PRINT December 1983


LATELY THE INTERNATIONALISM OF PAST vanguard movements has been opposed to the nostalgia of local traditions. Why stop there—in this age of computers and television, why not resurrect the costumes worn by the great-grandparents of the Bavarian and Prussian figurative artists? Ethics and esthetics are one and the same thing. They belong to the realm of value judgments. If a work produced by the pen or the brush does not generate a poem, why bother with it? In his Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1972), Erwin Panofsky notes that in times “when artistic problems become so profound that they lead to an impasse, and when the same presuppositions continue to act as starting points, major reactions are generally produced, or even major backward steps.”

Les Réalismes 1919–39,” an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou several years ago, was subtitled “Between Revolution and Reaction.” What an unsubtle suggestion, that realism in art could be a safety valve protecting society from the perils of adventure. In his catalogue introduction Jean Clair borrows the following definition of realism from a Larousse dictionary: “In common sense terms it can be defined as the exact observation by the artist of the subject matter represented, be it figure, face, or still life, and even if the study results in an allegorical or religious composition” (my translation). But in the middle of the last century vanguard art had to be realist in the sense that Courbet understood it, i.e., a representation of reality not solely in terms of imitation but also through an analysis of colors on the canvas that had to be read by the viewer in order to follow the artist’s thinking. But this was not enough. Following the example of the anarchist philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the realist Courbet claimed that art was for the sake of man, not for the sake of art. Pictorially Courbet’s contribution to Modern art was the inclusion of traces of his brushstroke as elements that had to be perceived by the viewer as a factor enhancing the effect of the finished work. And it was in order to better understand man that Courbet, under the influence of Baudelaire, in later years undertook to include the mentally deranged among his models.

Les Réalismes” robbed Surrealism of its Chirico to crown de Chirico as the sovereign of all manneristic realisms. Nonetheless Clair included excerpts from two texts, one by the early Chirico and the other by Freud, both written in 1919. Both deal with the strangeness that can emanate from familiar objects. According to Chirico’s Sull’Arte Metafisica (On metaphysical art), there is more mystery in the shadow of a man walking in the sun than in all the religions of the past and future. In Das Unheimliche (The uncanny), Freud recalls the weird sensation of the spectral presence of familiar objects while walking on a hot summer afternoon in the deserted streets of an unfamiliar Italian town. As a footnote I would add that neither Chirico nor Freud ever showed any passion for Modern art. For me Chirico’s pictures of The Prodigal Son returning to his father’s home are a symbol of a successful psychoanalytical cure. What could be worse than this for a poet or artist?

It has been said of Alberto Giacometti, Balthus, and Jean Hélion that they freed Surrealism from reality. But is there not as much reality in Balthus’ preadolescent girls as there is surreal mystery in the realistic interiors where Vermeer’s women read love letters? And did not Hélion’s painting of the ’50s miraculously bring out that spectral presence of familiar objects which so enthralled Freud? In an article about his own painting, Pierre Klossowski pointed out that a radical change of order of signs occurs when artists substitute what Klee called the anatomy of the picture to the imitative role of the stereotype (Flash Art, May 1982). Klee is quoted as saying, “Like man, the picture also has a skeleton, muscle and skin. . . . A painting whose subject is a ‘nude man’ must not be made according to human anatomy, but according to that of the picture. . . . The subject as such is definitely dead. . . . The school of the ‘old master’ genre has certainly been liquidated.” In contradistinction to Klee, Klossowski’s interest is putting one illustrated news item against another news item so that a rupture of one commonplace is achieved by its collision with a second commonplace. Klossowski claims that “conceived in this way, the picture converts time into space experienced . . . where the fleeting moment can be perpetually relived.” Conceived in this way the rupture of the commonplace no more converts space experience into a like experience than does any other imitation of events depicted in a three-dimensional space. What Klossowski achieved in his best combinations of two seemingly incompatible fusions of ruptured incidents is the Surrealization of reality in terms of his own personal mythology, following in this the example of Max Ernst. But while Ernst justifies this procedure in the name of the dream, Klossowski arbitrarily justifies it in the name of Klee’s view of Modernism. What is original and Modern in his figures is his articulation of their body language. It is not Klee that Klossowski should have followed but Vaslav Nijinsky, the founder of Modern dance.

The photograph that we discard because “it came out badly” is just an image that does not provide us with the picture we expected of the subject. We oppose “a true copy” to a false similitude, a phantasma. In other words we see the fantastic as the opposite of the true. But the photograph that “came out badly” is an image that is neither true nor fantastic.

I do not accept that the propositions that conditioned painting from the early Renaissance to the Impressionists are identical with the propositions introduced in the age of industrial reproduction by means of photography, as statements by Clair in “Les Réalismes” and by others elsewhere indicate. Undoubtedly the overreproduction of the Mona Lisa or the Acropolis tends to change our interest in the original. It should be kept in mind, however, that thanks to photography and reproduction a previously unnoticed event can become a center of attention. This is the case with Gustave Caillebotte, a minor Impressionist who was greatly influenced by photographs of his own time. According to Robert Rosenblum, the “discovery” of Caillebotte’s originality is enhanced by the new sensitivity of our contemporary realist painters. This scholar argued that thanks to Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s paintings of floors partly reflected in mirrors we can now better appreciate Caillebotte’s paintings of parquet cleaners, and that this Impressionist’s portraits gain through our familiarity with the striking portraits of Alex Katz. Of all of Caillebotte’s paintings the most impressive is his Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876, which includes in the foreground a man looking over the parapet while a stray dog wanders across the bridge, apparently unobserved by the pedestrians. Of all the artists who might have looked at this painting none interpreted it in a more sensational manner than did Magritte, who translated the man gazing over the bridge into an alchemist with wings, and gave him a lion instead of a dog for a companion. In alchemy the lion is a symbol of sulphur, soufre in French, punning with souffre (as in “I suffer”).

From Courbet to the Cubists and Surrealists, passing through the Impressionists and Divisionists, art has Modernized itself by substituting a vocabulary of fractions for the Euclidian units of the artist of pre-Modern times. Analogues to reality are unworthy of our concern in a post-Euclidian era. From my point of view the best landscape painting that I have seen in recent years is Leon Polk Smith’s George Washington Bridge #2, 1979. In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924) the hero offers the woman he is courting an X-ray photograph of his consumptive lungs. Actually the negative is the Modern counterpart of the mold of the seal, in that it begets the impression and is the master image. What I admire in the work of the American Precisionists such as Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, and Charles Demuth is the sense of the negative that permeates the industrial landscape. Reappraised from the standpoint of the ’80s the paintings and photographs of these pioneers, and the work of their literary counterparts Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, mark the beginning of the poetic and artistic revolution that came about in the ’50s with the Beatniks and the Pop artists. However, the long and tedious debate as to whether photography is or is not an art was intellectually speaking definitely closed after Man Ray wrote his brilliant essay “Photography is not an Art,” published in View (series 3, #3, 1943). This article was headed by the profile of a man with spectacles presumably looking at a rose, which may or may not have been artificial but which he could not smell since it was placed above his nostrils. Man Ray is the most interesting photographer of the first half of this century. A rose is a rose is a rose; Man Ray photographed a poem out of a rose and a nose.

It was the absence of a dynamic vanguard movement in their country of origin in the ’30s that led young intellectuals to settle in Paris, the world’s vanguard capital. After the publication of Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930) the Surrealists could justifiably claim that they had added a cultural dimension to revolutionary Marxism. But this proved to be in the long run an impossible task, since the injustices that burden the working class and the emotional ones that torment the middle class intellectual cannot be traced directly to an identical cause. During the Spanish Civil War the Surrealists’ internecine crises centered around the case of their most famous artist, Salvador Dali, who had to be expelled from the group for his pro-Fascist sympathies. For the vanguard the transition from the mid ’30s to the mid ’50s marks a shift from preoccupations with Surrealist paradoxes to preoccupations with existentialist obsessions. Pictorially this meant making the process of painting the subject of a new image. In his introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition “Paris 1937–Paris 1957” (1981), Pontus Hulten appraises this period in terms of a polarization between Mondrian, an artist whom he considers dedicated to redemption, and Pollock, whom he considers an existentialist and therefore fundamentally neither good nor bad.

The crisis that resulted from the emigration of a number of prominent Surrealists to America during World War II was that they found themselves criticized both by the left-wing Marxists and by artists prejudiced against subject matter, whether realist or fantastic. During their exile from Europe most of the Surrealists were detaching themselves from Marxism to indulge in the study of esoteric doctrines, of both the Neoplatonic and the Tantric Buddhist varieties. In the first half of this century the champions of Modern art saw themselves as vanguard, but after World War II many of them preferred to refer to themselves as Modernists.

From the standpoint of a radical Kantian critique of crisis, what terror is to politics scandal is to morals. Hence what Robespierre is to a Marxist critique of morals, the Marquis de Sade is to a Surrealist one. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto Breton says, “Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain point in the mind where life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low cease to be perceived as opposites.” Breton undoubtedly had in mind one of the several versions of a gnostic statement that was also quoted 37 years later, in a slightly different version, by R.D. Laing, in his Politics of Experience (1967):

When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female, when you make eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in the place of a hand, and a foot in the place of a foot, and an image in the place of an image, then shall you enter the Kingdom.

Laing made an important discovery when he contrasted the failure of the defense mechanisms by means of which people become alienated from themselves with a society in which “machines are already becoming better at communicating with each other than human beings with human beings.” For Laing it turns out that schizophrenia is not simply a failure of human adaptation but also a successful avoidance of ego-type adaptation.

The interpretation of the unconscious in mechanistic terms is traceable back to two essays by Freud, the “Sketches for the ‘Preliminary Communication’ of 1893” and the “Wunderblock” (Magic slate, 1925). The father of psychoanalysis compares the dream to hieroglyphic writing that traces its imprint on our sensations the way the pen inscribes words on the waxed surface of a “magic slate.” Part of the fascination with this toy consists in our being able to erase instantly a given text in order to replace it by a new one. The opposite sensation (when one is confronted with matter) and signs (writing) dear to the phenomenologists were overcome when the neobehaviorist James Gibson developed his theory according to which learning is considered to be a function of perceiving. In their turn, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari today interpret desire the way we understand machines, i.e., strictly mechanistically; parts of the human body, such as the infant’s mouth, become mechanical parts to be conjoined with the mother’s breast, which is viewed as a milk-producing machine. Deleuze and Guattari, who claim to be Marxists, believe that Freud’s major contribution to science was to have made of desire a driving force corresponding to that of labor in society. From this they conclude that the labor of the desire machine increases production when it fuses itself with a social entity, the Other, which Rimbaud viewed in terms of the self and for which they have substituted the societal. Oddly enough these mechanistic-minded interpretations of desire believe in the genius of art. But if desire is a mechanism how can it produce genius? However much the mechanistic-minded thinkers invoke the machine when they speak of back and forth, they secretly believe in miracles when they speak of genius. The archetype of the great miracle-maker is Christopher Columbus, who went west to discover the East. The mechanistic-minded realize that to go forward we have to go back, but they don’t know how to go far back enough.

The key passage of The Politics of Experience is the one in which Laing declares emphatically that “when a person goes mad . . . the center moves from ego to self . . . he muddles his ego with self, inner and outer, natural and supernatural, nevertheless he can often be a hierophant of the sacred. . . . Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough.” The crisis of this period is that what some thinkers are calling a breakdown, because of a return to the past, others are calling a breakthrough, because the place they find in the past makes them more secure than the void of the unknown.

In his time Saint Augustine provided the faithful with a paradoxical definition of liberty: Libertas est Christum servire. This motto is undoubtedly intended to make the Catholic realize that to serve Christ they must obey the pastor. The ring worn by the Catholic bishop is a reminder that after Christ’s second coming the church will be his bride. To god, the atheist opposes chance, as Valéry so lucidly demonstrates in his masterly analysis of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never eliminate chance, 1897). When Breton adopted the motto “liberty, love, and poetry,” this came to mean that poetry is the language that has to be liberated from all forms of repression and that the poet’s love is everlastingly binding. Poetry is revelation. Revelation is devastating. Order is resignation. Resignation is abdication.

Nicolas Calas is a poet, diagnostician, and polemicist.