The title is a tag-line from a General Electric, Inc. sponsored TV show the GE Theatre. It was voiced by then actor, Ronald Reagan, “Remember, at GE, Progress is our most important product.” This is the Rah-Rah decade of ’53 to ’63 until Kennedy’s murder and Reagan devolved from union-ista to the right-wing kook he became and GE fired him. America was THE super power. It all rolled along with grand momentum until we saw helicopters shoved off the deck of the USS Kirk in 1975; we had lost the Vietnam War and the culture of progress with it.
In the world of Art School we were taught a catechism of progress, there always seemed to be a next, best thing, Impressionism led to the Fauves to the Dada-ists to minimalism to conceptual-ism until we had reached “Art Degree Zero” with the exhibit curated by the prescient Kynaston McShine called Information (1970 MOMA). This was the marker buoy for Art as thought. I often wonder where McShine got his crystal ball, having given us Primary Structures (1966 Jewish Museum) that volley across the bow of the good ship Expressionism as Minimalism took center stage. McShine was calling Art “Information,” presaging the digital revolution. In Art School we took up the banner willingly calling our Art work Information. Cézanne’s apples were Information, we took to saying. Process Art became a mode, like painting or ceramics where you documented “operations,” kept track of your “actions.” My college senior Art seminar found me in a class room with my fellows where we had only to show up with an idea, a proposal—a good mark showed you understood the Zeit Geist. My proposal “I will not go to Vietnam” earned me an A. As the most transgressive act I could muster, I also proposed that I would learn to paint touristic watercolors.
That Art progresses is nonsense, of course. Technology progresses. Art doesn’t progress, Art unfolds like a topology. The sewing needle, for example, that bit of technology is progress: invented 25,000 years ago allowing a great advancement in tailored clothing for ease of movement and fewer calories burned to keep warm, moved the human project along. That is advancement. Progress. Art has always gone along with the creative mind leading the way toward the new and different, but it certainly wasn’t as Clement Greenberg tried to promote, Advanced. “Fe, Fi, Fo, fum, I smell the blood of Derriere Guard” That Baby-Huey giant thinking he could shape the world of Art with his opinions. Greenberg was all about advancement, yep advancement for his per$onal collection. McShine on the other hand wasn’t trying for advancement, only responding to what he saw and in that he was the curator of the 20th Century. The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes’ TV show explicating the often surprising changes Modern Art went through—changes yes, but it wasn’t some teleological chocolate grinder shoveling out a slow march of yummy progress. Are we getting somewhere? Where was there to progress to, as far as the working Artist in the studio knew? Art provides metaphor for reflection. That’s it.
In Art History class we were shown a true kind of advancement in Early Renaissance painting. Painting was technology in those days of the early 14th Century as you could see clearly the advances made in the modeling of form (ciara-scuro), development of perspective and an interest in depicting character. Here’s Cimabue, Duccio,and Giotto moving the dial along toward a kind of realism we’ve come to expect in painting.
Those who were trying to read the tea-leaves to advance their careers just had the wrong idea altogether. It filled up the shiny Art magazines and sold a lot of Art. I remained on the sidelines of that marketplace; it just didn’t make sense to me. What did make sense was making things that were fun to look at, fun to parse out a story or two. Frank Stella, while stating that he was looking for a more pure abstraction is actually lately making some of the funnest stuff to look at in the art world. Art objects that are engaging, over-the-top gorgeous. This is Daffy Duck wild-ass stuff. Would I have one hanging in my home? I would. But is it an advancement in Art? It is an advancement of the guy Stella himself and if the post-modern world we inhabit has an art developing toward something to my mind, it’s about the individual. There is nothing advanced about it. It’s just hella fun. Stella has extraordinary means to produce these works that seem to come directly from that Universal Well of creativity I like to talk about. At my 3 AM wakeful time, I can have a thought, write it down and watch as this “groundwater” of the creative mind seeps in to refill the well, as I write down the next thought. This is what Stella is doing these days.
That Stella could go from this black painting to that extravaganza in the course of a lifetime IS progress, the progress of a lifetime. But Art itself doesn’t progress in general—the sources of Art are eternal and in that there is no progression.
On a different tack, Maya Lin took the minimalist aesthetic and filled it with feeling at the Vietnam Memorial. Taking on the minimalism agenda; of no historical reference points, zero narrative, “just the facts” of pure presence like that black Stella painting, and giving voice to a generation grieving the insult the Vietnam War was, Maya Lin’s memorial as a contribution to the national dialogue, not an advancement of Art in general. It’s a very moving experience to visit. People live, people die. Art’s Triumph Endures.