return to homepage
return to updates
AGNES MARTINand the psychological causes of Modernism
by Miles Mathis
I suggest it would be an interesting psychological study, to isolate the various causes of Modern art and its patrons. We may assume that at the simplest level, some people just never develop enough visual dexterity to deal with artistic or aesthetic complexity. They are confused by anything more complex than a circle, and a few straight lines without color is about all the composition they can digest. I once heard a lady at a museum say, “There is something wrong with that portrait. He has only one ear.” No, she wasn't looking at a Van Gogh self-portrait, she was looking at a profile. That is the visual dexterity of a lot of people, more than you would think. Just as many people are confused by painted heads, many others are confused by compositions. They can't digest real paintings. They are grateful for an Agnes Martin canvas, which they can comprehend on the level of Venetian blinds or a cattle guard.
But in the majority of cases, I think we can give the Moderns more credit than that. They are not congenitally damaged or lacking, they have been damaged by some long series of events. An Agnes Martin painting actually mimics the sorts of tests that real psychologists give to patients, to determine where the white areas are in their brains. They show them small cards with complex figures or simple figures, and the ones who respond most to the simplest figures are considered the most likely to be either retarded or in shock. And this applies to both children and adults. Healthy children like to have things to look at, as we know. Only children who have mothers who drank while pregnant with them or who were dropped on their heads like to look at white walls.
Many patrons of Agnes Martin are women (and very few are men), and I think we may propose that many of these women—especially the ones born before 1950—were damaged by having to live in a patriarchal society. I give them that, and I have never denied that things were unfair before, say, 1970. I don't deny it. I only deny that society is still patriarchal or phallocentric. I don't believe it is. If anything, American society is now clearly kolpic (yonic). And, besides, I don't believe that political or societal unfairness before 1970 justifies either Modernism or white canvases.
Although the unfairness doesn't justify white canvases and so on, it may explain them to some degree. In this way: women who grew up in the middle parts of the 20th century were made either catatonic or violent by the unfairness, so that they cannot respond in full and healthy ways to art. The same would be true of many men, who were made catatonic or violent by having to live in a society that was unfair to them (as would be the case, say, for sensitive men, gay men, intellectual men, or any other men that did not fit in to the jingoistic, materialistic, imperialistic mode of the US—you see, I give them that also). At any rate, these people, being traumatized for whatever reasons, sought peace in the equivalent of the white wall. For the same reason that a traumatized baby stares at the white wall, these people are drawn to the various Rothko chapels and Agnes Martin rooms. It is not that the rooms create any real peace, it is that those who like to go there need the emptiness. Even the out-of-doors is too complex for them, with variety everywhere and the wind blowing things about. They need sensory deprivation, and the traumatized Agnes Martin provides it.
You can see that I try to empathize, in my own agonistic way. I can't empathize too much or this paper will stall, but believe me, I do understand the unfairness, since I have felt it myself (living in a kolpic culture). And I understand the impulse to shut down. But, as I say, none of this justifies the modern museum, in my opinion. It explains it, but doesn't come near justifying it. Why? Because it was not necessary to destroy the entire history of art just so these people could find some temporary peace. I also need peace, but I do not go around destroying large swaths of history just so I can sleep better. Unlike the Moderns, I do not feel the need to pull down Michelangelo and Leonardo and to put urinals and slashed canvases and white canvases in their place, just so I can look bigger to myself in the mirror.
If these Rothko chapels and Agnes Martin rooms are necessary, we should erect them as annexes to the sanitoriums, not as annexes to the museums. Until recently, art was always much more than politics and therapy. As late as the 19th century, it would have been considered shallow and short-sighted to suggest that museums should be retreats for the traumatized or signboards for the lobbyists. I don't deny that art may have therapeutic or political power, I only deny that art is defined by therapy or politics. Art has always been richer than that. Art is not only for the crusaders and the traumatized, it is for everyone. It is for healthy people as well as the pathological. It is for people who like to look at things as well as for people who prefer to look at nothing.
So I understand why these sad people need to sit in sensory deprivation and shed their tears, but I think they should be tossed out of the museums anyway. They are small selfish people who cannot see beyond their own daily needs. They think it is OK to eviserate all the high arts in order that they find a little peace. If art and poetry and music and literature all have to be squashed and mangled to suit their psychological regimen, so be it. They are the sort of persons who will jettison 25 centuries of Western Art, just because Gainsborough's blue boy reminds them of Daddy, or because they see some connection between a Rubens painting and the Playboy mansion, or because a Praxiteles statue has a dick.
They won't understand any of what I am saying, because they have proven beyond any doubt that they don't give a damn. All their self pity and reflection hasn't bought them any width of vision, and talking about art history to Modern critics and patrons is about as effective as talking about Mount Everest to the fishes and crabs on the bottom of the sea. History means nothing to these people, since it had to be blocked with all their negative emotions. For them history is only “the illness.” Or more precisely, “my illness.” They know no past but their own. When you say “history” to them, they only hear “my history.”
They won't understand, for example, that the reason we have very little to put in contemporary museums like the Harwood is that the administrative and market success of their program of politics and therapy has all but wiped out art by the old definitions. We couldn't find much more than tickertoy sculptures and color field paintings to fill these modern museums even if we wanted to, since the last century has destroyed and forbidden all real art. Yes, Taos has had a few Sharps and Couses and Fechins, but far fewer than it should have had, and far fewer than it would have had in other centuries. And in the last seven decades, say, it has had no one of their stature. Why? Because Modernism killed that possibility. To be even more specific, we may ask why no one of their stature exists NOW. It is because even now, the traumatized and politically inebriated of Taos think more of Agnes Martin and Richard Diebenkorn than they think of Couse and Fechin. To them, Couse and Fechin are mainly an embarrassment. New York tells them who is cool and who is not, and Remington is only cool enough to exist in front of the Kachina Lodge. We wouldn't think of putting him in the town museum. It is for that reason that no one bothers to learn to paint or sculpt well. What is the point? You could learn to paint as well as Couse, and no one would care. To give you an example, Agnes Martin had a lot of shows and sold for millions: she is considered a saint. Jerry Jordan has some shows and sells for what, $20,000, and he is considered a market whore. The prejudice is strongly in favor of white stripes and strongly against learning to paint well. Hence you will see lots of white stripes and very little good painting. After a century of this, you will be lucky if you have anything but white stripes.
Nietzsche warned us in the 1880's how deadly it would be to give in too much to pity, and this is a perfect example of that. The sick and the sad take over art, and because we sympathize with them and perhaps even agree with their complaints, we refuse to kick them out. They have been through enough and don't deserve any more abuse from us. They slander us and we don't respond because, well, they have been through enough. They take our jobs and kick us out of the universities, and we don't respond because, well, they have been through enough.
But let us admit that pity may be counterproductive, just as silence may be counterproductive. The truth must be stated, and the truth is that those who now define and inhabit Modernism are not progressive in any way. The truth is the losses of Modernism far outweigh the gains. The truth is the modern art museum is a failure. The truth is, the entire modern theory is a failure, since it rests upon a contradiction. Modernism has been sold as democratic from the beginning, but it forgot to include the masses. Most people wish to be healthy, and Modernism thrives on an extended and often induced trauma. In Modernism, most art is in fact not therapeutic, because it exacerbates the disease it catalogs. As Matthew Arnold pointed out more than a century ago, tragic art always offered some resolution, some final act. But Modernism forbids this final act. Such a final act would be considered inauthentic, in the handbook of Modernism. So modern tragedy is not really tragedy, by the classic definition. Modern tragedy is actually more akin to horror, since horror allows for no resolution. It is the lack of a possible resolution that causes the horror. This is what most Modern art is, and consciously tries to be.
Even in the case of Agnes Martin, the art is not really therapeutic. It is not therapeutic for a baby to look at a white wall, even if he finds it soothing. What would be therapeutic is returning the baby to health, and to do that requires something well beyond sensory deprivation. In the same way, a depressed person may wish to sleep all the time, but that does not mean it is therapeutic to let him sleep all the time. What would be therapeutic is giving him something interesting to do, so that he is no longer depressed.
So while I am all for solving societal problems, and am even in favor of progressive and revolutionary politics, I am not in favor of Modernism. It isn't revolutionary, it isn't progressive, and it isn't even therapeutic. It is flawed from top to bottom, and always has been, in every conceivable way. It is theoretically wrong, contextually wrong, politically wrong, morally wrong, and clinically wrong. It is both the sign and the cause of disease, and should be resisted accordingly. One of the first actions in this resistance is the tossing of Agnes Martin and all her acolytes out the front doors of all the museums, and putting them on the bus to a yoga retreat or something. There they can erect all the sensory deprivation chapels they like, in whatever forms that appeal to them. There they can prey to the gods of emptiness and stare endlessly into the maw of non-being. When they have had all of that they can stomach, and wish to have some richnesses fill their eyes and hearts, they can return to the museum, which we will have restocked with real art.
Now that I have shocked and offended a large number of people, I wish to crescendo, using a bigger net to ensnare even more. When I told a friend I planned to attack Agnes Martin in this paper, she said, “Ah, the sacred cow of Taos,” and I think that is pretty accurate. Although, to be even more accurate, we could say that Taos is one big pasture of sacred cows. Every other person is semi-famous, for some reason and usually for no reason, and we are all expected to salute him or her in every passing or mention, or keep silent. The press, such as it is, fawns over everyone whose name it recognizes, and never says anything to the point. Publicly, Taos loves everyone, and you have to go off the record to discover that it is all a sham. Privately, Taos either doesn't care or hates everyone who isn't paying it that month.
Which means that Taos is like every other town in America, large or small: it is a town heavy with phonies. In the arts, it is extremely heavy, black-hole heavy. Privately, they bad-mouth one another non-stop, but no one has the courage of his conviction. No one ever goes public with any truth or even any opinion, since that is considered to be bad business. It is all about business. The rules of business may be good for something (I haven't figured out what) but business is famously bad at sorting truth from non-truth. Truth is only discovered when you have an open dialog. The dialog can be loud or soft, polite or rowdy, it doesn't much matter. What matters is that things are said.
Yes, “live and let live” may be counterproductive. As proof, we only have to look at the Harwood Museum. Like the directors of many other similar museums, in towns large and small, the director of the Harwood can't figure out why no one comes to her museum. There is lots of positive publicity, many tax dollars are spent on promotion, many more are spent on exhibitions and lectures and whatnot, and yet nobody shows up except a few nebbish insiders. Why?
It is because the whole concept is flawed and no one will tell her so. She is under the influence of a long and strong delusion and no one will tell her so. All the artists in town secretly hope they will eventually get a show at the city museum, and they do not want to burn a bridge. So the people who might know and care keep silent. No else knows or cares.
Fortunately, I know I will never get a show at a place like the Harwood, so I am free to tell the truth. The truth is, no one goes to the Harwood because there is nothing to see. The Taos News tells us every other month that the crown jewel of the Harwood is the Agnes Martin gallery. What is the Agnes Martin gallery? It is a large semi-circular room with some number of large white canvases in it. That is to say, it is a large expensive room filled with large framed nothings. It is a lot of wall space and high ceiling in the service of nothing. It is a lot of heat and air conditioning, as climate control for nothing. I mean, just look at the image below: the doilies that women used to knit were more interesting and artistic than that. We don't have art here, we have the large, framed symptom of a disease.
Anyone who states this obvious fact is told that he doesn't know anything about art and that that he needs to read a bunch of books on Agnes Martin. But my answer to that is: There is nothing you could say or that I could read that would make those framed nothings interesting to me. You could tell me the paint had been licked on by Jesus, scumbled by Isaiah, or glazed by Yahweh himself, I wouldn't care. I have already read more real books than all these phony art critics combined, and, what is more, I know art when I see it. I know, for instance, that real art does not require a text or a subtext. One of the greatest writers, Tolstoy, taught us that. If it requires a verbal explanation, it has failed as visual art. I also do not care how nice Agnes Martin was or how many pigeons she fed in the park. I do not want to hear about her “presence” or her voice or how much the nuns loved her. Art is not about the cult of the personality, it is about an interesting artifact in your line of sight. To my knowledge, Martin never created one of those. I am sure her personality was calming, since her mind seemed to be near-blank. Art is an imprint of the mind, and Martin left hardly a mark.
It is also worth stating clearly that the art museum is not the place to post large scans from traumatized brains. Maybe at the museum of mental illness, where people understood what they were going to see beforehand. But not at the public art museum. Someone in some administrative position might want to consider the outlandish possibility that people want to see art at the art museum. Meaning, they wish to see the impressive productions of truly creative minds, minds not caught in some minimalistic hell of repetition, blankness, or static.
You will find that harsh, I guess, but it is only a tithe of what I could say. My computer screen, like my canvas, is an imprint of my mind, and I could fill volumes with just the outlines of my distaste. To say it another way, it is not that I “don't care for” Agnes Martin, no, it is that I loathe every pretentious thing that resembles in any way the work of Agnes Martin, and every pretentious person who pretends to find it fascinating. The entire concept of modern art and the modern museum is loathsome to me in every way, to every possible depth.
My feeling in this is remarkable only for its fervor. In my conversations with “normal” people—that is, people not in the arts in any way—I find this is the average opinion. Most people do not care enough to hit the depths of loathing I myself hit, but they loathe modernism in their own passing way. They do not care enough to write letters or stage sit-ins; they just stay away from the museums. They would do the same sort of thing to the cineplex, if Hollywood stopped making movies they wanted to see. They wouldn't protest, they would just stop going.
This is why no one goes to the Harwood. It has neither a popular nor an intellectual appeal. It doesn't appeal to normal people, because normal people go to museums to see interesting things. And it doesn't appeal to aesthetes, because aesthetes go to museums to see beautiful or elevated things. It appeals only to pseudo-intellectual charlatans, who go to museums to see examples of things they have read about in books and critical texts and fake magazines like ARTnews. Since, thankfully, there aren't many of these people outside the big-city universities, the Harwood is mostly an empty cavern, haunted only by the cleaning staff.
Another very clear signal of this is the “Manhattan Totem” of Bill Barrett, standing guard outside the Harwood. The modern museum is not clever or shy: it has a history of announcing its stupidity, like a herald with a trumpet. In this case, the Totem, clashing purposely and loudly with the adobe behind it and the fruit trees beside it, tells us that the museum administration does not know art from a hole in the ground. Not only does it not know art, it doesn't know public relations. You want a front sculpture to welcome or wow the visitor, but the Totem scares him off or freezes his marrow. It tells him that the administrators wish they were in Manhattan. But since we must assume that if the visitor wished to be in Manhattan he would be in Manhattan, this is unlikely to impress him. Since he is in Taos, we must assume he wishes to be in Taos, and therefore probably wishes to see something like a Fechin or Couse or Sharp. Or maybe even a Frederick Remington! But the Totem tells him straight off that the museum has no wish to give him what he wants. No, the program of the modern museum is this: if a visitor wishes to see something, we should give him the opposite. And if we happen to be exhibiting something he wishes to see, by accident, we should immediately remove it. I predict that the next step of the modern museum will be to monitor all visitors with CCTV's, and if any visitor shows any sign of interest in any exhibit, that exhibit will be ripped from in front of his face. He will be pushed back roughly by a guard and ticketed for showing any emotion one way or the other.
In an attempt to draw visitors, two summers ago the Harwood brought in Dennis Hopper, who “curated” several of his friends into the museum. This seemed like a great idea, since it was considered a nod to the popular. Unfortunately, it failed almost as miserably as all the other ideas of Modernism. A few people came to gawk at Hopper, but almost no one was impressed by the show itself. Not even months of bought press and publicity could convince either the Taosenos or the tourists that this was art. Why? Because it wasn't. It wasn't impressive and so people weren't impressed. But the administrators still pretended to be flummoxed by this. They couldn't understand why people weren't impressed by “snot on seude” and big canvases full of nothing and little green blobs that looked more like fresh dinosaur turds than sculptures.
They also brought in Dave Hickey, a top critic, to give the thing some “intellectual” ballast. Unfortunately, they made several glaring mistakes in this. One, they mixed popular with pseudo-intellectual, and the two don't mix. Tourists and average people aren't impressed by critics and artworks made to appeal to critics, so the mix was like oil and water. Two, they didn't understand that Hickey was pseudo-intellectual, not intellectual, so he couldn't really act as mental ballast. These people like Hickey don't raise the bar, they just sit at the bar. Critics don't draw anyone but other critics and critic-wannabes, and they drive off all real people, whether you are talking about the masses or the real aesthetes. Real artists and connoisseurs aren't interested in hearing self-appointed loudmouths rattle on about “relevance” and culture and so on, for the same reason the masses aren't interested: they can tell it is a load of horse manure.
Despite this, we can expect the Harwood to stay the course, to the still more bitter end. Hickey has moved from Las Vegas (Nevada) to Albuquerque and is now teaching at UNM. Since the Harwood is now part of UNM, we can expect to see Hickey and his coven of the clueless move in like a fetid mist, staining the airs of Ledoux street for years to come. The Harwood has become part of the public trough, and where the trough is fed by tax dollars, these people will come, with their projects and their press releases. The taxpayers of Taos will be told to the fanfare of flugelhorns that Hickey and his coven have come to put us hicks on the map, but we will forget to be told how Hickey put Las Vegas on the map: the city museum there, that he and his wife started, was such a crashing failure that it recently closed completely, and they left town. So much for the usefulness of the critic as “superstar”.
Recently the Harwood has expanded, spending over a million in tax dollars to build a new auditorium. It is difficult to critique a thing before it has any track record, but if the past is any indication, we can expect this to be another huge waste of money. We will now have a bigger and fancier room in which to be indoctrinated with lectures of Dave Hickey and slideshows of Agnes Martin. We will have guest lecturers from Manhattan and Los Angeles, here to tell us how talent is the T-word and how beauty is a myth and how art classes are damaging to self-esteem and how art history is phallocentric and how meaning is relative and how art is now “post-cultural.” That is, people with absolutely no talent for anything and no real credentials will act as experts, deconstructing all the facts and artifacts that came before them. Professional cigarette smokers and arm-chair psychologists will analyze everyone from Giotto to Van Gogh, telling us which toe-tag to put on each. In other words, the taxpayers of Taos will have paid 1.1 million dollars to buy a thing which no one in his right mind wants. No one in Taos or anywhere else will benefit, except the handful of aesthetically challenged who administrate the place and give the slide shows and lectures.
The reason all this persists is that no one will do what I am doing. No one will speak up. It is considered impolite to suggest that a museum should be filled with things that people wish to see. It is considered impolite to suggest that canvases should have something on them besides white paint and a few lines. It is considered impolite to suggest that all these art administrators clearly don't know what they are doing and don't know what art is. It is not only considered impolite, it is considered dangerous. “The arts” are packed full of phonies, and if you start attacking phonies in the arts, you immediately make a busload of enemies. If you make your money in art, this is considered to be suicide.
Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but I am past caring. The only hope for art is that all these fake artists and administrators are driven out of the field, and they will only be driven out when a majority of people understand the damage they have done. As with my science papers, where I am not writing to convince mainstream scientists of anything, I am not writing this paper to others currently in the arts. In both fields, the people currently at the center have proven they have no scruples, no remorse, and no soul worth addressing. They have not sought redemption, and so they will have none. It is not for them to say yes or no to my theories or my exhortations, since that would be giving them a continuation of power. They are not to be moved or shifted, they are to be driven around and left behind. They should not be re-assigned, they should be fired and permanently demoted. They should be drummed out of all the arts and sciences, never to return.
You may find that pitiless, but I call it justice. It doesn't concern pity, it concerns a word they have used and misused way too much: fairness. Those who know how to create should create, and those who know how to administrate should administrate. Those who can do neither should be doing other jobs.
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.