Apples and pears

Rex Dunn reviews: James Ensor exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, ends January 29 and Robert Rauschenberg exhibition, Tate Modern, ends April 2

James Ensor, ‘The skeleton painter’ (c1896)

I am going to argue that the work of two artists - the Belgian, James Ensor, and the American, Robert Rauschenberg - currently being exhibited at the Royal Academy and Tate Modern respectively, is part of the same apple (ie, art), which, at least in general terms, is in an advanced state of decay or already dead. So it is not a case of trying to compare apples with pears!

Those who argue the latter would point out the obvious fact that these two artists lived at different times, in different countries, under different circumstances and influences. Of course, this is true. Yet both have this much in common: they produced art objects (although Rauschenberg also resorted to multi-media as well as performance art). These were bought and sold to unknown consumers via the art market. Therefore the work of both, regardless of quality, were turned into commodities. Eventually they ended up in private collections or in a public art gallery. At the same time, their work has been written about by art critics and historians. In this sense, art is an entity; it therefore has a history.

Ensor did most of his work in the 1890s. But he lived for another four decades and died in 1949, one year after Rauschenberg started working. The anarchist, Ensor, would later accept the title of baron from the regime which he once despised. But he started out as a member of a European symbolist movement, which emerged in the late 19th century. His paintings were also inspired by a tradition going back to Bruegel and Bosch, via Delacroix. He wanted to objectify his own subjectivity as the author of a piece of work, in order to satirise society and especially the establishment. He has a definite style based around his use of grotesque images, such as masks and skeletons, and carnival themes.

Perhaps Ensor’s best known work is his large painting called Christ’s entry into Brussels (1889 - not shown in this exhibition). Apart from Christ himself, in unmistakable gold, the other striking feature about this painting is a large, blood-red banner with the words, “Long live socialism” on it. Arguably, this is Ensor’s answer to Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people - although he is also alluding to the notion that Belgium’s Christian establishment would have treated Christ in the same way that he was by the Pharisees.

Equally impressive is his Skeletons fighting for the body of the hanged man, painted a few years later. Here we have a combination of Boschian horror and absurdity. But at the same time it introduces elements from everyday life, such as the second-hand look of the clothes worn by the skeletons, whereas the hanged man’s coat looks like something worn by a ward doctor; the bare floorboards remind one of an old school room. The hanged man also wears a sign around his neck, which says “Civet” (which might suggest that he has produced a similar odour to that of a wild cat, as a consequence of his barbaric execution: ie, legalised murder?). On the other hand, his staring eyes are a vivid blue, which is disturbing to the viewer.

As the art critic, TJ Clark, says, “No theatre of cruelty has ever been provided with a less glamorous stage.”1 In other words, Ensor paints with feeling, as well as skill. One really needs to see his work first hand, in order to appreciate its power.

Exploited

Unlike Ensor, Rauschenberg produced work for nearly six decades. Whereas Ensor accepted honours from the very establishment which he claimed to despise, Rauschenberg was exploited by art dealers and the New York art establishment on more than one occasion. As his friend, the late Robert Hughes, relates in his film The Mona Lisa curse (2010), during the 1970s, an art dealer bought one of Rauschenberg’s pop-art paintings for a few hundred dollars and then sold it for nearly a quarter of million. (This was prior to the art boom of the 1980s, so the figures might seem modest by comparison; but the mark-up is not!)

Twenty years later the New York art world turned its back on Rauschenberg, despite the fact that (a) he had started to produce screen prints before Andy Warhol got the same idea; and (b) he was also a founder member of the pop art movement. Perhaps this rejection had something to do with the fact that during the 1980s he abandoned the New York art scene for the island paradise of Captiva off the Florida coast. At the same time, he began to focus on social and environmental issues. For example, he sold much of his own work to fund a humanitarian project, based on cultural exchange between people in 11 different countries. Although it was a mere gesture, he said it was intended to “stop some of the stupidities that are controlling us”.2

But what does nearly six decades of work amount to? In retrospect, Rauschenberg appears to have been a restless soul, shifting from one project to another. Perhaps he was motivated by innovation for its own sake, which sometimes borders on nihilism vis-à-vis the art object; ostensibly to minimise authorship, elevate the role of chance (via found objects) or for the sake of collaboration with other artists. But, by so doing, he contributed to the de-aestheticisation of the art object, by promoting the cognitive approach at the expense of the affective; hence his predilection for conceptualism. (Arguably his experiment with collaborative performance art does not compensate for this.)

In the 1950s Rauschenberg was able to acquire his own studio in New York. There he produced his White and Black Paintings, to be followed later by his Elemental Sculptures. According to the critic, Hal Foster,

The Whites appear pristine, empty, flat and serial; the Blacks rough, full, encrusted and singular ... [They] insist on objecthood … After two White Paintings were exhibited in 1953, [the composer John] Cage offered this litany: “No subject/No image/No taste/No object/No beauty/No message/No talent/No technique (no why)/No idea/No intention/No art/No feeling/No black/No white (no and) …”3

Yet later Cage himself would indulge in the same sort of conceit. I refer, of course to his ‘celebrated’ work 4’53” (ie, four minutes, 53 seconds), a piece composed for piano, which requires the performer to sit in silence - “nothing is played for that exact duration”.

As for Rauschenberg’s Elemental Sculptures, one example consists of an old quilt, which he has painted over, making it look like a representation of a bed. It was slammed by the media of the time (1955) and rejected by the masses; which defeated his purpose: ie, to make art more ‘inclusive’. Foster goes on to say that they are “not charged trouvailles [lucky finds] in the manner of the surrealists; but neither are they cynical ready-mades in the mode of Duchamp; they resist the surrender of post-war sculpture to the logic of the sexual fetish or the commodity fetish”. On the other hand, Rauschenberg’s goat entering a tyre is alleged by some critics to be a homoerotic image (?). Foster concludes that the Elementals’ “reception was largely hostile; for the most part Rauschenberg was understood as neo-Dada and neo-Dada as anti-art.”4

This is a reasonable criticism. But Foster is determined to impose a postmodern intellectual gloss to the question of ready-mades anyway, opining that, à la Duchamp - and Rauschenberg’s own efforts - this is not intended to be anti-art. Rather it points to “the complication of authorship through strategies of chance and collaboration”! (How so? Surely it depends on the intention and the skill of the artist - as long as we do not buy into this postmodern nonsense!)

So much for the “neo-avant garde as represented by Rauschenberg and friends”, who are “no simple repetition of the models of the historical avant garde” (Foster) - although there is barely a mention of the Russian avant garde, apart from Malevich. Thus the question arises, given Rauschenberg’s downgrading of the art object, based on the unity of form and content, does one really need to see such work in a gallery? This is because he often relies on the materiality of the work itself and nothing more. That is the problem with conceptual art: it has minimal emotional impact. Thus, unlike Ensor’s, his work does not really have to be seen to be appreciated.

In this sense, he was a victim of his time and place. New York did not become the centre of the art world in the 1950s. Rather it became the centre for the rapid decay of art. As Hughes says at the end of his 2010 film, “When Rauschenberg died in 2008, this coincided with the death of art itself. Every formal choice he made came from meeting the world head-on” (eg, his famous pop-art collage of topical images, ranging from spacemen juxtaposed with the dead president Kennedy).

According to Hughes, his work was

dense with meaning [Surely not all of it - maybe sometimes he was just joking?]; not just a vacuous exercise in picture-making meant to catch the eye of the men who run Sotherby’s or Christies … [rather] born of experience, not the market. Today’s art mirrors and criticises decadence. Not so - it’s just decadence, period. Contemporary art [citing Damien Hirst and Warhol before him] has no critical function. The art world is part of the problem; because it copies our money-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture with the same obedience to the mass media, which is always jostling for our attention. But art should make us feel more clearly and more intelligently. It should give us more coherent sensations than otherwise we would have had ... This is what the market cult is killing ... If art can’t tell us about the world, what good is it? Monetarised art = the death of art.5

Although Rauschenberg is to be applauded for turning his back on all this, he did not always live up to his friend’s idea of what art is all about. And, like all art, both good and bad, his work ends up as a commodity - its value is determined by the price tag that goes with it.

Perhaps Rauschenberg was a better person than he was an artist.

Notes

1. London Review of Books December 1 2016.

2. Alistair Sooke Pop art pioneer BBC2, December 10 2016.

3. London Review of Books December 1 2016. These extracts are taken from an essay in the catalogue of the Rauschenberg exhibition at the Tate Modern.

4. Ibid.

5. Robert Hughes, from his film, The Mona Lisa curse.