As tremendous and encyclopedic as the current retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg is, pardon me for not being able to quite live in the moment. In a world where the pace of change is accelerating, the forces driving the world economy are shifting toward different locales--ones with different values. While this hardly affects individual artists, who are free to pursue their idiosyncratic whims and obsessions, it portends deep impact on the art world and the legacies it has created and continues to cultivate.
The state sponsorship of art salons in 19th century Paris assured collectors and institutions that certain artists and their art were of great value. While the merits of that officially sanctioned and fashionable art have gone in and out of taste with the public, this criteria set certain economic phenomena into action: they made fashionable French painting expensive. Simultaneously, unfashionable (for instance, Impressionist) French painting was a bargain. It was mainly American Industrialists who purchased so much Impressionist painting, giving it the inside track to be acclaimed as important later on, during the American Century. One must credit the bargain, unsanctioned price of Impressionism as much as the eyes of the early capitalists, in landing this art onto the right continent at the dawn of the right era.
When looking at the Combines of Rauschenberg, especially with so many of them gathered here and now, one cannot help but reflect upon just how precarious a perch this man’s artistic reputation rests. The global capital influencing the upper echelons of the art world knows no political boundary. Rauschenberg is bound to be seen, historically, as an American first, and one who espoused freedom in his art. In the big picture, Rauschenberg and his art represent the freedom to experiment beyond the pictorial rectangle, the freedom to collage and paint without regard to continental convention. In the scheme of the socio-historical landscape, “Freedom” is far more an American value than apple pie and patriotism. The ultimate artistic freedom, the self-indulgence of the experiment, is Rauschenberg’s hallmark. To experiment instead of crafting, to privilege the scraps of a culture instead of bowing to its beautiful icons, these are the foundations of the man and the art he made. And they intuitively reflect a culture that accepts the experimental vagaries that only democracy can produce.
Art © Robert Rauschenberg/
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
"Coca Cola Plan," 1958, pencil on paper,
oil on three Coca-Cola bottles, wood newel
cap, and cast metal wings on wood structure,
26 3/4� x 25 1/4� x 5 1/2� inches.
"Minutiae," 1954, oil, paper, fabric,
newspaper, wood, metal and plastic
with mirror on braided wire on wood
structure, 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2".
Installation view at MOCA, 2006
Installation view at MOCA, 2006
But an American giant identified with the apogee of the American century may not suit the tastes, values and aesthetics of a 21st century with a worldwide political caste bent on controlling the outcome. Consider China’s economic buying power and desire for influence on the world stage. Wouldn’t the cult of Warhol, with its repetitious compositions of the ossified icons of capitalism and culture, be more likely to delight the powers-that-be in a police state masquerading as an entrepreneurial bazaar? The delight in changing one’s mind, the championing of ambiguity, these artistic approaches that define Robert Rauschenberg are anathema to a contemporary China obsessed with saving face and maintaining rigorous order.
But it is a big world. Rauschenberg might find a warm welcome in England, still a behemoth on the global economic stage. Well, at least until the press there, self-assured in all things literal and no things beyond language, conducts one of its weekly art witch hunts--always finding the visual wanting and weak, congratulating the citizenry on spotting the art con job that dared exist beyond literate orthodoxies. As Europe sees 10-1 Muslim birthrates, one can only imagine the chilly reception that artists emanating from “The Great Satan” will soon receive, especially those who, like Rauschenberg, were openly homosexual.
With no accessible content and a demand that imagery serve to confuse or distract the viewer, Rauschenberg’s historical importance as an artist will inevitably whither. As America itself becomes a nation of public-private corporate bureaucrats, the likelihood is greater that his bold and brilliant harnessing of visual energy will be seen as quaint musings on a primitive industrial era handicapped without computers and information access. Add to this the fragile physical condition of his work and the amount of institutional commitment required for its storage and care, and it seems that, for this American master, footnote status is almost an inevitability. Like democracy itself in the 21st century.