The Modern Painter’s World – Robert Motherwell

I must apologize for my subject, which is that of the relation of the painter to A middle-class world. This is not the most interesting relation by which to grasp our art. More interesting are the technical problems involved by the evolution of artistic structure. More fundamental is the individual problem, the capacity of an artist to absorb the shocks of reality, whether coming from the internal for external world, and to reassert himself in the face of such shocks, as when a dog shakes off water after emerging from the sea. The twentieth century has been one of tremendous crises in the external world, yet, artistically speaking, it has been predominantly a classic age. In such epochs it is architecture, not painting or poetry or music, which leads. Only modern architecture, among the great creations of twentieth-century art, is accepted quite naturally by everyone. Both Surrealist and ‘non-figurative’ painting, with which I am concerned in this lecture, are the feminine and masculine extremes of what, when we think of the post-impressionists, the fauves, the cubists, and the art which stems, in conception, from them, has been a classic age.

Great art is never extreme.

Criticism moves in a false direction, as does art, when it aspires to be a social science. The role of the individual is too great. If this were not so, we might all well despair. The modern states that we have seen so far have all been enemies of the artist; those states which follow may be, too.

Still, the social relation is a real one. [. . .]

The function of the artist is to express reality as felt. In saying this, we must remember that ideas modify feelings. The anti-intellectualism of English and American artists has led them to the error of not perceiving the connection between the feeling of modern forms and modern ideas. By feeling is meant the response of the ‘body-and-mind’ as a whole to the events of reality. [. . .]

The function of the modern artist is by definition the felt expression of modern reality. This implies that reality changes to some degree. This implication is the realization that history is ‘real,’ or, to reverse the proposition, that reality has a historical character. Perhaps Hegel was the first fully to feel this. With Marx this notion is coupled with the feeling of how material reality is.

It is because reality has a historical character that we feel the need for new art. The past has bequeathed us great works of art; if they were wholly satisfying, we should not need new ones. From this past art, we accept what persists qua eternally valuable, as when we reject the specific religious values of Egyptian or Christian art, and accept with gratitude their form. Other values in this past art we do not want. To say this is to recognize that works of art are by nature pluralistic: they contain more than one class of values. It is the eternal values that we accept in past art. By eternal values are meant those which, humanly speaking, persist in reality in any space-time, like those of aesthetic form, or the confronting of death.

Not all values are eternal. Some values are historical – if you like, social, as when now artists especially value personal liberty because they do not find positive liberties in the concrete character of the modern state. It is the values of our own epoch which we cannot find in past art. This is the origin of our desire for new art. In our case, for modern art …

The term ‘modern’ covers the last hundred years, more or less. Perhaps it was Eugene Delacroix who was the first modern artist. But the popular association with the phrase ‘modern art’ like that of mediaeval art, is stronger than its historical denotation. The popular association with mediaeval art is religiousness. The popular association with modern art is its remoteness from the symbols and values of the majority of men. There is a break in modern times between artists and other men without historical precedent in depth and generality. Both sides are wounded by the break. There is even hate at times, though we all have a thirst for love.

The remoteness of modern art is not merely a question of language, of the increasing ‘abstractness’ of modern art. Abstractness, it is true, exists, as the result of a long, specialized internal development in modern artistic structure. But the crisis is the modern artist’s rejection, almost in toto, of the values of the bourgeois world. In this world modern artists form a kind of spiritual underground.

Modern art is related to the problem of the modern individual’s freedom. For this reason the history of modern art tends at certain moments to become the history of modern freedom. It is here that there is a genuine rapport between the artist and the working-class. At the same time, modern artists have not a social, but an individualist experience of freedom: this is the source of the irreconcilable conflict between the Surrealists and the political parties of the working-class.

The social condition of the modern world which gives every experience its form is the spiritual breakdown which followed the collapse of religion. This condition has led to the isolation of the artist from the rest of society. The modern artist’s social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world.

No synthesized view of reality has replaced religion. Science is not a view, but a method. The consequence is that the modern artist tends to become the last active spiritual being in the great world. It is true that each artist has his own religion. It is true that artists are constantly excommunicating each other. It is true that artists are not always pure, that sometimes they are concerned with their public standing or their material circumstance. Yet for all that it is the artists who guard the spiritual in the modern world.

The weakness of socialists derives from the inertness of the working-class. The weakness of artists derives from their isolation. Weak as they are, it is these groups who provide the opposition. The socialist is to free the working-class from the domination of property, so that the spiritual can be possessed by all. The function of the artist is to make actual the spiritual, so that it is there to be possessed. It is here that art instructs, if it does at all.

In the spiritual underground the modern artist tends to be reduced to a single subject, his ego . . . This situation tells us where to expect the successes and failures of modern art. If the artist’s conception, from temperament and conditioning, of freedom is highly individualistic, his egoism then takes a romantic form. Hence the Surrealists’ love at first sight for the Romantic period, for disoriented and minor artists: individualism limits size. If the artist, on the contrary, resents the limitations of such subjectivism, he tries to objectify his e go. In the modern world, the way open to the objectivization of the ego is through form. This is the tendency of what we call, not quite accurately, . Romanticism and formalism both are responses to the modern world, a rejection, or at least a reduction, of modern social values. [. . . ]

* * *

The present ruling class was able to gain its freedom from the aristocracy by the accumulation of private property. Property is the historical base of contemporary freedom. The danger lies in thinking we own only our private possessions. Property creates the unfreedom of the majority of men. ‘When this majority in turn secures its freedom by expropriating the bourgeoisie; the condition of its freedom is the unfreedom of the bourgeoisie; but whereas the bourgeoisie like all ruling classes, requires an unfree exploited class for its existence, the proletariat does not require to maintain the bourgeoisie in order to maintain its own freedom.’ [Caudwell, Illusion and Reality] There is hope therefore of ending the conflict inherent in class society.

The artist’s problem is with what to identify himself The middle-class is decaying, and as a conscious entity the working-class does not exist. Hence the tendency of modern painters to paint for each other.

* * *

The Surrealists had the laudable aim of bringing the spiritual to everyone. But in a period as demoralized as our own, this could lead only to the demoralization of art. In the greatest painting, the painter communes with himself. Painting is his thought’s medium. Others are able to participate in this communion to the degree that they are spiritual. But for the painter to communicate with all, in their own terms, is for him to take on their character, not his own.

Painting is a medium in which the mind can actualize itself; it is a medium of thought. Thus painting, like music, tends to become its own content.

The medium of painting is color and space: drawing is essentially a division of space. Painting is therefore the mind realizing itself in color and space. The greatest adventures, especially in a brutal and policed period, take place in the mind.

Painting is a reality, among realities, which has been felt and formed.

It is the pattern of choices made, from the realm of possible choices, which gives a painting its form.

The content of painting is our response to the painting’s qualitative character, as made apprehendable by its form. This content is the feeling ‘body-and-mind.’ The ‘body-and-mind,’ in turn, is an event in reality, the interplay of a sentient being and the external world. The ‘body-and-mind’ being the interaction of the animal self and the external world, is just reality itself. It is for this reason that the ‘mind,’ in realizing itself in one of its mediums, expresses the nature of reality as felt.


Magazine Dyn, november 1944.

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