A cluster of concepts that, before the seventies, had together formed the received idea of art and artists came under intense criticism in that decade. It included the concepts of the Great Artist and of artistic genius generally, but also the concepts of quality–an “idea whose time has gone,” according to an influential article by Michael Brenson in the New York Times–and of the artistic masterpiece. It was commonly supposed that various pathologies were the price of possessing artistic genius, and that the Great Artist, more frequently than not, was neglected and misunderstood until after his–let us emphasize the gender–death. These still form part of the heroic narrative of the Great Artist’s life to which popular films are devoted–Michelangelo, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jean-Michel Basquiat, with Jackson Pollock awaiting his formulaic portrayal. Since more or less all the Great Artists–more or less all the artists of Western art history–were males, critiques of the conceptual cluster came initially from feminist theorists, who wondered what these concepts had to do with women artists. Moreover, since the Great Artist was nearly always a painter, painting itself became heavily suspect. The concept of sculpture, by contrast, was greatly enlarged so as to include a great deal of art made of nonstandard materials, while painting–sharply politicized–became increasingly marginalized. Essays appeared on the death of painting and even the death of the museum, construed as an institution primarily dedicated to the display of paintings. Easel painting almost always comes under attack in revolutionary times. Soviet artists dismissed it as belonging to a historically superseded society–not because painting was dead so much as because it was irrelevant to the aspirations of a Communist society.
The entire cluster was anchored to the concept of the Great Work–the kind of work that became an object of aesthetic pilgrimage, like Mona Lisa or the Sistine vault–and all Great Works were thought to form part of a canon. Since the advent of Modernism, it had been already recognized that the canon was elastic enough to accommodate Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, as well as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian and the like. But the idea of the canon also became heavily contested in the seventies, either because of its exclusionary character or because it failed to include sufficient art from non-Western cultures. Artistic practice through the decade was not entirely consistent with the idea of a canon either, inasmuch as the core cluster of concepts could not easily apply to it. In an important show of mainstream art by women–“Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move Into the Mainstream, 1970-1985”–there was, for example, a work that looked exactly like a rose-colored gown, titled Inaugural Ball (1980), by the artist Judith Shea. Obviously, the criteria by which dresses are judged from the perspective of couture had no bearing on an artwork in the form of a dress. Inaugural Ball could have been a fairly casual piece of dressmaking and still be strong as a piece of art. It would have been commonplace for men to design women’s dresses–but given the lingering machismo of the art world, it was highly unlikely that a male artist would have produced a dress. So, in addition to the complex of metaphoric associations the piece evoked, it also made important claims about art and gender. It was difficult, certainly on the basis of looking at it, to decide whether it was a great work, or even if a work consisting entirely of a woman’s dress could be a great work. The problem was altogether general, since, under the pluralistic spirit of the art of the seventies, art could be made out of anything. It was difficult to apply to such works the aesthetic rules, which had mainly to do with the appreciation of paintings. Almost by default, it was a time when it was enough to acknowledge the pieces as art and let it go at that.
There was a moment in the early eighties when painting all at once was back, as if the history of art had jumped back on track and everyone–critics, collectors, curators and dealers–rejoiced in the large Expressionist and even figural canvases that began to appear in epidemic proportions. But by the mid-eighties, Neo-Expressionism had subsided. And, in practice if not in ideology, the seventies have been with us ever since. We are still diffident about using the discredited concepts, though we have nothing to put in their place. So except for those critics who define artistic excellence through the aesthetics of painting and are in consequence intolerant of much of the art of the past quarter-century, most of us wander in the dark. “But is it art?” has, I think, been settled, at least as a philosophical question. And few are eager to return to the question the seventies put on ice–“Is it any good?”
Every once in a while, I try to think about the concept of the masterpiece and whether anything can be salvaged from it for the purposes of contemporary art. In 1962 Roy Lichtenstein painted a wonderful piece called Masterpiece. It shows Brad (of course) studying a painting whose back alone we see. His girlfriend says, “Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!” Brad has the face of a comic-strip pilot, with clean-cut regular features. His girlfriend has the face of a comic-strip movie star. It is, like much of Lichtenstein’s work of the time and after, a highly ironic statement. In those years, Lichtenstein was ironizing many of the concepts that formed part of the cluster, in order to break down completely the divisions between high and popular art. So it is fair to imagine that he was ironizing the concept of the masterpiece. Is Masterpiece a masterpiece? I think that Lichtenstein would have said obviously not. This entails no deficit in his work but in the concept, which has no application to art in the comic-strip style. Something drawn and colored in that style is so distant from what we are accustomed to terming “masterpiece” that it is a joke to think of it in the terms that apply to, say, Las Meninas or The Night Watch.
Still, I feel as though the idea of the masterpiece is internally related to what we want art to do for us, and that it retains its legitimacy after all the other concepts have been abandoned or qualified. What makes it interesting is that even when the material possibilities of art have been radically and pluralistically expanded, there is still the possibility that contemporary art, however different from the traditional, retains some of the functions of art, and indeed of great art.
By “masterpiece” I mean something quite different from chef-d’oeuvre. Chef-d’oeuvre refers to the best work of a good artist, and it belongs to the language of connoisseurship. It applies retroactively, when an artist’s entire work can be surveyed and certain works singled out–like the Perseus by Cellini or Watteau’s Gersaint’s Shopsign–as an artist’s finest work. I mean something that would qualify a work for inclusion in a canon of large visions of human life–visions it would be important for anyone to be acquainted with as part of the process of humanization. Canonical works project theological or philosophical ideas by sensuous means. Can there still be masterpieces in the contemporary art world, in which more or less anything goes? It seems to me that if that were not possible, the whole point of contemporary art would need to be called into question. I have been compiling my own canon of works that are contemporary, in that they could not have been made at any earlier period, but that qualify as masterpieces through the power of their vision. And I keep my eyes open for new candidates.
Recently James Rondeau–a curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago–walked me through six newly installed galleries, and I felt that one of the works he showed me might very well be a masterpiece by my criteria. It was a video by Shirin Neshat, an exiled Iranian artist working in New York who is deeply concerned with the situation of women–and, by indirection, men–in Muslim societies. Neshat had been a co-director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, a space given over to advanced architectural exhibitions. A few years ago, she began to make what one might call political self-portraits. She showed herself in Muslim garments and head cloth, often holding a gun. On the soles of her feet and palms of her hands were poems by Iranian feminists, written in Farsi calligraphy. The images portray her as “martyr, warrior, wife and a mother,” according to the catalogue for the Istanbul Biennial of 1995. I confess that I was not crazy about the work: Whatever her difficulties with Iranian politics and Muslim culture, it was hard to think of her as a martyr or a warrior, save in some metaphorical sense in which the gun might stand for the power of art. And since she said, “My art isn’t about pointing fingers,” it was never clear what she meant to achieve. I would not have gone out of my way to see more of her work, and so missed entirely an earlier video called Turbulent. I might very well have missed the new work as well, were it not for my high regard for Rondeau’s sensitivity to and understanding of contemporary art. I was deeply stirred by the new video, called Rapture, and sat through it three times (it lasts thirteen minutes). One of the attractive properties of video is that it can appear simultaneously in different venues; and a week after Chicago, I was able to see it twice again at the D’Amelio Terras Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood (at 525 West 22nd Street), where it can be seen through June 18. It has been selected for the biennial exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, from July 10 through December 31. And I expect it will be shown frequently in a museum near you.
The situation of women under Islam is, one might say, the occasion of Rapture. But it rises to a universal level of humanistic allegory, making it significant for us all. It is, moreover, a good example of what one would look for in identifying contemporary masterpieces. Its currency is assured by the technology of video projection, which did not exist when the canon of great art was formed. But there is something almost timeless in the action: The narrative itself could have been enacted in the remote past.
One enters through curtains into a darkened space. To the left and right are two facing screens. The left screen belongs to the Women, the right one to the Men. Women and Men enact different sequences, connected through the fact that most of the Women’s actions are in response to the actions of the Men. The responses of the Men to the Women, on the other hand, are few and far between. The Men are mostly involved with one another, and by the time the story is over, the Women, too, seem mostly involved with one another. It is a narrative of an achieved separate identity for the Women. No individual stands out in either group: There are no heroes and there are no speeches. The only characters are the two groups, consisting of more than a hundred people each. It is as if there were a chorus that had divided itself in two, according to gender. It has been speculated that the earliest Greek tragedies were written for choruses only, the hero being a later invention. In Nietzsche’s account of the birth of tragedy, the tragic chorus was an invocation to a god, and the hero was the god made manifest. There is no god in Rapture, however, and nothing to bring the two choruses into a unified whole. The Men are dressed alike in neat white shirts and black trousers. The Women are dressed alike as well, in the traditional black chador. The film is in black and white.
In the first pair of shots, a stony desert and a heavily fortified castle face each other. (The building seems to date from the era of the Crusades.) The Desert is the site of the Women, the Castle that of the Men. Desert and Castle are connected somewhat in the way in which Troy was connected to the field outside its walls, where the great combat took place. In Homer, the women are protected by the walls of Troy, while in Rapture, the Castle belongs entirely to the men, and the actions of the women take place under its walls, in the stony desert outside them. There is a battery of fierce antique cannons around the Castle’s battlements, but they have long been abandoned, like the Castle itself. It is now more a playground for the Men than a building with a military function.
In the next shots, we see the Women, their black garments fluttering, advancing toward the Castle. At the same time we hear–and then see–the Men parading through what we will infer is the Castle’s gate. There is a moment when the Women and the Men stop and face one another across the gallery. There is no effort to get together, and the Men begin to take up various activities of no obvious consequence, mainly in the castle’s courtyard and on the battlements above it. They carry ladders and lean them against the wall. They engage in shoving matches that have the potentiality of turning violent, but don’t. Then there is a card game in the center of concentric circles of spectators. The Women, for the most part, appear merely to observe these activities in a distant and passive way. The activities evidently have nothing to do with them, and their faces show no obvious emotion. Then, abruptly, the Women ululate loudly and frighteningly. The piercing sound is a declaration of triumph in Muslim culture, or a battle cry and a taunt. The Women then turn their backs to the Men, perhaps as a gesture of contempt. When they next face the Men, they hold up their palms, overwritten in Farsi script, as in Neshat’s self-portraits. I imagine the texts are much the same. The Women then kneel in prayer.
The Men exit the Castle, rhythmically clapping their hands. From the appearances, the men prepare to feast. A steaming caldron is passed from hand to hand, and Persian carpets are unrolled to form paths for the Men to walk on. The Women, however, begin to move away from the Castle, toward the horizon, in no particular formation. The Men watch from the battlements with a certain shallow interest, as if the exodus of the Women were only a matter of curiosity. On the Women’s screen, we see a pair of feet beating out a violent tattoo by dancing on a drum. To its accompaniment, the Women move across the sands a heavy boat, of a kind one might have seen on the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus. With great strain, the boat is launched, and six women seat themselves. The Women appear to have no oars and trust simply to currents to carry them away, as if surrendering to a higher will. The Men, perfunctorily, wave goodbye. And the film ends.
This bare description gives no sense of the extraordinary beauty of the black-and-white photography and the remarkable choreography with which the Men, and especially the Women, are deployed in their very different spaces. Nor does it give an idea of the powerful music by the Iranian composer and singer Sussan Deyhim. The music gives voice to the various actions. It expresses what the linked sequences show. It combines with the ululation, the clapping and the drum tattoo–the only sounds the two groups make. The work was filmed in Essouria, Morocco, since Shirin Neshat is persona non grata in Iran today. The men and women of the village are the Men and Women of the work.
What is it all about? What has taken place, and what is its meaning? What occasions the Women’s triumph? Is it that they have gone off on their own, or is it that they place themselves at Allah’s mercy? The work seems to have something urgent to communicate, but it does so in the way a solemn ballet would do. Neshat is still not pointing fingers. “From the beginning,” she says, “I made a decision that this work was not going to be about me or my opinions on the subject, and that my position was going to be no position. I then put myself in a place of only asking questions but never answering them.” It is not a self-portrait. And the actions are too emblematic to furnish an agenda for social activism in the Middle East. Yet they seem to belong to some immemorial enactment, which has been ritualized and repeated. The work is mesmerizing, and if you are like me, you will want to see it again and again. It is an allegory of obscure but inescapable meaning.