PRINT September 1970

Problems of Criticism VIII: Notes from the Underground

UNTIL THE SOCIAL AND FINANCIAL success of Abstract Expressionism, the avant-garde American art world was underground. Vanguard American art never recovered its market after the disaster of the Armory Show and the pre-1913 market for American art had been one of short duration, limited to relatively few artists anyhow. There was no tradition in this country, as there was in Europe, of the intimate relationship between dealer and artist which, lasting through all the lean years of the artist’s early vanguard work, finally produced commercial success for both. From Impressionism on, the vanguard movements in Europe profited from this relationship, the dealer supporting the artist, drawing attention to his work through one-man shows and through group shows of closely related artists. The function of the critic, frequently if not usually a literary man of some reputation, as propagandist for some new art ideal and for certain artistic personalities, was also in the main conspicuous by its absence in the U. S. before Abstract Expressionism.

Those artists who “made it” after the Armory Show, if they did not become portrait painters, either continued some provincial American strand in their work or compromised its vanguard quality. Only rarely before Abstract Expressionism did an artist of relatively conventional technique go beyond it to a poetic statement, as did Edward Hopper.

As a result of this social circumstance a number of artists began to work in the ’20s and ’30s in vanguard styles without any official art world or gallery support. Their attitude towards their work was different from that of European artists towards theirs. It was a kind of personal research like that of the scientist or poet. It had to be continued because of internal imperatives, problems which the existing objects posed for new ones. There was no thought nor apparently any possibility of sales or gallery shows. Some of the artists were members of the American Abstract Artists, others were closer to and friendlier with radical American poets and composers. Some, indeed, lived in outlying parts of the country in isolation. The fact that Charles Ives composed his music in his spare time away from his work as an insurance executive, and William Carlos Williams wrote his poetry as well as maintaining the practice of a G.P. is well known. An artist, unlike the writer or composer, must be his own virtuoso; he must spend a good deal of his time at his easel. Thus, there are no plastic artists whose careers mirror tho se of Ives and Williams. During this period artists were either supported by marginal part-time jobs or were independently wealthy; later on the W.P.A. Federal Art Project made full-time painting a possibility for a whole generation of American artists. The avant-garde artists before Abstract Expressionism did not have a shared vocabulary or a system of values generally accepted as one from which art could flow. They shared a series of negative imperatives which included rejection of traditional technical procedures, subject matter and structure.

The development in the 19th century of the bohemian artist’s personality paralleled and supported the increasing emphasis on the importance of artistic innovation and originality.1 The degree of self-consciousness of the artist’s role, the importance of his innovation, reached a new height in the personality and personal history of Picasso, one of the major heroes of the Abstract Expressionist generation. The Abstract Expressionists were almost exclusively conscious of the need for personal expression; originality over all other criteria reigned supreme. The idea of technique follow ing concept became paramount. Almost every thing became secondary to the search for original expression.

Starting with the second generation of Abstract Expressionist painters, and more and more clearly every year, the social and artistic situation was radically changed. The imperative to be original, expressed by the artist, part of a small coterie of artists and intellectuals, supported by an occasional crank millionaire or professional man, has disappeared. The artist is no longer an exceptional man of independent if not un acceptable life style work ing in an equally un acceptable artistic style against the grain of society. More and more the very rich, the rich and the professional class, taught by the colleges and the critics to eat art, demand of the artist originality. At the same time, what was the life style of a small bohemian coterie, even in 1949, has become the conformist milieu of the American teenager. Middle- and upper-class swingers in suburbia and the cities, of no particular artistic or intellectual pretensions, live socially and sexually a much more bohemian life than do most artists, whatever their esthetic persuasion. The sense of working counter to the society’s rigid, self-satisfied standards is gone for the would-be avant-garde artist. The new combine of collector-dealer-curators, collector-dealer-museum board of trustee members, collector-museum trustee-politicians, have wrapped up the economic and political power of the art world, into one new entity as powerful as the Academy in the life of French art before Impressionism.

The first problem this creates is similar to that created by the Academy in France in the 19th century when the support of the Academy was not given to particular artists as their careers developed but rather to individual paintings which achieved salon success. This, together with the overproduction of artists in the schools, combined to produce for the most promising academic painters an increasing economic bind. Despite the success of individual paintings they could never be successful enough in terms of overall sales to maintain even an artisan’s scale of life. At the moment, it is not individual paintings which are supported by our newly powerful establishment but individual styles or one-man shows of particular artists. The artist is treated increasingly like a disposable container which, once-emptied of its valuable ideas, is discarded. Does anyone remember the expressions “older painters” or “younger painters”? Even in the ’50s “younger painters” meant artists not necessarily much below fifty whose work was not yet of major reputation. These expressions have become obsolete because so many recent successes are in their twenties or thirties. Where will they be when they are in their forties, the age of a “younger painter” 20 years ago. The Abstract Expressionist painters, although they valued pictorial originality over all other goods, each had many years of experience in other modes of painting, so that when they achieved an original statement, this statement was informed by a syntax of picture-making firmed by an exposure to other structural and ideational concerns. Abstraction was only taken on as the logical end product of a long development. The surface of the canvas as an arena filled with the drama and tension of shapes and lines of a particular character was the end product of a long search rather than an axiomatic starting point. Similarly, belief in the primacy of the artist’s pictorial vision, achieved through a dramatic improvisatorial contest with the surface of the canvas, was a hard-fought end product of a long search. Young artists who arrive on the scene at this point and accept abstraction and innovation as the rules of the game produce new art with relative ease; thus they never become “younger painters” if they are talented and clever.

Although the new establishment art is produced for a small elite and continues to prosper by virtue of its invention of new outrageous formulae within an ever-narrowing range of possibilities, it is not a true elite art. A truly elite art is one in which artist and patron share an esoteric knowledge, such as that shared by the Sung patrons and painters, who produced landscapes which were perceived through a series of plastic conventions for the production of individual brushstrokes, representations of forms, arrangements of tones and finally a quasi-mystical method of appreciation which involved identification with figures traveling along the road enjoying the painted scenery. The knowledge of calligraphy, poetry, Taoist and Confucian philosophy shared by both painter and patron made this elite art possible, as did the concentric backward-looking tradition-oriented esthetic which provided models for the artist’s practice and the patron’s appreciation.

Such European artists as Peter Paul Rubens, who produced their work to the applause of the upper classes of their period (in Rubens’ case a class to which he himself belonged) were fundamentally unlike the Establishment artists of today. Through his travels and studies, Rubens was able to concoct a style based upon a profound understanding of Venetian color, formmaking and pictorial composition, as well as Florentine and Roman drawing and composition and perspective. To this he added his own robust sensibility, deep Baroque spatial development and heavy, yet easily gesturing, plastic forms. He and his patrons were at one in locating his artistic excellence in his control and mastery over a given tradition which he superseded through his genius.

Today’s avant-gardist must believe in the primacy of his vision over all that has come before. The greater the distance between his vision and that of his immediate contemporaries, the greater his vision is considered. Thus the production of objects for the delectation of a patron is contrary to his psychology. Work which is truly original could not easily please an audience trained in any tradition, even the tradition of originality. The new vanguard art, however, is not truly original. It is much more a question of continuous indoctrination into newly maximized qualities already unquestionable within 20th-century art. Particularly in recent work emphasizing procedural concerns the apparent surface structure is largely a part of the given or inherited tradition. The emphasis now falls on the procedure of production rather than on the character or quality of the forms themselves. The elite patron shares little with the artist other than his belief in the unquestionable nature of the search for originality and an acceptance of the importance of his art. There is no longer any question of true originality in these terms. If we accept the discrete character of art as an activity which is most meaningful when it is completely separated within pictorial or sculptural conventions from life, then the attempts to mix the plastic with other arts to break down the confines of the conventions within which art has operated can only be seen as weakness. For art to hold up a distorting mirror to our sensibilities or to society whose logic is integral, it must be discrete. Virgil Thompson, writing some years ago in Encounter, said that if we divide the 20th century into fifteen-year intervals, the amount of innovation within these decreases as they approach the present. This can be seen even more acutely in the art of the last ten years. Thompson continues to say that in the future, instead of quality following the new, the new will have to follow quality. I would go further and say that the new which is the elite art of today will have to develop more slowly if it is to be truly new. Artists must be given time to develop their eccentricities, which can no longer be limited by the standards of 20th-century avant-gardes.

I used to say, some twenty years ago, that the society we have today was formed more by Cézanne than by Marx. It seems to me that this is even truer today. Marx took the economic and social materials available to him in his time and built a framework which, assuming the perfectibility of society and human nature, could achieve a state much better than that of his time. Cézanne, through his sensibility, reconstructed a world unlike that which could be experienced in any painting which any significant portion of the public of his time was capable of taking seriously as art. The experience of a Cézanne painting, fragmenting, reforming, finally monumentalizing the forms and spaces in nature, had an insidious effect on the minds of those who experienced it. The world, that is the social as well as the physical world, could never be experienced again in terms of large, overwhelming imperatives. Cézanne was only one of several generations of artists, writers and composers whose perceptions increasingly emphasized the sensual and intellectual experience of the individual in his context as overriding the blind imperatives of inherited forms and traditions. From influencing the character of a few, both directly and indirectly, they began to influence the character of many. The wide spread of a neo-bohemian morality and neo-bohemian life styles is one effect of the art and life styles of earlier generations of bohemian artists. The unwillingness of a large segment of our youth to accept socially approved goals and the institutionalized means of attaining them is another. The artist has a double dose of non-conformity, as both a part of the continuing tradition of the non-conforming artist and as a participant in a society which more and more accepts bohemian non-conformism as a valid expression of the individual’s will to freedom.

Figurative painting today in all its varieties is unacceptable to the art Establishment and as a result possesses the power to attract young artists who wish room in which to establish their own individuality as artists. Accepting figuration at this juncture means accepting an attitude towards tradition as open and useful for the production of new art. Even those who only accept traditional conventions of image-making will soon find that these imply traditional structural and compositional conventions as well. Figuration thus implies an attitude towards the usefulness and openness of the past which prohibits its becoming an avant-garde movement. The desire to use classical subjects, produce narrative paintings, the looseness or tightness of the stroke can in no way distinguish work of quality and importance from work of little quality and no importance. These decisions reflect different ideational positions in relation to the past and involvements with different problems.

In every case the decision as to the character of the work, the type of subject and the treatment are decisions made not out of a direct connection with pre-modernist pedagogy in art but through a series of separately willed and intuitive choices. Reversing the ideal one-man show as developed during Impressionism when the new social institution of the critic-dealer system was first instituted, figurative artists now prefer to have shows which bridge the categories—landscape, still life, figure, portrait, interior—putting the emphasis on the quality and construction of each individual work as opposed to the overall look of the show. The artist who composes large complex figure paintings tends to place the emphasis on only a few individual works over several years with the remaining paintings of individual figures, landscape and interior acting as studies. Thus in both cases the discrete character of the individual work of art as opposed to the one-man show is emphasized. Some artists, in combining both of the stances just discussed, have produced one-man shows which mirror the traditional pre-modernist activity of the artist.

In the case of many younger artists, the acceptance of figurative painting may very well prove to be a temporary decision. The separation from the scene which this decision expresses allows the exploration of sources of artistic imagery and direction which are currently unfashionable. Young figurative artists are reading and using Darcy Thomson’s “Growth and Form,” the books of Matila Ghika and Jay Hambidge on proportion and geometry, restudying Albertian and other perspective systems and deriving inspiration from crystallography, geology, solid geometry, nonEuclidean geometry and topology. The conceptual art which results from this kind of study is liable to lead some young artists towards abstraction, in this case an abstraction of intellect which will require an esoteric knowledge on the part of the beholder as well as the maker; in other words a true elite art.

The concentric expressionist tradition, reading nature through the art of past time with a synopsizing and abbreviating brush which aims at the essence of the forms perceived through the artist’s intuition for the surface of the canvas, his color and stroke, is not totally separated from other recent figurative concerns. The desire of more restrained realists to present the forms perceived as images and not as creatures of the artist’s brushstroke involves a similar search for the essential character of the forms and the surface. There is no hierarchy—the character of the structure, the conviction and poetry of the vision are what count. It is conceivable that a painter whose aim was to carry his forms on a loaded brush might sketch by painting more precisely and a painter whose aim was to carry his forms to a conclusion so that his brushstroke was invisible might sketch with a heavily loaded brush.

The problem of new subject matter is a red herring. The artist who has a strong enough conviction about some quality of our intellectual or social life will necessarily have a subject matter which engages him. The quality of his work will then depend on the character of his structure and sensibility. The validity of new paintings which use classical subject matter, i.e., bacchanals, Diana and her nymphs, the Labors of Hercules, will similarly depend upon the quality of the structure of which they are a part and, insofar as they are classical, the degree to which this new treatment adds to our understanding of the myth as a kernel of poetic metaphor with cosmic implications.

Art, as any action between men rather than between man and God, is a moral action. Even the religious artist who sees the image of a god in a vision and then brings his art to conformity with this vision is producing an object meant for the eyes and devotions of men. The contemporary Western artist, whatever spiritual goods go into the production of his work, is producing out of values chosen by himself through his sensual experience to produce a work to affect other men. Actions by men in relation to each other are by definition moral actions; thus it is impossible to divorce morality from art. The first task of the artist is to produce an object which is inherently valuable and carries a real experience to the viewer. Second, the work of art must carry through its forms the meaning which these forms themselves declare that they carry. Thus a Cubist painting which did not in fact possess a Cubist structure would be, in terms of the intention of the artist, a bad painting. Finally come distinctions as to the relative worth and value of different ideas, attitudes, procedures and structures. Ideally, discriminations of quality based on the relative importance and validity of the idea and the degree to which it has been successfully carried out are the province of the critic. The artist who does not make his ideas and the structures through which they are expressed easily understandable to at least the elite public has given an important portion of his responsibility into the hands of the critic whose function then becomes that of assigning meanings to the works of art before evaluating them and the technical felicity with which they are expressed. Just as the tendency in colleges is to teach that part of art which can most easily be expressed verbally and to value it most highly, the tendency of critics will be to value that art most highly which gives their words most play.

Although there is no hierarchy of categories of subject matter in figurative art, there is one problem which seems most difficult and, at this juncture, most important socially. This is the production of subject matter paintings in which not only the composition, treatment of the figures and structure of the painting imply a philosophical position, but the proportion of the figures, their gesture and grouping and the explicit story clarify the philosophical implications. Such paintings could be explicitly social and political in their content and heed not founder on the shoals of semi-abstraction, inadequate structure or elitist uglification of the forms in the search for a new social realism. A radical political artist must be a figurative artist. The surface level of his paintings, if they are to be effective, cannot be forms which specifically contradict the expectations of his audience. There is no need, however, for all new figurative painting involved in invented compositions and subject matter to be populist in its origin and aims. The artist who, like Giorgione, produces a poetic metaphor in structure, form and subject matter, could once again become the inspiration of the poet and the intellectual. Such an artist, no matter how high his ivory tower, would not necessarily be apolitical in his effect. The artist, who through his imagination creates forms which change the vision of others, is potentially capable of changing the world more radically and more surely than the most successful and radical political philosopher.

Gabriel Laderman



1. The first artists who adopted a life style different from that practiced by others of their social class were the students of David called Les Barbus who adopted a neo-Greek life style complete with togas, beards and sandals and attempted to model their behavior on Greek democratic standards. Very little work by any of Les Barbus has come down to us.