Balance, ways of use, lessons from modern art – part 2

Photo by Carmela Gross


Art – as long as it is understood as a counter-information action – which wants to be dissident, if not revolutionary, must extract lessons in tactics and strategy from such actions.

Denial in Progress (Pollock)

The painting of Pollock (1912-1956) and his companions was initially approximated and compared to the pictorial program of the Surrealists. However, she did not intend to leave subjective marks, as was common among the latter. In this sense, Pollock's painting readily distinguished itself from surrealism, to the point of constituting its own antithesis through the veiling of subjective authorial marks. In effect, the New York pictorial movement was based, among other factors, on the historical intuition of the exhaustion of the semantic power of the figure.

Therefore, the other premise associated with figurative power – that is, the somatic truth of line and form –, validated in certain surrealist art, also became an object of critical denial. Therefore, despite deriving from bodily action, line and form were not used within the scope of the New York movement as allusions to somatic signs (to non-conscious traits and signs) – in the manner, for example, of their current use in paintings and graphics. by André Masson (1896-1987) and Henri Michaux (1899-1984), two examples of the most intriguing surrealist painting.

On the contrary, the works of Pollock and the majority of his companions moved away, one might say, from the subjective sphere (decisive, for the surrealists) and were configured as quantitative phenomena or, in terms of the pictorial process or process, in general, through the accumulation of layers of paint. The process involved superimpositions (to be exact, placed rather as opacifications or sealings than as veils, seeking to evoke fuzzy or nebulosities) or – to allude to signs close to the so-called “native art” (native-american art), which many members of the group pointed to as a model or original influence – the superpositions constituted themselves in the form of “burials”[I] successive.

Beyond the allegations regarding the imaginary, what is the meaning of these fundamentally negative operations? In one way or another, a collective process of differentiation, one could say, through which the painting of the New York group, by specifying itself negatively, qualified as autonomous compared to surrealist painting.

In fact, surrealism had initially served as a reference and counterpoint for the young artists in New York at the time, suddenly placed, due to circumstances, in direct contact with European artists, including numerous surrealists. The latter (fugitives and exiles in difficult conditions, but nevertheless notable and prestigious authors) exercised ready ascendancy in the new environment, however without consistent and consolidated pictorial traditions.

To examine this process and path, let us take the work of Jackson Pollock, in many ways a precursor, as a reference sample. In short, by not attributing to the figure after 1943 any other scope other than that of idiosyncratic significance (for therapeutic purposes), it aimed at critical review or the suspension of authorial power over the form, in terms of its own situation in the context then established.

Thus, in the end, the “burial” in question, in Pollock’s case, was that of his own condition as an author (beginning, but already with consistent and critical work) in the face of the plastic process. In short, “what to do?”, without tradition or his own parameters, regarding the voluptuousness and possibility of painting that he had left in his hands? Let us observe the withering pictorial response that Pollock gave to the above dilemma.

If Cézanne's slowness denoted, as we have seen, the zealous search for a truth – extracted from the phenomenal process of self-generated consciousness in a situation –, in contrast, the speed of Pollock's pictorial act conveyed, in turn, critical pessimism and skepticism regarding the power and validity of meaning of subjective spontaneity. Furthermore, it also involved the rejection of new modes of compositional totalization.

In this way, the increasing rapidity of Pollock's painting immediately after the war was crucially distinct from that of Manet and Van Gogh – two historical paradigms of rapid painting, in the wake of Baudelaire's programmatic rapidity.[ii] In effect, their work, by prioritizing the dynamic totality of the production process beyond any convention or sign, did not allow itself to be limited by the imperative of the finished form. However, unlike those artists who preceded him in cultivating the expressive integrity of the living act of work, Pollock's alliance with instantaneity was of the kind of one who had nothing more to hope for or lose. Thus, his lack of commitment to the future, that is, to the exemplary and lasting character of form, was distinct from that of Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso.

In fact, in Pollock's case, the bold and tragic task – carried out in the situation of a “new barbarian”, highlighted by critic Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) – consisted of announcing that he had nothing to say and even less to hope for.[iii] In other words, as a radically atomized part of a society that had long been pulverized by industrialization, Pollock no longer expected to achieve either himself or the whole. What was left for him?

From the perspective of (sincere) despair – and further maximized in that period by the unprecedented and genocidal use of nuclear energy – Pollock dialectically pointed out, as a corollary of the crisis, the symbolic death of painting as an act of style or authorial gesture, through apparent exasperation and parodic of the randomness aspects of pictorial form.

In general, the failure of form as a mental quality and objective was also present, with the exception of chronological and degree differences, in the works of the other members of the New York group. The crisis of form was also intuited by certain European painters of the period. It was about the share of ineluctable historical truth, inherent in the objectification of the general crisis that imposed itself on the authors, regardless of the particularities of each artistic case.

Similarly, on another level (that of social reproduction and everyday practices in the then triumphant United States), social atomization and the excessive volume of materials available to every consumer – marks of a hypertrophied production process – caused the increase not only of the volume of leftovers and debris, but also the disbelief in any form of composition and totalization as a counterpoint to the total administration of life.

As generic indices, not limited to the sphere of “high culture”, such signs also indicated, on a macro scale, the new military, economic and political hegemony, achieved on a planetary level by North American military and economic forces (progressively during the war[iv] and irrevocably in the following period). How each artist reacted to this determination – that is, to the terminal crisis in the conception of form – is a matter of authorial economy, which cannot be specified at this time.

Meaningless but structured form: quantitative determination

As for Pollock, faced with the lost immediacy (of the subject as form for itself and autochthonous power of formalization), he had nothing but to respond by denying the condition of author. He did so, in this case, by transferring immediacy or “automatism” to the materials, attributing to the latter, in appearance, almost an animism.

In this sense, in the immediate post-war period, Pollock's pictorial research (incorporating debris and alternatives to the use of the brush) – and always expressing disbelief in the form – denoted ethical and cognitive skepticism. Thus, in the series Sounds in the Grass (1946), in which he included, in addition to paint, debris and remains, it was no longer possible to distinguish the prevalence or even the elaboration of a new productive rationality of form (contrary to what had previously occurred with Cubism). Nevertheless, the situation and the plastic result were evidently new, but what about the form, where and how it came from, and how it was arranged?

In fact, under the given circumstances, the sheer quantity and gigantic scale of materials and pictorial means, including the canvases themselves, came to determine the form. Therefore, as in industrial products for the market – in which the form meets criteria of economy of scale – the final form, in Pollock's subsequent series (the one started in 1947, of the so-called “drippings”), retained little or no reason or internal sense. However – and paradoxically – this did not deprive it, as a serial moment, of structure and objective significance; We'll see.

Meanwhile, and on the other hand, faced with the inconsistency of the dichotomy between abstraction and figuration, there were those who syncretically invoked the occasion figure of the “nuclear mushroom” – as a hybrid emblem of the era –, halfway between the dissolution of form and figuration. .[v]

From this point of view, however, it is also worth considering the hypothesis that is figuratively less allusive and without traces of particularism and sensationalism; that of a parody of “automatic subjectivity” or without internal meaning. In one way or another, and particularly in the case of Pollock, the form without internal meaning did not appear free of tragic feeling, as a kind of dialectical counterpoint to the emptiness of the self.

The market: a new sublime?

Having stated the terms, certain traits and the historical context, let us try to reconstruct the steps of Pollock's work, one by one, as they are especially illustrative of the terminal state of the authorial condition, then thrown into a kind of void. Before the end of the war, Pollock received a commission for a mural for the apartment of gallerist Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979). The gigantic scale of the order was such that it forced the couple of young artists, Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Jackson Pollock, to knock down an internal wall of their apartment in order to extend the canvas according to the dimensions specified in the order.

Operating in such dimensions gave intelligibility to the enigma posed by the character of the new cyclopean power of the productive forces, which then exploded measures and scales, habits and relationships. This allowed Pollock to uncover the new era of borderless commerce, that is, of the market as a new simulacrum of totality, in the process of being installed according to the post-war form of peace.

Thus, the emblematic importance of the bourgeois order – accentuated here by coming from the gallerist who employed Pollock and exercised, in this capacity, the monopolistic prerogative of exclusivity regarding its production – highlighted the new historical role of the contract form. Certainly, in this case, not the “social contract” of Rousseau (1712-1778), but that of wage labor as a new totality – or, to be exact, of the commodity form as a new general symbolic paradigm.

In this way, this commission appeared to Pollock as the emblem proper to an art without the counterpoint of nature or idea; in short, without origin and without telos, without subject or form as principle or purpose, but with the mediation of the market as premise or form beforehand, par excellence (in fact, Duchamp was not far away, but, in fact, very close, as we have seen, and was responsible for Guggenheim hiring Pollock). 

Human life, driven by new processes, entered an era of unprecedented fission of the forms of subjectivity, echoing the general transformation inherent to the hegemony of the market and the new productive whirlwind – such a new sublime, surpassing the given capacity to feel. Pollock evaluated and measured the circumstances and data of this leap into the abyss. You drippings correspond to such cartography.

Portrait of an artist as a young man – in the era of monopolies

For the North American producer of goods and services, the world market has become practically within direct reach. The imperative in an explosively growing economy was to expand or disappear. As if faced with a new kind of unlimited or “sublime”, the North American artist was not immune to the megamarket or the new rationality inherent to the planetary expansion of the commodity form.

Even more so, living in New York (thus, at the height of the hurricane), the painter, even though he was an individual producer acting within the artisanal tradition of the craft, could not escape the drain of the economy massively expanded by the vortex of war, of war production and new territories redesigned by Pax Americana. Nor did Pollock escape the impact of the material supply inherent in the imperial booty snapped up by the United States. How to avoid the general and dizzying process and the serial production mode? Therefore, by “rising to the moment” (Pollock dixit), the young painter was compelled – as a member of a riot and assault force, of paratrooper commandos in a landing operation on foreign beaches – to lead the entry of art into the cultural industry (well before the pop art).

The paths of Pollock's later painting showed him tragically aware, although subjectively not immune, to the dangers and impasses inherent to the new historical condition of art: it was an art degraded from its auratic authenticity and in which every term inherent to the individual authorial project emerged doomed to ready obsolescence. The initial intuition that separated the New York group from surrealist premises (subjective and artisanal) proved to be singularly sharp.

Anti-epiphany practices and other counter-hegemonic tactics

Mark Rothko's historical consciousness led him to deny every individual aspect of painting. From the denial of subjective expressiveness and the organic unity of the work, through overcoming the marks of the body as an emblem of truth, until achieving the deliberate depersonalization of the brushstroke (brush stroke), Rothko's painting also came to deny the monadological content of the auratic and unique canvas that met the metaphysical conception of form as epiphany.

In this way, a process of critical and materialist radicalization led him to consider the painting in terms of architecture, that is, not as a single object, but rather as part of a sequential set of canvases. He came to conceive them, therefore, as a reflective series or syntactic elements arranged according to a spatial proposition, as in a film montage.

However, in this process, Rothko did not deny the realistic principle of art as a critical-cognitive act, endowed with exemplary universality – in accordance with Kant's (1724-1804) formal morality –, even at the cost of an aporia or a paradoxical impasse. and exasperated.

The reconstitution of the functionality of painting as theater and as dialogic architecture, configuring a civic art – called for by Rothko and, it should be noted, also by the majority of members of the New York School –, was effectively carried out, in an intense way, but also fleeting, in the works (1965-1967) installed in the so-called (after his death) Rothko Chapel (1970-1971), in Houston, Texas.

In this cycle of paintings, the maximalist vehemence of the New York School pictorial movement reached its extreme and final development. Its creation became a pictorial and aesthetic paradigm; tragic sign of a historical impasse within a shattered social order, at that time, already blind and deaf to the ethical and aesthetic discourse – exemplary and reflective – of the Rothko Chapel canvases.

Before administered art

Only extreme concentration as well as the mastery and rigor of an uncompromising painter with unique demands made it possible to create such paintings. Isolated and configured as a totality – embodied in the mini-agora of the so-called Houston Chapel – these works by Rothko, in the intensity of their denial of the conventionally transitive and commercial discourse of art, constituted a lacerating anachronism, in contrast to both programmatic cynicism ( even if not yet exempt from proselytism) of pop art North American, as well as with the cold and executive professionalism of hard edge and color field painting.

Rohtko's subsequent painting, in acrylic paint on paper, dramatically intensified the slight streaks left by the brush – like desperate spasms on the impassable wall of a cell. Poignant and intensely expressive – as only the final testimony of a survivor could be –, these works resisted (on simple sheets of paper) incessantly and without giving way, until the end.

The inescapable truth of the new hour had already been announced by Pollock two decades earlier: modern art – as totalizing critical negativity; as a popular war of resistance; as an act of provocation and guerrilla warfare by a few against a camouflaged army widely equipped to control and plan all aspects of life – was doomed to disappear. In the face of triumphant modernization, modern art would become a mere specific subsystem and an advanced practice of positivizing the cultural industry. End?

Ultimate example

In short, Rothko resisted as much as he could and prolonged the agonizing resistance of modern poetics to exasperation, causing it to endure and unfold in a context in which the negativity of the poetic values ​​of modern art already seemed exogenous.

In some way, this ending constituted a parallel with the tragic and brave end of the That (1928-1967), shortly before. He also marked the end of a universalist project aimed at restructuring social relations, through the subjective exemplarity of combat and sacrifice in the name of the whole. In effect, such a unique and exemplary existence, dedicated to the constitution of a new universality, proposed a paradigm congruent with the project of modern art. As conceived by Baudelaire, modern art forged the practical exemplarity of sensation and the subjective instant, eternalizing them on a plane of symbolic objectivity; He did so, in antithesis to the advancement of barbarism inherent to capitalist modernization.

In a way, the myth of That also achieved such exemplarity. But, at the same time, the capture and execution in the Bolivian jungle of Ernesto Guevara, almost alone and without allies, also marked the historical limit of such a process. In fact, a regular reader of Baudelaire and later other poets (always carrying poetry texts in his backpack),[vi] o That, doctor and revolutionary fighter, embodied a historical project that was structurally similar, from an ethical, historical and critical point of view, to that of modern art. In this sense, it constituted a universal critical and reflective perspective – even if, as a paradigm of negativity, a perspective of exception. O That converted to sensation in radically ethical reflection and example, launched in the brevity of the moment, in order to obtain, from the sensation, a totalizing synthesis at all costs, that is, at the expense of life itself.

In short, if it is a fact that the process of modern art has aligned itself with the new correlation of forces established throughout the succession of works and actions by Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, David (1748-1825), Baudelaire, Daumier, Courbet (1819 -1877) and Manet; if it is equally true that such authors, by seeking to simultaneously practice criticism and critical art – or art as criticism –, consciously and concretely free from all tutelage, established the commitment of both to the interpretation of their own time; and, finally, whether it is also a fact that modern art has developed an explicitly provocative and negative character, linked to the idea of ​​art as sensation universalized, through individual action against the devastation of non-capitalist forms of life, then all these qualities can, finally, be taken as intrinsically critical and inherent to the original project of modern art, tributary of the strategic valorization of sensation by Baudelaire. Likewise, it can be inferred that this line – depending on the sensation or negative individual action based on the reflexive apprehension of the irreducibility of the fleeting moment and its ethical and aesthetic elaboration – now it has exhausted itself.

In fact, this line found its emblematic end in the defeats on a global scale of the anti-capitalist movements of 1968. Such defeats marked a sunset and not a dawn: the final end of a 180-year historical cycle, opened by the French Revolution.

Logic of extermination

In short, whatever their dissimilarities, the deaths of the That (by murder, in October 1967) and Rothko (by suicide, in February 1970) took place in an unequal but combined way, under the logic of extermination inherent to the same enemy (North American advanced capitalism). Therefore, both deaths assumed, beyond the unequal facts and circumstances, convergent and combined meanings.

The capitalist and genocidal victory, in Bolivia as in Manhattan, signaled the impracticability of revolutionary action on the direct scale of sensation individual; that is, of a certain conception of thought and praxis as an ethical, political and strategic experience of direct individual struggle.

New fronts: unequal but combined

This absolutely does not imply the definitive blocking of revolutionary chances, as predicted by the execrable heralds of the petrification of history, nor does it suggest that the subjective and collective possibilities distinguished in previous revolutions and in the critical and reflective negativity of modern art have ceased to be valid for the future.

However, it does mean the beginning of a new historical cycle, characterized by the unification of modes of circulation, control and administration, on a global as well as infinitesimal scale. In relation to subjective and aesthetic experience in this new era (except in extraordinary situations without strategic importance), the possibilities of primary, free and direct contact between the observer and the work have disappeared. The form of experience that the subject, according to Rousseau's perspective, had previously conceived in the form of sensation, as a prerogative or as a free and unhindered faculty in the face of nature, is no longer possible. A new strategic imperative emerged.

From now on, every strategy of dissent and struggle is fought far beyond the threshold considered immediately natural or the assumption of freedom and nature as general and fundamental data. These premises were confiscated and privatized (by capital) as civilizational assets of a few, and the crisis took hold on another level and permanently. Like it or not, contemporary relations in the globalized market are driven by the multiplication of class disparities at all levels, and are colonized by the cultural industry (now intervening on the global scale of planning and administration) – all of this occurring under the blinding light of the totalitarian conditioning of forms of intimacy, intersubjectivity and circulation, through industrial processing and the commoditization of practically every sensation.

In this way, the thresholds of human and nature, translated into the forms of I think and natural law and defined as principles of the modern world, were in fact pulverized by the exchanges of digital information, as well as by the narcissistic forms of subjectivation activated and exasperated to the point of hysteria by capitalist expansion.

Against such a systemic order and adversaries of this magnitude, the prerequisite of all critical negativity and radical political praxis, in addition to being based on synthetic and reflective historical judgments (with a broad, if not totalizing, outlook), must imply strategy and modes of action in necessarily supraindividual or collective.

Thus, within the scope of symbolic production and aesthetic action, the end of a process was reached, the exhaustion of which – already foreseen by some such as Kafka (1883-1924), Benjamin (1892-1940), Brecht (1898-1956), Duchamp (1887-1968) and Pollock, among others mentioned – would imply the end of the cycle of “aesthetic autonomy” as a form linked to the freedom of the subject, understood in ideal terms as well as considered transcendental and fundamental. That ended.

In short, we find ourselves in the world market in a new structural cycle, characterized by the absorption of art as a sumptuary good, which circulates as a specific subsystem of finance and a positive factor in the cultural industry. Aesthetic and symbolic processes, without prejudice to certain specificities, no longer have efficacy and meaning as derivatives of sensation and direct action or autonomous and free subjectivity, both of which are immediately falsified, reified and converted into emptied forms in the administered world of algorithms and automatisms.

For those who intend to continue resisting barbarism using the criteria established by contemporary critical realism, it is crucial to take into account the specific novelty of such conditioning, which implied the denaturation and emptying of every image, if not even every sensation, as Sensitive experience nowadays appears to be associated with fraud and industrialization, at a digital gallop.

It is necessary to equally consider supra-individual and heteronomous factors, which are always active. These, although they do not completely overdetermine artistic productivity and even the activity of the imagination, permanently tying them to the automatisms of the market, nevertheless have their hegemony securitized regarding the circulation and reception of images, whose control and surveillance are permanent. Without this tactical observation, no structural transformation project going against the current order of capital will be able to move forward.

If on a macro scale everything is under surveillance, there are always unforeseen and instantaneous openings, vulnerable to dissident strategies. Thus, despite all the new instances and forms of control, shielding and security planning, the effectiveness of the acts of Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023), in 1971, and more recently of Edward Snowden (1983), Julian Assange (1971) and Chelsea Manning (1987), making highly confidential secrets of the Pentagon's military-industrial complex public, demonstrated both the planetary reach of security and punishment systems and their vulnerabilities in the face of critical and dissident strategies, even if based on the initiative of a single individual, as long as they are well designed, exercised with skill and the necessary basic tools, including a collective support network. A priori nothing is impossible.

Art – as long as it is understood as a counter-information action – which wants to be dissident, if not revolutionary, must extract lessons in tactics and strategy from such actions. The planet, enclosed under market relations, appears as a whole in unequal but rigorously combined forms. A intelligentsia criticism, the strategic search for vulnerable points; the majority, to organize themselves effectively.

*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).

** Second part of the chapter. 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 would like to thank Gustavo Motta, Maitê Fanchini and Rodrigo de Almeida for their work over time in preparing the original, and in reviewing it by Regina Araki.

To read the first part of this text click


[I] See Michael LEJA, “The Mythmakers & the primitive: Gottlieb, Newman, Rothko & Still” and “Jackson Pollock & the Unconscious”, in idem, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 49-120 and 121-202, respectively.

[ii] See “The conspiracy…”, op. cit., pp. 27-44.

[iii] See Leo STEINBERG, “Pollock's first retrospective”, in idem, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 263-7; “The first Pollock retrospective”, in idem, Other Criteria: Confrontations with XNUMXth Century Art, trans. Célia Euvaldo, São Paulo, Cosac & Naify, 2008, p. 311-6.

[iv] See Ernest Mandel, Sur la Seconde Guerre Mondiale: Une Interpretation Marxiste [1986], introduction by Enzo Traverso, traduit de l'anglais par AdT, Paris, La Brèche, 2018.

[v] For a precise and historical critical census of the “figurative fortune” attributed to Pollock, see M. LEJA, “Pollock & Metaphor”, in idem, Reframing…, op. cit., pp. 275-327.

[vi] For a personal anthology of poems, copied by hand in a green notebook, among other essential belongings found in Che's last backpack, see Vv. Ah, El Cuaderno Verde del Che/ Pablo Neruda, León Felipe, Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo, prologue by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, México (DF), Seix Barral, 2007.

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