ART, ECONOMY AND EROTICISM
Painting isn't done in order to decorate apartments, but for
making offensive and defensive war against the enemy: Pablo Picasso
In what way is man different to the beasts of the fields, forests, seas and sky?
The difference, according to Marx (1), is in man's capacity for creating artificially the skills and abilities of all other animals. He can fly like a bird, swim like a fish, run like cheetah and even paint like a sunset. Because of his ability to create artificial objects he is able to transcend nature. The animal is limited to the natural capacities that control his method of living (his ECONOMY) and also his creativity (his ART) as well as his reproduction (his EROTICISM). Man can possess all possessed by the beasts and much more, for by nature he is artificial.
The ECONOMY of animals is transmitted genetically and changes little over thousands or even millions of years. His adaptation to his environment, which is largely perfect, is modified by occasional mutations that are found to be apt or are rejected through the process of natural selection. But if his environment changes dramatically the animal will become extinct. Man, however, has the ability to adapt rapidly to change: he can create a new Economy according to the environment in which he finds himself. Erikson (2) gives examples of various adaptations among American Indians, all from the same genetic group: for example, the Indians of the prairies, primarily hunters and warriors and another tribe, that lived along a river on the North West coast of North America who fished peaceably for salmon.
The two adaptations are illustrated by their methods of child socialisation. For the girls the two environments demanded much the same thing: a behaviour pattern compatible with their future role as mothers and as householders. They were taught, therefore, to be calm, smiley, obedient, accommodating and generous. Any sign of independence or bad temper was quickly punished.
For the boys socialization was very different. The hunter, warrior boy had to be proud and courageous in order to face up to danger and generous so that he shared his kill with the whole tribe, but largely irresponsible at a social level, that is to say little concerned with future planning. Thus, the young hunter was encouraged to show his anger, his violence, his independence and his will to dominate. If he showed signs of fear, or cried when hurt or refused to share toys or food he was punished, largely by humiliation. He had to be someone ready to die and who would proudly place his kill before the tribe that all might share in it, which was essential for the survival of the tribe, for it was rare that everybody had success in their hunt - but everybody had to eat.
The fisher boy, however, had to learn to be calm, responsible, aware of the future and even selfish outside his immediate family. He had to learn to plan the product of his fishing over the entire year, as the fishing period was short and lasted only the time that the salmon mounted the river to reproduce. He had to assure the nourishment of his family. It was impossible to be generous towards others as this would have been irresponsible. If the boy neglected his possessions, he was severely punished as was anger and irresponsibility towards his household. All the men of the tribe had the same access to this abundance of salmon, all could create their stocks. An irresponsible man put all others in danger.
Thus two groups of Indians, genetically identical, had adapted their social economy according to the demands of their environment. This was amply demonstrated by Erikson through his study of their methods of socialisation.
The existence of Art among animals has only recently been seriously considered. It was realized that they also had a certain creativity, a certain intellectual activity, but in a very limited manner. One of the first signs of this creativity is in the creation of tools: where a bird can use a stone to break a shell or a monkey can equally create a hammer from a piece of wood. The possibilities of this primitive Art, vary from species to species but never approaches the mastery of the artificial possessed by man. I think it was Pascal who said that no act of man could be termed natural or thus unnatural. This notion goes beyond a simple commentary on morality and religion as it asserts the essential artificiality of man's activity. The nature of man is thus recognised to be a constant creation and recreation of his technical skills through his Art which goes beyond and transcends the natural.
We can subsume all human creativity under the notion of Art, as Art is the source of humanity. Whether he is called Beethoven, Géricault or Einstein, he uses the same mental processes of artificiality. Neither the "9th Symphony", the "Raft of the Medusa" nor the "Theory of Relativity" are natural creations. The idea of Relativity introduced a change of paradigm (3), from the mechanical universe of Newton to the relative universe of Einstein. A theory had replaced a previous theory that served better in our search for control of the natural, physical environment. Neither one or the other is a "natural" truth, but simply a method more or less practical in the control, the transcendence of nature by the Art-ificial. In the same manner the "Raft of the Medusa" explains the essence of the man of that epoch by the visual or Plastic Arts, the 9th of Beethoven through sound or Music, and science operates through language or the Written word. The divisions between different forms of explanation are not rigid. They are cross-disciplinary: for example, in poetry we find music and even the visual is called upon. Music and painting are together in those pieces we call "colourful", painting and language come together when the writer creates an atmosphere through description and the painter often makes references to literary symbolism. The appearance in a painting of references to Perseus or Hercules brings to our understanding much more than a simple aesthetic of forms, lines and colours. All these types of creativity have the same source: the essence of man and his artificial functions of, spirituality, intuition and logic. Everything that man creates issues from his three means of intellectual communication: the mouth, the ear and the eye. Through which he communicates his artificial transcendence of his natural environment. This is easy to see in the Written Word, where science is lodged, but it is also true of all the Arts.
For example, in contemplating the "The Raft of the Medusa" one finds oneself among the ideas and problems of the early 19th century. This painting might be said to be Hegelian. It is a visual protest against a world troubled by war and revolution, an appeal from man in "anomie" (4) for another world, a secure and orderly world where the authorities are just and respected. The Raft is the darkness of anomie, a condition where recognisable social organisation has ceased to exist, where there are no certainties and no hope except to be saved by a new stable and reassuring world. It's not at all certain that the painter himself would have been able to make this exegesis of his work, but he had certainly understood the nature of the times and had wanted to transmit his transcendental vision. He transmits a non-linguistic understanding, similar to that of an infant that acquires his knowledge through his senses and emotions.
It is possible to make a similar interpretation of Beethoven's 9th, a work that is full of hope (as opposed to that of Géricault) that celebrates the arrival of a new European Order and the coming triumph of the bourgeois. In hearing the 9th the people can feel their new partnership in power. Beethoven demonstrates his revolutionary nature, a musician who speaks to the people.
EROTICISM, like Art, is more powerful for man than for the beasts, where it is largely controlled by the seasons of sexual reproduction. Man has lost this liaison with nature, therefore with the rhythm of the seasons and even if the menstrual cycle exists, it has very little effect on human erotic behaviour. The erotic activity of man, as with certain apes (they also fairly high on the evolutionary ladder), has the effect of reinforcing social links or, in other words, recharging the batteries of love. With man eroticism is a constant presence: from the so-called pre-sexuality of the infant to the sexuality of the adult and, finally, with the sensuality of the very old - at any moment, we are like saucepans on the low gas. If the heat increases, the impulse becomes increasingly stronger until finally uncontrollable. At a basic level the human is sexual like the animal; but man can elaborate his eroticism through his Art. Beauty, which draws him towards his pleasure is also present in the basis of his Art. While the sexual impulse is largely a simple mechanism of reproduction, with man it is deeply linked to his other artificial activities. Eroticism is a powerful resource for the celebration of non-religious, or profane, spirituality, which is rarely to be found in Christian celebration, except, perhaps, for certain hysterical saints in ecstasy. In love, of all kinds, at the very foundations of society, there is always sensuality - one cannot feel without feeling it. One can see in the words of the present Pope, the importance attributed to this phenomenon by the Catholic Church. Almost all his pronouncements consist of little more than fulminations against any form of sexual liberalism - while in parallel he calls upon love. But only the puritain "love" of the Pauline doctrines: a love that condemns sexuality and that sees in the female the fall of man. This love, this so-called Platonic invention, an accident in the search for monotheism, is part of a long discredited paradigm of the civilized world.
Nevertheless, today this retrograde view of the erotic is strong in North America, not only among the new fundamentalist churches but also among the population of non-believers and Europe begins to be infected. There seems to be a return to the sexual morality of my childhood, where all that is pleasure was necessarily sin - but this time the motivation is somewhat different.
The Puritan virtues of the past were imposed by the productive bourgeois, who wished to protect their new found wealth by discouraging their children from wasting it in a search for earthly pleasures. Max Weber(5) analysed this phenomenon in terms of "The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism": the reinvestment of capital, essential to economic progress, was ensured by the religion that found in the success of man, in his works, the sign of his grace and, thus, election among the saints. He who was careful to invest his riches, rather than spend them, was assured not only of his economic progress but also of his place in Heaven.
This ethic more or less dominated the Modern World. However, after the Second World War, there gradually developed the Post-Modern World: the world of financial speculation where the abstraction of the abstract has been accomplished and wealth separated from economic activity.
In order that Capitalism should prosper, it was necessary to found private property, investment banks and finally the Stock Exchange. The pieces of gold of the mercantilist world gradually disappeared with the creation of an artefact, money, become completely abstract and without any intrinsic value of its own, that represented the productive activity of the entrepreneur and the property he had created. Locke (6) , in the 17th century, had justified private property, in arguing: if a workman used a raw material, that belonged to no one and transformed it into an artefact (a tree that had become a chair) this object naturally belonged to him. Similarly, if he took untamed land and transformed it into prosperous farms, by the same "natural law" these farms belonged to him. Therefore, with the practice of these new economic and financial ideas all became capitalised private property. The medieval idea of the exploitation of the land (held in the name of the king by divine right and cultivated for the good of the entire population), therefore disappeared along with the common land.
Today, the relation between money and production, essential in the promotion of "primitive" capitalism, has, in its turn, disappeared. Money is no longer an abstract artefact representing production, but has been doubly abstracted to become an artefact in itself, to be manipulated in financial speculation, without any necessary relation to the real value it is supposed to represent though the mediation of shares. A recent example is that of the "subprimes", whereby a very uncertain financial risk had been mysteriously converted into guaranteed value through the manipulation of the financial market. That is, just until the collapse of speculative confidence. Because the financial market has become so complex and abstract, and because the relation between shares and an object of real value so obscure, there was a general collapse of the financial system and the value of all shares, whether related to "subprimes" or not, largely disappeared without any necessary relation to the health of the economic activity they were supposed to represent, and this, in its turn, has led to a generalised depression of the world economy.
And our social economy is in a similar state: individualism reigns without reference to the real basis of society, solidarity. Everything and everybody are judged in terms of the double abstraction of money. We are in danger of being swallowed up by the "cash value" alone that invades us from the West: our solidarity, our social services, are weakened and disappear one by one. These services were for the most part created after the Great Depression and World War Two to ensure the happiness and health of those who produce and create real value, so that they may continue to do so. But now everything must be profitable and so these services become deformed into money machines or disappear.
Everything has to make profit. The New Puritanism is that of money which despoils all about it. Love, where profit has no place, has become despised and eroticism dirty. The creators of this New World, the Americans, are more shocked by a President who practices a fellation in his office, a Director of the IMF who has a mistress, or an adult who touches a child or even a child that touches a child, than by the obscenity of huge financial gains (pure theft), the fate of the starving millions, wars based on lies and that solve nothing, or the massacre by Big Business of the Amazonian forests, the lungs of the world. Man has lost his way. He creates little. He has ceased to cooperate with his neighbour. Everybody seeks the abstract millions for himself in a Lotto World.
We are in a situation of great alienation, where we have forgotten our human destiny to be creative and social to become the slaves of one of our invented objects: money. Doubly abstract and divorced from its original source of value, this object of our creation has become the subject and we its objects. We are subjected to a reign of finance, objects of a mad speculative game. The world has been turned upside down! And rather than adapting our economy to our environment, the Planet Earth, we seek to destroy it through our miserable individualism that sees the other as a competitor and not as a neighbour.
And the Plastic Arts have not escaped this plague.
I worked as a painter in London of the 60s. Like all the young painters of the time, I was excited by all that had happened in the world of painting since the end of the 19th century. We had got rid of a tired and faded academicism and had started to explore the visual world in a manner that imitated science. We examined the nature of colours, forms, lines, emotions. Through reduction to the "essentials" of Art we sought a new expression unencumbered by the hyper figurative. The painter no longer copied nature. He left that to the photographer. We obtained two major results: on the one hand we became lost in a psuedo-scientific reductionism in looking for non-existent progress; and, on the other, a few of us began to become aware of the real task of the painter - to be committed to an analysis of the destiny of humanity.
In London I was looking for my style. I experimented with all the styles the modes and the fashions of others. Was I a Picasso, a Matisse, a Kandinsky, a Klee, a Pollock (no I drew the line there) or a Mondrian? The more I sought to be novel the more I became lost. I found no pleasure in the abstract. I found it impossible not to fall into the figurative as each shape I made automatically took on a meaning. Pop Art was amusing but ultimately superficial. Finally, I found myself in a sort of mixture of new realism that had taken lessons from Surrealism and Expressionism: the first dealt a measure of discipline to the second and the second passion and feeling beyond the symbolic. I found my self alone confronting nature, I had no new medium (mud, tar, toothpaste etc.), no new technique (Hard Edge, Minimalism, Conceptualism, etc) and finally no subject matter but humanity in nature. Definitely not someone who could be labelled, recognised and thus marketed. I sunk into the mass of past masters.
Thus, without, at the beginning, a formal consciousness of my position, I had begun to realise that in Art there is no "Progress". For exemple, where is the progress to be found between Praxiteles of Ancient Greece and Michelangelo of the Renaissance, or between this latter and Rodin the Modern?. The reply has to be nowhere. But this in no way invalidates the work of the last two. The difference between artists is in the nature of their individual understanding and transcendence of nature. As in all human activity some are more brilliant than others. If there is a movement it has to be at the level of evolution, a change in human analytic capacity - but that is not to be seen over a few thousand years. No, it is the task of each artist to translate his personal understanding into Art through his artificial transcendence of nature, in presenting objects to the world that are uniquely his. Not because they use new techniques or fashions but because they are what is unique in him and his view of a transcendent, or, as Rousseau(7) might have said, a "general" humanity. The painter has to be committed - if not he is but a decorator. There has been some technical progress certainly (for example, the introduction of oil paints) that has simply aided the artist in his expression and not modified the nature of expression. Contemporary experiments with compressed rubbish, buffalo shit, or any old thing that falls to hand, are above all technical retrogradations.
At the time that I began to understand the non-progressive nature of Art, I felt very alone among an hysterical crowd of young forever seeking novelty and intent on forgetting the past their craft. Abstraction became more and more abstract until it ceased to be there. Pop Art tumbled into Conceptualism, another nothingness this time achieved through trivialisation. Le reductionist "progress" of Art had reached its pretentious heights in a conceptual abyss empty of value.
The Art Market is in boom. Today, a few clumsy splashes of colour, a feeble Dada joke or hapless beasts preserved in formaldehyde sell for millions. Art has become an abstraction of itself, with no value but that decided by the speculators of the Art Market.
We are witnessing the disappearance of the artists transcendence of his environment though his own abstraction, that is to say his alienation. The artist has become the object of his object become subject, which in turn is the object of money. Gradually and inevitably through the process of reduction we have totally abstracted our visual artifice in attempting to be "pure". Thus in creating Art for Art's sake without any reference to nature (human or other). During the last century or so Art , and in particular painting has become emptied of its substance. The Artist has forgotten his fundamental role of transcending nature through the creation of an artefact of criticism or celebration or both. If Science can be pure, why not Art? We had asked ourselves. But then the purity of science is yet another myth, another intellectual snobbery. Even the most abstruse mathematical research has in the end to find reference in nature, that it attempts to transcend and control through intellectual artefacts of greater and greater sophistication - otherwise it's simply playing games. But this "progress" in sophistication, is it a progress other than in techniques that now threaten us with auto-destruction by ignoring the environment? In Science, have we not mistaken new tools for new men? Whatever, man remains the same beast as before: proud and violent, beautiful and brilliant who can save himself from auto-destruction only through his Art, his self-exegesis. It is his understanding rather than his control of nature that will allow his survival.
Leonardo da Vinci said:
"From age to age, the art of painting is going to decline and be lost, when painters take for their model simply the painting of their predecessors : the painter will produce work of little merit if he takes his inspiration from others; but if he turns towards nature, there will be a good result" (8)
Painting, as with science as with all that is Art-ificiel, cannot exist without reference to nature. The reductionist drift of Painting, now for more than a hundred years, is due to the hubris of man who considers himself powerful enough to exist independently of his environment, in a pure state, He has forgotten his basis in nature, his body, his brain, his sex and above all his necessary relation with the other in the social economy of man. Painting is just another victim of destructive individualism with its puritanism with no value, with its so-called objectivity (yet another scientific myth of being "value free").
In 1971 I felt lost and isolated and I practically never touched a brush again until the year of my retirement in 2000. I became a Sociologist, then teashop owner and finally a Historian. I came to France as a refugee from the asocial individualism imposed by Margaret Thatcher - who didn't like Sociologist and who smothered my job. At my retirement I returned to painting as I had begun to sense a change in the social climate. Nihilism continued to reign, but there was muttering, above all among the young and excluded. I await with confidence the day, that is soon to arrive, when the Art Market crashes - the day that a youngster shouts aloud that "the Emperor is naked" and the speculators once more panic.
Then it will be possible for the painter to re-find his true role as promoter of nature, celebrating beauty, the environment, its peoples, the beasts and the landscapes, and as combatant against cruelty and ignorance, through transcendence of the natural which is his Art. But most of all he must fight against his great enemy the nihilism of Puritanism. He must re-become the great artisan of sensuality, the "artefactor" of understanding in forgetting the empty pretentiousness of so-called "Pure Art" within which he is lost today.
(1) Marx K.: "The Economic and Philosophic MSS of 1844, trans. Milligan M., International Publishers, New York.
(2) Erikson E H.: "Childhood and Society", penguin Middx. 1951.
(3) Kuhn T. S. : "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", 2nd edit. Enlarged, University of Chicago Press1970.
(4) Hegel J. W. F. : The Phenomenology of Mind", trans. Baillie J. B., 2nd Edit revised, Macmillan New York.
In translating the "alienation" of Hegel" into the "anomie" of Durkheim (i), I wanted to avoid a confusion with the "alienation" of Marx that I use elsewhere where "alienation" is not a state of perdition in a disorganised social structure, but is conversely a state within which one is dominated by one's social and/or economic objects, a slave to a system.
(i) Durkheim E. : "Suicide: a Study in Sociology", trans. Spiding J. A & Simpson G.,
Routledge, Kegan and Pau, London 1970.
(5) Weber M.: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", Unwin University Books, London 1968.
(6) Locke J.: "Two Treatise of Government", J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. 1988.
(7) J-J Rousseau, "The Social Contract and Discourses", Trans. Cole GDH, Dent, London, 1955.
(8) "Extraits des carnets de Léonard": in Le Nouvel Observateur : hors serie n°68, "Léonard de Vinci: La Véridique histoire du génie de la Renaissance" p.31 février-mars 2008,