OSCILLATING INTENSITY

16 Feb

Botticelli
Botticelli

Raphael
Raphael

Rembrandt
Rembrandt

Tiepolo
Tiepolo

Ingres
Ingres

Picasso
Picasso

Basquiat
Basquiat

Perhaps it’s not fair to the modern era to display such decadence. But I think the point stands, the trend is unmistakable. We have lost something in gaining our freedom. Freedom? you might query? What freedom is there indicated by this messy scrawl of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s as compared to the obviously sublime drafting of Raphael and Ingres? Ah but there is freedom. Freedom to distort, to use colour not according to the common sense dictates of ‘nature’ but as an expression of the imagination. To express the imagination.

Picasso rejected the European tradition of figure drawing and adopted, somewhat artificially, that of the African people. This was disingenuous, after all the African masks that Picasso raided in his quest for elegant and truthful distortions were produced according to standards even more rigid then that of the West. But Picasso wasn’t African, he was Catalan and living in the Paris of the early 20th century that hotbed of imaginary possibilities made flesh. He used the African style as a point of departure.

For hundreds of years from Raphael to Ingres the rules had remained the same and then they were vanquished. And once vanquished all bets were off. It’s no accident that Marcel Duchamp would install a urinal as an art object in an American gallery at this time. If the rules were canceled then anything could be art and if anything could be art, everything would be and eventually nothing would be as well.

Authoritarians ranging from midwest US senators to Nazi stooges to Stalinist apparachiks were opposed to modern art, violently. The midwest senator called it communism, the Stalinist called it bourgeois decadence, the Nazis agreed. The word decadence was something they could all agree on. Decadence, the Grim Slide, the falling apart, the fragmentation, the end of days. But this decadence had already been announced.

Following Courbet’s opposition to the Academy, following the Impressionists disregard for classical procedure, Gaugin announced that a painting was simply a rhythmic colour arrangment and young art students agreed with him. It wasn’t a matter of not being capable, many of modernism ‘s early figures – Van Gogh, Picasso, Klimt – could paint ‘properly’ they just saw it as tired and stale. Moreover they saw it as inherently untruthful.

The Western tradition had struggled for centuries to obtain truth by rendering nature truthfully. That is they had copied what they saw. They had contemplated the geometry of beauty knowing that ‘beauty’ was not the same as ‘pretty’. They had used technology, developed and invented it, in order to produce this mastery of nature, this rendering of realistic images perhaps in an ancient spiritual quest to gain control of it. And then, just as the world began to realize the fruits of this scientific mode of inquiry into appearances and their underlying truths, artists departed from the form. They kicked against it. They went to war against it.

Why?

Perhaps the solution is to be found before the modernist movement emerged – in the paintings of the Romantics. These people did not rebel against the formal dictates of artistic tradition but they did reject its implicit objectivity. Think of Turner’s clouds or Caspar David Friedrich’s intense yellow skies. The Romantics were the first generation thoroughly grounded from birth in the principles of Reason. They had not yet witnessed the wholesale alteration of landscape that industrialization would produce but somehow, at an instinctive level, they understood that something vital in humanity was being sidelined. At one and the same time they expressed that this same indefinable aspect of ourselves was being set loose on the world. The Romantics were an emotional volcano from which revolutions, chaos and the shattering of social bonds would escape skarpering out wild into the world.

And this arc, this hatching out of spiritual poison persisted through the ambivalence of artists and poets to the modern age: from Baudelaire to Manet; from Wilde to Modigliani; from Leger to Orwell; from Andy Warhol to David Bowie. There is in the work of all these figures the encroachment of omnipotent technology, its possibilities and the fear it inspires. Consider the novels of William S Burroughs awash with the vulgar mis-en-scene of American pulp fiction, outlaw sex and techno-political control all assembled with a view to exterminate reason and all while Reason ascends to the Patriarch’s Throne of a new pantheon.

The story of drawing in the 20th century, the history of making marks in that era of massive technical innovation is the history of a deliberately defiled trade. Whereas people accommodated themselves to a pristine world of glass and steel and clean plastic surfaces inside they were all jagged chaos and mayhem. Faces became macarbre masks, eyes wretched scratches. And finally all this was rendered entirely artificial. How long has it been since a major artist emerged from a long apprenticeship of drawing simply from nature? Does anyone still draw trees with anything approaching the philosophical refinement of Da Vinci? Well perhaps Lucien Freud counts here, perhaps not.

In the most ancient days of proto-historical circumstance the artist was a shaman. These individuals lived in a kind of acid dreamworld and the images left on the caves of south-eastern France and like places are their dreamings rendered material. They had no philosophy. They had no Aristotle or Descartes to impart lengthy treatises on the nature of Nature or the actuality of reality. They were creatures of instinct and intuition and dreaming, pure. Artists have since been subjected to the yoke of political systemization, consider the ancient Egyptian decorating the walls of Pharaoh’s tomb with elaborate illustrations of the god-king’s society and its strict hierarchies mastered by frightening gods with animal heads but there is always something… spiritual in the work that lasts.

We modern people are the first who may go to a library and access the vast history of art. We can see the truth of the above assertion and may equip ourselves likewise for material with which to rebutt it. The connection between the religious life of a culture and its art, however, is very difficult to deny. What then will our descendants say of us? We who are surrounded by countless images that mostly serve in aid of distraction or commercial promotion. We for whom the word ‘art’ is officially designated by institutional decree not on the basis of the quality of the work, nor on the feelings it evokes but strictly in terms of its complicity in an acceptable theory which has nothing to do with feelings and has no currency amongst anyone outside of specialist post-graduate institutions of continental contemporary philosophy.

We moderns who seem almost entirely addicted to some kind of drug. We moderns who suffer depression in a world where hunger is an historical curiosity or something that happens in other countries. We moderns whose art bears none of the intensity of our forebears. We are, as Camille Rose Garcia depicts, lost children, cartoon characters, drowning in toxic sludge and bewildered. Where are our shamen? They are there. But we don’t listen anymore.

Camille Rose Garcia
Camille Rose Garcia

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One Response to “OSCILLATING INTENSITY”

  1. Philomena February 18, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Actually this piece is not half bad.

    Keep digging.

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