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Rochelle Gurstein on The Ephemeral Life of the Classic in Art

In Written in Water: The Ephemeral Life of the Classic in Art, intellectual historian and critic Rochelle Gurstein explores the nature of the classic in art from the 18th century to the present day. Here she reflects on the topic while considering current events surrounding the vandalism of famous pieces and discussing how the “classic” relates to postmodernism and pop.

Throughout the book, you discuss “the disturbing phenomenon of the lost classic” and identify many famous artworks that at one time or another vanished into obscurity. Of all of the pieces that you found in your research, which one surprised you the most, and why?

RG: There were so many things that surprised me when I was writing this book that it is hard to choose a particular work of art or artist or idea as the most surprising. But I think I would choose Raphael for the distinction of being the most surprising lost classic. And that is because today even knowledgeable art lovers have a hard time conjuring a definitive image of his. Go to any reputable bookstore to the section about artists and on the shelf arranged under the letter “R,” there is volume after volume on Rembrandt, but only a few at best devoted to Raphael. And if you go to the section on the Renaissance, it is Michelangelo and Leonardo who have the lion’s share of books, since they are regarded, even by people who care little about art, as the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Before the end of the nineteenth century, I was shocked to learn, things could not have been more different: it was Raphael who was judged supreme, while Michelangelo’s reputation waxed and waned and Leonardo was largely forgotten. Raphael’s frescoes in the papal apartments—The Disputation, The School of Athens, the Parnassus—commanded the attention of every every artist and art lover who rushed to the Vatican to see them as soon as they arrived in Rome. Copies of his once-beloved tondo painting, Madonna della Seggiola at the Pitti Palace, were in such high demand that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a five-year wait for permission to paint it. For close to four centuries, Raphael’s masterpieces were the very definition of the enduring classic. That an artist who had meant so much to so many people could suffer such a staggering fall from grace put my original project of demonstrating that there was such a thing as a timeless classic into jeopardy, and forced me to rethink many of my presuppositions and uncritical assumptions, which resulted in the book I ultimately wrote.

Were you able to establish an authoritative standard of taste in matters of art?  Or is taste simply relative?

RG: I found that an authoritative standard of taste could be established when it is understood as a work of art that exemplifies the aims, aspirations, and excellences of a practice of art. In the classical practice of art, which lasted from the sixteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth, ancient sculptures and High Renaissance painters who imitated and tried to rival them were held to be exemplars, and, in turn, the single, indisputable standard of taste. Taste, when it is securely rooted in a practice of art, is not relative.

As long as a practice of art is in good working order and artists and viewers feel themselves part of its intellectual and aesthetic continuum, they can confidently judge works of art, both present and past. Where trouble sets in is if a practice becomes exhausted. At such moments, and they happen with increasing frequency during the twentieth century, the most ambitious artists, in their desire to go on, innovate, often unintentionally, which introduces a rival standard of taste. And while viewers committed to competing paradigms might very well be able to recognize the exemplar of the rival paradigm, how the viewer judges or feels about the artist or art movement in question is another matter. That is when we say it is a matter of taste, and taste in this instance is open to dispute—relative—since it is founded in nothing more substantial than the viewer’s personal feelings, attitudes, and preferences. 

Recently, there has been controversy over the vandalism of classic art pieces by climate activists. What do you think about the relationship between art and activism, and the role that “timeless classics” play in social movements?

RG: The climate activists realize if you want to draw attention to your cause, then throwing soup at the Mona Lisa (or at its protective glass) and being arrested will get your cause into the 24-hour news cycle. Their choice of “classic” works of art testifies to their importance as attention-getting objects, what some would call “cultural icons.”

The pop art of the late 20th century portrayed elements of popular culture and everyday life. The movement sought to democratize art by making it relatable to the general public, while disconnecting it from the classical European art histories which viewers previously needed to know in order to understand Western works. But is it really true that the pop movement represented a clean break from the artistic pasts that preceded it?

RG: When pop art first appeared in the early 1960s, what was novel about it was that artists took their subject matter directly from popular culture and they employed techniques derived from commercial art. One need only think of Andy Warhol’s silk-screens of photographs of celebrities, Roy Lichtenstein’s blown-up images from comic-strips, and James Rosenquist’s mammoth collages of advertisements executed in billboard-painting style to understand why pop art unhinged viewers whose sensibility had been formed by modernism, in particular, the work of the New York school. In terms of subject matter and technique, pop art did represent a break from the paradigms of art of the past.

When it comes to your question about whether the aim of pop artists to “democratize art by making it relatable to the general public” was a break from previous European art history, I am not so sure. Frescoes on church walls were regarded as talking pictures meant to stir piety and reverence in the hearts of Christian viewers, that is, ordinary people. And most of the genres from earlier periods of art—landscape, portraiture, still life, genre scenes—do not require any specialized knowledge from viewers. The only genre that does is the one that was ranked the highest and most noble: history painting—works that take their subject either from the bible or from classical myths, history, and poetry, and are executed in the grand style. While it is true that today museum-goers typically walk right by such paintings, it is also true that classics of this highest genre, like Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and Botticelli’s paintings in the Uffizi, are mobbed by tourists. When you come to think about it, the art that requires the most knowledge and effort on the part of viewers is non-representational art—abstract painting as well as much of conceptual and installation art.

Today installation art, performance art, and ephemeral art are all the rage. How do these forms of experimental expression relate to the artistic classics? And is it possible for these contemporary genres to become classics in the future, given that they are hard—and possibly impossible—to archive?

RG: Performance—what was originally called happenings—and conceptual art were intended by their makers in the ’60s and ’70s to be experimental, ephemeral, fugitive—not to last—as criticism of both the art marketplace and museums as institutions. They were never intended to become classics. But I think the more corrosive force at work against the idea of an enduring classic today is the directionless proliferation of historical styles that is now the normal state of postmodern art, which is fueled, first and foremost, by the absence of any shared project by artists themselves, and then accelerated by the rapacious appetite of the art market and museums for novelty. What this means is that few artists have been able to exert influence on their contemporaries for any length of time, that is, become exemplars of a practice of art. This is a matter of great consequence, since this kind of influence used to provide the most secure foundation of the classic.

Rochelle Gurstein is an intellectual historian and critic. She is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. Gurstein lives in New York City.

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