"Twelve Events in a Dual Universe" by Alfred Jensen
Modern galleries like their art to raise questions. The Alternative Guide to the Universe, at the Hayward Gallery, is a rare exhibition that really does raise important questions. Perhaps, though, the questions it raises were not those that the curators had in mind.
The exhibition charts the work of some "self-taught artists and unlicensed architects, fringe physicists and visionary inventors". What is a self-taught artist, nowadays? A century ago, when the Parisian avant-garde adopted Le Douanier Rousseau, a self-taught artist was distinctly naive. Rousseau's painting, so direct, so opaque, so flat, appealed because it hinted that something of the primitive might remain in us; for bohemians, the primitive meant freedom, and primitivism would be the escape from rotten ‘bourgeois' sophistication. Rousseau's work was wildly different from that of any of his champions in the avant-garde who felt themselves inhibited by their subtler craft; the avant-garde really grew out of the great artistic traditions - it had to know their intricacies to ridicule them, and it had to know their ideals to reject them - but Rousseau's art had grown out of nothing but his own instinctive vision. Indeed, the instinctive vision, which is only personal, actually became a new, modernist ideal. And so our most distinguished art schools, following the progress of bohemian prejudices, have, for at least the last half-century, sought to counsel their students into discovering their personal vision instead of teaching them traditional craft. By now no schools could teach that craft, even if they wanted to - thus we have been triumphantly liberated from artistic tradition. That fin-de-siecle primitivism has left us actually primitive.
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