Unreal Nature

March 16, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:16 am

… why is modern art, which compels us to take our inner life more seriously, in some sense, not avowable?

Continuing through Worldview in Painting — Art and Society by Meyer Schapiro (1999):

… Let us consider the attitude of the [modern] artist toward his profession and his work. Is it different from that of an artist of the fifteenth or sixteenth century? [ … ] The modern artist is committed to the idea of endless invention and growth. He is haunted by the notion that his way of working in 1950 cannot be the way in which he worked in 1940. He has an ideal of permanent revolution in art.

… Even if the artist cannot make a revolution in art, he is committed to the notion that the practice of painting is not the conservation of a style or of a way of working, that one does not create a method in order to then live by it and perfect it. The artist must be ceaselessly open to new possibilities and suggestions and is impelled by a restlessness and conception of integrity to search for means of developing and surmounting his actual style. In that respect he is like the most advanced natural scientists and mathematicians, who feel that there are always latent in problems unforeseen relationships that, if disclosed, would at once require a complete opening of the whole field and a change in their habits of thought.

[line break added] He is like them in his willingness to entertain the most absurd and contradictory possibilities concerning his problems; even at the expense of his sanity with respect to all that he has done before, it is worth trying, and he is dissatisfied unless he has tried and discovered what might come out of it. The result may be a failure, in which case he buries the object and turns to something else.

But that attitude of constant self-transformation and growth has room for an ever-widening possibility and the conviction that the materials of the artist, even though they are limited by unmodified conditions of perception and human nature, nevertheless, are so structured, so bound up with contingencies and unknowns, that we are certain that sooner or later something new will emerge. And that commitment, which is sometimes disparaged as an arrogant urge for originality of any sort, is hardly that at all.

[line break added] Just as one would not criticize a physicist for trying to be original because he is constantly making new experiments or searching for a more generalized formulation of a theory, so we must admit that for the modern artist this commitment to permanent inventiveness or searching of his means is of the very essence of his profession. And it is a source of the artist’s dignity, whether he is a good or a bad artist. It means that he is a live artist, and a live human being, that all his senses are working, and that he is open to new possibilities and suggestions of his medium.

[ … ]

… why is modern art so disturbing to people? Aren’t we, after all, living in a world of freedom and individuality? Why under these circumstances and with this acceptance of the underlying values of modern art and of creativeness as vested in the individual, and in theory possible for everyone, why does this art strike the director of the Metropolitan Museum as meaningless or pornographic?

[line break added] Why does it disturb the president of the country, the former dictator of Germany, and the present dictator of Russia? There must be something very strange about it that keeps this art from reaching the world for which it was destined. Is it because, after all, we do not hold these values? Is it possible that we are not really devoted to spiritual freedom? Or that freedom in art is too difficult or dangerous for us?

… why is modern art, which compels us to take our inner life more seriously, in some sense, not avowable? We have feelings of guilt or tension with respect to precisely that exploration of the self that the artist is willing to face directly and to evoke in his work. It leaves us uneasy; it brings into the foreground the real disparity between our inner demands and our actuality.

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




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