PRINT May 1974

The Authoritarian Personality in Modern Art

TALK BY MODERN ARTISTS IN this century usually puts itself forth in two recognized modes. We are familiar with the backgrounding statement, or the “how it was done” fill-in. Studio lore and specifics about process or ambiance reach a ready public appetite. But when they speak, artists just as eagerly confide what it feels like to be an artist and offer homilies about the justification of art in the world. For practical purposes, the one mode might be said to be descriptive, neutral, informing—it deals with operations. The other is sententious and speculative, out to frame assumptions. In any text, the two modes might coexist cheek by jowl, juggling messages chaotically.

“These paintings were evolved with various techniques, changing frequently, but in almost all of them occurred colors doused in turpentine, and splashed over fresh oily materials. The result was a whole play of spots and meanders . . .”: such a remark by Dubuffet differentiates things very well. By up-to-date studio comment, he mans his station in history, and allows us to place him within the flow of cultural events. But what is to be said of this 1913 line by de Chirico: “To become truly immortal a work must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere”? Such a stance joins ranks with an enormous host of pronouncements by artists that laud the static, the immutable, or the recurrent base of their visions. Remove their signatures, and they could have been spoken in the 19th century or yesterday. They come from a hundred different dates and milieus, yet they hammer out many of the same proscriptions, echoed and embroidered, but also marooned in time.

Here artists create two separate histories of thought on the subject of modern art, one that never catches up with the other and is flipped indefinitely out of synch with it. This delaying presentation—which concerns me here—undermines the convulsive, accelerated changes in symbolic content and form that have marked our century’s artistic styles. Infatuated with its supposedly autonomous being, its role as a disdainful faith, the rhetoric of modern art would arrest the consciousness of its actions.

How do we use a statement like de Chirico’s? Renato Poggioli has anatomized the propaganda of the avant-garde, and more than hinted at its theological pretensions, but he has not addressed himself to how culture deals with it, or how it becomes culture. Artists’ verbalizations count a great deal for us because they wish to superimpose upon works of art values that such works may be thought to express, but cannot directly transmit. They preciously eke out meanings in our language forever unspoken by art’s mute tongue. Admitting that we cannot translate a stimulus from one medium to another, the difference in meaning is something we welcome, especially if it comes from such an authentic source as the creator himself. We do not think, in principle, that the artist’s words make content more articulate, but we do believe they render it more accessible. Although we assign his ideology only a subordinate role in our apprehension of an artist’s work, it does not follow that it is a superfluous one. Because we admire great works on hand, we tend to take at face value the literature of self-endorsement given us by their authors.

But, in practice, we often unconsciously discount or glaze with only neutral assent artistic statements that speak to us in their normally authoritarian and antisocial accents. It is not recognized, for instance, that Mondrian’s rabidly autocratic opinions, his totalitarian world view, his consistent and privileged self-exemptions from the stresses of actual life, may seem humanly antipathetic. But in not reacting to the man’s true feelings, we guarantee that they do not touch us. The most pallid and genteel tracing of ideas on modern art has been derived from the passionate utterance of the modernist. It is a wonder to behold with what bloodless ease we have converted their lust for the absolute into a righteous subversion or an exalted humanism. The famous outrages engendered by some of our avant-gardes do not mean much to us anymore because they were perpetrated on the unsophisticated. If the textbook view of modern art sets forth a litany of remaindered nihilisms, coached by the artists and underwritten by criticism, we leave them stranded in our syrupy worldliness. What a strange situation this is. It is as if we have come to disbelieve profoundly in that to which we have yielded all our credulity.

Yet, the rage and bitterness of our painters and sculptors are sanctioned because their dissenting tradition accords very well with our doubts and guilts in belonging to a repressive world order. Mini-dictator or left-wing anarchist or Utopian, the artist would seem to have no use for the way liberal society has carried on at present, or in the recent past. Surely this fact—and our knowledge that the avant-gardist is a highly sensitized being—inclines us to his gloomier, arrogant, or more excluding moods. Profiled by the same temporal void, the artists’ ideas would mystify by mislocating the perception of their work. A future age may remark that the dreams and disasters of the 20th century were made graphic in its art, even as its authors were most reluctant to admit that they were of their time and place. Still more, they speak to us with a fervor we have enshrined as we yet overlook, in the process, that they trample on our notion of genuine moral actions quite as much as they accuse the very imperfect society we have constructed.

The philosophical violence of the modern artist has accrued over the years in a repertoire of tics, extraordinary clichés drawn up in readymade defense of his place. In what follows, I have ripped away from their occasions and their individual psychology, scores of quotes that settled, almost by themselves, in reciprocating patterns, familiar in content, but startling in their accumulated belligerence.



It is pure joy that I give you.
––Constantin Brancusi

The culture of particular form is approaching its end. The culture of determined relations has begun.
––Piet Mondrian, 1937

Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms.
––Joseph Beuys, 1969

I have nobody to help me out. . I was a poor man. . . . I think if I hire a man he don’t know what to do. A million times I don’t know what to do myself. . . Some of the people think I was crazy. . . .

I wanted to do something in the United States because I was raised here you understand? I wanted to do something for the United States because there are nice people in this country.
––Simon Rodia

It was a journey that one must make, walking straight and alone—Until one has crossed the darkened and wasted valleys and come at last into clear air and could stand on a high and limitless plain. Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion.
––Clyfford Still

There ought to be an absolute dictatorship . . . a dictatorship of painters . . . a dictatorship of one painter . . . to suppress all those who have betrayed us, to suppress the cheaters, to suppress the tricks, to suppress mannerisms, to suppress charms, to suppress history, to suppress a heap of things . . .
––Pablo Picasso, 1935

. . . it isn’t that I don’t love you as much as anyone else, but I like the concept of distance. I want to throw up on the walls of our society paintings that you can’t get close to. I don’t want you to touch them. I don’t want you to throw Kleenex at my paintings . . . I want distance. I want something to happen that is rhetorical in the old sense of the word.
––Leon Golub, 1966

We still lack the ultimate power, for: the people are not with us.
––Paul Klee, 1924

You know who I am and what I stand for. I have no allegiance, but I stand and I know what the challenge is, and I challenge everything and everybody. . . . We’re challenging the world.
––David Smith, 1964

I think the time is rapidly coming when it will be possible . . . to systematize confusion thanks to a paranoiac and active process of thought, and so assist in discrediting completely the world of reality.
––Salvador Dali, 1931

The scale [of my sculpture] becomes aggressive or heroic. . . . The space exploded or compressed rather than presented. The drama . . . best described as awesome or breathtaking. . . .
––Ronald Bladen, 1965

The Central Council demands:
g.) Establishment of a Dadaist advisory council for the remodelling of life in every city of over 50,000 inhabitants; . . .
j.) Immediate regulation of all sexual relations according to the views of international Dadaism through establishment of a Dadaist sexual center.

––The German Dadaists, Hausmann, Huelsenbeck, 1920

There is no more beauty except in struggle. No masterpiece without the stamp of aggressiveness. Poetry should be a violent assault against unknown forces to summon them to lie down at the feet of man.
––F. T. Marinetti, 1909

I doubt whether many of the new and strange forms which we modern painters in Germany created before the war will take root. We will have to begin working from the beginning again; first on ourselves in the school of this great war, then upon the German Volk.
––Franz Marc, 1915

Nothing is worthwhile which is not general, nothing is worthwhile which is not transmittable. We have attempted to establish an esthetic that is rational, and therefore human.

The work of art is an artificial object which permits the creator to place the spectator in the state he wishes.
––Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, 1920

BETWEEN THE ARTIST AND the industrialized masses of this century, the typical exchange is best described as rupture. “Why,” asks Irving Howe, speaking of the modernist writer,

does this clash arise? [Because he] can no longer accept the claims of the world. If he tries to acquiesce in the norms of the audience, he finds himself depressed and outraged. The usual morality seems counterfeit; taste, a genteel indulgence; tradition, a wearisome fetter. It becomes a condition of a writer that he rebel. . . .

So, even more, has the modern visual artist found himself in an adversary relationship with a ring of enemies, or even society at large. If he would register our discontent, or shatter the forms that hid it, he must conceive this as a painful message and steel himself against rejection.

For it would be idle to suppose that the modern artist views those he combats as in any sense peers. The habits of condescension and contempt have worked deep within him, and have been engrained, therefore, in his outlook. Two currents of this animus are illustrated here. One is the pessimistic sensibility that discovers little chance of there being any conciliation in the struggle between the artist and the inimical forces swarming around him (David Smith). Always suspicious and on-guard, this attitude is hopelessly at odds with its environment and aggrandizes itself through its own tension. The other is the Utopian claim that foresees an eventual, culture-wide submission to the artist’s benevolent control (Ozenfant and Le Corbusier). Either way, it is impossible for the artist to conceive the adequate communication of his goals but through the exercise of power over a ferociously stubborn or manipulated audience. You do not persuade—you triumph over the public.

Smith links with Marinetti, at least in the mutual notion that art is a relentless challenge to, if not a violent assault on spectators. Franz Marc, typical of a number of agitated painters around the time of the First World War, has an attitude a little like Avis—trying harder to win the prize of artistic dominance over a whole nation. In contrast, Paul Klee, at the Bauhaus, hints that art does need genuine consent from a community for its effect to be felt, that esthetic belief is voluntary, not imposed.

But this is an exception to far more normal statements that have to do with manipulating viewers into desired mental states. Or wry fantasies like the German Dadaists’ or Picasso’s, that caricature the dominating and malignant power drives of all parties. Mondrian’s thesis is no less a fantasy, though uttered, unlike the others, with perfect seriousness. With his culture of determined relations, he estheticizes what would turn out in the world to be a most antidemocratic form of government indeed. As for Clyfford Still and Joseph Beuys, so radically opposed to each other in mode, they share a common belief: the artist’s passion, above all, validates his social existence, and confirms the idea that without art, or the possibility of the artistic act, man is gripped with fear or physiologically doomed.

In other words, the individualism of the artist has exemplary value, precisely because it is asocial, that is, it upholds the potentials of thoroughly unhindered self-expression. That society provides an enclave for artistic solitude has been an admirable accomplishment. But the survival of civilization hardly depends on this “absolute necessity.” A quite different view of the matter is expressed by Christopher Caudwell, the British Marxist critic:

The artist does not express himself in art forms, he finds himself therein. He does not adulterate his free self-expression to make it socially current, he finds free self-expression only in the social relations embodied in art . . . In synthesizing experience with society’s, in pressing his inner self into the mould of social relations, he not only creates a new mould, a socially valuable product, but he also moulds and creates his own self.

Broadly speaking, contemporary artists would higgle down any argument that they press their inner selves into the mold of social relations. They would be human beings of exception, or no one at all. In their vividly defensive statements, they strive tenaciously to construct an emotional armor, and whichever role they adopt—the pariah, the pedagogue, the facetious one or the tyrant—it is likely to be, in this context, intransigent, against all present truce with the world.

So deep-set is the pugnacious stance of the modern artist that he can sound intimidating even when he is dispensing “joy,” as Brancusi puts it. By contrast, Simon Rodia, maker of the fantastic towers of Watts, California, thinks very ingenuously of his work as a gift. He is one of the very few artists who sees those around him as people like himself. Though he lived a life of as great an isolation and wretchedness as any avant-gardist, the beings to whom he gave his work were Obviously his peers. There is a humbleness in his attitude, but also an affluence. Rodia never experienced the besetting pressures of living in modernist culture.



I feel as if I were the law itself, not a simple rendezvous of elements.
––Carlo Carrà, 1919

Then again I went down to the mystical depth of human divine existence.
––Emil Nolde, 1902–14

I think one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.
––Robert Motherwell, 1951

I am trying to return to the earlier conditions of my inner life . . . it is the equivalent of what the religious minded do when they enter a monastery or a convent and give up all the strain and ugliness of Life itself. . . .
––Marsden Hartley

The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous.
––Mark Rothko, 1947

I want to be as though new-born, knowing nothing about Europe, nothing, knowing no pictures, entirely without impulses, almost in an original state.
––Paul Klee, 1902

Now the world only appears to man from the human vantage point, that is, the world seems to obey the laws man has been able to assign to it; when man creates a work of art, he has the feeling of acting as a “god.”
––Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, 1920

The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.
––Bruce Nauman

The kingdom of creative imagination will replace the obsolete dogmas of different religions and bring God closer to us through creating than either the Catholic church . . . or the rationalistic Protestant religion . . . Therefore the shout “Art for the Volk” is no empty slogan.
––Max Pechstein, 1920

Art is a primordial concept, exalted as the godhead, inexplicable as life, indefinable and without purpose.
––Kurt Schwitters, 1921

I am no longer of this world, I am far from myself. I am no longer a part of my own person. I am within the essence of things themselves.
––Constantin Brancusi

Dada is not at all modern. It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.
––Tristan Tzara, 1920

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. . . . We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. . . . Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.
––Barnett Newman, 1948

Art is like religion in many respects . . . The trunk of the tree does not become superfluous because of a new branch: it makes the branch possible. Would the New Testament have been possible without the Old? . . . I finally came to the point at which I considered non-objective art not as the abnegation of all earlier art but only as a vitally important division of an old trunk into two main branches.
––Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

What is the raison d’etre, what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet it it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden? For the artists are the first men.
––Barnett Newman, 1947

The first man who began to speak, whoever he was, must have intended it. For surely it is talking that has put “Art” into painting. Nothing is positive about art except that it is a word.
––Willem de Kooning, 1951

All laws are left behind. One’s soul is a reverberation of the universe. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And then the inner core breaks free—now feebly and now violently—from the words within which it dwells like a charm. “It happened to me according to the Word.”
––Oscar Kokoschka, 1912

Each work originates just as does the cosmos—through catastrophes which out of the chaotic din of instruments ultimately create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of works of art is the creation of the world.
––Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

Only in art is (man) capable of going beyond the animal state, because art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by time and space. . . . I tried at least to be as universal as I could.
––Marcel Duchamp, 1956

SELF-ASSERTION IS ONLY one of the poses, and finally, a precarious one in the artist’s quest for his identity. Tied to his own, naked, solipsistic ego, he may eke out visions of grandeur. But it is an agonist, unresonant way of going about things. As psychic management, its credence dwindles, as do all latter-day romantic urges. One of the most continuous images of the mission of art held by individuals of the most diverse stylistic creeds, is a kind of esthetic fundamentalism, popular among artists of this century because it is philosophically extensive. Upset and unmoored by the most inconstant and absurd twitting of modern experience, the artist recoils in words as if to merge with oracular being, a primal genesis. He latches on the Adamic myth. He analogizes his creativity with that of a divine power. In Klee, de Kooning, Kokoschka and Schwitters, we behold the intermittent temptation to equate art with The Law of the Old Testament, the Biblical Word. This noun is singled out with obvious knowledge that in Hebrew it signified the highest and noblest function of man—his originating Deed (which is behind nature, as one scholar puts it, and does drive it forward). Though it does not answer any hard question, “The Word” becomes the rubric for the besieged intelligibility of modern art. Yet, if he would be in harmony with an old-time religion, the artist does not conceive of the possibility of sinning. He is simply the bringer of action, the speaker of the first language. Kandinsky’s attitudes on this subject are well known. But Marcel Duchamp echoes him in this instance by throwing off his skeptical mask and allowing himself to speak of the universal. Even Tzara is prepared to admit that there is finally a kind of serenity approaching religious experience in the Dadaist mode. Here, Dada talk is quite revealing.

As for Newman and Rothko, they are unabashed shamans of primitive cults. There are mystical depths, as Nolde admits, transcendental ideas, according to Beckmann, monastic possibilities of escape, believed in by Marsden Hartley, advantages of blending into nature, and fading away from a dependence on the material object, as Motherwell, Brancusi, Klee, and Joseph Beuys would have it. The solution to the problem of meaning is to become all the more mysterious. One finds a strain of religious window-shopping in modern art, conducted by impenitent and largely disbelieving citizens of the urban, industrialized West.

Brancusi tells us that he has successfully diminished his appetite for the world, the better to invade the essence of animate and inorganic things. Max Pechstein, dispensing with orthodox faiths, pins his hopes in a rather facile way on a religion not of pantheism, but of socialism. Finally, let us not forget the metaphor of growth, and the identification with a vital, cyclical order of organic life that runs through so much of the theory of modern art. Truth to materials, excess of uncensored instinct, a return to a paradise of almost genetic sensation: these are the typical wish-fulfillments of modern art.

In the 19th century, the full tide of antibourgeois reaction excited among artists a religion of beauty based ultimately on a classic ideal (although it was by no means clear how antibourgeois this was). If there is anything that the newer artistic pieties of our century tell us, it is that there has been a scurrying to replace that ideal by a cult of the artist as a holy man, regardless of the often unclassical material form of his work. It becomes a transplant of one code of traditional reference to an entirely untraditional, in fact, antitraditional enterprise. And it seems to increase in stridency the more internally and socially questionable it becomes. The most modest statement here is grandiose. In the Renaissance, artists sometimes analogized themselves with Christ and went in for a fair amount of self-deification. In the 20th century, social conditions do not lend as helping a hand to comparable strategies. In his own way, Bruce Nauman saw the light. He did in the notion of the artist as a bringer of mystic truths by putting the phrase in neon. But Oldenburg had it better, however he might yearn for it to be otherwise, when he said: “A work of art is a debased understanding of a magic object.”



Everybody has called Pop Art “American” painting, but it’s actually industrial painting. . . . I think the meaning of my work is that it’s industrial, it’s what the world will soon become. Europe will be the same way, so it won’t be American; it will be universal.
––Roy Lichtenstein, 1963

We Futurists, destroying the unity of time and place, bring to the painting an integration of sensations that is the synthesis of the plastic universal.
––Carlo Carrà, 1913

Art is a simile of the Creation. Each work of art is an example, just as the terrestrial is an example of the cosmic.
––Paul Klee, 1920

To become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human lim its: logic and common sense will only interfere.
––Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all.
––Pablo Picasso, 1923

Following the Duchampian implication that art is what is in the mind of the beholder, who can make art or non-art at will, a thought is as valuable as an action. The mere notion that the world is full of “ready-made” activities permits one quite seriously to “sign” the whole earth or any part of it, without actually doing a thing.
––Allan Kaprow, 1967

The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd. . . . But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.
––Jackson Pollock, 1944

Always in movement—that is how the Greek philosophers saw the essential being of the soul—so, I have tried to tear out just a few scraps of that beauty which makes up the miracles of the Cosmos and which is in the multi-facetness of life.
––Mark Tobey

The truly modern artist is aware of . . . the fact that the emotion of beauty is cosmic. universal. This conscious recognition has for its corollary an abstract plasticism, for man adheres only to what is universal.
––Piet Mondrian, 1919

We are on the extreme promontory of ages. Why look back since we must break down the mysterious doors of Impossibility? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the Absolute for we have already created the omnipresent eternal speed.
––F. T. Marinetti, 1909

What should you do to give content to your paintings?
Go to a proletarian meeting; look and listen how people there, people just like you, discuss some small improvement of their lot.
And understand—these masses are the ones who are reorganizing the world. Not you!
––George Grosz, 1920

The ascent to the heights of nonobjective art is arduous and painful . . . but it is nevertheless rewarding. The familiar recedes ever further and further into the background. . . . The contours of the objective world fade more and more and so it goes . . . until finally the world—“everything we loved and by which we have lived”—becomes lost to sight.
But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything.
––Kazimir Malevich, 1927

IF ART IS TO BE “high,” as we’ve been led to understand the term, it must aspire to levitate above its time—have some blue-chip durability that will augment our reception of one puny moment indefinitely into the future. That time is the enemy of beauty has always been the chief complaint of the flesh. Addressing this problem in painting and sculpture, a great many modern artists apply a verbal cosmetic to their output.

What are the prerequisites art must meet in order to pass sanctified into posterity? Repeatedly, whatever their subject matter, and even despite their actual practice, artists exhibit a horror of the topical. “The whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists, in my opinion, in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities and details of every kind.” The statements collected here, the most recent published in 1970, fall into line variously with this remark of Joshua Reynolds of 1770. It is an old gospel that prohibits the tangents and specialized references, the immediate scenes and sensations of an individual’s environment, from being considered a viable subject or source of timelessness. If, to their credit, artists are incapable of living up to this stricture, they are still largely prejudiced on its behalf.

History itself, with its lapses, its retrograde episodes, its diffusions and tributaries, is an embarrassment to artists. They conceive it to their interest to escape the vagaries of historical judgment, worked out in frequently changing ethnic, national, or class judgments on their art. We do not often see modernists admitting that a natural source of art’s interest, and one of its major functions, is to be indigenous, or even, if one wills, parochial. No one mouths it about that art may be vital even through its narrow expression of its own culture. Artists would have us deny, on the contrary, that we are in great measure defined by participating in our culture, and that our responses are preponderately qualified by it. In bringing a few quotes together here, I have done no justice to the modernist pressure, mounting for scores of years, that condescends to any artist or spectator who affirms his closeness to his surroundings. (Yet, in their very “universalism,” for which, read cultural imperialism, modern artists of the West might rest their deepest claim to be provincial.)

One of the great victories supposedly achieved by American art during the Second World War was the defeat of a purely regional effort on native ground. Visualizing “mainstream” objectives, Abstract Expressionists had every reason to think themselves compromised by their American origins. Pollock thought there could no more be an isolated American painting than a purely American mathematics. If he meant that audiences in disparate countries of the West could respond to his and his colleagues’ art, he was proved right in short enough order. Of course, in being ostensibly antinationalist, he was only insisting on his art chauvinism. For that matter, Lichtenstein follows suit by rejecting the “Americanness” of Pop art—the first, new, overtly regionalist style developed on these shores since the war. For him, the “industrial style” is just as universal as mathematics was for Pollock. Can one help feeling, however, that there is a great deal of sublimation going on here? These artists actually take covert pride in their citizenship because the powerful American world stance enables them to imply that being a Yankee has everything to do with the “universalism” of their message.

The content of the other statements in this frame is far more manifest than latent. Impatient at being hemmed in by any barrier, Tobey and Klee, Mondrian and Marinetti, claim that time itself is pulverized, when gauged by the cosmic impact of which art is capable. Call it “abstract plasticism,” the “multi-facetness of life,” the “omnipresent eternal speed”—no matter. The artist through his words casts us off from “everything we loved and by which we have lived,” as Malevich proudly declares. From Picasso, we get the word on a quite different level, but just as bluntly. “If a work of art cannot live always in the present,” (but for whom, and for what reasons?), “it must not be considered at all.” Either we must extend the present without limit, so as to keep the “life” of the work constant; or each succeeding present must be identified with the preceding one, so as to maintain as receptive an atmosphere as the first. Taboo is the observation that the “death” of a work of art is as impermanent as its “life,” in any generalizing sense. Since history is comprised of unforeseen events, there can be no reason why a work of art should have perpetual title to our regard. The ego structure of the modernist may require this launching-pad mentality, but by no means is it binding on ourselves. One of the minority historians who have taken issue with it is Arnold Hauser:

A work of art, taken as a purely formal product, a mere play of lines or tones, an embodiment of timeless values without relevance to anything historical or social, loses its vital relationship to the artist and its human significance for the person contemplating it. In art, especially in art, the setting up or postulating of super-temporal and superpersonal values has about it something of “fetishism.”

Subtract the word “mere” as a modifier of “play of lines or tones,” and the criticism stands very well.



I don’t understand, in a painting, the love of anything except the love of painting itself.
––Ad Reinhardt, 1951

Andy, . . . when I see you repeat a race riot . . . I don’t see it as a political statement but rather as an expression of indifference to your subject.
Warhol: It is indifference. . . It just caught my eye.
––Andy Warhol, 1964

Political commitment in our times means logically––no art, no literature. If one is to continue to paint or write as the political trap see ms to close upon him, he must perhaps have the extremest faith in sheer possibility.
––Robert Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg, 1947–48

The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp, which, with spasmodic starts, shrieks out the most heart-rending expressions of color.
––Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting, 1910

What will the aim of future painting be? . . . completely to suppress man as a guide, or as means to express symbol, sensation, or thought, once and for all to free itself from the anthropomorphism that always shackles sculpture; to see everything, even man, in its quality of thing. This is the Nietzschean method.
––Giorgio de Chirico, 1912

The artistic feeling which was given material expression in the building of the temple is for us eternally valid and vital but as for the social order which once encompassed it—this is dead.
––Kazimir Malevich, 1927

The day is not far off when a picture will have the value, and only the value, of a simple moral act, and yet this will be the value of a simple unmotivated act. . . . We shall be idealists subscribing to no ideal.
––Salvador Dali, 1932

I might equally well have gone to work for a government paper instead of the opposition, and in that case the scapegoats would have been on the other side. No artist has, or ever has had, political convictions of any sort. Those who profess to have them are not artists.
––Jose Clementé Orozco, 1942

Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without things.
––Kazimir Malevich, 1927

Transformation is a strange word to use. It implies that art transforms. It doesn’t, it just plain forms. Artists have never worked with the model––just with painting. The heroes depicted in comic books are fascist types, but I don’t take them seriously in these paintings. . . . I use them for purely formal reasons. . . .
––Roy Lichtenstein, 1963

The acts of life have no beginning or end. Every thing happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why every thing is alike. Simplicity is called Dada.
––Tristan Tzara, 1920

If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts. We are not responsible for what we do; we are ignorant of our acts until we accomplish them. When I have finished smoking, I am not interested in the butts.
––Francis Picabia

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
––Andre Bréton, 1934

TO CONCEIVE OF ONESELF as a member of a priesthood means, of course, not only to arrogate the powers of spiritual guidance over a dependent or errant flock, but to be appointed, in the process, to a very definite social responsibility. The artists who have most strongly encouraged such a picture of themselves have advocated what for them were entirely well-meaning and idealist objectives. Their gospel of art was evangelical, even if only a few of the laity could be admitted into the peerage of revelation. But gospel sways through ritual acts, the incanting of litanies, and these, indeed, can become a vessel of meaning in their own right.

Sweeping up the awed supplicant, liturgical practice may emerge on another level as justified in and of itself, as sheer magnetic spectacle. It is then defined as autonomous and self-predicated, a form of symbolic display, encouraged by all those teachings or inclinations within it that lean away from worldliness, the material problems of people, even the moral decisions they must make. Aspiration toward the good is redirected, not toward the reconstruction of lives, but the worship of the ceremony. A new, inner religion forms, burrowed within the churchly rites. Instead of addressing themselves to the God-Head, through the mediacy of the priest who brings all to communion in a consecrated moment exemplary for their overall behavior, the faithful learn that they must genuflect before the activity of the priests themselves. Their divine routines, a sacrament of narcissism, recreate the religion instead of being transmitters of it.

This scenario seems in accord with the audience-belittling strategies of many modern artists. They reduce and discharge in theory whatever human contact might have been expected of their work—by the transforming of art into an exclusive reflection of itself. Malevich explicitly refers to this motive here, although it is reiterated throughout his writing. The constricted esthetic potentials waft away from all social traction to some presumably limitless firmament of the nonobjective. Though this is a maneuver favorable to the expansion of abstract painting, it is especially adaptable by subject matter or representational artists. While there may be icons in their work, the artists insist that the things depicted have no value in the life of the sentiments whatsoever. This is one reason why theories of subject matter lag behind all others in modern art. Occasional protests to the contrary, it is simply not “modern” to admit any interest in narrative, or associated content in general.

There have been various techniques in which this denial has been worked out. Marinetti breaks down psychological hierarchies: the suffering of a man has no greater claim upon us than the illumination of a lamp. De Chirico asserts that people should be thought of in terms of their qualities as things. Hierarchies of values and priorities of concern are formed by moral distinctions, so that these are obviously inimical to the free art envisaged by the modernist.

For the Surrealists, the goal is the overthrow of the super-ego, and Bréton’s famous definition of automatism has precisely that objective. It does not make any difference how he rails against the esthetic (in any event, he means only certain kinds of esthetics). To be against all moral preoccupations is to ensure your esthetic purity. Dali plumps for the creation of art as an unmotivated act, which, by definition, can never be consciously moral. Whatever else he may be, an idealist subscribing to no ideal is an esthete. The same can be said for Tzara, who takes pleasure in seeing that everything happens in a completely idiotic way. And what about Picabia? He would have the artist be a chameleon, and of his attitudes, one must know that they are certainly temporary, and preferably insincere. When Picabia says, “If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts,” he recalls Wilde’s mot, “What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.” More fiercely cynical, Orozco, though no modernist, insists that artists have no political convictions whatsoever. They must be genuinely opposed to the political or ideological pressures that others find it natural to adhere to or exert—all such pressures being interchangeably shabby and self-betraying. To Picabia, artistic values are as suspect as social ones, but it is an artistic attitude that says so. To Orozco, the task of art is to undermine ideology, a task to which his whole career was committed.

For Motherwell and Rosenberg, on the other hand, politics is so deadly serious and all absorbing that the artist must retreat else he give up his whole identity and function. Certain Pop artists have a cooler style, but they, too, form ranks within the mentality so characteristic of their elders. Warhol endorses indifference, and Lichtenstein pretends to disregard fascist subject matter for purely formal reasons. Reinhardt, finally, takes it a step further, for a painting can only be occupied with the love of itself. Whether through anesthesia, then, or cynicism, timidity or pontification, diabolism or narcissism, the modernist urge, in one characteristic mood, will not be sullied with anything of consequence outside itself.

No one wishes to deny the artist his sense of a world other than our own. That, after all, is why his work often refreshes and excites us. But he frequently proposes that world in a way we might more closely examine. It is still the problem sketched for us by Ortega in his “De-humanization of Art,” but 50 years later. That is a long time to hear a broken record. What psychological costs and self-delusions issue from our response to this particular esthetic? The advantages of the pose to the artist go without saying. Its profit to us: this has to be scrutinized again.



My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there.
––Frank Stella, 1966

I think somebody should be able to make every image clear and simple and the same as the first one. . . .
––Andy Warhol, 1963

What is of importance in painting is paint.
––Jules Olitski, 1966

I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place.
––Douglas Huebler

I am convinced that sooner or later we shall have a genuine space system, a dictionary of space relationships. . . .
––Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

The working premise is to think in terms of systems; the production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems.
––Hans Haacke

The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.
––Andy Warhol, 1963

It’s the mathematics of the thing you have to care about—not art . . . The thing you have to care about is doing a workman’s a builder’s a mathematician’s job.
––John Marin, 1937

Art is subjective, that is understood, but a controlled subjectivity based on “objective raw material.” That is my absolute opinion.
––Fernand Léger, 1923

Question: Well, if you are not interested in the humanistic aspect of the head, what are your faces all about?
They have to do with the way a camera sees as opposed to the way the eye sees and with the look of a small photograph. My main objective is to translate photographic information into paint information.

––Chuck Close, 1970

In the past the idea of plastic art was tied to an artisan attitude and to the myth of the unique product: today the idea of plastic art suggests possibilities of re-creation, multiplication, expansion.
––Victor Vasarely, 1955

My paintings are not simply expressive gestures. Some of them I have thought of as facts, or at any rate there has been some attempt to say that a thing has a certain nature. Saying that, one hopes to avoid saying I feel this way about this thing; one says this thing is this thing, and one responds to what one thinks is so.
––Jasper Johns, 1963

The art to come will be giving form to our scientific convictions. This art is our religion, our center of gravity, our truth. It will be profound enough and substantial enough to generate form, the greatest transformation the world has ever seen.
––Franz Marc, 1914–1915

The path of the Proun does not run through the narrow maze of scattered individual scientific systems. These are all centralized by the constructor in the knowledge gained from his experiments.
––El Lissitsky, 1923

GEORGES SEURAT SAID: “PEOPLE profess to see poetry in what I have done. No, I only apply my method.“ Despite his injunction, Seurat’s poetry has been evident to many. Already the cultists of indifference can be seen to have moved away from the overwrought rhetoric of their coreligionists, the purveyors of the ”Word." It is to the point, now, that a great pioneer stakes his artistry, or represents it by what would seem to us a fairly mechanistic, quantifiable procedure—the complex, distributed ratios of colored dots. But we would do well not to consider this a modest pronouncement, for it became an archetype from which stems the abiding tradition of the scientistic appeal in modern art. A denial of the mundane, a gnostic recoil from time and history, a messianic self-image: all these have played into the notion of art’s unquestioned autonomy. But they do mark various stages of psychological withdrawal, and as such, they acknowledge unwittingly, that there is something very definitely unmodern, that is, undynamic and antiprogressive about modern art. It was inevitable that a portion of this art, to be of its time, should strive to join hands with, and horn in on, the prestige of contemporary science. For nothing in our age has competed with science as the foremost benefactor of mankind, the greatest harnesser of energies, natural and human, and, when results have been confirmed in the field, the most incontrovertible body of truth.

The technologically oriented artist adopts a different script than his sanctimonious brother. Instead of reacting against the positivism and empiricism of his audience, he would outdo them.. Instead of inflating the coterie significance of his act, he circumscribes and apparently demythologizes it. Yet, assuming that art may be a cumulative field of inquiry, and that it has a certifiable method, the scientistic artist transforms the syndrome of indifference into an activist rhetoric of command. The integrity of the experimenter blends with that of the estheticism of art for its own sake, sometimes on collectivists terms, as in recent kinetic, tech art, or art research groups. Not only does science exert an irresistible intellectual appeal, but it has also gained the allegiance that religion once enjoyed in an era of faith. Therefore the scientifically oriented artist recycles his tradition, soliciting on a secular level what he would spurn on a spiritual one. These are the wages of a new kind of authority.

In point of fact, artists have split on this last understanding. A Constructivist or Purist tendency, Russian, French and German, mostly, views scientific progress as a model for art, in that it not only blueprints a certain kind of visual order, but also can systematize the vocabulary of art and obtain predictable, regularized results. In other words, a patent has been taken out on styles that would homogenize the options and transcend the irrationality of art. We see Moholy-Nagy calling for a dictionary of space relationships, Léger stating that there is such a thing as a “controlled subjectivity based on objective raw materials,” and Vasarely forseeing the multiplication of artistic objects on an assembly line basis. El Lissitsky, for his part, demands a centralized paradigm for all systematic inquiry in art.

A very important later tendency in modern art will not truck with these scientific beatitudes, but shares their attempt to verify artistic procedures. For artists of this persuasion, only that which the eye can authenticate or the mind can describe, on the basis of given evidence, is fit subject of an artist’s statement. Jasper Johns prefers very scrupulously to avoid “saying I feel this way about this thing; one says this thing is this thing, and one responds to what one thinks is so.” There is no question of denying others their readings of what he has done, but the artist stays firm in his opaque explanations. “My painting,” declares Frank Stella, “is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there.” Where Stella is hard-nosed, concerned only with the nuts and bolts of perception, Johns behaves noncommittally in a very stylized way, and at some length. For their own reasons, these artists defeat expectations and say too little. Similarly, the Conceptualists, Huebler and Dibbets, or for that matter, Chuck Close, the maker of gigantic photolike portraits: they want to leave every question begging, if only by allowing gobbets of information to crawl around on all fours.

The Constructivists underpin their faith in a metaphysics of progress; Johns and company would have us be put into epistemological doubt. With one group,- we would like to draw in the reins on the scientific gallop; with the other, we feel confronted with a programmed stinginess of thought. There are, of course, variations on these themes. John Marin cares that he should be thought of as a kind of blue-collar worker. Good, honest workmanship should be the ideal. Hans Haacke concentrates on known, sometimes social or natural systems, which he would like to expose. On the score of artistic rhetoric, the one school of thought sounds fairly absolutist; the other, blank-faced, value-free, comes on dogmatically coquettish. But whether active or passive, their aggression manages to keep us in a bind.



By mixtures of fingers similar to the clenched hands of a woman whose breasts are slashed, the hardenings and softnesses of space would be felt.

Roberto Matta, 1938 Space is like sex; it has a different qualification for each one of us. Otherwise we’d all be pursuing the same woman.
––David Smith, 1960

Pure plastic vision recognizes that the inward, the male element, can never find pure plastic expression when veiled by the female, as it is in natural appearance. . . . As long as the female element dominates, the male has not yet become determinate, the female can dominate only if the male element is indeterminate.
––Piet Mondrian, 1917-18

. . . a woman, a tree, a cow are concrete in the natural state, but in the context of painting they are abstract, illusory, vague, speculative—while a plane is a plane, a line is a line, nothing less, nothing more.
––Theo Van Doesburg, 1930

We will glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchist, the beautiful Ideas which kill, and the scorn of woman.
––F. T. Marinetti, 1909

A cow and woman to me are the same—in a picture both are merely elements of a composition. In painting, the images of a woman or of a cow have different values of plasticity — but not different poetic values.
––Marc Chagall, 1944

They are people who do not know the terror of lines and angles but are drawn towards the infinite. In this they find their limited psyche, closed within the circle as femininity and childishness.
––Giorgio de Chirico, 1919

Thus I learned to battle with the canvas, to come to know it as a being resisting my wish (dream), and to bend it forcibly to this wish. At first it stands there like a pure chaste virgin . . . And then comes the willful brush which first here, then there, gradually conquers it with all the energy peculiar to it, like a European colonist. . .
––Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

IT WILL ALREADY HAVE BEEN noticed that the artists so far quoted have been men, heterosexual for the most part. It may, then, have been natural for them occasionally to imagine that the object they wish to dominate—the work shaping under their hands—should be arrived at through a process similar to the discharge of their libido. Some remarks that hint at this parallel have a more private character than those discussed earlier, because they are musings on the psychology of materializing imagery rather than position papers for an audience.

In any case, further scouting might produce more evidence that virility is often equated with the probing of space or the masterful brushing of a surface. The metaphor of sculptural extension or battling with the canvas is easily sexualized because it conflates two desirable goals associated with the energy of creation. With Expressionist theory, German and American, we are never far removed from its special aura. Rodin was famous for his equation of modeling with a possession of the female. The imagery of modern art, of course, is rich with overtones of masculine aggression and depersonalization of woman—nowhere more flagrant than in Duchamp, though his males do not seem to have much integrity or confidence either. Matta’s is such a verbal image, inspired by the sadomasochistic reveries of Surrealism, as is David Smith’s colored by the macho environment of his brother artists. The Futurists, very evidently, had no trouble thinking of woman, or “womanly impulse,” as something of which the world had to be cleaned, through sheer destructiveness. De Chirico chimes in by relating femininity with childishness, a blend closed off to the “terror of lines and angles.”

Mondrian is more sedate on the question. In a rambling, repetitive text, he assigns determinate and indeterminate values to the two sexual principles with a kind of maddening symmetry. Characteristically, even the more weighted category of the male is as abstracted and unreal as its opposite number. In this light, what distinguishes the statements of Chagall and Van Doesburg is not so much their demotion of subject matter, but that cows and women (for whatever lactational resemblance), are singled out together, and given the same irrelevant; illusory status when compared with the assumed primacy of compositional elements.

For tying the male artist’s psychology here with a political coefficient, we owe Kandinsky a real debt. To hear him liken the untouched canvas to a virgin he will ravish, is to learn something more graphic of his will to artistic power than through his usual similes comparing art to celestial music. The covering of the virginlike canvas, however, has never, to my knowledge, been linked to the annexations of colonialism. If male self-assertion can be said to have an erotic base, among other impulsions, then its esthetic variants are worth studying. For the time being, however, who is to deny that there may well be a nexus of art, sexuality, and politics?



In closing with the charade content of the rhetoric of modern art, it was necessary to schematize many of its better-known arguments. Further, its filiations have been lopped off in a way unhappily similar to its own short-arming of its human environment. No portrait of authoritarian esthetics in this century would be complete without qualifying it, at least partially, as follows:

1.) If not quite fanciful, the title headings of the quotes are arbitrary, because artists do not think under categories invented by others. Placing mental cubicles over their statements here is like putting down the basement of a house on a flood. Visual artists often like to be mystical, rationalizing, and nihilist at the same time. Future studies are obliged to take account of this.

2.) A body of ideas does not grow or get nourished without intellectual roots. It would be helpful to refer the imperialist or hermetic attitudes of the avant-garde back to such figures of various disciplines as Bergson, Claude Bernard, Whitman, Turner, Michelet, Runge, Burke, Kant, Winkelmann, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The pedigree through the history of thought runs on and on. Without undue pedantry, modernist claims for art can be said to date back to an epoch before Romanticism. The question remains to demonstrate how and why they have been exacerbated, sometimes completely out of recognition, in the last several decades. Rhetorics have their own, internal lineaments, with a bill of permissions which time honors.

3.) Standing aside from, rather than looking back on or into them, artistic polemics can be seen always to have been enhanced and megaphoned by critics. Writers, very naturally, have egged on many of the artistic postures cited earlier. They have taken in stride their role of being fellow messiahs. It is impossible by now to separate from the fortissimo dialogue between critics and artists their single contributions to the authoritarian state of mind.

By this token, however, one has good reason to suppose that the same kind of active collaboration has gone on in other 20th-century arts, with approximately similar results. A comparative glance at theories of modern architecture and poetry, no matter how the one art is more and the other less socially consequential than painting and sculpture, will confirm that they have all advanced rapidly into autocratic positions. I have not wished to suggest, contrary to fact, that the avant-garde visual artist is lonely in his loftiness.

IN A BROADER CONTEXT, we have to deal with a 20th-century perversion of rationality—a wholesale twisting of the tools of reason. Isaiah Berlin could have had in mind “such novel ideas of truth” as Nietzsche’s “devaluating of all values,” when he wrote:

For it was but a short step from this to the view that what made men most permanently contented was not . . . the discovery of solutions to the questions which perplexed them, but rather some process, natural or artificial, whereby the problems were made to vanish altogether. . . . That this short way with the troubled and the perplexed which underlay much traditionalist, anti-rationalist, right-wing thought should have influenced the Left was new indeed. It is this change of attitude to the function and value of the intellect that is perhaps the best indication of the great gap which divided the twentieth century from the nineteenth.

Even if it is a high level generalization, this is to simplify matters a great deal. Was it not in that same 19th century that Flaubert confided “Life is so horrible that one can only bear it by avoiding it. And that can be done by living in the world of Art?” Compare this, finally, with Camus’ statement: “What distinguishes modern sensibility from classical sensibility is that the latter thrives on moral problems and the former on metaphysical problems.”

Politically speaking, metaphysics is suspect. Perhaps we know, more than we will admit, why left and right-wing metaphysics are absorbed so easily into a religion of art—why, at a certain point, they blend into each other indissolubly. The ensuing stridency could not help reflecting the full spectrum of totalitarian dogmas in our time. Withdrawing from the anarchic and uncontrollable problems of the modern world, the bourgeois esthete craves and creates in his artistic experience a special preserve restricted to abstract fantasies of an order beyond history. Brecht notices this rather well when he writes, in a piece called “On Non-Objective Painting,” (1935–39):

I see that you have removed the motifs from your paintings. No recognizable objects appear there anymore . . . You reproduce the combination of lines and colors, not the combination of things. I must say that I wonder about it, and especially because you say that you are communists . . . If you were subject spirits of the establishment, you would do well to fulfill the wish of your patrons by representations rather opaque, general, uncommitted.

In the same decade, the thirties, Meyer Schapiro had a cousin of a thought: The artist’s “frequently asserted antagonism to organized society does not bring him into conflict with his patrons, since they share his contempt for the ‘public’ and are indifferent to practical social life.”

OF COURSE, A LIBERAL SOCIETY does often produce artists with a liberal point of view, that is to say, humanitarian, fair-minded, relativist, and pragmatic. But where is the sophisticated viewer who, for one moment, thinks these may be the virtues of achieved art? Still, if painters and sculptors who have espoused such positions tend to get waylaid in history, it is interesting to ask, on the other hand, why the great antiliberal artists are misrepresented and pressed into the service of liberalism. I have mined a deep lode of alloyed substance, recognized by all bourgeois thinkers as a genuine treasure of our culture.

As an exception, however, there immediately comes to mind a royal figure of modern art, Matisse, whose sane writings find no place in the annals of authoritarianism. One reads him frequently on tenuous and poetic matters, without feeling the need to put a discount on the way he puts them. In various voices the statements of Giacometti, Oldenburg, Miró, and Henry Moore also escape the prevailing excess of their peers. It would be outright guessing to assume they have better characters than such peers, or were more innocent and untouched by the stresses around them. But they do handle what they say in a quite unusual fashion. For they make an object of their own subjectivity, generally in the aim of self-awareness. Their goal is to be consciously in touch with their disparate impulses, to embody thought and sensation as an authentic, integrated organism of their will—and to incorporate even their dissonant experience as a tautening of their acknowledged outlook.

Nothing, on the other hand, is more conclusive about garden-variety absolutism, than that the speaker is out of touch with his own psychic reality, does not know, or will not recognize his demons. The literature of 20th-century artists—the number of quotes assembled here could easily be tripled—would flunk most reality tests that one might name. This is not because one wants to hold art to an impossible standard, where all its components can be explained, and a verbal equivalent must be found for every emotion alluded to. Nor does one expect an artist to be at ease, or always of good conscience when discussing his visual medium with words, in whose usage he may be less than skilled. Perhaps here, everyone tends to know more than he can say. There is every justification, further, for an artist conceiving his art as self-sufficiently communicative in its own right. But an artist’s recourse to words is by no means an admission of defeat, or a necessity to declare open season on the believing. Whether one prefers his more equitable moments or his imaginative snobberies (almost invariably it’s the latter), is not finally at stake on these occasions. But lucidity is—the attuned, insightful, and responsible attention by the creator to his own compulsions.

That we lack any such authentic literature from our voluble artists reflects many social ills. I said before that while we use the literature we have as a foreplay for the appreciation of the artist’s works, we also sanitize our regard for these works—treat them blandly. (I do not speak of the ferocity with which they are traded for money, because that only symptomizes, on a sliding scale, the automatic prestige they enjoy, and therefore, the gap in our intimacy with them.) The split in the responses of the audience for modern bourgeois art indicates that its own consciousness is deformed, and that transparent efforts are taken to hide what that deformity may be. I cannot remember from what reading I wrote down this sentence: “Words may be measured by acts. They face a stern audience: for the eye will have evidence, for or against, what the pen writes and the tongue speaks.” What might happen if we should want to look back, freshly in this spirit, on the works to which the rhetoric of modern art refers? Our masterpieces might still maintain their imaginative hold upon us, but our commitment to them, challenged, for once, would embark on a new course.

––Max Kozloff

This article is an expanded version of a lecture given at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo in February, 1974.