Unreal Nature

January 5, 2015

Raw Materials

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… ‘Bad taste is … one of the valuable raw materials for this country.’

This is from Realism by Linda Nochlin (1971):

… By the last quarter of the nineteenth century the amalgam of qualities, structures and attitudes which we have been examining — the Realist style or the Realist movement — had begun to come apart at the seams as an integral unity. Some of its qualities were transvalued — i.e. they begin to acquire different or opposite meanings or implications to those they had in the realist context.

… Probably the most interesting, and significant, of all these split-offs or transformations of Realist values, as far as the painting of the future was concerned, was the transformation of the Realist concept of truth or honesty, meaning truth or honesty to one’s perception of the external physical or social world, to mean truth or honesty either to the nature of the material — i.e. to the nature of the flat surface — and/or to the demands of one’s inner ‘subjective’ feelings or imagination rather than to some external reality.

… flatness in painting generally implies an emphasis on the reality of the pictorial means at the expense of the reality of the external world depicted by, or, in extreme cases ‘reflected’ by these means. No matter how much we may insist that illusionism demands conventions and schemata just as much as abstract art, there is nevertheless a tendency in illusionist art — art that stresses the existence of credible three-dimensional forms in a believable space — to minimize the pictorial means, to make them ‘disappear’: hence the image of the painter as a kind of magician and, in the nineteenth century, the accusations of ‘deception’ and ‘dishonesty’ hurled at those who, through foreshortening, over-subtle modelling or minute description of surfaces, would tend to make mock of the recalcitrant impermeability of the pictorial surface.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Against the ‘simplistic’ view — i.e. that of the new, untutored mass Salon or Academy art-audience, yet not completely foreign to such fine spirits as Ruskin — of painting as a gradual gaining of grasp on the reality of the material world — in theory, perfectly achieved at last by the technical miracles of photography in the nineteenth century, but still of course, not endowed with the truly transmogrifying power of real-life color — arose a more austere, sophisticated, purified, elitist view of painting as a rejection of dishonest, extra-artistic illusion along with the notion of external, material reality as what was to be depicted, and the substitution of the so-called demands or necessities of the realities of the art-world itself as an imperative for ‘honest’ Art, in painting: such ‘realities’ as flatness, contour, and color. Far from implying loss of meaning, in the beginning at least, these ‘purified’ art-means were held to have innate emotional-communicative properties in and of themselves, often being compared to the ‘pure’ spiritual communicability of music. To adopt the Saussurean model of language, with its three-part division of all communication systems into signifier (or vehicle), signified, (or what is conveyed) and sign (what comes into being through the association of the other two), we may say that the Symbolists of the nineties had by no means done away with the signified: they had simply made it relatively and deliberately private, ambiguous, and ‘unavailable to translation,’ by emphasizing the self-determination of the signifiers and the independence of the resulting signs from material, external reality.

… While this purifying, limiting operation can in one sense be interpreted as a continuation of Realist ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness,’ it is also a predictably successful way of limiting the audience of art to those whose taste is guaranteed by its purity of motivation at the very moment when mass communication, kitsch and academicism were beginning to make art attainable to, and the business of, an ever increasing, ever less-educated public. One can scarcely conceive of Michelangelo replying to Julius II about his ceiling as Gauguin did to the critic André Fontainas about his complex allegory, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? : ‘It is a musical poem, it needs no libretto.’ Until the later part of the nineteenth century, pictorial iconography might be difficult, but it could be made available to reason and reasoned explication. The idea that only an elect — an anti-Philistine elect known as the avant-garde — self-chosen and self-perpetuating — could respond to the work of art on the basis of its art qualities alone, is a social response, not merely an aesthetic one, to the tremendous social and institutional pressures on the production and consumption of art that went along with the more general upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[ … ]

… by far the most closely allied to the goals, the subjects, the attitude and the tone of nineteenth-century Realism in the art world of twentieth-century Modernism is Fernand Léger. This relationship is, of course, only homologous, in no sense a revival of outmoded stylistic elements. Yet one cannot resist thinking back to Courbet in looking at Léger’s work or reading his statements. Like Courbet, Léger was born in the country, of simple people — poorer than Courbet’s family — and retained a genuine rapport with and sympathy for popular culture throughout his life; he was known by his students as ‘le Patron’ — the Boss — encouraged independence, spoke informally. Like Courbet, he pooh-poohed refinement, taste and pretensions to Beauty: ‘There is no catalogued, hierarchized Beauty; … this is the worst error possible. Beauty is everywhere, in the arrangement of your pots on the white wall of your kitchen … ‘ [ … ] Like Courbet, he took pride in his own lack of discrimination. ‘I have no taste … I only feel contrasts, strength,’ and, unlike snobbish Europeans who, during sojourns in the United States, decried the barbarism and lack of culture of America, found this her greatest asset: ‘Bad taste is … one of the valuable raw materials for this country. Bad taste, strong color.’ He loved its scrap metal, its popular music and musicians, the tawdry bravado of Broadway billboards. In abandoning taste, he felt he could appeal to large masses of ordinary people: ‘I wanted … to return to simplicity, through a direct art, an art comprehensible to all, without subtlety.’

Fernand Léger, Still Life with Beer Mug, 1921 [image from Wikipedia]

My most recent previous post from Nochlin’s book is here.




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