The last formal debate happened around Clement Greenberg who we could consider the last advocate of programmatic ‘high modernism’ (probably with Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss. Greenberg was opposed to multi-media or, more specifically, ‘intermedia’ art. To Clement Greenberg’s mind, such art constitutes the dregs, as it were, of a progressive democratisation of culture that has been taking place since the mid-nineteenth century, threatening both the ‘levels of aesthetic quality’ with the social rise of a semi-educated middle class and the loss of the authorities that establish and preserve values. While a reaction against the threat of declining aesthetic is one essential motivation of modernist art, postmodern artists and critics have been working to legitimise this very decline. And if we are to believe Greenberg, the consequences are disastrous: for while modernist art (since Manet) fought a serious and often uncomfortable battle to avoid sliding into mere entertainment and to retain its autonomy, this battle is being abandoned by the propagandists of the contemporary art world in favor of an ‘urge to relax’. Greenberg was lucid enough to point out that this happens at the historical moment when art was released from the external purposes of religion and handcraft.
It is from the realm of art as handcraft that an informed response to this and in favour of ‘multi media/intemedia’ art came from artist Grayson Perry who became the first visual artist to deliver BBC Radio ’s prestigious annual Reith Lectures, founded in 1948 to honour the progressive values of Reithian broadcasting.In his lectures, Perry defended the visual aspect of art and the fact that the viewer must engage into a dialogue that involves cultivation. He said: ‘You can’t walk into an art gallery and expect to know and understand and appreciate it all on the first visit. Art history is a long conversation and you’ve got to get involved in that. I worry sometimes about a popularising agenda and making art more entertaining. I don’t do it -I don’t!- I just happen to have a schtick that’s entertaining’.
Then he paraphrased the philosopher George Dickey, remarking that an artwork might be ‘a candidate for contemplation or appreciation’. And said: ‘Our society’s troubled attention spam, and the related question of whether art might focus or further disrupt it is paramount. What worries me now is that the internet makes everything so instant that nothing has to time to germinate any more. Nothing gently evolves’. This reminds me T.S.Eliot’s famous definition of ‘wit’, in his essay on Andrew Marvel, according to who ‘wit involves, probably, a recognition, implicit of the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible’. Of course, this does not go against the fact that art should not be afraid of decoration. In that sense he says: ‘I decided early on to make art that people want to come downstairs to in the morning’. Art as cultivation of wit instead of humour or plain irony. Just a thought.