The many masks of modern art
Although I've seen a few truly exciting new prints in the past few years, I haven't seen any that profoundly moved me.Skip to next paragraph
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I'm not saying that I haven't been touched by a few. Nor that, here and there , a superb new print by such an old-timer as Miro, or such relative newcomers as Stella, Dine, or Johns, hasn't popped out at me with all the quality and vigor of genuine art. Nor even that there aren't a few printmakers, both traditional and modern, at work today who will be studied and respected for years to come. No, what I mean is that I haven't come across a single recent print that truly gripped me either on a profoundly human or formal level, and that said to me, ''Yes, this is truly and profoundly art!''
I've thought about this a great deal, and have come to the rather unhappy conclusion that for all the colorful, exuberant, wonderfully idiosyncratic, innovative, and forward-moving nature of printmaking today, it hasn't accomplished much except to expand the scope, definition, and craft of printmaking, and to present us with hundreds of thousands of colorful, clever, charming, beautifully executed, and otherwise rather inconsequential graphic images for our walls.
The reasons for this are complex, and must take into account such things as the extremely technical nature of printmaking, the innovative aspects of modernism, and our contemporary need for moderately priced, original works of art. The overriding reason, however, is the fact that the main focus of ''serious'' printmaking today lies in expanding the range of its technical and formal resources - not in deepening or broadening the substance and significance of what is communicated. To that end, the major creative efforts of our leading printmakers today is directed toward discovering and inventing new graphic processes and techniques, creating never-before-seen technical effects and formal devices, and in trying to enlist every possible photographic, reproductive, chemical, or mechanical process in the search for greater surface effectiveness. The result, of course, is that never before has printmaking been so richly and wondrously fertile, and so full of potentials - and yet so often so thematically trivial, so self-serving and surface-oriented.
And this criticism applies as much to some of the more traditional printmakers as to the highly innovative and advanced ones. In order for the former to compete with the latter, they've focused their attention upon what distinguishes them from the others, and have produced such technically brilliant and exquisite traditional prints that the etchings and engravings of Rembrandt and Durer pale beside them. The ultimate reaction, however, once the viewer's awe at such technical virtuosity has worn off, is the same: disenchantment, and a feeling of having been duped by superficial effects.
All art, most specifically art that is probing into hitherto unexplored creative or expressive territory, is going to have to commit at least a portion of its identity to new formal means. Thus Rembrandt, while trying to create images that would fully represent his creative intentions, increasingly broke with the conventions of etching practiced during his time, and substituted his own stylistic and technical inventions for them. The results were so dramatic and effective that a few of his contemporaries insisted he had sold his creative soul for a few surface effects.
We know, of course, that this was not so, and understand that he was actually trying to ''say'' what he wanted to say clearly and directly. The only way he could do this was to smash through and to discard anything that held him back.
A great deal of the history of post-Renaissance Western art consists of one great artist after another smashing his way through the limitations of tradition to find his own true voice. The only problem is that we have become so accustomed to interpreting all art history in this fashion that we now believe that the only way anyone can create art is to first smash, subvert, or leap over whatever preceded it.