Monday, January 24, 2005

Whither the narrative?


This is a question that died out a little while back, but I wanted to collect a few remarks because Dave's original question--what is the place of the narrative [in visual art]?--sustained me for a good couple of days while I was braving the cold of Reykjavík, en route to other places [which I'll discuss in subsequent posts]. It's a great question, and one that might as well begin at

Works of art that tell a story are called "narratives"; their subject matter may be derived from literature, scripture, mythology, history, or current events. Narratives may be designed to teach, enlighten, or inspire, and often carry moral, social, or patriotic messages.
Most people would make a rough equivalence between the history of representational painting and narrative painting--or at least anti-abstract: surely minimalist, e.g., works are difficult to make narrative*--and I'd argue that this is, more or less, correct. And I have some pretty good company: the first and last word on this topic belongs to Arthur Danto (see Art After the End of Art) and Hans Belting (see Art History After Modernism, among others); Danto makes the connection between the art historical narrative and narrative content. To make a long story short: we're not likely to see the return of any old order that priveleges, e.g., "narrative." Danto and Belting counsel that there can be no re-ordering in the wake of the Brillo boxes (Danto's famous example that one can never tell whether an object is a work of art or not without knowing what was in the creator's noggin at fabrication time).

Which is not to say that narrative won't be important--pomo doesn't rule anything out. And there has been a great deal of narrative art evident at the last two Whitney biennials (not always to good effect, though: 2002 was the biennial of the punchline); but there will always be, er, "non-retinal" art--that ain't gonna change, ever.

Where does that leave us? Subsequent remarks have focused on the presence/lack of, well, soul:

What I see is a willingness to portray and be portrayed, to be
personally visible. I like the work of Erin Fostel and Zach Thornton,

I agree. The search for authenticity in a postmodern era is the central issue of our time, and not just in the art world. It's way problematic, obvs. Funny--or perhaps not--how the era of "anything goes" must necessarily yield to the old standby of Western civ; we are who we are. I was in Rome last week, carrying Roberto Calasso's Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, an unclassifiable book blurbed on the jacket [by Gore Vidal] as perhaps in the Bible's class of importance to our culture, and he's right. I was struck by many familiar things while roaming the ancient city, but--to cite but one inspired by Calasso--I was surprised at the similarity of the Spartans to today's GOP. How cool is that?

To "be personally visible," as individuals and as a culture, is the new black.

* But not impossible!
Modern and contemporary works can also carry narrative content--even nonrepresentational works. Barnett Newman's abstract series, Stations of the Cross (1964), suggests a sequential unfolding of meaning. It is based on the medieval tradition of pilgrimage through episodes of Christ's Passion. In Newman's interpretation of the pilgrimage, these episodes symbolize aspects of universal suffering. In a different vein, the artist Jonathan Borofsky gives detailed narrative instructions to the viewer by actually imbedding a story in the title of his 1983 work


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