Political economy of modern art – part 2

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In the end, it was through a series of similar criticisms[I] that modern art was established as a negative perspective and an active political mode: criticism, for example, first, by Daumier (1808-1879) of the enthronement of the bourgeoisie in the monarchy of Luís-Felipe (1773-1850); then, from Courbet (1819-77) and Manet to the II Empire and the modernization of Paris by Baron Haussmann (1809-1891), and then, to the conservative republic built on the massacre of the Commune; from Cézanne and Van Gogh to the devouring of work by the assembly line, in the viscera of the so-called belle époque; from Fovism and Cubism to the intra-imperialist race and chauvinist disputes, at the root of the carnage of 1914-18; from Picasso and Miró (1893-1983) to the fascist outbreak in Spain and elsewhere; from New York painting to the military-industrial complex, to McCarthyite totalitarianism and administered life... It was in these terms that modern art developed, generally as an expression, even contradictory, of anti-capitalist values.

This, in summary, is the direction of this investigation. The set of artistic currents, based on the values ​​of artisanal mastery and heirs to the radicalization of such sectors since the French Revolution, had their historical bases rendered anachronistic by the new social division of labor, which imposed itself with overwhelming force. These currents consecutively developed an antithetical and combative disposition in the face of the new social order, even when the result of an incipient or merely intuited historical totalization, but which, due to the losses inflicted by capitalist expansion, resulted in an aggressive and provocative aesthetic discourse - and in this sense historically and socially founded – even when at first glance it is free and fragmented.

Solipsism, perception, productivity and class perspectives

On the other hand, it is also necessary to consider the studies of human physiology developed between 1810 and 1840, which through criticism dissolved the link between the ocular system and the entire subject of knowledge, eradicating, in the process, every rational parameter of verisimilitude.[ii]

The classical conception of visuality (which assumed a monocular visual beam according to the pyramid model) was subjected to scientific criticism, which demonstrated the inaccuracy not only of that fundamental diagram, but also of the parameters and terms of vision as a neutral apprehension of pre-existing natural objects. Contrary to more deeply held beliefs, scientific criticism refounded visuality in physiological terms, based on individual spontaneity, that is, according to an active conception of sensitivity as a spontaneously productive instance.

In short, the biopsychic redefinition of vision, allocated to the conception of the body as a spontaneous focus of sensations, converged with the scientific critique of the monocular scheme of vision and the philosophical critique of the notion of sensory passivity. It was also combined with the elimination of the paradigmatic interrelationship between art and nature, the ancient aesthetic foundation of artistic tradition.

In the course of this process, the restructuring of the conception of the gaze abandoned the duality given by the spontaneity of reason and sentient passivity (a binomial implied, for example, in the Kantian conception of the transcendental subject). In this sense, the advocates of “opticalism” or “opticalist” art (impressionists, symbolists and others) celebrated the discovery of the spontaneity of the individual sensory core and its correlative autonomy before the objects of vision.

Let us note, however, that this claim (that of perceptual autonomy) bore an undisguised class mark. In fact, on a general scale and with the exception of the dominant classes, vision then lay at the mercy of heteronomous processes, within a corporeal whole whose sensory and motor functions were in the midst of a process of compulsory reorganization. In this way, the body of the industrial worker, for example, found itself, like others, to a lesser or equal degree, in the midst of incessant metabolic mutations, caused by the rhythm of the assembly line, series production, new means of transport , without forgetting the paraphernalia of information and entertainment on a large scale.

In short, the old corporeal whole, once said to be the image and likeness of a greater totality, found itself subjected, in the case of the vast majority, to new processes of work and perceptive training. Not only was he confiscated and alienated from his consciousness, but – due to the technical dismemberments and dissociations resulting from the assembly line – he was also the target of varied psycho-physiological shocks, with many metabolic consequences.

End of aura and serial production

Walter Benjamin's reflections on the end of the “aura” and the new technical reproducibility of art, in his various writings written between 1935 and 1938, anticipate two orders of changes that result from the end of the singularity of the single object: not only the liquidation of the sense of value inherent in the craftsmanship of the work, but also the critical need to shift attention from the artistic artifact to the serial content of modern artistic processes.

The basic serial condition of modern art, shared with other “fabricated” objects, revealed the anachronism of the critical practices inherent to the formalist search for unique value or singularity. Furthermore, the serial condition also converted such practices into mere techniques of certification and reproduction of value.

It is not fortuitous that the doctrine of “pure visibility” was born from the reflective commitment of a collector (Fiedler) and that it counted among its representatives a gallery agent like Meier-Graefe, alongside other prominent figures in the art market. art.

Art processes versus critical anachronisms

Since there are work processes rather than finished works, such conditions require investigative practices and dispositions that prioritize the analysis of production procedures, contrary to what the formalist analytical regime does. Formalism hypostatizes and isolates finished works and authorial procedures as forms or values ​​in themselves, supposedly endowed with internal laws and immune to “external” factors (mode of circulation, extra-aesthetic forces judged “impure”, etc.).

Construction & Real Estate

Since Impressionism, for many artists, the serial question was posed empirically in their own work practices. From the point of view of criticism and historiography, in turn, the evidence of the new productive condition was only fully demonstrated thanks to the rigorous and detailed investigation carried out by Pepe Karmel,[iii] about the new way of working practiced in the early days of cubism (1906-1913) by Picasso, based on the way of incessant permutation of drawings between one work and another. In this artist, soon chosen as paradigmatic, the deliberate and current use of permutations between several works, in the simultaneous course of production, made, once and for all, the critical analysis carried out piece by piece an anachronistic practice.

Thus, Karmel's unveiling of Picasso's invention – situated one step further in relation to Cézanne's modular and almost serial brushstrokes – revealed a true Copernican turn in plastic production: the critical dialectic of painting, from now on conducted beyond craftsmanship and confronted with the dynamics of industrial, installment and serialized work.

It is true that the procedural series was often not publicly declared as such, for various reasons – such as trader or even the painter presenting each item as a singular piece, without exposing or revealing its serial content, production or manufacturing. However, even in this case, the truth of productive practice was accepted within walls – even if as a truth reserved for a few, before public recognition of its new condition. It thus happened that the artist himself, even when he had or reserved variations or preliminary forms (as happened in the case of Monet), did not consider that this way of working, which, in fact, operated serially, had greater consequences and implications.

It was then the ideology of organic pictorial structures and unique works that predominated. Thus, it was necessary to liquidate or “mourn” (in the psychoanalytic sense) the disappearance of the “aura” and the artisanal conception of art, so that it could be admitted that drawing, painting and sculpture – the arts in general – could appear as matter not of creation or inspiration, but of manufacture. It was Cubism that took such a step (as Karmel's investigation demonstrated), and then began to programmatically ironize the exceptional character of the craft and the work.

Let us consider, however, that the so-called unfinished mode and the summary model have affected modern art since the beginning of French realism (see, for example, Manet and Cézanne, so criticized at the time for the incipient or provisional state of their works, or the previous case of Daumier, who did not even exhibit his paintings and terracottas, considering them mere sketches).

Finally, all these techniques and artistic practices constituted the initial symptom of industrialization (introduced late in France only after the massacre of June 1848). From then on, each modern work, due to the ephemeral condition that was inherent to it, ceased to postulate itself as unique, to position itself as a mere example or possible alternative among others.

Since then, as a sign of a productive mode, modern work began to appear as a mere flagrant or as a procedural moment of a “work in progress”, according to the functional designation of 1924, finally adopted in 1939 as an expression of condition or almost title, by James Joyce (1882-1941). In short, the question of whether or not the serial nature of the process was openly proclaimed, as in the case of the complementary notes by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) – or whether or not it was modestly concealed by old masters (Monet) – is a question whose content derives mainly from the adopted authorial strategy.

In any case, from its beginnings until its emblematic epilogue (which occurred with the New York pictorial movement), the most decisive works of modern art were already openly considered transient. This condition structurally constituted them as provisional forms and momentary stasis of a process whose originality and radicalism were inherent to the conception of the productive mode. In modern North American art, Mark Rothko's (1903-1970) ironic quip, according to which he could “order his canvases over the telephone” from his assistants, was exemplary in this sense.[iv] It is no coincidence that it was launched towards the critic Clement Greenberg – a paradigmatic example, in the late New York modern art market, of the agent responsible for attributing the fetish-value of uniqueness to certain canvases.

Let us conclude: telos or aesthetic purpose, modern work has become a document or ephemeral record of a certain productive mode. Thus, modern work began to consciously restructure itself in the name of a new order for whose development artisanal virtuosity became superfluous. (We note, however, that such “virtuosism” persists, and robustly, in our days, as a fetish, object of worship and ideology, in terms of projection devices and so-called immersive installations, aimed at the general public, around works of Van Gogh, Picasso, etc. But that's another discussion).

Civil war, shoring and assembly work

To recover the meaning and historical significance of decisive works and issues in modern art, it is necessary not only to reconstruct the original context of each issue, work or problem, but also to set up a point-by-point confrontation regarding the respective “critical fortunes”. To do so, it is necessary to resort to the materialist history that takes place, one after the other, in the conflagration field and the archeology of the field, in the course of the long civil war of criticism involving modern art.

In fact, the inconsistency of current interpretations, generally formalistic, appears in the direct clash with the object, as it gains intelligibility in its concrete and decisive features, contrary to the anachronisms and blind spots of the accepted narratives, about each fetish author. . In this sense, each of the tiny critical elements, of one process or another, can become the “crystal of the total event (Totalgeschehen)”, to take up a formulation by Walter Benjamin who observed in this sense: “A central problem of historical materialism is be finally considered: does the Marxist understanding of history necessarily have to be acquired at the price of the visibility (Anschaulichkeit) of history? Or: how would it be possible to reconcile an increase in visibility with the implementation of the Marxist method? The first step on this path will be to apply the principle of montage to the story. That is, building large constructions from tiny elements, cut with clarity and precision. And, even, discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event. Therefore, break with vulgar historical naturalism. Understand the construction of history as such. In the comment structure. (Remains of history, N 2, 6”.[v]

Challenges of late neomodernism

Dismantling the formalist argument also requires a specific treatment of the issue of the so-called New York School – also referred to as abstract expressionism (which, however, had nothing abstract) or, by others, “action painting”, literally action painting (in turn, an alternative designation proposed by critic Harold Rosenberg, but with the inconvenience of eclipsing or superimposing the subjective perspective in the face of questions of the pictorial mode and the objective construction of results, leading, therefore, sooner or later , so that they are ignored).

Questions of denomination aside, confronting the formalist argument necessarily involves examining the new idea of ​​art implied in the works of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), which constituted an unprecedented and major critical achievement – ​​to which the meetings and dialogues of the painter with Duchamp and Mondrian [1872-1944], both active advisors and responsible for hiring Jackson Pollock for Peggy Guggenheim's art gallery (1898-1979) (This does not diminish the merits of Jackson Pollock's works. On the contrary, the critical cause and the inherent dialogical reflexivity become clearer, without the marks of untimeliness and thoughtlessness attributed to them under the pretext of “action painting”).

Presented as a corollary of modern art and exalted as an emblem of the exceptionality and legitimacy of the North American presence at the center of advanced modern culture, the New York movement was posited by Greenberg's critics as a direct descendant of paradigmatic currents of French modern art (already integrated , at that time, to the collections of North American museums): impressionism, cubism and collage, certain aspects of the culture of surrealism, etc. At the same time, the movement was dissociated in this maneuver from its context and real historical clashes (class clashes and similar facts), in order to combine and explain it according to pseudo-atavisms (the entrepreneurial character, individualism on duty, etc.).

Despite these culturalist interpretations, permeated with nationalism and calibrated (like lures) for the luxury trade in the neophyte art market in the United States – and even beyond the debate about the circulation of this art, raised by Serge Guilbaut –,[vi] However, there remain decisive historical questions regarding the formation of the movement.

Such questions directly concern the constitution of the specific form of negativity inherent in the relative course of the preceding pictorial forms. Apart from and beyond this, that is, before and above imaginary atavisms, cultural lineages of prestige and the pressures of the Cold War (examined by Guilbaut), the dialectical and historical constitution of the pictorial movement objectively reflected several large-scale factors and influences. , which were extrinsic to the artistic sphere and inherent to the pressures unleashed by the hypertrophy of the surrounding economy, led (by the war effort and military conquests) to an unprecedented expansion.

Against this vast historical background, Pollock's critical attention stands out, distinguished by his discernment of the contract form and salary as new thresholds of aesthetic reference. Class consciousness, one might say, contemporary and inseparable from his recruitment as a salaryman by the art gallery; and enriched by the artist's attention to the new way of circulating his works, concretely arranged alongside other merchandise (read the articles about Jackson Pollock in the magazines of the time in this regard: Life, Spindrift, Artnews, etc.).

Furthermore, exploring and inquiring into both the construction site and the way of working, Jackson Pollock's precise measure (recorded in the photos of Hans Namuth [1915-1990]) can be seen in the action of painting through drippings (whose origin is linked to the same circumstances).

Such acts (performed as if apparently instantaneous and improvised) nevertheless brought a reflection on the conception of form, inseparable from quantitative factors originating from the core of the tree economic, characterized by the overproduction of the North American economy expanded on a global scale.

It is worth saying, in fact, this process translated, briefly and in concrete terms, into a new pictorial mode implying the accumulation of overlapping layers (not only in the drippings of Jackson Pollock, but also in the pictorial practices of other painters of the movement). But it also brought, in summary and as beforehand, the notion of surplus as form, or in other words and to put it completely, of surplus converted into a new logic of form, in the process of manufacturing painting within the Fordist-Taylorist work regime.

The new mode was engendered equally through the intervening body dynamics as a whole, in the production and reception of the painting. Therefore, worker-painting, on the one hand, in terms of the corporal scale and in terms of the lack of mastery or pictorial virtuosity. And also, on the other hand, objectively reflective (qualitative) work, of quantity or surplus transformed into painting born from the abundant supply of materials, including waste, and then somehow in synchrony – dialectical and objective – with the economic rhythm expanded to the hyperactivity.

In this sense, and without intending in any way to discredit the aesthetic and negative character of the works in question in the face of the military and imperialist triumph, the New York movement constituted the symmetrical opposite, in many aspects, of the logic of penury and crisis, as well as of the individual amazement and civil impotence, linked to the imminence of war.

In this case, it was such logic and such factors that permeated Cubist collage, giving it a genuinely dramatic tone – which so distinguished it from late and generally insipid derivatives created with the same technique. In this sense, compare, for example, cubist collages with assemblages, “combine paintings”, silkscreens, etc., by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). The latter appear to be neighbors, in many ways, with advertising, illustrated magazines, commercial scenes and trinket bazaars; that is, of a demoted or miniaturized history, without scale or terms of comparison with the totalized one, from which the tragic augury intrinsic to pre-1914 cubist collages flourishes.

Tragic-critical construct: not a chapel, but an agora

Given the character of the work and the dramatic outcome of Mark Rothko's life, the essential negativity of Baudelaire's proposal – at once tragic and epic – for modern art[vii] presents, as a systemic program, what is perhaps its last relevant proof of relevance. (On the other hand, by relegating the project of transforming the world and life as an instance alien to painting and the arts, subsequent movements, mainly in the United States (Pop-Art, color field painting, etc.), originating either from the analytical, minimalist or other aspects – in short, from the so-called current, in English-speaking countries, of language tour – whether from the ephemerality and triviality of the sensations of consumption, or from domestic-decorative tendencies, came to be deprived, spontaneously or on their own initiative, of any tragic or totalizing character. And therefore, it can be said, they renounced any link with the historical, epic and tragic core of modern art – originating and instituted, as Baudelaire so insisted, from the revolutionary republican process in France).

In contrast, still in connection with the historical heart and the totalizing ability inherent to modern art, the New York movement – ​​from which Mark Rothko's work is inseparable – appeared as a case of late artistic-cultural formation, perhaps the ultimate in central economies. , of a national art. In this way, its intense, and sometimes apparently contradictory, dynamics, in the diversity presented, did not come from atomized or individual creative paths, but, in fact, from a collective process of formation. In this sense, the movement responded synthetically and belatedly, in its own context and with its own means, to the challenge that was concretely posed to it in the circumstances of the absence of its own defined pictorial tradition. What was at stake in such a historic challenge?

In fact, formed at the beginning, back in the 1930s – under ideas and values ​​specific to the ethos public of New Deal Rooseveltian, as much as it was marked historically and culturally by the consummate example of the epic of mural painting organically linked to the Mexican revolution – the strategic objective of this generation of painters was to lead North American painting to gain meaning beyond the already bloodless field of known (according to the constructivist-productivist lexicon) as “easel painting (screened and framed).

In previous stages of his work, the historical-philosophical rigor as well as the critical materialist orientation of Mark Rothko's work had driven him to revisit some of the central issues of pictorial tradition: luminosity, tonalism, transparency, contemplation, unity organic nature of the work, etc.

These questions were dialectically combined with the demand for truth, according to a materialist ethical prism that translated concretely into the search, for his work, of conditions of circulation and exhibition consistent with those verified in the act of production of the painting itself.

Simultaneously, the critique of “easel painting” led Mark Rothko to postulate a certain critical refoundation and a new refunctionalization of painting, as a discourse (not abstract, but endowed with semantic and totalizing power), for which architecture and theater played the role of dialogical models. Contrary to what formalist criticism intended, the painter emphasized this objective of life and work, recurrently in his writings and on many occasions.

In this sense, Houston's project, carried out mainly due to the intense struggles waged by Mark Rothko, and his commitment to a materialist and tragic philosophy of art, therefore, as a kind of total work with a unique existential objective, also behaved and developed , in its own way, the original collective impulse of the New York movement.

Its singular realization, contrary to the allegorical, mystical and ecclesiastical architectural project of Phillip Johnson (with whom the painter came into open conflict and who before the war was one of the founders of the Nazi party in the United States), offered Mark Rothko the concrete possibility to achieve your objectives.

In fact, the redefined project of the Rothko Chapel (named after the painter's death), for the Menil Foundation (of Houston) – under the sponsorship of a Catholic couple but with an ecumenical spirit and close to “liberation theology” –, granted the painter the means and the opportunity to seek to obtain an aesthetic synthesis, in the form of a philosophical construction, between painting, architecture and theater. This provided the occasion for Mark Rothko to choose, as the main function of his painting, the spatial transformation of the installation into an agora.

* Luiz Renato Martins He is a professor and advisor for the postgraduate program in Visual Arts at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Chicago, Haymarket/ HMBS).

** Second part of the chapter. 13, “Political economy of modern art I”, from the original version (in Portuguese) of the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other 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 for his work on reviewing the original.

To read the first part of this series click https://aterraeredonda.com.br/economia-politica-da-arte-moderna/


[I] See part 1 of this text, published on the website The Earth is Round: https://aterraeredonda.com.br/economia-politica-da-arte-moderna/

[ii] See Jonathan CRARY, Techniques of the Observer/ On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge (MA), October Book/ MIT Press, 1998; [ed. br. : Techniques of the Observer/ Vision and Modernity in the 2012th Century, Rio de Janeiro, XNUMX]. See also idem, “Modernizing Vision”, in Hal FOSTER (ed.), Vision and Visuality, Seattle, Dia Art Foundation/ Bay Press, 1988, pp. 29-49.

[iii] See Pepe KARMEL, Picasso’s Laboratory/ The Role of his Drawings in the Development of Cubism, 1910-14, a dissertation, requirement of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, New York, May 1993; later published in book: ditto, Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2003.

[iv] “…Order his paintings made over the telephone”, would have been Rothko’s exact words, reported by Harold Rosenberg (1906-78). Cf. H. ROSENBERG, “Rothko”, in idem, The De-definition of Art, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 107.

[v] See Walter Benjamin, Flights, [N2, 6], ed. of the ed. bras. Willi Bolle, from ed. original. by Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Cleonice P. B. Mourão, Belo Horizonte, Editora UFMG/Imesp, 2006, p. 503. Benjamin 2006, [N2, 6], p. 503; [trans. fr.: «A central problem of material history that ultimately comes to an end: the Marxist comprehension of the histoire doit-elle is necessary to acquire the détriment of the visibility of the histoire itself? Or encore: par quelle voie est-il possible d’associate une visibilité (Anschaulichkeit) do you believe in the application of the Marxist method? The première étape sur cette voie will consist of the reprendre dans l’histoire le principe du montage. C’est-à-dire à édifier les grandes constructions à partir de très petits éléments confectionnés avec précision et netteté. It will consist of the discovery of the analysis of a petit moment that is unique to the crystal of the total event. Donc à rompre avec le naturalisme vulgaris en histoire. Coming out while telling the construction of history. Dans la structure du commentaire. *Rebut de l’histoire* [N 2, 6]», Paris, Capital of the XNUMXth Century/ Le Livre des Passages, traduit de l'allemand par Jean Lacoste d'après l'édition originale établie par Rolf Tiedemann, Paris, Cerf, 1993, p. 477].

[vi] Serge GUILBAUT, How New York Stole the Idea of ​​Modern Art/ Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer, The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

[vii] See L.R. MARTINS, “The conspiracy of modern art” in Revolutions: Poetry of the Unfinished 1789 – 1848, vol. 1, pref. François Albera, São Paulo, Ideias Baratas/ Sundermann, 2014, pp. 27-44.

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