Modern poetry triumphed in the schools due to the work of the Fugitive/New Critics like Warren, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, their textbooks (“Understanding Poetry”) their associates (Paul Engle, I.A. Richards, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell) and their associates in turn, but modern painting did modern poetry one better: abstract painting, as hateful to working class people as modern poetry, managed to triumph in the market.
The answer lies not so much in aesthetics, but in the link between Modern Architecture and Modern Painting. Modern painting’s manifesto-points merely aped those of Bauhaus architecture. As Austrian architect Adolph Loos put it, “Ornament is a crime.” The key was cement. Building large modern buildings brought in corporate millions. The commerical, practical element of modern architecture pulled modern painting along with it. The modern architects befriended, and collected the work of, the modern painters. The combination of pioneer-ism, coterie-ism, and huge ugly buildings drawing monumental amounts of corporate cash overwhelmed public taste and a new era of “art” was born.
The aesthetics of Modernism was created before the 20th century by artists like Turner, Whistler, Baudelaire and countless others in Africa, Asia; the Modernists themselves simply cashed in as opportunists in the wake of the new ‘cement-mixer’ architecture.
Even the most blunt, astute philistines who objected to modern painting couldn’t see the writing on the wall of the Seagrams Building (Philip Johnson, Mies Van der Rohe, designers). No one could quite figure out modern painting’s success.
Al Capp missed, but came close, with these two quotes:
“Picasso was a sensible kid. He knew he couldn’t go any further—not along the traditional path, where talent was measured by the classic standards of truth and beauty. So he beat out another path—a crazy, crooked one, leading nowhere; and despite the jeering of the art world, he kept at it, turning out more balmy and offensive stuff every year until the art world began wondering if it hadn’t made a mistake, if there wasn’t something secretly good in stuff that looked so bad. The answer, of course, is that they were right in the first place—and history will someday make that judgement. But I’m sure Picasso couldn’t care less. He’s loaded. And the world’s galleries are loaded with his fakery.”
“Some people dismiss abstract artists as frauds. I don’t. I think quite a few are perfectly sincere, as sincere as those mystics of another great society—those Romans, I mean, who read augurs and portents into a slit lamb’s intestines. The only difference is that our mystics splash splatter paint until they create something as distasteful as lamb’s intestines—and we read augurs and portents into their messes.”
The real answer lay in those skyscrapers designed by graduates of the Modernist Bauhaus school.
The principle was explained in Poe’s Purloined Letter; it was the size of those cement Bauhaus monstrosities, the sheer volume and obviousness of it all, which eluded the critics.
What Do You Mean, Then?
Our artist expects no elaborate thanks
For these canvases of obscure blanks;
Selected critics’ praise and money
Will make this colony’s honey.
If Rothko’s bank account does well,
Working folk who wish to understand can go to hell.
But I’m no working class swine,
I understand theosophy and wine,
And I can tell you what the painting means in the end:
Some artist was some critic’s was some banker’s friend.