Art and Revolution

Art as Theology: Chapter Six

      1. The Humanist Triumph
      2. Revolution Within
      3. The Miasma of Art

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“Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.” (Angela Davis, Women, Culture, and Politics, ‘Art on the Frontline’, 1985)

The Humanist Triumph

Europe was dramatically changing in so many ways at once. The autonomous spirit fostered by the Protestant revolution couldn't help but spill over into political revolution. The Puritan Oliver Cromwell briefly seized control of England. Then the American colonies declared themselves independent of England, establishing a democratic government without a king. And finally the French overthrew their king in a bloody insurrection. All the while, the economic life of the West was rapidly changing. Development of new machinery and factory production was fueling an Industrial Revolution. This drew increasingly large numbers of people to the urban centers. Economic and political power was shifting to the cities and to new capitalists. With simultaneous changes in so many social spheres at once, the air was full of hope and fear.

The rise of liberal capitalism and democracy shatters the old order and establishes new politics and ideologies, dismantling old aristocracies, old beliefs, and old expectations. The crumbling of the social order also dismantles the old culture. No where is this more strongly felt than in France. For a large part of French culture, the credibility of the church and the aristocracy were gone. Deeply shaken, established artists allied themselves with the remnants of the old order in churches or salons. This is a dismal class of artists clinging to the ship wreck of the old order.

But for many others, this was an age full of hope and expectation. The Humanist age had arrived full fledged with a new sense of self-determination. By thrusting aside old thinking, old spirituality, old politics, old ways of life, a hope was born for a new world that would emerge to solve every injustice and lift the burden of life. This hubris was fed by new wealth, successes in science and medicine, and new worlds to colonize.

The artist, however, was rejected by the Protestants. The Protestants had little interest in grand monuments. Between the Calvinists and the Left all the gilding was being scraping away. The new zeitgeist was to expose reality for what it is. In France, where Protestants had suffered several generations of severe persecution, and the Left had won a place at the political table, a new breed of artists with ties the Left emerged.

As discussed in the last chapter, the Left wing has long encouraged artists, and artists have often allied themselves with ‘Progressive’ ideas, however the marriage of the two has remained fairly sterile. Culturally, artists were in the thick of change. Courbet and other artists began to successfully upset the viewing public. Courbet took great delight in upsetting the established salons, and set the tone for further aesthetic revolutions. Artists as cultural revolutionaries (the avant-garde) set the tone for Modern Art.

For Courbet, in particular, it appears that he has two mules hitched to opposite ends of the wagon. On the one hand, he was eschewing the tradition of painting honored events and legends from the culture's archive. He disdained the time honored myths. He was renowned for his paintings of working people and mundane events. He was exposing reality for what it is. On the other hand, his painting ‘The Studio’, representing a fairly mundane gathering of the less than heroic and full of historical figures known to him, represents a fanciful event chock full of allegories and innuendoes, much in the Neo-Classic style still favored by the salons. He was painting in a traditional way, but turned and facing a different direction. Although a socialist, Courbet never tried to use his art for socialist propaganda. He was giving a sharp elbow to the studios, but he was neither establishing new ground politically or artistically.

A new class of artists emerged whose allegiance was to the art itself. Groups of artists collected in cafes and saloons where they generated theoretical visions for new art. Modern art is linked intimately with this Progressive avant-garde who had aspirations of social change. But their relationship with the Left was still stand-offish. Occasionally artists allied themselves with political revolutionaries, but usually at the cost of their association with leading artist circles, (Crane, 1987. Page 140). Much to the disappointment of the Left, art rarely produces good propaganda, (Rosenberg, 1964. Pages 137-143).

While the Avant-Garde artists often held radical political views, they were willing to sublimate them in favor of their commitment to unconventional aesthetic values. In other words, their art came before politics, (Crane, 1987. Page 42). The Avant-Garde viewed themselves as revolutionary, but the revolution they were fighting was entirely different. Revolution in the modern art world has tended to remain confined to aesthetics and narrow cultural issues.

Two separate revolutionary views are side by side but not compatible. The Left wanted to seize control of all social institutions, forcing their vision of radical reform. Like the Anabaptists of Münster, the chaotic and murderous rebellions of the French Left proved more of a deterrent than an enticement to Left wing rebellion. The artists of the avant-garde where involved in a different revolution. Beginning with the Impressionists, artists were changing the way we see the world. The surface was fully revealed, now the arts and philosophy wanted to get under the skin of the human animal.

“The lack of emotional depth is not only apparent in the fragments of Greek painting, but even more so Egyptian painting. The ancients, Hegel conceded, may have painted excellent portraits, but neither their way of conceiving natural fact, nor the point of view from which they regarded human and divine conditions was of the kind that, in the case of painting, an infusion of soul-life could be expressed with such intimate intensity as was possible in Christian painting.” (Kaminsky, Hegel on Art, 1962. Page 106).

Revolution Within

Hegel (1770-1831) represented some new ideas on aesthetics that are inherent to the art of the avant-garde. First, he expresses a view of cultural evolution, a constant advancement to some higher spiritual state. He is dismissive of any but the then popular art of Germany. By natural extension, a newer art form simply moves towards a higher spirituality. And he believed that art expressed the spirit of a particular culture or the general progress of humanity. As such, it needn't do anything but express itself. Both of these ideas are apparent in the attitude of the Impressionists.

The Impressionists retired from painting meaningful events altogether, preferring to paint atmospheres. They purported to be uninterested in la condition humanaine, (Levey. Page 290). As artists, they were concerned with the way we see things, not with what we see. Many of the Modern figurative painters express a similar disposition to withdraw and deal strictly with technical aspects of visualization and aesthetic representation, (Crane 1987. Page 94).

In America, the Abstract Expressionist felt they were being ignored by the public. Sociologist Diana Crane relates, “Critics often characterized these artists as ‘manque’ religious men, ‘seers,’ and myth-makers.” (Crane, 1987. Page 48). Their painting attempted to shut out the exterior world entirely, allowing only the interior world to be expressed in their paintings, (Crane, 1987. Pages 47-52). Barnett Newman painted large canvases of monotone color with perhaps a stripe or two of another color breaking the flatness. According to the critics, “the colour is not used to overwhelm the senses, so much as in its curious muteness and dumbness, to shock the mind,” (Lucie-Smith, 1969. Page 103, quoting Max Kozoloff). The expressionist artists were trying to speak to the human soul directly.

The Minimalists went a step further, shutting out both aesthetic and social values. Minimalist Tadaaki Kuwayuma expresses it, “Ideas, thoughts, philosophy, reasons, meanings, even the humanity of the artist, do not enter into my work at all. There is only the art itself. That is all.” (Crane, 1987. Page 53).

Duchamp turns against the aesthetic tradition itself. He wanted to “burn up all aesthetics” (Lipsey, 1988. Page 108). Inspired by his Dada antics, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham poked fun at the traditions of high art, (Crane, 1987. Page 65). Several artists began to create ‘Happenings’ to force confrontation, using “manic transformations” of ordinary everyday objects, (Crane, 1987. Pages 66-71).

Merchandising, itself, was the favorite theme of Pop painters. Andy Warhol's multiple images of Marilyn Monroe, Cambell soup cans, or Coke bottles represented a stripping away of all pretensions until the image just is. Warhol makes no attempt to sharpen or clarify the image. In fact, his portraits are typically grainy, posterized silk screens taken from snapshots. While Pop dealt with the artifacts of culture, Pattern painters and Neo-Expressionists focus on themes of mass media: violence, explicate sexuality, and romance, (Crane,1987. Pages 73-74).

Finally, “In the sixties and seventies, criticism militated on two fronts against styles that were based on continuity instead of rupture with an existing tradition. The term ‘radical’ vied with ‘advanced’ as the greatest accolade in the critic's vocabulary.” (Rose, 1988. Page 277). Gradually, however, the fire cooled. Crane suggests, “While the Neo-Expressionists desired a larger audience that the prototypical avant-garde artist had ever sought, they were for the most part, not aiming to challenge the public's preconceptions.” (Crane, 1987. Page 75). Leading artists, if they can still be called an avant-garde, have changed from setting trends in culture to following trends in popular culture, (Crane. Pages 76-77). As one Neo-Expressionist artist puts it, “I don't feel responsibility to have a vision.” (Crane. Page 82). This must be in part attributed to the commercialization of the art market itself. The contemporary artist is trying desperately to sell themselves to the largest market possible.

By incessantly trying to be revolutionary, the artist may instead have succeeded in bruising the public into either a sadistic delight in the insult, or an renewed Iconoclasm of high art. The arts might seem to have outstripped their purpose. I rather think the artist has served the purpose of the humanist agenda well. The artist has called into question our very perceptions. We are left with the meaning of a urinal called ‘Fountain’ (Duchamp), all white canvases (Rauschenberg), a clothespin 45' high (Oldenburg). At the center of Humanism is us, or more precisely, myself. So Modern art keeps forcing us into a corner where the only logic is what I think of it.

Duchamp's work often called “The Large Glass” took him eight years to create. The enigmatic composition on two panes of glass was meant to represent the erotic encounter of the bride in the upper panel and her nine bachelors in the lower panel. This has to be explained because it is not at all obvious what the bits of metal and dust represent. The work was badly broken in shipping so that the artist had to be called in to appraise it. On seeing it, the artist is said to have proclaimed the work complete. “Its is a lot better with the breaks, a hundred times better. It's the destiny of things.” (Duchamp, in an often quoted conversation regarding the accident). In the end art is the Bride, and we are the Bachelors. Duchamp's title applies well to Modern art: “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”. There is nothing left, but our imagination.


The Miasma of Art

In this century, the artist has left his dwellings along the fringes of the bourgeois and becomes fully integrated into the middle-class society. Many artists have successful teaching careers. Governments and corporations provide various ways to support the arts. There are few starving artists these days among serious students. Art is losing its outsider position and becoming normalized as a professional activity. Thus role of artist as social critic is almost entirely gone, leaving the Modern artist the role of aesthetic innovator only, (Crane, 1987. Page 45).

The Modern and Post-Modern worlds greatly empowered the unrestrained practice of art. Today, art that is shocking or revolutionary seems ordinary. Are there any more revolutions possible? This century in the arts has seen nudity, sex, blank or monotone canvases, music created by tossing beans, self-immolation, chain saws and meat, and on and on. Are there any further revolutions to be pursued down these alleys? My college art class (1973) tried in vain to discuss the aesthetics of a spaghetti dinner tossed into a jar and brought in as an art project. Like the emperor's clothing, no one wants to suggest that the ‘art’ itself has evaporated, for fear of becoming marginalized. If no cogent aesthetic statement is being made, why should a piece be given so much benefit of doubt? Do we so greatly fear the undiscovered artifact that we cannot bear to discard the trash?

Edward Lucie-Smith, in his book Late Modern, criticizes Picasso's later works, accusing the painter of being “unable to work except with previously ‘cooked’ ingredients.” (1969. Page 54). Unfortunately, it is the nature of revolution to exist within a window of opportunity. Like invention, when the cat's out of the bag, the cat is out of the bag. “Increasing permissiveness has created a state of desperation in the minds of artists whose principal tactic for engagement has been shock.” (Rose, 1988. Page 261).

“The position of the artist as a kind of favored outcast in our society creates many difficulties for us in our attempt to define his role. Perhaps the most logical way of dealing with it is to adopt the existentialist position and see the man who makes art as one offers a challenge to the rest of society and at the same time accepts a kind of bet with existence… Though existentialism was the most popular of philosophies in the immediate post-war period, it cannot be said that the artists themselves have succeeded in fulfilling its programs. What existentialism did do, however, was to promote a general feeling that man was alone in the world, was now detached from all systems of belief, and that the creator must find his salvation in art alone, reinventing it from the very beginning. Hence the somewhat tendentious emphasis on the idea of ‘originality’—the artist was willing to have descendants, but not ancestors, and was, to an extent at least, as subjective as Sartre could have wished.” (Lucie-Smith, 1969. Page 10).

The problem is not the art itself. The problem is the philosophical and spiritual soup which created the Artist as a cultural leader. The artist is not a philosopher or a theologian, nor does the artist have any better idea of where we as a people are going than anyone else. The artist has long known this and has long tried to avoid the iconography of cultural leader. Duchamp, whose art poked fun at our self-importance, most famously with his urinal signed and hung in a gallery, states his case: “I believe that the artist doesn't know what he does. I attach even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.” (Duchamp, quoted in the Wikipedia article: “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”).

Duchamp disliked the concept of the artist as a demi-god. “Duchamp adamantly asserted that he wanted to ‘de-deify’ the artist. The readymades provide a way around inflexible either-or aesthetic propositions. They represent a Copernican shift in art. Fountain is what's called an ‘acheropoietoi,’ [sic] an image not shaped by the hands of an artist. Fountain brings us into contact with an original that is still an original but that also exists in an altered philosophical and metaphysical state. It is a manifestation of the Kantian sublime: A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger.” (Jerry Saltz, ‘The Village Voice’, 2006. quoted in the Wikipedia article on The Fountain).

When standing in the gallery before Duchamp's Fountain or one of Warhol's soup can paintings, “Is that all their is?”, the failure isn't in Duchamp or Warhol, they are perfectly expressing the Existential. The Fountain is what it is, a non-functional urinal. We can read as much meaning into it as our own personal imagination wishes to create. But, between you, me and the next man, it is a urinal that we can't use. a search of the web will yield all sorts of reveries about the Fountain, or other Duchamp pieces. Whole books are devoted to the Large Glass. But ultimately it is the end of Modern art. The Fountain is no more, or no less, meaningful than the flower pot on my neighbor's window sill. That is precisely the place that our current spiritual and philosophical climate has brought us.

“I make myself”, because the philosophies of the world leave no other choice. It is not art that has run aground, but the world has run aground.


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copyright © 1999 Wm W Wells. All rights reserved.