Balance, modes of use and lessons from modern art

Photo by Carmela Gross


Traditional paradigm of artisanal excellence, how did painting respond to the abstraction of work inherent to capitalist modernization?

Painting as a method of manufacturing

Traditional paradigm of artisanal excellence, how did painting respond to the abstraction of work inherent to capitalist modernization? How can we systematize in this sense the strategic responses developed in the course of the critical and productive expansion of modern art, as a specific mode of negativity in the face of historical-social dynamics?

Furthermore, what specific responses emerged in the visual arts during the decisive historical period for modern art, namely, the cycle that connects the works of Manet (1832-1883) - these, developed largely under the impact of two major genocides : first, that of June 1848, and then that of the Bloody Week, which sealed the end of the Commune, in May 1871 – to the terminal reflection of Rothko (1903-1970) (whose work was, in turn, , to a large extent, in the course of capitalist expansion triggered by World War II)?

Or, even, to bring another order of references, what were – from the perspective of struggles in the name of work – the possible responses in the period of time situated between two decisive defeats from the workers' perspective, those of 1848 and 1968? (Defeats of international dimension and with extensive impact on their historical confrontation with capital.)

In short, how modern painting (in its distinct tendencies and variants) positioned itself, in the cycle in question, in relation to the two fundamental classes, that is, in relation to the defeated, on the one hand, and the vast hegemony of capital, on the other ?

Against mummification

On another level and in other terms, what was achieved in the course of such a process was the end of the cycle of aesthetic autonomy as a notion correlated to that of freedom of the subject of aesthetic experience (once seen as a transcendental and potentially disinterested instance). In this new framework, to resist the vertiginous acceleration of barbarism engendered by the new cycle of post-1968 capitalism, it is essential to examine the factors of supra-individual heteronomy that, if they do not have control over all production, in fact exercise hegemony regarding circulation.

Contemporary artistic works of resistance and criticism brought (after 1968) a new set of premises and criteria. Among others, overcoming the idea of ​​work and authorship, as well as the general objective of “de-aestheticization”. In late capitalism, some works - such as those of Hans Haacke (1936), KP Brehmer (1938-1997), Harun Farocki (1944-2014), Martha Rosler (1943), Allan Sekula (1951-2013) and others, to refer exclusively to those generated in the central economies - established the criteria of critical realism that today challenge the neoliberal mummification of art, resulting from its annexation by the international system of commodity production.

Training outline and questions

Let us return to the threshold of the formative process of modern art. Was there a restorative and conservative modern art like the modernization in which it was produced? Undoubtedly, cases of this type occurred, but, for a synthetic investigation into the general formation of modernism, the most reasonable thing is to take the hypothesis, in view of the decisive works that generated critical paradigms for the subsequent course of modern art, that these were constituted forms of struggle and symbolic resistance.

In this sense, the antithetical and negative content of modern art, in the face of modernization, historically prevailed both in its formation and in the production of its paradigmatic works. Let us therefore take the discussion from the critical side and according to the premise of the essential negativity of modern art, therefore, considering the “courtly” and “turbulary” aspects as exceptional and especially emblematic of baroque art, of the absolutist period – against which the origin of modern art. In fact, this is how Diderot (1713-1784) conceived of historical separation at the time of his Essays on Peinture (Essays on Painting, 1765),[I] that is, long before Delacroix (1798-1863) and Baudelaire (1821-1867) launched the term modern art.

To this end, the determination of modern art – as a process of resistance and critical reflection – requires an antithetical reference to the general process of modernization. Modern art developed dialectically through and against such a mode of reproduction of capital. Therefore, if a broad approach angle is not adopted – to cover the basic conditions and historical limits of modern art related to the economic and historical-social process of modernization – investigations and findings will always result in imprecise and arbitrary. This was exactly the problem that occurred in formalist attempts to establish a general system of modern art based on an alleged evolution of forms, derived from supposed laws internal to the arts.

In France, the recognized capital, one might say, of modern art, modernization as a process and discourse had as its cornerstone the famous “December 2nd” – the armed self-coup in 1851 by President Louis-Napoleon (1808-1873) . The ground for this had been prepared by the massacre of June 1848, perpetrated by the bourgeois armed forces against the Parisian working classes.[ii]

From the mass executions of June 1848 in the Tuileries, class violence unfolded over the following two decades, translated into the dispossession of workers' homes and workshops. Or, to put it more precisely regarding the implications: it was a mega real estate operation armed through practices of primitive accumulation, similar to those of the colonial processes in force in the imperialist cycle of the following years, from 1871 to 1914, under the widespread name ( in bourgeois circles) of belle époque.

In fact, the bloody origin of modernization as a “conservative-restorative” revolution (or “passive revolution”, in the sense of Gramsci [1891-1937])[iii] was ratified with the machination of the II Empire, materialized by the coronation of the same leader as Napoleon III on December 2, 1852, exactly on the first anniversary of the self-coup – and, not coincidentally, also the commemorative date of the coronation of Napoleon I (1769-1821 ) in 1804.

In fact, before that, the Orleanist regime – the so-called July Monarchy (1830-48), by Luís-Felipe de Orleans (1773-1850) – consisted of an alliance between the financial bourgeoisie and the forces of the Ancien Régime. France was then technologically behind England and even Germany – which, since the 1840s, had been a theater of accelerated industrialization and political unification efforts (consummated in 1871, with the founding of the II Reich, under the hegemony of Prussia). ). In this context, it was only under the aegis of Saint-Simonism and neo-Bonapartism – that is, a bourgeois modernization of the State – that France was able to effectively enter into a process of industrialization and accelerated economic modernization.

In this way, Édouard Manet's pictorial response as a realistic expression – combined with traces of romanticism and linked to the radical republican opposition – constituted itself in opposition to the late modernization of Paris, led by the urban reform program (1852-70) of Baron Haussmann (1809-1891),[iv] which operated – to dislodge the popular classes from the center of the capital – using techniques of blietzkrieg and ethnic relocation, of colonial style, crowned by the genocide of the Communards, in May 1871.

It was then that modern art, as a dialectical antithesis of modernization, expanded as an aesthetic, practical and critical process. In addition to Édouard Manet, this process encompassed his predecessors in painting: David (1748-1825), Géricault (1791-1824) and others, without forgetting the contributions of thinkers from the previous century, including Rousseau (1712-1778) and Diderot, which prepared the French Revolution and the aesthetic transition to the cycle of revolutionary republican art, which Charles Baudelaire distinguished as being the origin of modern art.[v]

In short, modern art was born in the ranks of the radicalized petty bourgeoisie of the revolutionary First French Republic and matured, from Baudelaire's perspective, as a project and critical response to the triumphs of the counter-revolutions launched throughout the 1808th century. Strengthened by political consciousness, but also by technical progress, the republican and resolutely anti-monarchist fractions of the petty bourgeoisie forged modern art as a critical weapon, sharpened in the daily satires, in newspapers, of Daumier (1879-XNUMX), against the order of state privileges, restored and updated in other terms in the republican census regime, by the new money lords.

In this way, modern art became a strategy of resistance and an anti-capitalist expression, seeking to incorporate, in one way or another, the hopes sown by the revolutionary movement of the sans-culottes in 1792-94, a movement that was followed by several insurrections of workers, triggering a long civil war, which lasted around 80 years until the Commune. Altogether, this process began with the first revolution, in 1789, and unfolded in successive, bloody and unsuccessful confrontations, in the following century, with bourgeois forces, in 1830, 1831-34, 1848, 1871, etc., to remain alone in the major episodes and in the emblematic case of France – where modern art emerged and constituted itself as a new paradigm, which implied the redefinition of the terms of aesthetic experience and the historical and social function of art, henceforth restructured, no longer as a palace discourse, but as a form of negativity.

Production, circulation and transitional realism (Manet)

Manet's reinvention of realism occurred with the shift in focus from stereometric representation, that is, from the arrangement of volumes in depth, to that of the temporality inherent to the subject's point of view.[vi] In this sense, Manet's painting was defined as a sensory-based discourse (independent of drawing and composition) and as an expression of the transitory and fleeting character of “modern life”, manifesting the primacy of “sensation”, as proposed by Charles Baudelaire.

The representation of the act, which became one of the priority motifs in Manet's painting and the reason for many of his stylistic innovations, made him attribute to sensation, as an operative focus and mediation between the body and gesture, a fundamental and decisive in plastic production. Because of this, the reflective consideration of spontaneous subjective activity, combined with the realistic prospecting of his social horizon, led him to establish the exposure of the way in which painting is manufactured as an effective form of truth, which implied the radical critique of contemplation (worth say, fetishism) in a social order structured based on the commodity form.

In this sense, the exposure of the pictorial process and the consideration of the instantaneity of his work (a kind of anticipation of the “Work in progress” and, therefore, of the incompleteness that would soon become, as a critical achievement, one of the hallmarks of painting to follow), although already carried out in the Mannerist and Baroque tradition, they took on an unprecedented meaning in the new historical situation. Thus and in the same critical sense (in relation to contemplation), the explanation of the pictorial process at the expense of all harmony, verisimilitude and symmetry became a central program and parameter of pictorial practice. This is precisely what happened in the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh (1853-90) and others from the generation immediately following Édouard Manet and the extermination of the Commune.

Such developments consolidated a new realist mode, reflexively intensified by the critique of the commodity form and the showcase city. By explaining the truth of its own process, such realism aimed to visually open the critical access of consciousness to the world undergoing rapid transformation. In this way, the new painting sought to expose in concrete terms (and in disregard of mercantile values) the traces of work given by corporeal intervention and by the materiality of pictorial practices, as foundations of phenomenal reflection placed in reciprocal determination with the means and processes of representation. (on screen or paper).

Counter-abstraction (Cézanne and Van Gogh): traces of the Commune

In these terms, the historical judgment and the vector of criticism of the commodity form proposed by the painting of Manet, Van Gogh and Cézanne responded to the depersonalization and abstraction of work, inherent to the liquidation of the way of work and the social strength of artisans, after the Commune. His works, revealing traces of the inventiveness of the work – and, in a related way, affirming the authenticity of the pictorial craftsmanship –, sought to synthesize the resistance and irreducible dimension of living work, translating its effects of truth into eminently artisanal terms.

In short, Van Gogh and Cézanne, in different ways, aimed to constitute an antithesis to the uniformity and abstraction of work. In this sense, what Manet had forged in the footsteps of Baudelaire, in the midst of such a process, was the ability to describe in new terms – tragic, but simultaneously cooled by irony – the inexorability of the new social order governed by market relations, which already shaped their time.

Faced with the liquidation of artisanal work, Van Gogh chose to reinvest his practice with totalizing ambition by configuring it as a practical example of the philosophical proposition, of the act of work, as a common and sovereign force of universal transformation. At the same time, Cézanne valued the integrity and autonomy of the aesthetic act as a paradigm of emancipated living work, affirming the autonomous course of pictorial construction, regardless of composition, that is, of all symmetry and proportionality.

Despite the radicality and inventiveness of such efforts, a historical crisis in the narrative power of painting crystallized throughout this process. To put it briefly, the crisis became more acute in the reduction of the semantic reach of the pictorial sign – of artisanal extraction –, or even in its neutralization and inaccuracy compared to other discursive forms, with an industrial base and endowed with high reproducibility (lithography, the photo, the newspaper , cinema).

In short, what was objectively accomplished in this way, despite the magnitude of the efforts of the aforementioned painters, was the process of dissolution and emptying of the semantic power of painting, bringing as a counterfeit the reification and fetishization of its artisanal bases.

Thus, in the end – and despite everything that was seen, in terms of resistance and invention, regarding the regime of brush strokes and paint distribution –, the emptying of artisanal art practices was nothing but provisional and temporarily halted. or delayed, despite all the radicalism used throughout the critical reflection on the works of the authors in question (Manet and the following).

Radicality, certainly, inherent to the poetic situation, transitory and singular; and critical reflection, in this case, based on productive practice taken as a direct expression of autonomous living work. Ultimately, just like the Communards, which launched the “assault on the heavens”, the strategy of titanic resistance assumed by the works of the authors in question cannot change the objective and historical background of things. The question then arose: how to sustain the manual practice of painting and the validity of its meaning in the face of social and subjective experiences in the course of transformation accelerated by industrialization?

Endowed with historical tradition and reflexivity, painting strived to remain at the forefront, alongside other symbolic-narrative devices given by technical mediations (lithography, photo, etc.). However, the strategic retreat of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others – leaving high-density sites and work grounds for non-urban strongholds or those with low population and economic density (unlike Manet and Degas, trained in the previous generation) – It was also, in itself, indicative of the growing difficulties of besieged and cornered painting as a craft practice, faced with the relentless advance of modernization.

Cubism in the face of human destruction

The challenges of the crisis faced by the practice of painting after the Commune massacre required urgent responses. Already at the gates of the great inter-imperialist war conflict and aware of the historical anachronism of artisanal work as an organic and concrete metabolic experience, cubism, in turn, responded to the abstraction of the productive act as a new principle of reality; and so, in such circumstances, he disarticulated the pictorial productive act and divided it into parts, to recombine them.

Therefore, the freedom and truth of the artisanal process, which had previously been objectified by the new post-impressionist poetic techniques, disappeared from the Cubists' horizon. On the other hand, the cubists observed, as a general symptom, the segmentation of bodies and the inescapable evidence of their objectification according to the serial logic that reorganized work as a segmented and serialized commodity in the new productive order.

According to the evidence, the body was no longer reunifiable or thinkable, within the scope of capitalism, as an organism or integrated unit. (Indeed, the impact of the capitalist division of the body, as well as the end of the imaginary unity of the human being, accompanied, far beyond Cubism, the work of Picasso [1881-1973]; this certainty even constituted the vital knot , one could say, of the tragic epic that permeated his entire work, regardless of the succession of phases and styles.)

In short, as Giulio Carlo Argan (1909-1992) and Pierre Francastel (1900-1970) accurately noted,[vii] To the historical relevance of abstract work, the Cubists responded by refounding realism in new terms. They did so through a reflection on production practices that critically outlined the possibility of mass production, that is, free, in this case, from any heteronomous determination.

It was certainly, from the artists' point of view, a revelation of the new productive forces of painting and sculpture, renewed in the light of certain methods of abstract and serial work. In this sense – and in addition to a new objectively materialist inflection according to the parameters of realism – the proliferation of cubist works, imposing themselves beyond the recognized limits of the judgment of taste, revealed the power of expansion of the new condition and the corresponding poetic conception . It can be said that Baudelaire's own statement about the changing nature of aesthetic pleasure[viii] found its materialization in these terms.

In short, given the evidence, the recognition of the historical fragmentation of the body was established. And the synthetic critical response to the fact, as to the related stratification of the historical present, was then the reinvention and autonomy of the parties. The critical process reinvigorated the specific capabilities of these parts and led to the aesthetic redemption of materials previously without recognized value.

On these bases, the exemplarity of collage and sculpture-construction was established.[ix] As new practices, improvised under the circumstances, both became, at the time, weapons and modes of critical struggle. In the period leading up to the First World War, such works also echoed the project of the workers' revolution born of women and men torn and torn apart by poverty, imperialist wars and excruciating conditions of exploitation. In this way, as fragments, legions and multitudes merged into a human collage – in a way, in a kind of torrent or eruption of fractions of different materials –, giving rise to a new humanity, reinvigorated through the Revolution as a multiplicative factor.

Cubist dialectics

Cubism thus ended the elimination of the duality between so-called contemplative aesthetic exercises and other productive activities considered to be interested, such as human work. By overcoming the limits of the contemplative paradigm, founded on disinterested judgment, cubism directly engendered rational utilitarian languages ​​aimed at capitalist production (the architectural rationalism of Le Corbusier [1887-1965], that of the Bauhaus [1919-33] etc.).

We must not forget, however, the most radicalized critical development of Cubist analytics, which occurred in the midst of the October Revolution: analytical constructivism, also called, by the artists themselves, “laboratory constructivism”. In any case, this was a phenomenon outside the dominant trend in Western countries, and which requires separate examination and using other criteria.[X]

Exchange relations: another nature, another morphology

However, before influencing Russian art and generating paradigms for architecture, the cubist laboratory had previously engendered other forms of work, with criteria, in the face of European artistic tradition, that were unprecedented and decisive. Scrutiny of Picasso's preparatory drawings - investigated in Pepe Karmel's remarkably acute PhD[xi] – made clear the critical and realistic content (in the non-naturalist sense) of Cubism as a reinvention of the way of working in the arts. In these terms, Cubism constituted a fundamentally antithetical and critical disposition, one might say, appropriate to an updated realism in the face of the new economic order established by mass production, the globalized market by imperialism and the related modernization of ways of life.

In this sense, it implied an appreciation of work and an intelligence of the mode of production, as opposed to the fetish-value of the unity and authenticity of the image. In fact, in the historical surroundings then (just as on the occasion of the urban reforms of Paris in the Second Empire) a new urban physiognomy emerged, shaped by the exaltation of the image inherent to the marketing – converted into a driving force of individual and collective imagination and, in a related way, also a general representation of social experience. In this way, but in other terms, the parameters of social perception (indistinct, for many) resulted fundamentally from the abstraction of production, translated into the naturalization of monetized or exchange relationships.

In summary and to conclude this topic, faced with this situation, cubism strategically responded to the institutionalization of the order of exchange as second nature and, in doing so, revisited the human body, but no longer as an organism. Nor did it (as Manet, Van Gogh and Cézanne had done) in the form of acts of originality and authenticity in the work. On the contrary, he chose to consider work as an impersonal articulation of discontinuities and critically reconstructed the morphology of processes through operations of exchanging parts (described in detail in the aforementioned investigation by Karmel).

*Luiz Renato Martins is professor-advisor of PPG in Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art(Haymarket/ HMBS).

* First part of chap. 14, “Political economy of modern art II: balance, modes of use, lessons”, from the original version (in Portuguese) of the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Autres Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset , Paris, editions Amsterdam (2024, first semester, proc. FAPESP 18/ 26469-9). I am grateful for the work of preparing the original by Gustavo Motta, Maitê Fanchini and Rodrigo de Almeida, and reviewing it by Regina Araki.


[I] Dennis Diderot, Essais sur la Peinture pour Faire Suite au Salon de 1765. Artworks, volume IV Esthétique – theater (ed. établie par Laurent Versini, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1996, pp. 467-516). See also Giulio Carlo Argan, “Manet and Italian pittura”, in From Hogarth to Picasso. L'Modern art in Europe, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1983, p. 341; see also LR MARTINS, “The conspiracy of modern art”, in idem, Revolutions: Poetry of the Unfinished, 1789-1848, vol. 1, São Paulo, Ideias Baratas/ Sundermann, 2014, pp. 27-44.

[ii] For the massacre as a watershed and founding milestone of a new state of relations at the time, see Jean-Paul SARTRE, L'Idiot de la Famille, Paris, Gallimard, 1971, vol. III, p. 32, apoud Dolf OEHLER, “Art-Névrose”, in Volcanic Terrains, trans. Samuel Titan Jr. et al., São Paulo, Cosac & Naify, 2004, p. 37; “Art-Névrose/ Soziopsychoanalyse einer gescheiterten Revolution bei Flaubert und Baudelaire”, in Accents, n. 27, Munich, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1980, pp. 113-130 (not consulted). See also, by the same author, Le Spleen Contre l'Oubli. June 1848. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Heine, Herzen, Marx, Paris, Éditions Payot, 1996. The Old World Descends to Hell, trans. José Marcos Macedo, São Paulo, Cia. das Letras, 1999.

[iii] See Peter THOMAS, “Modernity as 'passive revolution': Gramsci and the Fundamental Concepts of Historical Materialism”, in Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/ Revue de la Société Historique du Canada, vol. 17, no. 2, 2006, pp. 61-78, available at; DOI: 10.7202/016590ar.

[iv] See Walter Benjamin, “Paris, capitale du XIX siècle/ Exposé (1939)”, in idem, Écrits Français, introduction and notices by Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, Paris, Gallimard/Folio Essais, 2003, pp. 373-400; see also TJ CLARK, “The view from Notre Dame”, in idem, The Painting of Modern Life/ Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1984), New Jersey, Princeton, University Press, 1989, pp. 23-78; Modern Life Painting/Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984), trans. José Geraldo Couto, São Paulo, Editora Schwarcz, Companhia das Letras, 2004, pp. 59-127; see also Michael Löwy, “La ville, lieu stratégique de l'affrontement des classes: insurrections, barricades et haussmannisation de Paris dans le Passage work by Walter Benjamin”, dans Philippe SIMAY (ed.), Capitals of modernity. Walter Benjamin et la ville, Paris, Éditions de l'Éclat, 2005, pp. 19-36. “The city, a strategic place for class confrontation: insurrections, barricades and the Haussmannization of Paris in Flights by Walter Benjamin”, in magazine Left Bank / Marxist Essays, Sao Paulo, n.o 8, p. 59-75, Nov. 2006.

[v] See Charles BAUDELAIRE, “Le Musée classique du Bazar Bonne Nouvelle”, in idem, Complete Oeuvres, text, text and annotation by C. Pichois, Paris, Pléiade/Gallimard, 2002, vol. II, pp. 408-10. Published in Le Corsaire-Satan, in 21.01.1846 - dates from the 53rd anniversary of the execution of Louis XVI. See also chapter 1, “The Conspiracy of Modern Art,” and chapter 3, “Marat, by David: photojournalism”, in LR MARTINS, Revolutions: Poetry of the Unfinished, 1789-1848, vol. 1, São Paulo, Ideias Baratas/ Sundermann, 2014, respectively, pp. 27-44 and 65-82.

[vi] See chapter 7, “Parisian Scenes,” in this volume; published in the earth is round, under the same title, on 08.05.2022/XNUMX/XNUMX (available at; see also LR MARTINS, “The reinvention of realism as an art of the moment”, in Art & Essay/ Magazine of the Postgraduate Program in Visual Arts EBA – UFRJ, year VIII, nº 8, 2001, pp. 102-11; see ditto, Manet: A Businesswoman, Lunch in the Park, and a Bar, Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2007.

[vii] See chapter 11, “From a lunch on the grass to the bridges of Petrograd (notes from a seminar in Madrid): regicide and dialectical history of modern art”, in this volume; published in The Earth is Round, under the title “Regicide and modern art”, in four parts, respectively on 19.03.2023/XNUMX/XNUMX (available online, 18.05.2023, 25.06.2023, 24.07.2023 (available at See also LR MARTINS, “Cubism: realism as the truth of production (chapter 3)”, in idem, The Manufacturing…, op. cit., pp. 160-223.

[viii] “The pleasure we derive from the representation of the gift comes not only from the beauty with which it can be clothed, but also from its essential quality as a gift (Le plaisir que nous retreatons de la représentation du présent tient non seulement à la beauté dont il peut être revêtu, mais aussi à sa qualité essentielle de present)”. Cf. Charles BAUDELAIRE, Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, in idem,Listen…, op. cit., vol. II, p. 684.

[ix] See Pepe KARMEL, “Beyond the 'Guitar': Painting, Drawing and Construction, 1912-14”, in Elizabeth COWLING and John GOLDING, Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, eg. cat. (London, Tate Gallery, 16.02 – 08.05.1994), London, Tate Gallery, 1994, pp. 188-97.

[X]  See chapter 11, “Of a lunch on the grass…”, op. cit., in this volume; published in The Earth is Round, under the title “Regicide and modern art”, in four parts, respectively on 19.03.2023/XNUMX/XNUMX (available online, 18.05.2023, 25.06.2023, 24.07.2023 (available at

[xi] See Pepe KARMEL, Picasso's Laboratory: The Role of his Drawings in the Development of Cubism, 1910-14, Ph.D. dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, New York, May 1993; see also, ditto, Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2003.

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