Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is 21th Century Art DOA?
(or Where's Our Matisse?)

As I've noted before, I'm inclined to endorse the idea that the only subjects worthy of truly great artists are sex and death and how the two are linked. There are, fortunately, plenty of nuances within those broad subjects worthy of exploration, but in this age of cynical reason, they remain the only inexhaustible, weary-proof subjects, representing---of course---life's extremes: the potential for eternal beginnings (not to mention, ultimate ecstasy) and the inescapable, most definite end.

Donald Kuspit illustrates in the
first chapter of his serially published book, A Critical History of 20th Century Art, (see some thoughts related to its Introduction here) that these topics indeed consumed the two artists we most associate with the beginning of the 1900s: Picasso and Matisse. (Chapter 1 deals with 1900 to 1910 [for additional commentary, see Art Soldier]).

In section I of his chapter, Kuspit focuses on Picasso's obsession with the pain women (and his desire for them) caused him, offering some wonderful insights into the decision-making process behind what's considered the "first truly 20th-century painting": Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Les Demoiselles is an unhappy picture, for it is about the possibility of sickness and death, and conveys an age-old identification of woman and death, derived from the depletion and dejection (as Aristotle thought) that follows sexual excitement and pleasure. Unlike Matisse’s painting, Les Demoiselles is not about sexual fulfillment -- sexual letting go in orgiastic intimacy -- but an individual’s deliberate sexual inhibition, the worried restraint of an anxious man who has suddenly realized that sex, which is life-affirming, might lead to death. Picasso’s picture struggles with the complexities of this paradox -- the peculiar relationship between sex, as the deepest expression of life, and death, which ends it -- even as it suggests Picasso’s conflict about women and sexuality. The contrast between the foreground still life of fruit and porrón, a Spanish wine vessel, and the women -- the death symbolized by the suppressed skull [which appears in a drawing study for the painting but was obviously edited out] has passed into them, giving them an oddly predatory look, like vampires -- epitomizes this conflict. Les Demoiselles is a cautionary parable, and, in a sense, Picasso’s first truly mature as well as truly original work: it is not all gloom and doom, like the fatalistic pictures of his Blue Period, nor subliminally tender, like the subtly erotic Pink or Circus Period works, but rather a synthesis of the two, conveying ambivalence: Les Demoiselles is fatalistically erotic. It is about the terror of raw, unempathic sexuality, life-threatening sickness and elusive health, and the realization that what looks seductively real is in fact an illusion created by one’s own desire.
In section II of his text, Kuspit focusses on Matisse's less misogynistic, but ultimately less virile take on this consuming topic:

Matisse cannot go as far as Picasso did: he cannot convert the whole female body into a grotesque, dead thing, as his Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907) makes clear. Painted in the same year as Les Demoiselles, Matisse’s female nude retains a certain natural presence. Indeed, she is not in a desolate brothel, but surrounded by a flourishing nature, whose abundance her voluptuous body symbolizes. She is the healthy antidote to the poisonous Olympia and the monstrous Demoiselles. She has not been dehumanized, turned into fossilized wood -- Picasso’s punishment for her lack of love, which he needs more than sex (is this the subliminally human point of the story of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne?) -- however distorted her appearance. [....]

Matisse does not so much dominate his female subjects, as admire them, out of need for the creativity hidden in their bodies. Albert Elsen notes "the almost complete departure of the male model from Matisse’s figural work" after 1906. The Serf (1900-04), a Rodinesque sculpture, is his most famous image of a male, and it is not a happy one. He is a downtrodden, melancholy figure, for all his muscularity, implicitly helpless and passive --unconsciously castrated -- as his armlessness suggests. Is he Matisse’s surrogate, the emotionally inept, oppressed side of the vital, vigorous figure in the 1906 self-portrait? Was his Fauvism an attempt to break the mood embodied in The Serf? Was it an attempt to once and for all assert the vitality he felt he was losing....?
There are many themes running through Kuspit's discussion of the 20th Century's first decade, but underlying them all is a sense of artists being obsessed with death or a fear of sex (which are undoubtedly related). Attitudes and actions that critics have attributed to being radical or transgressive for their own sake, Kuspit counters were the only way to honestly and personally respond to the new alienating, non-objective reality the new century woke up to:

Objectivity was already up for grabs in the 19th century, when various mathematicians had questioned the mathematical adequacy of Euclidean geometry, as well as its accuracy as a representation of reality. In 1887 Henri Poincaré argued that the principles of geometry, and of science in general, were not absolute truths, but relative conventions, of heuristic value but otherwise inconclusive. In a sense, the modern frame of mind can be said to begin with this idea, which unavoidably informed art -- made it truly modern.
[...]
It is Picasso’s discovery and use of what were then alien, bizarre forms, derived from African sources, to express and suggest his personal sense of alienation, and the experience of the bizarreness of reality -- female reality -- that follows from and accompanies it, that makes Les Demoiselles the expressive and conceptual model for all subsequent 20th-century art that dares call itself avant-garde. Paradoxically, the qualities of depersonalization and derealization that inform Les Demoiselles, and that are responsible for its aura of abstractness, make it one of the most personal, emotionally realistic paintings of the 20th century.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, Heard it all in art school," you say..."But what's with your lamely sensationalistic headline?" Well, it's related to this observation Kuspit makes toward the end of his text:

Matisse’s ambition was remarkable, and remains virtually unique in 20th-century art: to invent a new art of harmony, at once cognitively and emotionally satisfying, a visual art that would overcome the dissociation of sensibility -- the split between reason and feeling -- that T. S. Eliot regarded as the disease of modernity. It would be an art of healing and reconciliation, in which opposites merge to synergistic aesthetic effect. His is the only 20th-century art that deliberately sets out to do emotional good. It has a calming effect, with no sacrifice of cognitive and perceptual complexity, and vitality.
And yet, here we are a century later and I'll be damned if I can name the heir to Matisse's mission. It's not that surprising, actually. If the 20th century could only produce one visual artist who could not only transcend the overwhelming anxieties of his age and self-doubt and think beyond himself toward a healing art, if you will, but actually had the intellect and painting chops to have his attempts taken seriously, what chance has any artist of approaching the same in the more quickly paced 21st Century?

Perhaps another Picasso will emerge (see this
extraordinary review by Jerry Saltz on the Rauschenberg exhibition at the Met...truly, a world-class critique!), but where's our Matisse? Are we doomed to an entire century of self-absorbed fear-wallowing? Matisse's generosity, for me, excuses the excesses of his contemporaries. Without him, the 20th Century is so decadent, it, well....let me try this another way... Was Matisse's ambition decidedly a failure...something only the clueless would now attempt? Some would say, "who cares" undoubtedly. Personally, I wouldn't mind so much knowing.

Yeah, I know....

18 Comments:

Anonymous james leonard said...

It would be an art of healing and reconciliation, in which opposites merge to synergistic aesthetic effect. His is the only 20th-century art that deliberately sets out to do emotional good.

The only? Wasn't Miro at least occasionally building on a similar foundation? And weren't both preceded by the work of synaesthete Arthur Dove?

On another note, could you say that a Steven Spielburg fits a liberal reading of his criteria?

1/12/2006 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...

it's clearly only Kuspit's opinion, but he bought himself some wiggle room with this qualification: "with no sacrifice of cognitive and perceptual complexity, and vitality. "

I certainly wouldn't compare Miro or Dove (whom atually I love) to Matisse on those terms. At least not and expect them to hold a candle to him.

could you say that a Steven Spielburg fits a liberal reading of his criteria?

Again, the idea of not sacrificing anything intellectually or aesthetically is the benchmark. Not sure Spielberg comes close actually.

I'm a huge fan of Matisse, I should note...for the very reason that I feel he sacrificed nothing. He can appear a bit safe for doing so, perhaps, but only if one looks too quickly.

1/12/2006 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/12/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

come on, Art Soldier...that comment was good...put it back.

I disagree with a few points, but that's what forums like this are for, no?

1/12/2006 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

JL -- love the Spielberg comparison!!

Except for the fact that Matisse's work is still very devisive (unlike Spielberg's) and has not (as M intended) created "an art which could be for ... the businessman as well as [the] man of letters ... a soothing, calming influence on the mind....". Rather, I would argue that most laypeople would still view Matisse's art as appearing very unskilled and childish -- not a calming influence on the mind, but another perplexing example of culture for ‘members only’.
As far as the other comparisons:

"with no sacrifice of cognitive and perceptual complexity, and vitality."

This is completely indefensible. Sometimes he hit the mark, but he had shortcomings too (no way, how can this be?!!). I find the argument "only if one looks too quickly" to be a way of saying "if you don't see his brilliance, then you don't have a sophisticated eye!". Yet, it would seem obvious to most that "the dance", for example, is not perceptually complex (by any stretch of the imagination) but is successful to many for different reasons (perhaps it allows them to identify with a fantasy of pure joy). Matisse's flaws are overlooked because he embodies an important myth for art-lovers.

1/12/2006 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

Sorry for the mix-up -- wasn't changing my mind, just had to fix some embarrassing typos...

1/12/2006 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I find the argument "only if one looks too quickly" to be a way of saying "if you don't see his brilliance, then you don't have a sophisticated eye!"

It is rather peevishly defensive...sorry.

Yet, it would seem obvious to most that "the dance", for example, is not perceptually complex (by any stretch of the imagination) but is successful to many for different reasons (perhaps it allows them to identify with a fantasy of pure joy).

Diagree here. There's an exquisite perceptual sophistication in Dance that you "get" in a way that tells you it's more than projection or association with happy dancing memories. Kuspit spells it out:

Color and structure are seamlessly merged -- experienced as indistinguishable, in a kind of epiphany -- in Harmony in Red/La desserte (1908), Dance I (1909), Dance II, and Music, both 1909-10, post-Fauve works that intensify the colors of Matisse’s Fauvist paintings while extending them in broad planes. The difference between the colors becomes more emphatic than ever -- the tension between the greens, blues, and reds seems excruciating, and each seems more provocatively explosive in itself -- even as they are pulled together in a magnificent, mythic reconciliation and simultaneity. The brilliance of Matisse is that he could create a sense of grand harmony with no lessening of tension and intimacy. Colors are raised to fever pitch, making harmony an unexpected revelation, subliminally felt but emotionally inexplicable.

Oh, and don't let it be said typos were ever a problem here...can't spell to save my life.

1/12/2006 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

Sounds too subjective for meaningful debate. Of course, I could never get into Impressionism either.

I've experienced more "harmony" from other artists who weren't trying so hard to create a fantasy of positivity.

BTW, I'm not a Matisse-hater by any means. He's just one myth I can't buy into -- I get the feeling I'm not his intended audience anyway (despite his claims).

1/12/2006 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

I love Art Soldier's theory - especially the last part about an ability to overlook flaws in the work. I think he's on to something with that. Perhaps this is the "reconciliation" that Kuspit refers from a more anthropological point of view.

But Kuspit's description of "The Dance" is undigestible. I disagree so completely that I'm getting acid reflux just thinking about it.

E

1/12/2006 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, ArtS and Edna, to make this more meaningful...what ARE Matisse's flaws?

Kuspit is dense, I'll agree, but I took that passage to mean Matisse has done something nearly four dimensional with line and color in "Dance."

In other words, there's a harmony in the lines (I think we all agree with that, no? the shapes of bodies and the negative spaces are, to me at least, remarkably soothing and pleasant...not just soothing and pleasant, but remarkably so); and a sophisticated harmony in the color (jarring on their own, yes, but with passages large and well placed enough to permit some transcendental dialog, an exquisite pain, if you will). And the form...well, there's nothing particularly noteworthy there, except that it's not distracting in anyway.

BUT...more than the just the juxtaposed sums of those well-considered parts, he's managed to make them work harmoniously together, transcending what's immediately perceptible...as if were you to have access to some vantage point in a fourth dimension you could see how they're technically working in sync, but because our perceptions are limited to three dimensions, we can't quite explain. That doesn't mean we can't sense it...just that we're ill-equipped to put that sensation into words.

Or something like that....

BS? Perhaps...but it comes closer to describing why I love that painting than anything else I've read.

1/12/2006 03:34:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

I don't have a problem with Kuspit's density, just disagree with his opinion, which is everywhere in Chapter 2. If you insist on debating subjectivity, I guess I'll jump in (although I could save us both a lot of time by just saying that I disagree with every single point you made about "Dance") ...

Harmony of lines -- this is the best argument, Matisse is great with line (but he's no ingres or de kooning -- the two best with line IMHO). The line of the enjoining hands and the way the diagonal of the left-side of the front figure leads into the composition is definitely the best part about this painting. Also, the curving line of the left-side of the left-most figure is elegant and successful in returning the focus to the circle. However, there's a lot of choppy, chunky stuff going on in there too. I get distracted by the contours of most of the arms, and the clunky angles of the right hip of the back-right figure and the right hip of the front figure (the same one who has the great left-pointing diagonal).

Color -- just plain disagree. Unsophisticated, childishly happy?, and unintendedly jarring and abrasive. The pink is blaah, the green ordinary, and the pale-blue dull. It works ok, but nothing special here.

Forms -- lot's that's noteworthy, and plenty distracting. Angular buttocks, balloon breasts, helmet-heads, and what the hell is that green blob they're dancing on?

Definitely not getting any fourth dimension. What I am getting is a very limited knowledge and command of paint (technique, touch, texture, etc.), however skilled his handling of line and composition may be.

My biggest problem is the subject, the fantasy of naive positivity that I alluded to earlier. Reminds me of glowingly-orange windows in fantastical landscapes, not any sort of meaningful truth.

I do think you've done an honorable job of describing why you love the painting though, I just don't get the same experience.

1/12/2006 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

Shit, now I have to back it up? OK, I'll try...

I think my fundamental issue with Matisse is his escapist approach, which is naive considering the tumult of the years he lived (war-time, etc). Not to say that we didn't and don't need entertainment, but I find his agenda to be superficial and even... kitschy. For me, he's like the Mary Cassatt of the Fauves, except that Matisse was allowed go out and find more interesting subject matter - he just chose not to.

His palette never bothered me, but his handling of paint is totally unremarkable. I would venture to say it is really, really average. There is only one painting that I like of Matisse's, and it's The Piano. For me it's all about the edges in his paintings, and in most of them the way paint meets paint makes me squirm. Those sickly little bare spots, always grayish and dry! Ew!

The whole gestalt thing doesn't really interest me - what Kuspit regards as harmony I kind of see as lack of energy. The composition, subject matter, and palette of The Dance are especially predictable, and I can't reconcile Kuspit's "excruciating epiphany" (same as Ed's "exquisite pain?") - I just don't see it. I don't see harmony as an achievement, especially one with this much longevity.

E

1/12/2006 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

"The Piano Lesson," sorry.

1/12/2006 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

To quote the immortal Mr. T, "There's too much jibba-jabba."

All the strain spent cutting through Kuspit's jive leaves you with nothing more than a clear view of someone else's interpretation of the experience of an artwork. These Kuspit prose pieces roughly correspond to the small reproductions of artworks seen in books and magazines, and are about as useful, so far as really understanding the work is concerned.

Matisse’s ambition was remarkable, and remains virtually unique in 20th-century art: to invent a new art of harmony, at once cognitively and emotionally satisfying, a visual art that would overcome the dissociation of sensibility ... that T. S. Eliot regarded as the disease of modernity. It would be an art of healing and reconciliation, in which opposites merge to synergistic aesthetic effect.

Anyone who's made art more than a few years knows that statements like this are utterly laughable. No one sets out to invent a new art of harmony, etc etc etc. It's no one's ambition. It's something that starts to happen as you deal with the problem of painting whatever you're painting. You pick up clues as you go, you see a direction in your work and pursue it or change course, you begin to get an idea of what it is you're really after, all with time.

His is the only 20th-century art that deliberately sets out to do emotional good. It has a calming effect, with no sacrifice of cognitive and perceptual complexity, and vitality.

Absurd. Kuspit is out of his mind.

1/12/2006 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

No one addressed the still birth of our century!

Consider me clueless (as if . . .)

Artists want to be liked and admired by their peers, like anyone, but this leads to bad decision making (see co-dependence) Most of the so called politics in art are just this sort of circle-jerk.

Matisse stood up to the hipsters desire to seem on top of everything (see Duchamp). He let his work show his inadequacies and vulnerabilities and ambivalence. I think he concluded the only thing an artist can do is celebrate the wonder of the everyday. That isn't naive, it is an honest assessment of what really works and what is just mutual masturbation.

1/12/2006 09:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

Yeah, well - the dude couldn't paint, that's all I'm saying.

1/12/2006 11:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Onesok markie said...

I may just be another codependent artist but I am so tired of Kuspit's and others' absolutist pronouncements. I just dont have the time nor the emotional energy to read something that reminds me of a scolding by my father. I read all of Kuspits "Art is dead" book or whatever it was called and concluded he is the fricken Pat Robertsen of the art world!
SO Matisse is the ONLY artist in 100 freakin years that made art that is both intellectually stimulating and tugs at the ol heart strings? Really? I could spit out a bunch of names but what is the point its all subjective and any of those names could be argued against because alot of em wouldnt even be painters and god forbid someone should say anything but almighty painting has any merit as a fulfilling artform ("Run, Sentence,run!"). I actually like Matisse and have a desire to see one of his abstract church installations one day. But I get much more from my fellow contemporaries because god dammit it is fucking 2006 and i dont give a shit about fricken odalisques, or bowls of fruit or pink nude asexuals dancing ring around the posey! If I did I would hang out with all the local old ladies who paint that stuff and make a ton of money because everyone around here thinks its 1906 (but thats a rant for another post) I gotta go teach the next Matisse!

1/13/2006 05:55:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I think we look at dead artists to match claims to accomplishments. You can make all sorts of claims about what you mean to accomplish when you are 25 or 35. Only the whole arc of your life will tell us if you succeeded or if it even mattered what you said in the long run.

Really, I think you can save a lot of time this way.

1/13/2006 02:13:00 PM  

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