Mixed Masters

The invitation to the Mixed Masters exhibition at the University of St. Thomas in 1967 featured a bright green cover with the image of a fly.

The invitation to the Mixed Masters exhibition at the University of St. Thomas in 1967 featured a bright green cover with the image of a fly.


Unnaturally, Mixed Masters is a work of art, because "unnatural" is what we always mean when talking or writing about "art." Art is that which is manifestly not natural. The exhibiting of works of art is in itself a medium for artistic conception and expression.

The various statements in other media form the raw material, or the content, of the exhibiting medium. The nature of art-objects should be carefully distinguished from the different structure, dynamics, etc. of the exhibition as a work of art. We can think of the exhibition as a "meta-medium" of artistic communication. Although this is redundant if, as Marshall McLuhan writes, one medium of communication always takes another medium as its content. The exhibiting of works of art is a medium of communication in the same way -­but on a different (not better or more profound) functional level as that represented by individual works of art. When the medium of the exhibition is mastered, with the artist in full intuitive and intellectual command of his resources, correspondingly great statements can be made within its terms.

Part of the initial problem in approaching any exhibition is in confronting its claims. Titles tend to be terribly ambitious. Often they are irrelevant, and must be read as poetic statements -- to be judged, perhaps, without pre­judice in the proper medium of poetry. In some ways the title "Mixed Masters" is quite unambitious. That should not, of course, compromise either the impact of its being experienced or its historical evaluation.

The University of St. Thomas here presents a collection of work by con­temporary painters and sculptors, assembled without reference to any strict theme: hence the "mixed." The selection, however, is an assertion of quality: these artists are presented as masters. With all this implies, the first substantial problem is (bypassing for the moment the sophomoric "de gustibus..." as an apologia for why somebody else's master was not included), can there be masters at all without any more masterpieces? For however aesthetically compelling the individual works of art that are included, it just may be that it is impossible to think of them as masterworks or masterpieces. In fact, it may be impossible for any artist to create a masterpiece anymore.

Even if there can be no more masterpieces or masterworks, there can still be master work: work (works of art) by masters in the various media. This is not an attempt to decree what should be -- for there is perhaps the major transgression of writers: telling the artists how to do their work. It is simply an observation of what is happening, and what has been happening for some time now. The point is that artists no longer seem to approach their art with the conventional stance that previously resulted in the creation of masterpieces. We could play the fascinating game: pick the last masterpiece, and why? Possibly Pablo Picasso's Guernica;" but a better case might be made for Marcel Duchamp's "Great Glass." Anyway, what is important is that in the early part of this century the focus of an artist's creative efforts upon single major projects seems to have disappeared -- at least in the sense that it can be derived from what we know of, say, Velazquez or Manet. These two artists are excellent prototypes of the artist who is directed more essentially to his work as a master than to the production of master works. The focus now is on process rather than incident, although of course some paintings and pieces of sculpture are still incidentally better than others.

The problem of picking out the successful from the unsuccessful works of art is, etymologically, the work of the critic (from krinein = to choose). This sometimes leads to confounding the multiple functions of the writer on art who also attempts to be a reviewer, or an analyst and historian. The real critics of our time are the conceivers and organizers of exhibitions. This is the level on which Oscar Wilde's assertion in "The Critic As Artist," that the critic is actually the superior artist, has at least provisional validity. The exhibition is the sort of "statement in res" that Ezra Pound, somewhat after Wilde, demanded critics be prepared to make. Another reasonable demand might be that the critic also stand ready to discuss his criteria for choosing. This is not to be confounded with so-called constructive criticism; H. L. Mencken argued convincingly that all real/effective criticism was quite unnecessarily compromised by attempting to be constructive at the same time. The meta‑ critical function then has come to be associated with the writings on art found in magazines, or in introductions.

Actually, we are considering twenty one artists in this exhibition. Nineteen are represented by the Art Objects they have created; two others have presented a meta-Art Object statement by conceiving and installing the exhibition. It is this totality that both the critic and the general visitors to the exhibition confront. It is from such confrontations that the individual works of art are given additional force with which to alter our consciousness, incorporating the total aesthetic experience into our lives.

The experience of art, in this generic sense, spreads beyond the confines of the gallery space out into the Life of our "real" world, and contributes to the intensity of each of our own, individual lives. In some ways this process is directly demonstrated by the art comprising this exhibition of "Mixed Masters." If we accept Pound's dictum that artists are the antennae of society, then we should not be surprised to discover that it is the artists of our time who have so clearly indicated, in advance, the direction and character of what appears to be a revolutionary shift in values. By and large these indications are much clearer in the popular arts than in those arts we like to call "fine." Fundamentally, this shift involves a turning outward to the world, incorporating our human experience of the world with an expanded tribal consciousness. This is not a denial of introspection, nor a rejection of the internal focus that characterizes lyric poetry and Abstract Expressionism. Rather it is precisely because of such continuing efforts to "get one's own head straight first" that a new, positive, healthy and confident acceptance of the real world is possible. Such an acceptance of the real world is beautifully documented by the phenomenon known as Pop Art. Really, Pop Art is a very loose stylistic category with many variations for example, several of which can be seen in "Mixed Masters,"

The important thing about Pop Art is that it is not a "movement." Perhaps Abstract Expressionism, historically, will be the last movement in the history of twentieth century art -- but even it dispersed as a coherent movement with the Second Generation painters. Abstract Expressionism was a movement in that it could be fairly narrowly constricted by stylistic description; it was geographically centered, even down to specific times and locations (e.g. the Cedar St. Tavern of Friday nights); it involved particular people, all of whom pretty well knew what each other was doing -- by means of conventional person-to-person media of communication. But by the time the Second Generation Abstract Expressionists came along, the movement was international. Stylistically there was no clear basis for distinguishing between the painting of Abstract Expressionist artists in Italy, Japan, Argentina or Canada, and that done on either the East or the West Coasts of the United States.

It was on these new bases that the so-called movement of Pop Art developed. Media of communication were only international and instantaneous after Telstar (documented, incidentally, in the field of popular culture by the Tornadoes, an English rock and roll group, with their hit record in America, "Telstar.") The international art magazines, which developed reasonably accurate and plentiful color illustrations only in the 1950's, provided an essentially new medium for intercommunication among artists. Pop Art happened in England with Richard Hamilton and others when Elvis Presley began to sell records there; and the world was just never going to be the same again.

A new kind of total pattern began to appear in the mid-1950's, which was manifested with particular immediacy in the realm of popular culture. For example, the most significant example is probably the rise of TV which, after many years of experimentation and development, became a major conditioning cultural force. The concurrent rise of rock and roll also documents the coalescing of a new teenage culture, such as had never existed before. It just has nothing really to do with the bobby-soxer experiences of the 1940's. For instance, there was in the 1950's an unparalleled economic independence for youth; and it was the teenagers who first realized the implications of patterning one's life on the basis of an economy of affluence rather than on obsolescent scarcity-commodity con­cepts.

1954 was the first time that America had not clearly won a war: for the truce line at Panmunjam was just about where the Korean War began. Not that this constituted defeat in conventional military and political terms; it was a non-win, however, that represented a crushing blow to America's international image and prestige -- a distressingly logical antecedent to the catastrophic implications for American self-consciousness and style of the conflict in Vietnam. This suggests yet another critical parallel: it was in early 1954 that we really entered into the nuclear age. The initial H-bomb explosion at Enewietok which took place in November 1952, had been kept secret from the American people and from their elected representatives in Congress for about fifteen months: thus initiating the modern principle of government by deception.

The response to all this -- from that part of the population that could and did respond (youth, artists and creative mentalities) -- can be characterized in relation to two fundamentally "religious" topics: love and violence. In the mid-1950 rise of the Beat Generation, there is a violent rejection of Establishment values together with a poetic but determined effort to develop new patterns for life that could more directly and pervasively incorporate love. (Another interesting etymology: "Beat" derives from Chester Anderson's publication, Beatitudes; with "Beatnik" later coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) The fascinating thing about the "Beats" of the mid-1950's is that they are unregenerate, almost to a man. They never did become the average middle‑class Americans everyone kept predicting they would any day then. They are now the leaders and teachers, the Gurus, of the Flower People, the Hippies, the Heads, and all the other children of the slowly vanishing average middle-class American parent.

So now the secret is out. And it turns out never to have been a secret at all. Everyone can be beautiful. There are no ugly human beings -- and maybe not even any "pretty" ones, who are pretty just because some anonymous medium tells us so. When we realize that there are just different human beings, instantaneously the potentiality for beauty in our lives is expanded to infinity: i.e. it is greater than we could experience using all our resources at peak intensity for the rest of our lives, however gloriously long we may live.

What we are rediscovering about ourselves, we are also rediscovering about art: that standards, ideals, tastes and all the other such concepts can no longer be successfully employed in an authoritarian way to restrict our consciousness. This is one of the great liberating traditions of twentieth century art; in the history of freeing art from its own pretensions and self-deceptions, Pop Art occupies a crucial position. Before the end of the 1950's there had been many significant but separate artistic statements that pointed the way out of "Art." Marcel Duchamp will loom as the major hero in this challenge to the nice, to the pretty, to the pompous and restrictive notions about what Art is and about what Art cannot be. Duchamp's seminal message (which is not necessarily the same thing as his historical intent) is more than "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Fully half of the creative act essential for any work of art involves the process of a neo-Berkeleian perception -- but the other half remains in the realm of the artist, involving inspiration, conception, execution and presentation. It is interesting that Duchamp's first Ready-mades were apparently only intended "to give Art a kick in the pants." Nevertheless, they do point the way out of the morass of "fine art," with all its precious materials, programmed environments, and prepared responses.

The greatest assault upon our conventional sensibilities has probably been to the notion of art-as-commodity. It has become increasingly impossible in the twentieth century to regard the work of art as something that can be left in a room and locked up that night, and that upon returning the next day can be found just as it was -- an art object created with a limited sense of the eternal. Elements of the theater have entered into sculptural conceptions with the rise of happenings; and with environments, temporal elements in the medium of architecture have interpenetrated the medium of sculpture. Although the history of these two sometimes-overlapping developments has yet to be carefully traced, they do provide excellent examples of Dick Higgins' term of "intermedia." Also they seriously obviate conventional definitions of the artistic media, such as seemed to apply so suitably through the end of the nineteenth century. Now there is both a new interest and a new seriousness directed toward a non-commodity art: it stresses function and participation rather than being and observation. Par­ticularly after the middle of this century artists began to build in the directions opened up by Duchamp's literal and radical incorporation of the real world into the world of art.

Following Abstract Expressionism, when painting once again turned to the "real" world, it was no longer possible for the vital artist to view that world through the visual box of the Renaissance, or through the atmosphere and sentiment of the 19th century. The problem of illusionism no longer really existed for leading artists after the successful advent of photography. With Pop Art, painting could again become concerned with the content of the world, having finally transcended it as subject matter. Young artists who might have been painters in another century began to turn to the motion picture, incorporating kinesis  graphically just as sculptors began to incorporate it in tactile media. Painting also grew off the wall, and began to incorporate tactile elements: from the early collages of Braque and Picasso, and the Merz constructions of Kurt Schwitters or Duchamp's proto-combine "Tu ma'," painting grew into the expansive intermedium of assemblage. Still, these approaches produced Art Objects, which one could approach in essentially the same frame of mind as the traditional masterpiece. But there were radical implications for art when elements of music, the dance and theatre began to penetrate some of the other media.

After World War II many of the artists became fascinated by popular music; and at the same time they began to discover that the aesthetics of the theatre need not be restricted to that space behind the proscenium arch. Rock and roll music itself represents a virtual explosion of pop music outside the constricting limitations of the Tin Pan Alley "croon-June-honeymoon" committment. The broad mainstream of essentially White, sentimental-fantasied, easy-listening tunes was completely transformed in the mid-1950's. When the other two rich traditions of American popular music -- Country and Western together with the Negro jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues -- coalesced with the Pop mainstream style (Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, and Nat King Cole -- all stylistically "White," clean-cut and red-blooded American), it produced an entirely new kind of popular music, which became known as rock and roll. This happened during precisely the same period in which Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg helped painting break out of the Abstract Expressionist dilemma: those concentric circles of inner space with ever-decreasing radii.

In a sense, the Pop artists have been both places: they have been in the outer world that was already conquered as illusion by Velazquez and Rembrandt (whose victories were codified and refined by the nineteenth century). They have also been to the introspective world of the great modern mystics, Kandinsky and Mondrian, and have followed the rarified path toward a "pure" painting through Pollock and Rothko. Because of this, something so utterly 17th century, so otherwise unthinkable as the genre of flower painting could once again become possible through the genius of an artist like Andy Warhol. And then Roy Lichtenstein resuscitated the sunset and the seascape from the garbage heap of subject matter; and Claes Oldenburg brought the world back into the medium of sculpture. None of this meant a denial of creative inspiration or the quintessentially human realm of individual consciousness -- on the contrary, it reaffirmed these with new intensity and confidence. On a different level, one of the most apt metaphors for this process can be found in descriptions of the expanded consciousness resulting from experiences with LSD, DMT, psilobycin, and other "psychedelics." Perhaps it is more than a mere coincidence that, following earlier research in the 1940's, and a development in the 1950's, LSD just began to exert a significant impact on the young and the creative mentalities in America at the same time as Pop Art rose to radically change the configuration of the world of art.

What all of this suggests is that there was a multi-faceted, totally pervasive, international cultural revolution that began to take shape just after the middle of the twentieth century. In some extraordinary ways even the Abstract Expressionist painters represent this new direction (as much as they are also, in a very different way, related to the continuation of an essentially nineteenth century conception of art and the corresponding stance of the artist). This is especially clear in the prophecy of impersonality paradoxically contained in the attitude of Jackson Pollock. He could regard finished lyrical canvasses as mere material and objective "records" of the truly creative act, which involved the entire process of bringing them into being rather than focusing on the records as Art Objects. For Pollock too, it is his total mature work that counts, and not the individual pieces.

In a world that now possesses the instrument for its own instantaneous total destruction, it is no wonder that perceptive and the impressionable youth would be forced to reincorporate the generic concept of violence into their lives, and in a way that is very different from the way in which their parents had come to grips with this problem. The old moralities could not quite survive intact; and the old ethics became less apt by the day. The Establishment itself, it soon became clear, lived a morality that was dominated by the principle of expedience, and practiced an ethic that was gauged by consistency.

All the conventional notions about both love and violence seemed to represent brazen lies. The most powerful nation in the world had created with that power the most violent tool of war that had ever been known: the atomic bomb. Yet, in 1945, there was a certain ambivalence about its meaning. All war was terrible and involved destruction and the correspondingly unavoidable human suffering and death. But after all, the atomic bomb helped end the Second World War, and may indeed have saved the lives of many American boys, or even the lives of many Japanese fighting men (who had no more, and probably no less, desire to fight than did their American counterparts). All of the publicity and propaganda assured us that we were in the Atomic Age, but that it would be the age of Peace on Earth -- that atomic power would be the greatest benefactor of mankind the world had ever known. But all the time, governments were devoting intense and secret efforts to build an even more violent weapon of hate and death. One's very own continued existence became a matter of grave conjecture: for the real, instantaneous, total and irrevocable obliteration of the entire world was now possible -- and it was in the hands of powers that just possibly might use it. This is why the teenagers (the first generation of which are still under 25 today) see the world a little differently than the rest of us now over 25.

Violence is also a necessary part of the realpolitik. The whole history of the struggles of the Afro-American people for recognition of their human rights and human dignity began to be dramatically successful only at the start of the second half of the twentieth century. This history is one of violence and terror, because the White Establishment consistently used these means to repress human rights and to maintain its notion of the American Negro. But every astute teenager saw that the White Establishment wasn't going to give away anything: not in a year, or in two years, or ever. So the Negroes began to use the means of politics, which are in the end both violence and the threat of violence, which is terror. Terror, of course, is very effective politically -- as the Afro‑American people began to discover; but it must be based on power in order to be so. Hence the development of Black Power movements which are becoming models and ideals for all teenagers, whether we like to admit the often frightening implications of this or not. And even thoughtful white adults are now beginning to see this phenomenon from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest. This essentially means recognizing immediately the dignity of all human beings and guaranteeing their human rights -- at the very least to the extent that we have prescribed for them by law in the Constitution of the United States of America, and in its Amendments including the Bill of Rights.

The other side of this revolution (which includes racial and political minorities, intellectual dissenters, creative artists, hippies, and youth in general) is the radically altered attitude toward love. Throughout the exhibition of "Mixed Masters," there are recurrent references to both violence and love, just as these topics pervade, say, the lyrics of rock and roll tunes.

Perhaps the "non-revolutionaries" have an even more difficult time under­standing what constitutes this new sense of love than they do grasping what different things violence can mean. For one thing, the kids have discovered that all love is free. By and large they have rejected the power and control games of the Establishment, and especially in so far as these games tend to restrict love as a scarcity commodity. It is the revolutionary elements that have discovered that we live in an age not only of economic affluence, but also that a world is possible in which love abounds. And they have rediscovered the fact that this has always been possible, as for instance through entirely new approaches to the classic texts of religion. Fundamentally this represents an affirmation of the world -­the same affirmation that is essential for comprehension of any art, but which is expressly demonstrated by the art included in this exhibition.

Any aesthetic experience makes a person more aware of the potentiality of beauty or intensity of life that exists in the world. Therefore, every aesthetic experience makes it that much less likely that some human being will help destroy the world. Art is another affirmation (yes, even the art of Dada, "nihilistic" Surrealism, and of the more recent Provo). As such, art inevitable falls in league with love. And as that beautifully revolutionary educator A. S. Neill concluded in his book Summerhill, "Only love can save the world."

Kurt von Meier
June, 1967