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SUPER POWER ART
by Donald Kuspit
 
It was once said that "the artist is the rock star of the 1980s." If Simon Schama's The Power of Art is any indication, he's still rocking in the new millennium. And, to overwork my metaphor, he's been a revolutionary rocker for centuries -- at least since Caravaggio "specialized in the unexpected," making him in effect the first avant-garde artist. Also noted is "Caravaggio's self-dramatization" in his art, "a calculated gesture. . . challenging and aggressive to the conventions of art," not to say of society, which struggles to suppress the aggressive (more broadly instinctive) side of the self for the common good (p. 20).

All of Schama's artists are self-dramatizers, and Schama uses them to dramatize himself -- maybe even give, or at least strengthen, his own sense of self by way of total, it not completely uncritical, identification with them. More on this later, for Schama is the not-so-secret hero of his story of the fitful, difficult coming-into-being of modernism or avant-gardism, told by way of the milestone artists who marked its way (or some of them, for he passes over many of them, particularly those associated with Abstract Expressionism, for example, Kandinsky and Pollock). Schama has given us his canon of modernist-type art, and it is seriously inadequate.

Schama is fascinated, even obsessed with the against-the-grain artist's persona, whether conveyed by way of "breakthrough" creativity or outlaw-like behavior, both sticking a "contemptuous. . . dirty thumb" in the public's innocent eye. Nonconformist instinct, such as Picasso's aggressive, not to say predatory sexuality (363-64), and conformist and controlling, not to say "classicizing" rules, such as those in Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses (1820), whom William Blake said "was born to kill art" (252), strike an uneasy balance in Schama's artists, adding to the fascination of their works and personalities. Schama even implies that their aggression and sexual instincts create their own expressive rules, which initially seem unruly and beyond the artistic pale but, through intense and open-minded looking, reveal their own uncanny, even sublime logic.

To Schama's credit, he's not entirely taken in by the artist's self-privileging as a narcissistic renegade, for he shows the self-defeat such grandiosity can lead to: the ill-fortune that can accompany fame, the self-destructive psychopathology that can go hand in hand with artistic originality and creative plenitude, as in the suicides of van Gogh and Rothko, two of Schama's other artist-heroes, all subtly tragic, with the exception of Bernini (although he had his own temperamental problems).

Schama's book is a lively read, as one might expect from a made-for-television thriller (the BBC produced an accompanying television series), with a bit of supplementary "reflection," as he tells us, giving the script a depth of meaning it might not otherwise have, presumably without compromising its documentary and popularizing intentions. The cast of artists includes two Italians (Caravaggio and Bernini), two Dutchmen (Rembrandt and van Gogh), one Englishman (Turner), one Frenchman (David), one Spaniard (Picasso), and one American (Rothko). They come on stage -- Schama's book is overloaded with references to theater, drama, performance (he worries whether Rothko's, and no doubt his own, "theatricality smacks of visual posturing" (437), not to say self-glorifying acting out) -- in chronological order, and often unexpectedly change costume on stage.

Thus Rothko changes from an impoverished Orthodox Jew riding the New York subway to, in his last paintings, a rather well-to-do "god-like" personage "presiding" over the miraculous "moment of creation, dividing the light from the darkness" (which may not be much of a change) (437). "David, who had made a career insisting that art's highest purpose was public and moral" -- during the French Revolution he not only "designed inspirational propaganda" (218), but was a highly placed if opportunistic Jacobin, indeed, a "member of the political police committee -- the Committee of General Security -- that signed death warrants, dispatching the convicted to the guillotine" (217) (he dispatched former patrons and friends, including the famous chemist Lavoisier, whose portrait he had painted) -- "now tried to start another one by reasserting its autonomy" (228), for the Reign of Jacobin Terror had begun to feed on itself. "Five days after Robespierre's execution David was himself denounced in the Convention as a 'tyrant of the arts' and a traitor. Imprisoned and tried, the traumatized 'Pageant-Master of the Revolution' suddenly had another conversion, this time out of, rather than into, politics. When interrogated, he claimed (of course) that he confessed to nothing more than naivety; to having been led astray by wicked, much cleverer men whose despotism he had never seen" (227). "The Art Defense worked" (231), and David was released, painting himself as "the honest soul in anguish" (228). He no longer sat "on the 'Mountain', the high benches from which men such as Robespierre and St-Just denounced" aristocrats guilty of "crimes against the people" (213), but began to paint "beauties" and "retreads of old masterpieces" (231).

On the other hand, in 1935, becoming increasingly aware of the threat of Civil War in Spain, "Picasso moved further and further away from the purity of modern art," (367) "abandon[ing] his modernist indifference to politics and history" (368). Two years later he created Guernica, "a contradiction in terms: a modernist history painting" (368) -- a grotesque, nightmarish political artwork that allegorically summarized his nightmarish women problems and implied, no doubt unwittingly, that "modernism's search for an art liberated from time and place, history and subject matter; an art that was purely itself and therefore universal" (367) had become a bad and futile dream -- certainly a sign of artistic hubris.

Schama's book is full of such wonderful tidbits of information and accounts of moments of conversion -- the word recurs in various chapters, sometimes linked with theatricality (as in Caravaggio's St. Paul and Bernini's St. Teresa) -- indicating that Schama's central interest is the coincidence and reciprocity of personal and artistic conversion, that is, of self- and creative transformation. They invariably involve a confrontation with social power, which becomes transformed into an art powerful in part because of its confrontational character, making it seem all the more "visionary" -- ideas which appear again and again in Schama's text. The power of art stands up to the power of society -- whether in the form of the Church or the State or the Capitalism that bothered Rothko even though it supported him -- or rather, as I would argue, identifies with it, in the desperately defensive way a victim ironically identifies with the aggressor, thus unconsciously acknowledging his dependence on the aggressor.

Indeed, Schama's artists not only identify with the social power that supports, sustains and privileges them, giving them sufficient self-confidence to allow their creativity to unfold, but are so overidentified with it that they unconsciously grasp its underlying aggressiveness: their art makes manifest, in sensuous and symbolic form, the resourceful aggressiveness that gave the patrons their social power and riches in the first place. The artists are not so much in conflict with their patrons and society, as Schama often suggests, but in fact envy and embody their power, to whatever stunning esthetic effect. They are true believers in power whatever particular stylistic faith they have. The works Schama celebrates as formally innovative are convincing because they resonate with the social authority and absolute power of their patrons.

Rothko may have been an immigrant Jew, but he also painted when America was at the height of its power -- a world-power -- and bespeaks the glory of that power. His paintings have the pretentious grandeur of America; they imply that Rothko has at last completely assimilated, however much, as Schama suggests, the later ones convey Rothko's mourning for the Holocaust, and with that, I think, his unhappiness with the fact that he was born Jewish. As Schama shows, Rothko wanted them to dominate the viewer; thus their "monumentality" -- their "intimacy" is a cover for this ambition -- much the way America dominated the world. Van Gogh may have been a sick Dutchman, but his work turns the inner light of Rembrandt's paintings inside out -- paintings made during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, when the Netherlands was the greatest seafaring and commercial power in the world. The inner light is the auratic expression of Dutch power. It may be "the inner light, mysteriously potent, Rothko believed had originated with Rembrandt, which is why when he taught a course on 'Contemporary Artists' at Brooklyn College it was with Rembrandt that he began," (424) but it is also the glaring klieg light in which Rembrandt's Dutchmen theatrically posed, the picture of glorious prosperity and worldly success.

As Schama acknowledges, he searches out the fortuitous moment "when power meets inventiveness and the two produce pictures" -- "rare convergences that don't come along very often." (411) But he neglects to notice that power uses artistic inventiveness to glorify and validate itself, and the inventive artist identifies with power, distilling and mythologizing it until it seems like a higher "mystical" power," conveyed by the "mystifying" light that suffuses the works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Turner, van Gogh, Rothko, and is even immanent in the luminous stone of Bernini -- he "alchemically" turns hard stone into dramatically soft light -- and the fire light of Picasso's Guernica and the candlelight of the Minotaurmachy. The profane light of catastrophe is as much a revelation of social power as the sacred light that shines in nature and pure color -- although it also has the potential to cause emotional catastrophe rather than epiphanic enlightenment.

Schama tracks the ups and downs of the artists' careers as well as their creative process, but he is sometimes too quick to dismiss their "post-heroic" works as creatively inadequate and expressively bankrupt, as in the case of David and Picasso. I think this is a failure of Schama's own creative imagination, or perhaps just an artifact of his interest in the officially "great" telegenic achievements. Max Frisch writes, in his Sketchbook, 1946-49: "How little are genuine artists concerned with their artistic prestige! Their primary concern is not the masterpiece, but the ability to create, to remain alive, even when this may often push them down below heights previously achieved." I think Schama focuses on influential "star" works by "star" artists because in the end he is more interested in stardom than art -- which is a vehicle for his own stardom.

This is no doubt an erroneous overstatement, particularly in view of his many interesting -- if unoriginal -- insights into the works and artists he engages, but then it seems to me significant that, near the end of his book and his account of Rothko, he writes: "An American actress friend of mine (from a long line of butchers), about to film a famously difficult part on location in Texas some years ago, decided to get into the role by spending the night in the Rothko chapel -- an experience that would not, I suspect, have most of us on our toes in the morning, bright, breezy and ready for action. But no, she said, it was wonderful: 'Coming out, I felt so light.' (435). This takes us right back to Bernini's St. Teresa, who was also a bit of an actress and star. She was a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and had sexual issues; they seem to be resolved in Bernini's sculpture, where sexual orgasm and spiritual conversion -- visitation by an angelic phantom lover -- are theatrically conflated.

Schama's actress friend is no doubt "sexy" and "seductive" -- among the terms he uses to characterize Rothko's pre-chapel color field paintings -- as well as daring and tough (no doubt because of her butcher heritage). And certainly spiritual, for she saw the light in the darkness of Rothko's penultimate paintings, theatrically posed in a spare modernist chapel the way Bernini posed St. Teresa in his lush Baroque chapel. Schama's actress was thus saved without having to change her act -- which, along with her other attributes, makes her the perfect woman, sexually desirable as well as spiritually superior. Or was her remark an act, in platitudinous recognition of the fact that opposites evoke each other -- they're the flip side of the same psychic coin, as Freud said -- and are even magnetically attracted to each other despite repelling each other? Or was she simply trying to get Schama's attention and approval, being a narcissistic poseur -- for theatrical people are always playing someone other than themselves -- in need of an audience? Or perhaps she was just expressing relief at having come out of the dark chapel into the daylight, suggesting there was less to her remark -- that it was more banal -- than Schama's inflated appreciation of it suggests. But then she too is an artist -- a fellow actor like himself, working in the same medium (suggesting he's also an artist) -- and thus worthy of Schama's admiration.

What audience does Schama want for his TV series? He wants the professional art historians, as his wealth of art historical and anecdotal information indicate (he makes nodding acknowledgement of a few favored art historians), but above all the great un-art-educated masses. The Power of Art is a tour de force of populist educational TV, and a communicatively convincing one, as the swift fluidity of its writing and entertaining informality indicate. No stiff British upper lip and upper class pretensions here, even though Schama wants to lift the masses into the higher realm of art. The one audience he doesn't want is the critics -- people like Clement Greenberg, whom he mentions contemptuously in passing, but whose appraisal of Picasso's Guernica as "a battle scene from a pediment that has been flattened under a defective steam-roller" is much more sharp-eyed and insightful than his own appraisal of it as "Cubism with a conscience" (376).

Again and again Schama dismisses the critics (and patrons who rejected works they commissioned) as rigidly bogged down in old-fashioned ideas of art -- largely classical -- and thus resistant to "experimental" change and the creative evolution of art. But the validity of modernism does not invalidate classicism -- Picasso's traditionalist Ingres-style work cannot be dismissed so easily as beside the main point of his art, as Schama does (all the more so because it was innovative in its own way, and suggested a crisis in modernism, or at least uncertainty about it, and perhaps about its enduring value, which is perhaps why Picasso was always assimilating and modernizing masterpieces of proven value, as though to prove that modernism had value because it could latch onto tradition).

Was Michelangelo Titmarsh, aka William Thackeray, so wrong and blind when he "denounced" a painting by Turner as an "absurdity" (242), however absurd his preference for a realist work ("let it hang in the National Gallery along with the Hogarths") which has today been devalued might seem to a contemporary public that has come to take what Schama uncritically calls the provocative "liberties" of modernism for granted? It may have been "sacrilege to pierce the mystic shell of colour in search of form," as Turner said of Rembrandt (267), but was "the patron who. . . complained about the indistinctness of the image" in a Turner painting (269), so wrong in wanting a distinct image? Schama doesn't have the critical consciousness to address such questions, but dismisses the patron as a backward-looking stuck-in-the-mud-of-past-expectations conservative with no creative imagination -- rather than a different kind than Turner's. Schama is celebrating and defending modernism -- fetishizing and idolizing it -- not bringing it into critical question, now that it has spent itself and become a period art, indeed, reified by institutionalization.

Who exactly is Schama? Well, he's Jewish. He has a "Jewish eye," as he tells us (173), which is perhaps one of the reasons his book climaxes with Rothko, "the Jewish modernist" (434). And why he dislikes "the amorality of the eye" in Boucher's Mademoiselle O'Murphy (1751), Louis XV's lovely young mistress, and dismisses it as a "diversion" (184), resists the temptations of her "coyly blushing derrière" and naked body as though it was the Golden Calf, and why he prefers David's moralizing A Marat (1793), even though, as Schama makes clear, the latter is political propaganda and a visual lie, for it "transfigures" the malevolent, paranoid Marat "into a neo-classical quasi-biblical hero," reducing his "terrible psoriasis" and "deep tearing gash inflicted by [Charlotte] Corday" to trivial blemishes (221).

Is Jewishness why Schama prefers van Gogh's moralizing paintings to Gauguin's hedonistic paintings? Is it why he prefers van Gogh's "dense and textured" colors to Gauguin's "two-dimensional and vaporous" colors (321), promising "a trip into the tropics of the mind on Spaceship Purple" rather than an earth that was a pseudo-heaven? ("Van Gogh wants to pull heaven down so that it becomes indistinguishable from the earth.") Van Gogh's suffering and idealism -- he sacrificed himself to his beliefs -- appeals to Schama, and makes him superior to "the worldly, cynical, self-consciously swaggering Gauguin," who (paradoxically) wanted to mystically "swim in pure sensation," take "the beholder into a blissed out state of alternative consciousness." But isn't achieving a state of alternative consciousness what modernism is about -- what all of Schama's artists aimed at? Isn't that what he describes in every case history?

As Schama tells us, he was once drawn to Pop Art, but saw the modernist light, which is a version of inner or spiritual light. Does he regard the central light bulb in the darkness of Guernica as the uncanny climax of the painting because it unconsciously reminds him of the light bulb in front of the tabernacle in a synagogue? Concluding his discussion of Rothko, Schama speaks of himself -- and implicitly all "us ordinary human beings" (439) (in contrast to the extraordinary artists whose creativity was often tripped up by the all-too-ordinary human failings he documents) -- as a "participating presence" (437) in the art, much as a worshipper participates in God's presence in a certified sacred space. But only certain saintly artists have a place in Schama's temple of art -- certainly not the "anal old Mondrian," even when he finally "took the nails out of the grid, and let it slide and jiggle wherever the hell the rhythm of the city [New York] took it" (412) -- and only the naïve will uncritically believe that the works he designates as unquestionable masterpieces are the most significant works of the artists. Schama's hierarchy of values is seriously flawed, and his designation of Mondrian as "anal" suggests just how cavalier and facile he can be.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.




 




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