To have lived in exciting times…

I recently went to two art exhibits, both in San Francisco: they feature Picasso, as well as Matisse, Renoir  and other members of the “Parisian avante garde” of the early 1900s. One, at SFMOMA, deals with how the Steins — that’s Gertrude & Company to you — left San Francisco early in the 20th century to live in Paris. There, they became friends and patrons of up-and-coming artists, particularly painters. They bought works from them for a song, or sometimes just a supper. Not many years later they were able to sell these works for a pretty penny, or franc. It’s hard not to feel envy surging through the veins when one reads on Wikipedia, “The joint collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein began in late 1904 … They spent … at Vollard’s Gallery, buying Gauguin’s  Sunflowers and Three Tahitians,  Cézanne’s Bathers, and two Renoirs. And they probably still had change to get some steak tartare afterwards.

Eventually the Steins found themselves priced out of the market of the artists they’d helped to create.

But before that, the Steins opened their modest apartments at 27 Rue de Fleurus to everyone interested in the new art. People were invited to come on Saturday and view the works, but it was more than just that. Siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein discussed the concepts behind the work. Sister-in-law Sarah Stein even took art classes with Matisse, and kept a journal, later published, of everything he taught.

Portrait of Sarah Stein (Matisse).

It isn’t just this crowd, though. In Paris they were all talking about the new music, the new literature, the new everything. Seemed to go well with the new technology of the new century: the aeroplane, the automobile, the wireless. Everyone from Debussy to Stravinsky to Diaghilev to Nin was causing a stir, and people were talking about it, in some cases fighting about it.

There have been other periods like this too: among recent times, the late sixties stands out, of course.  But to me turn of the century to the 20s seem like one of the best examples of this. Maybe I’m biased, but to me for every breakthrough and insight in the 60s, there were a hundred examples of faux art and pretension, even if some of it sold for a lot of money to the nouveau-riche. Sorry, but most of the 60s revolution strikes me as fueled more by brownies than by ideas. The ideas had already been birthed in the teens and 20s, and were just coopted by lesser intelligences in need of its own secular religion, in everything from The Beatles to Berio. So shoot me.

Imagine going to one of these gatherings and talking about, and arguing about, the ideas contained in this art. Imagine seeing the changes right before your eyes — the way a painting by a newcomer that you bought three years ago for a few coins is now a masterpiece, the artist you once shared breadcrust and red wine with is now a celebrity, and it all started in your parlor. You were in the center of it. You saw intellectual concepts be born, and advance and mature. You.

The Architect’s Table by Picasso, 1912.

One would think, with all the communication and travel advantages of today, that we’d be full of burgeoning movements. But we don’t seem to be. As I left the museum exhibits, and watched people in the gift shop looking at refrigerator magnets, night-lights and coasters of what used to be eccentric (and unsettling) art objects, I thought about why this was so. Or rather, why it is that art movements now 100 years old continue to intrigue us.

One of the thrilling things about being alive back then, I concluded, was that we were just starting to break the rules. Oh, to have lived in exciting times: women were starting to dare do the things men did: drink, smoke, vote, wear pants, skydive. Okay, getting ahead of myself maybe, but society was changing. Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsburyians were up to such radicalisms as having coffee after supper instead of tea in the afternoon. Imagine! Next they just might burn their bras and start dancing to this new “jazz music.”

Just listen to Debussy’s études and preludes, and how radical they were compared to everything that came before. It’s the aural counterpoint to Picasso’s or Matisse’s or Cézanne’s paintings. Stravinsky dared to tell Parisian audiences in 1913 that ballet music could be something radically different from what they’d ever heard before, the same way Picasso told them the painting above was of a table. When you have rules you are breaking, you have a gauge, a position, a point of view, that exists. Debussy’s music strikes us — still — as so fresh and new when we know what led to it and how it was different.

There’s a problem with revolutions, however: they soon become the status quo. And new revolutions happen. Nothing wrong with that in the abstract. But when the rules have been broken repeatedly and radically, the new revolutions…well, they have nothing much to rebel against.

When was the last time a painting shocked? Or a piece of music, or a theater piece. I don’t mean for shocking social content so much as technical considerations, though even socially, it’s hard to stun audiences in the age of Piss Christ. Anything goes. It seems quaint now, it really does, that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre caused people to nearly bludgeon one another at the premiere. Today the biggest controversy would be that someone’s cell phone went off during the concert. When artists start hurling paint at a canvas in such a way that it’s literally indistinguishable from road kill, how do you lead a revolution against that?

I’m not trying to put the genie back in the bottle. I’m not a Philistine. (Well, perhaps I am. Perhaps some of the “avant-garde”ists actually are too. Who’s to say?)  In one way the journey to where we are now was inevitable. If there’s going to be one artistic revolution there will be more, and if we begin to go from order to chaos we will continue towards more chaos until it is the reigning element. But if we stay steadfast with order and rigidity, art stagnates and rots. Those are your choices. Oddly, they meet full circle eventually.


And I think that’s why we’re not seeing our Bloomsbury groups and Stein art Saturdays much anymore. When we do have them, they are either obvious marketing grabs or self-conscious attempts to harken back to the past — or both. They have all the authenticity of petroleum companies supporting public television because they claim to care about culture.

I keep telling myself that perhaps I am wrong about all of this. Maybe there are groups that meet today, movements that are fomenting, and I’m just missing it. But these movements should bear fruit, and I don’t think there’s been a serious artistic movement in the last 25 years, at least in music or painting or film. (I can’t speak about theater.) We seem to keep dipping into the past, however: retrospectives are big business, and we leave them with big coffee-table sized books commemorating our experience. That thinking seems so out of step with the Steins and Bloomsbury Groups and beat poets and so forth. Has even revolution been coopted, marketed, T-shirted? Will it not be televised because it’s already out on Blu-ray and Netflix? Or has the academizing of it all served to kill it, putting it, like the tidy, sanitary music of the only jazz composer to win a Pulitzer, Wynton Marsalis, under the shiny glass of museums? No sooner do movements get off the ground than they become categories — marketed, taught and placed on a shelf somewhere. A dangerous jazz composer like Charles Mingus would never be handed a Pulitzer.

I thought at one point the Internet might change all this. But it is devolving into the shallow, narcissistic world of social networking, which is just guerilla marketing taken to extremes, instead of creating a true place of community: an “interest” you can click “like” to and them move on to Mafia Wars is not a community. I know I personally have unfriended a couple of people who used to be interesting, curious, seekers when I knew them back in pre-internet days; their communications are now exclusively the marketing of themselves in an effort to get people to notice them — ultimately why I’m not sure.

But blaming the tweet is a cheap way out. These issues are not new — social media merely makes it easier for them to happen. What is new is the fact that there hasn’t been a real revolution in a long, long time. And the radicals are today as familiar as the gift wrapping paper that many of their works are now reproduced on. I don’t know what the future will bring. Maybe we’ve reached the end of the line for what we traditionally term “art.” Maybe not. But I do envy those salons, those informal gatherings, those heated arguments and unveiling of new works and ideas and thoughts. And judging by how hard mainstream people today try to imitate them and their lifestyles today — in hair, dress, deportment, lifestyle…but alas, never in actual revolutionary change — I’d say so do many, many others.

2 responses

  1. Hi John,
    This piece is better than a lot of New Yorker articles I read. Good work. I think writer’s groups are kind of a weak reinvention of the Paris in the 20s idea. Some of these groups put out anthologies, but I’ve yet to read one that holds any merit. Ah, the good old days….


    July 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

  2. Gee, thanks. Appreciate that. Let’s just say the exhibits were inspiring, some of the best art I’ve seen in a long time.


    July 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s