Language – Asger Jorn
To state and attempt to resolve the problem for its part, a materialist art must put art back on a foundation of the senses. We say ‘put back’ with reason, for we believe that the origins of art are instinctive and thus materialist. It is the metaphysical aspects of classicism which have managed to spiritualize and intellec-tualise art. And it’s miserable today to see the materialists in all good faith marching along on their heads – with a realism and a naturalism which are opposed to reality and to nature, which are based on ‘illusion’. True realism, materialist realism, lies in the search for the expression of forms faithful to their content.
But there’s no content detached from human interest. True realism, materialist realism, renouncing the idealist equation of subjectivity with individualism as described by Marx, seeks the forms of reality that are ‘common to the senses of all men’.
Thus, the red flag is an expression of revolution which immediately strikes the senses, the senses of ‘all men’, a synthesis of the reality and the vested needs of revolution, a common link and not an allegory, outside the range of the senses or a symbol for ‘flag manufacturers’. We can identify ourselves only accidentally with a poor woman buying a fish.
Fougeron was familiar with the Parisian avant-garde of the 1930s, and his early work reveals his awareness of Picasso and of the Expressionist tradition. He took part in the key exhibition of May 1941, Twenty Young Painters in the French Tradition’, which was later to be seen as marking a form of cultural resistance to the German Occupation. However, Fougeron’s left-wing politics and activity in the Resistance increasingly led him away from the avant-garde towards an adoption of the Communist Party’s artistic policy of Socialist Realism. He became in effect the French Communist Party’s official painter (though he was later to be attacked by Louis Aragon for deviation from Socialist Realism). In this essay he quotes the Communists’ principal cultural spokesman Laurent Casanova, who had confirmed the party’s adherence to Socialist Realism in a policy speech to the 11th Party Congress at Strasbourg in June 1947. Originally published as le peintre a son creneau’ in La Nouvelle Critique, Paris, December 1948, from which the present translation is made. The French title plays on an untranslatable pun: ‘creneau’ means both ‘battlement’ and ‘easel’.
The drama of reality expressed by the courageous gesture of the miner, hazarding his life to gain no more than the means of subsistence, can have only an intolerable aspect to one who sees the miners’ oppression.
If we take this aspect of our present life as a starting-point, it becomes necessary to investigate why it is that the expression of reality remains so intolerable to those who are consciously or unconsciously on the side of the oppressors.
Nowadays, it is paramount that the artist should be oriented towards the formal interplay of lines and colours. Otherwise, he must accuse in his turn and commit himself to struggle. This is why one needs to judge the political significance of a realism yet to be created, like Abstract Art in 1948.
The premises of a new realism are to be derived from the richness of the feelings of a people considered as the major source of inspiration, and of subject-matter.
For the artist who is conscious of this richness, it is deserving of the skilful subordination of the relations of lines and colours. And slowly, from this point, works develop which are balanced from the point of view of content and form.
To be more precise: the realism of three apples on a plate is not at issue, on the grounds that the realization of this motif can allow as much evasion, as much aesthetic isolation, as an abstract painting can contain. It therefore remains necessary, above all, to accentuate the social reality of the subject. This will already be a serious assault on the aesthetic positions of the enemy, and, for the artists who courageously intend to carry this out, will provide the means to avoid a danger: that the effort of the painter will be futile ‘if there is not at the outset the capacity for both the masses and the artist to be affected by the same things* [Laurent Casanova, Report to the Xlth Congress of the French Communist Party at Strasbourg].
Today the artist is a prisoner to the extent that he is afraid of creating a work with simple feelings, and that he is embarrassed by such feelings, instead of being proud of putting them to the test like all honest people.
It remains to unmask these impostures thoroughly. Because when confronted by abstract painting, we do not always have the requisite rigour of thought. . . The shoulder-shrugging of the aesthetes should not intimidate us; we should not underestimate our power in any domain. To be profane is one thing. To say that one does not understand anything, is quite another. Because it is true, there is nothing to understand. The problem is not to look for something to understand, but to admit.
Admit quite openly that there is nothing to understand; and at the same time take this as measure of what one has done in the way of painting.
Painting was in the beginning cave paintings of wild animals, the terrifying food of our ancestors. Then of gods, that were believed capable of causing natural disasters. Finally, painting became a woman who gave her breast to a haloed child; a symbol of life, which renews itself ceaselessly, of a future desired to be ever more beautiful.
But today, to what idea of human evolution does painting find itself linked? To mine,’ responds one voice. Which one? That of the mailing list of a good gallery. Properly counted, that adds up to 1500 names. Amongst decent amateurs w ho take delight in the visual harmony offered by the painter, how many of them think: Ts painting a good venture in which to invest my money? What will it be worth in ten years’ time?’ This is the elite. Those who affirm it are those who can talk of nothing else. It is a lame response!
Today it is necessary to look for the elite elsewhere. That is the place where you will also find the source of inspiration necessary for an artistic renaissance: in the people, in the power of the people, because ‘those who live, are those who fight’ and art is always on the side of life.
15 November 1948.