Tuesday, February 8, 2011


In my research on Courbet I found the need to acquire a book on 19th Century art as I had no good overview on my shelves. I picked up “Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1780-1880” by Fritz Novotny. Not a bad overview but one lacking in that it focuses primarily on the artists whose names are remembered and they are remembered because they influenced other artists although a large majority of them died with little relative recognition within their lifetimes and mostly penniless at that.

However artists who were quite famous in that century but have fallen out of favor are missing, there are only two entries that address Meissonier and no plates illustrating his work. On Meissonier “..show where unlimited naturalism in history-paintings executed by specialists can lead- to the costume piece and a ghostly, entirely unreal form of reportage.” Further “..it is astonishing how devoid of all art art can be.”

To fully understand the development of Modernism it is important to see what, in it’s early incarnations it was up against and what was the function and status of art at that time. As an artist I can’t help but say that there is a timeless aspect to art, by that I mean I can look at a Carravagio or an unknown Sienese Master and suddenly be stricken with what is labeled as Stendhal Syndrome and not know a damn thing about the usually Christian narrative being illustrated. That said though, art and artists are not living in vacuums, each generation has the weight of the far past, recent past and societal change, the present that is hazy and a future unknown and it is when they wrestle with these various things simultaneously that great things happen.

The Creative Act by Marcel Duchamp

Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity.

To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing. If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.

T.S. Eliot, in his essay on "Tradition and Individual Talent", writes: "The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."

Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.

In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.

I know that this statement will not meet with the approval of many artists who refuse this mediumistic role and insist on the validity of their awareness in the creative act – yet, art history has consistently decided upon the virtues of a work of art through considerations completely divorced from the rationalized explanations of the artist.

If the artist, as a human being, full of the best intentions toward himself and the whole world, plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about?

This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.

But before we go further, I want to clarify our understanding of the word 'art' - to be sure, without any attempt at a definition.

What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.

Therefore, when I refer to 'art coefficient', it will be understood that I refer not only to great art, but I am trying to describe the subjective mechanism which produces art in the raw state – à l'état brut – bad, good or indifferent.

In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.

The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of.

Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work.

In other words, the personal 'art coefficient' is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this 'art coefficient' is a personal expression of art à l'état brut, that is, still in a raw state, which must be 'refined' as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator; the digit of this coefficient has no bearing whatsoever on his verdict. The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation: through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubtantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.

Published in: Robert Lebel: Marcel Duchamp.
New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959, pp. 77/78.

Session on the Creative Act
Convention of the American Federation of Arts
Houston, Texas, April 1957

Professor Seitz, Princeton University
Professor Arnheim, Sarah Lawrence College
Gregory Bateson, anthropologist
Marcel Duchamp, mere artist

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

current readings and obsession

I’ve become obsessed lately with the development of art, more the evolution of art in 19th century France within and without the Salon, the era that gave us the idea of the avant-garde with artists and personalities such as Courbet, Manet and leading to the Impressionists and finally the master of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne.
The obsession is born out of a feeling or thought that the current situation we live in now in the still nascent 21st century is somewhat similar, only now the official Salon is the Museum and gallery system. More on that later.
A friend loaned me his copy of Michael Fried’s “Courbet’s Realism” which led me quickly although I am still wading through Courbet to his book “Manet’s Modernism”, then T.J. Clarks “The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers” and finally to what I would consider more a summer beach read of Ross King’s “The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism”, the problem with the King book is that the color plates are cropped and only artists familiar with the works would recognize such, nothing worse or more taboo than to talk about a particular artwork and then show it in cropped form, bad enough it’s nothing more than a reproduction in a book, why add to the issue?
The interesting thing about art history is that things are left out and then brought back in, sometimes for better or worse. Vermeer was forgotten shortly after his death to be rehabilitated in the 19th Century by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger. The interesting thing about the King book is that it talks about Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, an artist I know from some of his paintings but know little about. According to King, Meissonier was the most successful artist of his time and now basically sidelined. Frankly, he deserves to be in my opinion. Meissonier is the archetypical artist of the academy and the Salon, a historical painter of sorts with a focus as all good academicians of the French school on Napoleonic themes.
Meissonier is not up for revitalization like Jean-Léon Gérôme has been of late by the traveling exhibition by Getty, the Musée d`Orsay , etc. I recently saw the catalogue for the show at the Strand and was tempted to purchase it out of some obscene need to fling it across my room. It, Meissonier and Gérôme’s art is the kind of art you like when you are 10 years old, all theatrics and exoticism. I will posit in another upcoming essay that Matthew Barney is the contemporary equivalent of Gérôme.
Why this current need to revitalize Gérôme? A search on Amazon shows the catalogue I am referring to along with another book titled “Reconsidering Gérôme”, in these two Product Descriptions we find in the later “…was an undisputed professional success during his lifetime” and the former “analyzes his bountiful expression of a visual grammar that takes illusionist obsession to the limits of the bizarre.” The catalogue for the show I would like to point out has Gérôme’s 1872 painting “Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) on the cover.
Success is what matters now, theatricality and modern day gladiatorial battles to mask the impotence of the individual, give the masses entertainment, it is only fitting that in the revisitation of Gérôme that the catalogue display that particular painting. It is where we are as a culture but is that where we should go?


Immaterial Culture is born out of an idea for a blog I had over ten years ago, more an online arts magazine for several artist friends of mine to write without editorial shenanigans. One was a former editor of a flashy international arts magazine who quit in disgust when a savage piece of criticism regarding an exhibition at a New York gallery had the owner of such gallery call the publisher in outrage, the publisher then gave that gallery the next three covers. My own similar experience was being assigned to review a show that I thought was endemic of the artworlds collective failure in promoting art that required reading a multi-page manifesto explaining the works value as Art, my takedown of the show was denied publication and I shortly ceased writing for the journal because of the lack of integrity of the editor and publisher.

Most artists I know bemoan the lack of decent art criticism, criticism that is intelligent, to the point and not full of smoke and mirrors hiding the fact that the art being written about is bad or good. Somehow it was acceptable at one point to write plain and utter crap that was hailed as being meaningful, well that was the late 80’s and early 90’s.

That is not to say that writing or reading about art is an easy endeavor, we sometimes have no other choice than to write in ‘heady’ terms that would confuse the average lay person. Why laypeople should think art criticism or cultural criticism or any intellectual discussion for that matter should be easy, befuddles me. I wouldn’t expect to pick up a science journal for professionals in the field and understand the majority of what is being written because I am not a professional scientist. Hence we or I will sometimes, if not often venture into heady territory but I will try my best to make my thoughts and ideas as accessible as possible but I also make no guarantees.

I publish this somewhat anonymously because I want the freedom to write down my thoughts and feelings without fear of retribution within the artworld because I am an artist who must unfortunately live with the world I am given and artists, dealers and the general milieu of people in the arts industry are rather shady and immoral, in my opinion but this is nothing new.

Finally, the writings, ramblings and thoughts are just that. They are not carved in stone and my opinion is my opinion, not the word of god, not sacrosanct, not prescriptions just observations about art and culture and more than likely, immaterial.