Statements by pioneer modern artists who's words I believe reflect an awaking awareness that the art experience is generated by an inner sense of animal intuition. I have included my own interpretation of their words because this helps see the psychological implications of their thoughts on the subject of modern art. Let me begin by making my own position clear. I have come to realise that many people think art is something that comes into an artist’s mind from some metaphysical, or religious place of origin. They think artists seek to attain 'oneness' or 'harmony' with this 'spiritual feeling', but, to me, this is archaic thinking. That wondrous experience stirred in our minds by a dramatic landscape, or powerful use of colour, or emotive music, is not a 'gift' from beyond the reality of events. Creative works of art are the output of individuals who are more susceptible to an old inherent way of perception than most of us. These individuals get a hint of primal sensations of colour, shape, sound and movement, but they have no way to picture this experience. Their minds, like ours, have evolved to take those raw animal sensations and transform them into controlled and ordered experiences. What traditional artists have always done is increase the control and order their mind imposes over their view of the world to try to get a glimpse of the stronger inherent view. This drove them to create wonderful works of art, but what you need to realise is that they are driven to do this by a psychological trait that works to suppress original raw experience. What modern art has revealed is that this raw experience of any object or event cannot be attained through the traditional way of working. To reach a way of sensing colour, shape, sound or movement in an intuitive inherent way would require we relinquish our intelligent command of perception and learn to sense through instinct, as we once did in our animal past. I believe this is what a true calling of the modern artist should be about. Let me begin with Kandinsky, because, even though Cézanne proceeded him, Kandinsky was far better at clarifying in words what he was trying to achieve.
Wassily Kandinsky “The Effects of Colour” 1912
Originally published Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Munich: R Piper 1912) English translation as Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947) pp.43-45.
"If you let your eye stray over a palette of colours, you experience two things. In the first place you receive a purely physical effect, namely the eye itself is enchanted by the beauty and other qualities of colour. You experience satisfaction and delight, like a gourmet savouring a delicacy. Or the eye is stimulated as the tongue is titillated by a spicy dish. But it grows calm and cool, like the fingers after touching ice. These are physical sensations, limited in duration. They are superficial too, and leave no lasting impression behind if the soul remains closed. Just as we feel at the touch of ice a sensation of cold, forgotten as soon as the finger becomes warm again, so the physical action of colour is forgotten as soon as the eye turns away. On the other hand, as the physical coldness of ice, upon penetrating more deeply, arouses more complex feelings, and indeed a whole chain of psychological experiences, so may also the superficial impressions of colour develop into an experience.
On the average man, only the impressions caused by familiar objects will be superficial. A first encounter with any new phenomenon exercises immediately an impression of the soul. This is the experience of the child discovering the world; every object is new to him. He sees light, wishes to hold it, burns his fingers and feels henceforth a proper respect for flame. But later he learns that light has a friendly side as well, that it drives away the darkness, makes the day longer, is essential to warmth and cooking, and affords a cheerful spectacle. From the accumulation of these experiences comes knowledge of light, indelibly fixed in the mind. The strong intense interest disappears, and the visual awareness of flame is balanced against indifference to it. In this way the whole world becomes gradually disenchanted"
Or, in my words, we learn to suppress a primal sensation in our experience of the world. Kandinsky talks of the ‘soul’ and ‘concerning the spiritual in art’, but in this day and age that kind of inner sensation needs, for a modern artist, to be seen as an experience generated by our physical encounters with colour, shape, or any other objects and events. We ‘feel’ another vision of the world is within us because our minds have evolved to suppress an original way of sensing. There is nothing mysterious, or religious, about this experience. We simply hold an inherent sensation of what confronts us that once revealed colour, etc. by instinct - just as the child should recall an inherent fear of the flames from a fire. That a child wishes to touch a naked flame, and has to be taught that this will burn, tells us our inherent way of sensing the world is lost to us. The genetic expressions that would have given the child an animal sense of fear for fire no longer exert their influence over our mind because we have evolved a way of suppressing that original experience in our view of everything that surrounds us. We learn to replace our old inherent sensations with intelligent learning, and so we 'feel' our day-to-day experiences are disenchanted. The original sensation, still generated by genetic traits inherent from our animal ancestors, is what an artist recalls in their encounters with sight, shape, sound and movement, but the experience cannot be modelled through intelligent understanding. Our Intelligence has evolved to transform the original view, and so any attempt to 'picture' it will destroy it. This artistic sensation has nothing to do with the soul - nor with the spiritual side of our mind. You can leave all that kind of thinking to the religious believers because, from an artist’s point of view, what we are talking about is inheritance of an old intuitive way of sensing that our minds have evolved to overpower. Some individuals will possess stronger expressions from the genes that once generated this instinctive way of sensing the world, and these individuals will ‘feel’ that colour, shape, etc. possess a deeper sensation than the superficial surface understanding generated by intelligent learning. Mistaking this with some kind of religious or spiritual influence upon your mind is no way to go about understanding the art experience.
Kazimir Malevch 1915
Kazimir Malevich wrote in 1915 that, in sculpturing the David, Michelangelo had ruined a perfectly good piece of marble.
“The human form is not intrinsic in a block of marble. Michelangelo in sculpturing David did violence to the marble, he mutilated a piece of beautiful stone...” (From Cubism to Suprematism in Art. Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays 1915-1926. Museum of Modern Art, University of Iowa, p24.)
My favourite quote because it expounds my belief that in controlling and modelling materials to portray an intellectual or intelligent image destroys your natural way of sensing by intuition and instinct. For all his greatness Michelangelo had no idea he had evolved from animal origins and had inherited a way of sensing objects and events that once experienced the world without all the cleaver ideas we now look to impose over all we see and do. The naked block of marble that confronted Michelangelo before he began work could have provoked recall of this old inherent experience, but Michelangelo believed that God had placed him on Earth to carve the block of marble to portray an idealised vision of perfection that placed the human form above nature. He had no idea his mind was working to suppress the view that we inherit from our natural origins. We have evolved minds that work to remove this older instinctive way of looking from our experience of the world, but no-one in Michelangelo's time understood this view. We are in a different place because we now understand that our minds drive us to work to destroy the natural block of marble because it provokes recall of an older way of sensing by animal instinct. We have unconsciously evolved to suppress our old animal way of sensing by instinct, and, from this point of view, an artist looks to model material - the marble - into recognisable form because this stops the disturbing return of a way of looking we inherit from our distant biological beginning. Some of us have realised that you need to make art that brings recall of this natural way of sensing rather than destroy it through imposing your command of thought over what you do. This is the essential difference between modern art and the traditionl beliefs.
Giorgio de Chirico 1919
Originally published as "Sull'arte metafisica", Valori Plastici (Rome) 1919 This translation from Joshua C. Tayor.
""I enter a room, I see a man sitting in an armchair, I note a bird cage with a canary hanging from the ceiling; I notice paintings on a wall and a bookcase with books. None of this startles nor astonishes me because a series of memories which are connected one to the other explains to me the logic of what I see. But let us suppose for a moment, for reasons that remain unexplainable and quite beyond my will, the thread of this series is broken. Who knows how I might see the seated man, the cage, the paintings, the bookcase! Who knows with what astonishment, with terror and possibly also with pleasure and constrnation I might view the scene.
The scene, however, would not be changed; it is I who would see it from a different angle. Here we meet the metaphysical aspect of things. By deduction we might conclude that everything has two aspects; a normal one that we most always see and which is seen by other people in general; the other, the spectral or metaphysical which can be seen only by rare individuals in moments of claivoyance or metaphysical abstraction"…
Why does this idea of the art experience have to be mysterious! All it is to me is recall of a primal state of mind generated by inherent genetic traits that still express their presence is some individuals more than others. These redundent gentic traits will give some of us the sensation that our view of objects and events is incomplete. Our intelligence is commanding our powers of perception, and this is stopping the old way of sensing, that was once generated for our ancestors through their old animal powers of instinct, from revealing our view of what confronts us in the original intuitive way".
Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, 1912
Originally published Du Cubise (Paris: Figuiére) Engish translation Cubism (London: Unwin 1913)
"People have tried to present Cézanne as a sort of genius manqué; they say that his knowledge is admirable, but he cannot sing or say his ideas; he only stutters. The truth is that he was unfortunate in his friends. Cézanne is one of the greatest of those artists who constitute the landmarks of history….he has plumbed reality with a resolute eye, and if he himself has not attained those religions in which the profounder realism is insensibly transformed into luminous spiritualism, at least he has left, for those who desire to attain it, a simple and wonderful method".
That sentence, 'and if he himself has not attained those religions in which the profounder realism is insensibly transformed into luminous spiritualism', is very revealing. To me, that is a statement by artists who realise our minds work all the time to transform an old inherent way of sensing into some kind of intelligent idea. That we should believe this idea to be some presence of a higher plane of spiritualism, or an idea of god, reveals to us that our mind is working to suppress an original way of sensing what confronts us. We 'feel' an unidentified sensation in our view of the world, and so we think up imaginary ideas to overpower the uncertainty.
If, as I believe, this unidentified sensation is recall of an old inherent way of sensing that was once generated in our mind by animal instinct, then everything we do through intelligent reasoning will be an attempt to stop this sensation re-emerging into our experience of the world. Some people imagine this unidentified 'feeling' in the depth of our mind is a spiritual ‘calling’ from beyond the reality of events. There is nothing wrong with this if you are a religious person, but an artist should not confuse this religious transformation of an inherent 'feeling' with what they are trying to comprehend. The modern artists job is not to preach belief in spiritual, or religious enlightenment, - nor to portray subjects like love, war, sex, or anything else - but to create objects that will help us rediscover our old primal way of sensing the world. This is what modern art arose to do, and Cézanne was amongst the first artists to realise that our mind transforms an old primal sensation being generated in the depth of our mind into an idea structured through our powers of intelligence. He therefore kept his subjects simple. No religious overtones, or ideas that art is some kind of spiritual experience, or comments on the state of society. Cézanne understands these ideas will drive your grasp of what confronts you away from your original inherent ability to sense by instinct. This is how our minds have evolved to suppress the old view. We fill our thinking full of intelligent ideas that transform the original insight. We end up with art that reflects subjects, rather than straightforward observation aimed at finding a way to remove our intelligent ideas about what we see so we can regain a clearer inherent way of sensing reality.
"Cubism art was conceptual, not only perceptual, they proclaimed: that is, it drew upon memory as well as upon objects actually viewed by the eyes".
From Cubism: Form as expression in Theories of Modern Art. Herschel B Chipp. University of California Press 1968 p194.
Cubism, in relation to modern art, was an essential step in braking down illusion of space that had always dominated painting. In terms of modern thinking about the art experience cubism looks towards a way of translation the 'volume' of reality onto the 'flat' reality of the canvas. This was an attempt to direct your awareness of what you see towards a more direct conceptual awareness of the object in front of you. This holds the power to get the object to provoke your old inherent way of sensing by 'animal' instinct, but Cubism was at the very start of this idea. It still clung to old values like pictorial composition and the idea that you had to stay on a flat surface and paint an image that was trapped inside a picture frame. The movement found itself having to challenge the established dogma of formal working principles, which Pablo Picasso disrupted so playfully.
(In 1908 George Braque exhibited a cubist painting at the Salon de Indépendants). "The cubist canvases of Picasso, Braque, Metzinger, Gleizes, Leģer, Jean (sic) Gris, etc. greatly around Hernri Matisse, who was particularly struck by the geometric aspect of the canvases, which revealed a great purity with which the artists rep[resented essential reality. He uttered the ludicrous word 'cubism' which was quickly to make its way into the world".
From Guillaume Apollinaire “The Beginnings of Cubism” 1912 Originally published in Le Tempts (Paris) 14 October 1912. Reprinted in Guillaume Appolinaire: Chroniques d Art (1902-1918), ed L. -C Breunig (Paris: Gallimard, 1969).
Max Ernst, "On Frottage" 1936
Originally published in "Au delà de la Oeinture", Cahiers d'Art. This from the Engish translation, Beyond Painting, by Ernst.
"It is not to be despised, in my opinion, if, after gazing fixedly at the spot on the wall, the coals in the grate, the clouds, the flowing stream, if one remembers some of the aspects; and if you look at them carefully you will discover some quite admirable inventions. Of these the genius of the painter may take full advantage, to compose battles of animals and of men, of landscapes or monsters, of devils and of other fantastic things which bring you honor. In these confused things genius becomes aware of new inventions, but it is necessary to know well (how to draw) all the parts that one ignores, such as the parts of animals and the aspects of landscape, rocks, and vegetation." (From Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting.)
On the tenth of August, 1925, an insupportable visual obsession caused me to discover the technical means which have brought a clear realisation of this lesson of Leonardo. Beginning with memory of childhood … in the course of which a panel of false mahogany, situated in front of my head, played the role of optical provocateur of a vision of half-sleep, and finding myself one rainy evening in a seaside inn, I was struck by the obsession that showed to my excited gaze the floor-boards upon which a thousand scrubbings had deepened the grooves. I decided to investigate the symbolism of this obsession and, in order to aid my meditative and hallucinatory faculties, I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing on them, at random, sheets of paper which I took to rub with black lead. In gazing attentively at the drawings thus obtained, “the dark passages and those of gently lighted penumbra,” I was surprised by the sudden intensification of my visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories. My curiosity awakened and astonished, I began to experiment indifferently and to question, utilizing the same means, all sorts of materials to be found in my visual field: leaves and their veins, the ragged edges of a bit of linen, the brushstrokes of a ‘modern’ painting, the unwound thread from a spool, etc. There my eye discovered human heads, animals, a battle that ended with a kiss (the bride of the wind), rocks, the sea and the rain, earthquakes, the sphinx in her stable, the little tables around the earth, the palette of Caesar, false positions, a shawl of frost flowers, the pampas…
It takes a very long time for new understanding to filter into general consciousness. Leonardo da Vinci lived in an age that had no idea that our intelligent ability to recognise images had arisen through adaptation of an animal way of sensing by instinct. He lived with the belief that the human intellect was a product of divine intervention. Max Ernst was in a different position and would have understood our animal ancestry because the theory of evolution was general knowledge in his time. In his writing On Frottage he does not recognise the implications of this discovery to the nature of the art experience as a translation of inherent sensations in our view of the world. His interest still lies in the traditional concept of the need to create works within established principles. He was writing in 1925 and, therefore, this is to be expected. What we witness is an example of how his mind seeks to find recognisable images in everything he sees to stop an older inherent way of sensing entering his powers of perception. Ernst used his technique to further his surreal images, but we now understand that this way of juxtaposing recognisable forms into fantastic imaginative compositions is the result of our imagination being pushed by our inability to sense in the old inherent way.
From the point of view of evolutionary psychology our mind is working to suppress an inherent sensation of objects and events that once gave our distant ancestors the ability to experience without intelligent awareness. This 'feeling' is still generated in our minds, but it manifests itself into a sensation of confusion because our intelligence possesses no way to impose forms it can recognise over the old sensations. We find ourselves searching to find known images in our imagination, because this is the only way our intelligence has learned how to stop the primal sensation re-emerging into our mind. This creates fantastic imaginative visions, but for Leonardo, like Ernst, this way of thinking is working to suppress an underlying sensation. These artists are looking at spots and stains on walls, or wood grain, but, because this opens the mind to sensing in the old intuitive way by instinct, they find themselves working to suppress the experience by transforming it into recognisable imagery. We all begin to ‘feel’ the disturbing sensations of our old way of perception when we stare at anything without focus, but we have evolved to suppress this uncertain experience that begins to emerge in the absence of direct awareness. We therefore seek to find images we have learned to recognise to suppress the other experience, and this has become an unconscious act that we all undertake every day of our lives. For a modern artist, who acknowledges that we have inherited older ways of sensing colour, shape, sound and movement from our animal ancestors, the implication is that our mind has evolved to bury an original way of perception. This other perception will still be generated in our mind by redundant genetic traits, and some of us will get recall of any stray expressions from this old inherent way of sensing. Some of us will get an inclination for our old animal way of interpreting sight, shape, sound and movement, and we will either allow intelligence to stop this sensation re-emerging into our mind - by searching for recognisable images - or we will try to create work that provokes the inherent sensation. Some of us will realise that we need to rediscover, rather than suppress, an old inherent way of perception from the depth of our mind.
Walnut Veneer: Image © www.istockphoto.com This is an example of an object that generates the uncertain 'feeling' that our intelligence has evolved to suppress in day-to-day awareness. Leonardo de Vinci and Max Ernst saw this experience as a source of imaginary visuals, rather than the imagery being imposed by intelligence to suppress any sensation generated by uncertainty. When confronted by an image like this, with no immediate form of recognition, our mind begins to be disturbed by an old inherent way of sensing. We have evolved powers of perception to remove this old disturbing experience that triggers instinctive respones, and so we find ourselves searching for imaginary images that we know how to identify in what we see.
"Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and there are many more other, latent realities. Things appear to assume a broader and more diversified meaning, often seemingly contradicting the rational experience of yesterday. There is a striving to emphasize the essential character of the accidental".
From Creative Credo 1920. This translation by Norbert Gunterman from The Inward Vision: Drawings and Writings by Paul Klee (New York: Abrams 1959) pp 5-10.
Paul Klee believed “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible”. I am more inclined to believe art – as an experience generated in the mind by the way we interpret sight, shape, sound and movement into visual form – gives perceptive individuals like Klee recall of an old inherent way of sensing. Klee looks towards “The Nature of Nature” in his work, or, as I would have it, a lost way of sensing an object or an event that brings recall of a natural state of mind. To me we have evolved an artificial way of sensing objects and events by calling to mind intellectual ideas that suppress our natural responses to what confronts us. These powers will have been generated in the first place by animal instinct that look towards objects and events void of intellectual and intelligent considerations, and this experience is now suppressed in all we see and do before we can recall it. In painting this act of suppression is clear to see when we look to an imaginary world inside a picture frame and we ignore the reality of the paint and canvas. We look into an imaginary landscape, or a portrait, or whatever, and, under this principle, abstraction with no recognisable image would make the reality of the object – the paint and canvas – more of a direct experience of a natural way of sensing by intuition. To come to experience this sensation you need to get away from the age old belief that you can arrive at the art experience by standing outside a work and look into an imaginary world. This way of thinking about the art experience gives you an intellectual idea that suppresses the direct sensation of what confronts you. Klee did not go as far as to completely let go of that imaginary space, but he knew that in the free unguided act of drawing the sense of reality was exposed. That he chose to bring this natural way of sensing back to recognisable pictorial form was probably because he lived before the full implications of art created by chance and accident was fully understood. Klee still looked for recognisable images in the freedom of line and failed to realise this is the way our minds work to suppress the view sensed by instinct. It was only through total abstraction that it was realised you need to remove all recognisable images to get a glimpse of the raw reality of any object. This direct experience is what an object begins to create when you stop looking for images or meaningful content and just accept that the view sensed by intuition and instinct can only be glimpsed through chance and accident when command of the intellect is removed from our thoughts
Art and Politics
Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels at the exhibition "Entartete Kunst" On Sunday afternoon, the Reichsminister visited the exhibition in the "House of Art". To the right of the Minister of the Reich (with spectacles) the exhibition director Pistauer. 27 February 1938. Image: German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) Accession Number Bild 183-H02648
Art has always found itself embroiled in politics ever since the first civilisations of the ancient worlds. Artists always seem to get caught up in political comment because they are free thinkers and freethinking is a threat to politics. In truth art has nothing to do with politics, but artists, like all the rest of us, have to live in political environments. Even a recluse who tries to live in total isolation is not immune to this fact. The world around them will be run by those who believe we should all uphold their ideals try not paying your taxes and you will soon find out how much freedom you have in society. Politics imposes its will over all our lives and artists have often found their desire for freedom of thought has brought them into conflict with authority.
It is an age-old dilemma, but I think World War Two fucked up freethinking in the arts and we have not, as yet, fully recovered from this setback. There was a glorious time around the end of the nineteenth century when an attempt was made to free art from political requirements but, by 1937, black clouds engulfed the western world. Before the nineteenth century most artist still obeyed the established artistic practices like painting recognisable pictures, making sculptures of famous people and writing symphonic music and opera, but once this old way of working began to be challenged by new free ways of creating art objects, works began to appear that seemed to be destroying the old order of workmanship. By 1937 Hitler was ranting….
"Works of art, which cannot be understood in themselves but, for the justification of their existence, need those bombastic instructions for their use, finally reaching that intimidated soul, who is patiently willing to accept such stupid or impertinent nonsense these works of art from now on will no longer find their way to the German people. All those catchwords: "inner experience", "strong state of mind", "forceful will", "emotions pregnant with the future", "heroic attitude", "meaningful empathy", "experienced order of the times", "original primitivism", etc. all these dumb, mendacious excuses, this claptrap or jabbering will no longer be accepted as excuses or even recommendations for worthless, integrally unskilled products. Whether or not anybody has a strong will or an inner experience, he will have to prove through his work, not through gibberish. And anyhow, we are all much more interested in quality than in the so-called will…"
Part of the inaugural speech given by Hitler at the Great Exhibition of German Art, Munich 1937. Published in "Der Führer eröffnet die Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1937," Die Kunst in Dritten Reich (Munich) This excerpt in English translation by Ilse Falk.
With these words the death bell rang for free thinking in the arts. Neither Hitler, nor any of his henchmen had any concept that what an artist tries to visualise cannot be given coherent meaning through traditional work practice. The very act of ‘making sense’ of modern art destroys the thing the artist tries to reveal, because what modern art is about is rediscovery of an inherent way of sensing known to us before we impose intellectual ideas into our powers of perception. Rather than understand this idea Hitler rejected it out of hand. Despite showing mediocre artistic talent in his youth he failed to grasp the insight, and went into politics; the rest, as they say, is history. What is still surprising, even in this day and age, is how strong this need is for authoritative assurance over uncertainty. It is a human characteristic that politicians love to exploit by promising reforms that, often as not, have to be endured by the masses whilst the privileged remain indifferent. In art authoritative assurance comes in the form of traditional work practices, and even today I am often asked why I no longer paint nice pictures like I did when I was younger. I try to explain that painting pictures might be a pleasing thing to do, and will create a 'nice' experience for people to look at, but what you are actually doing is working to suppress an inherent way of sensing.
At least we have emerged from the wars with some tolerance for this idea in art, but the old need for established principles is still a powerful influence on our thinking. We are continuously faced with the desire to put down, or destroy, any new ways of thinking and get back to the old traditional order of things for fear that change will threaten the established order. Hitler was, hopefully, the last despot in the western world to command total loyalty to a dictatorial regime hell bent on repressing free thought. In art, Hitler’s attitude to traditional classic values materialised in the total annihilation of the rising glimmers of a new understanding of the meaning of art in Germany. His dictatorial regime also managed to push our acceptance of the idea of evolution into a place of fear and mistrust. Hitler used the idea of Darwinian evolution to justify his warped implementation of eugenics as a tool he could use to destroy all human diversity that did not meet his enforcement of a master race. Eugenics allows us to understand how diversity emerges in human evolution, and in the nature world, but it also gives you the power to control that diversity for your own ends. A true understanding of eugenics should help us attain a balanced tolerance of all races rather than a call for improvement through selective breeding, but the idea opens the floodgates to age-old desires to eliminate everything that is different to your own point of view.
Art is no more immune to this need for absolute authoritative assurance that leads to the suppression of different ideas that seem to threaten the established order. Art has the potential to reveal a great depth of mind and a way of sensing that we have evolved to suppress in our view of the world, but to find this experience requires an artist to abandon the old order of things. Perhaps one of the best examples of a balance between the political need for authoritative assurance and the freedom that needs to be afforded to the arts to ensure creative insight is not stifled can be gleamed for the example set up by the American Artists' Congress, organised in 1934. Whilst Hitler was working to suppress all contemporary artistic thinking in Germany, modern artists in America were being given the opportunity to develop their ideas through the Federal Art Project of 1935. This drew modern American artists even closer together and gave the likes of Stuart Davis, Mark Toby, Arshile Gorky, Willen De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and many others a sense of possibility in what they sought to discover. Giving this kind of freedom to the arts has never been easy to accept here in Europe, and most prefer art that adheres to traditional rules and technique. The problem for art, like politics, is the established rules arose to suppress the freedom of thought that is need to move us to the greater level of tolerance we would all like to come to know.
"I try to stay away from any recognisable image; if it creeps in, I try to do away with it . . . to let the painting come through. I don't let the image carry the painting . . . It's extra cargo and unnecessary."
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, New York: Clarkson N Potter, 1989, p.581.
I consider Jackson Pollock to be one of the most important painters of the twentieth century. In this statement he tells us it has become imperative for a work of art to stand alone with no reference to any recognisable image or subject. Pollock also realised the art experience is a direct sensation of an object, and cannot be given structure through an imagined space portrayed on the flat surface of the canvas. He sees that our powers of intelligence have evolved to stop the direct raw sensation he seeks to reveal from being generated by the art object, and I regard him as one of the first modern artists to try to create work through his old inherent sense of instinct.
All paintings up to this point in the history of art had suppressed this old inherent experience by directing our powers of observation away from the reality of what confronts us. Painters created images of subjects like animals, kings, queens, wars, love, etc. through recognisable images, and even abstract painters before Pollock had placed shape and colour in their work in a way that was controlled by their intelligent need for formal compositions and meaningful content. Pollock gets rid of this desire of intelligence to control the act of painting and used his powers of instinct to create the work.
Pollock claimed his work should have: "a life of its own".'My Painting' in Possibilities 1 (1947-1948). Reprinted in IAR, p18.
The direction of the art experience has changed. The old idea that art was a language that 'told stories' or 'recorded pictures of people and events' through representational images has been replaced with the realisation that what our mind has been doing is driving us to create all these wonderful images to suppress an older way of sensing, still generated in our mind by inherent traits, that once allowed us to sense the world through instinct. Artists have spent their time from our primal origins working to propel our experience of the art object away from this original sensation. Pollock, by abandoning as much influence from intelligence in his act of painting, creates an object that tries to avoid all the old values. He places before us a work that he wants us to sense without pre-conceived ideas, so that we can rekindle our old way of experiencing an object through our own powers of instinct.
"Experience of our age in terms of painting not an illustration of but the equivalent: concentrated, fluid". Jackson Pollock, handwritten statement (1950),in IAR, p24.
The fluid reality of the paint creating unrecognisable forms by chance and unintentional acts becomes the catalyst used to provoke an inherent sensation from the depth of our mind.To express the modern age, the very act of painting itself is seen by Pollock to need to reflect our understanding of how we have emerged from an animal state of mind, and that implies creating work to avoid all intellectual meaning and social comment. Such imposition of intelligent ideas over the creation of an art object have arisen in our minds to stop the old way of sensing entering our powers of perception. For an artist with this understanding the quest becomes one of having to find a way to create a work that intelligence has not controlled and cannot recognise. A work that avoids all intellectual ideas, and stands on its own. An object that, unlike anything else in the world, has to be sensed using your old inherent powers of observation that your intelligence has evolved to stop you coming to know in all you see and do.
"I think of my pictures are dramas, the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quality and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply a doorway through which one left the world in which they occur."
Mark Rothko, 1947. Published in Possibilities I p84
Rothko seems fully aware that any preconceived idea has to be moved away from exerting its influence over the act of painting so that an intuitive insight can be allowed into play to give the work a power and presence of it’s own. The canvas becomes a theatrical arena where, "Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply a doorway". There is no preconceived visualisation of the end result when Rothko begins work, and the painting becomes a record of a journey that he engrosses himself into to get away from intelligent recognisable ideas. The painting becomes a work area with quite well defined edges within which Rothko searches for intuitive insight. Action Painting represents a far more aggressive approach.
"Call this painting 'abstract' or 'Expressionist' or 'Abstract-Expressionist', what counts is its special motive for extinguishing the object, which is not the same as in other abstract or Expressionist phases of modern art."
Harold Rosenberg, The American Action Painters, 1952. Art News (New York). Reprinted in Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (New York: Horizon1959; Grove 1961).
I have always assumed rightly or wrongly that “extinguishing the object” is Rosenberg speak for what I would describe as the process whereby action painting is a procedure that stops the mind imposing all reference to any recognisable image into the act of painting. He goes on…
"The apples weren't brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and colour. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting. In this gesturing of materials the aesthetic, too, has been subordinated. Form, color, composition, drawing are auxiliaries, any one of which or practically all, as has been attempted logically, with unpainted canvas- can be dispensed with. What matters always is the revelation contained in the act. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect, the image, whatever be or be not in it, will be tension. Based upon the phenomenon of conversions the new movement is, with the majority of painters, essentially a religious movement. In almost every case, however, the conversion has been experienced in secular terms. The result has been the creation of private myths." (ibid).
Here we go again! Not even Harold Rosenberg is unable to stop his intelligence transforming a primal sensation, generated by a painting that has been created to avoid imposing any influence over the act, from projecting some idea of meaning over what he is confronted with. He cannot accept that the result cannot be given any intelligent meaning. To do so will impose false interpretation upon an experience of an object that can ONLY be sensed through your powers of instinct. Pollock knew very well what he was up against. His 'drip' painting technique was his way of stopping intelligence getting in on the act, but people come along – especially art critics - and start looking for intelligent intellectual meaning in the final result. This stops the work provoking a primal meaningless inherent way of sensing from being experienced in your mind and, therefore, because action painting is a way of working designed to create an object void of intelligent interpretation, any ideas you impose over the result will work to suppress its purpose. Action painting is a mindless act that needs you to respond without intelligent awareness to what confronts you. Like running or going to defecate, you don’t consciously think about doing these things. You set in motion inherent intuitive actions that start you running or going to the bathroom. Action painting requires the same principle of setting in motion an inherent intuitive way of responding that gives an instinctive output to the creation of an image. This experience has to be recreated by the viewer who faces the end result. That means the viewer must learn to look without imposing intelligent ideas over what they see. Few will do this, and most people will look for some form of recognisable image, or meaning in the work.
To look at something and sense it without intelligence gives a glimpse into a state of our mind generated by primal intuition. This is NOT a religious experience, but an animal sensation. You should not confuse an inherent way of sensing objects and events with the 'high' ideal that you possess godliness. This is NOT the artists remit. Leave all that to religion and concentrate on trying to recreate an old inherent way of sensing objects and events that we once lived with before intelligence filled our minds full of other ideas. If you start to think the art experience is a doorway to enlightenment you are imposing yet another intelligent ideas over this 'primal' animal sensation, and any ideas, religious or otherwise, will have been concocted by intelligence to suppress this sensation. This is what our intelligence has evolved to do, and we all act to stop our old inherent way of sensing re-emerging into what we see and do.
Mark Rothko: Art, Reality and Sensuality
"From the viewpoint of mind and purpose, no one resembles the artist less than those others who share his devices. The art of the advertising artist can be understood only by the study of the mind of the salesman. The aim of each is to sell his respective product by exaggerating the virtues and suppressing the defects. The illustrator will find his soul mate in the news reporter or tabloid photographer. The verisimilitude of his description will depend upon what appears real to his employer. The fashionable portrait painter is closest to the courtly flatterers whose hypocrisy is the ladder to material success. While the man who contrived his pictures so they look well above a sofa, as well as the decorator and stylist, shares the intentions of the confectioner, whose function it is to season luxury with the pleasure of the senses. We are here neither to moralise nor to segregate art into levels of value. Each to his own work and may he do it well, and derive the rewards which he prizes. But we must look elsewhere if we are to find the analogies in human actions to enlighten us concerning the activities of the artist. It is the poet and philosopher who provide the community of objectives in which the artist participates. Their chief preoccupation, like the artist, is the expression of concrete form of their notion of reality. Like him, they deal with the verities of time and space, life and death, and the heights of exaltation as well as the depth of despair. The preoccupation with the eternal problems creates a common ground which transcends the disparity in the means used to achieve them. And it is in the language of the philosopher and poet or, for that matter, of other arts which share the same objective that we must speak if we are to establish some verbal equivalent of the significance of art."
These paragraphs are from The Artist's Reality, Philosophies of Art by Mark Rothko. Yale University Press. New Haven and London.2004. These remarkable writing lay stored in a warehouse after the artists death in 1970. Believed to have been written around 1940-41. They have been lovingly and discreetly edited by Mark Rothko's son Christopher Rothko, and are essential reading for anyone interested in understanding modern art.
What I find when reading these words is awareness of a depth of the significance of art. In my own naïve way I picture the art experience like a big onion. Art, to me is a very layered sensation that, at a surface level is used by illustrators and advertising, or picture making or decoration, but this is the outer skin. Once you start to peel away all this practical use of art you begin to find a much stronger insight that, as often as not will make your eyes water. The art experience goes right down into a depth of mind that exists beyond any intelligent or intellectual analysis. What we are talking about here is primal awareness that is the remnant of a way of sensing the world know to our mind before we impose all the intelligent ideas we use to give structure to our conscious experience of objects and events.
People play around on the surface making art objects through their powers of intelligence. Some earn a living by using art to create things like advertising, films, portraits, or whatever, but this is distracting if you really want to get to grips with the art experience. For a truly perceptive artist, like Mark Rothko, we are talking about a state of mind we once lived with before our intelligence evolved to suppress an old inherent way of sensing. Getting an art object to entice this sensation from the depth of your mind is no easy task. For Rothko, I believe his approach lay in getting the painting to pull your mind into vast areas of imaginative space within the colour laid upon the surface of the painting. I think this was his way of opening up our minds to sensing by instinct. My approach to opening this doorway to our old state of mind lies in finding a way to create something your powers of intelligence will find difficult to recognise. There are other approaches, but they all uphold this need to stop the art object being decorative, or telling entertaining stories, or portraying intelligent intellectual content. Deep down, inside the big onion, it becomes all about sensing by intuition for a state of mind generated by primal awareness.
“I think that every painter has to have this state of mind that sometime you have to think, even if nobody looks at them, nobody buys them, and no body pays any attention to me I’ll still go on painting. That’s a necessary state of mind, not winning. I think about nothing but painting. The older I get the more I like to paint. It grows on you.”
“I have spent my time saying I want a painting about so and so, about such and such. You know, and then you have to wait sometime. Say you are going to build a difficult bridge, you have to wait and watch your mind. It comes into your mind, everything, every nut and bolt and everything. Probably take about three years of watching your mind to build a difficult bridge. Yeh, I recommend to you, find out exactly what you want, and that’s living.“
Transcribed from a filmed interview with Agnes Martin entitled, Agnes Martin: The New York – Taos Connection. Conducted by Douglas Dreishpoon at the Harwood Museum, Taos, New Mexico, June 24, 2000. Directed by Alexandra Benjamin. Made under The Oral History Project financed by The Mandelman-Ribak Foundation, in collaboration with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Agnes Martin video (opens in new window) www.vimeo.com/58162124
I am often asked, "Why on earth do I imagine artists should try to rediscover primal awareness within our view of the world? Why try to make art objects to provoke a primal animal way of looking that will be of no practical value? If, as you claim, the job of the artist is to recreate a way of inner intuitive perception surly that way of sensing the world was less successful than the intelligent way of looking we now possess? Surly, it will be of no interest because it will not offer us a way of gaining more intelligent knowledge of the world". I must admit these questions floored me for a while, but I think I can now give a good answer. I would say the reason I want to create something of no practical use that can only be sensed using your old inherent powers of animal instinct is because we all imprison our minds in a world of intelligent intellectual learning that has evolved to suppress an original way of sensing. We need to understand this, and regain some of that original awareness because without this we will be unbalanced creatures in the natural course of events. Without animal intuition we will be driven away from an original affiliation with our place in nature and this can only have a detrimental effect upon our well being.
Our animal ancestors survived for millions upon millions of years with only instinct to give them their awareness of the world. Their way of life was not as comfortable or as assured as ours has now become, but they did not pollute life on earth to uphold an unnatural existence. They lived within a perfect balanced equilibrium with the natural course of events and I believe we need to regain a little of the original animal sense of intuitive awarness for nature that upheld this positioning. We need this because it is an essential part of our being. Today we don't live in the natural world. What remains of it is isolated and locked away rather than lived within. We don't see ourselves as part of the natural course of events because we believe we hold the right to modify and design nature for our own ends. This is a sign of an unbalanced state of mind. It shows all the psychological symptoms of a disease at work in nature. A cancer on the face of the earth consuming the natural order of all things, and I believe the artists job is to try to get recall of our original alliance with nature. To find a way to learn to look in a natural intuitive way, and that means learning to sense the world as we once did in our animal past. To me, that is the real significance of art.