Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Screwing Up Things is a Virtue: Death of Robert Rauschenberg

A leader in the first group of post-abstract expressionist artists who made American art leading in the world, along with Joseph Cornell, John Cage, Jasper Johns, and other artists whose names start with "J" rather than R, the great Robert Rauschenberg passes away.

His pieces were wildly uneven. Many are fantastic. Many don't work at all. This was necessary. It required failure, turning it into a distinct process, a word now so loaded among artists it's hard to see it's meaning clearly. Warhol was a johnny-come -lately to this group, and wrongly credited with the the revolutionary character that his elders actually deserved. Rauschenburg and the broader group was busy liberating all artists, and vastly expanding what American culture was, and what it taught the world.

From the New York Times.

The process — an improvisatory, counterintuitive way of doing things — was always what mattered most to him. “Screwing things up is a virtue,” he said when he was 74. “Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

This attitude also inclined him, as the painter Jack Tworkov once said, “to see beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art. " He “keeps asking the question — and it’s a terrific question philosophically, whether or not the results are great art,” Tworkov said, “and his asking it has influenced a whole generation of artists.”

But I think it's bigger than that - the achievements of the Post-War American artists in general, and you have to not only include but feature jazz music in this period, took a devastated world, and began to examine every assumption about what art and culture is. Facing the related eradication of faith in old forms of culture (these old forms had after all, done next to nothing at to halt the rise of fascism - a crime of realism that is still unforgiven), they broke everything to see what was inside.

The Post-War American artists left art and culture confused, faithless, desperate, arrogant, humbled, full of errors, innumerable failures, unquenchable bullshit, and created the most vibrant period of art-making in all of human history, which would be now. That has permutations throughout the society. They are not minor. The fearful perceive this evolution as a culture war.

Much is owed to the men and women who freed us from fascism. Much is owed to artists who freed and expanded our minds afterwards, and helped build some of the cultural power that, under the guidance of fear-mongers, we have been pissing away like cheap beer.