return to 2004

The Beginnings
of Modernism

Part 2

by Miles Mathis


Perhaps Cezanne  simplified the object as far as it could be simplified.  In object painting, Cezanne abstracted as far as he could.  Beyond this was only a sort of idealism: the attempt to paint ideas rather than objects.  But, as Emile Zola said, "Oh, for pity's sake, no painting of the soul. What is more tiresome than the depiction of ideas.  That an artist place a thought inside a head, yes!  but that the head be there solidly painted and in such a way that it will defy the passage of centuries."  If the purifications of Modernism have proven anything, it is that form, abstracted completely from any visual system, cannot communicate anything, much less the aesthetically significant emotions Bell is so fond of.  Calling up aesthetic emotions visually without any visually recognizable symbols, or objects, becomes like trying to call up sexual emotions in a man without recourse to woman, or the idea of woman.   People respond aesthetically to art because they respond aesthetically to the world; formal qualities—line, color, etc.—exist  in both places, and art's  attempt to set up its own  stimulus/response pattern exclusive of the world cannot succeed.  To try to separate, as Bell does, the aesthetic emotion from other emotions—sexual,  among others—may succeed, to a certain degree, but it will not enrich either life or art.  It will leave both dessicated and hopeless.  A man may be able to completely separate his aesthetic appreciation for a woman's "significant form" from his desire for her, but his art and his love will both suffer.

       In addition, Bell's belittling of form as only a "means of suggesting emotion" in some paintings, as opposed to being an "object of emotion" in abstracted paintings, overly limits the purview of art.  Bell calls the former "descriptive," and dismisses them as being illustration, not art.  Before I object, let me give an example of what I think he means.  There are two ways to call up the emotions as they are revealed when confronted with, say, death, or the idea of death: one may create a scene of someone dying, such as Rubens' Christ on the Cross; or one may paint a yawning black circle in a white field, as Rothko has done.  For Bell, only the latter uses form as an "object of emotion" and can be called art.  All "descriptive" painting, no matter how good, is less than art (and is made obsolete by photojournalism anyway, we are told). 

     I find that Bell's definitions help very little, though.  He never gets to the crux of the problem.  What does it mean for an abstraction to be "an object of emotion"?  I can't say and neither can he.  And even if Cezanne's or Rothko's abstractions are  objects of emotion, does this status really give them precedence over the "suggesting of emotion"?  Is the emotional experience so much richer that it bumps all previous art into a lower category?   Of course not.  A completely abstract painting that acts as an object of emotion must do so as a symbol.  The color or shape of the abstraction must call up some emotion in a symbolic way—that is, by suggesting something else.  But art as pure symbol, or pure abstraction, can be terribly limiting because it requires using symbols that are clearly recognizable, or educating the viewer on the artist's use of symbols.  Clear and distinct symbols are not easy to come by, and any symbolism that has to be explained undercuts the whole artistic process.  In addition, symbolic art excels non-symbolic art only in the treatment of ideas that cannot be "described".  "Death," for instance, allows for no descriptive treatment (except perhaps personification, which is also really symbolism rather than description).  "A person dying" and "death" are not really the same thing.  But to substitute a symbol, or an abstraction, for an object like a human being or a pear, that can be described, is not an improvement.  I have never seen an abstracted human figure, or a symbol of a figure, that was as human as one of Michelangelo's descriptions.  I have never seen a pear abstracted further than a Cezanne pear that kept its "pearness".  And if an artist wants to suggest a human emotion, such as sadness, how is it possible to do this without recourse to a sad human face or a sad human situation?  If "sadness" can be abstracted or symbolized at all, it can be only with some measurable loss of immediacy.  Disconnection from the "real" world, the "descriptive" world, through abstraction or symbolism, cannot be more effective as regards the expression of most psychological states because these states are tied to the world and are meaningless without it.  Of course, the idea of "death" is one very important exception.  Death is this disconnection from the real world, or at least it is thought or feared to be.  The abstracted idea of death may therefore be expressed by an abstraction.  But does the success of this abstraction supercede the success of description, as Bell claims?  I don't think so.  For where Modernism sometimes gains, it also loses.  Abstraction cannot tie the idea of death to specific human emotions.  But a decriptive treatment of death can express sadness or fear or joy or expectation, depending on the subject and the artist's desire.  It can tie a viewer's emotion to the described world, which is understood to be the real world.  Ruben's Christ on the Cross, as a description of death, ties you not only to death but to all the emotions of Christ's death, both Christ's emotions and the emotions of Christians.   An abstract treatment of death can only separate the viewer from the world of emotions.  Bell's claim that abstracted form is an "object of emotion" is true only when that emotion is understood to be the bliss of oneness with Being, or whatever you want to call it in your own terminology.  To some this blissful state is the object of life, the only true "emotion".  To others it is the negation of emotion, the negation of life.  To some, Rothko's painting, as a symbol of the totality of life, light and dark, is an example of the highest art.  For others, descriptive painting that expresses in one form or another the specific allures of the light and the dark, their worldly emanations and the human responses to them, is more interesting. 

      For me, life demands the latter response: elevating abstraction at the expense of realism, as Bell wants to do, is tantamount to encouraging a blissful immobility of the Eastern type.  Sleep, meditation, or staring at a Rothko painting may be restful, but an obsession with remaining in this Zenlike state is to be avoided, I think.  Abstraction is a viable art, certainly, but it is not the only art any more than yoga is the only exercise or alpha is the only brain wave.  Besides, if I am right and abstraction is not an "object of emotion" but, as in Rothko, an object of unemotion—a separation from the worldly—Bell cannot argue the precedence of abstraction without falling into a reductio ad absurdum.  He cannot logically desire the perfection of his theory.  Pure or complete abstraction (as opposed to Cezanne's very partial abstraction, which still remains charmingly worldly) implies complete disconnection from the world.  And everyone knows that Yogis and other Eastern adepts do not create art.  Nor would Plato, obsessed with his "forms", allow art in his Republic.  As the twentieth century has proven, the argument for abstraction has been the argument not for the perfection of art, but for the perfection of no-art.


All descriptive art relies on abstraction, in a sense contains abstraction, or is grounded by it.  The reverse is not true.  There may be abstract art that contains no description.  But this purity is not in itself an argument for the superiority of abstraction.  The limits of descriptive art like that of Michelangelo damn it no more than do the limits of symbolism damn the art of Rothko.  In constructing his terribly limiting definitions, Bell is too obviously clearing the way for new art at the expense of old art, regardless of quality.  But art is defined not by any one abstracted quality alone, not by whether the emotion involved has been "suggested" by description or "objectified" by abstraction.  It is defined by the quality of the emotion and the quality of its expresssion.  How rare, beautiful, or enlightening is the emotion, how honestly inspired in the artist's psyche?  How masterful is the artist in expressing the emotion through his craft?  These are the questions that matter, that will always matter.

       Even if one accepts the primary importance of formal qualities in art, surely it is possible to imagine a painting that had the successful form of a Cezanne but also the finish and technical virtuosity he lacks (in the same way that Sebastiano's Christ in Limbo has these qualities beyond Cezanne's abstraction of it).  The question is, why should one quality necessarily negate the other.  Does Sebastiano's finish usurp his forms?  Must it? There is no doubt that some artists' overconcern with finish, and neglect of formal qualities, leaves their work unappealing despite its great dexterity.  But given that some artists have been masters of both, why, in that case, would we prefer an abstraction?  Why should Sebastiano's emotional line, his subtle coloring, his graceful composition detract from his emotional  form  rather  than  accentuate, or define,  it?   Why  should  we accept the Modern critic's assertion that Modernism "goes beyond" Classicism, when any logical analysis can show that it hardly approaches it.  Modern art abstracts from Classic art, meaning it focuses on one problem and  ignores all the others.   It subtracts and simplifies.   Cezanne, for instance, focuses on the form—the relation of areas of color to eachother.  He abstracts this quality from the totality of painting (as the Sebastiano copy makes clear) and leaves the rest.  I am not going to deny his success at this, but I am going to question whether this is an advance that makes all previous art obsolete.  Even Bell demands that art is "significant form," that is "lines and colours combined in a particular way." But whereas Cezanne's forms are always significant, and his colors usually are, his lines never are.  His paintings have no linear quality at all. 

      I am not trying to critique Cezanne here: the paintings are not meant to have any linear quality.  I am criticizing the critics who have wanted to elevate Cezanne, and the continuing abstraction of and subtraction from painting, at the expense of the Old Masters.  I can find no good reason, either in the explanations of the critics or in the paintings of the Moderns, for preferring abstracted form (or color, or line) when I can have form and color and line and subject matter and idea and composition all in the same painting.  I can't convince myself that artistic poverty is preferable to artistic wealth based simply on its "purity."   It reminds me of Leonardo's quote: "There is hardly anyone so stupid that he would fail if he applied himself earnestly to one thing, practicing continually."  And the whole argument about purity is misplaced from the beginning.  Undoubtedly death is a purer state than life, but that by itself is hardly reason to prefer it.


I believe the explanation for the critics' preference for abstraction lies simply in their lack of ability to comprehend an artistic whole on the level of the Old Masters.  They require the simplifications of abstraction, because they really cannot see the "significant form" in a painting until that is all there is left in it, and it has been circled and highlighted and put in letters ten feet tall.  They are the type, no doubt, that is confused by subplots in novels and counterpoint in music.  In their pathetic attacks on Classicism and their deification of the partialities and simplifications of Modernism, I can't help but see the reaction of those overwhelmed by an experience and a talent altogether too large for them.  When Bell or Greenberg complains about Classical art's "lack of purity," I can't help but hear them saying in their hearts of hearts, "Stop oppressing us with your multiplicity of talents.  We can only envy such prodigality.  Give us someone we can relate to.  Give us the limitations of a struggler like Cezanne.  Or, even better, the incapacities of a complete phony like Barnett Newman.  Who could be oppressed by that?"

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