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On the Non-aesthetic Content of ArtPart II
by Miles Mathis
Last week I ended Part I by offering my opinion that manufactured content was something to be avoided. Manufactured content is that which does not either successfully tie into some existing mythopoetics or express some deeply felt emotion of the artist. Some might say this means that I require art to be "artless," which appears to be a bit of a contradiction. It is true, I do think the non-aesthetic content of art should be artless, in the sense that I believe that it is required to a genuine expression of the artist's feeling about the subject. Obviously, the art may be "artful" in other ways—technically, formally, etc. But painting is not acting. It is not the assumption of emotions for an effect. And even if you think that it is, I may make the argument that acting is only successful when the actor feels the emotions he is "faking." Good acting is not the invention of emotions; it is the calling up of real emotions in manufactured settings.
"What about Lucian Freud?" someone may ask. "He seems in earnest. Are you saying that an earnest pathology makes great art?" No, I am building a definition one adjective at a time. You have filled in "earnest" as my first adjective, where I might have used "authentic" or "real," but I will not quibble. With Freud, we must continue to delineate subject matter. Why is Freud more offensive than Rembrandt or Van Gogh?—The Potato Eaters are not exactly charming company, after all. Van Gogh's pathology rings out on every canvas, every brushstroke. Why is he a hero and Freud a chump? It is due once again to the content. Van Gogh's pathology was different in kind than Freud's. Van Gogh's pathology concerned his inability to socialize, and his growing mental detorioration caused (in part) by that. It also concerned his inability to deal with the problems of the world, which he internalized no matter how big or small they were. But none of this shows up in his canvases. Just the opposite. His canvases are neither anti-social nor full of political complaint. They are full of bright connection to his surroundings, whether it is flowers, fruit trees, bird's nests, old shoes, or starry nights. His frazzled mental state only plays up these positive connections. If we also feel sadness, it is a sadness tied to unfulfilled expectations. That is, it is a classical melancholy, caused by looking for meaning in the world.
Freud's pathology, on the other hand, expresses itself directly through his art. It is a modern pathology, caused by an inability to love. In it everything becomes horrible and a sign of horror. Not only are cities or governments or certain people horrible—which we might accept—but even our friends and lovers are horrible. The human body is an abomination, green and scaly. Fresh young girls are painted like rotting meat, children look like trolls, animals become monsters. This is not a brave effort to paint things the way they are. It is a giant falsification in the direction of ugly, a much larger falsification than any of the idealizations of Canova or Raphael or Poussin toward beauty. Rodin's Helmet Maker's Wife was a true depiction of a non-idealized world. Even Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil was more honest than Freud, since Baudelaire balanced his corpses with fair maidens. The maidens would become corpses, but they were not yet corpses. They were cherished beings, to be eulogized—to be compared to the night sky and beautiful vases. He would have seen that to make a fair maiden a corpse is the same sort of fakery as putting lipstick on a body in a coffin.
You may think that my argument against Freud is a moral one, since I am implying nihilism. But I see it as a logical argument. Nihilism may be countered without any mention of religion. It may be countered with a point of the finger, with a "look, there, that is not how things are." Your models are not that ugly, Mr. Freud. That is, the very same method the progressives have used to dismiss beauty may be used to dismiss ugly. Some of the classicists were attempting to make this world into a heaven. The moderns are trying to make it into a hell. It is neither, or both. Van Gogh and Baudelaire saw it as both. Michelangelo and Goya saw it as both. Rodin and Rembrandt saw it as both. That is why they are great.
Freud is a falsifier. And he is a falsifier to no apparent end. The falsifiers who made things too heroic or beautiful or cheerful—that is, the idealists—at least had a reason. To put it in the simplest possible terms, they were giving us something to shoot for. One can understand a fantasy, one that said "wouldn't it be nice if." Progressive politics can be seen as just this sort of fanstasy. Wouldn't it be nice if people were fair and honest and altruistic? Wouldn't it be nice if men and women always treated eachother with kindness and proper attention? Wouldn't it be nice if governments worked? But for some reason progressive politics has aligned itself with a theory of art that destroys all fantasy, or whose only fantasies are brutal and grotesque.
One has to finally ask, what do corpses and other grotesqueries have to do with making the world a better place? I have never understood the connection. The propagandists will answer that these pieces I am talking about are examples of what the regressive past has done to us. They are meant to shock, to make us throw up our hands and ask, "what have we done?" But for pity's sake, I ask that fifty times a day without going to avant garde exhibitions. I do not go to art to ask that question one more time. I go to art, like I might go to religion, not to ask, "what have we done?" but "what do we do now?" In fact, it is even more direct than that. I do not ask "what should be done?" I simply do it. My work is my personal answer to the question. This is what I should be doing, as an artist. Not as a political act, as a generator of some future action; but as a good and meaningful act now. That is what art should be, in my opinion. Art is the creation of an artifact that is it's own argument. It does not need a theory to define it, a critic to contextualize it, or a milieu to give it meaning. A true work of art transcends "relevance." Artistically speaking, relevance is irrelevant.
The avant garde will counter that most people do not ask "what have we done?" fifty times a day. They are isolated, we are told. Alienated, misinformed, oblivious, etc. Maybe, but the people who are politically ignorant and oblivious are not the ones going to avant garde exhibits. The people watching Jerry Springer and eating twinkies by the case are not the same people waltzing into Soho galleries and sipping Perrier. The avant garde is simply annoying the choir. It is informing precisely no one. And in order to make art it's mouthpiece, it has destroyed art history. In order to make art into one more cog in the propaganda machine, it has killed art's original definition. For you see that art in the last fifty years has not been a case of, "you are free to make political art, if you like." It is a case of, "you must make political art, and if you don't we will know you are a boob or a traitor."
Which brings us back to non-aesthetic content. The sort of art that fetches the highest prices, that gets into the biggest shows and galleries, that gets written up the most is still art that is defined completely by its non-aesthetic content. This non-aesthetic content is socio-politics. But, as I have shown, this content, and most other contemporary content, is logically indefensible. Political art fails as both art and politics. Shock art fails because it fails to shock, fails to inform, and fails to support a consistent theory of progression. Furthermore, it fails because in order to achieve this massive failure it supplanted a much richer history of art. On the other hand, grotesqueries and other examples of the gratuitously ugly fail to provide meaningful content in that they are not relatable to any possible mythopoetics. They mimic historical forms without tying into the myths that gave life to these forms. That is, their depth is only a phantom.
Some will say, this doesn't leave us much. We have been cut off from the past. We cannot dredge up the old mythopoetics without being accused of pastiche or kitsch. Modern life has no religion or myth or other system capable of giving sustenance to art. If political art is a dead end, or, as you say, was an oxymoron from the beginning, where do we go from here? I cannot answer that. I can only answer for myself. But it seems to me that the past never dies: it is only dormant. We were cut off from the past by the censure of the avant garde. But if we have dismissed the avant garde as a systematic error in thinking, then that censure no longer pertains. As artists, we may take inspiration wherever we find it and ask no critic's confirmation. Remember that there was an 1800-year gap between the Greeks and the Renaissance. Michelangelo was therefore the worst sort of "regressive," looking back almost two millenia for inspiration. Any critic who wants to label me a "throwback," thereby lumping me in with Michelangelo, is free to do so. I look forward to it.
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