by Domenic Cretara
Professor of Painting and Drawing, California State University, Long Beach
Ever since the demise of Modernism, artists have been trying to find a new purpose for what they do. Modernism made art into an ultrasophisticated formal game which isolated artists not only from the common man but also from other intellectual disciplines. With the advent of the Post-Modernist reaction to this state of affairs artists longed to be relevant again, but after a century of Modernism the important issues had been taken away from them. In the past a piece of architecture could summarize the accumulated knowledge of mankind (as the gothic cathedrals did). Renaissance paintings situated man in the universe and confidently asserted that existence was, despite appearances to the contrary, understandable and orderly. These big ideas, however, were exactly what Modernism had given away when, in its most reductive form, it asserted that art was only about art - that form was content. And of all the things that art wasn't supposed to be about, it especially wasn't supposed to be about politics. Modernist critics excoriated politically motivated art as illustration and propaganda.
In its attempt to revitalize content as something relevant and meaningful, the Post-Modernist reaction against Modernism jettisoned the concept of form and reconnected art with politics. Gone were the days when art students were expected to have a mastery of the syntax and grammar of the visual language. In fact, the concept that there was a visual language that was different in kind from verbal languages came under particular scrutiny. That kind of mastery was tainted with the formalist values of Modernism and had to be rejected. What emerged to replace Modernism was a well-intentioned reformist zealotry intended to make art meaningful by returning it to the realm of politics, using it to right the wrongs of society. This has led to the proliferation of art at the service of identity and gender politics - a preachy art wedded to a literal style devoid of connotation. It has also led to a far-reaching wave of conformism and excessive caution in the art community. The result is a form of censorship no less pernicious for being unintended. Museum curators, critics, and gallery dealers look to each other for approval hoping that they are not committing sins against Political Correctness. Wrok that does not obviously pass the P.C. litmus test, perhaps because the artist who created it doesn't see the world in the black-and-white terms favored by a jumpy and cautious art establishment, is marginalized.
Into this uncompromising situation comes the LVAM, at first sight an unlikely hero to set things straight. After all, Las Vegas is perceived by the super-powers in the culture wars as an artistic backwater burying its obsolete casinos along with its quaint and outmoded mobsters. What is a museum doing in Las Vegas?
Yet here it is flourishing in Las Vegas, occupying a beautiful state-of-the-art building. More important than the building, however, is the museum's visionary, intellectually provocative, ambitious curator with his exposition of Vandalism/Vagasism, or Art After Postmodernism. Vandalism/Vegasism intends to rearrange the topography of the art world and to effect that upheaval from Las Vegas, envisioning it as the epicenter of change. Instead of distancing the museum from Las Vegas, James Mann embraces its energy, its love of movement, its optimism, and its essentially American belief in unlimited possibility! Maybe Vandalism/Vegasism is a part of the new classicism which poet, professor, and philsopher Frederick Turner speaks about and maybe not; but, by rejecting the arid formalism of Modernism, as well as the politics of resentment so typical of much of Post-Modernism, Vandalism/Vegasism might be able to return visual art to a central place within cultural life. One of the ways it seems to be doing this is by encouraging artists who are striving to rejoin form with content and to do this in a way that expresses contemporary experience. That is, in a way which doesn't deny or dismiss the complexity and apparent confusion of contemporary experience with a withdrawal into revivalism, but can look beneath its superficial qualities of meaningfulness and brutality to find a deep structure of hope and order.
A museum curator may have a vision, but if there is no practical system of support for him, his vision will go unrealized. The good news is that James Mann is not alone. There is a cadre of patient, hardworking and dedicated volunteer staff members (many of whom were with the museum for years laying the foundations for its present visibility), a determined Executive Director, Joseph Palermo, and Board members making it possible to implement these new ideas.
As an artist who has benefited from the open-mindedness and aesthetic courageousness of LVAM, I hope it continues to prosper. A breath of long-needed fresh air in the stodgy, conservative art world, the LVAM's aggressive program of support to artists with strong, individual, and even controversial voices is really needed today.