… One well-known abstract painter said to me, “Oh, the public, we’re always worrying about the public.” Another asked: “What is this plight they’re supposed to be in? After all, art doesn’t have to be for everybody. Either people get it, and then they enjoy it; or else they don’t get it, and then they don’t need it. So what’s the predicament?”
Well, I shall try to explain what I think it is, and before that, whose I think it is. In other words, I shall try to explain what I mean by “the public.”
In 1906, Matisse exhibited a picture which he called The Joy of Life [Le bonheur de vivre ], now in the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. It was, as you now know, one of the great breakthrough paintings of this century. The subject was an old-fashioned bacchanal — nude figures outdoors, stretched on the grass, dancing, making music or love, picking flowers, and so on. It was his most ambitious undertaking — the largest painting he had yet produced; and it made people very angry. Angriest of all was Paul Signac, a leading modern painter, who was the vice-president of the Salon des Indépendants. He would have kept the picture out, and it was hung only because that year Matisse happened to be on the hanging committee, so that his painting did not have to pass a jury. But Signac wrote a friend: “Matisse seems to have gone to the dogs. Upon a canvas of two and a half meters, he has surrounded some strange characters with a line as thick as your thumb. Then he has covered the whole thing with a flat, well-defined tint, which, however pure, seems disgusting. It evokes the multicolored shop fronts of the merchants of paint, varnishes, and household goods.”
Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-6 [image from Wikipedia]
I cite this affair merely to suggest that Signac, a respected modern who had been in the avant-garde for years, was at that moment a member of Matisse’s public, acting typically like a member of his public.
One year later, Matisse went to Picasso’s studio to look at Picasso’s latest painting, the Demoiselles d’Avignon, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This, we now know, was another breakthrough for contemporary art; and this time it was Matisse who got angry. The picture, he said, was an outrage, an attempt to ridicule the whole modern movement. He swore that he would “sink Picasso” and make him regret his hoax.
Demoisselles d’Avignon, 1907 [image from Wikipedia]
It seems to me that Matisse, at that moment, was acting typically, like a member of Picasso’s public.
Such incidents are not exceptional. They illustrate a general rule that whenever there appears an art that is truly new and original, the men who denounce it first and loudest are artists. Obviously, because they are the most engaged. No critic, no outraged bourgeois, can match an artist’s passion in repudiation.
… May we not then drop this useless, mythical distinction between — on one side — creative, forward-looking individuals whom we call artists, and — on the other side — a sullen, anonymous, uncomprehending mass, whom we call the public?
In other words, my notion of the public is functional. The word “public” for me does not designate any particular people; it refers to a role played by people, or to a role into which people are thrust or forced by a given experience. And only those who are beyond experience should be exempt from the charge of belonging to the public.
As to the “plight” [of the essay’s title] — here I mean simply the shock of discomfort, or the bewilderment or the anger or the boredom which some people always feel, and all people sometimes feel, when confronted with an unfamiliar new style. When I was younger, I was taught that this discomfort was of no importance, firstly because only philistines were said to experience it (which is a lie), and secondly because it was believed to be of short duration. This last point certainly appears to be true. No art seems to remain uncomfortable for very long.
… At the present rate of taste adaptation, it takes about seven years for a young artist with a streak of wildness in him to turn from enfant terrible into elder statesman — not so much because he changes, but because the challenge he throws to the public is so quickly met.
… When a new, and apparently incomprehensible, work has appeared on the scene, we always hear of the perceptive critic who hailed it at once as a “new reality,” or of the collector who recognized in it a great investment opportunity. Let me, on the other hand, put in a word for those who didn’t get it.
Confronting a new work of art, they may feel excluded from something they thought they were part of — a sense of being thwarted, or deprived of something. And it is again a painter who put it best. When Georges Braque, in 1908, had his first view of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, he said: “It is as though we were supposed to exchange our usual diet for one of tow and paraffin.” The important words here are “our usual diet.”
… This sense of loss or bewilderment is too often described simply as a failure of esthetic appreciation or an inability to perceive the positive values in a novel experience. Sooner or later, we say, the man — if he has it in him — will catch on, or catch up. But there is no dignity or positive content in his resistance to the new.
But suppose you describe this resistance as a difficulty in keeping up with another man’s sacrifices or another man’s pace of sacrifice.
… when Matisse painted this picture [Le bonheur de vivre], Degas was still around, with ten more years of life in him. It was surely still possible to draw with bite and precision. No wonder that few were ready to join Matisse in the kind of sacrifice that seemed implied in his waving line. And the first to acclaim the picture was no fellow painter but an amateur with time on his hands: Leo Stein, the brother of Gertrude Stein, who began, like everybody else, by disliking it, but returned to it again and again — and then, after some weeks, announced that it was a great painting, and proceeded to buy it. He had evidently become persuaded that the sacrifice here was worthwhile in view of a novel and positive experience that could not otherwise be had.
[ … ]
… this is what it means, or may mean, when we say that a man, faced with a work of modern art, isn’t “with it.” It may simply mean that, having a strong attachment to certain values, he cannot serve an unfamiliar cult in which these same values are mocked.
… Let me take an example from nearer home and from my own experience. Early in 1958, a young painter named Jasper Johns had his first one-man show in New York.
… My own first reaction was normal. I disliked the show, and would gladly have thought it a bore. Yet it depressed me and I wasn’t sure why. Then I began to recognize in myself all the classical symptoms of a philistine’s reaction to modern art. I was angry at the artist, as if he had invited me to a meal, only to serve something uneatable, like tow and paraffin. I was irritated at some of my friends for pretending to like it — but with an uneasy suspicion that perhaps they did like it, so that I was really mad at myself for being so dull, and at the whole situation for showing me up.
… What I have said — was it found in the pictures [of Johns] or read into them? Does it accord with the painter’s intention? Does it tally with other people’s experience, to reassure me that my feelings are sound? I don’t know. I can see that these pictures don’t necessarily look like art, which has been known to solve far more difficult problems. I don’t know whether they are art at all, whether they are great, or good, or likely to go up in price. And whatever experience of painting I’ve had in the past seems as likely to hinder me as to help. I am challenged to estimate the aesthetic value of, say, a drawer stuck into a canvas. But nothing I’ve ever seen can teach me how this is to be done. I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it in the absence of available standards. The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage. Here I can discover whether I am prepared to sustain the collision with a novel experience. Am I escaping it by being overly analytical? Have I been eavesdropping on conversations? Trying to formulate certain meanings seen in this art — are they designed to demonstrate something about myself or are they authentic experience?
They are without end, these questions, and their answers are nowhere in storage. It is a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful. I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right. In fact, I have little confidence in people who habitually, when exposed to new works of art, know what is great and what will last.
Modern art always projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed. It is always born in anxiety, at least since Cézanne. And Picasso once said that what matters most to us in Cézanne, more than his pictures, is his anxiety. It seems to me a function of modern art to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that this encounter with the work is — at least while the work is new — a genuine existential predicament. Like Kierkegaard’s God, the work molests us with its aggressive absurdity, the way Jasper Johns presented himself to me several years ago. It demands a decision in which you discover something of your own quality; and this decision is always a “leap of faith,” to use Kierkegaard’s famous term.