return to 2004

The Beginnings
of Modernism

Part 1

by Miles Mathis


Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any farther together, to acquaint thee that I intend  to digress through this whole history as often as I see occasion; of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever, and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no way concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their jurisdiction.

                                                                                                                    Henry Fielding



Since I consider myself a child of Whistler in counter-criticism, I am going to return historically to where he left off:  Europe around the turn of the century.  He kept his critics in check, and if he had had any help from his  immediate  successors  we might not  find  ourselves in  the mess  we are in. 

      There was a coincidence at the end of the nineteenth century of artistic unrest, which was mostly merited, and critical presumptuousness, which was not.  The inventiveness of people like Courbet, Whistler, Manet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin might justly have been seen as a proper tonic to an over-academicized milieu.  But of course the critics misinterpreted all of them as replacements for art history and tradition instead of additions to it.   The critics saw every novelty not as an enrichment, a widening, of artistic sensibilty and achievement, but as a redefinition of art and a dismissal of all previous art.  In part the artists were also to blame.  There have always been artists, overexcited by their own achievements, who have wanted to claim that they have reinvented art.  But no one ever took them seriously before; it was all braggadoccio, and everybody knew it.  The Modern critic was the first person in history to take this claim seriously.  Why?  Because the critics needed a new art  every few years—only an art that is constantly in flux needs the administration of a critical overseer.  A hundred or a thousand artists all claiming to be the originator and ne plus ultra of art opens the door to the "purveyors of analysis" who will weigh all the claims and pronounce judgment. 

       It is this kind of thinking that leads to a career like that of Picasso, who was forced to redefine art every five or ten years or risk oblivion.  Quality is no longer the issue: critical acclaim, i.e fame, is.  Picasso is famous because he was able to come up with something really novel everytime he needed to: he played the game perfectly and stayed always one step ahead of the passe.  He is like Liz Taylor, keeping her name in the papers no matter what it takes—it may start out with something tangible like beauty or grace or fine acting, but it ends with divorce number seven, face lift number five, or perfume number three.  It doesn't matter as long as one remains interesting, as long as "they remember who you are."  It may start out with a Blue or Rose period, but it ends with pointless collages, scrap art, and scribbled line drawings and throwaway doodles with big, super-recognizable signatures.  


As an example of the destructive critical attitude that underlies such waste, let us go back to Cezanne and his apotheosis by the critics in the 1890's and early 1900's.  In H.W. Janson's History of Art, there are side by side reproductions of Cezanne's copy of Christ in Limbo, and the original by Sebastiano del Piombo.   Sebastiano and the other Renaissance masters believed that line quality, paint quality, richness of color—in short, the finish of the piece—were important artistic considerations.  But Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and many other important critics argued that Cezanne's abstraction brings the formal qualities, the primary aesthetic qualities, to the forefront.  For them Sebastiano's finish and his dexterity are distractions.  These "surface" qualities not only fail to complete or to synthesize the formal qualities, they overshadow or usurp them.  For Clive Bell, especially, Cezanne's painting was a great advance because its forms are not simply a "means of suggesting emotions," they are actually "objects of emotion."  For Bell, this formal quality defines painting—there can be no art without it.  Cezanne is not simply interesting because his abstraction clarifies the role of form in visual art; he is, for Bell, better than Sebastiano.  He supercedes Sebastiano and makes him obsolete because abstraction is, in fact, purification.  For Bell, Renaissance art becomes the outmoded muddleheadedness of semi-barbarians whose surface effects are only pagan seductions or Christian ornamentation.

     But Bell errs in thinking form the only defining quality of painting.  It is necessary, but hardly sufficient.  It is easy to show that Sebastiano's line, color, composition, surface treatment, and content are all aesthetically "significant."  Bell never proves that unabstracted art is necessarily  insignificant, or that the surface qualities of Titian or Raphael or Sebastiano, for example, are only "accretions."  Without this proof the "purification" of a Cezanne is only a simplification, and must be judged as such. 

     Furthermore, Bell does not realize how much Cezanne relies on the whole visual system created by Renaissance painters.  Even with Cezanne's abstraction there is more left than lost.  Most importantly, Cezanne is still painting objects.  Somehow, Cezanne's fruit remains terribly seductive for us.  As long as we recognize the object, the fruit, it will seduce us as both fruit and form, just as it does in real life.  Cezanne accentuates the form, brings it forward, without obliterating the fruit, and makes us taste the fruit, as it were, without first recognizing everything about it.  We are attracted to the fruit through its form rather than through the totality of its characteristics.  In simplifying in this way, he reminds us of something we already know, but forget in the rush to eat, to consume, the world: the world is beautiful, and we consume it, we are attracted to its consumption, because it is beautiful. Cezanne's abstraction distances us from the fruit enough to see beyond our hunger to the cause of our hunger.  A real pear becomes, in the routine of life, inseparable from our desire for it.  Our sight of it and our hunger for it are simultaneous.  A painted pear, an abstracted pear, breaks down the immediacy of this recognition, and our hunger is held off for a moment as we admire the pear as form, as beauty.  We are not only attracted to it, for a moment we understand why we are atrracted to it, and this understanding gives us pleasure.

     Are we attracted to the fruit or to the form?  If to the fruit, Bell would call us philistines.  For as fruit, it is still terribly impure: it is only a physical thing, having no spiritual or ideational content.  I would call us human.  The fruit and the form are inseparable.  If Cezanne's pears did not appeal to our hunger, their form would not appeal to our sense of beauty.  To deny this connection is to deny the physical with a Victorian squeamishness that Bell, I am sure, believed he was above and beyond.  Fruit, as fruit, is an impurity, just as sex, as sex, is an impurity.  But trying to appreciate a Cezanne pear only as form is like trying to have sex in the dark, only for procreation.  Cezanne's abstraction is successful because it manages to accentuate the fruit, the object, not obliterate it.  It clarifies without destroying.  Amplification through simplification.  In this way Cezanne's accomplishment is not so novel: this was the theory of Velasquez, Hals, Sargent, and Rodin, among many, many others.  Why is Cezanne the father of abstraction instead of, say, Velasquez?  There were no critics in the court of Philip.

go to part II

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