Identity and Difference: Jackson Pollock and the Ideology of the Drip

M. RAMPLEY
1996 Oxford Art Journal  
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more » ... d, I believe, in the self and its relation to the surrounding world. The pathos of the reduction or fragility of the self within a culture that becomes increasingly organized through industry, economy and the state intensifies the desire of the artist to create forms that will manifest his liberty.. .' Of the modernist art criticism of the 1950s, the most enduring has proven to be that of Meyer Schapiro. In the remarks quoted above, Schapiro moves away from the tendency to see Abstract Expressionism in universal, existential, terms (though he does argue it has a universal claim on the spectator), stressing instead the socio-political motivation of the movement, namely a sense of revulsion at the increasingly administered, homogeneous culture of post-war late capitalism. In one sense, Schapiro's comments, though timely, were premature, for it was only some twenty years later that attention turned to the political connotations of American modernism of the immediate post-war era,2 since when the formalism of Fried, Greenberg and Sandler, or the existential utopianism of Rosenberg, have given way to a more sober evaluation of the enmeshing of American modernism in the ideology of post-war capitalist America. Of this change in approach perhaps the best-known example is Serge Guilbaut's book How New rork Stole the Idea of Modern Art, which argues that work of the New York School artists was gradually co-opted by the propaganda machine of Truman's administration during the onset of the Cold War.3 Such a reorientation towards the politics of American modernism, while generally accepted, has not achieved universal acclaim, howevernot least, as would be expected, on the part of those whose theories form the principal object of criticism.4 Recent criticism of the very idea of an interlinking of Abstract Expressionism and American political ideology has come from David Anfam and Stephan Polcari, the latter writing that: 'this vein of Late Marxist writing depends on faulty premises; specious associations; perpetuations of original critical misunderstandings; simplistic political recontextualisations and entrapments; factual errors; dismissal of personal, and intellectual concerns; sweeping abstraction and generalizations; pernicious political distortions; and wilful ignorance of the intentions, subjects, forms and imagery of the artists.'5 The ill-tempered nature of this assertion is striking, and one suspects that motivating Polcari's critique is less a concern with factual errors in Guilbaut's arguments, of which there are admittedly many, than with a desire to maintain the mastery of the artist over the meaning of the work. In this respect, it is notable that Polcari happily overlooks the problematics of authorship, paying scant regard even to New Critical objections to the notion of intentionality, much less to structuralist and poststructuralist exploration of the 'death' of the author. The objections of Polcari ultimately stem, of course, from a more general political hostility to Marxist art history, and have accordingly to be read in the context of the American Right.6 While they have to be greeted therefore with some degree of caution, they do nevertheless point to a problem, specifically in Guilbaut's book; namely, the overriding emphasis on the reception of Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War, that is to say its (putative) co-option by the Truman administration, at the expense of any substantial interest in its production. In other words, it does not really address the relation of artistic production to the objective reception and putative appropriation of the works in question. Hence, in order to explore the politics of Abstract Expressionism more fully, it is necessary to pass beyond a purely reception-theoretical approach, in order to examine not only the politicization of the works by others, e.g. critics, dealers, buyers, but also the network of discursive formations within which they take their place, and which govern the works' production. By means of such an examination, objections of the type raised by Polcari, namely, that the artists in question did not intend the meaning read into their work by others, fall apart, since the meaning of the works is a function of the symbolic order superseding the supposed subjective intent of the artist. It is naturally not necessary to engage on a description of the principles of a post-humanist aesthetic, since the decentring of subjectivity already occupies a familiar place in the contemporary intellectual landscape. A clear example of the phenomenon I am referring to, however, can be seen in the paintings of Barnett Newman who, as David Craven has recently confirmed, remained committed to an anarchist politics, stubbornly hostile to the value of post-war American society.7 Within the context outlined by Craven, the meaning of Newman's well-known assertion that a proper understanding of his work 'would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism'8 would hardly seem to require clarification. Against this anti-capitalist stance, however, one has to contend with the difficulty that Newman's choice of the THE OXFORD ARTJOURNAL-19:2 1996
doi:10.1093/oxartj/19.2.83 fatcat:l34n2elqfzc43aihedpaxq5vfy