In the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, I chanced upon “His Transatlantic Progeny” by Judith H. Dobrzynski. She’s writing about an exhibition called about an exhibition highlighting Cezanne’s relationship to American Modernism taking place at the Montclair Art Museum through January. It seems like a nice enough event.

What struck me was this passage, however:

Jozef Bakos and Willard Nash… demonstrate that they too are descended from Cezanne, even though they never traveled to Europe or to American art centers where the master’s works could be seen. They heard how Cezanne, instead of producing a naturalistic representation of his subject, analyzed and rebuilt it on canvas in a flattened perspective, using fractured, sculptural forms composed of patches of color instead of conventional light-and-shade modeling. They learned about his thinking– sometimes described as a fusion of intuition and intellect– from reproductions and from teachers such as Andrew Dasburg…. Dasburg had traveled to Paris… and, upon discovering Cezanne’s work, divided his art into “before” and “after.”

In those days, painters adapted a style to their own by learning the thinking and methods of others before them. In essence, they sought to learn how to encode information the way that the other painters did. They would achieve this by learning such things. However, these days, in order to accomplish this simply on a visual basis, one need only turn to Adobe Photoshop and its many filters. The talented engineers and mathematicians at Adobe understood the essence of the story themselves, encoding many different filters and transformations by which you could turn one representation into another. It’s all very mathematical. For example, I am not sure it has been resolved yet whether or not Shepard Fairey composed his Obama Hope paper from scratch in some medium or whether he just transformed the original AP photo in Photoshop, but it would not surprise me if he pulled it off with the latter.

The interesting thing about the passage is it reflects how information used to travel. Styles could be transmitted without knowing the master, but by figuring out and learning technique. In those days techniques cost much more to develop in time and opportunity cost of style. In other words, the time spent adapting to a new style would have to be worth it from a personal and market benefit standpoint because it was a huge investment. Once you have missed a movement, you’ve missed it for good. In the old days, such profound changes could lead a transformative artist to label his prior work “before” and then “after.” I wonder if the same could be said of artists like that today. I’m tempted to put Yayoi Kusama in this category. She’s done all kinds of things, mostly thanks to the economics that make her productions and antics viable.

For a time, new content startled us in art. As time went by, the shock faded, and artists shifted to new forms with content, then new forms with none, and then old forms with none. The transformations gradually became more and more devoid of meaning. And the fate of a truly authentic and meaningful expression? Rage? Love? Passion? Jealousy? Hatred? Awe?

Just cliche.

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