Recapping the season just past (as is our custom each summer), we appear to be in the midst of one of those periodic cycles during which all traditional values are momentarily jettisoned. Ever since the first modernists rejected the Academy, the repudiation of orthodox rules and regulations has been part and parcel of the avant-garde’s mandate. By the 1960s, modernism itself had acquired a veneer of academic orthodoxy, but the resulting illusion of permanence proved short-lived. The fixed, linear trajectory which once was posited for the development of modern art has now been discredited, and the future seems quite uncertain.
Throughout its 57-year history, the Galerie St. Etienne has consistently functioned around the margins of modernist orthodoxy. The two areas in which we specialize—Expressionism and self-taught art—have never been fully absorbed into the mainstream. This does not, however, mean that we eschewed normative standards of quality, but rather that we found quality in a host of artistic tributaries that were overlooked by those operating from a French-oriented perspective. In contrast to the formalist stance which dominated at mid-century, today the conceptual doors have been flung wide open: feminist art history, multi-culturalism and the reappraisal of so-called outsider art are three of the most salient examples of this ongoing trend. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the gallery’s vision has won total acceptance, we certainly feel at home in the present environment.
One of the more disconcerting side-effects of this generally positive shift in artistic parameters is a market that seems to delight in upending the old verities. The more arcane and time-consuming aspects of collecting, such as the ability to discern quality and the accumulation of specialized knowledge, have been temporarily eclipsed. Auction houses, which provide less intellectual guidance than an authoritative scholar-dealer, have popularized a do-it-yourself approach. As the highly publicized Onassis sale demonstrated, glamour and celebrity—always one part of the market—now seem to take precedence over artistic merit or intrinsic worth. In certain areas (including segments of the “outsider” field) a flea market mentality prevails, as collectors seek to discover value in objects that once we discarded. On the other hand, as the sums rise, some collectors lose faith in their own judgment and gravitate to the safest and most stereotypical subjects (only Schiele’s nudes or self-portraits, for example; only Pittsburgh landscapes by John Kane).
The danger of rejecting any and all qualitative standards is that ill-conceived substitutes will rush in to fill the resulting vacuum. There is an implicit nihilism in the dismantling of tradition, even if the displaced tradition was arbitrary and fraught with injustice. While cycles such as the present one churn up a healthy amount of significant new material, they are too disruptive to be sustained indefinitely. Any trend that draws novice collectors into the arena must be considered productive, but inevitably the old verities, quality and knowledge, reassert themselves. Those who overpay learn their lessons upon resale, and even those who buy cautiously gradually refine their eyes, upgrading as they go along. Collecting is a cumulative, fluid process, and the great collector learns from his or her passion, rather than becoming mired in the trends of a given day.
Over the past nine month, Galerie St. Etienne has explored various aspects of the manner in which old traditions are dismantled and new ones created. The gallery’s view of modernism tends to be disjunctive rather than cohesive. Change is, after all, messy, and it has become increasingly evident that the massive changes which beset the visual arts during the twentieth century did not occur in a smooth progression. The art historian Linda Nochlin has advanced the theory that the fragmented forms which characterize much avant-garde art were in fact a visceral response to the social and political upheavals of the modern era. There is, indeed, a comparative wholeness to the early, more academic work of such artists as Lovis Corinth, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Later, the lines in their drawings seem to fly apart, evoking a feeling of psychic dissolution. By focusing with particular intensity on the human figure, these artists and their Expressionist colleagues made the body a surrogate for modernist alienation.
The Galerie St. Etienne, with its concentration on Germanic art, has always been partial to a view of modernism that allowed more room for humanistic content than was the norm in formalist studies. Our longstanding, in-depth specialization in the work of Käthe Kollwitz naturally prompted us to start looking at other German artist with a social agenda. We opened the fall season with the third in a series of shows exploring the Weimar era, and featuring such artists as Gerd Arntz, Walter Dexel, George Grosz, Lea Grundig, John Heartfield, Grethe Jürgens, Gerta Overbeck-Schenk, Max Radler, William Sharp, Christoph Voll and Erich Wegner. Though most of these artists have significant reputations in Germany, few are internationally well-known, and by bringing them to wider attention we hope not only to expand the compass of modernism, but to open up new and comparatively inexpensive areas for collectors.
Straying from the narrow path trod by adherents of abstraction has brought us into contact with a number of once derided artistic areas that are coming under increased scrutiny today. The Galerie St. Etienne was always gender-blind, giving more or less equal space to certain female artists not out of allegiance to any concrete policy, but simply because we felt their work was good. Perhaps because art with social content was disdained by most of the men who determined modernism’s priorities, or because of the historical association between women and nurturance, a number of female artists have been attracted to humanistic themes. Those who favor political topics also often explore “low” art forms such as printmaking and poster design as a way of reaching a mass audience. This tradition is carried on by the contemporary artist Sue Coe, who has stressed books, editorial illustration and inexpensive prints over more elitist exhibitions. Coe’s most recent exhibition celebrated the publication of her book Dead Meat, the result of a ten-year investigation of the American meat industry.
The gap between “high” and “low” art has in any case been progressively eroding, as ever more mainstream artists take their inspiration from popular culture rather than following elitist pictorial conventions. This has direct bearing on the role of “outsider” artists, since the self-taught artist has always drawn from the same array of wide-ranging visual sources that are so pervasive today. Indeed, given the penetration of contemporary life by the mass media, it is not inappropriate to ask what constitutes the distinction between “insider” and “outsider” art. Visually, the difference is slight, but the obsession with quaint biographical detail obscures this fact, substituting hokey sensationalism for sound aesthetic judgment. Throughout this century, the concept of the “other” has been central to the avant-garde’s definition of itself, as the Galerie St. Etienne regularly points out when it shows the work of such classical folk artists as Morris Hirshfield, John Kane, Lawrence Lebduska, Abraham Levin, Israel Litwak, Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin. It remains to be seen if folk art will merge with the mainstream in the post-modern world, or whether the two categories will merely be reformulated.
The human brain likes to classify and categorize—to distinguish good from bad, best from better, and to construct explanatory narratives that tie everything together. The neo-conservative critics who passionately defend the old guard forget that the French-oriented, formalist view of modernism was ousted not by some latter-day notion of political correctness, but because formalism just did not work. Too many important contributions—by women, by people of color and by others who for one reason or another simply did not “fit”—were left out. The job for the next century will be to create a new, more serviceable narrative that nonetheless allows for value judgments and qualitative distinctions.