Does Art Still Have the Power to Liberate?
In the ideal case that a nineteenth century philosopher would be the messiah for a model of a new world in which everyone could have the same opportunities and the same rights, the arts would have no meaning at all either as propaganda or as transcendent ‘promesse de bonheur’ like the French art historian Andre Malraux felt it to be. In fact the whole concept of art would disappear as sublimation for and hedge against the pressures of an unjust society.
Art is assumed to have come from ritualistic origins, where mysterious cave drawings surrounded by full hand prints indicated an estrangement from daily existence, an escape from reality by the symbolic objectification of animals and men. The message identified by those hand prints shows increasing domination over humans, wild animals and nature.
The division of labor which is thought to be a progress of hunting and gathering people when they started agriculture with a fencing in of their territory for cultivation, evolved inevitably into a hierarchical structure of society with a protector i.e. a king at the apex.
This is quite visible in the shape of the Egyptian pyramid tombs which symbolically showed the form of Egyptian society with the untouchable king god buried within while striving towards the sun Amon Ra, the giver of life and the squared bases as representing the whole of society supporting that symbolic myth. The static image always conveying unmoving power or a permanency of life after death made its purpose quite clear in the sculptures, tomb paintings and even in the hieroglyphic writing which also intimated and sought eternal meaning.
Throughout Western history the technique of representing ‘transcendent reality’ was bound within the purposes of art. The first Greek idols were strongly abstracted humans and soon translated into idealized representations of the human body, whose meaning resided in the god-like distance from normal human shapes. They are symbols of eternal distance as unmoving as the Egyptian ones.
The Italian Renaissance is supposed to have removed this enormous and unbridgeable distance between the image and our base human experiences, but in fact exactly by its imitation of perfected nature, think of the beautiful gardens and mountains in the back of da Vinci’s paintings, it merely showed us how far we are condemned to be from God’s and nature’s grace.
And the propaganda side of the arts was expressed by the sweet Madonnas and Child, the ideal form of assumed motherhood in silence and submission, images that reflected domination of the Child over the Mother and not a liberation from cruelty and deprivation. European art went even further in its propagandistic function when it assumed so-called reality with the art of Caravaggio, who used models from the street to pose for religious compositions, thus emphasizing the myth that the poor are nearer to a liberating godliness.
The Dutch, an eminently practical people (how not with their unassuming flat landscape) contributed to the mystification of observing the art object by a meticulous rendering of physiognomies and lifeless subject matter linking these directly into an abstracted world where a spiritual distance counted. Those efforts became the cause of the reverence for art as the supreme expression of the ’artistic soul’.
“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” by Marcel Duchamp.
Marcel Duchamp, with his cynical world view, quickly snapped up the idea of the ‘artistic soul’ and proclaimed his ‘objets trouves’ as immediate expressions of an artistry that only he himself was to represent. Ever since Duchamp of course every effort to express such an artistic sensibility counts as meaningful in purpose and execution.
The most unmitigated expressions of the so-called popular will in the twentieth century were the plainly propagandistic images of German fascism and of Russian communism. They represented the idea that art was a communal expression of the ideals of their creed, but no sooner were these defeated or the images were hacked into small pieces by the same people they were to instruct and elevate.
And that brings us to the present state of the arts in Western societies, especially where the historical pressure of preceding art expressions did not exist, but where a naïve belief in the functions of art flourished. Thus in England, where the indigenous art forms were judged to be at best provincial by the art historian Kenneth Clark and mostly resulting in purely propagandistic portraiture, continental European art was avidly collected as well as imitated, without there being really any understanding of the true function of that art.
Art like science is never created in a vacuum, though art is far less dangerous but it has nevertheless direct connotations within the society that it penetrates and that creates it.
To collect such art as a ‘connoisseur’ is to kill it on contact and it is not for nothing that the modern word museum is derived from the ‘museion’ in Ptolemaic Alexandria which was a repository for books. In fact it took more than a century between circa 1793 when the Louvre became a museum and 1917, the date of the first Duchampian ‘found-object’ to establish that art in its traditional sense and form had become quite meaningless aside from excellent craftsmanship. What was left was a respect for the ability of the artist to convey to a degree the Malrauxian transcendent but truly fleeting ‘promise of happiness’
Deprived of its purpose European art became a foundling, but fondly adopted in America, misunderstood as illustration (Bierstadt, Rockwell), cluelessly imitated from its various European sources and ultimately used by the establishment to show the world after 1947 that victorious America did have culture. It was a gradual progression stoked by the wry and merciless mind of Duchamp, who showed art’s true emptiness in his ‘sculptural’ ‘en prevision du bras casse’ (in Advance of a Broken Arm, i.e. the need for a new ABC for art creation showing with that snow shovel ‘objet-trouve’ “to keep on digging”), a very restless concept that was grasped by many artists but uncomprehendingly promoted by the critics Rosenberg and Greenberg.
In Europe the disenchantment with the meaningless of art was expressed in between the two devastating world wars where every status quo standard was questioned or jettisoned in a progressive dissolution of every rule. From cubism that denied all material substance through formal intellectualized research, surrealism that took the distance between human reality and the image even further into absurdity, to the abstract anti-image which denied any connection between the human eye and an evasive meaning, it signified much like atonal music a shattered world that no sublimation was ever able to bridge.
Art has now become sheer decoration with the Abstract Expressionists and their abject followers or propaganda with Conceptual art and its cynical protagonists like Chicago and Koons and it has lost all connection to the Malrauxian ideal of aesthetic liberation from reality. Idealism has become a very unfashionable word in the oppressive system that Western civilization has become. In such a structure materialism is the only value system allowable whether it is of a dialectic or recidivist character. The stasis of society is reflected in the contemporary art expressions which deconstruct but do not build up and it is emblematic of the despair that percolates every human engagement.
Granted that photography has destroyed all interest in representation and that the last vestiges of any explorations in art are considered to be anti-diluvium in their efforts, assuming then that nineteenth century upper middle class Impressionism was truly a last attempt at openly elitist bourgeois aesthetic propaganda, there remain the great influences of anecdotal representations in images by Disney and Warner Brothers, the former in literally returning to animated cave drawings, the latter in distributing idealized and fast moving set pieces that clearly reflect the most conventional efforts of nineteenth century bourgeois representation and composition. Though art ‘an sich’ is still present as concept, it is indeed dead in practice. It has long since given up any effort to express a symbolic domination of humans, animals or nature and the equally universally disdained beauty as a quality of craftsmanship. The propagandist side of art revels often in creating deliberate ugliness as protest.
Contemporary art thus deprived of most of its former functions in Western societies is like Hadrian’s dream, ‘animula blandula, vagula’ ….etc. (fleeting gentle little spirit, etc.), because it lacks force and societal roots and it has become a wealthy collector’s casual pastime or simply background architectural decoration. Nor as protest art does it express the distance from what could exist ideally in contrast to our incomplete human world. As such the only function it assumes outside these purposes is expressing in often hackneyed and pale forms the frustrations of modern life. Art reinforces and has adopted an isolation that modern humans as Leibnizian ‘monads’ suffer from and it does not offer any kind of escape. On the contrary, by it’s refusal to engage more than on a base level, it reinforces the present alienation.
The estrangement that modern life produces in us is in direct alignment with modern art , it is the sad Janus side of ‘le neant’, the ‘nothingness’ of Sartre’s No Exit and resignation of the defeated, the bland acceptance of the status quo and this is very valid too for the more outspoken examples of so-called protest art. It does not liberate, but it reiterates perpetually the consciousness of loss and it mechanically reproduces itself in a mantra-like manner. It is hard to conceive at this time of a more vital and less elitist art as every direction has been explored to exhaustion. One of the more hopeful signs are the very inspiring nature sculptures of Goldsworthy which approach the communality of human experience while respecting nature, not by domination but by working with and within it. Revolutionary value lies in the fact that he does not use a pre-fabricated medium, but naturally grown and deposited materials. Another living entity is the sculpture groups of Abakanowicz using debris from the natural processes of decay to design her images to enormous effect and deeper meaning.
The revolutionary spirit does not lie in any chewed-over theoretical solutions nor in their fictional application once a revolution succeeded as imposed rules on those who revolted, but in the loosening of all bonds that kept society together in a twisted and very unnatural way. Just so a liberating art would negate anything that went before it (‘kills it’ as Picasso would have it though he stuck to traditional superannuated materials of linen and paint), even to discarding all pretense to a ‘promesse de bonheur’. Of course making use of only natural materials is but one way of expressing a break and a new beginning. There are many more available to be used without having to revert to chemical paints, corroded iron or harvested stone. But the above mentioned natural art forms bring us back to a stage where American Indians lived, in harmony with their natural surroundings, though their whittled wooden sculpture is of an astoundingly sophisticated quality. Duchamp understood this almost a hundred years ago in his broken glass, expressing the vacuity of visual art as ‘Ding an sich’ with beyond-natural powers. Control over people, animals and nature is a mad fiction and no skills or inspiration will ever be able to cover up that underlying message in traditional Western visual art. What might follow once we jettison these expressions of human domination and estrangement is still in the lap of the gods.
Gui Rochat is an art dealer and consultant, specializing in in seventeenth and eighteenth century French paintings and drawings. He lives in New York.