Unreal Nature

March 30, 2017

The Impudence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… the impudence of setting forth such work; the boldness of recognizing the beauty which does reside in such a surface; the executing of it, the insistence upon presenting such effects as art.

This is from the essay ‘Artists in Colleges’ found in The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn (1957; 1985):

… The first observation to be made here is the rather obvious one that art has its roots in real life. Art may affirm its life-giving soil or repudiate it wholly. It may mock as bitterly as did Goya, be partisan, as was Daumier, discover beauty within the sordid and real as did Toulouse-Lautrec. Art may luxuriate in life positively and affirmatively with Renoir or Matisse or Rubens or Vermeer. It may turn to the nebulous horizons of sense-experience with the Post-Impressionists, the Cubists, the various orders of Abstractionist, but in any case it is life itself as it chances to exist that furnishes the stimulus for art.

That is not to say any special branch or section of life. Any living situation in which an artist finds material pertinent to his own temper is a proper situation for art. It would not have made sense for Paul Klee to have followed the boxing circuit nor for George Bellows to have chased the vague creatures that lurk within lines and squares or to have pursued the innuendos of accidental forms which yielded so much treasure to Klee. Yet each of these artists found in such casual aspects of reality a form of life, a means to create an oeuvre, to build a language of himself, his peculiar wit and skill and taste and comprehension of things.

While I concede that almost every situation has its potential artist, that someone will find matter for imagery almost anywhere, I am generally mistrustful of contrived situations, that is, situations peculiarly set up to favor the blossoming of art. I feel that they may vitiate the sense of independence which is present to some degree in all art. One wonders how the Fauves would have fared without the Bourgeoisie, how Cézanne would have progressed if he had been cordially embraced by the Academy.

[line break added] I am plagued by an exasperating notion: What if Goya, for instance, had been granted a Guggenheim, and then, completing that, had stepped into a respectable and cozy teaching job in some small — but advanced! — New England college, and had thus been spared the agonies of the Spanish Insurrection? The unavoidable conclusion is that we would never have had “Los Caprichos” or “Los Desastres de la Guerra.”

[line break added] The world would not have been called upon to mourn for the tortured woman of the drawing inscribed “Because She Was a Liberal!” Nor would it have been stirred by Goya’s pained cry, “Everywhere It Is the Same!” Neither would it have been shocked by his cruel depictions of human bestiality, nor warned — so graphically, so unforgettably — that fanaticism is man’s most abominable trait.

Thus it is not unimaginable that art arises from something stronger than stimulation or even inspiration — that it may take fire from something closer to provocation, that it may not just turn to life, but that it may at certain times be compelled by life. Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.

How many ponderous tracts have been written upon those drips and threads of paint by which the late Jackson Pollock made himself known! If his peculiar decor has its human dimension, that does not lie within time-space, the interplanetary meanings so often ascribed to the work, but rather in the impudence of setting forth such work; the boldness of recognizing the beauty which does reside in such a surface; the executing of it, the insistence upon presenting such effects as art. I doubt whether in a completely benign atmosphere, such an art as Pollock’s would have been born; whether it would have produced the degree of shock and opposition which may well have been one of the most stimulating factors in its growth.




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