wondrous beloved v

by Donald Kuspit

o beloved,
             where beyond words
will we find ourselves,
                             you aloof
on the mountaintop,
                            armored in reason
like Athena,
                riding in the chariot
of the sun
              with Apollo,
your smile
               more refulgent than its rays,
i below the earth
                      in the undertow
of memory,
                drained of substance
by silence,
               perpetual as the darkness
between the stars.
                      let us meet
between the extremes,
                              on the island
of the senses,
                    far from the heights
of mind
           from which we can only fall,
far from the depths
                          of feeling
from which there is
                          no return,
our consciousness quickening
                                           as our senses
            our bodies unburdened by time
as we ecstatically converge,
                                        enigmatically united
in the unconscious
                          for an enduring moment.

miserere ii

by Donald Kuspit

words never reach
                         far enough,
wonder forgotten
                        along the way,
           their meaninglessness.
left with silence,
                          i mold memory
into regret,
                the last folly
of feeling,
               spoiling the senses,
their indecency
                   my only innocence.
i long for crutches
                           to limp
to the gods,
                ask forgivenness
from the unforgiving,
from merciless fate,
                            a blessing
from those more accustomed
                                      to curse.

new children’s art

by Donald Kuspit

the child is not
                     the greatest imaginer,
as kandinsky thought,        
                            ever searching
for a new beginning
                         as his imagination aged,
finally fading into clichés
                           of consciousness.
nor is genius childhood
                              recollected in tranquility,
as baudelaire thought,
                             for there is no tranquility
in life,
           genius being restlessness made ruthless
by woe,
         constant as the blackness
beyond the stars,
                    unfathomable futility
in its endlessness.

                     lacking velazquez’s mature vision
and mastery,
                  picasso toyed with las meninas,
cheapening it into child’s play,
                                            crudely tore it apart,
a malicious boy cutting
                              the wings off a butterfly,
envious of their splendor
                                 and the mystery of its flight.
retreating to childhood
                               in expectation of rejuvenation,
he found only false innocence,
                                       unfresh feeling
and reckless indifference,
                                     the malice of incomprehension.

there are no new beginnings,
                                    only old stories
retold in memory,
                           mastery of memory the truth of art.
art is excavation
                   of the forgotten,
seized in spurts of recognition
                                     buried in myth.

the sensation of the new
                           is an illusion obscuring
the old eternity.
                  unable to lighten
the weight of time,
                      undo the limit of fate,
the new
        is a phantom promise
of infinite possibility.
                          wandering the crowded cemeteries
of consciousness,
                    the task of art
is to scoop the marrow
                              out of the bones of memory,
rob the graves
                    of the past.

the child has no memory,
                            which is why his newness
is futile.
         he is mindless which is why he lives
moment to moment.
                              he has no past,
which is why his being
                              is incomplete.
nothing yet has died in him,
                                        which is why he seems timeless.
unable to imagine the past,
                                  he is charismatically empty.

to be modern
                    is to be without memory,
to be as callously new
                               as a child,
deliberately obliterate memory
                                                to liberate innocent creativity.
but creativity is always guilty,
                                          accumulating feelings
in excruciating suffering,
                                 the wisdom of wonder
seasoning its sadness,
                             ripening it into reflection,
the raw gods remembered
                                     in its refinements,
carrying out the will of fate
                                in its designs. 
ripeness is the secret of suffering,
                                                  suffering ripens
into creativity,
                    creativity takes the measure
of memory,
                  which is why the art of the Old Masters
is memorable,
                         why the artfully new
is ephemeral,
                    suddenly spoils,
            of spoiled children.

wondrous beloved vi

by Donald Kuspit

we're together,
                   yet words apart,
             between the syllables,
our moment held fast
                            in limping words,
enduring in stuttering time,
                                        our instincts
intimate in the unspoken.

                                     senses lavish
with longing,
                 mind alert to wonder,
you fresh
             in the unscarred mirror–
let us blur
               together in the beyond,
where words are healed
                              and myths are made.
angels will cherish our bones,
                                          and our dust
will swirl in clouds
                            of consciousness
with them,
              as sublime as their mystery.
the gods will comfort us
                                    with their comprehension,
our love as ancient
                           as they are,
forlorn language forgotten
                                  as words pass their prime,
leaving us together in the boldness
                                           of their silence.

The Semiotic Anti-Subject: Postmodernism’s Repudiation of Subjectivity

by Donald Kuspit

What is postmodernism? There are all too many definitions, all agreeing on only one thing: something has changed, socioartistically as well as aesthetically. In general, postmodernism involves a sense of deja vu–a cynical sense of having seen it all, epitomized by Roland Barthes’s notion of the “already read, seen, done, experienced,” which reduces it to the fragment of a discourse–a bit of text that is a link in a chain of language, itself a dictionary of themes, as he says in SfZ. Any artist, writer, thinker invariably stands in ambiguous relationship to the existing discourse. He is its plagiarist, but he can also stand in ironical–seemingly critical–relationship to what he appropriates from it, in the sense that his new text-but in postmodernism nothing is “new,” only “neo”–can be “a double-layered or two-storied phenomenon [involving] some kind of opposition between the two levels, an opposition that can take the form of contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility,” to use D. C. Muecke’s description of irony. (1)

Muecke thinks there is an “element of ‘innocence'” in irony, but there is nothing innocent about postmodern irony. It cynically manipulates what is cynically the case to generate a sense of contradiction, incongruity, incompatibility, which creates an aura of novelty–cynical novelty–around what is otherwise foreknown. Such clever, constructed absurdity supposedly piques the reader’s interest or draws his attention, an exercise in curiosity that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile, or at least intellectually justifies it. In fact, it is a kind of intellectualization of the already intellectualized–the already known, historical, thematized, conceptualized, and thus categorically the case. The artist becomes a cunning manipulator of the linguistically given, and the viewer an educated reader, rather than a person who has a certain complex, sometimes unexpected, not always immediately intelligible experience of the art–let’s say romantic experience of it. In contrast to such a romantic person, who approaches art with no preconceptions but with a great sense of anticipation, however much he knows about its history and meaning, the trained reader knows what to expect in advance, and deftly teases the art apart, tracing its textual elements to their sources, restoring them to their thematic contexts–“classical” collective contexts. Such an analysis stays on the uncritical surface, for it does not analyze the significance of the collective thematic context, let alone bring it into question as a formulation and site of human significance and value. In Barthes’s words, embedded in Sherrie Levine’s 1982 “Statement,” art is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture….A multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”(2) Levine’s “Statement” is itself nothing but a tissue of quotations, mimicking “her strategy of appropriation,” as has been said, in that it “employs often­ quoted phrases from Roland Barthes,” indicating that it is the epitome of a postmodern work of art, all the more so because it is completely “conceptual.” The so-called critic­ analyst-interpreter’s job is to trace the quotations back to their sources, and celebrate the irony and intricate variety of their relationships. This is not unlike the old art historical tracing of influences, as though that exhausted the meaning and explained the value of an art, thus unwittingly–but Barthes is witting-debunking it. Reduced to a culturally given code of conventions, not to say clichés–its creative and imaginative difference neutralized and denied-it becomes indifferently the case, another look-alike bead on a cultural string.

Such a limited view of art as a set of masterful ironies, whose invention and decipherment both afford a certain intellectual excitement–not exactly elation-has its emotional value, especially for the artist. It defends against the feeling that art without its irony would be futile–hardly worth the trouble of making. It has to be unconsciously depressing for the artist to know that he is bound by what is already known and seemingly fated–predetermi ned–by language. And even with irony it is depressing to be reduced to acknowledging a discourse in which one is trapped. The postmodern artist is a kind of clever animal, able to juggle quotations-an ingenious but hardly innovative act. What used to be jungle cunning now consists in the artist turning somersaults in his linguistic cage, or biting his own linguistic tail–which is what irony is-because he can’t bite the keeper of his language, the mysterious keeper who taught him the language from which he can’t escape. This language was a collective fait accompli before he entered it, to his creative despair. He may bandage it over with irony, but his art still reeks of staleness and redundancy. Indeed, one might say that postmodernism makes the ironical best of staleness and redundancy . It is a sophisticated Alexandrianism, in which, to use Clement Greenberg’s words, “the same themes are mechanically varied in a hundred different works of art, and yet nothing new is produced: Statius, Mandarin verse, Roman, sculpture, Beaux-Arts painting, Nao-republican architecture,”(3) Greenberg thought that avant-garde art was an attempt “to go beyond Alexandrianism,”(4) but it seems clear that postmodern–post­ avant-garde–art involves the Alexandrianization of avant-garde art, especially its final conceptual phase and swansong. In fact, postmodernism involves the Alexandrianization of the whole history of art, which reduces to an infinitely extendible series of quotations that can be strung together for ironical effect. Indeed, putting one next to another automatically generates an ironical effect, that is, a sense of contradiction, incongruity, incompatibility, however much it suggests they meet, in some conceptual truce, or at least intellectual utopia, on the higher ground of a theme. In postmodernism, irony is as reified, overfamiliar, and predictable–as much a repeated quotation–as the art out of which it is constructed.

Alexandrianism always involves staying on and copying the linguistic surface of an art. More crucially, it assumes there is nothing behind the surface–art is all surface. with nothing that might be called “depth” behind it. In Alexandrianism, a known art is reduced to a linguistic facade, which is reified into a copy that is appropriated as a look, and as such stripped of its aesthetic and expressive implications. As Kandinsky might say, it becomes all socio-linguistic body with no human soul. Duchamp once said that a work of art eventually loses its aura or emanation, living on in the purgatory of art history. But the moment it is seen as an exercise in language it becomes a hollow ghost in an intellectual hades. For me the denial of depth is the key to postmodernism . It is a rebellious attack against and contemptuous dismissal of the modern belief in depth–the modern idea that surface is a symbol and symptom of depth, rather than to be taken at face value. Where the modern artist wants people to see the depth behind the surface, the postmodern artist thinks everything you need to know and that can be known is on the surface. Kandinsky states the modern position when he declares : ”I’d like people to understand at last what there is behind my painting…and not to be satisfied to notice that I use triangles and circles.”(5) Warhol takes a postmodern stance when he remarks: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the survace: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.

There’s nothing behind it….I see everything that way, the surface of things, a kind of mental Braille, I just pass my hands over the surface of things.”(6) Not dipping below or able to dip below the surface. one might add, because the surface is solid unbreakable glass, reflecting the artist back to himself, a grandiose gesture of narcissistic mimesis that ironically turns him into another surface without depth–a linguistic copy of an unoriginal self. In contrast. the modern artist finds the “universals or near-universals” or “archetypes” of human nature, as the sociobiologist Edward Wilson calls them,(7) in the depths of the work of art.

The Oedipean tragedy, violating “the Westermarck eff ect, which inhibits incest and the natural aversion to snakes” are two among the many examples of ancient archetypes Wilson examines. We are usually unconscious of their import, however much emotion they arouse, but they “spawn legions of metaphors that compose not only a large part of the arts but also of ordinary conversation,” Wilson notes, so that we become indirectly conscious of their significance. The arts, then, are inseparable from what he calls “the human aesthetic.” “They are invariably focused toward certain forms and [dominant] themes”–“widely recurring abstractions and core narratives” that convey “the epigenetic rules, which are the inherited regularities of mental development that compose human nature”–“but they are otherwise freely constructed.”(8) One might say their surface is constructed in such a way as to convey a humanly meaningful depth without dropping us into it so that we lose the detachment necessary for finding our way in and around and back out of it. Art helps us make the interior journey, but it also helps us make the return journey to the exterior world, so that we are not victimized by what we experience on the inside. From this point of view, the work of art condenses or compresses the journey inward to the depths of human nature and the journey back again outward to its social surface in one dynamic form. Its elements must do double duty, as it were–exist simultaneously as convincing symbols of social surface and psychic depth–of the superficial and the fundamental. Thus the artist must be, as Baudelaire said the true artist is, a “homo duplex,” that is, an introvert attentive to his own psyche and an extrovert attentive to the society in which he happens to live.

Postmodernism rejects this doubleness. The artist is only an extrovert–a passive extrovert without active introversion to balance himself. When Warhol says “I want to be a machine” and “I think everybody should be a machine” and also “I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again,”(9) he acknowledges this passivity, ultimately a failure of creativity. I think Warhol is the emblematic postmodern artist and the emblematic anti-subjective semiotic artist–the artist who deals exclusively in linguistic surfaces. Pop art has in fact been understood to be the first postmodern art, “a sort of break point in our culture,” as Jean-Louis Picard and Peter Watson point out. Watson writes: “Since it flourished, many people have become enthusiastic about contemporary art but at the same time are unable to see much merit or enjoyment in what preceded it.”(10) Where the “avant-garde forms of art that dominated painting and sculpture in the first six decades of this century” had “relatively limited appeal,” Pop art had broad appeal because “its images and techniques were familiar to everyone,” and it posed “no difficulties of abstraction, symbolism or art history to overcome.” Pop art doesn’t require depth interpretation to grasp, but rather sociological understanding and behaviorism. Pop art is “a sort of visual Esperanto…all the more striking for the fact that though it is relatively new, Esperanto is, to all intents and purposes, already dead.” In other words, it does not supply the sense of aliveness the romantic artist is so desperate for, and is necessary for emotional survival in a society that feels dead or dying on the inside. Indeed, Pop art confirms its living deadness. Watson suggests that Pop art, “in taking us back to the popular art of the nineteenth century, is perhaps reviving the wrong part of the nineteenth century, when artists earned enormous amounts of money in their lifetimes, but did not produce lasting work,” nor, one might add, creative work. Watson thinks Warhol is the Meissonier of our day.

What Warhol and postmodernism deny when they deny depth and its metaphoric rendering–creative transformation into a form that symbolizes and expresses and evokes it–is “the existence of a universal human nature,” as Wilson says. Singling out Derrida’s and Paul de Man’s “deconstructive philosophy” as “the extreme manifestation of postmodernism,” Wilson writes that from their point of view “each person creates his own inner world by acceptance or rejection of endlessly shifting linguistic signs. There is not privileged point, no lodestar…And given that science is just another way of looking at the world, there is no scientifically constructible map of human nature from which the deep meaning of texts can be drawn.”(11) Wilson responds: “The postmodernist hypothesis does not conform well to the evidence. It is blissfully free of existing information on how the mind works.”(12) Thus one of the consequences of its staying on the linguistic surface is that the inner world it conceives is blissfully free of deep mental conflict. It is a matter of internalized language. Signs are eccentrically combined into a pseudo-personal system of ironical structures that can be intellectually deconstructed. However meaningful, these are hardly the same as the inescapable organic mental conflicts–such as occur at each of the “eight ages of man,” as Erikson says(13)–that must be worked through and resolved, although they can re-appear at any age. One cannot simply accept or reject such conflicts, the way one can deliberately accept or reject linguistic signs–but on what basis? (certainly not an emotional one for the postmodernists)–but only suffer them involuntarily. They are the usually unconscious substance of depth, and postmodernism does not engage or believe in them. It lacks any sense of mental development, and, more crucially from the point of view here, it denies the dynamic unconscious. If the inner world is a derivative, extension, and construction of linguistic signs then it is more self-conscious than unconscious, and without its own dynamic.

The idea that “everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’,” as Redon wrote. so that the semi-consciously constructed surface of art is “suggestive” of the unconscious depths of the “subjective world,” which has its “own logic,”(14) dies with postmodernism. So does the subjective world. The “emotions” that Baudelaire thought supplied “the particular element in each manifestation” of beauty(15) die with postmodernism. So does beauty. The idea that painting can be a “documentation of the unconscious,” as Kandinsky’s painting supposedly is,(16) or that the “source of art [is) the Unconscious,” as the Surrealists and Pollock thought,(17) is over and done with in postmodernism . In postmodernism art does not convey “nonobjective feeling…by objective imagery,”(18) as it did in traditional art, nor does it convey nonobjective feeling by nonobjective forms. It is entirely a matter of objective imagery, indeed, overly objective imagery. Non-objective forms are socially objectified into standarized images, along with the subjective imagery that constitutes the bulk of modern art. Expressionism becomes Neo­ Expressionism, Surrealism becomes Neo-Surrealism. Objectified into one more “typical” art, Expressionism and Surrealism lose the aura of incomprehensibility or mystery that gave them unconscious resonance–the sense that their absurd imagery conveyed deep emotions that could only be experienced rather than understood–that made them provocative and intriguing.

Mondrian said that “it is the artist’s task to make forms and colors living and capable of arousing emotion,” so that “if he makes art into an ‘algebraic equation,’ there is no argument against the art, it only proves that he is not an artist.”(19) But Sherrie Levine says that “succeeding the painter, the plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings,”(20) suggesting that all the conceptual plagiarist does is make algebraic equations, crude examples of which are Joseph Kosuth’s early works. It used to be an intellectual and moral crime to be a plagiarist–to copy tradition rather than build on it, as Winnicott said, and certainly to copy the dictionary–but now it has acquired what Breton once called the dignity and status of art, assuming that art still has dignity and status and has not become, as the historian Robert Constant said it has, ridiculous. If, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, “all ‘postmodernisms’ had in common an essential skepticism about the existence of objective reality, and/or the possibility of arriving at an agreed understanding of it by rational means,” and thus “tended to a radical relativism”(21)–one only has to think of Barthes’s remark that “the realistic artist never places ‘reality’ at the origin of his discourse, but…only a succession of copies”(22) to get the point–then art also seems relative to whatever one irrationally wants it to be. As Hobsbawm says, “the modernist avant-gardes had already extended the limits of what could claim to be ‘art’ (or, at any rate, yield products that could be sold or leased or otherwise profitably separated from their creators as ‘art’) almost to infinity. What ‘postmodernism’ produced was rather a (largely generational) gap between those who were repelled by what they saw as the nihilistic frivolity of the new mode and those who thought taking the arts ‘seriously’ was just one more relic of the obsolete past.”(23) Clearly the romance of art is over in postmodernism. This hardly means that postmodern art is a new classicism, if classicism means, as Edward Wilson says it does, the achievement of equilibrium(24) –the same dynamic equilibrium, overcoming the disequilibrium that “means conflict, disorder,” that Mondrian said was the goal of art.(25) As I hope to show, in postmodernism the problem is boredom, as Warhol’s taste for boredom indicates, not disequilibrium.

I want to drive home the difference between modernism and postmodernism with a few more quotations. They are my way of more fully developing what Iwant to call the semiotic psychosis that pervades postmodernism. In such a psychosis there is the denial of any link between the linguistic sign and subjective reality. More particularly, in semiotic psychosis the linguistic sign is removed from and elevated above the context it makes emotional sense in, and from which, in a sense, it emerges, and to which, in a sense, it continues to refer long after it has become part of common sense. This radical decontextualization in effect isolates the linguistic sign as a transcendent absolute, a kind of Ding an sich standing above all the human contexts in which it might appear. Semiotic psychosis is clearly an example of omnipotence of thought. Without its emotional context, the sign loses its fundamental human meaning–broadly speaking, its function as an expression of human nature. The radical surgery of decontextualization–it is a kind of Solomonic dumbness, for Solomon was wise enough not to cut the baby in half, separating it once and for all from its real, caring mother–is the method of postmodern madness. Barthes is the grand wizard of such madness. I hope to show the folly of his separation of the linguistic sign from its expressive function–its reference to human feeling–thus diminishing its meaning.

Postmodern art does what Barthes does, wittingly or unwittingly, for it is a construction of inexpressive or sham and simulated expressive or de-expressified–once vitally expressive but now expressively redundant and overobjectified to the extent of becoming hackneyed–linguistic signs, in whatever standard form. The supposedly objective–certainly objectifying–language of theory has had to come to the rescue of art because of its emotional failings, that is, its impoverished postmodern language.

Art has had to think of itself as theory in disguise, which is the way Kosuth thinks of it, because it has lost its expressive creativity.

In his essay on Proust Samuel Beckett writes: “The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering–that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom–with its host of top-hatted and hygienic ministers, Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.”(26) Warhol’s art, and postmodern art in general, is an allegory of Boredom, while Kandinsky’s art, and modern art in general, is an allegory of Suffering. If, as Beckett writes, “the suffering of being” involves “the free play of every faculty,” (27) then suffering is more creative than boredom. Indeed, since the faculties are inhibited and deadened in and by boredom–a form of depression, as Andre Haynal argues–it renders creativity and freedom meaningless. Beckett states : “The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations…represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.”(28) Modern art is such a period of creative transition and perilous freedom-­ suggesting that it was short-lived, however much we may speak of a “tradition of the new”–and postmodern art represents a return to boredom, the boredom without which we could not adapt to living and that is itself the major mode of adaptation to much of life. If there is any explanation for the rise of Pop art–simultaneous with Minimalism, with which it shares certain boredom-inducing and symbolizing features, such as repetitive quotation and self-quotation, more particularly, straitjacketing, untransformative seriality-it is because we can tolerate just so much suffering and freedom, and finally have to capitulate to boredom, which is the most tolerable, because most passive, suffering. Anyway it is socially safer to be bored than creative. Warhol’s Pop art is a well-adapted , fundamentally boring and bored uncreative art.

The advocate of linguistic boredom in art–one of itse top-hatted, hygienic ministers–is Rosalind Krauss. Her “polemical… tone” and “combative posture,” as she calls them, belie her magisterial advocacy of linguistic boredom, signalled by her dogmatic use of structuralism (Saussure) and poststructualism (Barthes) to jettison the concept of artistic “originality,” along with a cluster of related concepts. namely, creativity, authenticity, and expression as well as biography, personality, and the unconscious, and, one might add, suffering. In a sense. to impersonally theorize about art. as a basic response to it as she does, rather than to spontaneously and personally feel it, making it a part of one’s emotional life, that is, introjecting it-no doubt after being “programmed” enough to appreciate or attune to it, as Clement Greenberg says –is to show that one is bored with it, that is, ready to adapt it to the boring world, which means to banalize it i nto another piece of boring collective language . Theory is hardly an adequate human response to the unconscious suffering the most creative art paradoxically conveys through its self-conscious use of language.

Krauss’s position is most explicit in her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985), although she seems to have made a half-turn toward biography , personality, and the unconscious in The Optical Unconscious (1993). But it has nothing in common with the dynamic unconscious, and her treatment of Clement Greenberg’s personality from her aggrandizing narcissistic perspective–her pretense of having suffered at his hands–hardly counts as psychobiography. It is more an attempt to discredit his creativity and authenticity, whatever their problems, than to do him human justice.

Krauss writes, in a summary statement of the postmodern position:

One of the methodological corrollaries of this [structuralist] conception of meaning is that it is a function of the system at a given moment in time–the system synchronically displayed–rather than the outcome of a specific development or history. Rejecting the diachronic, or historical, study of language(s) as a way to arrive at a theory of signification, Saussure’s work set a precedent for the attack on the temporal model that structuralist and poststructuralist theories have staged on a variety of fronts. Some of these can be heard in Barthes’s way of accounting for the significance of the Argo-model, as he dismisses from its field of relevance a concept like “origin,” with its importance to traditional historical thinking, or concepts like “genius,” “inspiration,” “determination” and “evolution,” by which works of art are embedded within the conditions of their creation. For the nonstructuralist critic, whole realms of inquiry-aesthetic intuition, biographical context, psychological models of creativity, or the possible existence of private worlds of allusion–are raised [razed?] by these concepts, which not only imply the temporal condition of the work’s generation, but call for an interpretive model based on the analogy between the work and its maker: the work’s surface thought of as existing in relation to its g in relation to its “depth” much the way the exterior of the human subject is understood to relate to his internal, or true, self. By contrast. the structuralist model of substitutions and nomination does not call to mind the image of depth–substitution being able, after all, to take place by moving pieces about on a plane surface. Thus if Barthes cherishes the Argo-model, it is for its shallowness.(29)

It is not clear that shallowness invalidates depth; synchronicity, after all, does not deny diachronicity. They are complementary; one of the major tasks of philosophical thinking is to work out the dialectic of their relationship. Krauss wants to “substitute for the idea of the work of art as an organism (developing out of a past tradition, embedded in the history of a given medium) the image of it as a structure.”(30) Quoting Barthes, she explains the Argo model to illustrate the notion of structure:

The Argonauts were ordered by the Gods to complete their long journey in one and the same ship–the Argo–against the certainty of the boat’s gradual deterioration. Over the course of the voyage the Argonauts slowly replaced each piece of the ship, “so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or its form. This ship Argo is highly useful,” Barthes continues. “It affords the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest actions (which cannot be caught up in any mystique of creation): substitution (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts): by dint of combinations made within one and the same name, nothing is left of the origin: Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.”(31)

This is certainly one way of making the mountain of the Argonauts’ mission–to get the Golden Fleece, of which there is no mention in Barthes–into a technical molehill. Amazingly, it ignores the complex human situation, full of intrigue and peril, surrounding the voyage of the Argo. It is as though the voyage is not part of a larger –a relatively isolated moment in a complicated, all too human development.

Barthes strips the story of its emotional momentum and, more broadly, of its subjective import. He also ignores the heroic invention of the Argo itself, which was technically advanced for its day. Krauss, following Barthes, has “decontextualized”. the Argo ; let us “recontextualize” it via Bulfinch’s treatise on mythology:

The king Aeson…surrendered his crown to his brother Pelias….When Jason was grown up and came to demand the crown…Pelias…suggested to the young man the glorious adventure of going in quest of the Golden Fleece…in the kingdom of Colchis….At the time the only species of navigation known to the Greeks consisted of small boats or canoes hollowed out from trunks of trees, so that when Jason employed Argus to build him a vessel capable of containing fifty men, it was considered a gigantic undertaking. It was accomplished, however, and the vessel named “Argo,” from the name of the builder.(32)

Among the fifty young men were Hercules, Theseus , Orpheus , and Nestor, as well as other “renowned among the heroes and demigods of Greece.” Let us also recall that the Colchian king, Aetes , “consented to give up the Golden Fleece if Jason would yoke to the plow two fire-breathing bulls with brazen feet, and sow the teeth of the dragon which Cadmus had slain, and from which…a crop of armed men would spring up.” Aetes promised his daughter Medea, “a potent sorceress,” who furnished him with “a charm, by which he could encounter safely the breath of the fire-breathing bulls and the weapons of the armed men.”(33) Jason succeeded at his task, married Medea–we won’t go into the well-known aftermath–and delivered the Golden Fleece to Pelias. The story involves the conflict between generations, and the replacement of the power and authority of the older generation by that of the younger generation, which proved itself by performing a task the older generation thought was impossible to accomplish. This showed that the younger generation was heroic and dynamic, and thus entitled to power and authority, compared to the homebound, complacent older generation, which lacked an adventurous, innovative spirit.

Clearly Barthes’s understanding of the Argo has sold its human significance rather short, indicating that the structural model of art sells it short. He has focused on . one micromoment of the narrative at the expense of the rest. One might say he turns the genius of the entire event into theingenious solution of the Argonauts to the problem of the gods’ command and the boat’s deterioration. In effect, he has turned its depth into shallowness. He has ignored the reason for the Argo’s voyage and turned it into an object, which is to treat it in a peculiarly irrational–somewhat one-sided or one­ dimensional–way. Now, obviously, one is aware of shallowness before one is aware of depth–one sees the boat sailing on the sea before one knows its story–but that hardly means that depth does not exist. Karl Kraus once wrote: “Adolf Loos and I-he literally, I in the sphere of language-have done nothing more than show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamberpot, and that it is only by maintaining this difference that there is scope for culture. But the others, the “positive” ones, are divided into those who use the urn as a chamberpot and those who use the chamberpot as an urn.”(34) Barthes has turned an “urn”–the heroically crafted boat, ensconced in a complex, human narrative–into a “chamberpot”–the boat isolated as a certain structured form, and stripped of its creative origin and human purpose. Krauss, following Barthes, does the same to the work of art. She reduces it to a boring game of substitution and nomination rather than testimony to and the relic of an exciting emotional and broadly human adventure. The conflict between Pelias and Jason, which led to Argus’s creative invention, is altogether precluded as a factor behind-­ motivating–the creation of art. It seems obvious that the boat has historical inspiration, determination, and evolution that encompass its structure. To understand these is to understand its structure more fully. To understand the historical inspiration, determination, and evolution of a work of art is to understand its structure more fully.

Krauss writes: “If Barthes has a purpose, it is to isolate [linguistic] codes by applying a kind of spotlight to each instance of them, to expose them ‘as so many fragments of something that has always been already read, seen, done, experienced.’ It is also to make them heard as voices ‘whose origin,’ he says, ‘is lost in the vast perspective of the already-written’ and whose interweaving acts to ‘de-originate the utterance’.”(35) However, to “de-originate the utterance” does not eliminate the complex human reasons for rewriting, refashioning, and recontextualizing voices from the past. Janet Malcolm notes that Krauss “holds up Levine’s purloined photographs as a kind of master trope of postmodernism.”(36) But it seems clear that there must be an all too human reason–envy, perhaps, in the Kleinian sense–why Levine stole them .


In summary, I suggest the following about the postmodern linguistic approach to (1) It denies that art has anything to do with the True Self, in Winnicott’s sense, that is, with “the spontaneous gesture and the personal idea” rooted in the experience of living and lived body.(37) It is blind to the emotional fact that art is caught up in the dialectical conflict between the True Self, determined to creatively–heroically–assert itself–“creative apperception more than anything else makes the individual fee life is worth living,” Winnicott writes,(38) and the True Self embodies the “experience of aliveness”–and the well-adapted, play-it-socially-safe, uncreative, linguistically compliant, boring False Self. The latter secretly feels that life is not worth living, that is, it suffers from a “sense of futility,” perhaps because it has mastered “the polite and mannered social attitude” so well that it no longer knows what “wearing the heart on the sleeve,” which it has renounced, means. Creative selfhood defies compliant selfhood, which betrays the very idea of the self, however ironically necessary compliant selfhood is for social survival and success, as Winnicott says, even though such success leads to the loss of the feeling of being real as well as creative-­ creatively real–which one only experiences when one is true to oneself . If anything, postmodern art is a consummate manifestation of the False Self. Warhol’s portraits, and especially self-portraits, show the False Self in all its boring, disembodied splendor and mediagenic success. One only has to compare Warhol’s self-portraits with those of Max Beckmann to get the point. Salle’s paintings turn creative True Self art into compliant, socially successful False Self art by treating it as though it was mimicking itself. In both cases, as in all postmodern art, the authentic is turned into the inauthentic by being treated as no more than a linguistic sign of something that does not exist–the authentic self, authentic art–except as a sociolinguistic mirage. It is because of the absence of any belief in let alone idea of the authentic that postmodern art is boring and depressing.

(2) What Barthes calls substitution and nomination I want to call aesthetic management, a term used by Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson, two professors of marketing, in their book Marketing Aesthetics: The Strategic Management of Brands. Identity. and lmage.(39) Aesthetic management is not artistic creation, and can be said to supersede its in postmodernism. Postmodern art is a managed aesthetic construction rather than an imaginative artistic creation. More broadly, postmodern art has nothing to do with expressive creativity and everything to do with the management of linguistic signs. As Schmitt and Simons,.say, the point is to construct “an appearance center” out of them. Such a center has “irresistible appeal” and conveys “an attractive and lasting identity.” But the important point is that such a construction is not a haphazard, hit-or-miss matter, but rather a carefully managed marketing strategy in which the formal alphabet of “color, shape, line, and pattern” and the content alphabet of human interest themes are synthesized to scientifically predictable effect. Both alphbets are prefabricated linguistic signs, and their use in an appearance center is socially prescribed. One only has to think of Warhol’s paint by numbers pictures to get the procrustean point. John Baldessari’s constructions also use prefabricated images to confirm an already managed reality–the overwhelming reality of the administered society, as Adorno calls it. Beckett’s creative suffering was the individual ‘s escape from it, but there is no suffering or creativity–no escape–in Warhol and Baldessari’s anti-individualistic constructions, only the aesthetic management and institutionalization of already institutionalized and managed boredom. The final result of such cynical aesthetic management is the art-artist idol. “The idol,” Erich Fromm writes, “represents [man’s] own life forces in an alienated form.n(40) His humanity and life force never come back to him, however much he submits to the inhuman and lifeless idol, for it has consumed them for its own social glory. The postmodern idol mirrors the collective to perfection, and without irony.

In postmodernism the work of art becomes an appearance center with at best a marginal relationship to subjective reality, in the sense that it is a stimulus designed to evoke a consumer response. It also becomes an idol confirming the pervasiveness of self-alienation in a marketing society, as Fromm calls it. The work of art is no longer an imaginative re-creation of an archetypal theme, making us conscious of its formative influence on our individual lives and of its general implications for human nature, but rather a linguistic construction whose form and content are socially typical rather than archetypal, however much the socially typical surface is a diluted version of archetypal depth–so diluted that it is emotionally and cognitively shallow, and thus evocatively impotent. Its effect is transient and momentary, and one sees through it the instant one has experienced it, if recognition of its conventions and structure can be called a significant experience. One cannot durably identify with it–it does not seem to give one a piece of oneself one had not known one had–but rather expels it with the first taste. Or else one instantly metabolizes it, which means that it passes through one’s psyche without having any noticeable effect on one’s being. However, a steady diet of postmodern art is deadening, for it is lacks emotional and cognitive calories. To subsist on it is to become as boring and depressed–de-energi zed–as it is.

(3)For the postmodern artist, art is a mode of discourse rather than an expression of existence. Being the former seems to preclude being the tatter. That is, to organize an aspect of a general discourse is not necessarily to refer to anything existentially and experientially real–anything romantically deep. Thus art-making is not a creative transformation and insightful symbolization of reality–there is no such thing as what Jacques Maritan called creative intuition or what Winnicott calls “creating into”–and the work of art is not what Christopher Bolllas calls a transformational object, that is, an object that facilitates and supports emotional and cognitive growth, thus fundamentally transforming and strengthening the self. Perhaps the rock bottom model of postmodern art is Duchamp’s ironical transformation of everyday objects into art objects. It cannot be called creative because it involves no insight into the everyday and because it is “selfless.” And it regards objects simply as linguistic signs to be manipulated in a linguistic construction.

Ever since, everyday life has come to be understood as an ironical form of art, and art as an ironical form of everyday life. Certainly this is the postmodern point of Allan Kaprow’s notions of the “non-artist” and “the blurring of art and life,” to the refer to the title of his collected essays.(41) It certainly makes both art and life look easy, which is no doubt why the postmodern attitude is likely to be around for a while. Nonetheless, we are beginning to see a revival of romantic creativity in the form of a search or perhaps just wish for beauty in art. It is an idea that still seems to have some adventure in it, for beauty is a transformation of suffering, and there is no life without suffering. Beauty is a peculiarly subjective transformation or, to use Kandinsky’s and Freud’s word, sublimation of the inner world of feeling–this holds whether one conceives it as “disinterested satisfaction,” as Kant did, or as derived “from the field of sexual feeling,” as Freud did, indeed, perhaps the “perfect example of an impulse [the sexual impulse] inhibited by its aim”–that William Gass reminds us is the only worthwhile goal of art. Its absence in art, and the artist’s failure to realize it or indifference to it, are masked by his concern with the ideological issues of everyday life or, if one wants, the objective conditions of society. These no doubt make one sick, but the illness that results from trying to remedy them will not make one creative. It will certainly not help one emotionally survive in an ever more ingeniously alien if superficially comfortable society, which is what modern art did.

In a world of scientific and technological triumphs, I don’t see any other purpose for art than to symbolize subjective states, which still have their mysteries. They can perhaps be understood and mastered, in however personal and limited a way, through art. From this point of view, postmodern art has profound subjective meaning, for it embodies our profound alienation from our personal creativity–we have given creativity away to science and technology–for all the social yea-saying of it. This is alienation at its most extreme. It is perhaps good to know that we are not yet nauseated by our own alienation, but can enjoy its and the failure of subjective nerve it signifies in the form of postmodern art.


(1) Quoted in Frank Stringfellow, Jr., The Meaning of Irony: A Psychoanalytic Investigation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 3

(2) Quoted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), p. 1066

Nonobjectivity As A Crisis Of Subjectivity

by Donald Kuspit

“The theory of moving electricity, which is supposed completely to replace matter, has found lately many keen proponents,” Kandinsky wrote in 1912, as though that meant that the moving electricity of his own innovative abstract art, which was supposed completely to replace the matter of representational art, would soon find advocates.(1) Kandinsky attempted to justify the change from representational to abstract art–from an art that engaged visible physical reality to one that evoked invisible spiritual reality–by comparing it to the change in the scientific conception of matter, but h e knew that the parallel between the artistic and scientific revolutions could only be carried so far. “I n this era of the deification of matter, only the physical, that which can be seen by the physical ‘eye,’ is given recognition. The soul has been abolished as a matter of course.”(2) Science sees with the physical eye, and deifies matter, however dynamic it conceives it to be, while abstract art restores the soul science abolished showing its dynamics. Modern science and modern art are opposed, however much they have a certain uncanny resemblance.

While Kandinsky asserts that “the concept ‘external’ should not…be confused with the concept ‘material’,” his attempt “to rid” art of “‘external necessity, which can never lead…beyond the bounds of accepted and hence mere traditional ‘beauty’,” and ground it on ‘”internal necessity’…which recognizes no such boundaries,”(3) is also an attempt to rid it of dependence on the external reality that traditional art beautified or idealized, and turn art’s attention to internal reality. As he said, in “objective” art “elements of nature have been employed,” while in “nonobjective” art “the content of the work is realized exclusively by purely pictorial means.”(4) That content has to do with what he called “inner effects.”(5) Thus, even if a work is pure rather than natural in its means, it can still be shaped by external necessity, and thus feel dead. “When the formal element of art is assessed exclusively by cold, external criteria”–he is thinking of Cubism, and especially Constructivism–“works of abstract art appear dead (so too in ‘life’). But when these external criteria are augmented by inner criteria, which we may take as our principal basis for judging the formal element, in the broadest sense, those same works of abstract art respond to the effect of warmth and come to life.”(6) The issue of abstract art is to bring art and with it the soul, to life–to feel alive, with the help of pure art, in a world that is known to be dead because it is physical material and. worst of all. determined entirely by external necessity.

Thus the crisis in mimesis that led to the emergence of nonobjective or pure art was a crisis of feeling as well as of reality. It had as much to do with the artist’s interior world as the exterior world he shared with others. I will outline the nature of this crisis, and then discuss four case histories–those of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell–which demonstrate how pure art came to the artist’s emotional rescue, indeed, saved his soul from a fate worse than death, namely, the feeling of living death. As Kandinsky wrote, what is needed is art that is “something other than a purely practical, utilitarian concern on the one hand. or an airy-fairy kind of l’art pour l’art on the other,” but rather that establishes “relationships with other spiritual realms and, ultimately, with the totality of ‘life’….Art will then b e…clearly seen as a life-giving force.”(7) For Kandinsky, art is either a force for “the positive, the creative ….the good. The white, fructifying ray” or “the negative, the destructive….the bad. The black, death­ dealing hand.”(8) In other words, art is a psychomachia, with mimesis as bad, because it is materialistic, and pure art as good, because it involves “sublimation,” as Kandinsky called it, which means that it abstracts “the creative spirit” that “lies concealed…behind matter, within matter,”(9) and that is the core of life and the source of the feeling of being alive .

I cannot help thinking of Winnicott’s observation that “there exists a relationship between the deepest conflicts that reveal themselves in religion and in art forms and the depressed mood or melancholic illness. At the centre is doubt, doubt as to the outcome of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, or in psychiatric terms, between the benign and persecutory elements within and without the personality .”(10) Winnicott also writes : “the opposite to the liveliness of the infant is an anti -life factor derived from the mother’s depression.”(11) One can say that the anti-life factor Kandinsky was fighting against with his purely vital art was his depressing experience of the world, who is the mother of us all. Winnicott notes: To be alive is all. It is a constant struggle to get to the starting point and keep there. No wonder there are those who make a special business of existing and who turn it into a religion.”(12)

One might say that is what Kan dinsky did by way of his pure art, which became a religion. He got to the starting point, and stayed there. Abstract art was, after all, his infant, and in fact it has the liveliness, and, one might add, integrity and honesty of an infant–all the more remarkable when compared with the forced, faked, pseudo-vitality of such decadent abstract paintings as those by Gerhard Richter, to take a prominent example of the contemporary crop of artificial abstractions, with their simulated vitality and dead purity, which pass for adult sophistication–fending off the anti-life forces inherent in its coldly secular environment.

Thus the loss of faith in mimesis involved the romantic artist’s increasingly problematic sense of self in a world that aroused more anxiety than its representation could manage. In mimesis, romantically understood, the artist invests himself in an alien world so that he can feel safe and secure in it. He empathically burrows into it to make it his own. This is what Constable was doing when he stated that “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane.”(13) In the nineteenth century even a scientist such as Sir Humphry Davy could comfortably project and find himself in nature. Describing the landscape in which he first experienced “a distinct sympathy with nature,” as he called it, he wrote : “everything was alive and myself part of the series of visible impressions : I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees.”(14) This was close to Wordsworth, whose heart leaped u p when he beheld a rainbow in the sky, that is, who came alive when he experienced the colors of the rainbow, all the more lively and fluid because they soared into the sky. Clearly, nature, a nonhuman environment , was not alien to human nature for Constable, Davy, and Wordsworth. They felt secure and safe in and with it, and as alive as it obviously was. It was the vital alternative to the everyday world–to society busy getting and spending, as Wordsworth said–and as such seemed as close to eternity as it was possible to be on earth. Imitating nature, they experienced the divine.

But in the twentieth century it became impossible for the romantic artist to feel safe, secure, and alive in nature. It was no longer a haven from society. It became more and more difficult to establish a convincing therapeutic relationship with it.

Eternity became very remote indeed. The less natural and organic society itself came to seem–the more deliberately constructed it looked, which is the unnatural and inorganic, indeed, modern way it began to look under the pressure of industrialization (it i s clearly reflected in Cubism and Constructivism, in the turn from stone to steel in architecture, in the unnatural and inorganic appearance human beings began to have in painting and sculpture, all signs of modernization)–the less room it seemed to allow for the natural and organic, except in a token way. Such token traces and ratty symbols of nature were hardly adequate to the romance of life that Constable. Davy. and Wordsworth had sought and found in nature. It was no longer responsive to human nature–no longer mirrored the organic vitality of human beings. Thus there was no aliveness left in the world to support the romantic artist’s feeling of being alive, which made it inhospitable as a whole. Both nature and society had become too alien

to merge and identify with. The romantically inclined artist could not feel himself to be a basic part of anything in the world nor experience anything in the world as a basic part of himself. The materialistic society of the twentieth century–a society in which, as Kandinsky wrote , “men place exclusive value upon outward success, concern themselves only with material goods, and hail technical progress, which serves and can only serve the body, as a great achievement”(15)–was too untrustworthy to entrust with his sense of self, too emotionally unsafe to be a safe harbor, too exploitive to be in even subliminal sympathy with his existence. In this situation of complete alienation-­irreversible separation–from nature and society, which all but destroyed a self that already felt precarious, the romantic artist fell back on his art. It was the only remedy he could think of–the only remedy that seemed possible–the only emotional space in which he felt sate, secure, and alive. Making art, he felt strong and intact–a self cured of its alienation, however much his complete absorption in his art confirmed his alienation. Art became the exclusive space in which he could lose himself completely and lovingly as he once lost himself completely and lovingly in nature. Nature completed him by giving him consciousness of his deepest nature, and he completed it by giving it consciousness of itself, and now he had the same dialectical intimacy with art. Pure art was a homemade, last ditch remedy, desperate self-medication, in a situation in which nature could no longer heal the wounds inflicted by society, and society its elf seemed beyond remedy and hope.

In short, losing reciprocity with nature—signalled by the fact that it no longer seemed worth the trouble of representing, or even fit to represent–the romantic artist established a new reciprocity with art, resulting in its purification. Society and finally nature became a dispensable alien dross–both were treated with the same destructive indifference with which the romantic artist felt they treated him, in part by being reduced to a realm of raw beta sensations , which destroyed them as alembics or

containers in which sublimation or spiritualization could occur–and art became a sanctuary in which the self could commune with and purify itself. The turn to pure art was in fact a romantic attempt to clean the temple of art so that it could be a place in which the artist could worship creativity as such, if also his self at its most creative-­ most romantic. In short, the religion of art replaced the religion of nature. To understand what occurred, all one has to do is replace the word “Nature” with “Art” in Constable’s recognition of “the beauty and majesty of Nature,” which led him “to adore the hand that has, with such lavish beneficence, scattered the principles of happiness and enjoyment throughout every department of Creation.”(16) It was now the artist’s hand that did the scattering, and did it in the work of art, which became emblematic of Creation itself .

The pure artist–the unequivocally non-objective, uncompromisingly abstract artist–replaced the romance and religion of nature with the romance and religion of art. One can say that the latter grew out of the former in Kandinsky and Mondrian, but art came to replace nature so completely that the latter seemed beside the creative point. “Many people cannot see the spirit in religion, in art,” Kandinsky wrote ,(17) but they would see the spirit in his religious art, the purest of all religious arts. Similarly, in an essay titled “A New Religion?,” written between 1938 and 1940, during his exile in London, Mondrian, after stating that “the new Nazi and Soviet religion is oppressive, just like the old traditional religion,” declared that “the new art is the old art free of all oppression….In this way art becomes religion. The new religion is faith in life. The new religion is for those capable of abstraction.”(18)

There were still efforts to treat the modern social world as a natural landscape, vitalizing it so that it seemed organic and timeless–Monet ‘s and Derain’s London pictures are conspicuous examples–but it was no longer convincingly one to Kandinsky and Mondrian, nor was nature spiritually convincing or sublime. Both began by projecting themselves into nature, in a standard romantic way, and ended up making pure art, the ultimate romantic art, because it evoked a sense of integral and dynamic–creatively alive–selfhood they felt nowhere else. They began as romantic landscape artists and became mystics of the self . If, as Harry Stack Sullivan wrote, “the self-system …is an organization of educative experience called into being by the necessity to avoid or to minimize incidents of anxiety,”(19) then mystically pure art was called into being by the necessity to avoid or to minimize the profound anxiety the modern world caused the romantic artist. Kandinsky and Mondrian educated themselves in pure art–it was indeed a self-education–to avoid and control their annihilative anxiety, that is, their sense of the groundlessness of their existence and art in the modern world. They turned away from it–refused to represent it–not simply to defensively negate or deny in, but to sustain their innermost sense of self–a creative self so basic and inward that it seemed abstract, unworldly. They made the romantic turn inward–reached the “spiritual turning-point,” as Kandinsky called it(20)–not only to save the creative self from the indifferent world, but to give it the strength of purpose to survive and flourish without the world.

Pure art was originally the romantic symbol of autonomy in an unromantic world in which none seemed possible–a world which could not be a facilitating environment for the individual because it conceived him in collective terms. Individualism is a collective ideology in the modern world of instrumental reason, which is concerned with the individual only in his social role and identity. One of the reasons Kandinsky and Mondrian turned to Theosophy for support, however idiosyncratic and esoteric a religion it may b e–the more idiosyncratic and esoteric the better, for that meant it was more oriented to the individual than the collective, more concerned to initiate the individual into his own creativity than to enforce a dogma designed to direct and even limit or humble human creativity (for it would be competitive with God’s creativity)- -is because only religion seemed to acknowledge and support the individual’s existence and creativity in a world indifferent to them. If religion at its deepest involves renunciation and withdrawal from the world to liberate the self’s creativity–for the mystic the world is never an adequate ground of selfhood since it never liberates the self’s creativity without using it for its own practical purposes, so that creativity never becomes truly free-spirited–then Kandinsky and Mondrian turned to religion for the sake of their creativity, that is, the godhead within themselves . For them religion was the positive alternative to the “absolute negativity” that Adorno said is now “in plain sight”–in Auschwitz–“and has ceased to surprise anyone.”(21) Negativity was also in plain sight for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but it did not yet seem absolute–Auschwitz had not yet happened—which is why they consoled themselves and counterattacked with religion and creativity at their most revolutionary–with the new religion of art.

If “the indifference of each individual life…is the direction of history,” as Adorno wrote,(22) then for Kandinsky and Mondrian pure art goes against the direction of history, for it symbolizes the creative difference of each individual life. Indifference means the individual makes no difference, only the collective does, but the art of Kandinsky and Mondrian suggests that the individual does make a difference. Theirs is an art of subtle individual difference, rather than of socially defined and prescribed differences–invariably gross differences. As Kandinsky emphasized, the creative issue is “the creation of individual forms,” which are the building blocks of “the whole composition,” and assure its individuality.(23) There is no doubt what Bion calls “fear of social-ism” in their apparently narcissistic, even psychotic turn to the religion of pure art, but it was the only way they had of defending themselves against the collective, “which is known to be indifferent to [one’s] fate as an individual.”(24)

The art of Kandinsky and Mondrian is religious not because they thought religion would “reconstitute the pervasive human sociability that capitalism had destroyed,” which is what Meyer Schapiro thought Van Gogh’s idea of a quasi­ religious commune of artists was meant to do,(25) but because it represented creative autonomy, such as God alone traditionally had. If, as Erik Erikson states, “in ‘the language of the uncorrupted core of all spiritual tradition…the identity of knowing transcendence’ can only be discovered by man when the possibility for any social definition of identity is shattered beyond any restoration,”(26) then the spiritual language of Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s pure art conveys the knowing transcendence of creative selfhood by ruthlessly destroying the social definition of artistic identity that mimesis represents, with no possibility of restoring it to credibility. Kandinsky makes this point explicitly when he declares that “the language of art” is “superhuman.”(27)

All this is preamble to my argument that the turn to pure art was originally a religious conversion. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell had conversion experiences that turned them into art mystics. Kandinsky wrote: “the common relationship between works of art, which is not weakened by the passage of millennia, but is increasingly is strengthened, does not lie in the exterior, the external, but in the root of roots–in the mystical content of art.”(28) I t s three sources–the artist’s personality, his times, and “the pure and eternally artistic”(29)–converge in the creative “idiosyncracy” of the work.(30) Motherwell simply says “abstract art is a form of mysticism,”(31) but the idea remains revolutionary.

There is a fair amount of evidence indicating that all four artists experienced a crisis of selfhood–enormous self-doubt, implying a degree of self-disintegration–from which they rescued themselves by making their art as pure as possible. Art was the medium in which they enacted the spiritual conversion that saved them from complete collapse. Their artistic conversion to nonobjective art–art that withdraws from and renounces the world, rising above it, however many traces of it are left in the art, as though mithraditically protecting its purity–was a religious conversion that made themfeel inwardly safe, secure, and alive, and thus self-possessed and even self-sufficient-­ in a word, autonomous.

To make my point, I will rely on William James’s concept of religious conversion, amplified by psychoanalytic ideas. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James describes the effect of conversion on consciousness, but he does not analyze its unconscious dynamics, although he acknowledged that conversion involves what he called a “subconscious” factor. While James’s account of conversion stays largely on the surface, it nonetheless remains helpful for a preliminary understanding of the artists’ remarks about their conversion to the religion of pure art. For James, “To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signified in general terms, whether or not we believe that a divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about.”(32)

This conception of conversion occurs in the context of James’s analysis of the “two ways of looking at life,” corresponding to two kinds of human character, the healthy-minded, who need to be born only once, and…the sick souls, who must be twice-born in order to be healthy. The result is two different conceptions of the universe of our experience. In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account. In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double- storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being. Cancelled as it all is by death if not by early enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship. It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth. There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.

As James notes, the sick soul is made sick by awareness of “evil as a pervasive element of the world we live in,” and “the pessimistic elements” of evil–“sorrow, pain, and death,” that is, destructiveness or negation of life, mental and physical–are inherent to natural life. Thus renunciation of natural life is renunciation of the “disease” of evil, which includes, as James says, “worry over [the] disease…itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint.” Renunciation is in part accomplished by repentance for the natural evil in oneself, and in part by deliberately affirming goodness, consciously struggling and willing to be good, and even happy, that is, full of joie de viv r e, or delight in life, as I would call it. For James, this is clearly an unnatural if not impossible effort–a kind of supernatural effort, from the religious point of view. In other words, one mourns the death of one’s own nature—the old Adam and Eve—and labors to give birth to a new nature–the new Adam and Eve. This whole process of change induced by mournful renunciation, which is a kind of self­ transcendence, and the toughminded resolve to be good and happy, is experienced, very personally, as a spiritual conversion. One’s whole being seems at stake; life and death ride on the outcome of the conversion. The renunciation of the sickness and evil of the natural is a spiritual death which makes spiritual birth–the second birth of the twice-born–and healthy-mindedness possible. After a successful conversion, the self is no longer divided against itself–no longer divided between its actual evil and its potential goodness–but having accepted its evil and vigorously struggling to actualize its goodness, becomes reconciled to itself, and thus dynamically at peace with itself.

With these statements as background, let me foreground statements by Kandinsky and Mondrian on the one hand, and Rothko and Motherwell on the other. The former are the European pioneers of pure art, the latter are among its American advocates. This probably affects the difference in their attitudes and conception of the spiritual significance of abstract art, but I want to concentrate on that difference not on their cultural and chronological differences. Their ideas and feelings converge, but for Kandinsky and Mondrian spirituality means overcoming modern materialism, while for Rothko and Motherwell it means overcoming modern alienation. No doubt Kandinsky and Mondrian felt alienated from the modern materialistic society in which they found themselves. but it was the society’s materialism that disturbed them more than their alienation from it. They took alienation for granted; it came with spiritual superiority.

They wanted to save materialistic society through their spiritual example, as Mondrian makes clear in his assertion that “the ‘painting’ of purely abstract art….prepare(s] the realization of pure equilibrium in society itself,” that is, in the “material enviroment.” “Only then will art become life….We then see more clearly manifested the force that animates the joy of living–which says almost all that need be said concerning purely abstract art.”(33) Clearly abstract art is the antidote to what Breton called “miserabilism,” that is, “the depreciation of reality in place of its exaltation.”(34)

Abstract art is the “sacred language,” to use his term, that exalts reality, and thus overcomes the “death sentence” of miserabilism.(35) Similarly, for Kandinsky the “new [spiritual] wisdom…inaudible to the masses is first heard by the artist.” His spiritual art communicates it to the increasing “number of people who set no store by the methods of materialistic science in matters concerning the ‘nonmaterial’.” “The artists who seek the internal in the world of the external” do so not only for their own edification, but for the benefit of everyone. They make the “effort of pulling…the cart of humanity” up “the spiritual triangle that will one day reach to heaven.”

In contrast, for Rothko and Motherwell, there was no artistic way of coming to terms with modern materialistic society. Art could not transform it for the better, either by suggestion or practice. The artist was always alienated from it, and it was always hostile to his best emotional interests. Rothko and Motherwell never reconciled themselves to modern materialistic society, and they did not try to educate it for its own good. They did not try, in Kandinsky’s words, to have “a direct [transformative] influence on [its] soul.” It was beyond redemption. All that a mere painter could do was to transcend it by means of his abstract painting. The more pure-­ unrepresentational, unworldly, immaterial–the more transcendent the painting seemed. Indeed, for Rothko and Motherwell pure abstraction transformed the claustrophobic feeling of alienation into the liberating feeling of transcendence. In short, where for Kandinsky and Mondrian abstract painting was a response to an objective problem, which undoubtedly had subjective consequences, for Rothko and Motherwell it was a response to a subjective problem, however objective its cause.

Where Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted to save materialistic society, Rothko and Motherwell wanted to save their own souls.

Kandinsky writes: “Our souls, which are only now beginning to awaken after the long reign of materialism, harbor seeds of desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose. The whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, purposeless game, is not yet over. The awakening soul is still under the influence of this nightmare. Only a weak light glimmers, like a tiny point in an enormous circle of blackness. This weak light is no more than an intimation that the soul scarcely has the courage to perceive, doubtful whether this light might not itself be a dream, and the circle of blackness, reality.” Mondrian writes, somewhat more hopefully: “Well executed, works of purely abstract art will…always remain fully human, not ‘although’ but precisely ‘because’ their appearance is not a naturalistic one. Is art nearing its end? There is nothing to fear. What is this–still distant–end of art but humanity’s liberation f rom the dominance of the material and physical, thus bringing us closer to the time of matter-spirit’ equivalence?”

Shifting to Rothko and Motherwell, the emphasis is less on nightmarish materialism than on nightmarish alienation–less on materialistic society than on its devastating effect on the self, although it also turns out to be–or by force of will can be turned into–a spiritual opportunity for the self . Rothko states: “The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation. Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bankbook, just as he abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.”(36) In a related way, Motherwell writes:

The emergence of abstract art is one sign that there are still men able to assert feeling in the world. Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear. From their perspective,

it is the social world that tends to appear irrational and absurd….I think that abstract art is uniquely modern–not in the sense that word is sometimes used, to mean that our art has ‘progressed’ over the art of the past…but in the sense that abstract art represents the particular acceptances and rejections of men living under the conditions of modern times. If l were asked to generalize about this condition as it has been manifest in poets, painters, and composers during the last century and a half, I should say that it is a fundamentally romantic response to modern life–rebellious, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable. I should say this attitude arose from a feeling of being ill at ease in the universe, so to speak–the collapse of religion, of the old close-knit community and family may have something to do with the origins of the feeling….But whatever the source of this sense of being unwedded to the universe, I think that one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.”(37)

And then Motherwell writes the sentence I have already quoted: “For make no mistake, abstract art is a form of mysticism.”

The following seems clear.

(1) For all the nightmarishness of modern materialistic society, Kandinsky and Mondrian are optimistic that it can be awakened to the spiritual truth by means of abstract painting, while Rothko and Motherwell have no such expectation or illusion. For them abstract painting has no social power and influence, for better or worse. In a letter to Pfister, Freud wrote that “my pessimism seems a conclusion, while the optimism of my opponents seems an a priori assumption.”(38) Similarly, the social pessimism of Rothko and Motherwell was a conclusion based on their experience of modern materialistic America, while the social optimism of Kandinsky and Mondrian was an a priori assumption based on their belief in the power of art. It is hard to decide whether this idealistic belief was narcissistically healthy or defensive, even insane and delirious, but in retrospect it seems absurd and naive–a wish fulfilling fantasy , falsifying hope as such dreams do. It is the echo of the good old times when art was integrated in society—had its place, if often as an instrument of the powers that be, spreading their ideology as though it was the gospel truth. Art was a mode of aesthetic support and aesthetic dogmatization in the service of so-called higher powers, and unconsciously Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted it to continue to be, however different the higher powers.

In contrast, the realism of Rothko and Motherwell is refreshing if also depressing. It holds out no false hope of art’s reintegration in society. No longer of direct use to society–however much it may be appropriated by society–art can be of indirect use to the individual. It can also become an aesthetic end in itself, realizing its full potential as art. Seemingly self-sufficient, it becomes a beacon of subjective intensity, integrity, and intimacy in a dismal disintegrative, cold society–a sign of empathy in a peculiarly abstract society. Indeed, in a sense the abstract painting of Rothko and Motherwell reconciles empathy and abstraction, in Worringer’s sense. It is a very personal painting, that is, painting that evokes a sense of person, organically and psychically alive in a peculiarly inorganic, death-infected technocratic/bureaucratic society–an anonymous society of indifferent administration. Adorno argued that modern art reflects such social “negativity” in its tendency to inorganic structure–the grid in particular, the emblem of universal administration, imposing its universality and uniformity on everything, geometrically dividing things irrespective of their individual differences, intellectually homogenizing them despite their heterogeneity–but the abstract painting of Rothko and Motherwell breathes organic life into the inorganic without denying its dominance.

(2) The mood–in Kandinsky’s sense, that is, as a sign of “the poetical strivings of the living soul of the artist”(39)–of all four artists is remarkably similar, once one gets beyond the difference in their attitude to society. Kandinsky speaks of “desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose.” For Mondrian, “our disequilibrated society” is is a threat to “jo ie de vivre.” For Rothko, society is unfriendly and “hostile.” For Motherwell it is “irrational and absurd.” He feels “ill at ease” and disconnected in it. In all four we see depression and isolation, verging on self-loss and meaninglessness . That is, all four are what James called sick souls. They have been sickened by the evil in the modern world, which they experience, variously, as materialistic, unbalanced, alien, and unsupportive—all evil qualities. supportive–all evil qualities.

(3)For all four, abstract art is a fantasy of religious rescue from unavoidable evil: from cynical social and scientific materialism for Kandinsky, from lack of social and personal balance and joy for Mondrian, from a crippling sense of separation and alienation, resulting from a sense of the lack and impossibility of community, for Rothko and Motherwell. Abstract art gave them faith, hope, and charity–faith in themselves, hope for the future of the world, and a freely given gift to the community, regarded as the undifferentiated whole of humanity, from which they expected nothing material in return–in a society where they do not seem to exist. Certainly they did not feel they belonged or had a place in it. In short, for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell abstract art offered meaningful selfhood and relationship in a world where neither seemed to exist, and seemed all but impossible to achieve. Abstract art made them feel less like failures as human beings and more equal to the world. All four artists had deep narcissistic and relational problems, and pure abstract art was a pure, abstract way of relating to others, that is, feeling a sense of community with them, with no sacrifice of selfhood, especially important because they didn’t have much self to spare.

Pure abstract art was clearly an integrative activity for them, that is, it gave them a sense of being whole, significant individuals and of being a significant, even indispensable part of the community. The integration and sense of wholeness achieved on a purely abstract or formal level in painting where it is a matter of balancing primordial visual elements of color, gesture, and space, l ed on a psychic level, to feelings of self- and world-communion, in whatever fantasy form. Such a surge of positive feelings involves the fantasy of leaving all one’s conflicts behind forever. and of experiencing a happy, harmonious–non-conflictual–relationship with the world and humanity at large (if not the people in one’s society in particular). No longer divided against oneself, one no longer feels at odds with–irreversibly separate from–society. Indeed, the equilibrium and unity of the abstract painting, however hardwon–it is a constant struggle to achieve it, and it always seems on the verge of breaking down, confirming its precariousness and fragility–creates the utopian illusion of a statically tranquil, stable self and society–a well-order social pyramid, as Van Gogh said, in which everyone has his happy place.

In other words, for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell, to paint abstractly was to be healthy-minded. It involved recognition of the evil of the self and the world–acceptance of the fact that they are evil by nature. Renunciation of representation of that world was renunciation of evil. The self’s resulting joie de vivre, evident, however subliminally, in the dynamics of color, gesture, and space, is not only a consequence of transcendence of the world, but the discovery of the self’s spiritual nature made possible by that transcendence, that ·is, recognition of the self’s potential for goodness, bringing with it faith in the real possibility of goodness in the world beyond the self . No doubt the joie de vivre is ambivalent, as indicated by the mournful gloom of many of Rothko’s and Motherwell’s paintings, and the desperate surge of blackness in many of Kandinsky’s. I think that when Mondrian removed gray from his painting he rose above his melancholy, but black was only eliminated in his late New York paintings, that is, at the end of his life. Even then, the beating pulse of colors the black line became in those last works had its entropic regularity–always a danger for Mondrian, who skirted entropy by asymmetry, thus conveying a lyric effect of “inner freedom ,” as Meyer Schapiro called it.(40) Such entropic regularity overtook Rothko and Motherwell’s late works, and Mondrian only avoided it by a kind of private irony.

This ambivalence–the tense fusion of death-instincts and life-instincts, for Leon Grinberg the substance of ego–signals the ongoing struggle against evil which is the sign of authentic conversion. Without that struggle, conversion is facile, Pollyannalike, and unconvincing, indicating that the convert was once-born all along, that is, incapable of engaging evil, especially the evil in the self, inevitably turning it against itself–splitting it at the root–and of imagining any attitude other than the natural attitude, to misuse Husserl’s idea.

The problem with conversion is that, however authentic, it is premised on a fantasy of psychic escape that does not preclude capture and hanging by society. There is a serious failure of reality-testing in it. Much the way the Ambrose Bierce soldier who was being hung by his captors fantasized that he freed himself just as the trap opened beneath him–the Civil War story is told from the point of view of his conviction, so that we don’t realize the truth until the end, when there is a sudden shift to an external observer’s point of view–the abstract painter may be deceiving himself into believing that he is free when he is not. And yet without the absurd, even psychotic fantasy of liberation and transcendence that is at the core of conversion there is no way Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell could begin to do the psychic work, that is, the actual work of conversion, which involves a working through of evil, in the form of art-work, to use Fairmairn’s term—I accept Arnheim’s idea of isomorphism, which proposes, in the words of Gilbert Rose, that “the structure of art and the emotions are homologous”(41)–necessary to remedy their misery, let alone pretend to change the mood of the world. Pure abstract painting is a space of conversion in which the emotional ideal of peace, which hovers over the painting as a whole, competes with the aesthetic reality of conflict and struggle that is the nitty-gritty of the painting’s structure, with the whole enterprise catalyzed by the artist’s omnipotent belief in his revolutionary ability to fundamentally change his life, and even that of the whole world.

It should be noted that the convert abstract artist’s isolation does not necessarily help his self-work. The usual religious convert enters a community of like-minded believers, who help him sustain his new-found faith in himself and God, with its accompanying belief in the possible–indeed, eventual–convers ion of the whole world, so that it will be one grand community of true believers. But the conversion of the abstract painter does not bring him into a community of like-minded believers–an alternative society of the faithful. He remains at odds with other abstract painters, a victim of the credo of individualism that at once motivates and hobbles the avant-garde artist. Indeed, uncompromising individualism is supposedly a badge of honor that confirms vanguardism . Even the Blaue Reiter group had its conflicts–differences of opinion, to put it politely–and eventually broke up, and not only because of the first world war. The pure abstract artist remains profoundly alone–his purity and self­ esteem depend on it–however much he may now and then associate with other abstract artists. It is as though they would interfere with his development rather than encourage it–interfere with his spontaneity rather than support it. One only has to read Hans Hartung’s skepticism about the ideas of Kandinsky and the deceptive personality of Mondrian to realize how tenuous and spiteful the relationship between artists that seem to have an affinity can be. What Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” seems to be involved. The pure abstract artist wants to go his own way, whatever the social and, more insidiously, hidden personal cost. For going it alone in the desert–recall that Malevich metaphorically described his abstract Suprematist painting as a “desert experience”(42)–is no guarantee that one will experience conversion. It may just prolong one’s agony.

(4)For all four painters, pure abstract painting is a mystical-spiritual enterprise, independent of religious dogmas and rituals. It is a mode of transcendence that works in terms of immediate sensation rather than symbolism, however subliminally symbolic the pure abstract painting may be. Indeed, the problem was to transcend traditional spiritual symbolism by means of purely “sensational” painting, whether conceived in terms of geometrical space, as in Mondrian’s and Rothko’s case, or gesture, as in Kandinsky’s and Motherwell’s case. Not exclusively, of course: Mondrian’s color planes become color gestures in his late New York work, as though recapitulating and refining the gesturalism of his early works, especially of the so-called plus and minus paintings–the New York work is a kind of regression in the service of an ego that had reached a geometrical dead end–and Rothko’s color planes are an intricate matrix of intimate gestures. Similarly, Kandinsky and Motherwell attempted to fuse spontaneous gesture and geometrical space in their later work. They wanted to loosen axiomatically inflexible geometrical space by means of energetic gesture, and give free gesture an intellectual dimension by imbuing it with geometrical deliberateness. As Plato said, geometry eternal, and their Platonization or classicizing of gesture harks back at least to Cezanne’s wish to paint like Poussin, that is, to synthesise geometrical structure and Impressionist sensation–to eternalize sensation, which is inseperable from painting, as Boccioni said.(43) No doubt Ehrenzweig’s distinction between gestalt and gestalt-free forms, and their convergence, helps explain this synthesis. Pure abstract painting invites one to meditate on the feelings aroused by and associated with primordial sensations-­ whether geometrically or gesturally evident–rather than to read a narrative of supernatural life and otherworldly society to prepare oneself for them.

In pure abstract painting visual sensation is enriched by what Deikman calls “the phenomenon of ‘sensory translation,’ through which psychic actions such as conflict, repression, and problem-solving are perceived through relatively unstructured experiences of light, color, movement.”(44) Every sensory experience of them is heightened or enhanced–radically transformed–by such sensory translation, which involves projection into them, even projective identification with them. It converts physical light, color, movement into more meaningful–emotionally meaningful– experiences than they would otherwise be. I think that Kandinsky’s color symbolism–his attempt to correlate particular colors and particular feelings—is implicitly a matter of… sensory translation, ultimately the dialectical fusion or cross-pollination of sensations and psychic actions. It is what makes the sensations and feelings afforded by pure abstract painting seem more “refined” than everyday sensations and feelings, as Kandinsky said.

Sensory translation gives the pure abstract painting its mystical content, to recall Kandinsky’s term. The abstract painting we perceive as great–experience as spiritual–appears to make this translation spontaneously, right in front of our eyes. It is experienced as unquestionably and profoundly subjective–imbued with psychic actions (“spiritual gestures”) of all kinds and an externalization of psychic space (“spiritual geometry”), both necessarily abstract, for the psyche is not physical, however rooted in the body it may be. It invites our instant subjective participation, that is, instantly makes us aware of our psychic activity–of our so-called stream of consciousness . It in effect converts us to ourselves—compells us to experience ourselves as and convinces us that we are personal subjects rather than social objects–that we have an individual self not simply social identity. We unconsciously retranslate or re-convert light, color, movement back into psychic actions, just as the abstract painter unconsciously translated or converted psychic actions into light, color. movement. We unconsciously experience pure abstract painting as pure psychic action, and through it we seem to experience our own psychic activity in apparently pure form. This is what Harold Rosenberg meant when he described it as action painting and an arena of self-creation.(45)

Sensory translation affords an enriched sensory immediacy. It generates a ripeness of immediacy that seems to tear the veil of representation open irreparably, as Yves Bonnefoy says. According to him, it is in pure abstract painting that “one imagines that…the immediate exists,” that it is “easily verified,” and that it seems “nothing short of miraculous.”(46) It may be, as Bonnefoy argues, that the abstract painter’s refusal of and need to replace and defeat “conventional readings of the world …keeps them alive. and in the end…merely adds to the complexities of the sign as it works on being.” Nonetheless, for however brief an enchanted experiential moment, the immediacy of surface and space achieved in pure abstract painting seems to “transcend perception” in the very act of being perceived. Bonnefoy finally declares that “there is no immediacy, there is only the desire for the immediate. which so many feel.” But in the pure abstract painting of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and even Motherwell–of all four , the last relinquishes symbolism the least–the immediate crudity and constraints. In short, this sudden flash of immediacy–of intense and all- encompassing immediate sensation–is the instrument and “proof” of conversion.

Baudelaire referred to it, unknowingly, when he compared the freshness of vision in an imaginative work of art to that of a child looking at the world for the first time, and to the intense oceanic sensations he experienced using opium. Similarly, what James called the “subliminal uprush” in the exceptional mental state of genius, and what Kandinsky described as the experience of walking through color, articulates, in however metaphorical a way, a phenomenology of pure immediacy. The gist of the conversion experience is this feeling of pure immediacy–of pure presence, with nothing communal and familiar present, an absence which confirms its mystical character. The experience of pure abstract painting is optimally one in which the experience of timeliness conveyed by the feeling o f pure immediacy is at the same ” time an experience of timelessness, which is why it can be called mystical. The timely and timeless merge in pure immediate sensation, bespeaking the sense of merger with the divine–being wedded to the universe as a whole, as Motherwell says–in which time is altogether transcended.

Now the question is: where did the turn to pure abstract art–modern spiritual art–originate? In what I want to call the spiritual unconscious : it is a direct expression of the spiritual unconscious. I want to suggest that the spiritual unconscious only makes itself felt and known, unpredictably, when the self seems to have reached the point of no return from narcissistic and relational injury–when it seems wounded with no hope of recovery or repair. That is, the self is wounded by its internal perception of itself –more particularly, of its own evil tendencies and character, that is, its destructiveness and destroyed state–and of the external world, which is also experienced as thoroughly evil. Both perceptions are accurate, and so is the perception of incurability–the impossibility of healing. It is then that the spiritual unconscious becomes manifest: it is the sudden promise of magical healing and health in a situation of terminal mental illness and absolute isolation–of complete hopelessness and helplessness. It is some neglected aspect of the unconscious spontaneously arising to the occasion of total defeat by life and the world. It is the visionary moment of truth that ends the seemingly endless dark night of the soul. It is a mirage, containing in itself all the meaningfulness of life, that unexpectedly arises in the meaningless desert of the self and the world, indeed, the worldly self and the selfless world. This promise takes the form of the wish to change one’s life entirely- –to convert to a new way of life. And also to convert the world–to change it for the better, once and for all. The wish is at once a revolt against and revolution of the lifeworld. The paradox is that the impulsive utopian promise can be fulfilled, in an emotionally concrete way, in art-work–abstract and otherwise–which can offer moments of healing and health to both the serious artist and the serious spectator, that is those who are seriously creative, or rather, to use Winnicott’s term, actively “create into something rather than passively take it for granted.

It is the unequivocal wish for total healing and health, leading to a fantasy of self-help or self-rescue–the fantasy of grace and mercy that emerges from the spiritual unconscious–that pure abstract art satisfies. Through it the artist helps himself, rescues himself from his depression, comes to experience himself as a living being-­ organically and spontaneously alive–rather than a dead nothing. The creativity of the spiritual unconscious shows itself in his re-creation of himself as a pure artist, which saves him from self-annihilation. It is because it seems to magically and irrationally accomplish this–because it is so emotionally absurd–that pure abstract painting is the most serious and necessary painting of the twentieth century. Rosenberg once said that the “test” of painting is its “seriousness–and the test of seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s total effort to make over his experience,” his “experience of transformation.”(47) The urgent effort the pioneer abstract painters made to transform and purify painting, and the great difficulty, uncertainty, and anxiety with which they did so–an effort they repeated again and again until they were convinced they had crossed the Rubicon into the promised I.and of pure painting–was a personal as well as artistic effort. The transformation of impure into pure painting was a self-transformation and self-purification: the artist’s transformation of himself from a lost soul to a creative god–from abjectness to grandiosity. It is not clear that contemporary abstract painting has the same desperate seriousness–the same innocent fantasy of art as salvation .


(1) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky : Complete Writings on Art (New York : Da Capo, 1994), p. 143

(2) 1bid., p. 98

(3)1bid., p. 177

(4)1bid., p. 515

(5)1bid. (6)1bid., p. 513

(?)Ibid., p. 512

(8)1bid., pp. 235-36

(9)1bid., p. 235

(1O)D.W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press. 1965), p. 25

(11)Ibid.. p. 192


(13) Quoted in Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York : Harper & Row. 1979). p.


(14) Quoted in ibid., p. 66 (15)lindsay and Vergo, p. 135 (16)Honour. p. 87

(1?)lindsay and Vergo, p. 235

(18)Harry Holtzman and Martin. S. James, eds.. The New Art–The New Life:

The Collected Wr i tings of Piet Mondrian (New York: Da Capo, 1993), pp. 318-19 (19)Harry Stack Sullivan. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (New York:

Norton, 1953), p. 165

(20)Lindsay and Vergo, p. 139

(21)T. W. Adorno. Negative Dialectics (New York : Seabury, 1973), p. 362 (22)1bid.

(23) lindsay and Vergo, p. 167

(24)Wilfred Bion, Cogitations (London: Karnac, 1992), pp. 29-30

(25) Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries. Selected Papers

(New York: George Braziller, 1960), p. 193

(26)Quoted by Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1983), p. 158

(27)Lindsay and Vergo, p. 83

(28)1bid., p. 175 (29)1bid.I p. 173

(30)1bid., p. 137-38

(31) Stephanie Terenzio, ed., “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 86

(32) William James, Varieties of Religi ous Experience (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), p. 186. All subsequent quotations from James are from this book.

(33) Holtzman and James, p. 201

(34) Andre Breton, “Away with Miserabilism!”, Surrealism and Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 348

(35)1bid., p. 347

(36) Quoted in Michel Butor, “Rothko: The Mosques of New York,” Inventory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 267

(37) Quoted in Terenzio, pp. 85-86

(38) Quoted in W.W. Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 81

(39) Lindsay and Vergo, p. 129 (40)Schapiro, p. 41

(41)Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion: Art as Witness (Madison, CT:

International Universities Press, 1996), p. 80

(42)In his essay on “Suprematism,” Malevich wrote: “No more ‘likeness of reality,’ no idealistic images–nothing but a desert! But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything….a blissful feeling of liberating nonobjectivity drew me forth into the ‘desert ,· where nothing is real except feeling…. and so feeling became the substance of my life.” Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 342.

Kandinsky, p. 141, says something similar: “The spirit that will lead us into the realms of tomorrow can only be recognized through feeling.”

(43)Quoted in Chipp, p. 295

(44)W. W. Meissner, Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 78

(45) Harold Rosenberg, The Tradi tion of the New (New York : McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 25

(46) Yves Bonnefoy, “On Painting and Poetry, on Anxiety and Peace,” The Lure and the Truth of Painting (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 171-72

(47) Rosenberg, pp. 33, 35

miserere i

by Donald Kuspit

days of dubious glory,
                              the world crowning
me with its thorns,
                           the empty urgency
of the inevitable
                         taking its toll on time.
furrowed by clouds
                          of conscience,
the sky is miserable
                            with silence,
the gods abandoned
                          in the void,
left to rot
               in the infinite.
o sun blind
               me with your pity,
shine through my skin
                             that i become
an angel
            in my own darkness,
my skull as holy
                    as the heaven
that once was,
                  strangers meditating
on it in search
                   of saintliness,
nothing left to worship
                               but their own deaths,
mine leading them
                         into foreordained oblivion.

wondrous beloved

by Donald Kuspit

you've risen again,
                           the last mirage of meaning,
the evening star
                        and the morning star
in one bright star
                          of feeling,
the sky again hinting
                             of gods,
the clouds once again
aliveness in the boundless,
                                       long fallow
with futility.
                  let us ride the waves
of wonder,
              the sea of the senses
                 by the tides of thought,
touch and taste,
                        whisper and scent,
liberating the body
                           from its boundaries.

light and dark

by Donald Kuspit

luminous in the eye,
                            the budding innocence
anoints memory,
                   loosening the grip
of darkness,
                leading me out of lameness
into the talking light,
                               oracle in the absence.
o that the burden
                         of being would become
as light as light,
                          as free of memory,
that i become a light year
                                      in a distant cosmos
of consciousness,
                         unreachable by any telescope
of thought,
               sustained by the silence,
the emptiness once again
                                    abundant with mystery.

The Romantic Subject: Art As the Embodiment Of Creative Illness

by Donald Kuspit

Let me begin by comparing three works of art, two paintings by Ingres and a print by Goya, all of which are about the romantic subject, who is of course the modern artist–the symbol of the modern idea of the fundamental irrationality of the human subject.  We see him, in all his dramatic splendor and intensity, in Ingres’s portrait of Paul Lemoyne, circa 1810-11. His hair is not properly combed, his dark eyes pierce us with their intensity, his shirt is open at the collar, so much so that there is a suggestion of nakedness, for his upper chest is partially exposed. The collar stands on end, and supports the head, like a pedestal, a very peculiar, almost immaterial pedestal, for the open collar resembles the fragment of a halo, as though Ingres wanted to suggest that there is something sacred about Lemoyne. The collar raises his head into another space, suggesting that there is something special about his mind and person.

His coat is also wide open, like a stage curtain, further framing his dramatic presence.  The sharp contrast between Lemoyne’s dark hair and illumined face adds to his drama, as does the subsidiary contrast between his brown coat and white shirt. The sense of the informal, which brings with it a sense of the private and indiscreet , seems stretched to the limit.  Lemoyne is not simply in a state of casual disarray and partial undress–but his coat or cape suggests that he is ready to show himself in public–but seems to flaunt himself.  Indeed, he confronts us, almost thrusts his face  into ours, and seems to stand on our feet.  The fact that he comes as close to the picture plane as it is possible to come without breaking the boundary between himself and us–so close that his body seems to dissolve into or merge with the picture plane, as though to confirm that he is a vivid material reality rather than a fiction–suggests as much.  His confrontational glance adds to his vivid presence, confirming that this is no conventional individual, but one with temperament.  In short, Lemoyne makes a strong, lively impression.  His is a dashing, let us say romantic presence.

Clearly our relationship with this intense young man is not going to be easy or boring. He is not exactly at ease with himself , indeed, the wildly open collar seems like a metaphor for inner turmoil, suggesting that Lemoyne is a troubled and troublesome character.  He is dangerous to relate to, and seems endangered in himself . The fact that his collar is unbuttoned and raised, and twists and turns, so that iits corners move in opposite directions, suggests a figure at odds with itself–subtly conflicted, perhaps inherently unbalanced.  In general, the abrupt contradictions of Lemoyne’s appearance, which test, indeed flaunt, the boundaries of propriety, as though he does not take them seriously, suggest a somewhat uninhibited, disturbed, even rash person.  He wears civilized clothing, but he seems eager to break the constraints of civilization, or indifferent to them, for he wears them casually, so that we become aware of his bodily presence without being sure of his social position.

Lemoyne is, for his times, a somewhat spontaneous character, vital but threatening–just because his  vitality is not reined in by his clothing, his expressiveness is not mitigated by good manners, his forcefulness is barely under control.  Ingres gives Lemoyne a remarkable density of presence–genuine mimesis is not simply about conveying an accurate likeness, but about concentrating the experience of a person in a singular image that convinces us that we have grasped his inner being, which is what gives him presence. The task of mimesis is to find the subject in the object, and convey its synthesis of uniqueness and universality. Objective appearance becomes a metaphor for subjective reality. It must evoke the subjectivity of the individual as well as the dynamics of subjectivity as such.  Lemoyne is in fact a singular being.  As Philip Conisbee writes, his “dishevelment… belongs to a pictorial tradition, well established since the eighteenth century, signifying the unfettered genius of the creative artist.”(1)

There is also something else that makes him unusual, even for an artist genius: he is pictured by himself, suggesting that his art comes entirely from within himself, indeed, has to do with his exploration of himself–of his moods and feelings, which he attempts to convey in all their intensity and complexity. This sense of interiority and independence, which Ingres brilliantly conveys, confirms that Lemoyne is a modern artist–a genius who looks into himself for creative inspiration, who has sufficient strength of character to rely on himself completely, sufficient autonomy to be his own creative resource. Compare Ingres’s painting of Lemoyne with his later painting of the somewhat more traditional artist genius in Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842–traditional because the artist is pictured with his muse, the female personification of his inspiration, the externalization of his creative impulse.  Both paintings depict ideal types of artist geniuses, but Lemoyne is the modern romantic type while Cherubini is the traditional classical type.  Ingres seems to know that the traditional type is on the way out, for although “the face of the illustrious composer is imprinted with the highest character, ” as Theophil e Thore wrote, “Ingres conceals neither age nor weakness ,” as Charles Lenormant wrote,(2) suggesting the approach of death, while Lemoyne looks young and fresh–a symbol of the future rather than the past.  We know that Ingres was torn between the past and future–stood on the cusp between the classical past and the romantic future. We know of his great feeling for music, and his love of Mozart, Cherubini, Gluck, and Haydn, whose “masterpieces become ever younger,” as he said,(3) even as he knew they seemed old in the modern world.  Mourning the death of Pierre Baillot, whom he praised as “the Poussin of the violin,” Ingres remarked that “it’s the modern world that killed him.”(4)  It would no doubt also kill the classical music Baillot performed.

The classical muse is the source of Cherubini’s genius. Without his dependence on her he has none. Without his special, intimate relationship with her. he is just another ordinary uninspired human being–a human being who cannot transcend his troubles. Indeed, Cherubini sits in a kind of melancholy trance. He may “hear some harmony within himself ,” as Thore said, but “a profound feeling of sadness is imprinted” on his face, as Lenormant said. Indeed, Cherubini leans his head against his right hand in a version of the traditional pose that symbolizes melancholy. Cherubini’s depression is more explicit in Ingres’s study for his 1840-41 portrait of him. Cherubini and Ingres were in fact both somewhat “sour egos,” as Theophile Silvestre wrote. who understood “each other perfectly,” suggesting, as Gary Tinterow writes, that “Ingres’s picture can easily be viewed as a kind of self-portrait by projection.”(5) In other words. Ingres was often as depressed–sour–as he shows Cherubini to be.

Cherubini waits, in a melancholy state, presumably indicative of his introspection, to be touched by the muse. But it is not clear that he does expect her touch–that he can be sure of it–for he seems altogether unaware of her presence behind him. We can see that she is about to touch him, but he doesn’t know it.  He remains passive, however active she is.  She may be a reassuring, facilitating presence, a maternal guarantee of primary creativity–I would argue that Ingres has shown us what it means to be creatively alone with oneself, in Donald Winnicott’s sense(6)–but she it manifest.  One might say that he wishes to compose. but that he has composer’s block, until the mothering muse liberates him from his melancholy.

Ingres shows us a divided Cherubini, split between masculine melancholy part and feminine creative part. They may about to be reconciled, but they are not yet united in the picture. The former is mortal, the latter immortal, suggesting that the art that will be most enduring will be feminine in spirit and feeling–that it will convey the sense of creative vitality and grace associated with woman, who has the capacity to give birth to new life, which is a kind of physical grace, a  grace  of  the body–however masculine its form may seem. But  that  form is  likely to  be  as  classical, harmonious, and discreet as the classical, harmonious, modest garb of the muse. The emotions the content generates will be constrained and contained by the reliable classical form–the stylistic proprieties of reassuring tradition. Lemoyne’s wide open look and clothing are certainly a far cry from the closed look and buttoned up clothing of Cherubini.

The modern artist genius, then, goes it alone–without the mothering muse. From the point of view of tradition this is sheer folly and madness, that is. it can only lead to serious mental sickness–profound, perhaps incurable emotional suffering. Indeed, Goya’s The Sleep of  Reason Produces Monsters, 1799 shows us the mad, sick dreams–nightmares–of the modern romantic creative genius. who makes art without the help of the muse. She alone can give the wild i imagination civilized form, presumably without compromising its fantasy–the kind of fantastic , all too exciting, disturbing dreams the apparently healthy Lemoyne (but he seems a little too intense to be healthy) probably had when he fell asleep.  Here is Jose Lopez-Rey’s description of a 1797 drawing that is close to Goya’s famous aquatint, which is the final plate of  Los  Caprichos.  There is “a large blank area in the background to the left: the only animal figures are now those of bats and owls, and a huge weird cat,  sitting on the ground and looking toward the slumbering artist.  The middle area is taken by a gigantic bat which is counterpoised to a bulky owl.  This crouches on the dreamer’s back peering at his hidden face, while the bat hovers above displaying its lurid breasts and belly in a show of obscenity.”(7)  Lopez-Rey comments that “the actions and attitudes of the various huge  animals make all the clearer the world of superstition they represent.”  This follows from the caption at the bottom of the drawing, which reads: “The artist dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs, and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth.”(8)

But in the final print there is something more–something deeper–at stake, as Lopez-Rey acknowledges .  Goya’s own commentary on it conveys something quite different from the earlier caption:  ”Imagination, deserted by reason, begets impossible monsters.  United with reason, she is the mother of all arts, and the source of their wonders.”(9)   L6pez-Rey writes :  ”This explanation coincides with a passage in Addison’s essay, Pleasures of Imagination which, approximately at the time when the Caprichos were published, was being translated by Don Jose L. Munarriz, one of Goya’s friends.  Addison wrote:  ’When the brain is hurt by an accident, or the mind disordered by dreams or sickness, the fancy is overrun with wild, dismal ideas and terrified with a thousand hideous monsters of its own framing.”‘(10) Thus,  while the 1797 sketch has to be understood as expressing “a rationalist attitude,” as Lopez-Rey says, the final version of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters has to be understood as expressing “a romantic…point of view.”(11)

The social and moral meaning of the nightmarish animals has disappeared. They are now unequivocally irrational–monsters of the imagination. We dream of them when we have completely lost our reason, and there is no way to rationalize them with the help of morality, and for that matter aesthetics. Goya remains conflicted about their meaning, as the announcement of the publication of Caprichos indicates. He begins by asserting that their purpose is “the censure of human errors and vices”-­ presumably represented by the monsters–and ends declaring that he “reunites in a single fantastic personage circumstances and characteristics that nature has divided among many.”(12) Thus, the monsters exist for their own irrational sake, conveying, as Goya suggests, what is universal–his own word. It is the ”universal language” of dreams that ultimately interests him, as the inscription on the side of the desk in the 1797 drawing suggests. There is no longer any pretense of reason–no longer the belief that the imagination has to combine with reason to produce art. Art can be purely imaginative, with no admixture of reason–without being compromised and made palatable by reason. And to be imaginative means to represent dreams, however painful or pleasurable–more painful than pleasurable, as the Addison quotation indicates. With whatever difficulty and uncertainty, Goya is in transition from socially critical art to psychologically critical art. The Sleep of Reason Produces  Monsters shows him trying to convey the subjective roots of objective problems. He may still be concerned with superstition, but he realizes that superstition is rooted in the imagination–in the psyche. H e still has social concern, but his fascination with dreams is greater .

The dark, blank area in the left background of The Sleep of  Reason Produces  Monsters is the abyss of the unconscious . The dream monsters–representatives of the animal side of human beings–emerge from it.  It is a kind of Pandora’s box without the hope–a nurturing female in the myth–at the bottom.  The muse remains subliminally present, but she has become evil–a predatory animal–because she has been rejected, that is. because the hope for reason she represents has been extinguished . She is no longer a classical goddess, but a romantic monster. The artist is completely in the world of imagination–victimized by his dreams–in Goya’s print. When de Chirico states that the only source of art is “the metaphysics and mystery of dreams”(13) he is speaking in the spirit of Goya’sThe Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. When he pays homage to Max Klinger’s Paraphrase on the Finding of a   Glove, 1881, as he does in The Song of Love, 1914, because it “produces a deeply disturbing dream-reality ,”(14) he is speaking Goya’s emotional language . H  e concedes absolute artistic power to the imagination in his Goyaesque assertion that “To become immortal a work of art must escape all human limits:  logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.”(15)                     As Lopez-Rey says, it was the surrealists who regarded The Sleep of  Reason Produces Monsters as their first manifesto.

What exactly is the artist dreaming in Goya’s print?  His own madness. The “hideous monsters” that terrify him are “of [his] own framing,” as Addison said.  His “fancy is overrun with wild, dismal ideas” because his mind is “disordered,” that is, has  lost all reason. For the romantic artist, creative genius consists in dreaming–giving imaginative form to his own mental states, more precisely, his own irrational feelings, indeed, disturbed subjectivity.  Some of his wild, dismal ideas—the hideous ideas—the hideous monsters that stalk and haunt him–are depression, perversion, violent mania, all of which have been associated with creativity in psychoanalytic studies.  It takes genius to give one’s dreams–the fantasies that signal one’s madness–convincing imaginative form.

Ingres dreams his own depression in his portrait of the melancholy Cherubini, giving it viable social form.  Because he can do so the artist shows the universality of what he dreams, which redeems his artistic display of them from arbitrariness.  He in effect bares his breast, as Emile Zola said(16)–as we see Paul Lemoyne doing–but in doing so he shows us what hides in everyone’s breast.  The content of his dreams are the content of everyone’s dreams, however different their form—and it is not always clear that their form is so different.

There is no doubt a disruptive obscenity in this display of irrationality in a world struggling g to be objective and civilized, the same obscenity that Lo pez-Rey n oted in the exhibitionistic female bat–the muse become perverse and monstrous–in the 1797 drawing for The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. It may be maladaptive and subversive, but it also gives the work of art a personality, an uncanny individuality . The authentic work of art–authentic by modern romantic standards– is “a personality, an individual,” as Zola said.(17)  Artist and art are virtually indistinguishable–not the artist in his everyday appearance–but even that has a certain artfulness  to it, as Ingres’s portrait of Lemoyne shows–but in his emotional reality.

Ever since Goya the creative use of mental illness in which rationality seems completely lost–in effect the transformation of complete irrationality into art–has been the implicit i artistic norm. Whatever form he gives it, the genius of the modern romantic artist consists in his capacity to tolerate and communicate madness or mental illness without entirely succumbing to it, more particularly, to courageously articulate his fear of completely losing his mind, and showing everybody that they are afraid of the same thing–of the loss of rationality, and with that of sociality. In short, modern romantic art is about the catalytic effect of madness–of the tendency to madness–on creativity. “Works of art are always the result of having been at risk,” Rilke romantically writes, “of having pursued an experience to the very end,”(18) and the experience is of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own irrationality, one’s own madness. “And the further on this road, the more personal, the more unique does this experience become,” continues Rilke, “till in the end the work of art is the necessary, the insuppressible, the most final expression possible of this uniqueness .”  But the romantic point is that this subjective uniqueness  is universal, which is what justifies its artistic expression. People experience their own irrational subjectivity–their own madness–in the dream of the work of art, which restores them to a larger sanity than the everyday world affords-­ than society makes possible. As Andre Haynal writes, “The dream has a restorative function.  In dreams… it is the withdrawal connected to suffering and depression that makes possible St. Augustine’s ‘return into yourself .”‘(19)  And with that a return to creativity and the unconscious joie de vivre inseparable from it –they are the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s monstrous box of ills–which is the point Ingres makes in his portrait of Paul Lemoyne, which can be understood as a projection of his own creativity and joie de vivre. They as much a part of romanticism as depression, perversion, uncontrollable mania. Romantic art, then, is as much a healing process as a revelation of innate madness. “Suffering is the great decadence ,” Colette said,(20)

and romantic art is decadent, but it also involves creative healing–the return to primary creativity and true selfhood that have been lost to suffering. Romantic art deals with the suffering that is a drain on life, and symbolizes the death instinct, as it gets the better of the life instinct, but it also symbolizes the recovery of the life instinct, embodied in creative apperception, to use Winnicott’s term–the creative apperception that is the alternative to the sickness unto death, to refer to Kierkegaard’s description of depression . After passing through what seems like hell, the self reaches its own creativity. Or as R. D. Laing puts it, the journey through inner space, which “tends to be regarded as antisocial withdrawal, a deviation, invalid, pathological per se, in some sense discreditable,” is part of a “natural healing process.”(21)

The concept of creative illness is quintessentially romantic, as Henri Ellenberger suggests. “According to Novalis there exist certain illnesses of superior essence that are, so to say, more wholesome than health.”(22) In these illnesses “the disappearance of a physical symptom was followed by the appearance of an idea.”(23) Viktor von Weizsacker calls this logophania. According to Ellenberger, he is the only psychosomatician who realized that “if misdirected emotions or ideas can be transformed into illness,…illness [could] disappear through a transformation into an idea.” This is a creative transformation : illness opens the way to a new idea. It is as though the illness broke the hold of preconceptions and stereotypes, conventional logic and prescribed rules of thinking, allowing for the emergence of an unconventional idea. The whole weight and authority of traditional thinking and ideas is cast off by the illness –worked through, as it were, by the illness. “The modern dissolution of firm bonds with tradition” occurred “in the Romantic era,” as Hans-Georg Gadamer observes,(24) and it is the romantic creative illness that is at once the instrument and expression of this dissolution–this destructive loss of faith in tradition, undermining iits power.  To be modern means to make a break with tradition, and every modern artist must make his break with tradition, even if tradition goes no deeper than yesterday’s prominent art.  He must declare his difference, optimally a radical difference. Discontinuity becomes the rule rather than continuity.  Thus the proliferation of modern movements, each contradicting the other, suggesting the meaning of postmodernism : their reconciliation, that is, the recognition that they no longer seem so discontinuous with each other .  Postmodernist moments are scattered throughout modernism, e.g., Cube-Futurism , Magic Realism, Abstract Surrealism. Perhaps there are more of them than purists care to acknowledge, and indeed a pure modernist like Clement Greenberg ignores and dismisses them .

The break with tradition has to make the modem artist romantically ill, for tradition is the parent of us all, so that to rebel against tradition is to break the taboo against parricide.  Indeed, the elimination of the muse from Ingres’s portrait of Paul Lemoyne can be understood as a kind of matricide.  Certainly the anti-traditionalism that has become a staple of avant-gardism is perverse, if perversion means “to make a mockery of the law by turning it ‘upside down’,” as Janine Chasseguet-Smi rgel says.(25)  For the avant-gardist, turning the law of tradition upside down is to be innovative.  He does not realize that to be upside down is to have no place to stand. His position is all the more precarious–unstable and insecure–because of the urge to stand right side up, however suppressed. Falling over is unavoidable, which is why so many avant-garde movements are shortlived–break down, just as they break tradition down by turning it upside down.

To break the law of tradition—the rules and concerns of art that tradition has established, and that take precedence over any innovation that may occur within it, which is either dismissed as a monstrous anomaly or praised as a refinement of the familiar, purged as a misguided deviation or appreciated as an insightful nuance–has to be depressing, for one is ridding oneself of what is commonly regarded as the ground of creativity, or at least of the guidelines that structure it. One seems to have lost one’s creative foundation or else to be creating blindly–a depressing situation, for it suggests one’s creative inadequacy.  No doubt it is also weirdly exhilarating, for the full force of the imagination is released, in a rushing stream of turbulent dreams. Dream-reality liberates one from everyday reality.  Impulses and emotions are no longer under control, making one seem free.  Losing discipline, one seems to gain life, if only for a fitful moment.

One must be in a manic state to overthrow tradition, all the more after one has done so, for mania hides the feeling of “death inside,” as Winnicott said. It is the feeling of emptiness left by the loss of tradition, the emptiness that conveys its  absence, and that covers up its murder. Modern romantic creativity is necessarily manic, for there is no other way to be creative when there is no clear purpose or limiting form to the imagination–when the bonds between intelligibility, civilizing purpose, represented by moral and social concern, and imagination, which were forged by tradition, have been dissolved.  All that is left is raw imagination, which is indifferent to aesthetics, if to be aesthetic means to discipline the imagination by giving it a moral and social purpose, which makes it intelligible.  If, as Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote, “equilibrium is only maintained in art by the law of contradictions , by the battle and the opposition of different currents,”(26) then it is the battle between imagination and civilizing purpose that gives the work of art the inner equilibrium we experience as aesthetic harmony. It is necessarily tense and precarious by reason of the contradictions it has reconciled, a reconciliation that is never more than tentative, and that always seems unreal–an aesthetic illusion. Art can never do more than propose the ideal of the unity of opposites, for they are always subliminally in conflict, irreconcilable. The monsters of perversion, depression, and mania arise when imagination has broken with civilizing purpose, destroying the ideal, which is the larger meaning of the break with tradition. The break, as I want to emphasize, occurred explicitly in Goya’s The Sleep of  Reason Produces Monsters, however much Goya realized that imagination by itself was not the ground of art. The unity of imagination and civilizing purpose–internal reality and critical consciousness–is  the only fertile soil in which true art might grow–the only real creativity.  This suggests that an art of pure dreams–the romantic ideal of creative art, never completely realized, like most ideals–is pseudo-art.

The artist is necessarily creatively ill when he has no aesthetic expectations, that is, when art is no longer implicated in civilization, but a matter of pure imaginative expression–the staging of dreams.  For creative illness is the on.ly way to arrive at new ideas when one can no longer be original on the basis of tradition, which Winnicott thought was the only way one could be original.  That is, the avant-garde artist is necessarily creatively ill because he has no tradition to make him creatively healthy, at least according to the conventional idea of what it means to have creative health. Ellenberger outlines four phases of creative illness, which from my perspective are phases of avant-garde creativity. “The illness appears generally right after a period of intense intellectual effort, long reflection and mediation,”(27) which seems to go nowhere, to have no creative fruit.  One has in effect made “oneself sick through study or worry ,” as Ellenberger comments–worry that all one’s study is futile. The potential avant-gardist studies tradition, worrying it to death, because he cannot make personal sense of it.

In the second phase, “the subject is generally obsessed with an intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic problem that is dominant, which he will sometimes display publicly, but which he often hides.  The individual is preoccupied with the search for a thing or an idea the importance of which he sets above everything and never loses sight of completely.”  This thing or idea is the alternative to tradition, which exists as a problem. He has a sense of the solution, but the alternative is not yet concrete or real enough to be one.  The spiritualist ideas that motivated the pioneering abstractionists Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian are classic examples of this, and finally bear avant-garde fruit–finally become concrete–in their art.  In the third phase, “the termination of the illness is experienced not only as the liberation from a long period of psychological suffering but as an illumination.”  Thus the emotionally liberating illuminations of Rimbaud, and the general feeling of Promethean liberation and illumination every avant-garde movement claims as uniquely its own, and offers as a gift to humanity, indeed, praises as the basis for a new idea of humanity.  Art becomes a monstrance in which the new thing or idea is displayed, to the benefit of all. It is a blessing for all humankind, mediated by art.  Visionary insight into the future of art and humanity and liberation from the stifling art of tradition with its inadequate idea of human possibility go hand in hand.  Finally, “the cured illness is…followed by a lasting transformation of personality.  The subject has the impression of entering into a new life.”  Avant-garde art is the beginning of a new emotional life–a supposedly more honest emotional life.  The avant-garde artist is a new self, and a proselytizer for avant­ garde art as a way to new selfhood.

The whole process of creative illness resembles a religious conversion.  The convert is initially a divided self, a term that both William James and Laing use.  The likely convert to avant-gardism finds himself torn between tradition and originality, civilization and creativity, moral and social concern and the irrational dreams of the imagination.  He is sick with indecision, and becomes healthy and whole–at least in his own mind–only when he chooses his own original dreams over collective concerns, which seem unoriginal and unsolvable. Uncertainty is replaced by self­ certainty, creative block by creative excitement.  To put this another way, when he begins to believe that he is superior to society–because nothing can be done with society, but everything remains to be done with the self–and turns away from its reality to personal fantasy, he feels creatively alive if also heroically isolated.  In short, losing faith in society, which cannot be changed–recreated–he gains faith in himself, for he can creatively change for the better.

He thus resolves, however onesidedly, that is, undialectically, the perennial conflict between social reason and personal unreason.  It seems exacerbated in modernity, and commonplace, because of the modern pursuit of instrumental reason. The dialectic between socialization and individuation breaks down, so much so that they come to seem opposed to one another.  Society seems to interfere with and limit individual development, however much it superficially encourages it–at least enough so that one can take one’s instrumental place in it–and the individual seems able to be creative only when he takes a decisive stand against social authority, even creating a new language–a non-instrumental language, socially useless but emotionally communicative arid exciting, and comprehensible only to the happy self-selected few. Such a radically subjective esoteric language sometimes seems the very substance of avant-gardism.

If, as Winnicott argues, the child’s toy is a device that helps him separate from  his mother and his own subjectivity and emotions, and make the transition to the socially shared reality outside himself–the harsh reality of the world, as Freud said-­ then the work of art, a toy for adults, and especially the esoteric avant-garde work of art, which is a toy for emotionally desperate adults, helps the adult make the transition back to the subjectivity and deep emotions he has suppressed and even forgotten he was capable of in order to function and get along in the socially objective world. It is emotionally defective and deficient, that is, i indifferent or unempathic, just because it is socially objective. To put this another way, if art is a “highly refined sensorimotor nutriment” that “evokes latent emotions,” as Gilbert Rose asserts,(28) then avant-garde art is a necessary dietary supplement in a world that rarely affords enough emotional nourishment, indeed, a world of emotional malnutrition.

The modern instrumental world of social role playing affords even less emotional nourishment than the traditional pre-industrial world, which at least had the emotions generated by and encoded in religion. Avant-garde art, which developed partly in response to a world that has lost religion, has become a substitute religion for those who suffer most from instrumental and social reductionism and the insensitive denial of emotions inseparable from it.  It is a religion for the individual rather than collectively given–a mysterious religion not unlike the Eleusinian mysteries, for avant­ garde art involves a descent into the emotional depths, with no guarantee of return.

Without emotions, one experiences an excruciating loss of being, and the modern instrumental world tries to force us to function without emotions, or else reduces them to mechanistic terms, a simplification that is an insidious betrayal of them , and a form of denial. It must do so, for intense organic emotions interfere with smooth instrumental and social functioning, since they register its detrimental existential effects, thus bringing it into question.  Indeed, such functioning is unconsciously a kind of living death for many, especially when its human purpose seems trivial or unclear.

Organic emotions represent inner imperatives, while instrumental social functioning represents outer imperatives. For those who think the latter have come to exist at the expense of the former in the modern world–that outer necessity has won the war wi inner  necessity–the worship of avant-garde art is a way to right the balance, even more crucially, to survive as a subject and person in a world that they experience as all impersonal outer necessity and all too objectively the case. It is the imperative of emotion they discover in avant-garde art at its most irrational–the  legitimation of emotion in a world that has little interest in it, except when it disrupts smooth instrumental and social functioning. It must then be neutralized, indeed, cauterized.

In short, in the modern world, which has lost religion but found collective entertainment– it can be regarded as a religion without the emotion of transcendence , and without complex emotions and the sophisticated symbols necessary to convey them–certain emotionally starved individuals, for whom secular entertainment is inadequate, for it is as instrumental and reductionist as every other modern industry, experience the religion of sacred avant-garde art as the only hope for emotional life and truth, that is, as the only way to discover and develop their deepest feelings and thus feel creatively alive. As Wallace Stevens writes , “The paramount relation between…modern man and modern art, is simply this:  in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost.”(29)  Thus the religion of avant-garde art, which is modern art at its most unreasonable and unsociabl e, is emotionally necessary in the secular modern world. Avant-gardism , then, can be regarded as a last ditch assertion of individuality, true selfhood, nonconformity, and sacredness–all apparently irrational in a superficially rational world–in a profane society of conformists, false selves, and instrumental servitude.   It is in effect an ironically regressive attempt, in the guise of spiritual insight and progress, to make the best of social alienation.

Writing about Rameau’s  Nephew, Diderot’s “great dialogue,” Lionel Trilling observes that “It lays bare the principle of insincerity upon which society is based and demonstrates the loss of personal integrity and dignity that the impersonations of social existence entail.”(30)  For Diderot, “society…is the root and ground of alienation.” “This is scarcely new,” Trilling notes. What is new is Diderot’s suggestion that the Nephew–who has been understood in terms of Robert Jay Litton’s concept of the protean self, by reason of his perpetual metamorphosis of social identity-­ represents “the liberty that we wish to believe is inherent in the human spirit, in its energy of effort, expectation, and desire, in its consciousness of itself and its limitless contradictions.” Rameau’s Nephew is in effect the first avant-garde artist. This seems confirmed by the fact that the climax of the dialogue is his “disquisition on the superiority of the new forms of opera to the old,” that is, of modern art to traditional art-­ a discourse essential to avant-gardism.  He becomes opera, “a musical Proteus” impersonating all the instruments, enacting all the roles, “portraying all the emotions.”  It seems he was the first performance artist, and a consummate one. He may have been, as Diderot wrote, “a compound of elevation and abjectness. of good sense and lunacy….He has no greater opposite than himself.” But he was also an artistic prodigy and innovator .

Trilling remarks: “The astonishing performance proposes the idea which Nietzsche was to articulate a century later, that man’s true metaphysical destiny expresses itself not in morality but in art.” There is a conspicuous anti-social dimension in Nietzsche’s revolutionary substitution of artistic authenticity for moral authenticity. Such anti-sociality–in Nietzsche it shows itself in his contempt for what he calls the herd, that is, the collective at its most compliant–is the emotional underpinning of the romantic avant-garde revolution, the dark side of its supposedly enlightened and  liberating re-thinking of life. Goethe implicitly understood romantic anti-sociali ty when he wrote: “I have totally separated my political and social life from my moral and poetic one.”(31) H e  added: “Only in my innermost plans and purposes and endeavors do I remain mysteriously self-loyal and thus tie my social, political, moral and poetic life again together into a hidden knot.” In other words, Goethe was classical as well as romantic, which is why he was able to conceive and sustain inner unity of purpose however outwardly split he knew he was.  He was not an avant-garde revolutionary, for his art had moral and social intention as well as imaginative and personal significance.

Artistically washing one’s hands of moral concern, as the avant-garde artist does, does not do society much good–and I hope to show that it does not do the avant-garde artist much human good, whatever its short run of artistic good–and may in emotional fact acknowledge the futility of trying to do social good, at least any that durably makes a dent in social misery.  It seems more difficult to be morally authentic than artistically authentic, even when artistic authenticity is regarded as a kind of moral authenticity.  Of course, what has been suppressed always returns, however obliquely, that is, in the formalist tendency to aesthetic order.  This is vaguely civilizing, and thus loosely not to say lamely moral, however illogical and ironic–and irony is a moral cop-out–avant-garde aesthetics often seems.

Now the unforeseen thing about the creative illness of the avant-garde artist is that the transformation of the illness into a new idea is in complete .  Avant-garde creativity remains contaminated by   rippling illness, and as such is peculiarly abortive and self-defeating.  Its products remain marred–indeed, permanently marked–by morbidity, which continues to feste ,  like a canker , in their creative core.  It never quite overcomes the illness that is its point of departure, and thus is symptomatic as well as original.   Indeed, its originality may consist in its symptomatic uniqueness, or at least novelty. Unlike the shaman, who endures “psychopathological troubles” before becoming a shaman, but “once cured, enters a new, higher life,” as Ellenberger says,(32) the avant-garde artist never leaves his psychopathological troubles behind. This suggests that while, like the shaman, he brings “to the surface of his mind a world of images and thoughts buried in the depths of the unconscious,”(33) avant-garde creative illness does not heal as well as shamanistic creative illness.  For the shaman re-integrates with society after his mental illness, despite the fact that he continues to “live constantly” in a “fantastic world” of his own invention, as Ivan Lopatin remarks about Alaskan and Siberian shamans.(34)  ln contrast, the avant-garde artist never reconciles with society, even when he becomes famous and properous, which is a kind of  pseudo-reconciliation.

Laing puts the issue very well : “the list of artists, in say the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked…is so long–Holderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud.”(35)   Few of these figures sustained a convincing creativity, however interesting their final works may be, nor did it transform their personalities for the better.  They may have solved “an intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic problem,” as Ellenberger says, but it did not liberate them from “psychological suffering,” nor did  their “new idea” give them “a new life.”  For Laing, “any personal awareness of the inner world…has grave risks,” and these modern artists succumbed to the peril, which means they could not find their way back to the outer world.  If, as he writes, “the outer divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness,”(36) then the inner divorced from any connection with the outer is in a state of madness.

To Laing’s list we could add Ensor, who while never overtly mad, or so it seemed, produced art that has been described as “the expression of an enormous fear and hatred of the human race which men turned against their own persons.”(37) According to Werner Haftmann, “the autistic world of hallucinations becomes the real world for him. He is unable to transmute natural experience into form , but can only evoke it as hallucinatory vision….he does not take the world as raw material to be processed into form ; his raw material consists of hallucinations, dreams that irrupt into reality….dream  and reality, morbid hallucination and ultra-lucid perception , satanic hatred and loving affection…became hopelessly confused.  The self and the world kept changing their relative positions, but always they remained alien and hostile to one another .”(38) There is a certain family resemblance here to Artaud, who has been thought to have “suffered from confabulatory paraphrenia , a delusional psychosis which is not accompanied by intellectual deterioration and in which some symptoms-­ hallucinations and confabulations–are close to those of schizophrenia.”(39) Anais Nin, who could never resist the pseudo-sexual game of kiss and tell, felt that when she kissed Artaud she was “drawn towards death, towards iinsanity,”(40) which no doubt gave her a special thrill.

All this suggests that the avant-garde artist breaks his links with the external world and enters an internal world which becomes more and more nightmarish, and thus hateful, so that he attempts to break his link with it–his hatred is already that effort –leaving him nothing, that is, with little or no sense of his own or the world’s being. To use Wilfred Bion’s distinction, he becomes insane without knowing he is insane, while in breaking with the external social world he is knowingly insane.  Are van Gogh’s sadistic brushstrokes–which is the way W. R. D. Fairbairn understands them(41)–an attack on his relations with his internal as well as external objects (merged in his representation) , and as such an attempt to destructively uproot them from his psyche and destroy their very reason for being?  Such ontological terrorism seems to be standard operating procedure in avant-garde art, as Fairbairn implies when he observes the sadistic mutilation of subject matter in Goya and the Surrealists, climaxing in gross distortion and fragmentation, especially in Picasso.(42)  Certainly Duchamp’s attack on the idea of art can be construed as ontological terrorism–an attempt to terrorize, petrify, and finally annihilate all artists by calling into question their creativity, indeed, the very idea of creativity–however cloaked in the garb of Dadaist farce, that is, however legitimated as another category of art called anti-art. (At one point, in an interview with Pierre Cabanne, he mischievously wondered what it was to be an artist, suggesting that it was to be nothing at all.)

Laing argues that “sanity today appears to rest largely on a capacity to adapt to the external world–the interpersonal world, and the realm of human collectivities,”(43) and he tends to disparage the external world, associating it with the “appalling state of alienation called normality,” which the voyage to the inner is “a natural way of healing.”(44) However stirring his call to end the “state of sin” that he calls “alienation or estrangement from the inner light,”(45) the fact of the matter is that to be alienated or estranged from the external world is also a “state of sin.” The former is as unbalanced as the latter. Inner light can make one indifferent and blind to natural light. The light within seems to exist at the expense of sunlight and starlight.  Inner light may liberate the soul from its bondage to darkness. but it can be another kind of blindfold.  Both kinds of alienation involve “radical estrangement from the totality of what is the case,” to use Laing’s own words.(46)  The avant-garde artist is as estranged from the totality  of what is the case as the so-called normal person, but the former errs on the side of inwardness where the latter errs on the side of outwardness.

It is worth noting that Hermann Broch thought “that art that does not render the totality of the world is no art.”(47)  Broch thought that the task of art is to “counterbalance …the hypertrophic calamity” of “splitting the world into fragmentary disciplines.” This rather utopian view of art certainly credits the artist with extraordinary power of integration and visionary knowledge. But it seems that art that is exclusively a personal representation of the inner world—which is what romantic avant-garde art aimed to be, even as it l ost its bearings in the inner world–is as hypertrophic and fragmentary as art that is exclusively a representation of the external world, which is what the avant-garde artist thought traditional art was, and why he rejected it. What Richard Cork calls Brancusi’s “extreme purging of form”(48) amounts to such a rejection, and is characteristic of much avant-garde art. Such a purge destroys the link to the external world, leaving in its wake forms that can be regarded as symbolic of internal verities, such as archetypes . Brancusi contemptuously dismissed Michelangelo’s figures as “beefsteak,” pinching his own flesh to show that they had too much flesh on them . His own figures are hardly flesh at all, for their bodies have become emblems of their spirit. They are ghosts from the inner world, having little or nothing to do with the external world.  Brancusi’s visionary bird is a long avant-garde way from birds in the sky, which is why it remains immobilized on a pedestal.

My point is that the avant-garde visionary, however ecstatic and insightful his subjective art, is as limited and incomplete as the traditional master of mimesis, however penetrating his precision and intense his recognitions of what is objectively the case. The former tests for interior reality, the latter for exterior reality, each ignoring, or at best giving lip service to what it neglects to engage and study in depth. But the sin of the avant-garde visionary is greater, for he ignores the fact that subjective reality is as common and shared a reality as objective reality. Such sharing, and the illusions of intelligibility and intimacy that come with it, is built into traditional mimesis. Thus, when Redon somewhat onesidedly asserted that “everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’,” and declared that “the future belongs to a subjective world,” and dismissed the “seen reality” of the objective world as no more than a support for the artist’s “dream,”(49) he seemed to forget that everybody dreams and has an unconscious, and that his own is in principle and substance like everyone else’s. If it was not–if the artist’s unconscious was r radically different to the point of being  utterly unique–nobody would understand his art.

The avant-garde artist, then, never quite makes it out of his illness–never quite transforms himself into a healthy person–and the creative results of his illness seem too irrational and subjective for their own artistic good. This illness is the unavoidable result of the abandonment of tradition, which represents the socialization and durability of art.  Even more, it is a measure of value:  it represents standards.  When  Picasso stated that artists today “are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production is submitted to rules,”(50) he was expressing the despair that comes from the loss of tradition, with its codified rules.  Breaking them may have been liberating, but this was quickly followed by deep uncertainty.  When John Golding writes “that quite often the Cubists were not fully aware of what they were doing,” “that many Cubist paintings were begun as pictorial adventures,”(51 ) he is describing the floundering–call it creative floundering, if you want–that follows from the loss of direction that follows from the loss of tradition.  Yes. a “destination” is “achieved ,” as Golding says, and Cubist paintings can be regarded as “great and extraordinarily original,” but nihilism is built into this originality, and the destination is unclear.  Much has been lost on the way to it.

Cubist paintings are quintessentially avant-garde–perhaps the first truly avant­ garde works–because they show us what it means to make art without guiding u rules and social support–without any foundation–which is what tradition supplies. They seem to break the rules, but they don’t know what they are, so they can’t build on them–extend them creatively–the way, for example, Borromini built his mannerist churches on classical rules, showin g that they still made creative sense. The spatial flexibility and seductive indeterminacy–better regarded as uncertainty (“ambiguity” isthe polite word)–of Cubist images lends itself to a variety of interpretive determinations just because they have no structural necessity, only irrational inner necessity, which is their saving grace. Just as Picasso said “what forces our interest is Cezanne’sanxiety,”(52) what forces our in terest in Picasso’s Cubist paintings is their anxiety.

At its best, traditional art balances the claims of the external and internal worlds, using each to contain the other, whereas in Picasso there is no containment for either world, which is why is, as he famously said, his works are a sum of destructions. Indeed his texturalized planes can be understood as the irrational sensory phenomena left after the annihilation of containing structure. To use Bion’s terms, one might say that Picasso’s paintings are a high jinks beta performance, more particularly, they reverse the usual artistic process, which involves the transformation of chaotic beta elements into comprehensible alpha elements, contained and sustained by the picture so that they can b e remembered in reflective tranquility.(53) Picasso’s irrational destructiveness–or is it destructive irrationality–is perhaps most evident in his remark that “when one paints a portrait, one must stop somewhere, in a sort of caricature. Otherwise there would be nothing left at the end,”(54) that is, the portrait–a surrogate for a human being–would be annihilated. Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits are viciously dynamic. We admire Picasso most when the death instinct is most active in his art.

All this suggests that where in traditional art inner and outer worlds texture and comment on one another, so that the viewer can reverse perspective and experience the traditional work as a subjective statement with objective implications or an objective statement  with subjective implications, Cubist art only has subjective–depth psychological–implications. If it introduces time into space–if what we see is timespace, as has been claimed–it is internal time consciousness that is externalized, not external measurable time that is suggested.

It may be that modern excitement about the unconscious–the modern determination to explore what was once the terra incognita of the unconscious–and that led art to turn inward to the world of dreams and impulses, catalyzing the development of avant-garde art, fed to the exaggeration of the significance of the internal world, at the expense of the significance of the external world. The philosopher Francis Bacon famously declared that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” and it seems that in avant-garde art strangeness is read as beauty. The more excellent the strangeness–the more the avant-garde work of art lacks inner measure, and thus is experienced as irrational–the more uncannily beautiful it seems, at least to modern eyes. Such beauty–the beauty of irrationality carried to an absurd extreme–would be regarded as ugliness from a traditional point of view .  But avant-garde art is a religion–traditional art was an adjunct to religion–and, like religion at its most extreme, one believes in avant-garde art because it is irrational to the point of absurdity, and thus seems to be a sacred mystery. This is exactly why Tertullian believed in Christianity.

When finally there is no sense of rational measure and intelligibility at all–no sense of inner and outer limits and control–the avant-garde work of art collapses from the weight of its own absurdity–its absolute irrationality. It becomes nihilistic, indeed, suicidal, as Jean Tingueley’s self-destructive sculptures show, and before them Duchamp’s readymades, which annihilated the idea of art even as they gave lip service to it. In my opinion conceptual art is the ultimate nihilistic absurdity–the entropic climax of avant-garde irrationality. Is dubious Solomonic wisdom–it absurdly cuts the art work in half, discarding the material part and elevating the conceptual part, which means less work goes into its making, and it is emotionally dead–suggests as much.

Paradoxically, such nihilistic irrationality ensures avant-garde art’s success, for such success is measured in terms of social resistance, and the more absurd the avant-garde work the more resistance to it there is. It threatens and embarrasses the social contract because it creates an absurd situation. Resistance to Mike Kelley’s nee-dadaist quasi-conceptual exhibition of paintings by murderers(55)–a mockery of painting, murderers. and the art institutions and communities in which it was shown, making the exhibition a veritable grand slam of nihilistic contempt, in-your-face bravado, and  anti-social arrogance and offensiveness–confi rms its “critical” success, that is, its avant-garde credentials. The institutionalization of avant-garde art, a sign of its social success, seems to undermine its avant-garde credentials and criticality, but it in fact confirms them , for having the social weight of an institution behind it makes the avant-garde even more absurd than it was when it seemed just plain mad. The institution that exhibits avant-garde art acquires avant-garde cachet, confirming its absurdity, that is, shock value. Indeed, the art institution–the museum–is itself the avant-garde place to be these days, for it is the only real avant-garde art left. It is a kind of avant-garde installation art, for the museum generates avant-garde absurdity by exhibiting many different kinds of works together, in effect throwing society’s contradictoriness back in its face, which has to have an unconscious effect, that is, make it doubt its emotional equilibrium. A single work of avant-garde art is a rather minor uninfluential madness in comparison.

Nonetheless, an appropriated and assimilated and, to use Gauguin’s word, plagiarized and collectivized avant-garde art is a depersonalized, not to say castrated avant-garde art, and thus ultimately less intimidating emotionally. It is an avant-garde art that has lost its inner irrationality–an avant-garde art that has been intellectually administered–to the extent of becoming clichéd. It is no longer experienced but explained. Indeed, the artists themselves are eager to explain and administer it, that is, rationalize its irrationality by making it seem theoretical in import or giving it a theoretical basis and thus intellectual justification. Gauguin once declared “Emotion first! understanding later,”(56) but today’s avant-garde is all grandiose self­ understanding and little or no emotion–certainly passion  is not au courant in a conceptual art world–indicating that it is not really creatively ill.

Of course Gauguin, who wrote that “at times I am under the impression that Iam mad….the more I think … the more I believe I am right,”(57) never used his art to understand his madness and thus perhaps become sane–realistic about his life.  He in fact preferred to “see without understanding,” as he said,(58) suggesting that he regarded madness as a means of making art a mystery–which is what he called Cezanne’s “mad” paintings,(59) in one of the earliest uses of this somewhat overused accolade–and thus saving it from banality and conventionality.  The creative transformation of mental illness into an avant-garde idea is not its cure, for it does not necessarily lead to self-understanding, perhaps the most essential understanding, especially because it helps one survive, which Gauguin did not.  Not using art for self­ understanding confirms that one is mad, for it sooner or later leads to self-destruction, which takes many insidious forms, including that of making art.  Creativity can be as much an expression of mental illness as a defense against it.  Art can be as much a matter of self-forgetfulness as a way of possessing one’s self, that is, as much an ostrich hole in which the artist happily hides from himself as the one site in his life. where the artist dares experience, or at least intimate, the unhappy truth about himself.

In short, the acceptance of avant-garde art, which has become rather instant, with few remaining surprises at its novelty–some of it remains upsetting to the unsophisticated, usually for ideological rather than emotional reasons, although ideology no doubt stirs up a lot of emotions–suggests that avant-garde art is no longer really avant-garde, certainly not emotionally avant-garde, for it no longer involves “personal awareness of the inner world,” to recall Laing’s words, that is, a plunge to the emotional depths.  Resistance to such awareness and depth remain as strong as ever in the external world, as Laing suggests.  Such resistance is a form of insanity almost as great as the insanity that was once avant-garde art.  The emergence of neo­ avant-garde art–a somewhat stale avant-garde art–indicates that avant-garde art is no longer a matter of an individual’s   creative  illness but another social pathology.  As T. W.   Adorno writes, “avant-garde” has degenerated into a “label…monopolized by whoever happened to consider himself most progressive,” conjuring up “comical associations of aging youth,”(60) more particularly, of petrified youth. Today avant­ gardism is an aspect of the social pathology that idealizes and even idolizes youth, despite the fact that it has shown that it has feet of clay.

Today’s avant-garde, which is seemingly a permanent fixture of society, is a reified and hypostatized avant-garde–a pillar of avant-garde salt, the petrified ruin of the avant-garde–and a familiar and important part of our society’s cosmetic cover up of its social pathologies. The fact that avant-garde anti-sociality has become a social style confirms that the avant-garde has become banal as well as pathological. It is best to leave the irrational innovations of the avant-garde to the entertainment industry, with its fatuous simulations of human madness, abnormality, and absurdity. Horror films, with their morbid effects, aesthetically as well as emotionally exciting to the masses however nightmarish, are perhaps the case par excellence of media avantgarde invention. No doubt media science fiction, with its even more extravagant –virtually cosmic–special effects, is a close second. The media specialize in stylish hallucinations–dreams in which one “finds oneself transported into fantastic regions, in which all behavior has become confused, all established ideas contradicted…where the impossible mingles with the real,” as Baudelaire said, (61) which are given social assent, robbing them of their personal significance. Turned into a social spectacle–a matter of pyrotechnical, hyper-theatrical special effects–madness and absurdity become palatable to the masses.  Indeed, it is the only form in which they are socially acceptable, all the more so because turning madness and absurdity into a spectacle keeps the masses from recognizing their own madness and absurdity, however much enjoyment of it in spectacle form implies unconscious self-recognition . The socialization of madness and absurdity by way of their spectacularization helps keep the masses in a somnambulist state of normality, immune to the fact that “the ‘norm’ becomes the straitjacket of the soul and the cemetery of imagination,” as Joyce McDougall says.(62)  ”A handful only–artists, musicians, writers, scientists–escape the icy shower of normalization that the world pours upon them,”(63) which certainly privileges abnormality , as her “plea for a measure of abnormality” suggests. The more clearly fake and manufactured, indeed, mass produced madness looks, the less the masses have to face and fear their own madness–the insanity of their lives, the fact that, in McDougall’s words, they are “afflicted with normality.”(64) In part this means that they never put themselves into question, which would make them ill, if not creatively ill, although eventually they would have to become creative, and transgress the norm of normality, if they are to find an answer to themselves, however tentative. So long as they are out of contact with their imagination they will remain normally mad. That is the way Ensor imaginatively showed the masses–pictured the obscenely   insane spectacle which his own transgressive insanity allowed him to realize is what society is, normally.


(1) Gary Tinterow i and Philip C onisbee, eds., Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams. 1999) p. 132

(2) Both quoted in ibid., p. 382

(3)Quoted in ibid., p. 383

(4)Quoted in ibid., p. 316

(5)lbid., p. 383

(6)0. W. Winnicott, “The Capacity to be Alone,” The Maturational Processes and the Facili tating Environment (New York: International
Universities Press, 1965), pp. 29-36

(7)Jose Lopez-Rey, “Goya’s Caprichos: Beauty, Reason, and Caricature,” Goya in Perspective, ed. Fred Licht (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-UHall, 1973), pp. 129-3

(8)Quoted in ibid, p. 130 (9)Quoted in ibid., p. 132 (10)Ibid., p. 132

(11)Ibid., p. 130

(12)Ibid., pp. 130-31

(13)Giorgio de Chirico, The Memoirs of Giorgi o de Chirico (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 65

(14)Ibid., p. 249

(15) Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 401

(16) Quoted in Elizabeth Gilmore Hope, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873: The Emerging Rol e of Exhibiti ons and Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1982), p. 468

(17) Quoted in ibid.. p. 467

(18) Quoted in Donald Prater, A Ringi ng Glass: The Life of Rainer Mari a Rilke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), p. 148

(19) Andre Haynal, Depression and Creativity (New York : International Universities Press, 1985), p. 142

(20) Quoted in Richard Gilman, Decadence : The Strange Life of an Epithet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 29

(21)R. D. Laing, The Poli tics of Experi ence (New York: Ballantine, 1967), pp. 125-26

(22)Henri F. Ellenberger , “The Concept of ‘Maladie Creatrice,”‘ Beyond the Unconscious (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 328

(23)Ibid., p. 329

(24)Hans-Georg Gadamer, Phil osophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 21

(25) Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel , Creativity and Perversion (London: Free Association Books, 1985), p. 11

(26) Quoted in Hope, p. 134 (27)Ellenberger, p. 330

(28) Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion: Art as Witness (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1996), p. 1

(29) Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel : Essays on Reali ty and the Imagination (New York : Knopf, 1951), pp. 170-71

(30) Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenti city (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 31. All subsequent citations from Trilling are from this book.

(31) Quoted in Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York :
Jason Aronson, 1983), p. 237

(32)Ellenberger, p. 331

(33)lbid., p. 334

(34)Quoted in ibid., p. 332

(35)Laing, p. 141

(36)Ibid.’ p. 142

(37) Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (London: Hollis and Carter, 1957), p. 141

(38)Werner Haftmann , Painting in the Twentieth Century (New York and Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), vol. 1, p. 64

(39)Margit Rowell, “Images of Cruelty: The Drawings of Antonin Artaud,” Antoni n Artaud: Works on Paper
(New York : Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 11 (40)Quoted in Ronald Hayman, “Antonin Artaud,” ibid., p. 21 (41)”Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art,”
From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1994), vol. 2, p. 389

(42)Ibid., p. 390

(43)Laing, p. 142

(44)Ibid., p. 141

(45)Ibid., p. 167

(46)Ibid., p. 142

(47) )Hermann Broch, “The Style of the Mythical Age,” Gesammelte Werke.
Dichten und Erkennen. Essays
(Zurich: Rhein, 1955), vol. 1, p. 260

(48) Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999),
p. 26

(49) Quoted in John Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” Odilon Redon. Gustave Moreau.
Rodolphe Bresdin
(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961), pp. 25, 29., 18

(50)Quoted in Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York :
Signet, 1965), p. 68

(51)John Golding, Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 (London:
Faber, 1968), p. 9

(52)Quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 11

(53) Hanna Segal, Dream . Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), p. 51 remarks that “beta elements are raw,
concretely felt experiences which can only be dealt with by expulsion.” that is, destructively. But when they are “projected into the breast they are
modified by the mother’s understanding and converted into…’alpha elements’.” These can be stored in memory and “function in a symbolic way.” “The
mother’s capacity to bear anxiety that is projected into her by the infant is crucial in this interplay.” One wonders if Picasso
painted women so often because he was looking for a mother into whom he could project his raw and thus anxiety-arousing sensations and emotions, and so not have to “eject them in “an immediate discharge of discomfort,” which is what Cubist planes look like.

(54) Ashton, p. 82

(55)1n May 1999 “the Seattle Art Museum planned a show that included Pay for Your Pleasure, a traveling exhibit by Los Angeles
artist Mike Kelley. The final item is a piece of art by someone who has murdered people in each community where the
exhibit is shown. When Pay for Your Pleasure was shown at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, it culminated
with a painting by ‘freeway killer’ William Bonin, the slayer of 14 who was executed in 1996. At the University of Chicago, it spotlighted artwork by
Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 people before being executed in 1994. Pay for Your Pleasure’s appearance in Seattle was canceled
in response to community outrage, but not before Tara Reddy, the museum’s assistant · curator of modern art, defended the show, including Kelley’s
contribution, as ‘cutting­ edge stuff ‘.” “Cutting-edge” clearly means anti-social here. Tami Sheheri,
APBnews.com, quoted in Reader’s Digest,156 (Jan. 2000):144 (56)Quoted in Chipp, p. 66

(57)Quoted in Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 186

(58)Ibid.I p. 209

(59)Ibid.’ p. 187

(60)T. W. Adorno, Aest hetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 36

(61) Quoted in Dorra, p. 5

(62) Joyce McDougall, Plea for a Measure of Abnormali ty (New York:

Brunner/Maze!, 1992), p. 484

(63)Ibid., p. 483

(64)Ibid., p. 468