The artists Gordon Terry (New York) and Erik Bakke (San Francisco) discuss Theosophy and modernism, the exhibition: The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Benjamin
Over the last year we have had a number of discussions about Gnosticism and Theosophy and its relation to modernism and contemporary art. These discussions came into sharper relief this summer when I went to Los Angeles and saw the exhibition The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America at the Hammer Museum. The works are from the Yale University Art Gallery and the exhibition is traveling through 2010 so you will probably have a chance to see it.
Katherine Dreier, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp founded the Société Anonyme, Inc. in 1920 and organized dozens of exhibitions to promote modernism. Some of these artists who participated in Société Anonyme exhibitions include Constantin Brancusi, Arthur Dove, Marcel Duchamp, Louis Eilshemius, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Lazlo Peri, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Stella, and Nadezhda Udaltsova. In viewing the exhibition I began to feel the pull of the original project reaching through today's high market value and institutional sanction of many of the included art works. It is heartening to try to take to Dreier's comment at face value that "The function of art is to free the spirit of man and to invigorate and enlarge his vision." William Clark has pointed to the development of Dreier's sentiments on art: "There was a strong identification with German culture in the Dreier home, and the family often traveled back to Europe to visit relatives. Between 1907 and 1914, Katherine Dreier traveled abroad studying and buying art and participating in several group exhibitions in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Dresden, and Munich. In Paris she visited Gertrude Stein's salons seeing the Fauves and Picasso and reading (in the original German) Kandinsky's Concerning The Spiritual in Art in 1912 just as it was published. This was to be a profound influence including its Theosophical dimension and condemnation of the art market." The figure of Kandinsky has loomed large in our discussions; today I've been mulling over these lines from Concerning The Spiritual in Art: "When religion, science, and morality are shaken (the last by the mighty hand of Nietzsche), when the external supports threaten to collapse, then man's gaze turns away from the external toward himself. Literature, music, and art are the first and most sensitive realms where this spiritual change becomes noticeable in real form. These spheres immediately reflect the murky present; they provide an intimation of that greatness which first becomes noticeable only to a few, as just a tiny point, and which for the masses does not exist at all."
Kandinsky has loomed large in our discussions; it seems to me that he is at least as well known for Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the influence Theosophy had on his practice as he is for the paintings he made. Its interesting how the spiritual interests that underpinned Kandinsky’s work are so completely foregrounded in the historical account yet they seem to hold little sway over the cultural assessment of his work. I think the same holds true for many projects grouped under the umbrella of Modernism. Individual artists working within some sort of Gnostic mode or impulse more “spiritual” than materialist have had this aspect of their practices largely ignored in the dominant theoretical discourse surrounding Modernism.
You pointed out a telling example to me in regards to The Société Anonyme catalog Theosophy is mentioned for historical context but not related to the works exhibited in any substantive way. I look forward to seeing the show myself, and reading the accompanying texts, but I’ll wager anything remotely spiritual in content figures as supporting material or subtext rather than a primary focus of analysis.
I don’t mean to sound as if I think we need to rescue this as the forgotten, true meaning of modernism, but I do think there is a tendency to give the impulses which I’ve started to loosely group under the admittedly vague term of “Gnosticism” short shrift in the conversation about this era. These impulses were so fundamental to the thinking of a lot of the above-mentioned artists, and the Dreier quote you offered points to this, I think.
Take Duchamp as an example. I think that most of us who are interested in this aspect of our cultural history, and who spend time parsing out the definition of terms like Modernism, would probably not classify Duchamp as anything close to a mystic. I sent you a link a few weeks ago to a sound archive, originally published in Aspen magazine, of Duchamp reading a paper to the American Federation of the Arts at Houston, TX in 1957 entitled, “The Creative Act.” (ed. see full text five paragraphs below)
In it he argues that art (particularly art that ends up being sanctioned) is the product of artists acting, often unawares, as medium, and that the conscious intentions of the self-aware artist really have nothing to do with it. He also proposes that artists create “a clearing,” or a space, where whatever materials and energies they are channeling from some realm outside of themselves are made manifest. His language rhymes with the language used by Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology that came up in our earlier discussions regarding Gnosticism and technology, and it sounds distinctly spiritual or at least Platonic to me.
Perhaps Duchamp is well known as a closet mystic, but this statement stood out to me. I think somewhere over the last century grand statements about the nature of the creative act, transcendence, Truth, spirit, direct knowledge of a higher order of reality, etc., (sentiments such as that in the Dreier quote) have been ousted from what stands as the serious, rigorous discourse surrounding Modernism and contemporary art. And maybe for good reason. But I do think there is a very strong undercurrent of these ideals running through modernism, which persist to this day, and are gaining currency. It’s a quiet undercurrent within the discourse, but quite explicit in primary artists texts.
The reason for this is something I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of lately. Would you say that Marxist critical theory was one of the primary forces behind giving these concerns a patina of intellectual laziness and irresponsibility? However, this would be contradicted by Frankfort school critique, especially Benjamin, no?
My heads spinning and I've nearly got a patina over my eyeballs just looking at the words "Marxist critical theory." First off it brings to mind some comments a friend sent me regarding the text he had written for an exhibition of paintings he recently put together. He is a student of "critical theory" and his experience brings up the discussion of the changing relationships of art production to theory. To make a long story short the gallery wanted to exhibit his curation but didn't want to publish his essay that explained some of the philisophical interests of the artists that led to the creation of the specific art work on view. You commented regarding The Société Anonyme catalogue that "Theosophy is mentioned for historical context but not related to the works exhibited in any substantive way." This story regarding my friend serves as a recent affirmation of your comments regarding the Société Anonyme exhibition on two levels. One is that even when artwork comes from an artist's particular theoretical thinkings these thinkings are often not discernable in the work itself. And the second is that gallerists and curators and, not to mention, viewers have, perhaps, an active interest in showing and viewing works in their own contexts and may be much less interested in sharing the artist's own intellectual foundations for their work.
As I circle your statements, the Duchamp's comments you mentioned from his talk at the Federation of the Arts at Houston, TX in 1957 bring up another issue. Duchamp argues that the artwork is completed by viewers and that its acceptance is determined by viewers and not by the artist's understanding of his own "genius." Duchamp suggests both that the artist is most effective when working outside the realm of his or her own understanding and that, furthermore, the work, if remembered in posterity, is bound to be brought to the fore for reasons other than those articulated by the artist. As we have the space and time we might as well reproduce the text of that talk here.
The Creative Act
by Marcel Duchamp
Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity.
To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.
If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.
T.S. Eliot, in his essay on Tradition and Individual Talent, writes: "The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."
Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.
In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.
I know that this statement will not meet with the approval of many artists who refuse this mediumistic role and insist on the validity of their awareness in the creative act - yet, art history has consistently decided upon virtues of a work of art thorough considerations completely divorced from the rationalized explanation of the artist.
If the artist, as a human being, full of the best intentions toward himself and the whole world, plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about?
This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.
But before we go further, I want to clarify our understanding of the word 'art' - to be sure, without any attempt at a definition.
What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.
Therefore, when I refer to 'art coefficient', it will be understood that I refer not only to great art, but I am trying to describe the subjective mechanism which produces art in the raw state .. . à l’ètat brut--bad, good or indifferent.
In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.
The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of. Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work.
In other words, the personal 'art coefficient' is like a arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.
To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this 'art coefficient' is a personal expression of art à l’ètat brut, that is, still in a raw state, which must be 'refined' as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator; the digit of this coefficient has no bearing whatsoever on his verdict. The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation: through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.
Federation of the Arts
Duchamp's discussion of an 'art coefficient' may have been tongue in cheek, but this doesn't matter. The thought is no less remarkable. Looking again at his words "In other words, the personal 'art coefficient' is like a arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed. To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this 'art coefficient' is a personal expression of art à l’ètat brut, that is, still in a raw state, which must be 'refined' as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator; the digit of this coefficient has no bearing whatsoever on his verdict." We can wonder what would have been Duchamp's own 'art coefficient.' Duchamp's case becomes more interesting in that his conceptual art practice can reasonably be seen to include any lectures, such as this one, he might have made. Is part of what we recognize as Duchamp's genius his own attempts to explain his own practice--attempts which we know are irrelevant to the viewer's evaluation of the artist's genius as we have just learned through the genius of the artist's explanation? As artists our interest in the creative process and not just in the final impact of the artwork in culture leads us to look at Duchamp's comments like a big shiny stone in the road; we carefully observe its bright reflections as we walk around it and move forward.
Your comments about the ouster of "grand statements about the nature of the creative act, transcendence, Truth, spirit, direct knowledge of a higher order of reality, etc., (sentiments such as that in the Dreier quote)" in favor "of what stands as the serious, rigorous discourse surrounding Modernism and contemporary art" leave me feeling inadequately equipped to tackle the question and also thinking that various competing forces were at work. It is clear, now, that "theory" is an industry. Perhaps "Marxist critical theory" has been a building block of this industry. But also, more, I'd like to make the observation, contestable as it is, that Enlightenment thinking, the "Age of Reason," looms large in the industry of academia. Secular thinking looms large.
This is a bit of a tangental observation (at best) but in discussing the unpopularity of the pursuit of capital "T" "Truth" I am reminded of the ridicule heaped on Einstein as he late in life continued to attempt to construct a unified theory or a TOE (Theory of Everything). But perhaps related to physicists continued inability to put Einstein's questions to rest the entirety of culture is freer to ask more questions in other ways and even in old ways once abandoned.
Despite my frequent misreadings of Martin Heidegger you compare his positions as articulated in The Question Concerning Technology with Duchamp's statements. In going back to this piece and looking at it in light of Duchamp the opening lines of Heidegger's essay are striking "In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology. Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is a way of thinking." Here is where Duchamp the artist trumps the viewer as posterity. We can make the argument that he was pursuing a way of thinking, a way of questioning, that was a deeper artistic action than the sanction of his activity by posterity.
I won't go into Benjamin tonight, but the Arcades Project also seems to be much about finding "a way." Have you looked at some of it?
I hope the patina on your eyeballs didn’t burn or blind you. Its funny; I had a strong resistance to even stringing the three words, Marxist, critical, and theory together…
You have brought up so many possible directions to go in; now I feel inadequately equipped. Before going into Benjamin, I’d like to try to address your observation regarding the trumping of Modernism’s spiritual content by “Enlightenment thinking:” I think we have to talk about the Nazis.
I’ve been reading through the catalog for The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985, an exhibition mounted by LACMA. It seems to be a fairly exhaustive attempt to really explore the formative influence that mysticism and the occult had on early Modernism early abstraction in particular. In the acknowledgements a few academics from the 60’s and 70’s are mentioned as those who re-opened the door onto these subjects, thus allowing for a serious study that would have otherwise been unthinkable in the decades following WWII. Specifically, Sixten Ringbom and Robert P. Welsh, both of whom studied the influence that Theosophy had on early abstraction. I’ve actually never heard of these guys; perhaps this is just a gap in my education, but even so I think it points to the marginalization of these ideas in contemporary art education. They also reference Rosenblum’s 1975 essay, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: From Friederich to Rothko. Have you read this? I haven’t yet, but plan to after finishing my Bradley Method reading!
The first essay, Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art, by Maurice Tuchman, makes an attempt at explaining this dynamic. Tuchman argues that while the early Modernists were clearly influenced by occult systems and mystical schools of thought, experiencing “emotions of recognition” with other similarly inclined artists and thinkers throughout history, that influence was superceded by formalist criticism (and a perceived break with the past) in the years following the Second World War. The primary reason for this, according to Tuchman, was the fact that many of the early abstractionists (Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) were directly involved with and influenced by Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society, founded in 1875.
I’m not an expert in the tenets of Theosophy, but my vague understanding is that they espoused a mix of Eastern metaphysics and western hermetic occultism, with the scientific worldviews of evolution and the electromagnetic spectrum. Basically, they retrofitted a roughly “Vedic” cosmology, that of a holistic universe permeated/made up of energy vibrations, with the language of late 19th, early 20th Century physics, thereby concocting a type of mysticism for modernity. Erik Parker, in his book Techgnosis, sums it up nicely:
The Theosophical cosmos was a giant hum, whose lowest and most coarse “vibrations” made up the material world and whose “higher” planes were carried on “higher” frequencies, all of which interpenetrated simultaneously and invisibly in the here and now, just like Maxwell’s [the physicist who translated Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction into the equations that describe the electromagnetic spectrum] spectral waves. (p. 51)
Theosophy also describes a hierarchy of “spirit” bodies, etheric, astral, etc., possessed by humans that vibrated at ever higher frequencies and that therefore could allow travel through the higher “vibrational” planes. This imagery of successive stages or planes is connected to the physical world through the view that mind, matter, and spirit are made up of the same primordial cosmic stuff only at different stages of evolution. As this model of spiritual evolution implies superior or more advanced levels of being, I don’t think its hard to extend the model into ideologies of racial supremacy; hence its attraction to the Nazis.
(A slight digression: as I mentioned, this idea of there being a substrate of energy/vibration that is the essential nature of reality, matter=consciousness=spirit as different frequencies of energy vibration, was not a new idea and continues to fuel a lot of the ideas floating around today in pop-mysticism and New Age physics. In fact, this is a fundamental premise to most esoteric philosophies, and it’s also an interesting entré to your suggestion that the questions posed by QM are allowing us to look outside of Enlightenment materialism, but more on that later.)
Anyway, I think it’s a fairly accepted fact that the Nazis had a broad interest in the occult. I believe the Thule Society (which descended from the Tuetonic Knights?) was most actively involved in this area of accessing areas of power more obscure than those accessible through military might. In particular, they helped to adapt Blavatsky’s rhetoric into an argument for the final solution and Aryan racial superiority on quasi-mystical grounds.
Because of this, Tuchman argues in his essay that after WWII Theosophy became so closely associated with Nazism, that it became career suicide to enter this content into the discourse surrounding Modernism. Thus, formalist criticism from Alfred Barr, to Harold Rosenberg, to Clement Greenberg became the dominant mode of discussion and analysis of historical Modernism. I think that this fits in quite nicely with the notion that “Enlightenment thinking looms large in academia,” as the materialist, linear, rational mindset that defines “Enlightenment” thought and scientific determinism also characterizes formalist criticism.
Whew, glad I got all that off my chest.
Taking a look back over your last entry, I notice that I’ve completely neglected the intention/reception problem posed by Duchamp’s artist-as-medium lecture. Your observations that:
“Even when work comes from an artist’s particular theoretical thinkings, the thinkings are often not discernable in the work itself.”
“…that gallerists and curators and, not to mention, viewers have, perhaps, an active interest in showing and viewing works in their own contexts and may be much less interested in sharing the artist's own intellectual foundations for their work."
"That Duchamp suggests that the intention of the artist is relatively unimportant as the artwork is ultimately completed by the viewer, that the artist is most effective when working outside the realm of his or her understanding, and that the work itself, if remembered in posterity, is granted that position for reasons other than those articulated by the artist."
…are all statements that I think we would both agree with in principle.
Does this render the formative philosophies or world-views behind cultural phenomena irrelevant in the face of their reception in posterity? Maybe…but the creative reading of work, that which completes it, and allows for intentions to become less important, also allows for the re-use and re-articulation of those intentions over time. Part of what’s interesting to me about this is how historical meanings applied to forms often don’t agree with their current perception, and how the use of these historical meanings can appear as a misuse of the forms.
I haven’t gotten to the Arcades Project yet, have you? I do think Benjamin is an important locus for this discussion. Do you know his statement about “Messianic time”?
Over the last couple of weeks associations related to your comments, as associations are want to do, regarding Theosophy and Gnosticism have leapt out at me from popular culture. I recently read a review by Harry Eyres in the Financial Times of the exhibition Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction at the Tate Modern in London this summer. He begins his review, "What did Wassily Kandinsky, W. B. Yeats, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Piet Mondrian, Alexander Scriabin and Kasimir Malevich have in common? Two were abstract painters (eventually) and three were Russian avant-gardists but what links them to the Irish nationalist poet and the Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher?
The answer (or one answer maybe you can think of another) is Theosophy, that strange mixture of progressive social thought and mystical religion (or a union of neoplatonism and Indian religious and philosophical thought) pioneered by the eccentric Madame Helena Blavatsky."
Then in speaking about the exhibition Eyres' says "The tendency nowadays is to look at the art of the early 20th century in sternly formalist terms. The title of the show, Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction, reinforces this tendency, implying an artist on a path of purely visual and formal abstraction. But this is itself a kind of abstraction. It abstracts the artist from all the non-technical and non-formal preoccupations that, as far as Kandinsky himself was concerned, took precedence over anything narrowly aesthetic." Eyres doesn't strongly pursue the nature of the effect of theosophy on Kandinsky's work but for now it is the fact that he emphasizes its influence that is noteworthy.
You mentioned Sixten Ringbom and Robert P. Welsh and their studies of the influence that Theosophy had on early abstraction. Sébastien Clerbois's essay In Search of the Forme-Pensée: The Influence of Theosophy on Belgian Artists, Between Symbolism and the Avant-Garde (18901910) sheds further light on these influences and makes concrete the point to which Eyres alludes that a consideration of the "path to abstraction" only in formalist terms leaves other artists to the wayside whose work though figurative had much in common with the goals of abstract artists.
The concluding paragraphs of Clerbois's essay lay this groundwork, "This particular rapport between these two aesthetics, as we have shown, is founded in the historical ties between Symbolism and the avant-garde, as they coexisted within the Theosophical movement. Theosophy, a vast corpus of esoteric thought that tended to attract diverse interests and was strongly appreciated at the turn of the century, had the particular ability to feed the reflection of artists first belonging to Symbolism, then to the avant-garde. In this, Theosophy contributed to the linking of ties between artists who, without it, would never have worked as closely together. Together, these artists quickly produced works of theosophical inspiration in which Symbolism and avant-garde coexisted, as seen in the series created in Belgium around the theme of Prometheus. The influence of theosophy on these artists invites us to take a new look not only at the history of Symbolism but also at the relationship between the latter and the avant-garde. We have a tendency to think that Symbolism was eradicated by modernity, as we also tend to see the ties between Symbolism and the avant-gardeand, in a broader sense, between the figurative and the abstracttoo often only in terms of rupture or tension. The study of the influence of theosophy on Belgian painters at the turn of the century demonstrates, to the contrary, that these two styles have coexisted and, at times, in surprising harmony." Even discussion of the disagreements that occur between the abstract and figurative artists reenforces the deep importance of closely related spiritual movements to each of these groups of artists. This discussion also brings Rudoph Steiner into view. As Clerbois states, "Over the years, the proximity between the abstract and the figurative evolved toward a more marked split, precipitated by the resignation in 1913 of Rudolph Steiner, who, exasperated by the anti-Christianity of the Theosophical Society, founded anthroposophy, attracting a great number of theosophists in his wake, such as Édouard Schuré, and many abstract painters, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.31 This schism within the society indicates that theosophy hardly escaped the split between abstraction and the figurative, and that when asked to align themselves with one trend or another, artists would choose a theosophical option in harmony with their aesthetic principles."
Steiner is perhaps best known in the United States for his contributions to education systems but it is worth noting the similarity in his language to that of Kandinsky and Dreier, "Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge to guide the Spirit of the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. It arises in man as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling: and it can be justified inasmuch as it can satisfy this inner need."
Steiner's influence on Joseph Beuys can be a starting point as we start to discuss spiritual movements belief systems and philosophical tenants influences on contemporary artists. An article by David Adams in Art Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1, Constructed Painting (Spring, 1991), pp. 96-98 reviewing John F. Moffitt's Occultism in Avant-Garde Art: The Case of Joseph Beuys also brings us back to your readings on the 1986 exhibition mentioned in Adams opening paragraph: "In the wake of the landmark 1986 exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 we can expect an increasing variety of publications revealing heretofore unknown or underappreciated connections between modern artists and spiritual traditions or influences. Such is the study by the author of a commendable essay on Marcel Duchamp and alchemy in the 1986 exhibition catalogue.
When I first picked up a copy of John Moffitt's treatise on the late Joseph Beuys. I rejoiced to find at last a writer who had been perceptive enough to go beyond the typically descriptive accounts of Beuys's sculpture, performances, and statements, and to lay bare the philosophical and, particularly, the occult background of his key ideas and images. I knew this to be no easy task, since I myself had more than once contemplated such an undertaking since becoming aware of the connection between Beuys and Rudolf Steiner. Unfortunately, while Moffitt opens new ground in Beuys scholarship, he undermines his own work through an overly facile and cavalier approach to the subject."
Here won't be an evaluation of Moffitt's work or Adams' critique. But this example and the others serve to show the number of routes Theosophy's influence still travels in our culture. Adams, now an instructor at Sierra College, Calfornia, was once a Waldorf school teacher and administrator. To follow up on Adam's intention to write further about Steiner and Beuys the following blurb from a booksellers website about one of his more recent efforts is worth a diversion. "Bees: Lectures by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) translated by Thomas Braatz (1998) 222 pages with an Afterword on the Art of Joseph Beuys. In 1923 Steiner predicted the dire state of the honeybee today. He said then in fifty to eighty years we would see the consequences of mechanizing the forces that had previously operated organically in the beehive, such as the practice of artificially breeding queen bees. The fact that over sixty percent of the American honeybee population has died during the past ten years and that this same phenomena is occurring around the world should urge our attention to the importance of the issues discussed in these lectures. From physical depictions of the daily activities of bees to the loftiest esoteric insights, the lecture describe the unconscious wisdom contained in the beehive and its connection to our experience of health, culture, and the cosmos. This book includes the essay by David Adams From the Queen Bee to Social Sculpture: The Artistic Alchemy of Joseph Beuys (1921-86) (Anthroposophic Press)."
Back to Clerbois, footnote 31 reads, "On this subject, see Ringborn 1986." We can assume a typo here and figure this note points to Sixten Ringbom, perhaps his text from the above mentioned catalogue or Art History in Finland before 1920 (History of Learning and Science in Finland, 1828-1918). And while on Ringbom perhaps we should consider the text, The Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting. I hadn't heard of Ringbom prior to our discussion either.
Footnote 32 brings up our Duchamp discussion and as you just mentioned the "intention/reception" problem. This discussion can easily remain in the abstract but Clerbois suggests that, with respect to Theosophy, one style has an advantage over another in getting across specific ideas, "Moreover, it can also be proposed that the varied social impact of works by Theosophist artists helped accentuate the rift. Formalists by nature, the abstract works of Klee and Mondrian, while inspired by the ideas of Theosophy, had less of a social impact than works by Symbolist painters, often created within the school that has been known as l'art social (social art) since the end of the nineteenth century." The questions arises, though, as to how much influence artists can have in the long run if they slip into obscurity. If it is Mondrian's formalist innovations that have kept him prominantly on the map, perhaps then it will be through the depth and breadth of sustained interest in his work that his spiritual philosophy will have a chance to be reevaluated.
Another type of popular culture source, other than the Financial Times (which is looking at this moment rather suspect as representation of either popular culture or popular media), is the, now nearly ten-year-old, TV series Millennium. It only had three seasons, not even making it to the millennium, and took as its subject matter the discussion of the nature of good and evil and the search for the truth in general regarding the fate of mankind and specifically with respect to individual's activities whether benevolent or criminal. The series which (to disclose why it even deserves mention here) I have been spending an inordinate amount of time watching from start to finish (nearly 70 episodes) touches our conversation on at least two points. One episode features members of Odessa, the support organization for former SS officers that was supposedly set up after WWII and had a presence in Latin America and other parts of the world, and their role in continuing to promote evil in the world. The episode features a watercolor supposedly painted by Hitler which is the clue that tips off the protagonist as to the identity of the Odessa members. I had an interesting conversation about Hitler's art with the San Francisco based artist Brian Storts yesterday. Contrary to some observers who make the argument that Hitler's artwork is as banal as the next mediocre artist (his banality in turn making the evil he perpetrated even more frightening) Storts makes the argument that if you look closely at Hitler's line work you can see his madness. We'll leave the implications of this discussion for another time. You commented, "...Tuchman argues in his essay that after WWII Theosophy became so closely associated with Nazism, that it became career suicide to enter this content into the discourse surrounding Modernism. Thus, formalist criticism from Alfred Barr, to Harold Rosenberg, to Clement Greenberg became the dominant mode of discussion and analysis of historical Modernism." Of course the stigma of ideas connected with the Nazi's extends to the symbols of the party. Much is made in the mentioned television show of identifying Odessa's Nazi ties through reconstructing a partial print of one of the groups symbols--the lightening bolt shaped rune that when doubled was the symbol of the SS. Ancient symbols adopted by the Nazi's include, of course, the swastika which was a symbol used in Theosophy. The tangent here is related to your mention of Tuchman and brings up the question as to how long evil can hijack a symbol. There must be a time when the pain of the Nazi atrocities recedes enough that the discussion of the history of the symbol can again include acknowledgement of its ancient, benevolent associations with good fortune.
Looking at the fate of the swastika illuminates the general problem of discussing theosophy but it also provides a particularly poignant route towards understanding the intention/reception problem. In the use of the swastika in the art of North American native peoples is a clear example. Here the intention/reception problem is given a twist. If we look at the site www.collectorsguide.com (a site for the promotion of collecting art and artifacts in the American Southwest) there we can find contemporary apologists for the swastika. Here one imagines the motivation of changing audiences' "reception" of the swastika is largely commercial. Cindra Kline, a jewelry dealer, speaks about pre WWII silver spoons that have on them the swastika and were produced by the Navajo, "It's a horrible symbol to overcome," Kline remarks. "But the swastika can be such a beautiful design. It's a shame to see all these beautiful pieces hidden away." The site further advances an argument for the "guiltless" presence of the swastika in Navajo art: "In Navajo myth the swastika represents the legend of the whirling log. As told by Aigner, the tale is of a man, outcast from his tribe, who rolls down river in a hollowed-out log. With the help of sacred deities he finds a place of friendship and abundance...In 1940, in response to Hitler's regime, the Navajo, Papago, Apache and Hopi people signed a whirling log proclamation. It read, 'Because the above ornament, which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries, has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples, therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika . . . on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings and clothing.'"
Switching gears here another episode of Millennium referenced "Gnostic texts" to set up its story about a girl beset by visions of Mary Magdalen as the "Black Madonna." This episode predates Dan Graham's Da Vinci Code but the same less accepted version of Christian history, in which Christ has sired offspring with Mary Magdalen, is offered up. An entire industry has been set up to debunk Graham's version of this story but this example offers an opportunity to examine the problem of populist understanding versus academic understanding. Returning to Kandinsky it is worth considering whether a popular audience for his work might be more inclined to explore his work with respect to spiritual/philosophical intentions than to follow a hardline formalist argument of the type that might be offered by academics who have made their careers on exploring the progress of the avant-garde in formalist language.
Roni Feinstein reviews the exhibtion The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America in the June-July, 2006 issue of Art in America. Here the discussion the academic approach is set in opposition not to a populist approach but to one having grown out of theosophy itself. Feinstein writes about the exhibition at the Hammer, "While the installation of paintings in a few of the exhibition's galleries may strike viewers as cacophonous and awkward, with poorly orchestrated juxtapositions, this effect was purposeful on the part of the organizers, as it reflects Dreier's esthetic philosophy and intentions. Dreier was involved from a young age with Theosophy (a 19th-century belief system that sought to realize the spiritual unity in all things), and was inspired by the reading of Kandinsky's Theosophy-based Concerning the Spiritual in Art to synthesize the esthetic and spiritual. She believed that "cosmic forces" were at work in modern art, assuming a wide variety of forms and carrying even those with ordinary talent to great heights. She therefore sought through the Société Anonyme to celebrate modernist work in all of its manifestations, without prejudice, hierarchy or categorization of any kind. In the Société Anonyme exhibitions, the works of artists from many nations were intermingled; paintings by major figures were installed beside those by unknowns. This approach was of course diametrically opposed to that, for example, of the Museum of Modern Art, which from its inception was geared to scholarship, art history and a focus on major masters. The Société Anonyme may therefore be seen as revisionist before the fact and poses what today appears to be a refreshing alternative path through modernism. Within the space of the exhibition, any number of wholly unfamiliar artists--a large percentage of them women--are brought to light, and many seem deserving of further study."
Feinstein also writes at some length about the importance of Kandinsky to Dreier in the following of her theosophic beliefs: "The next gallery at the Hammer represents the extended series of solo shows organized by the Société Anonyme by focusing on small presentations of work by six artists: Kandinsky, Klee, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Leger, Louis Eilshemius and Stella. Kandinsky, sublimely represented by, among other works, his early painting The Waterfall (1909) and the Bauhaus work Multicolored Circle (1921) was of particular significance to Dreier. Motivated by her Theosophical beliefs, she gravitated throughout her life toward a spiritually-based abstraction in both her style of painting and the work she collected. Dreier visited Kandinsky in Germany and France on many occasions, maintained an avid correspondence with him and made him honorary vice president of the Société Anonyme from 1925 until his death in 1944 (Duchamp occupied the position of secretary). The undisputed gem among Dreier's mail is the postcard, in a glass case in the last room of the exhibition, jointly written to Dreier from the bar-restaurant Oasis in Montparnasse in 1933 by Kandinsky (in German) and Duchamp (in French), in which they relate that they are eating blini and thinking of her."
Leaving off from the importance of blini to Theosophy what I'd finally like to get to is whether artists such as Kandinsky or Malevich have the possibility of expressing their philosphy through their art. This goes to the heart of Duchamp's comments about where the artist's intentions end and the audience's and history's evaluations begin. Or, perhaps, the more important question is whether or not it matters. In scientific research for results to be accepted it must be possible to duplicate them. (Which reminds that I've not gotten to QM here but will). It goes without saying that this isn't the case in the production of art. You brought up questions regarding how "historical meanings applied to forms often don’t agree with their current perception, and how the use of these historical meanings can appear as a misuse of the forms." Following from this, Kandinsky said in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, "Every work of art is the child of its time, often it is the mother of our emotions. Thus, every period of culture produces its own art, which can never be repeated. Any attempt to give new life to the artistic principles of the past can at best only result in a work of art that resembles a stillborn child." Where does this leave an artist interested in reevaluating an understanding of Kandinsky's intentions? Kandinsky seems to be speaking mostly not about this kind of research but of, perhaps, trying to be the kind of abstract artist he was then in the present. Of course what happens, and for what Duchamp allowed, is that the way a Kandinsky or Duchamp influences audiences changes. Perhaps in decades to come Kandinsky's theosophic interests will be at the fore of any discussion of his work.
It seems much of this response has gone into giving examples of the ways theosophic influence can be found woven into contemporary commentary. A couple of historical cases can be added. Charles Lang Freer (18541919) was the founder the Freer Gallery of Art which opened in 1923 and was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. He was an important collector of James Whistler's paintings and of Asian art. Kathleen Pyle in The Art Bulletin of March 1, 1996 points to his interest in Theosophy: "The ground swell of spiritualism, Theosophy, and mind cure within the circles of Boston brahmins and the northeastern intelligentsia in this period reflects the inroads of agnosticism and the restless searching among liberal Protestants for viable religious beliefs in the face of Darwinian science. In 1893 Freer carried out a private reading course in the occult religion of Theosophy, and during a trip to Japan in 1895 began a study of Buddhism, which he continued after his return to Detroit. At his death in 1919 Freer's library contained a wealth of tomes that answered his need for reassurance of the existence of the human soul: for example, The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1791) by Edward Young (at least two copies); the Upanishads; the Emersonian, poetry and essays of writers such as Bliss Carman and Hamilton Wright Mabie, who regarded a spiritual force in nature and art as a source of therapy for the mind overtaxed by the strenuousness of work; and spiritualist testimonials such as Mary Conan Doyle's Visit to Heaven, Kandinsky's Art of Spiritual Harmony, and Maeterlinck's Inner Beauty. There were publications on yogic philosophy, Buddhist reincarnation, and the Egyptian cult of the dead, as well as more popular works related to these religious investigations, for example, Ralph Waldo Trine's mind-cure text, In Tune with the Infinite, John Fiske's treatise on the evolution of the human soul, The Destiny of Man, Thomson Jay Hudson's Law of Psychic Phenomena, and other books on the mind-body connection."
What are we to do with all of these strains of Theosophic consideration?
Freer came to mind when looking at the current location of The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America which is now at The Phillips Collection. This museum opened two years prior to the Freer gallery in 1921 and shares hometowns (D. C.). Alfred Stieglitz's influence on the Museum's founder Duncan Phillips is of note in our consideration of the kinds of influences that brought modernism to America.
I've returned to the section on prostitution in the Arcades Project; looking for some tie-in to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. As we look more closely at this there seems to be some anti-relationship to our attempts to pin down ignored influences on modernism.
"In speaking of the inner boulevards," says the Illustrated Guide to Paris, a complete picture of the city on the Seine and its environs from the year 1852, "we have made mention again and again of the arcades which open onto them. These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need. During sudden rainshowers, the arcades are a place of refuge for the unprepared, to whom they offer a secure, if restricted, promenade--one from which the merchants also benefit." The customers are gone, along with those taken by surpriese. Rain brings in only the poorer clientele without waterproof or mackintosh...
We see the facade of an enormous structure. It is a huge, suburban shopping mall. The outer walls are all concrete, and their clean lines stretch upward for more than two storeys. The building looks like a giant domino lying flat on the ground. There are only four entrances, and the shops which are housed within have no windows opening onto the surrounding lot.
In the parking lot, walking among the abandoned vehicles, we see several of the living dead. They look almost like normal shoppers at the mall for morning chores, but their lumbering walk is unmistakably stiff. At one of the mall entrances, we see a revolving door flanked by several regularly hinged doors, all made of glass and surrounded by large windows. A few of the Zombies manage to negotiate the hinged doors and enter the building. Others bounce off windows and claw the transparent glass in confusion. One creature walks around in the revolving door endlessly.
I didn't know about Benjamin's discussion of “Messianic time.” I found it in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," "Section XVIII: ‘In relation to the history of organic life on earth,’ writes a modern biologist, ‘the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.’ The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe." I'm not sure where to go with this exactly; what were your thoughts? I'm inclined to look at these lines with respect to some of his comments from earlier in the essay, "Section II: ‘One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that." McDermott & McGough may have a different view of this but what finally made me pause in reading this work was Benjamin's quoting of Nietzsche,
"We need history, but not the way a spoiled
loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it."
(Nietzsche, Of the Use and Abuse of History)
I'm really feeling the "spoiled loafer" part at the moment spinning through references and am looking forward to studying more closely how belief and philosophical considerations drive the specific content of art past and present. Beuys will probably turn into a prime example of strains of theosophy turning into something else. Similarly, Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle will be a fine example of a successful project which became untethered from a thought system that, never well defined at the outset, became even less relevent as the project progressed. Which artists not-so-long-dead or living would you like to include in this discussion?
Response beginning #2:
My life has been going through so many radical changes in the last few weeks (I’m a father now), it’s been difficult to find a few solid hours to sit down to your last entry. So, I think it’s best if I maintain the temporal structure of my response and include both beginnings:
Response beginning #1:
Well, it seems the little alchemical transmutation at work in Carol’s belly has delayed my response long enough! I’m going to take a crack at some of the points you bring up without going into too much research at this time we’re still waiting on the baby which is now 5 days late. Apparently they have REM sleep, and therefore dreams, I assume, after about 27 weeks. It makes one wonder what it is they dream about having seen nothing. What are a fetus’ thoughts? I’ve been thinking that maybe a fetus’ consciousness is halfway between our world and the transpersonal realm, and that maybe they have direct experience of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.
This brings up Jung, who we most definitely have to get into at some point in this conversation. After going through Tuchman’s article a bit more, I see that he argues that while the mystic and occult influences on abstraction received a bad rap due to Blavatsky and Theosophy post WW2, they were somewhat resuscitated and redeemed in the 40’s by Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious and mythic forces. (I think notions of the 4th dimension, as they seem to move freely between scientific hypotheses of higher space, and all sorts of ideas related to the transcendental realm, also perpetuated, and continue to perpetuate, some of these ideas. This is a subject that we could spend a fortnight on.)
Much of our discussion so far has centered around the intention/reception problem, with a focus on the relationship between an artist’s world view, or philosophy that informs his production, vs. the judgment that posterity passes on the work. Clearly, when left to posterity it is the discussion generated by professionals in the field (in art history and cultural studies these professionals are academics for the most part) that ends up contextualizing the work, not the stated intent of the historical artist. Even further, the rubric through which we interpret historical artworks, texts, cultural production is defined by the ideologies and agendas of those academics and professionals. You’ve provided numerous examples of this disconnect, and argued persuasively that enlightenment thinking, secular rational materialist philosophy, holds sway in these circles. This also brings up the point that members of an audience in posterity who happen to not be in the mainstream of academic thought sometimes come up with readings closer to these mystical ideas we’ve been discussing. You’ve pointed out a few pop-culture sources that suggest this; i.e. Dan Grahm and Millenium (I’d check out Holy Blood, Holy Grail on this front). And I think some of the writers we’ve been looking into suggest this while they may be in academia, or taken seriously in their fields, they have the air of arcane specialists.
I see now, coming back full circle, that your suggestion that we attempt to formalize this ongoing discussion by using the Société Anonyme exhibit as a nexus, was so totally appropiate as the methodology behind building this collection was so closely linked to the ideals of those artists represented in it as opposed to the more purely formal organizing principle of, say, MoMA’s collection.
Your point, particularly in reference to pop culture, about the disconnect between a populist and an academic understanding of these issues is well taken:
Returning to Kandinsky it is worth considering whether a popular audience for his work might be more inclined to explore his work with respect to spiritual/philosophical intentions than to follow a hardline formalist argument of the type that might be offered by academics who have made their careers on exploring the progress of the avant-garde in formalist language.
I think with this intention-reception disconnect, obviously there is no circumventing the ideology of the receiver. We all tend to bend the facts and phenomena to fit into our world-views. Which leaves me thinking that this intention/reception dichotomy is related to the formalist/anti-materialist dichotomy that we’ve been parsing out in that it’s a duality in a realm that is always most interesting to consider with a non-dualistic consciousness. I think part of the problem is the insistence on either/or logic.
I suppose this is my ideological prejudice, but I think there are a number of historical examples of complex figures and events that are only contradictory when observed by a dualistic consciousness. As one example, our discussion about “Enlightenment thinking” brings up images of Newton classical physicist by day, alchemist by night. History glosses over Newton’s intense interest in alchemy just as it glosses over Duchamp’s. Do you know the story of John Parsons? I think he’s another great example. Parsons was one of the most eminent rocket physicists at Caltech in the 50’s by day (what greater symbol of modernity and the triumph of enlightenment thinking than the rocket?) and occult practitioner by night. I need to refresh my knowledge of the story, but the short of it that I remember off-hand is that he was a member of the OTO, and closely involved with Aleister Crowley when he migrated to LA after having his abbey of Thelema shut down by the Italian authorites. Basically, Parsons, Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, Kenneth Anger, and a bunch of other kooks were a-conjuring daemons out there in the desert while Parsons was helping to usher in the era of modern space flight. (A humorous aside: I think Hubbard eventually made off with all of Parson’s money and his girlfriend before he started Scientology up!)
To return to an art-specific example, I’d like to bring up the case of Alfred Jensen. A catalog was published for his exhibit at Pace in the fall of 2006, and the introduction by William Agee touches on the intention/reception problem as well as the problem of dualism and either/or logic. I’ll quote from two paragraphs that refer to equally enthusiastic but diametrically opposed readings of Jensen by Donald Judd and Allan Kaprow:
Judd, whose criticism helped define the new reductive art of the 1960’s, was never one given to overstatement, but he got right to the point: “Now and then a chance occurs for a narrow, sustantive, categorical statement: Jensen is great. He is one of the best painters in the United States.” Judd’s other comments about the paintings were telling: but about the complex maze of numbers, patterns, shapes, signs, emblems, letters, formulas, and cursive writings that animate Jensen’s surfaces, all referring to ancient cultures from Greece to China, he had nothing to say, except that “The theories are important to him and completely irrelevant to the viewer.” Later that year in a full length article, Kaprow, a father of collective action art, happenings, and site-specific installations, was also effusive, saying that “ the contemporary vanguard looks to Alfred Jensen with an interest that is accorded few other older artists.” For Kaprow, moreover, Jensen’s cultural references made him nothing less than a “metaphysical artist, his vision cosmic”; the diagrams and numbers in the work were an attempt at a “theory of the universe, a world view…” that must be understood if we were truly to grasp the importance of the work.
Agee continues in the next paragraph: To this day, the first question invariably asked in front of a Jensen painting is, “how much do I have to know about the references to understand it?” The answer usually given has been a variant of either the Judd or the Kaprow views. Either seemed alright with Jensen. On a visit to Jensen’s tiny studio on East 10th St. in 1970, this writer professed incomprehension after his extended explanations of hundreds of diagrams. Jensen seemed not to mind and we moved on to looking at and discussing one dazzling painting after another, speaking of them only in visual terms….. He understood, I now know, that assimilation of his paintings would be given only to a few, and then only in the future….We now need to seek a rapproachment between the diverging Judd and Kaprow views and hope that the split between them can be reconciled. The key to understanding Jensen’s art is surely simple; it is not a matter of either/or,form vs. content, theory vs. structure, but rather a comprehension of the fusion in his art of the innumerable possibilities of painting to which Jensen gave a new definition.
After transcribing this it reads a bit too much like a sales pitch, but I think the point is appropriate to our discussion and points to a way forward.
As you pointed out, the recent review of the Société Anonyme exhibit by Roni Feinstein in the June-July, 2006 issue of Art in America pertains to this intention/reception, academia vs. populist issue we’ve been discussing. Feinstein’s statements regarding the seemingly disorganized, haphazard hanging of the show, and how this randomness is one of its primary virtues, is interesting. She argues that traditional survey exhibitions usually follow an acedemic curatorial model, wherein works are grouped according to period, type, theme, media, etc. The Societe Anonyme exhibit, on the other hand, is installed in a very non-linear, sprawling, manner, where artists you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with each other, and artists you wouldn’t ordinarily place in the same rung as some of the heavy hitters, are hung side by side. Its argued that this structure is in keeping with Drier’s ideology and collecting agenda it’s democratic, and it re-establishes connections between avante-gardists that may have been overlooked by posterity. Maybe this exhibit is a case of the reading in posterity circling back on the original intent of Drier, Duchamp, et al.
I’d like to return to Jung’s influence on some of the New York School painters before going on to some of your other points.
Tuchman writes of the Abstract Expressionists:
Barnett Newman, Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, and Rothko,may not have shared to so-called spiritual terminology of the earlier anti-materialist philosophies, but they seized upon contemporary counterparts with a fervor equal to Mondrian’s abiding respect for Blavatsky or Kandinsky’s for Steiner. The new American artists became a second wave of abstract pioneers, searching for expressive means appropriate to their generation and asserting the need for universal truths. Their spiritual sources tended not to be Theosophy and Anthroposophy but beliefs and practices associated with native and non-Western cultures: the art of Native Americans (especially Northwest coast Indian painting), Zen, and Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of archetypal form, including his identification of the mandala in art ranging from that of the North American Indian to that of Asian cultures. In pointing to spiritual sources, Newman steered clear of Blavatsky or other occultists definitively out of favor with most New York artists of the 1940’s.
Rothko, Newman, and Gottlieb sent an indignant letter to the New York times in 1943 protesting that the purpose behind their art was not being properly understood or taken seriously. Their outrage distinguished them from earlier abstract artists who had been reluctant to discuss the underlying meaning of their work. Indeed, one could say that Kandinsky’s fears that abstract art risked becoming mere ornament had been realized in the design-oriented abstraction of the 1930’s. Certainly, this was Newman’s view in the mid-1940’s:
The present feeling seems to be that the artist is concerned with form, color, and spatial arrangement. This objective approach to art reduces it to a kind of ornament. The whole attitude of abstract painting, for example, has been such that it has reduced painting to an ornamental art whereby the picture surface is broken up in geometrical fashion into a new kind of design-image. It is a decorative art built on the slogan of purism.
To this approach Newman opposed his own intentions and those of Gottlieb, Rothko, Pollock, and others of the emerging New York School:
The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings, or the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life. …The artist tries to wrest truth from the void.
Jeesh. Sorry for that long-ass quote; I feel like I just emerged from the void. It’s a little melodramatic, but interesting as it demonstrates a way around the Blavatsky stigma while still maintaining a spiritual theory of abstraction.
You discussed Steiner and his connection to Beuys in your last entry; I think his influence can be traced through a great many historical modernists. Now, as I understand it, one of Steiner’s primary goals was to reintroduce contact with “supersensible realms” to modern man; to integrate the visionary, occult, mystical worldview of pre-modern societies with the worldview of rational, technological, western man (somehow with a Christian patina). I’m going to make a broad, completely unsupported, vaguely researched, mainly felt, proposition: this urge toward integration is one of the fundamental forces driving much of what we call Modernism. [Clearly there are tangents of Modernism that contradict this statement, and thinkers who would balk at the idea, but] I think a lot of the influences that can be traced through the historical avante-garde, to New York School painters, into Minimalism, Fluxus, Earth Art and Conceptualism reveal a preoccupation with reconciling a spiritual or shamanic worldview with Western rational secular humanism. Like I said, I should totally have more of a proof in order to argue this position, but I think it is arguable. What do you think?
A few more brief comments:
-Your discussion of Clerbois’ essay, “In search of the Forme-Pensee: The Influence of Theosophy on Belgian Artists, Between Symbolism and the Avante-Garde (1890-1910) I think illustrates the danger of fundamentalist, either/or logic.
-Your discussion of the fate of the swastika as a route towards understanding the intention/reception problem brings up the problem of consensus reality, and how this determines and clouds our judgement, our reception of data. Concensus reality is often illogically logical as evidenced by the current political regime. [If the opinion in posterity is basically consensus opinion, then it’s our duty to dismantle it!]
“Leaving off the importance of blini to theosophy what I’d finally like to get to is whether artists such as Kandinsky or Malevich have the possibility of expressing their philosophy through their art.” This is what we’re really trying to parse out, isn’t it? Maybe our discussion and the fact that there is this materialist/anti-materialist dialectic behind so many of these artists answers the question - if it was a question. Unfortunately, as shown in the story you recount, it does often seem like these types of intentions and motivations are more apparent in biographical data than they are in the actual artifacts of production (the art).
Where do we go with this conundrum?
-I wonder if you could explain to me a bit about the “anti-relationship to our attempts to pin down ignored influences on modernism” that you see in the Romero, Benjamin tie-in? I’m lost here, probably the baby hormones…
-I’m also lost on Messianic Time. Daniel Pinchbeck spoke once about it to me, and it seemed relevant to this conversation…I should ask him for some context. This is another vague feeling that I’d like to pursue.
-As for contemporary artists to include in this discussion, I think some of the Modern Institute artists (like Jim Lambie, maybe Eva Rothschild) are interesting in this context. I’ve got to spend some time on a real list.