“An institutionalised counterculture condemns individuality as archaic and depreciates intellectual values, even in the universities.” Harold Bloom “The Anarchy of Influence”, 2011.
“Literature is always personal, always one man’s vision of the world, one man’s experience, and it can only be popular when men are ready to welcome the visions of others. A community that is opinion-ridden, even when these opinions are in themselves noble, is likely to put its creative minds into some sort of prison….” W.B. Yeats, 1904.
“Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible.” W.B. Yeats, 1910.
In one of the last “crits” I took part in before quitting St. Martins in 1990, a hapless student, when asked what he thought he was doing in presenting a large blown-up photograph of the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace underneath which there ran a Silk-Cut purple band with some trite non-sequitur of a written slogan, rather like the tapestries partially glimpsable behind the chair of committee hearings at Portcullis House, said student in his defence offered the banal: “I want to manipulate, seduce, and control”. I was quite unaware at the time (why should I have been?) that in doing so he was quoting verbatim the sayings of one Jeff Koons, who was becoming – had already become – one of the reference points for any aspirant fashionista of the day.
“Manipulate, seduce, and control”… there’s a lot of it about; indeed for a Marxist or lapsed neo-marxist or pseudo-marxist critic, that’s all there is. For Terry Eagleton, whose book “Literary Theory” I stumbled across in my local Oxfam shop, there is no such thing as literature, only what many readers feel inclined in their delusional subjectivity to read; literary criticism has therefore no reason to be, and should be replaced by the study of rhetoric, or the diabolic arts of persuasion, the strategies by which writers dupe the reader into the illusion that their fantasies of coherence and “liberal-humanist” epiphanies offer consolation from the brute realities of power.
Here the paranoidal suspicion so beloved of the perpetual adolescent that all utterances are irremediably riven with endorsements of the prevailing world order, complicit in the structures of mind control which support it, and that all art is a policing of experience, corralling it in ways supportive of the oppressive ”father”, is given the seductive lure of an outré cult of transgression, with sexual-political undertones backed up by an assumption of intellectual pedigree that goes all the way back to G.W.F. Hegel, and K. Marx in his Hegel influenced period.
It is always best to read such books as Eagleton’s and T.J. Clark’s (I’ll come to him soon) backwards from conclusion to introduction, to reveal just how fatuously inadequate are their solutions to the problems they claim to have discerned through their critiques.
It is something of a mystery how these professors of art and literary history have managed to survive the swingeing destruction, in the name of the utilitarian calculus wreaked on the institutions of higher learning and of the disciplines they profess to inhabit both from without, by political intervention, and from within, by the wrecking-ball of structuralist and post-structuralist rhetoric (to use Eagleton’s term). Perhaps because of their obsession with the language and mechanics of power, they alone amongst the educated classes are prepared to work with the atrocities of bureaucratic language-mangling with which institutional change has been managed by dictat from successive think-tanks of left and right in their onslaught on the notion of a disinterested pursuit of knowledge as a worthy end in itself. So the philistinism of leftists who wish art to be instrumental in social change collides with the cynicism-cum-opportunism-cum-sectarianism of those who at bottom wish to see the death of the soporific delusions of art (as they see it) in favour of the sort of egalitarian utopia (where art would no longer figure) which would bore all artists to death (which is why they, in foresight, wanted to become artists in the first place) – boredom being the chief engine of all human activity beyond those instinctive drives outlined by Freud. (Amazing how some people’s threshold of boredom is so high that they can spend all their lives in the materialist cocoon of life as we know it.) One does not have to be a fully paid up Nietzschean to use the word “nihilism” in this context. Nor is it “irrational” to want to voyage “anywhere out of this world”.
Eagleton says of liberal humanists (and Nietzsche clearly is not of their number) “Socialist critics… would like the liberal humanist to draw the full implication of his or her position”. If the neo-marxist (or pseudo-marxist) Professor of literature or art-history were to draw the full implication of his or her position as authority figure in one of the bastions of establishment power and cultural control, they would surely resign from their posts and take jobs in social-work.
To trace the source of the modernist enterprise (which of course is only an enterprise in retrospect posited by those of a synoptic disposition) T. J. Clark begins tendentiously with the “obviously far-fetched” “Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David. He later confesses that he considers this to be the right place to start – right for him, that is, since it gives scope for the tactic he will adopt throughout the whole book, a tactic much like the one adopted by defence attorneys in the O.J. Simpson trial, and recently in defence of the suspects in the murder of Stephen Lawrence (and believe me, Clark is deeply defensive of the Marxist convictions and pre-suppositions which underlie his argument, and undercut its credibility, but on which his reputation as a critic largely rests) – namely to bombard the reader, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with a morass of circumstantial information unravelling as in a detective story, and tendentiously arraigned quotations from fashionable authority figures (Bakhtin, Foucault, and other Freudian revisionists) which are not evaluated for their truth-value, not endorsed for their pertinacity or relevance, but simply layered-in suggestively to do their work by innuendo, smearing by association, spice to the play of underlying prejudices which work subliminally below the text (I’m learning my post-structuralism on the job).
All this to disguise the rather unoriginal “formalist” analysis which goes along with the spice. Slipping and sliding from their contexts in philosophy, to literary theory, to socio-political cultural diagnosis, words are made to take on different meanings on different occasions to sustain the organised public bamboozlement. It all hinges on the issue of “materialism”- materialism and “positivism” (shades of Clement Greenberg, who stalks the book like an unquiet ghost, and on whom Clark relies for much of his evaluations, when he occasionally allows himself the luxury of making one).
So let’s be equally “far-fetched” and make the claim that to trace the true core of the modernist spirit, better to study Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker” in the Louvre, for here for the first time is that quality of frosted-glass surface continuity modulated by transitions of light rendered by acute sensitivity to patches of tone and colour (the two in one) acting together on that surface, and coalescing synchronistically with the image presented, constituting it, which is the recurring lodestar of quality discovered and re-discovered ever since; a 20th Century paradigm. The primacy of spiritual vision over material description which had always been implicit and characteristic of the greatest painters, from Masaccio to Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Gerard David, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione (I have come to agree with Ruskin about the purity of vision of the early pre-Renaissance to Quattrocento artists, without of course the conclusions drawn from his advocacy), would, after a substantial gap be taken up by Francois-Marius Granet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and from him passed on to Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, and thence to Matisse.
As Lawrence Gowing says of Vermeer: “For more than two hundred years Vermeer’s pictures were, if not incomprehensible, such a special taste that they remained unconsidered. They awaited a later climate of taste that would reveal their greatness and the universality of his major theme…”
“Contingency” (Clark on Marat), but only if orchestrated for pictorial ends by the painter, and “immediacy”, but only if allied to a spiritual orientation, or the libidinous flow of inner feeling, towards experience and the painters’ role in transmitting and transmuting it. (I am well aware that every term of this last equation is deeply suspect to the Marxist mind-set – but tant pis)
The painter’s spiritual vision, which had formerly been projected onto, and partially aroused by Christian iconography and the Christ-story (an iconography which had grown and modified in the re-telling, and itself had contributed to the refinement of its key images) became displaced onto the phenomenology of perception (as it would come to be designated after Kant), retaining its sense of the numinous, but now projected on to the human situation, a pantheistic absorbsion in nature (the later Poussin) and on the act of vision itself. This is the true story of modernism in painting (and only in painting) from Poussin and Rembrandt onward (see Roger Fry on “how matter can take the imprint of spirit” in “Transformations” – on the “Portrait of Titus” in Rotterdam, 1655). And thus Pierre Schneider’s account of Matisse will always be more apposite than any “materialist”/formalist interpretation, or Kurt Badt or Fry, or Erle Loran (if I remember correctly) on Cézanne.
The rendering of light in painting has always had a spiritual dimension for those painters aware of its poetic, as opposed to narrative, dramatic and theatrical connotations (and the great painters are simultaneously great dramatists, masters of penetrative psychological values as well as plastic and spatial ones, inseparably so.) Vermeer’s treatment of light is particularly subtle, suffused with intimate feeling, neutral in treatment and affect, the more poignantly to reveal the true nature of human experience, its unfathomable mystery in the midst of life, in the sheer act of perception.
I accept Philip Steadman’s remarkable book which examines Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura, but as he says, this only makes the poetry of Vermeer’s paintings all the more marvellous, miraculous, for a mechanical, photographic transcription of an optical phenomenon they certainly are not.
The materialists took over for two hundred years, and the counter-reformatory revivalists of religious sentiment (where Vermeer began – “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”, S.N.G Edinburgh); with qualification in the cases of Watteau, Chardin, and the special cases of Goya to Manet and Ingres, which would lead us too far off track at present. Enter Jacques-Louis David, whom Clark chooses in order to give vent to a mass of “history”, to paint the cataclysmic backdrop to events which colour the whole of the 19th and 20th Centuries (as if such events, ie. wars, atrocities etc. weren’t always backdrop), and as if the French and Russian revolutions, and the events of 1848 and 1968 weren’t enough evidence of the futility of a violent overhaul of state oppression. Such violence will always be premature, and will always be countered by greater violence. T. J. Clark knows very well how problematic is David for any art-critical or aesthetically minded theorist of whatever political conviction. A prodigiously gifted painter, but of a type which has become all too familiar since his time, especially in recent decades; a janus-faced near-psychopathic talent to create pictures so morally ambivalent that they can answer to almost any construction put upon them, and hence ideal fodder for political usage. One thinks of the strategies adopted by Shostakovich after his 4th Symphony, in order to avoid the fate meted out to so many of his compatriots, and the terrible moral vacuum behind the posturings of Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz which allows their work to appear to be addressing the guilt-ridden tortuositites of post-holocaust German self-rehabilitation whilst merely recapitulating the grandiose will-to-power fantasies depicted by Wagner before being acted out on the stage of real life, creating a scenic backdrop which would serve nicely in “modernistic” productions of “The Ring”.
David’s “modernism” extended to his ability to slough off one set of political allegiances in favour of an expedient other, no doubt he too, in order to remain alive; just as he was adept at changing his style to suit circumstances – “contingency” and “immediacy” indeed. How morality does actually manifest itself in painting is a big question, but it is clearly not by overt subject-matter or iconographic signalling. As many have said, including Picasso and Patrick Heron, it is not through the artist’s orchestrated intentions, but what he is that tells; the involuntary expression of his spiritual vision, if he has any, his sensibility, his “stuff”, whatever his command of the means, or his technical wizardry (and David has plenty of that). Such revelation of identity may well be involuntary for the painter, but awareness of it is not involuntary for the recipient of it, the observer (but more on that story later).
T.J. Clark’s chapter on Pissarro is the best in the book, if one sets aside the attempt to draw parallels between his anarchist political persuasion and his dalliance with the divisionist practices of George Seurat. An analogy can be made, and Clark has to make it, but it adds little to an understanding of Pissarro’s engagement with volumetrically realised figures in the large bathers and peasant-women studies of the early 1890’s. I remember coming to conclusions on formal grounds quite similar to Clark’s in 1981, dealing with the groups of bathing females as well as the peasant-women in the fields, but I did so in no more than a few paragraphs whereas Clark runs to some eighty-two pages to say rather less, whilst padding out his perceptive “formalist” analysis with more socio-political background. His bread and butter depends on this, for the last thing he wants to appear is as a “formalist” critic, but throughout the book that is actually his strongest suit, dependent though it is on what authorities have said on the same subjects.
Pissarro is his best moment. When it comes to “Freud’s Cezanne”, however, we hit rock bottom. I recall an article by John Rewald in one of the magazines, responding to an essay by Sydney Geist which claimed to have found evidence of androgyny in one of Cézanne’s self-portraits, in which Rewald concludes with the remark that Geist “has succeeded [so he thinks] in his lifelong quest of turning Cézanne into a freak”. T. J. Clark proceeds to extend the amateur psychoanalysis of Cézanne (since to my knowledge he has no professional training in psychoanalysis) into new speculative territory, to which one is tempted to retort, as Brahms said when the link between Beethoven and his (Brahms’s) 1st Symphony was pointed out: “any fool can see that”. I have elsewhere said, in a review of Richard Wollheim’s “Painting as Art”, that the amateur psychoanalysis of long dead painters whom one has never met and whose inner life and erotic disposition is almost completely undocumented, a dark forest inaccessible to science, (as psychoanalysis purports to be) is a hazardous business, and is likely to tell us more about the pretentions to profundity of the writer (and perhaps his own neuroses) than it ever could about the painter in question.
Anyone with any imagination at all can see that Cézanne, especially in his early years, is a psychoanalist’s or psychologist’s treasure-trove. There is absolutely no secret in this. His painting is quite transparent on that level, consciously, deliberately so, though deeply baffling when one looks further. (But I question Clark’s competence to attempt such a hermeneutics).
However, an interval of some thirty years extends from “The Strangled Woman” of 1870-72, or “The Temptations of St. Anthony 0f 1873-77, or “Four Bathers at Rest”, 1875-77 to the three late “Bathers” pictures, a gap almost as deep and wide as that between Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker” and Corot’s “Bridge at Louveciennes”, or Manet’s “Boy with Cherries”, 1859. In that interval lies the apprenticeship with the “humble and colossal” Pissarro, the still lives, the portraits, the “Mont St. Victoire” pictures, the “l’Estaque” sea and landscapes, the “Bibemus” quarry pictures and many others. When one looks at the catalogue raisonné of all (or nearly all) of Cézanne’s output one is simply stunned by its range, tenacity on themes and motifs, and sheer concentrated labour. The theme of groups of bathers, male and female in a woodland setting recurs in bursts of engagement at intervals throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s with gradually increasing sensuous command both formal and psychological. It requires intensive study of the expressive and technical marriage, the versatility and copiousness of the plastic and spatial preoccupation of Cézanne’s imagination which brings out the free-est and most daring formal risk-taking on every level, beside which the stricter methodology of, say, the quarry pictures can look stilted, but only relatively. They are great in a different way. Clark’s treatment is a travesty. Clark’s claim is that through all this period, his friendship and quarrel with his boyhood intimate, Emile Zola, his persona as an orthodox penitent Catholic, his tempestuous and disruptive, destructive affair with a woman in another town, his monastic home life with a frivolous though attentive wife with a fondness for ice-cream and Switzerland etc. etc., throughout the disciplined daily routine of submission to the demands of his art, Cézanne, it is claimed, remained an arrested, neurotic child.
Here the Freudian Oedipus complex is trotted out, quoted, unexamined, though Clark well knows the extent to which Freud’s subjectivism has been undermined, questioned, discredited even (for right or wrong) by further psychoanalytic study, by psychologists who question the scientific pretentions (Frank Ciotti), by sociologists, feminists, by almost everyone. Yet, for Clark, the Oedipus complex is a sufficient grounding, unassessed, unquestioned, on which to build his depiction of Cézanne as an emotionally stultified infant.
Cézanne is able to take extraordinary (ludicrous, futile, fantastic, desperate, are Clark’s favourite words for any outlandish departure from the commonplace, any flight of fancy that could be termed truly unrealistic ie. immaterial) liberties with sexual and anatomical veracity in the late “Bathers” pictures, because it is in these imaginative (i.e. not done from life at any stage in their long development from 1870 on, or hardly ever) and very private visions that he has given fullest scope to the role of artist as he conceives it to be, through his long engagement with literature, poetry, music and the history of figure painting, since boyhood. And the bathers too are deeply retrospective and nostalgic for key episodes in his life – the adolescent ecstasies, the dionysiac nude bathing (bring on Ken Russell) with Zola and Baille, the deep pain endured by Zola’s betrayal of all this in the caricatural depictions of the artist (which everyone assumed to be a portrait of Cézanne, as did Cézanne himself) in his novel, a wound that never healed. And so on , and so on – almost all previous commentators have highlighted these aspects – Cézanne began as an arch Romantic – and in some ways he ended as one too, and nowhere more so than in the Barnes Foundation version of “The Bathers”.
The silly trope (to use the almost meaningless jargon word ubiquitous in literary-critical circles), the play on words that allows the equasion: Freud the materialist = Cézanne’s materiality, is pushed to its absurdist conclusion by way of another quotation from Bakhtin (who he?), interjecting the image of a mechanical puppet-show in which all sense of the agency of a human operator has been removed, a last-ditch smear appalling in its irrelevancy, which undermines the case Clark had been making hitherto. The puppet-show slander is apparently the clincher in Clark’s argument as to Cézanne’s “materialism”. But because an analogy, “far-fetched”, and all, can be made, it doesn’t mean that it has any validity outside of the writer’s own delirium. If an analogy has to be drawn, I’d have thought that the neo-Kantianism of Husserl’s “Phenomenology” and Ernst Cassirer’s “Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” would have been a more apt starting point. Friends of Clark have detected a tone of melancholy in the substance of this book. What is being mourned in “Farewell to an Idea” is not the demise of modernism, but the demise of the validity of Clark’s fondly held Marxist world-view and terminology, the dead horse he has been flogging throughout.
These last three large “Bathers” pictures are in fact supplemented in the years 1890 to 1906 by at least twenty (that we know of) other smaller but related paintings in diverse styles of delineation, from rhythmic short-hand impressionist, with figures merging with their woodland setting, to a kind of football-match multiplicity of active (usually male) figures, striding, leaping, bathing, drying themselves, coiffing, none of it mechanical or frozen in glacial immobility. This hieratic quality of the three large pictures is due to the vaster scale of plastic and spatial ambition being undertaken (on which Clark is quite good), a chef-d’oeuvre competitiveness with his beloved Venetian masters, Titian, Veronese, and especially Tintoretto (his favourite as a very young man) and of course Rubens. But simply because an artist expresses an identification with beloved painters of the past, it does not always follow that they can be compared directly with profit.
A year or two ago, the National Gallery (London) had the opportunity of a loan of Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” from the collection of the Duke of Sutherland. Some academically minded curator hit on the idea of displaying it in a triumvirate with Rubens’s “Judgement of Paris” and of course Cézanne’s “Bathers”, the gallery’s own version. Cézanne’s admiration for the Venetians stems from his youth, but was an ideé fixé, along with a love of Rubens, for the rest of his life. So it was understandable that such a comparison was attempted. However, far from confirming the affinity, what the juxtaposition showed was the enormous gulf in form and affect that lay between them. It’s the question of “materialism” again. Cézanne, having rehearsed these large figure groups throughout his life in many diverse technical and emotional modes, erotic, baroque, playful, stern, frieze-like, never realistic, and never dwelling on descriptive particularity has finally attempted a condensation of sensation of epic proportions.
I little thought that I’d be calling on such an eminence as Mr. Ruskin as witness for the prosecution at this juncture and in this context, since he cannot have much to say about Cézanne, can he…: “But, whatever the means used may be, the certainty and directness of them imply absolute grasp of the whole subject, and without this grasp there is no good painting. This, finally, let me declare, without qualification – that partial conception is no conception. The whole picture must he imagined, or none of it is. And this grasp of the whole implies very strange and sublime qualities of mind. It is not possible, unless the feelings are completely under control; the least excitement or passion will disturb the measured equity of power; a painter needs to be as cool as a general; and as little moved or subdued by his sense of pleasure, as a soldier by the sense of pain. Nothing good can be done without intense feeling; but it must be feeling so crushed, that the work is set about with mechanical steadiness, absolutely untroubled as a surgeon – not without pity, but conquering it and putting it aside – begins the operation…” (sounds like Cézanne himself or Delacroix) … “ False things may be imagined, and false things composed; but only truth can be invented.”
And on the Venetians: “The Venetian mind, we have said, and Titian’s especially, as the central type of it, was wholly realist, universal, and manly. In his breadth and realism, the painter saw that sensual passion in man was not only a fact, but a Divine fact; the human creature, though the highest of animals, was, nevertheless, a perfect animal, and his happiness, health and nobleness, depended on the due power of every animal passion, as well as the cultivation of every spiritual tendency…”
…“In all its roots of power, and modes of work; in its belief, its breadth, and its judgement, I find the Venetian mind perfect.”
“How, then, did its art so swiftly pass away? By reason of one great, one fatal fault; recklessness in aim. Wholly noble in its sources, it was wholly unworthy in its purposes…”
“The ‘Assumption’ is a noble picture, because Titian believed in the Madonna. But he did not paint it to make anyone else believe in her. He painted it, because he enjoyed rich masses of red and blue, and faces flushed with sunlight. Tintoret’s ‘Paradise’ is a noble picture, because he believed in paradise. But he did not paint it to make one think of heaven; but to form a beautiful termination for the hall of the Great Council.”…
“I know not how far in humility, or how far in bitter and hopeless levity, the great Venetians gave their art to be blasted by the sea winds or wasted by the worm…”
“The enchanter’s spell, woven by centuries of toil, was broken in the weakness of a moment”….
“Very strange and sublime qualities of mind.”
What then, was the outcome of the National Gallery’s juxtaposition? The Rubens fell away early on; Bellini’s “The Feast of the Gods” would have been a stronger contender. Titian’s bodies have a “bloom”, a little like that on a peach by Chardin, though not so material, which is teased, coaxed into existence by perhaps the subtlest touch in painting amongst these painters who work on canvas; and this bloom spreads to envelop the whole painted surface. Lawrence Gowing says this of the “Concert Champêtre”, 1510-11, (in the Louvre): “Much that is most precious in subject and mood was painted here for the first time: the reverie of music and the flesh, the delights of sensual life and the pastoral scene, the enchantments of melody and love… People understand this great and mysterious picture by instinct” – and so undoubtedly did Cézanne, but nothing could be further from his own life experience – “the delights of sensual life (or love)” were a remote fantasy, perhaps never experienced at all, except in these adolescent moments. Cézanne’s “reverie” is of a different order entirely. Titian’s female types are of a delicacy and refinement unequalled in art (and only Velasquez can rival, and indeed follow directly on from, his touch), but it is a refinement suffused with more than erotic feeling – a pantheistic spirituality which Ruskin undoubtedly felt, but which gave him some difficulty. To claim that Cézanne is more of a “materialist” than the subtle Titian simply because his paint surfaces are more robust, more relief-like, is literally simple-minded, and “vulgar” (to use a Clarkism). At the conclusion of an unpublished essay on “Cézanne and the Body” which I wrote in 1981, I find the following:
We may now summarise the essential features of Cézanne’s art in so far as they concern the representation of objects or bodies thus:
- Cézanne’s method of relating patches of colour to create an illusion of volume is not predominantly mimetic of tactile qualities of surface, nor of effects of incident light. The unique physical texture of objects is played down in favour of registering spatial relationships between objects. Tactile qualities of paint are largely fortuitous.
- A system is followed which involves the logical grouping of adjacent spectral hues, mixed with earths and blacks, returning on themselves at the point of maximum contrast.
- The emphasis is on the gradation of colour rather than the gradation of tone, or rather colour and tone are one; tones register firstly as colour, in the service of colour.
- There is a disjunction of the linear definition of forms from their colour-structure. Drawing and colour function more or less independently, yet together, for the same end, the enhanced representation of the fullness of objects, and their linking to adjacent surfaces and spaces.
No-one would deny that Cézanne’s architectural, plastic and spatial achievements are not also marinated in subconscious libidinous revelations of which he was not in control, nor wished to be in control; but T.J. Clark has not the correct frame of reference with which to unearth them – perhaps no-one has. Nor is this necessary, since subconscious speaks to subconscious more eloquently than any excavation could. “People understand this great and mysterious picture by instinct.” “Very strange and sublime qualities of mind.” Let’s leave it that way.
“Materialism” as a political theory cannot be so easily adduced to correspond or coincide with materialism in the art of painting, unless one holds the view that an “ideological” construct can be made to permeate every aspect, every symbolic enactment, every expression, every attempt to shape experience in communicable form; and this notion of all pervasive “ideology” in a culture, Marx himself shrank from, dropping the term altogether from his theorising. It has been left to his revisionists to make this claim; and as regards Freud’s theories, if they are as suspect, as pseudo-scientific as his critics, led by Frank Ciotti, have claimed, then what of the hyper-subjective revisionism of Lacan, Foucault, and all the other darlings of neo-marxist literary theory whose fundamental schoolboy errors in the theory of knowledge have brought art-criticism to the pretty pass in which it languishes today – i.e. the inability to make the simplest value judgements and get them right. One such howler by Clark occurs at the end (his conclusions are a hoot) of “Cubism and Collectivity”, where, in spite of all that has been written on the subject of the collaborative years of Braque and Picasso, especially by William Rubin in “Cézanne and Cubism”, Clark commits himself to the notion that Picasso led and Braque followed:
“… Cubist painting is not a language: it just has the look on one. And if it is not a language, then naturally there will not be two native speakers [this is sleight of hand]. I am afraid the critics are ultimately right to insist on the differences between Picasso and Braque in 1911 and 1912; and even right when they say that what we are confronted with at this point in Cubism (in contrast to others) is a hierarchy as opposed to a collectivity. A dyad with Picasso on top. (His way of putting this later was characteristic. ‘He was my wife’, he said of Braque.)”
This is just plain wrong on several levels, but it too is characteristic of the author, who likes to rely on deeply suspect testimony when it suits his case. This rejection of the notion of collectivity in this instance is strange, but it is echoed in his failure to discuss the relationship of Pissarro and Cézanne, in connection with the former’s preoccupation with large (for him) bathers compositions in the late 1880’s and 1890’s. There are far more of these than Clark discusses, and a socio-political exposition does not take us to the heart of why Pissarro, Renoir and Cézanne took up such a theme after the “crisis of Impressionism” of the early 1880’s. Pissarro and Cézanne had of course also been “roped together” like two mountaineers” in the 1870’s. And why restrict the Braque/Picasso question to the two years 1911 and 1912, when their close interchange lasted from 1907 to Braque’s enlisting at the outbreak of World War I. But Clark wants Picasso to be the husband, the powerful one – so no collectivity then.
Another dishonest quotation occurs in “The Unhappy Consciousness” chapter on Jackson Pollock, where Clement Greenberg is allowed to get away with “Jackson was a god-damn Stalinist from first to last”, this apparently in conversation with Clark himself. That Clark should make use of it unexamined, without relating Greenberg’s own early leftist/communist background says bucketfuls about the tenuous hold on probity of both men when their leftist conscience is pricked. I doubt very much whether Jackson Pollock held any articulate political views at all, but even if he did, they have no bearing on either the overt manipulated sign-structures (Picassoidal – surrealist) of his formative pictures, nor of the development out of them which Clark is discussing. The link between Breton’s version of surrealism and communist “ideology” had become small beer by the time it had passed to Pollock via John Graham and Robert Motherwell. It was in the air all these artists and many others breathed, but Pollock had much more on his mind than that.
The chapters on Cubism and on Pollock contain much that I agree with when it comes to a close formal analysis, though the word “counterfeit” has an unpleasant ring to it – better to say that what the holistic phase of analytical cubism reveals is that whatever structural permutations of the signatory elements and geometrical permutations inherent in a pictured planarity, and whatever trompe l’oeil games and “deceptions”, inversions of custom, the optics of what is conceivable on a flat surface, indeed the whole of painting from Piero Della Francesco and Leonardo onwards, tells us not one new fact about the structure of the physical world, only how it is pictured, and how to feel about it.
That is not painting’s role. What the most advanced painting does is to confront us with the frontiers of binocular vision, and the capacity, indeed the necessity of the perceiving subject to form gestalts out of the flux of unconcentrated perceptions that would otherwise render hopelessly unstable our orientation in quotidian space. What Cubism did was to spread out the grisaille sub-structure which used to underlie the rendering of volumes in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, which accounts for its relative dinginess, suppression of colour, and its inferiority as a style to that of the mature Cézanne – spread it out across the picture surface in a catalogue of all possible formulae for indicating convex-concave surfaces, and then to invert them, play trompe l’oeil games with them (games that have never interested me in the slightest). What the “counterfeit” phase of 1911-12 did was to try to put it all back together again (in a sense), to play up to the habituated (a-priori?) lineaments of perception to tend to form a volumetric whole out of this hazy flux of fragmentary convex-concave light-reflecting surfaces, which is what reality consists of. They did so, as Clark says, by re-introducing a source of mimetic light which filters through the planes and signs for the contours of objects not totally logically sustained, but enough to allow the eye to familiarise itself with an imagined fictive space, within which a body can be intuited. All of this verges on tautology, that all space in picturing is fictive, and that all painting can do is to show us our inbuilt habits of perception confronting themselves, if you like, exercising themselves, up against the limits of what is perceivable, as wholes. Where cubism scores, especially in its earliest phase, however, is in the crude, pictorially daring and forethright way the rudimentary lineaments of representation are thrust at us with a force that had not been seen since the early 15th century (the role that so-called primitive art played in this – and here indeed Picasso is king, i.e. in 1906-07-08, not in 1911-12). In this early phase, unsubtle and unnuanced compared to the influence that the poetic, musical and philosophical Braque would bring to bear, Picasso re-discovers some of the most elemental graphic resources, the striated, slashed cross-hatching of Byzantine and medieval renderings of angular folded vestments, for one example – there are many others – and turns them to the task of dramatizing the projection and recession of cursive planes for the construction of limbs.
These “materialist” harpies are determined to have us all imprisoned in a vast collective solipsism policed by language with no access to the open air of non-verbal experience (Schoenberg –“I breathe the air of another planet”.), so that dreams are “structured like language”, pictures are “structured like a language”, society is apparently “structured like a language”. Why? – because it suits their agenda of substituting their interpretations for those of the artist. Wittgenstein, for one, did not take this view. In saying that “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent” (or words to that effect), he was acknowledging that there are dimensions of mind that are not mired in linguistic picturing and that although “grammar is autonomous”, not all thought or experience is grammatically correct. Nor does one need to be a mystic to see that there are realms of experience that cannot be put into words. Dreams are not “structured like a language”, only the interpretation of dreams, and pictures are not either, only the exegesis of them. The great poets and writers have delighted, from Shakespeare to Finnegan’s Wake, in mocking the tyranny of language by turning it in the tumble-drier of exuberant fancy. Vision is the primary dimension of experience, and as Ruskin said “To see, really see is the only useful thing we ever do on earth”.
And so to the final chapter, “In Defence of Abstract Expressionism, which is clearly intended to provoke, a red rag to a bull to people like me, and so it has done. However, as Lord Leveson retorted to Kelvin McKenzie when he asserted that there is no truth in newspapers: “if it looks good, sounds good, smells good, then we print it”. “All very well”, he said, “but what if what is printed contains a litany of factual inaccuracies – what if it is in fact a tissue of falsehoods – what then?”
First, there’s the designation of the Abstract Expressionists as “petty-bourgeois artists”, a Leninist/Stalinist class definition for those who saw themselves no doubt as déclassé. It would take too long to trawl through the biographies and the political sympathies of all of those thus maligned and traduced, but if in a celestial dinner party we could have a round-table conversation between (say), Rothko, Gorky, Motherwell and T.J. Clark on the subject of class consciousness and the status of the artist in revolutionary politics, I know where I’d put my money, I know who would come out with the deepest awareness of the issues involved. Rothko, for instance, the son of an impoverished Lithuanian pharmacist who was “quiet, intellectual, scrupulously moral, passionately political – a man more idealistic than practical” a man who “in reaction to the 1905 pogroms, turned orthodox” “committed to dissident politics”, “a strong Zionist”, “holding meetings all the time in our home, even when such activities had been ‘forbidden’ by the Russian authorities.” He belonged “to a stigmatised social group…. in a city (Dvinsk) that often confronted Jews, particularly political Jews (like Rothko’s family) with real violence.”
“In a city filled with poor workers (potato farmers and lumbermen and potters) and paupers, the family was set apart by Jacob’s profession, by his original dissafiliation from orthodox Judaism, and by the family’s unusually intense commitment to politics and education”. Of Mark Rothko, the son, “The Weinstein’s (on whom he was economically dependant in Portland, Oregon) came to stand for a Jewish philistinism that Rothko, feeding off his deprivation, loved to hate – ‘vilifying his relatives because he had to work selling newspapers and piling pants’”. As an adolescent, Rothko junior was “also engaged with dissident politics as if seeking a way to assimilate without betraying family and Jewish involvements with Leftist causes”. His whole family, Rothko later said, “followed and applauded the Russian Revolution”. I grew up as an anarchist” Rothko said. Thence to the depression – the W.P.A. – need I go on……. To call Rothko petty – bourgeois is simply insulting. And a similar story applies to many of the other Abstract Expressionists too.
The whole discussion of “class” as a determinant on their lives as artists in unworthy, cheap, and desperate. “Petty-bourgeois” is a slander that reeks of Leninist/Stalinist rhetoric. It was employed as a term of abuse and used for instance against Shostakovich at the time of the success of his “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District” by party apparatchiks.
To illustrate Clark’s tactic, here he is in the first paragraph of his chapter on Pollock: “Not just that modern artists often turned away from the detail of the world in order to revel in the work of art’s ‘essential gaudiness’, but that the turning away was very often associated with a class attitude or style, not unlike Duke William’s (of Aquitaine), or at least, an attempt to mimic that style – its coldness, brightness, lordliness, and nonchalance” (sounds more like W. B. Yeats than Pollock, and hardly petty-bourgeois). And many pages later: “I do not do it (return to the photographs in Vogue) to glorify one moment of Pollock’s painting at the expense of another, or even to stigmatise the whole of abstract painting by associating it with haute couture…” – Pollock’s pictures “have seemed the appropriate back drop [in their decorativeness] to ball gown and bolero, to the black-tie ‘do’ at the local museum, and the serious business of making money” He goes on to mollify these slurs, but the damage has been done. Of Pollock’s paintings 1947-50: “Its contradictions are the ones that any abstract painting will encounter as long as it is done within bourgeois society, in a culture that cannot grasp… the social reality of the sign, it (abstract painting) will have painting be a kind of writing at last, and therefore write a script none of us has read before.” (Is he thinking of the world-wide epidemic of graffiti?)
“But on the other hand, painting discovers that none of this is achievable with the means it has. Nature [meaning habit] will simply not go away. It reasserts its rights over the new handwriting, and writes a familiar script with it – the script of One-ness, Autumn Rhythm, Lavender Mist”, (which he has downgraded as vitiated by the introduction of an incipient naturalistic figuration and decorativeness as contrasted with Number 1., 1948.)
The Vogue photographs…”…..” speak to the hold of capitalist culture: that is, to the ease with which it can outflank work done against the figurative, and make it part of a new order of pleasures…..”
Abstract art is “perniciously lively”… but must be protected…”until the moment, that is, when the sign is discovered again as common property or collective work? of a concrete, practical, hands-on-world;….”
“common property or collective work? – the question mark is Clark’s own.
To all of this one could juxtapose the thus traduced enterprise of Barnett Newman in his suite of lithographs (another maligned “petty – bourgeois” artist) of which Mel Bochner writes; –
“The definition of a lithograph is that it is writing on stone” (Newman)… “Lithography, Newman says, is writing and interpreting… Painting is the text to be written on stone. The litho stone… represents the weight of material reality. It is the product of geological time, but most of all it is the place where physical and metaphysical can be “drawn” together… Ethics and aesthetics must be reunited. This is the only true “subject” of the artist.” Whether any of this was ever intended to be or could ever be “common property”, or “collective work” is very much open to doubt.
Another defining feature of modernism which T.J. Clark ignores because it suits him to do so, is its orientation towards the past, its cannibalising of all past epoques; what one might call the ethnographic or anthropological dimension, from Stravinsky’s fascination with the scholarship of early music which was proceeding apace during the 1930’s and beyond; Joyce’s assimilation of all the languages of the (largely) Indo-European traditions into the melting pot of his dream-landscape (as if Jung’s phylogeny of the collective unconscious is recapitulated in the history of all the tongues of the world (a modern-day Babel); Picasso’s plundering of every development from Cycladic sculpture, Attic vase-decoration, Roman funerary friezes etc., as if every visual manifestation of Western culture were grist to the mill of his omnivorous devouring appetites; Webern and Schöenberg’s reinvention of the algebraic contrapuntal complexities of Renaissance and Netherlandish polyphony; and so on and so on. It was not an archaising spirit that prompted these devourings, but an awareness of the non-material, religious content and motivation of these early arts which modernists sensed, envied and sought to further; more than to evoke nostalgically, but in a genuine attempt to bring to bear on the modern predicaments of “alienation” and nihilism, a mode of feeling which one can only call religious and/or at least metaphysical; hence Stravinsky’s religious conversion (call it atavistic if you will) and the tenor of much of his later music; T.S. Eliot likewise; the crisis of faith dramatised in “Moses and Aron”; and many other responses to the cataclysmic evils of 20th century political events. (Yeats figures largely in all such, and W.H. Auden.) Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross”, Rothko’s chapel. Are these modernist or anti-modernist emotions? The history of modernism is inconceivable without them: Stravinsky’s trumpeted anti-modernism of the 1920’s is another modernist strategy, and not all of these “retreats” are of the right.
I turn finally to the “controversially” floated “vulgar” which Clark contentiously levels at the Abstract Expressionists, and I do not need to reach for the dictionary definition as Clark does in support of its usage (this always implies an insecurity about the appropriateness of the term). “Vulgar” means offensive to a level of cultivated sensibility assumed for oneself, whilst aiming for a level of taste and discernment assumed to be lower (baser) than one’s own. Thus Wagner is a vulgarian (especially in “Parsifal”) since from the height of his Christ-identification (or suzerainship), posing as high priest of the hermetic mysteries of the Grail legend, he condescends to a bourgeois audience dispossessed of genuine religious feeling, yet hungry for spiritual enlightenment from a night in the theatre.
In characterising Abstract Expressionism as “vulgar”, T.J. Clark assumes for himself a level of taste and discernment which he shows little evidence of having earned (constantly deferring to Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried when it comes to the acid tests of evaluation on which his arguments are pinned): “The more I see of Pollock, the higher my estimation”; the endorsement of Greenberg’s “buck-eye” in describing Still’s paintings; the endorsement too of Still’s attack on Rothko in his letter to Sidney Janis: “mean spirited, partial, and tendentious, but somehow for that very reason (because it steps out of the circle of deference for once) the best criticism Rothko ever received.” It is well known that Greenberg disliked Rothko and much of his paintings too: “a clinical paranoid”, he said, and in all five volumes of his collected writing the only real discussion of Rothko’s work is in”American-type Painting”, where he is writing to defend this group from the charge (by Patrick Heron) of sharing some identifiable American characteristics, and can hardly ignore Rothko.)
And Clark is often wrong in his value judgements when left to his own devices. I’ve already mentioned the down-grading of Braque (another instance in which he echoes Greenberg), but he also shows his visual astigmatism when it comes to Pollock’s “No. I, 1948”: “So here I come clean. You will gather I think “No. I, 1948” is a great painting, which pushes our understanding to the limit. If I had to choose a moment of modernism in which the forms and limits of depiction were laid out most completely – most poignantly – in ways that spoke to an age, or created one, this would be it. If I am asked what I ultimately mean by modernism and contingency, for example, I shall point in “No. I, 1948″‘s direction.”
He has already rhapsodised on the painting’s “central black whiplash with its gorgeous bleep of red”, and he goes on: “No. I, 1948” is the painting of Pollock’s I would choose over any other – even over the majesty of “One”,1950 – because of its smallness and brittleness…”; because it “contains contraries within itself”; because of its “entanglement and paper-thinness”. Does he mean contrarieties? But: “Nor do I want a criticism that posits contained contrariness as aesthetic quality” – but he just has done!
“In its heart of hearts, modernism is touchingly honest about its own petty- bourgeois will to power”… The fact is that “No. I, 1948″(172x264cm) is a thin, brittle and small painting, in its overall effect, compared not only to “One”, Number 31, 1950, but to “Lucifer”, 1947(104x267cm), “Autumn Rhythm” 1950, and a number of others. “Lucifer”, painted a year or so earlier, is a much more spacious and (in my terms) eloquent picture. “No. I,1948” appeals to the conceptualist in Clark, rather than the sensualist and he is determined to like it regardless of its somewhat grubby, dry, dingy, fried-in-the-pan frazzled look.
Give me “Lucifer” and “One”, Number 31, 1950 any day; and “speaking to an age or creating one?”, this is hyperbolic wishful thinking. This is something painting cannot do, even if it were to try to, which great painters never do. And Pollock was as aware as anyone that there was almost no-one out there that one was speaking to. And paintings only create an age in the hands of proselytisers who falsify and demean the art in the process to make it accessible, usable in terms comprehensible in a wider world.
“Vulgar” for Clark equals “gaudy” , and complicit in bourgeois fantasies of transcendence. If what the most gifted colourist America has produced is “gaudy”, what hope for the rest of us. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the tactic is to take an artist or writer at their weakest moment, and to tar them with that brush throughout. One or two of Rothko’s colour combinations may perhaps be “gaudy”, but these are vastly outweighed by those in which harmonies, strange and subtle, sonorous and brooding, are conjured out of very unusual juxtapositions of khaki, mahogany, olive, bottle-green, greyed ultramarine etc. etc., whose total impact is mellow, mordant, rich and strange rather than saccharine, strident, or ”gaudy”.
And complicit with bourgeois taste? According to Still….”the tyranny of his ambition to suffocate or crush all who stand in his way… Not I, but himself, has made it clear that his work is of frustration, resentment and aggression…”
The idea that all this could be declared complicit with bourgeois taste, or as Peter Fuller would put it “reconstituting the world in images for the bourgeoisie” would have horrified Rothko, his fellow painters (many of them serving their apprenticeship in the surrealist far-left camp) and all his admirers since, and can only be justified at all by extra-pictorial reference to what the artist may have said of himself in his most pretentious and self-aggrandising moments, a habit Rothko grew out of, preferring silence.
Clark steers clear of the debacle over the Seagram Murals, which brought out Rothko’s most self-torturing anxieties about his prospective audience, showing that he was well aware of just how fragile artistic transcendence might be in a material world – the world Clark asks us to believe is the only one available. This indeed was Rothko’s central dilemma in later life, to which his quest for transcendence had led him, rearing before him with unique urgency to the point of self-crucifixion, and to which, though grandiose and melodramatic, the epithet “vulgar” does little justice. Rothko’s romanticism never quite rivals the heights and depth of Wagner’s, though after 1957/58 he courts vulgarity of the Wagnerian sort (outlined above). I broadly share Clark’s estimation of the later work, though for different reasons; it seems to me that in the post 1957 works, though not all of them, Rothko’s aggression is directed against bourgeois appropriations of his art (and at bottom what could be more bourgeois than an armchair marxist/materialist interpretation), and this aggressive pessimism begins to stifle and burden his creativity in ways which led to a swelling of pretentious didactic religiosity of near Wagnerian proportions, along with a deep depression on a private level, and it is this that we are faced with when we enter the suite of Seagram murals at Tate Modern. The fact that the bourgeois art-hound seems to relish this utterly depressing experience in the name of “tragedy” and “doom”, or of its speaking to a post-holocaustal catharsis, if that’s the-right word, is a blemish, in the end, on Rothko’s projected self-image. Clark simply avoids this confrontation altogether. In any case, why indict the Abstract Expressionists on the paradoxical charge of “vulgarity”. (the very thing they thought they were not being) when there are so many more obviously deserving targets.
De Kooning of course can be made to fit the bill (pun not intended), with his obsession with the “moutt”… of Marilyn, (see the 1972 film “Painters Painting) and no doubt of Elaine too, mouth and teeth, tits and ass – but De Kooning is the exception, and he, it seems to me, got better as he got older (up to a certain point). To label his Rubensesque nudes, confectionary colours and all, vulgar, leads one to ask what would count as aristocratic in this context. Except that had he attained it, it would count against him in Clark’s eyes. And because the avant-garde in the early 20th century could not abide Monet’s colour of the 1880’s and 1890’s (Venice, London, Norway snows, the early Giverny Japanese bridge pictures), and that the pictures none-the-less appealed to rich American collectors, does not say anything about Monet’s own aristocracy of taste, or otherwise. I happen to think that Monet is one of the greatest colourists there has ever been, but that is a matter of taste, and judgement; if anyone “created an age”, or created a climate of taste for his “only an eye, but what an eye”, (as though no-one had ever seen colour before) it is Claude Monet, but it took time for educated taste to catch up and resolve its initial revulsions. There are still those who find Monet’s most extravagant symphonies repellent, and T.J. Clark appears to be one of them. Or is that just because he knows Monet’s whole endeavour, his whole identity cannot be contained, bursts out from every seam of the straight-jacket in which Clark’s vocabulary world-view would like to confine him?
Is Monet a petty-bourgeois artist because his father was a grocer to the French navy, or because he was collected by nouveau riche industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic? Or is he one of the greatest painters in a great century and a half for painting, because he opened up a whole new world of sensation, of space and light the likes of which no bourgeois had ever imagined, too big for their world? – writing “a script no-one has ever read before”.
And so they would like a slice of it, permanent reminder of what their lives did not, could not contain. It’s really bizarre that Clark should use the snobbish “vulgar” and “gaudy” where others would use “elitist” “remote from everyday experience” or “anti-democratic”.
In any case, come the revolution, in an egalitarian utopia, such terms will have no meaning. Just look around you. This world is already upon us. If you want “gaudy”, look at Jeff Koons or David Hockney. The revolution, at least as the democratisation of taste, has been achieved by other means. Such class-derived terms as proletariat, petty-bourgeois etc. no longer have any viable meaning. Unemployment knows no class. They have been swallowed up in the globalisation of the Warhol/Koons aesthetic, if that’s not to dignify it unduly, via the world wide web. Now tastelessness and blatancy, “contingency” and “immediacy” are the new avant-garde in China, India and Russia. And post- modernism? To be fair, Clark appears to have no relish for this non-style, and his book is one of a number of acknowledgements within the literature of revisionism that things have gone badly wrong, and that post-modernism is a dead duck. There is only modernism and its consequences, hence the nostalgic tone. As Frank Zappa said of Jazz, Modernism is not dead, it just smells funny.
I used to think that Post-modernism was just a marketing ploy, by which the dealers could flog off all their old stock of the most god-awful painting in history and resurrect all the “icky” self-flaunting narratives that went with it, lifting the stone on all the qualities that modernism had outlawed, suddenly come wriggling and squirming, pale as death, back into the light of day. But now I can see that it is much worse than that – it is a complete abdication of critical faculty and responsibility by a whole generation (or two) of critics and curators in face of the desuetude of the visual arts; critics bamboozled by literary theory who have chosen to priviledge their own hermeneutics of “meaning” in a world where everything is “text”. Where everything is “text”, there is no high and low, no good and bad, no major and minor, no true and untrue. Everything is on the same level, and prey to the sovereignty of the literary mind, stuffed with language-games and self-reference. The mystery of human individual personality or genius, which accounts for both Joyce and Kafka, Ruskin, F.R. Leavis and Walter Benjamin and the oh! so different worlds they lived and breathed is to be subsumed and levelled in the one word, “ideology”, or “text”; the role of the critic being to construct their own alternative universe of reading or readings from out of the education, copious or stunted by prejudices, they have imbibed from other literature. Or alternatively, their role is to “subvert meaning” in the paranoidal suspicion that the authority which comes with all great art is suspect by definition, and must be undermined and re-stated in ways acceptable to some modern-day cant of the moment. To subvert the canon does not invalidate the canon. The canon in any case is not the creation of theorists. The canon is created by the artists themselves in dialogue, under “the anxiety of influence”.
Clement Greenberg, or any other critic, did not invent “modern” art, nor did he invent the theoretical basis or justification for modern art’s relative self-reflexivity. He just put a spin on the work of the great painters – their work still stands, unencumbered by the “meanings” that may be thrust upon them. Post-modernism reversed the terms of avant-garde and Kitsch, so that Kitsch, or ironised Kitsch (ironised Kitsch is still Kitsch) became the new aspiration of the “avant-garde”. So that it is now impossible to tell the difference, hence the speed of its institutional and public acceptance. This debased form of conceptualism has become the officially sanctioned “Salon” art of our time, welcomed and promoted by the curatorial establishment as “what we ought to be doing”.
Even György Ligeti, one-time doyen of the far out, was moved (according to Tarsukin) to declare that “the avant-garde had run out of steam, and that continued adherence to its ideals was a far more retrogressive stance than the “retro” styles that were taking its place” – and then went on to compose a masterpiece of historical assimilation in the “Piano Preludes”.
Clark poses “contingency” and “immediacy” as the defining characteristics of modernism, properties both vague and slight in their generality (unless fleshed out by actual cases). They would serve post-modernism just as well. Peter Gay, in his 2007 book “Modernism” posits the more interesting “lure of heresy” and “interiority”, the exploration of the inner experience of a subjectivity-obsessed artist. Clement Greenberg cites self-definition, in the sense of the clarification by each of the arts of what is proper to and exclusive to that art (a problematic assertion, to which I’ll return), and positivism, an equally dubious proposition. Even if we put all these together, contingency, immediacy, heresy, interiority, self-definition, self-reflexivity, positivism, (materialism) – we still do not have a palimpsest for all cases.
James Joyce, for instance, has a schema of various parodistic perspectival sieves through which “reality” is pressed to form a series of pictures of contemporary life, in politics, journalism, medicine, literature itself. These pictures are arranged as in a medieval or pre-renaissance polyptych altarpiece, small in the foreground, gathered around the one large main picture, image, nothing other than the consciousness, historical consciousness, at a unique moment in time (of everyman), as conceived by a perceiving and codifying mind, that of the author, Joyce himself. He aims at a complete comprehensibility of the life-force, an objectivity which transcends the partiality even of its author, and of his invented characters – a far cry from the kind of psychological subjectivity of a Strindberg or a Hamson. The devices of parody allow Joyce even to distance himself from himself. I’d say that this tendency to erase the perceiving subject in the kind of “neutral monism” or dissolution of “self” so beloved of radical philosophers of the early 20th century, to see the world as a chain of events – “events, dear boy, events” – which elides the distinction between mind and world, for good or ill, is more characteristic of modernism in all genres as a synopsis than mere subjectivity.
And hence, dissolution of the “self” leads to fragmentation, the willingness to build a system, or to form an imaginative synthesis out of this chain of subjective experiences. This fragmentation leads, in the music of pre-twelve tone Schoenberg “Erwartung” and “Die glückliche Hand”, to a chain of momentary exacerbations of emotion and to small forms whose emotional range is small but intense. It was to overcome this hyper-subjectivity that Schoenberg developed “composition with 12 tones”, yet another “sieve” through which feeling could be compressed, where the moments of exacerbated consciousness could be placed in the crucible of formal transformation, hence extended over a longer span of time.
“For it is not the “greatness”, the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place that counts” – T.S. Eliot.
I’d say that the hyper-subjectivity of the symbolists is a more concentrated form of romanticism, and that modernists can be divided between those who continue the symbolist project by other means (Mondrian, the surrealists, and those abstract expressionists who devolve from an awareness of surrealist practices – Gorky, Pollock, Motherwell, Newman), and those who react against it, Mondrian again, in his architectonic phase, those who try to bring their subjectivity to bear on a more “realistic” orientation to contemporary experience. Many of the leading modernists, however, are divided, torn in their allegiances, and therefore evolve an “antithetical self”, a “to-ing” and a “fro-ing” orientation.
However, of the before mentioned list, interiority is perhaps the most potent, if it includes a profile which extends all the way from the privacy of sexual obsessions, the Freudian polarities of guilt and revenge, the conviction (as with Schoenberg, Scriabin, the later Stravinsky) that inspiration is an inner daimon whose source is divinely inspired, if the divine is conceived as akin to the Hebrew god, both personal and impersonal, unknowable, unnameable, accessible only through some gnostic influx.
Add to all this idealism (the conviction that art could make way for and furnish a better world) and liberalism – “that fundamental principle of modernism, the freeing of impulse and inventiveness from the commands of whatever authority might stand against it” (Peter Gay) – the chief authority in question being bourgeois acceptance of “life as it is”. This is the bourgeoisie as defined by avant-garde artists, not by Marxist revisionists. Lenin talked of bourgeois sentimentality, the offender being Beethoven, and this is the line which Clark is close to treading.
Yet the “bourgeoisie’s” capacity (is there any sense in continuing to use this class-word, when middle-brow culture has enveloped everyone?) for absorbsion of art conceived in opposition to its values has been immense, until the “lure of heresy”, the desire to shock, has lost all valency. The “bourgeoisie”, as epitomised by museum culture, the gauleiters and morticians of counterculture transgressions, can absorb, are eager to absorb, almost anything (think of Joseph Beuys and his coyote). The rules of the game have irrevocably shifted. There has indeed been a “paradigm shift”, in the direction of a massive downgrading of expectation of what art can give. Of the Nietzschean polarity, Apollonian or Dionysian, Greenberg wanting the former, Pollock in his greatest paintings – “Lucifer”, “One”, “Autumn Rythm” – realised the latter, though there is a largeness and abiding calm in 1950 which Greenberg many have helped to induce, a calm which held only for a moment. The lyrical flailings of a demiurgic spirit (in chains?), the vertiginous swirl and spume of an event in the stream of life to which in perceiving and ingesting it, we ourselves are momentarily a part – this is the recurring magic of these paintings. And to paint in the wake of this, you have to give yourself up to the medium totally, in an achieved sustained loss of self-consciousness, to enter without reservation into the flow of feeling in the medium.
This deeply unfashionable ethic of painting is detracted as a last gasp of discredited “romanticism”, whereas it is the only way to sustain an engagement with the central aspiration of the modernists (since an academic conceptualism rules every aspect of art now). Whether for or against nature, (and a line can be drawn all the way from Baudelaire to the present in both persuasions), the central project of modernism has been to preserve and continue high artistic values against the enveloping tide of middle-brow (formerly bourgeois, but now omnipresent) assimilations. The phoney avant-garde, or what Dwight Macdonald called “the lumpen-avant-garde” (in 1960) have tried to claim Pollock for themselves ever since, a total misreading; their twin mantras, process and literalism, both presented as a fey, zen-like indeterminacy, unwilled, aleatoric, going through phases in trance-like mechanism – but deeply self-conscious and self-regarding.
Jasper Johns, before he had made the Duchamp connection, had noticed that the blander, broad expanses of ‘flat” painting of the latter-day abstract expressionists resembled flags (of all nations) in their “flatness and the delimitation of flatness”, broad horizontal or vertical banding; so with clever literal-mindedness he said, O.K., I’ll give them flags, but always looking over his shoulder – “look at me, I’m painting flags”, “look, I’m actually using a brush, I’m applying paint in ‘personal’ brush-strokes” – coy, self -regarding, and utterly unable to shed self-consciousness, to enter into the stream of life without artificiality or distancing.
This coveted and cosseted artificiality has become the un-examined ”visibility”, the deeply entrenched presupposition on which post-modernism now rests. Its most recent carrier is the “greatest living painter”, Gerhard Richter, whose paintings, even the best of them (in the early 1980’s) are nothing more than an unassimilated compendium of belated graphic and pictorial devices, processed literalism personified, utterly self-consciously compounded but to no convincing formal end, and the devices he picks up on are those which painters of an earlier generation had worked to death – the “laying it out like a tray of toffee” literalism of the 10th St.-like followers of Jules Olitski and Darby Bannard (I even tried some myself, but in the 1970’s, not the 1990’s). Those who talk most about process are the ones who cannot give themselves up to the painting process and follow it wheresoever it leads. Instead they trowel or trawl through a rigid scheme mechanically, and churn out hundreds of lookie-likies.
I didn’t know until recently that Dwight MacDonald had helped Clement Greenberg to put together his early essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, 1939, and that he had written his own version, “Masscult and Midcult” in 1960, which though it contains much that could be disputed (flawed masterpieces both) is nonetheless deeply prescient of today’s art-world. If these pieces were contentious in 1960, they were also prophetic; time has confirmed them, and the art-world of today is a walking example of the relentless forward march of Kitsch and middlebrow triumphalism. If these authors have been trashed and marginalised, consider the motives of their opponents. The trouble is that rebelling against the canon, or conjuring up sensational stunts which offend educated taste, whether middle-brow or high-brow, has an ever diminishing return, until the time comes, as now, when such strategies are so well known that they become the ground-plan of a new academicism, absorbed into the fabric of bourgeois expectation, the officially sanctioned salon art of our time.
The canon itself becomes a distant memory, so silted over with the banalities of subversion that it becomes well-nigh impossible for the novice initiate to have any notion of what high-art aspiration may once have been. The counterculture has made amnesiacs of us all.
“The most insidious development, though, was what he called “L’avant-garde pompier”, phoney avant-gardism.” “There is nothing more vulgar”, as he put it, “than sophisticated Kitsch”. Louis Menand on Dwight MacDonald In “Masscult and Midcult”.
“But the spoofs of Dada have now become the serious offerings of what one might call the lumpen-avant-garde.” Dwight MacDonald, “Partisan Review”, 1960.
The reason why educating taste, the zealous aim of purveyors of the new Cultural Studies programmes, is now so disastrous and pernicious an objective is that it implants “conceptual art” clichés of lumpen-avant-garde persuasion in susceptible young minds eager to join in the appreciation (consumption) of new trends in “the arts”, and screens them off from direct untutored experience. And to begin this process at secondary school is criminal.
Susan Sontag, one time apologist of “the new sensibility” and darling of the post-modern revision, though a reluctant recruit (she still has the high-modernist voice) writing in 2007 said this: –
“In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high-modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or “user friendly”) enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals… What serves “the modern” is homogenisation, indeed “the modern” is homogenisation, standardisation. The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike, as all new modern cities, from Seoul to Sao Paolo, tend to look alike [and so do all big city museums]. This pull toward homogenisation cannot fail to affect the project of literature. The novel, which is marked by singularity, can only enter this system of maximum diffusion through the agency of translation which, however necessary, entails a built-in distortion of what the novel is at the deepest level – which is not the communication of information, or even the telling of engaging stories, but the perpetuation of the project of literature itself, with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties. And the lesson of the hegemony of the mass media – television, M.T.V., the internet – is that there is only one culture, that what lies beyond borders everywhere is – or one day will be – just more of the same, with everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, wherever; with everyone enlightened by the same open-ended flow of bits of unfiltered (if in fact, often censored) information and opinion… the ideology now dominant in what passes for culture in modern societies – is designed to render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task, and that is to deepen and sometimes, as needed, to oppose the common understandings of our fate”
This admonitory de haut en bas voice crying in the wilderness is not one that Sontag would have adopted as a young writer in the early 1960’s; something has happened in the 50 years intervening which she discusses in her valedictory conclusion to the re-printing of “Against interpretation” in the 1990’s. But no matter; – the question we need to ask of T.J. Clark (who exhibits a similar disenchantment at the end of his account of “Woman with a Hat”, 1905 (Matisse) is this: does Clark really value the “perpetuation of the project of painting, with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties” – or does he continue to straddle the fence of scepticism and ambivalence he so clearly enjoys in this infuriating book. How ironic, how disgraceful in its irony, that Clark should use the phrase of one of the great Modernist poets as its title, to presage and shore up this unremitting effluence of congealed charlatanry.
At the end of “Madame Matisse’s Hat” (London Review of Books, 14 August 2008.) Clark states: “Modernism is paradox. It is dialectics” (fair enough) – he goes on – “It is an art that continuously, relentlessly proposes that human qualities, which once were implicit and embedded in the texture of experience – qualities of intensity, depth, directness, vividness – are on the verge of extinction.” Here he shows his philosophical naivety. How do these qualities become “embedded in the texture of experience”, and for whom? It is poetry, at its best, the novel at its best, music, and painting at its best, that makes it possible for such human qualities to provide depth, intensity, vividness to the texture of experience of all of us, so that they do become “implicit” for those of a disposition sufficiently attuned to receive them. And where was this “once”, this golden age when all this could happen without the agency of minds dedicated to the unearthing and perpetuation of such qualities?
As George Steiner says in his essay on the pet hates of F.R. Leavis: “When (criticism) becomes a substitute for “creative writing”, where it shows the scars of lost dreams, criticism tends towards rhetoric, self-revelation, shapely aphorism. It loses its grip on the objects before it, and turns into an unsteady mirror held up by the critic to his own ambitions or humility” [or lack of it].
Painters paint for the approbation of other painters living and dead, a few discerning aficionados, and nothing more. In the end they do so to live up to the demands of their own internalised critical apparatus, their own aspirations (however much these may have been formed by the “anxiety of influence”). And the bourgeoisie can go to hell, Hull, Haunch of Venison and Hauser and Wirth!
Alan Gouk, January 2012.
- Edward Dujardin, precursor of Joyce’s interior monologue, was an outspoken critic of “philosophical schools like realism and positivism”. “To Arthur Symons” exteriority, rhetoric, materialismwere the targets of the symbolists.
- All quotes on Rothko’s biography come from James Breslin’s biography of the artist.