Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hirst and the Collectivist Fall from Art

Falling Man, By Max Beckmann (photo source:

There is an alright article by Barbara Kay in today's National Post on Damien Hirst's four month London exhibit, No Love Lost, Blue Painting; a "radical departure" from Hirst's studio-produced conceptual exhibits (i.e. actual rotting copulating cows) in that he has painted, solo, twenty five paintings.

There's an even better, earlier article here in The Independent. The best line from the author (in which he mourns the blindness of those who attempt to connect Hirst's canvases with the works of yore and thus reduce the works of yore to superficial egoism):

"So many things obscure a pure attention to good art."

Ah, the inability to meet the demands of real art: the post-modern reward for our divestment of cumbersome, physical reality with its multitudinous array of objects, symbols and figurative species. The reward we now get for this divestment is an endless and cumbersome cacophony, obscuring the ability to see beyond the self - how paradoxical.

In the midst of all warranted criticisms against Hirst and his ilk, that pithy line remains like the last standing word - the only word that these kinds of exhibits deserve - while these nihilistic exhibits (and they are nihilistic) pull down with them into the pit, or nearly so, the critics who spend too much time and too much energy railing against, and detracting them.

The likes of Hirst ought not to ruffle or disturb us or even cause us to be indignant. The time to be disturbed was long ago, when only a few took up that prophetic role. Now is the time to re-build - or simply to build.

I find myself more indignant towards the critics (who I agree with) who come up with terms like "Retrogardism" (a turn on Avante-garde) as a "counter-movement" that brings “a multidisciplinary attempt to retrieve techniques and genres that fell into disuse during the modernist period.”

What? Do you not, even now, get it yet? Do you not understand that you are assuming a post-historical stance as much as Hirst assumes, by talking in the same bunk language of art history?

So many things obscure a pure attention to good art.

I believe that Max Beckmann was one of those prophets who came to be horrified by the sudden takeover of "pure abstraction" (which led to "conceptual art") in his day and yet understood the alternative trap of making a false counteractive art, "painted purely intellectually without the terrible fury of the senses grasping each visible form of beauty and ugliness."

If I was an art teacher I would make Beckmann's "On My Painting" and "Letters to a Woman Painter" required reading.

Beckmann saw in the rise of "pure abstraction" not so much the ruination of tradition, but the ruination of individuality.

"The greatest danger which threatens mankind is collectivism. Everywhere attempts are being made to lower the happiness and the way of living of mankind to the level of termites. I am against these attempts with all the strength of my being.

The individual representation of the object, treated sympathetically or antipathetically, is highly necessary and is an enrichment to the world in form. The elimination of the human relationship causes the vacuum which makes all of us suffer in various degrees - an individual alteration of the details of the object represented is necessary in order to display on the canvas the whole physical reality.

Human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated."
(Emphasis mine)

Beckmann wrote these words in 1938. And now so many, many worthless things obscure a pure attention to good art - and so we are impoverished and distracted, unable to expand the self because we are unable to meet the demand of looking beyond and through the self -to what?

What is there to deserve our princely and jaded gazes? What could there possibly be outside of the slaughterhouse, except to say that art the likes of Rembrandt only points to his personal genius and points to nothing else and then that anyone can paint like Rembrandt?


Jim Janknegt said...

Good post. I have never read either of the Beckmmann books you site. I found the first on Amazon but not the second. Is it in a collection? I look forward to reading both.

Paul Stilwell said...

Hi Jim, and thanks.

Yes, 'Letters to a Woman Painter' can be found in:

"Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Words (Collected writings and statements, 1903-1950)"

Edited and annotated by Barbara Copeland Buenger.

Paul Stilwell said...

Also, two worthwhile books *about* Beckmann:

"Max Beckmann", Peter Selz

"Beckmann and the Self", Sister Wendy Beckett

Jim Janknegt said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I love Sister Wendy!