Art as Art – Ad Reinhardt
The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art-as-art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.
The one object of fifty years of Abstract Art is to present art-as-art and as nothing else, to make it into the one thing it is only, separating and defining it more and more, making it purer and emptier, more absolute and more exclusive – non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist, non-subjective. The only and one way to say what Abstract Art or art-as-art is, is to say what it is not.
The one subject of a hundred years of modern art is that awareness of art of itself, of art preoccupied with its own process and means, with its own identity and distinction, art concerned with its own unique statement, art conscious of its own evolution and history and destiny, toward its own freedom, its own dignity, its own essence, its own reason, its own morality and its own conscience. Art needs no justification with ‘realism’ or ‘naturalism,’ ‘regionalism’ or ‘nationalism,’ ‘individualism’ or ‘socialism’ or ‘mysticism,’ or with any other ideas.
The one content of three centuries of European or Asiatic art and the one matter of three millennia of Eastern or Western art, is the same ‘one significance’ that runs through all the timeless art of the world. Without an art-as-art continuity and art-for-art’s-sake conviction and unchanging art spirit and abstract point of view, art would be inaccessible and the ‘one thing’ completely secret.
The one idea of art as ‘fine,’ ‘high,’ ‘noble,’ ‘liberal,’ ideal’ of the seventeenth century is to separate fine and intellectual art from manual art and craft. The one intention of the word ‘aesthetics’ of the eighteenth century is to isolate the art experience from other things. The one declaration of all the main movements in art of the nineteenth century is of the ‘independence’ of art. The one question, the one principle, the one crisis in art of the twentieth century centers in the uncompromising ‘purity’ of art, and in the consciousness that art comes from art only, not from anything else.
The one meaning in art-as-art, past or present, is art meaning. When an art object is separated from its original time and place and use and is moved into the art museum, it gets emptied and purified of all its meanings except one. A religious object that becomes a work of art in an art museum loses all its religious meanings. No one in his right mind goes to an art museum to worship anything but art, or to learn about anything else.
The one place for art-as-art is the museum of fine art. The reason for the museum of fine art is the preservation of ancient and modern art that cannot be made again and that does not have to be done again. A museum of fine art should exclude everything but fine art, and be separate from museums of ethnology, geology, archaeology, history, decorative arts, industrial arts, military arts, and museums of other things. A museum is a treasure house and tomb, not a counting-house or amusement center. A museum that becomes an art curator’s personal monument or an art-collector-sanctifying establishment or an art-history manufacturing plant or an artists’ market block is a disgrace. Any disturbance of a true museum’s soundlessness, timelessness, airlessness, and Hfelessness is a disrespect.
The one purpose of the art academy university is the education and ‘correction of the artist’-as-artist, not the ‘enlightenment of the public’ or the popularization of art. The art college should be a cloister-ivyhall-ivory-tower-community of artists, an artists’ union and congress and club, not a success school or service station or rest home or house of artists’ ill-fame. The notion that art or an art museum or art university ‘enriches life’ or ‘fosters a love of life’ or ‘promotes understanding and love among men’ is as mindless as anything in art can be. Anyone who speaks of using art to further any local, municipal, national, or international relations is out of his mind.
The one thing to say about art and life is that art is art and life is life, that art is not life and that life is not art. A ‘slice-of-life’ art is no better or worse than a ‘slice-of-art’ life. Fine art is not a ‘means of making a living’ or a ‘way of living a life,’ and an artist who dedicates his life to his art or his art to his life burdens his art with his life and his life with his art. Art that is a matter of life and death is neither fine nor free.
The one assault on fine art is the ceaseless attempt to subserve it as a means to some other end or value. The one fight in art is not between art and non-art, but between true and false art, between pure art and action-assemblage art, between abstract and surrealist-expressionist Anti-art, between free art and servile art. Abstract Art has its own integrity, not someone else’s ‘integration’ with something else. Any combining, mixing, adding, diluting, exploiting, vulgarizing, or popularizing Abstract Art deprives art of its essence and depraves the artist’s artistic consciousness. Art is free, but it is not a free-for-all.
The one struggle in art is the struggle of artists against artists, of artist against artist, of the artist-as-artist within and against the artist-as-man, -animal, or -vegetable. Artists who claim their artwork comes from nature, life, reality, earth or heaven, as ‘mirrors of the soul’ or ‘reflections of conditions’ or ‘instruments of the universe,’ who cook up ‘new images of man’ – figures and ‘nature-in-abstraction’ – pictures, are subjectively and objectively rascals or rustics. The art of ‘figuring’ or ‘picturing’ is not a fine art. An artist who is lobbying as a ‘creature of circumstances’ or logrolling as a ‘victim of fate’ is not a fine master artist. No one ever forces an artist to be pure.
The one art that is abstract and pure enough to have the one problem and possibility, in our time and timelessness, of the ‘one single grand original problem’ is pure abstract painting. Abstract painting is not just another school or movement or style but the first truly unmannered and untrammeled and unentangled, styleless, universal painting. No other art or painting is detached or empty or immaterial enough.
The one history of painting progresses from the painting of a variety of ideas with a variety of subjects and objects, to one idea with a variety of subjects and objects, to one subject with a variety of objects, to one object with a variety of subjects, then to one object with one subject, to one object with no subject, and to one subject with no object, then to the idea of no object and no subject and no variety at all. There is nothing less significant in art, nothing more exhausting and immediately exhausted, than ‘endless variety.’
The one evolution of art forms unfolds in one straight logical line of negative actions and reactions, in one predestined, eternally recurrent stylistic cycle, in the same all-over pattern, in all times and places, taking different times in different places, always beginning with an ‘early’ archaic schematization, achieving a climax with a ‘classic’ formulation, and decaying with ‘late’ endless variety of illusionisms and expressionisms. When late stages wash away all lines of demarcation, framework, and fabric, with ‘anything can be art,’ ‘anybody can be an artist,’ ‘that’s life,’ ‘why fight it,’ ‘anything goes,’ and ‘it makes no difference whether art is abstract or representational,’ the artists’ world is a mannerist and primitivist art trade and suicide-vaudeville, venal, genial, contemptible, trifling.
The one way in art comes from art working and the more an artist works the more there is to do. Artists come from artists, art forms come from art forms, painting comes from painting. The one direction in fine or Abstract Art today is in the painting of the same one form over and over again. The one intensity and the one perfection come only from long and lonely routine preparation and attention and repetition. The one originality exists only where all artists work in the same tradition and master the same convention. The one freedom is realized only through the strictest art discipline and through the most similar studio ritual. Only a standardized, prescribed, and proscribed form can be imageless, only a stereotyped image can be formless, only a formularized art can be formulaless. A painter who does not know what or how or where to paint is not a fine artist.
The one work for a fine artist, the one painting, is the painting of the one-size canvas – the single scheme, one formal device, one color-monochrome, one linear division in each direction, one symmetry, one texture, one free-hand brushing, one rhythm, one working everything into one dissolution and one indivisibility, each painting into one overall uniformity and non-irregularity. No lines or imaginings, no shapes or composings or representings, no visions or sensations or impulses, no symbols or signs or impastos, no decoratings or colorings or picturings, no pleasures or pains, no accidents or ready-mades, no things, no ideas, no relations, no attributes, no qualities – nothing that is not of the essence. Everything into irreducibility, unreproducibility, imperceptibility. Nothing ‘usable,’ ‘manipulatable,’ ‘salable,’ ‘dealable,’ ‘collectible,’ ‘graspable.’ No art as a commodity or a jobbery. Art is not the spiritual side of business.
The one standard in art is oneness and fineness, Tightness and purity, abstractness and evanescence. The one thing to say about art is its breathlessness, lifelessness, deathlessness, contentlessness, formlessness, spacelessness, and timelessness. This is always the end of art.
Originally published in Art International, VI, no. 10, Lugano, December 1962.