Unreal Nature

March 23, 2017

Addressed to the Masses

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… Years devoted to cultivating such a neutral sensibility so govern the eye and the mind that for a painter to move to a realistic social art requires a drastic change in his whole activity.

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

… The models of the self-absorbed literary artist have been writers like Proust and Joyce, who, whatever their indifference or insensitiveness to large sections of society and to whole fields of human action, have a marvelously sure perception of individual feeling. The modern writer had to be attentive to the minutest variations of internal life; in his subjectivity, he was a delicate and refined observer. The great painters of the same time, men like Picasso and Matisse, on the other hand, have only the slightest interest in acting and feeling human beings.

[line break added] They convert the human subject into an obstruse arabesque or intense spot of color. Their human beings are faceless or expressionless, separated from each other, or bound together through deformations that negate their human character or their psychological richness; they are ultimately still life, if the natural shapes are preserved. This reduction is not inherent in art, but in a certain style of art, a style that had a historical necessity, but not the eternal validity that is claimed for it. But even the more realistic contemporary artists have much the same character.

[line break added] Those who in opposition to abstract art call themselves objective painters are scrupulously objective about apples, pots, furniture, buildings, machines, mountains, nude bodies — essentially impersonal objects. The objectivity is tied to neutral things, to elements that lack entirely an essential interaction, that do not communicate with each other, or that show the effects of active pervading forces. That is evident even in the forms of such pictures in the peculiar arabesques and cryptic, arbitrary juxtapositions.

… [This kind of artist] had never to say to himself that such and such a coloring or arrangement was not right for the [social] conflict or action he was representing. The neutrality of meanings was not an absence of meanings, but a reference to a world in which all objects are instruments of individual pleasure or contemplation (flowers, cards, mandolins, faces,grotesques, etc.) and have no important consequence. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for the artist to weigh his forms in terms of meanings and to explore his subjects for their more detailed significance.

[line break added] Years devoted to cultivating such a neutral sensibility so govern the eye and the mind that for a painter to move to a realistic social art requires a drastic change in his whole activity. It is not that he ceases to be an artist in the older sense, but that he confronts at every point problems entirely foreign to his older habits. For a gifted abstract painter, the determination to be a revolutionary artist, or the very idea that he must become one, may have a demoralizing effect; it may create an internal crisis in which the artist is neither the one thing nor the other and trembles to take brush in hand.

[line break added] He has, besides, a difficult economic problem, more difficult than the writer’s. The writer’s skill permits a variety of livelihoods, compatible with his chief goal; whereas the revolutionary painter creates an unsaleable commodity that absorbs his whole effort. Neither the working class nor the middle class sympathizers can buy oil paintings, and mural painting is even less reliable as a source of income.

… It must be pointed out, however, that the artist’s experience as a “pure” painter is not altogether a hindrance in his new art. It is not merely that the old technique and developed sensitivity to colors and shapes and handling are still valid — to a certain degree these are conditioned by the underlying attitudes of the painter and may have to be changed. But there are intimate conditions of his former practice that survive in the new art in a transfigured and heightened way.

… The revolutionary artist does not find at hand an already digested material, a repertoire of traditional compositions and important subjects, like the old church pictures of Christ Enthroned, the Baptism or Crucifixion or the Last Judgment, from which he can proceed. He begins as an individual artist who must create his own themes as he created his abstractions or neutral compositions of objects. He has the whole responsibility of his conceptions. There are no formulas or prescribed rules of revolutionary painting. He is absolutely original and individual in creating this social art, which binds him to a group.

[line break added] As a member of this group he shares a common experience and is stimulated and guided by general principles and practices that have crystallized in long struggles and constant discussion. But as an artist he requires now a courage and self-reliance of an order other than his self-reliance as a pure artist. For whereas in the latter situation he judged his works in an absolutely sovereign spirit, admitting no judgment of a layman, his work now is addressed consciously to the masses as well as to artists.

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

-Julie

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