TOWARD THE LIBERATI NG
CRITERIA OF ART
(part1 of 2)
At on any day of the week except legal holidays, the typical art museum anywhere in the country is open for visitors. The entrance hall usually leads the average aficionado of art through a series of galleries in orderly progression from one imposing collection to another, presenting the visual history of civilization, the drama of the human mind. As far back as man could reason, his works are there: evidence of the Neolithic, the dawn of civilizations, the antique remains of dynastic power, the classical traditions, the intervening lines of humanist development, the Renaissance and Baroque flowering, to the most recent acquisitions of modern and contemporary art; they are all there, more or less, in periodic array.
As he progresses leisurely through the halls, the visitor is led through a process of transitions in the ages of man. He is hardly aware of the changes, yet their impact, gradual and moving, is not lost on him. He correlates the concrete visions of the past into a stirring processional of events.
As he reaches the modern age, his eye is delighted with the radiance, the luminosity and joy of impressionism. Yet he is vaguely disturbed by its unmannerly sketchy appearance, its random spontaneity, its lack of finish, its seeming amateurishness.
Then, as he crosses the threshold to the new art, to postimpressionism and beyond, deep into cubism, expressionism, abstraction, and surrealism-their derivations and deviations the alarm bells begin to ring in his head, the sirens and the fireworks go off, and our aficionado of art-who is not a snob, by the way- is left in a morass of helpless confusion and dismay. The even tenor of his mood is disrupted in the colorific visual violence, the aesthetic assault from the walls. The simple progression is gone; the contact with life is demolished in a pyrotechnic profusion of unrecognizable fulminations.
In the art of the past, there seemed to be no line of visual expression our visitor to the museum could not follow. No matter how far back, even to Palaeolithic cave art, he could trace the thread, the primitive urge, the historic need, the humankind. At times, the line stretched thin and tenuous; at others, strong and firm. But always it was there for him to see, a long unbroken line of human succession, linking a vast reach of time, twenty thousand years of change. Now in his own time, in the day when the visitor and modern man have arrived at a new age of invention and discovery, recognizing the demand of every human need and the promised fulfilment of every human dream, the historic line of art communication in human understanding, imperative now more than ever before, has broken down. The new art that thundered down at our receptive visitor to the museum is filled with an eclectic diversity of forms-biomorphic, kinemorphic, psychomorphic, mechanomorphic-all of them intensely personal, subjective expressions of inner states of being. The figure in art, the highest expression of man's visual creative powers, the subject of twenty thousand years of painstaking search, has been reduced to a number, a cipher, an esoteric symbol, a kinesthetic impulse driven by a primitive-emotional urge. Today, the anatomical man, for all artistic purposes, is dead.
Art, in the mid-twentieth century, is in a period of critical transition. We are seeing today an extraordinary concentration of effort and energy in the visual arts never before experienced at any time in history. Never has there been so widespread an interest, never have so many individuals participated actively in its creation. Never have we had so much contact with art of all kinds-art from the dim reaches of time, art from across the oceans, art of primitive peoples; art from the past great eras to the modern era; fine art, commercial art, industrial art, technical art, experimental art, psychological art, leisure art, amateur art. It would appear we are seeing a great new Renaissance in visual art, for in the volume of art creation we are witnessing a cultural phenomenon of the first magnitude.
In the frontiers of knowledge and culture, art may be said to be in its heyday of exploration. The exploratory fervour of the sixteenth century, using new logic, new mathematics, new science, opened the unknown areas of the world to commerce and physical contact of peoples and brought out a treasure of artworks to the Western world, which only now, in the twentieth century, is being experienced by artists in our time. Like the riches of the East in an earlier day, this influx of art is beginning to be seen, felt, and assimilated. The day of global exploration is accomplished. Now has begun the day of cultural exploration, some five hundred years later. Yet never has there been so much confusion in the arts as there is today.
The twentieth-century artist appears to be in a state of conflict and disorder. He has a world of art to explore, yet he shows no purpose, no goals. He seems to have lost his sense of direction as he ranges across the uncharted art frontiers. He has rejected the compass; he has thrust aside standards, criteria, definitions; he has renounced science as a tool in the discovery and development of art. He has rejected the human need to relate, to communicate the results of discovery.
If we recognize it is the mission of science to define with clarity and precision the workings of the universe, to relate with order and harmony the new concepts of time, space, and energy into new and better ways of life, we reach the conclusion that science is the most powerful instrumentality in the progress of man. To the artist, however, science is considered an invasion, a hindrance, a stricture upon his free and personal interpretation of the world. He sees the scientist as an intellectual instrument-precise, logical, mathematical, mechanical. He sees himself as a sensitive organ of feeling, emotion, inspiration, and intuition. As a result, the artist rejects science and scientific thinking in the projection of art. Art to be pure, he reasons, must be devoid of science; feeling is not precise; emotion is not mechanical; inspiration is not logical; intuition is not measurable-the artist is no scientist. Attempting to distinguish the work of art from other works of life as a refinement of cultural endeavour, distinct and separate from the ordinary and commonplace necessities, the artist has in effect said that science prods and pushes with the workaday things to build a better mousetrap, while he, the emotionally endowed aesthete, represents the inspiration at work, the filtered aesthetic reflex of society, the fine arts. It is a neat trick of turning the tables; the bohemian wastrel and garret outcast, through intellectual legerdemain and bootstrap levitation, has become an individual of a pure kind. In this state, he raises above plebeian strivings to a position of sophisticated recognition and social grandeur, and from this remote pinnacle surveys the marketplace mediocrity below.
How devastating and destructive a view this is can be gauged by the fact that in every other area of modern life, in every field of endeavour, science merges easily, compatibly, productively-except in the visual arts. Only here is the view held- by artists of all idioms, indeed, the whole of contemporary society-that science and art do not mix, that they are mutually contradictious, irreconcilable. Yet this is a distortion of the truth, a delusion, a self-imposed deception, a retreat from life.
The dislocation of art and science has never been so apparent as it is today, almost a hundred years from the time it first revealed a disturbance in the continuity of art communication. The impressionist rebellion, the last flower of the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, still exhibiting its attachment to scientific precepts in its spectral light and its recorded observations of the momentary life of the people, their work, recreation, and leisure, was too weak a movement to triumph over the entrenched authority of the regressive
. When it withered and died after twenty
years of frustration and social exile, the deep space of the picture plane
became a barren shell; the landscape closed down into a two-dimensional
decorative pattern of shapes; the vibrant pulsating figure, the human analogue,
shrank and hardened in to an artefact, a constructed intellectual object; the
artist's emotional power and insight in human affairs subsided into symbolic
outcroppings of tenuous moments of excitation, apprehension, or despair. French Academy
In their seizure upon the "immediate" and the "personal," the followers after the impressionists disengaged themselves from every known principle of spatial structure and design. They withdrew from earlier concepts of form, value, color, and image. They worked toward the total rejection of the Academy. In their hatred of the "academic," they extirpated the scientific legacy of art, carefully nurtured and marshalled over fifty centuries of historic development, and erased it in a short span of fifty years. In their need to rebel against the "academic", they rebelled against science. They proclaimed the distinction of the "fine arts" and gave it to society as a new description, uniquely different from academic art or the utilitarian commercial art. They presented to the entire contemporary generation of society and the artists who followed the doctrine that "art" was above scientific discipline, above definitions and criteria. The need to communicate in art, to be responsible for the exchange of art experience in to human experience, was considered to be an anachronistic demand of aggressive academic vulgarity, and was held beneath contempt.
The rebellion against the "sterile", the "mechanical," the "academic"-truly a human cry of anguish- had become a distortion and a delusion. The fine artist had turned his back on reality. He became an incoherent high priest of good taste, an absolute arbiter of egocentric mirror-image art, a melancholy, involuted microcosm turned in upon itself to an inevitable dead end.
Yet the impulse to art is unquestionably the impulse to life. The art process and the life process are an indissoluble entity. The components of one are the components of the other. They may be uneven, but never alien; they may be out of joint, but never out of union.
The need to create, to synthesize experience, is a primal force in art. Because it is the distilled essence of perception and experience, art needs its adherence to life. But the work of art of today needs, more than ever before, the energizing transfusion of commonly shared experiences. It needs a conscious agreement with the cross-fertilizing, wider empirical objective.
Artists of today stand at the crossroads of immense opportunities and possibilities.
What they have discarded earlier in the scientific discipline of art as academic, inhibitory, and repressive of free expression they now substitute, strangely, with new science! In their search for a new basis of art without restraints, they lay hold on the world's storehouse of art, which they now have a t their command. They feel the impact of new scientific fields and attempt to resolve these in visual terms. Virtually the entire gamut of human and social discovery, scientific and technical advances have found their place in the free interplay of the design structure. Never in the entire history of art have so many variations of art expression occurred in a single given era. The range of concepts and movements is truly enormous; even as this is being written, new ones are being born. The listing of a few at random is to indicate the multiplicity of reactions to the technical-scientific-analytical age.
Thus, starling with impressionism, we have: pointillism, neoimpressionism, postimpressionism, fauvism, cubism (analytical and synthetic), expressionism (three schools, perhaps more), Orphism, surrealism, abstraction, Dadaism, futurism, nonobjectivism, neoplasticism, constructivism , purism, Bauhaus, primitivism, social realism,
dynamism, abstract expressionism, abstract surrealism, mobiles, stabiles- and on and
on, et cetera.
The list seems endless. In these definitions can be seen some of the descriptive leads to the larger environment of the age, where the art form has attempted to embrace psychology and psychoanalysis, natural history, biology, chemistry, physics, kinetics, mechanics, engineering, archaeology, anthropology, microscopy, telescopy, etc. In the fission and fusion of two-dimensional space, the artist uses science pragmatically, experientially, without whole concepts. Nevertheless, it forms the basis of his art. But it is not a complete art. For, in the practice of it, the artist simultaneously rejects the existence and influence of any scientific rigor, control, criterion, or standard. His art, perforce, without objective direction, releases a welter of exquisitely personal, eclectic minutiae.
If we quickly scan the art horizon and examine the amazing output of art today, we find endless experiments in textures; inconclusive shapes, masses, forms; positive and negative space; tensions of line and mass; contrasts in color; line variations; eclectic working together of art old and new; cell structure; automatic writing-endless, precious, purist variations, powerless to come to grips with itself, to proclaim any direction or value judgement for others. The figure in art-always the touchstone of the art of any era-has become the visual admission of the artist's failure to cope with the ethical-moral, social-human needs of our time. It is a symbol of dislocation and depersonalization; the ideograph of the alienated man, insecure, lonely, without fiber; the portrait of the artist, the autograph of the author.
Probably the most disturbing phenomenon in the art of the current century, a result of the dislocation in the dualism of art and science, is the profoundly pervasive indifference of the whole contemporary generation of artists to formulate a clear-cut definition of art itself. The obscurantism, the evasive arguments and denials, the lack of any direct, forthright statement, is evidence of a deep-going crisis in art. With the exception of a few scholars, nowhere in the field of art has there appeared a challenging assertion to say what art is in our time.
In the social arena of modern living, the most engaging diversion is the extensive practice of generalized and personal analysis. Because we live in a technical scientific-analytical age of calculating machines and statistical truths, we respond to the powerful pressures of analytical behaviour-to define, to clarify, to identify. It is a great game of analysis; dissection and decortication of the underlying mechanisms in every segment of the social structure, from psychoanalys is to social surgery. We practice the analytical game everywhere except in the fine arts. Here, in the arts, the emotional fog rolls in , intellectual inertia overtakes us, and the cultural swamp remains undefined, unexplored.
Words like style and taste have no clear meaning except, perhaps, in commercial usage. And the special caste terminology- feeling, intuition, inspiration, perception, creativity--are ritualistic ceremonial expressions of artists, undefiled by simple definitions except in the laboratories of clinical psychologists.