Seven Keys to Modern Art, Simon Morley, Thames & Hudson.
Simon Morley’s Seven Keys to Modern Art puts up-front and centre the postmodernist approach to art criticism by taking a number of famous artworks and analysing each of them using a series of methods – historical, aesthetic, experiential, and so on. Morley chooses just one particular artwork from an artist to represent both the artist’s output and career and particular genres, and applies systematically his flavours of criticism, each in a section of not more than a couple of pages, in order to illustrate the different ways we might (unconsciously and consciously) regard an artwork. This is not necessarily relativism, a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder attitude, because he doesn’t shy away from judgement, but he does take the approach that we view art through different lenses, depending on circumstance and ideology, and we judge art’s success in various ways. There is a practicality to Morley’s approach; for example, we might, aesthetically judge a painting a failure while it is an art market success, fetching an exorbitant price. (Picasso’s late paintings, for example, may often fall into this category.) This is simply taking into account the reality of the art world.
In particular, Morley’s decision to include ‘market’ and ‘sceptical’ in his categories of criticism is interesting, since in pointing out the possible flaws in an artwork, and pointing out how often the fads of the art market determine what is successful art, Morley subverts much of the other positive analysis he includes. I can’t help but concentrate on the negatives, concluding that much high art is simply high art because someone says it is. And of course this is often the somewhat pessimistic conclusion to be drawn from postmodernist theory. It takes some of the power away from the work of art and places it back with the viewer. Or buyer.
On a more positive note (and at the risk of contradicting myself), this multifaceted approach allows us to avoid hasty judgements. We don’t need to make black and white judgements about art. Art is a striving for varying degrees of success. Sometimes the art viewer is inconsequential; much art is made for the artist’s own sense of achievement. Art is made for different purposes; one needs to analyse success against intention, and one can argue about the legitimacy of purpose. Much political art is derided for being such, even if the artist fully intended to make a political statement, because of the narrow-minded view of some that art is its own end (‘art for art’s sake’). Morley’s approach can allow us to wait for the artist to speak for herself, rather than expecting an artwork to answer the questions we bring to it. At the same time, it allows us to be free to be unmoved by some art. A postmodernist approach allows us to not buy into art market hype.
To take one chapter as an example, Morley focusses on an early, cubist collage of Picasso’s. He begins by outlining, in his biographical and historical sections, how Picasso, through cubism’s incorporation of ready-made, everyday objects, questioned how painting was done. Rather than painting a newspaper, he just stuck one on, and with his use of flat planes and shapes, he moved in the opposite direction of grand, realist representation, in effect challenging the viewer to construct everyday objects from as little information as possible. In doing so, says Morley, he makes a puzzle out of art. In asking us to decipher a painting, Picasso, somewhat like Morley himself, asks us not only to view the painting, but also to think about how we view paintings.
Morley also refers to the linguistic theories of Saussure, noting that Picasso’s painting here is an example of Saussure’s theory of interpreting signs. Painting becomes a written language. But Morley points out, in his ‘sceptical’ section, that this became something of a dead-end for Picasso, as sticking bits of newspaper on a canvas devalues the role of the artist (especially when this artist is aiming to make a lot of money from his ‘skill’). It also removes the sublime aspects from art, and art becomes just a useless duplication of what is already there, available to most of us. We might see cubist collage as just another step in Picasso’s relentless innovation, and innovation is partly why he is so valued, but cubist collage’s ultimate redundancy is underlined, says Morley, by the fact that Picasso soon abandoned it.
Because innovation was so highly prized in the Twentieth Century, work that was labelled ‘illustration’ was often set down as substandard art, partly because illustration is seen, like political art, as not standing alone, and also because it often relies on older notions of realism and technical skill, even if it is often caught up with the advertising world which is always on the lookout for the attention-grabbingly innovative. Morley doesn’t comment on this, but part of the positive legacy of postmodernism has been a recognition and rediscovery of illustrators and graphic design, and other ways of making art. Scepticism about the high art market and the role of art institutions dictating artistic taste has, happily, diverted attention to folk art and handicrafts (often the realm of subordinated female artists), commercial illustration and cartoons.
Morley does some further subverting by including in his catalogue works from Asian artists Xu Bing and Lee Ufan. Asian art often operates in different contexts and on different bases, and Morley reminds us that the Western trajectory of art is not the only one, and that there is a danger in talking about art by referring to other art, because it can narrow our ideological focus and criteria for appreciating art.