The New Transcendentalism: Mark Prince on the Rejection of Relativism

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In an interview from 1965, Frank Stella distinguished between the 'surface issues' of his painting and the 'transcendental or metaphysical' content which earlier abstract artists had aspired to: 'it's like what they left us to do, and if we succeed in solving most of those problems or dealing successfully with them, then the generations that follow us will maybe go back to the transcendental.'

Stella was speaking at the threshold of Postmodernism, which has imposed a stubborn, unnegotiable filter through which all belief is automatically rendered relative and all value non-hierarchical. Try to imagine reversing the process and you come upon a resistance comparable to reading time-travel stories when the premise suddenly wobbles as its underlying contradictions become apparent.

Artists, however, are also stubborn, and the trail beyond postmodern irony has come to seem a seductive territory. Credulousness, having lost all credibility, appears full of potential again; but when critics use the term 'post-ironic', are they suggesting that transcendental value has become a possibility again, or that it is being adopted by artists as subject matter for commentary and critique? Is this a symptom of a dubious desire for faith, superstition, the promise of absolutes? To seek the magics from a position of disabused rationality would seem to be oxymoronic, if not patronising. But perhaps there are many productive grey areas between entrenched scepticism and categorical values as, for instance, HA Williams suggests when he says that 'the academic study of prayer may lead a man to pray'.

Modernism is the most recent manifestation of art which presented itself as the only possible solution to a problem, and therefore it makes sense that it is to Modernism and its myths and archetypes that artists first turn when looking for alternatives to the relativistic status quo. This could be an inversion of the progress which saw the metaphysical pretensions of Abstract Expressionism unravel into the more down-to-earth materialist mindset of early Minimalism on the back of Clement Greenberg's linear narratives of flatness and 'opticality'. However, Modernism is mostly perceived not as the true light that has been mistakenly mislaid, but as a mysterious historical phenomenon, like an extinct religious cult, for artists too young to have experienced anything of it first hand.

Richard Wright's wall paintings combine modernist abstraction with signs associated with gothic and religious imagery. In his Turner Prize installation last year, there were intimations of something evanescent about to be revealed from the elaborately patterned gold leaf. Even aside from the obvious historical connotations of this material, Wright's Baroque symmetry of eruptions and flowerings might have been intended as a Blakean vision of heaven or hell. His work is overpainted when an exhibition closes--nothing remains to be sold--and he has spoken of this erasure in political terms, as a rejection of the commodity status of the medium: 'I am not against painting on canvas per se; the problem is the ease with which painting is absorbed into the market, which of course facilitates its easy consumption. There are too many unnecessary objects.' Wright's wall paintings are a minimal, site-specific inflection of the existing interior more than a descendent of the full-bodied mural, but their denial of the art object goes deeper than this lack of material assertion. Wright brings the diamonds and stripes of formalistic abstraction into conjunction with gothic curlicues, gold leaf and cloudbursts, refusing to recognise any essential distinction between the two vocabularies. He sets up a dichotomy which allows him to project his art beyond formal confines. Transcendence, in these terms, is to transcend both the art object and the art market with its streamlined utilitarianism. If it is sellable it can be reduced to its function as a commodity, and Wright would like to hinder that automatic divisibility. …