November 21, 2011

Expressionism emerges during waves of violence, 2

In the first post on how the early 20th-C wave of violence gave birth to Expressionism, I went over its core traits and explained why artists would move that way during a period of rising crime, especially during the second half when the future looks more apocalyptic.

Now I'll show how the same basic styles emerged yet again during the later 20th-C wave of violence, particularly during the second half of roughly the mid-'70s through the very early '90s. In later posts, I'll look at works that turn more toward the redemptive, spiritual, pastoral, and so on. These ones are more about the anxiety and alienation that set up the urge to re-join a tightly knit community in greater touch with nature. I'll start with museum art and music videos; the third post will look just at movies, since there's a lot to see there.

Just as a reminder of what art looked like during the falling-crime era of the mid-century:

No figures or representation, low variety and intensity of colors (none by the end), and hardly any emotion, dynamism, or subjectivity (none by the end). This was hardly a 20th-century event, as every period of falling violence produces a much "cooler" art compared to the "hotter" art of the rising-crime periods before and after it. (But that is another story.)

Feel free to skip these quotes, but they give a vivid impression of the tumult that was shaking up the sterile art world by the mid-'70s. Here are some excerpts from Hilton Kramer's essay "Signs of Passion" for ZEITGEIST, a catalog for a Neo-Expressionist exhibition in 1982. By the 1960s,

All evidence of subjective emotion, every impulse toward improvisation and what Ruskin had called "impetuosity" and "incompletion", anything that suggested the role of the unconscious or of the irrational in art was suppressed in favor of clean surfaces and hard edges, of instant legibility, transparency, and order. The rising generation seemed to harbor a profound aversion to anything in art that smacked of mystery or interiority. There was a virtual ban on revelations of the soul. Incitements to feeling were looked upon as a kind of vulgarity. For the first time in the history of criticism, boredom in art was upheld as an exemplary emotion. We had entered the era of "cool" and impersonal styles.

Sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it? In fact during the falling-crime era after the early '90s, we've gone right back to this too-cool-to-care attitude. I don't think it's an affectation either -- people are just a lot less electrically conductive than they were in the '80s.

[Neo-Expressionism's] first task was to restore to painting its capacity to encompass the kind of poetry and fantasy that had long been denied to it, and toward that end it was obliged to mount an attack -- sometimes, it seemed, literally -- on the picture surface. What was discarded straightaway was the easy legibility and transparency that, in truth, had long ago degenerated into a facile convention. Instead of leaving everything out of painting and making a neat, clean, perfect form of what remained, the Neo-Expressionists were clearly determined to put everything in. Their paintings swamped the eye with vivid images and tactile effects, relying more on instinct and imagination than on careful design. The mystical, the erotic, and the hallucinatory were once again made welcome in painting, which was now made to shun the immaculate and the austere in favor of energy, physicality, and surfeit.

And of course they were hardly alone in this frontal assault, joined by the revivals of Fauvism and Art Deco.

It was this experience of surfeit, I think, that had the most unsettling effect on established taste. We had grown used to the idea that changes in pictorial style inevitably entailed depletion and purification. . . . [Neo-Expressionism] put into question the very practice of identifying the vitality of art with this process of progressive depletion.

This makes it sound like a theoretical debate that somebody won, but in reality the fun-lovers and the killjoys will never budge from their positions. It is instead a matter of what fraction of the population belongs to which group at some time. The fraction of fun-lovers rises with the violence rate, so by the later 1970s the death of abstract, minimal, Puritanical art was inevitable. Similarly once the violence rate began plummeting after 1992, it was unavoidable that the killjoys would take over the culture once more.

Here are some representative Neo-Expressionist paintings from the '80s, and one from 1992, by Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, Rainer Fetting, and Helmut Middendorf (click to enlarge):

Saving movies for the next post, let's have a quick look at just a handful of music videos, a new medium that joined the visual culture during this time. They were never as absorbing and sublime as movies, but they still show how broad the Expressionist influence was.

Nobody pumped out this type of video more than Billy Idol, which was a perfect fit to his musical style -- putting modern alienation and hedonism on display, even having some fun with it for a bit, but ultimately yearning to forge a deep social bond with someone to help him through the urban jungle (as in "Catch My Fall"). The clearest example is the video for "Flesh For Fantasy," with its distorted-perspective buildings, exaggerated choreography, and uneasy voyeuristic look at sexuality.

Only somewhat less stylized, and focusing more on the sense of menace in urban streets and bars, is Pat Benatar's video for "Love Is A Battlefield". The video for "Planet Earth" by Duran Duran is pretty bare, but it still uses a stage that looks like it came from a German Expressionist horror movie. They were outdone there by (who else?) Billy Idol in the video for "Dancing With Myself", directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame.

Is there anything new in Neo-Expressionism? I'll elaborate more in the post on movies, but even looking at the music videos you see a far greater anxiety about the more globalized and ethnically heterogeneous world of the 1980s compared to the 1910s. Since one of the core concerns of Expressionism was the sense of loss of belonging and community in the modern world, it was only natural that the Neo-Expressionists -- in the diverse countries anyway -- would uncover the anxiety over the melting pot ideology clashing with the reality of black pimps, inscrutable Orientals, and so on.

This was hardly their central focus, but it did show up fairly reliably, and was not so much a part of early 20th-C Expressionism, whose alienation was all about urban and modern effects, and not ethnic diversity effects.


  1. Interesting comment about anxiety about multiculturalism in the 80s, vs the post-90s era. In the 70s and 80s, with a sudden rise in immigration from non-Western countries, the anxiety, I think, came from the fact that people were trying to hold their communities together against seemingly unbeatable adversity - and these new people, who didn't know the rules, about whose allegiances we weren't so sure of, were in and of themselves unsettling. So probably multiculturalism in its original form was more of a way to get these new people to help pull the community together. With Latinos for example, on one hand we had the sinister savagery of "Scarface" contrasted with the liveliness of the Miami Sound Machine.

    And then, when things began to calm down in the 90s, when there was no more need for this, multiculturalism became a festival for loud, obnoxious posturing. For minorities, it was a way to claim sacred victimhood and thus concessions from the society, and for whites, it was a way to prove how morally superior you were because you knew the trivial details of someone else's culture.

    What's interesting is that, in the new paradigm, a white knowing too much about another's culture was suspect. The 90s was the time when Said's "Orientalism" became Scripture in our universities. This book suggested that a white person knowing someone else's language, someone else's history or literature or culture, was an act of violence and control. This was appealing to minorities because it amped up their victimhood, but it was appealing to whites because it released them of the obligation of having to do their homework - to learn the languages, customs, and ways of their new neighbors. After all, if minorities wanted to be left alone in our society, what was the point of trying to learn about them. But not knowing about them was also ignorant and racist, so whites assumed this strange posture where they knew some trivial details, but not too much to be suspiciously trying to bridge the gaps between different communities. Only in America.

  2. I don't think immigration had too much to do with it, since the deluge didn't happen until the late '80s / early '90s, and then only near the border. It was more about the existing multi-ethnic make-up, i.e. blacks, Puerto Ricans, etc.

    Yeah, whenever there's a period of falling crime an Enlightenment mode prevails, and everyone starts fagging out about exotifying the Other instead of sticking with cold, clinical accuracy. You're not even allowed to portray them accurately, but then add on a layer of mystery or fantasy -- that's as bad as telling a bald-faced lie about them. They just aren't supposed to be a source of awe or wonder.

    I'm planning on doing a post or two about Orientalism, exoticism, and Primitivism during falling vs. rising crime times too. It's another good case to look at because it goes back centuries and you can see it swinging back and forth alongside the violence rate.

  3. Have you tried summarizing this rising-crime and falling-crime bit anywhere? It's a variable I don't think anyone's explored before, and you're doing some fascinating amateur social science with it.

    (My suspicion for why nobody's thought of it is that it involves too much math: you're basically talking about the derivative of the crime rate. ;) )


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