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CHANGE THE LANGUAGE!

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2010

BACK IN MAY of 1995, I wrote in this column about a trip to Amerika Haus In Cologne, Germany, during which I had given a lecture on the strong influences of both the Düsseldorf and Munich Schools on the early years of The Art Students League of New York (founded in 1875). The influence was especially strong on such teachers as Lemuel Wilmarth, William Merritt Chase, Frank Shirlaw — and others — all of whom had studied in Germany and who had brought back the “new painting” — i.e. the “loose” brushstroke (which they had learned from Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez) that offered a “spontaneity” in appearance that opposed the highly “polished” style then prevalent in Paris salons. Anyway…my point was that, from its inception, the League had been offering their students a choice that ranged from classical to (what was then) “modern” — and had continued the practice on up to today. I was a bit taken aback during the Q&A by a remark from a young man, a curator of modern art at the local museum — “Pointless!” he had said. Further discussion revealed that he (and several other younger members of my audience) felt that, “drawing skills” (for example), as a necessary background for today’s artist was “passé, an outmoded idea that no longer holds true.” When I asked him how hard-won rules of the past could be so easily discarded, he simply shrugged and informed me that, “We’ve changed the rules!” Riiiiight! I mused in my column back then, just how clever that was, that if we could not compete with a Shakespeare, a Vermeer, of a Mozart…well, just change the rules! How stupid for us old codgers not to have seen that? I ended my column by writing, “Can’t run a hundred meters? Hell, just change the rules — make it a 50-meter race, a 25-meter race — even a one-meter race! How wonderful to be rid of the onus of a set of restrictive rules that one cannot — or will not — follow! Can’t prepare a gourmet seven-course meal? Serve ‘em burgers!” I was, of course, being a bit sarcastic, but here it is fifteen years later and I’m not so sure who’s the fool. More and more I seem to be on the fringe, relegated to the back burner, whistling in the dark. A few months back, I even wrote in this column that an old friend referred to me as an “upstate, retroactive, redneck.” I comforted myself with rooting out like-minded comrades in aesthetic or critical journals — from fellow-members of organizations that I belong to. Truth is, however, that we are a fast-shrinking minority. More often than not, I am coming across articles — and books — that seem to have joined forces with those youngsters back in Cologne (but then, they aren’t ‘youngsters’ any more, are they? They are the ‘establishment’ — I’m the one ((along with the rules)) that has become irrelevant). So much artwriting posing as criticism that comes across my desk is — at least for me —nearly unreadable. If I am reactionary, a bit of a redneck, and do live in the Catskill foothills, I’m not exactly unread, but I keep getting lost in the words … words that continually slip from my understanding, that slide and slither in and out of meaning, trying my patience from sentence to sentence. To my eyes — my upstate, retroactive, redneck eyes — gobbledygook at its finest. To be fair to some of these writers, however, it is clear that they are writing about “art” that is itself — well — gobbledygook. I try. I go back. I re-read. Then it hits me! Of course! It was no longer “Change the Rules!” — it was “Change the Language!” Ah me, surely I am no longer fit for this business…but didn’t Confucius warn that when language is misused, when words no longer refer to what they actually ‘mean’, that the fall of civilization is not far away? Just how far are we willing to go to rid ourselves of “rules” — how far are we willing to go to change our very lives into gobbledygook?