2004/07/11

On the road to post-modernism

I wish to remember you that the articles in this blog are forming the content of a book that I plan to terminate by year's end. If you are interested by the subjects I write about and you would like to read a first draft of the book, I would be delighted to give you the web address where you can download a PDF version. In exchange, I only ask those interested to read this first draft to give me their comments, suggestions or other help in the finishing touches on the text.
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All citations below are extracts from Herschel B. Chipp's book "Theories of modern art." published by the University of California Press.
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Cubism and futurism were engaged on the road of an oppressive unique form, surrealism was fast slipping into the irrational and impressionism was still stuck in a color rendering technique of despised realistic subjects. That's how the European avant-garde painters were thinking the act of painting before the second world war started.
The furry and total barbarianism of the second world war destroyed all remaining cultural certainties and resulted in Sartre's theory of existentialism. Avant-garde thinkers and artists could not conceive any further of a valid sense of life coming out of a society that, in their eyes, had gone so far out of the boundaries of human property. The "well thinking" air of the time was now to reject all inheritences from that society and to create a different world, free from the old, a world based on the individuals' liberated selves.

The Dutch painter Constant happens to give us the most elaborate theory of this individualist, existential approach of the artistic creation process.
"Our needs impel us to discover our desires. This results in experiment, or the release of knowledge. Experiment is not only an instrument of knowledge, it is the very condition of knowledge in a period when our needs no longer correspond to the cultural conditions which should provide an outlet for them.
But what has been the basis of experiment until now? Since our desires are for the most part unknown to us, experiment must always take the present state of knowledge as its point of departure. All that we already know is the raw material from which we draw hitherto unacknowledged possibilities. And once the new uses of this experience are found, a still broader range will be opened to us, which will enable us to advance to still unimagined discoveries."
It seems to me that a historical turning point has been reached here in how the artistic process is been conceived by the artist. What Constant describes is an artistic act of creation of a new reality. He equates the artist with the creator, the one who shapes new realities in the Western religious image of god the creator.
"Today's individualist culture has replaced creation with artistic production, which has produced nothing but signs of tragic impotence and cries of despair from the individual, enslaved by aesthetic prohibitions."
The limits to the act of creation are thus set without any ambiguity. The culprit is the art market that needs artistic marketable productions. That means artistic productions that are respectuff of society's existing, accepted aesthetic and moral conceptions. In this mould, the artist is rendered impotent, enslaved by the aesthetic prohibitions...
To counter the limitations of the market, the artist has to risk his security and take the road to the unknown, in other words, the artist has to reclaim his freedom to create.
"If society turns against us and against our works, reproaching us for being 'incomprehensible', we reply:
1) That humanity in 1949 is incapable of understanding anything but the necessary struggle for freedom.
2) That we do not want to be 'understood' either, but to be freed, and that we are condemned to experiment by the same causes that drive the world into war.
3) That we could not be creators in a passive world, and that today's strife sustains our inventiveness.
4) Finally, that humanity, once it has become creative, will have no choice but to discard aesthetic and ethical conceptions whose only goal has been the restraint of creation -those conceptions responsible for man's present lack of understanding for experiment."
It seems to me that a second historical trurning point has been reached here. The artist is now given a social responsibility towards society at large. "... we could not be creators in a passive world, and that today's strife sustains our inventiveness."
Paradise is promized at the end of this fight by the artist. "... humanity, once it has become creative, will have no choice but to discard aesthetic and ethical conceptions whose only goal has been the restraint of creation". The paradise is thus equated with the act of creation itself.
Constant is not a religious believer but in his materialism he borrows from the Christian religion its categories.
- Hell: the market for artistic productions that leads to artistic despair, a sense of impotence and enslavement in prohibitions.
- Paradise: the territory of the godly creativity that is equated with life and the creation, life being thus presented as beauty itself.
- Firmly anchored in Western tradition, Constant ends in the good versus evil scheme. Paradise symbolises the rewarding with what is good and hell punishes with what is evil. In this scheme, one is naturally driven to fight for good, against evil. The fight against evil is against society's prohibitions and thus the fight for good is a revolution against society at large, for the recognition of individual desires, the acceptance of free experimentation leading to the creation of new knowledge.
Art is this model becomes a revolutionary way of thinking.

For a time, artist's and thinkers will be pulled in the marxist path but at the crumbling of it's collective paradigm another path is already open that leads to nature and green leaves in a cup of tea.
But the idea of a mission, of a moral fight for good is intact.
This time around art is dressed in the clothes of the absolute truth about reality. The straight line is seen as a sign of evil, of rationality at work. Good is in the irrationality at work in the natural processes: decay and putrefaction transforming matter into food for organic life, death transforming life in material ready for decay and putrefaction... Life as an elliptic line.

Hundertwasser feels that he has been bestowed with a moral mandate to help humanity harmonize with nature.
The artist searches for beauty in the lines and colors found in nature and his visual art production is not limited to his canvas, it now extends to his clothes, his house, his garden.
Art now becomes a way of life and the way of life is the creation of an alternative to society at large. Beauty is researched as an instrument to attract the interest of the other individuals.

As we saw, European contemporary art is driven by the working of the artist's brain, as such it is a painting of ideas. In contrast, American contemporary painting is centered on the artist's individual feelings that are not burdened by a past of theories and concepts.
Impressionism, pointillism, cubism, futurism were in fact limited to the change of pattern, or form, of a non changed content, our visual reality. But the recourse to automaticism that is theorized by the surrealists changed all that and with Cobra (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam), European painters are entering firmly in a new area of creation, the creation of new knowledge.

That is what seems to me differentiates American and European artists is their more individual or more collective concerns. Jackson Pollock says it best "The method of painting is the natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather to illustrate them". Contrast that with Constant who could also have started writing "The method of painting is the natural growth out of need" but who then continues "our needs impel us to discover our desires, this results in experiment, or the release of knowledge."
Pollock wants to express his feelings and Constant wants to create knowledge about himself. Feelings are interior and expressing them leads to a visual image that has no pretension other than the act to express them. Releasing knowledge through experience is a strong pretension for an artist, he is certainly taking great risks and exposing himself to judgements.
So here we are.
Pollock limits his pretensions to his own personal satisfaction, the expression of his feelings, he has no thoughts for the impact of his work on the collectif. Constant does not speak about his feelings, he speaks about discovering his desires through experimentation which leads to the release of knowledge. One can assume that he will discover satisfaction by doing so but differing with Pollock he does not limit himself to the gain of this satisfaction. Constant wants indeed that this process, of knowledge creation, would lead him to a new life, to a new society.

At this point, one may want to ask what has been the impact of Cobra or for that matter of Abstract Expressionism on the art scene of the second part of the twentieth century. It makes no doubt that the artists under the banner of those two movements have found an important place in the art market, but what about their influence on society at large and what about their input in the history of art? Cobra is representative of a primitive, naive form of painting that goes at the heart of the artistic experience while abstract expressionism appears more finished, more mature in execution but also artistically formal or a-content. The big question is about their input in the history of painting. In other words, did those schools bring something worth remembering in artistic terms and will they be remembered over the long haul?

Judgements are always difficult but one has to recognize that something has gone wrong.
That those paintings represent an area in our history that is for sure. But is it possible to imagine that those styles will have further traction? There is not much of a chance for that, their style and/or their content do not carry sufficient substance to catch the attention of future realities. There is indeed far too much confusion in the works of those schools and far too much absence of meaning for people living through different historical realities to continue to be attracted.

The green leaves in Hundertwasser's cup of tea seems to me having far more chances to remain a strong message, in term of content, as well as in term of form, for future generations. For one, Hundertwasser's content, his message is there to stay as a valuable contribution towards problems that will continue to amplify in the future. Hundertwasser's form is based on the search for beauty in the colors and in the technical detail of the decorating elements of his works.

Contemporary artists often forget that visual arts basically have a decorative function, they are interior decoration elements. Paintings are indeed rectangular surfaces that are suspended on walls, first and foremost for the pleasure of the eyes.

On their road to post-modernity, European and American artistic approaches have largely forgotten some basic facts of life.
1. A visual art work is for interior decoration. it should thus be pleasing for the eyes.
2. A visual art work is about content: how society is driven to perceive reality at the moment of creation of that specific work. The question is thus not the image in the eyes of the majority of the population but the visual image that is fashionned out of the theories by the leading human driving forces of the time: the clergy in the times of the gods, the aristocracy and bourgeoisie in the early stages of modernity (industrialisation), the scientist and the thinker in the early stages of post-modernity.

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