Previous: Larry Poons is the Honey Badger of Painting

Next: Placed


Post #1641 • February 5, 2014, 5:45 PM • 1 Comment

One of the few art theories of interest to come along in recent years—that is to say, one of the few that didn't arrive stillborn—is Michael Paraskos's explorations of anarchy as it applies to art. Paraskos, essentially, restates Herbert Read's division between culture and art, but with greater emphasis on anarchy and its promise for freeing contemporary art from its current philosophical sclerosis.

The argument, briefly, is that art and culture are two different phenomena. This is Read's contention in his 1963 book To Hell With Culture, summarized thus by Paraskos:

To hell with culture because for people like Read culture is an imposed theory of society. To hell with culture because far more fundamentally than the government, or the economically dominant class, or the other institutional agents of social control, culture is the state. To hell with culture because culture stands between the individual and him or herself.

The title of Read's book is a quote from the sculptor Eric Gill, about whom Read had published a book the same year. When will the revolutionary leaders realise that culture is dope, a worse dope than religion; for even if it were true that religion is the opiate of the people, it is worse to poison yourself than to be poisoned, and suicide is more dishonourable than murder. To hell with culture, culture as a thing added like a sauce to otherwise unpalatable stale fish!

If that sounds faintly Russian to you, congratulations for noticing. Read's and Gill's anarchism derived from the anarcho-communism of Kropotkin.

Lastly, you, young artist, sculptor, painter, poet, musician, do you not observe that the sacred fire which inspired your predecessors is wanting in the men of today? that art is commonplace and mediocrity reigns supreme?

Could it be otherwise? The delight of having rediscovered the ancient world, of having bathed afresh in the springs of nature which created the masterpieces of the Renaissance no longer exists for the art of our time; the revolutionary ideal has left it cold until now, and, failing an ideal, our art fancies that it has found one in realism when it painfully photographs in colors the dewdrop on the leaf of a plant, imitates the muscles in the leg of a cow, or describes minutely in prose and verse the suffocating filth of a sewer, the boudoir of a whore of high degree.

"But, if this is so, what is to be done?" you say. If, I reply, the sacred fire that you say you possess is nothing better than a smoldering wick, then you will go on doing as you have done, and your art will speedily degenerate into the trade of decorator of tradesmen's shops, of a purveyor of librettos to third-rate operettas, and tales for Christmas Annuals—most of you are already running down that grade with a head of steam on...

But, if your heart really beats in unison with that of humanity, if like a true poet you have an ear for Life, then gazing out upon this sea of sorrow whose tide sweeps up around you, face to face with these people dying of hunger, in the presence of these corpses piled up in the mines, and these mutilated bodies lying in heaps on the barricades, looking on these long lines of exiles who are going to bury themselves in the snows of Siberia and in the marshes of tropical islands; in full view of this desperate battle which is being fought, amid the cries of pain from the conquered and the orgies of the victors, of heroism in conflict with cowardice, of noble determination face to face with contemptible cunning—you cannot remain neutral; you will come and take the side of the oppressed because you know that the beautiful, the sublime, the spirit of life itself are on the side of those who fight for light, for humanity, for justice!

Paraskos, citing Read, notes that Kropotkin asserted that in an anarchist society there would be no artists because every human activity by every human being would be done in the spirit of art. He remarks, however, that the institutions' power to absorb such activities into a cultural context is limitless, far exceeding the capacity of even radical forms like street art and protest art to resist such institutionalization. Indeed, this is how Marxism and its descendants in postmodernism became so comfortably ensconced in the institutions, and why contemporary work presented there invariably carries or is imputed with political overtones. His solution:

If reality, as we understand it, is culture, is the cliché, is the imposed, then to be outside that conception of reality is to be in heaven. To hell with culture is to heaven with art, but art defined as the attempt to resolve the ‘immensely enigmatical’ [as Zola put it] experience of the world, and not as a predetermined cultural trope. For the bourgeois-marxist, and their kith and kin, that world outside culture does not even exist, so how can the anarchist share with them a common destination when the they deny the existence of that destination? When they deny the possibility of a human being that is freed from culture? In this sense radicalism in art is not the adoption of radical culture, it is the absence of culture...

Elsewhere, he elaborates:

[W]hereas marxism and conceptualism view art as either the reflection of the world or the illustration of ideas in the world, anarchist art theory suggests that art is creative. It can create new things. It can show us things that have never existed before. It can take us outside our world, in the way that great artists have taken us outside our world in the past to show us visions of the gods and saints in heaven, mythological Arcadias, or even extraordinary abstract spaces that are unlike anything we see in our world. Whilst anarchist art theory might accept a framework for art it denies limits being placed on what art can reveal to us within that framework. In fact anarchist art theory suggests this is the real purpose or function of art, to show us new worlds and even create those worlds for us.

The logic behind this is simple. In the same way anarchist political activists reject society because it imposes on us predetermined ideas about social life, so anarchist art theory rejects the illustration of society because it too imposes predetermined ideas. In both cases if you reject that which already exists you have by default to create something new. And that becomes the starting point for a theory for the creative possibility of art.

In conversations I've had online with Paraskos and his associate Clive Head, they've spoken about this anarchism as a personal rather than political anarchism. (Wikipedia says that Politically, Read considered himself an anarchist, albeit in the English quietist tradition of Edward Carpenter and William Morris and that he was not too put out to accept a knighthood.) It is a desire for freedom from the impositions of culture, both as embodied by the state and their institutions as well as the conventions of art itself. I protested to Head that he was going to have to accept some set of conventions. Using shading to model form is a convention. Conventions, as I've written before, are enabling. The point is to have command over conventions, to choose them, to accept their restraints as a means to an end, and to freely discard them when they no longer serve their purpose. Even that much restraint troubled him, though.

Greenberg offers a way out here. For Read, culture is an outside imposition of predetermined tropes, as Paraskos aptly puts it, upon art. In Plight of Our Culture (1953) Greenberg had already identified this standardization as the essential tendency of the middlebrow.

Middlebrow culture, because of the way in which it is produced, consumed, and transmitted, reinforces everything else in our present civilization that promotes standardization and inhibits idiosyncrasy, temperament, and strong-mindedness; it functions as order and organization but without ordering or organizing. In principle, it cannot master and preserve fresh experience or express and form that which has not already been expressed and formed. Thus it fails, like lowbrow culture, to accomplish what is, perhaps, the most important task of culture for people who live in a changing, historical society: it cannot maintain continuity in the face of novelty, but must always forget and replace its own products.

But standardization is not the exclusive property of the middlebrow. In fact, Greenberg observed that these standardizations originate in successful art in the first place and rot it from within. In his essay Post Painterly Abstraction he writes:

The most conspicuous of the mannerisms into which Painterly Abstraction has degenerated is what I call the "Tenth Street touch" (after East Tenth Street in New York), which spread through abstract painting like a blight during the 1950s. The stroke left by a loaded brush or knife frays out, when the stroke is long enough, into streaks, ripples, and specks of paint. These create variations of light and dark by means of which juxtaposed strokes can be graded into one another without abrupt contrasts. (This was an automatic solution for one of the crucial technical problems of abstract painting: that of asserting the continuity of the picture plane when working more or less "in the flat" -- and it's one of the reasons why the "Tenth Street touch" caught on the way it did.) Out of these close-knit variations or gradations of light and dark, the typical Abstract Expressionist picture came to be built, with its typical density of accents and its packed, agitated look.

In all this there was nothing bad in itself, nothing necessarily bad as art. What turned this constellation of stylistic features into something bad as art was its standardization, its reduction to a set of mannerisms, as a dozen, and then a thousand, artists proceeded to maul the same viscosities of paint, in more or less the same ranges of color, and with the same "gestures," into the same kind of picture. And that part of the reaction against Painterly Abstraction which this show tries to document is a reaction more against standardization than against a style or school, a reaction more against an attitude than against Painterly Abstraction as such.

Writing about late Picasso in 1966:

He knows that the making of major art means taking chances. But they are taken by rote, mechanically and arbitrarily, their terms set not by the highest art and best taste of this present time, but by himself and his own retarded taste.

These and related observations are, in my opinion, the core realization of Greenberg's modernism and the part most worth preserving. Restated, they say that apart from mere competence, there are no formulas for quality. The corollary is that formulas are a reliable method for making art that isn't very good. Techniques and conventions have to be used in a living way in order to have their utmost effect, by people with taste, under circumstances that allow their employment. That "living way" has to be intuited. Even then the possible iterations get used up sooner or later. You recognize the middlebrows by their efforts to accommodate formulas, rote techniques, broader tastes, and wider circumstances under which successes can take place. Culture as condemned by Read might better be called standardized culture, at which point he and Greenberg are not so far from one another.

Personally, I would amplify this notion. Properly understood, modernism rejects the link between artistic formulas and good art just as anarchism rejects the link between laws and good society and atheism rejects the link between deities and good existence. It's not that good art, good society, and good existence are impossible or undesirable, but that formulas, laws, and deities are unreliable or even faulty mechanisms for achieving them. The example of anarchism is especially apt, but to see why, we need to turn to a different form of anarchism.

As mentioned previously, Read's and Paraskos's anarchism come out of Kropotkin. There's another strain, however, that grew out of a wholly different reaction to Marx. Marx had a contemporary critic named Eugen Boehm-Bawerk, who had read economic treatises by Carl Menger looking at a phenomenon that F.A. Hayek termed spontaneous order. According to Bruce J. Caldwell,

The most famous example of a spontaneous order in Menger is his theory of money. Money is the unintended outcome of individuals' attempts to improve their chances to get what they want through barter. They find that if they trade less marketable commodities for more marketable ones, they can increase the barter opportunities open to them. Eventually one commodity emerges as the most marketable and becomes institutionalized as money. Notice that this is a process in which the outcome is neither deliberately designed nor predictable in advance. An increase in knowledge results, but it is not knowledge that is searched for. Such processes are mentioned again and again in Menger. The outcome of all of them is a new convention or institution that aids individuals to satisfy their wants better by following some new pattern.

Boehm-Bawerk had a student named Ludwig von Mises, and von Mises had one named Murray Rothbard. Rothbard realized that free action by individuals was the only way to conduct the affairs of civilization without resorting to force, which is a great evil even when (perhaps especially when) exerted by the broadly-conceived state. Rothbard called his views anarcho-capitalism. The impositions of the state on the individual are far more serious matters than the impositions of standardized culture on the artist, but the act of resistance to each has the same essential purpose, to allow for spontaneous order. It's up to individuals bristling against standardized culture to heed their own artistic dictates. Modernism can thus be reconceived for the present as anarcho-modernism, and its work is to identify such standardizations and replace them with something better, something more alive.



Danny Shain

May 1, 2014, 12:16 AM

Herbert Read was a great writer and it is refreshing to see him getting attention. I recommend The Forms of Things Unknown as one of my favorite titles.



Other Projects


Design and content ©2003-2022 Franklin Einspruch except where otherwise noted