To be avant-garde now is to be old fashioned
This catch-phrase is taken from the article ‘Minus Plato’ by Brian O’Doherty, originally published in Art and Artists in 1966, and republished in Gregory Battock’s influential Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology two years later.
O’Doherty describes the emergent art of this time, later to be problematically dubbed ‘Minimalism’, as the ‘placid contemplation of surfaces which keep out profundity’, and its exponent, who replaces process with manufacture, as ‘a scholar artist whose thoughts are carried out by others.’ Taken together, this ‘amalgamated philosopher-artist-draughtsman-aristocrat seems to lead us to a sort of Academy once again, a sort of Platonic Academy – minus Plato.’
The blog borrows O’Doherty’s title – ‘Minus Plato’ – but refocuses his polemic, away from a particular moment in contemporary art, towards the status of an academic discipline: Classics. The study of the ancient cultures of Greek and Rome that O’Doherty singled out with his reference to Plato’s Academy, is too often posited as a static, entrenched, elitist discipline, with no imaginable purpose. However, through a reversal of O’Doherty’s recourse to Plato’s Academy without Plato to exemplify Minimalism’s perverted academicism, I shall be intervening, as a Classicist, in debates in Modern and Contemporary Art as a specific strategy for the revitalization of my discipline.
To put this another way, Ann Temkin, writing in Artforum in 2011 on Cy Twombly’s 1955 painting Academy, offers a comparable, if more nuanced, case to O’Doherty’s Minimalist Plato-less Academy. She writes (my emphasis): ‘The real irony, of course, is that Twombly has turned out to be the major contemporary artist who let his work celebrate the glories of Western civilization. Twombly opened new art to antiquity and to the riches of classical European literature, history, art, and philosophy at a time when these were considered dead ends and unsuitable for further use. To declare the academy anathema was part and parcel of the myth of the avant-garde. For nearly six decades it has been Twombly’s project to puncture that myth and openly recruit centuries of tradition to the cause of radical painting.’ For Temkin, Twombly both passively allows antiquity to inform his work and at the same time actively uses it in his unique style of abstraction. Yet in both cases, the academy acts as a short-hand for a Classicism that remains untouched, unchanged and static.
It is time for the discipline of Classics to prove that it can contribute more to these discussions than being a mere symbol of old fashioned decadence. The best way to do this, I would claim, is for it to be engaged in dialogue with, rather than be a passive reference point for, the concerns, challenges and complexities of Modern and Contemporary Art.