Recently there was a conference here at Princeton entitled "Retracing the Expanded Field." The theme was a reconsideration of an influential 1979 essay "Sculpture in the Expanded Field" in October (October being, in this case, an influential left-leaning journal, not a month). It was a unique chance to see the authors of the textbook Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism all in the same roomfour makers and shakers of contemporary art: Columbia's Rosalind Krauss, Princeton's Hal Foster, the Institute for Advanced Study's Yve-Alain Bois, and Harvard's Benjamin Buchloh.
I confess a degree of skepticism when it comes to journals named after Russian revolutions, but, in the case of the 1979 essay that occasioned the conference, Krauss had me convinced. It was a rigorous critique of inadequate assessments of current art practiceone might even call it a revolution. Krauss captured postmodern sculpture's movement beyond its traditional base (think spiral jetty) and provided a structuralist diagram to map what, in 1979, were new developments.
Much of the discussion however concerned not 1979, but 2007. Yve-Alain Bois remarked that when Krauss first wrote the essay, everyone claimed to have been the first to use the term postmodernism; now everyone claims to have been the first to drop it. (Those eager to become relevant by embracing the "postmodern moment" might keep this in mind.) Elsewhere, Foster has explained how contemporary art practice is "swamped by the double wake of modernism and postmodernism," and the conference considered how art and architecture might move out of the morass.
What does this have to do with theology?
Consider R.R. Reno's recent article in the May issue of First Things (subscription required). He explains how the Heroic Generation of Catholic theologiansamong them Balthasar, de Lubac, Lonergan, and Rahnerall sought to rebel (to varying degrees) against a stifling neo-Thomism. They were, after some struggle, largely successful. These figures were bright enough, and influential enough, to mount a successful revolution; now promising graduate students in theology want to read them.
And though it's fine to read them, there is also a rather serious cost. There is now little catechetical ground to rebel against, no baseline theology to ground a new generation of speculative explorers. In the same way, Krauss, Foster, Bois, and Buchloh are representative of the generation that built careers on overcoming the modern, "Greenbergian" paradigm of modern art. No doubt they are bright (at least bright enough to have mounted a successful revolution), and now promising graduate students in art history want to read them.
And yes, it's fine to read them, and it is good that the modern paradigm of art has been criticized. In the modernist heyday, Piet Mondrian could proclaim that "Art advances where religion once led." André Malraux could write that a Braque still life may not be a Byzantine miniature, but "it, too, belongs to another world and it is hallowed by its association with a vague deity known as Art, as the miniature was hallowed by its association with Christ Pantocrator." Artists and critics don't exactly write like that anymore. That such religious ambition was chastised by the next generation, represented by the authors of Art Since 1900, is something to be applauded.
But, as with the Heroic Generation theologians, there may be a serious cost as well. Where is the painterly paradigm to rebel against, the normative culture of art practice to subvert? Explains Reno in regard to theology: "We need to overcome the now old modern myth of new beginnings and recognize that the Heroic Generation achieved so much of permanent value because they were formed in a church culture already shaped by a refined, cogent, and considered standard theology. . . ." So may it be with contemporary art. Without a standard culture of art practice, the reigning art critics would not have succeeded; and thanks in part to their success, a standard culture of art practice disappeared.
The conference ended with some new voices proposing bold, carefully constructed ways forward that were not uninteresting. But perhaps the way forward is not forward. It may involve the less glamorous but still rewarding task of re-creating a culture of traditional paint and sculpturethis time minus the modernist's ambition to replace religious faith.
All this may sound terribly unoriginal. It recalls the "Derriere Guard" proposed by composer Stefania de Kenessey ten years ago. But so be it. The need to be original may be responsible for the unhappy condition of contemporary art.
Matthew J. Milliner is a graduate student in art history at Princeton University.