circus act

circus act


Modern Art (Moderne Kunst) 1968 Sigmar Polke


ALL the world may be a stage to some people but the world of art, according to the organisers of La Grande Parade, is a circus. With the museum its big top, the curators are ringmasters and the artists are clearly its clowns.

Now by some magical feat all the world’s clowns have something to celebrate as we reach the “end of ideology” and, as the publicity for this exhibition explains, the dawn of the post-modern era. “Now everything is possible again without avant-garde or other dogmas. The age of ‘post-modernism’ has dawned. Today art is not concerned with the negation of what has been achieved or with the revival of the past but with a peaceful co-existence of styles.”

Artists it seems have to be thankful to the museum (with its critics, curators and historians) for making their position clear and reminding them that everything is now possible (again). Everything that is, except a negation or revival of what has already been achieved (the past). This, as far as I can make out, with history safe inside the museum where it belongs, doesn’t leave us much more to do other than continue with our search for the “Shock of the New” in much the same modernist fashion as we were already doing (according to the same museums) before we were informed of the dawn of post-modernism.

The selector of the exhibition, director of the Stedelijk Edy de Wild, says that: “the exhibition has no theoretical basis. It’s not out to prove or illustrate anything, short of the possibilities of painting as the expression of a vision”.

Such an apparently open aim may be welcomed by many who wish to see art liberated from the conditions of its social production until it is recognised that this collection of exceptional examples of work by “great” (male) artists is brought together for no other reason than to celebrate the importance of one man and the institution he has directed since 1963: “ringmaster” Edy de Wilde who says “goodbye” with this exhibition. Needless to say de Wilde is fond of “good” painting and is particularly keen on Matisse, and thus the overriding theoretical basis of this exhibition is the celebration of quality.

An exhibition such as this is bound to have its moments of course, and as always there is the conflict, as a member of the viewing public, between a “sympathy” with the intentions of the artist (or reaction to the work of art) and an anger at the all-too-visible politics of presentation. Although the curator clearly aimed to elevate certain ’70s museum favourites and tasteful reductionists like Ryman, Marden, Dibbets, LeWitt and Mangold to the realm of “young” Masters; it was good to see the magnificent Léger placed at the heart of the exhibition even if his social(ist) intentions were completely neutralised by this context.

Sigmar Polke produces paintings which disguise themselves as representations of modern paintings reproduced in coffee-table art books, thus parodying modernism’s self-referentiality and lack of content. His images are ghosts floating across the surface of his paintings. Detached from their context and empty of signification they not only speak of the fate of meaning in the mass media but also comment on the life and death, presence and absence, of content in art in museum culture.

When the spiritual ambitions of artists such as Barnet Newman and Mark Rothko and the socialist intentions of Jackson Pollock evaporated, leaving nothing but the decorative Greenbergian optical effects of colour, and abstract expressionism became institutionalised as style; Philip Guston abandoned ship in search of the awkward content of daily life. This he presented in an appropriate blunt cartoon style, with the legendary remark which went something like “Hell, doesn’t anyone want to paint an ugly picture anymore?”


Painting, Smoking, Eating 1973 Philip Guston


His betrayal of the sublime in favour of the hell of the here and now has only recently been forgiven and his “ugly” work is now treasured by the institutions which he once betrayed.

Artists, like anyone else, use or react against the conventions of the tradition in which they choose to work, consciously, to be effective within a social context (even if, of course, their ambition may be to transcend that context). The museum, in its failure to present art as anything other than a collection
of (modem) ruins, objects devoid of intentions and divorced from context, compels the audience to wander dazed from fragment to (contradictory) fragment, falling back in desperation on clichéd notions of “universality” in an effort to link together and make some sense of what they see.

However, perhaps perversely, given the way the museum continues to see its function as the presentation of spectacle, the only antidote to culture’s institutionalisation is the power of the audience to misread what they see, making connections between works in an arbitrary and wilful way.

So despite the “universalising” of exhibitions such as this one, art is re-invented by the audience breathing life into dead forms. Perhaps what is needed then, is a well-articulated theory of reception; but in the meantime the debate between culture (and its meanings) as actively produced rather than passively (that is, institutionally) received continues.


La Grande Parade – Highlights in Painting after 1940
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Review published Building Design. No. 732 Mar 29 1985
Art in Ruins