and aren’t even advancing art except in terms of one-upmanship within an insulated in-group, what relevance do the art-ifacts have?
Jeff Koons’ polished chrome “Balloon Dog Orange” sold for over $58,000,000, and was promoted as the “Holy Grail” of contemporary art for collectors, but didn’t conceptually go any further than his polished aluminum “Rabbit” of eight years earlier. Conceptually, Balloon Dog aspires to be a manufactured item, completely devoid of any trace of the artist’s hand or his imagination, precisely like Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. For me, whatever radical points Balloon Dog is presumed to possess are lost when one considers there are four more copies, in four more primary colors.
The complete absence of the artist’s stain, so to speak, on the spotless shine of the gaudy Balloon Dogs’ surfaces hearken’s back to Duchamp’s ready-mades with a weak bark; but we can now value the crass commercialism itself of making four gaudy copies as a radical development in art.
Is the purpose of art to up the ante in whatever way, or is it to open vistas of the imagination, or perhaps to unveil reality? I’m sure it’s different for different people, but by whatever means and for whatever purpose, art isn’t proceeding by constant radical leaps: it’s slowly evolving.
Please indulge me in just one more example, which many perceive as the most radical leap of artistic imagination since Duchamp’s ready-mades.
Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.
“Pollock had created his first ‘drip’ painting in 1947, the product of a radical new approach to paint handling.”
Consider how Pollock is presented in the Wikipedia article on Postmodern art:
“During the late 1940s and early 1950s Pollock’s radical approach to painting revolutionized the potential for all Contemporary art that followed him.”
“Pollock redefined the way art gets made at the mid-century point. Pollock’s move — away from easel painting and conventionality — was a liberating signal to his contemporaneous artists and to all that came after.”
“Artists realized that Jackson Pollock’s process — working on the floor, … essentially blasted artmaking beyond any prior boundary.”
WOW!! Except it’s not really accurate. Surrealist, Max Ernst had dripped paint from a swinging can onto a canvas on the floor years before Pollock did his first drip paintings.
Or, howzabout this painting by Hans Hofmann, of the same year, and five years before Pollock’s game changing innovation.
Oh, shit, that’s really getting too close for comfort. Hoffman did Pollock-esque work even earlier, in 1940.
But this can all be traced back to the abstract compositions of Wassily Kandinsky. Here’s a Kandinsky painting created 36 years before Pollock’s first all-over, abstract, drip painting.
Clearly, Pollock’s style was not a radical departure from that of Hans Hofmann (who was the teacher of several of his fellow Abstract Expressionists) and it can easily be traced back to the work of Kandisnky. Pollock didn’t invent a new way of painting out of the blue, it’s more like he took the baton from Hofmann, and ran with it… As with the scientists, his contribution is built solidly on the work of artists who went before, and that of his contemporaries. Aside from the fact that Pollock dripped his paint, his work doesn’t seem to venture into territory much beyond what Kandinsky had explored several decades earlier. Fortunately for Pollock, some of us like his work for what it is, and not for its avowed pivotal role in a master narrative of modern art. [See more in my article: How Art History Got Jackson Pollock All Wrong, And Why It Matters].
Unless we have amnesia, radical artistic departures just don’t seem to exist.
If you don’t use the word radical when addressing art, than you have to talk about art in a more sophisticated and integrative way. Hopefully I’ve made all who’ve read this so nauseated with radical that it will slip out of discourse, or at least you readers will now notice it whenever it crops up, and with a wee bit of suspicion and perhaps disgust.
Apologies to Jürgen Fritz, the keyboardist for German prog band, Triumvirat, for using his name for my faux radical reactions to the the radical narrative. I figured people would be more likely to take the bait if the artist in question was German, in which case they might have somehow missed his budding career, and I guess most people don’t know who the keyboardist for Triumvirat was. Those pieces were done by me in Photoshop. You can see presenting them as real installations as radical if you want. And here’s some good Fritz on the keyboard. Enjoy.
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