The direction of art now presents itself as the mystery appeared to St John of the Cross; sheer and without solace. Since Nietzsche and Dada art has seemed the most inhuman of adventures, from beginning to end. Only work which would justify such a description justifies the current pioneers. And what it earns has little to do with pleasure, but rather with the most vertiginous test which it is given to man to confront, which is to lean over the depths of himself without the protection of a railing. With this much at stake, ideas which seem unchangeable are questioned, if not swept away, once and for all.
Since Impressionism these notions of beauty, form, space, aesthetics, have all been to greater or lesser extents subject to question. However, until now, even the most aggressive works mishandled these ideas, turned their backs on them, attacked them, denied them; but in any case went against them (which is still a way of recognizing them). Current works operate totally outside these ideas, totally indifferent to them, as if ignorant of them, as if they had never existed. Dada was the great break. Until then, Cubism included, all the classical criteria were still in play despite the anarchic appearances; order, composition, balance, rhythm. These all directly descended from a humanism which was en route to exhaustion, but which had a continuing existence thanks to established routines, prevalent among both artists and collectors. Until Dada (and with the exception of the great German Expressionist movement, whose capital importance is only just being recognized) all the various ‘isms’ were only outwardly revolutionary, in a sort of Romanticism according to which adventure involved devaluing accepted laws in some spectacular act of sacrilegious negation. But there was no real difference of approach, no recognition that these worn-out laws were a matter of total indifference, offering no real possibilities for the future.
When one visits collections of contemporary paintings, one does not have the impression that the lesson of Dada contributed much. One asks oneself how, after Dada, it is possible to continue such mediocre, useless production; how, above all, it is possible that people should waste their lives in such stimulating activities without knowing themselves to be impostors of the first water. However, I believe that there is something radically new, namely, people’s awareness that it is impossible to create some new ‘ism’; there is also a certain prudishness amongst artists in the handling of form, this stupid form whose name justifies so many pursuits to the detriment of intoxication with life and the development of mystery. Even those of us with the worst conscience now know that there is only adventure by the individual, and that form can only take its seat at the banquet which is contemporary art if it contents itself with a place just like the others, and is even prepared to give up its place to another. It thus gives itself a good alibi, which a habitual offender always needs. To the extent that our art is different, a new etiquette is worked out which does not improve old criteria, but rather is totally different in both its values and assumptions.
Our interest is not in movements, but in something much rarer, authentic Individuals. Movements have only ever existed because the majority of people follow the group in which they find security from their own cowardice. The only free person is the leader, if there really is a group, not just the little lifeless coteries so dear to the hearts of our modern intellectual milieux.
The individual only remains himself in collective experiences in so far as he takes these experiences in hand, by using them to develop his personal potential. This supposes a total confidence in oneself, as well as faith in something incommensurable and undiscussable, something precise and endless; on a scale as humanly superhuman as the NADA of St John of the Cross. In the face of this, the swarm of little movements with their history-making theological-critical quarrels about art are of negligible importance.
The individual worthy of this title is not a prisoner of his past, but rather of his future. He is not afraid that one can draw these apparent contradictions from him, since these are only the facile games of immature individuals; of weaklings who have never developed for fear of making some terrible mistake. On the contrary, such mistakes are a springboard for those whose works flourish in the generous spirit of the great adventure. The key to the work, then, is its ultimate or complete nature; no alchemist is worthy of this name until he has completed the great work and he does not deserve it during the necessary preliminary stages, during which the fools don’t hesitate to pour out their hostility. These fools maliciously believe they can drag this individual back into their ranks, as his very existence is a challenge both to their presence and to the inevitable fact of their numerousness. Art is at the opposite extreme to universal suffrage.
But another confession: form has for too long lost all hope of becoming an incarnation of the god of formalism. Life has become totally estranged from form; expressiveness is no longer compatible with it. The sculptors of form, those who want all the beliefs of the great adventure to live in the sculpture, seek every means to express themselves differently than actually through form. Painters, with the apparent freedom of an infinitely multiple technique deliberately act without it. They behave with casual indifference to the conventional wisdom, and act without form, in a profound anarchy. The Occidental world is finally discovering the Sign; it explodes it in the vehemence of a transcendental calligraphy, of a hyper-significance intoxicated with the cruel vertigo of a pure future.
From Un Autre, Michel Tapié, 1952.