"All modern art begins to appear comprehensible. . . when it is interpreted as an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world," José Ortega y Gasset wrote in The Dehumanization of Art, adding that "Europe is entering upon an era of youthfulness."(1)
This was written over three-quarters of a century ago. A century before that, in the "Squibs" section of his Intimate Journals, Baudelaire wrote that "nowadays. . . youth itself is a priesthood -- at least according to the young."(2) The cult of youth, even of childhood -- what might be called the regressive search for the original freshness of being, for the innocent spontaneity and playfulness of the child -- is a constant of the avant-garde outlook.
Kandinsky called the child "the greatest imaginer."(3) When, in A Philosophy of Toys, Baudelaire wrote "I have. . . retained a lasting affection and a reasoned admiration for that strange statuary art which, with its lustrous neatness, its blinding flashes of color, its violence in gesture and decision of contour, represents so well childhood’s ideas about beauty,"(4) and when, in the manuscript Diverses Choses, 1896-1897, Gauguin writes that "man has certain moments of playfulness, and infantile things, far from being injurious to. . . serious work, endow it with grace, gaiety and naiveté," and that, in search of an image of the horse, he "go[es] back very far, even farther than the horses of the Parthenon. . . . as far as the toys of my infancy, the good wooden hobby-horse,"(5) he and Baudelaire are saying the same thing.
It is worth noting that both despised photography as a threat to imagination, for what Baudelaire called its "positivist" wish "to represent things as they are. . . supposing that [the self] did not exist."(6) Gauguin rejected Eadweard Muybridge’s rapid-sequence photographs of The Horse in Motion (1878), declaring that "when machines have come, art has fled," adding that "photography has never been beneficial" to artists.(7) Baudelaire’s and Gauguin’s hatred of mechanical photography is correlate with their love of children’s toys. Toys are the original primitive art -- more universally and fundamentally primitive than the so-called "savage" art of pre-industrial societies, such as Africa and Oceania, which inspired many avant-garde artists, and indeed, has become a cliché of avant-garde authenticity. Without African art we would not have Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Cubism, and without Oceanic art we would not have Gauguin’s barbaric "ancient Eve," as he called her. Unlike the "civilized Eve" of Europe, she did not turn men into "misogynists," as he wrote to Strindberg.(8) Nor, for that matter, would Baudelaire have gone out of his way to prefer his "Black Venus," as Ortega suggests he did, in order to repudiate the classic white Venus of Europe.(9)
For Baudelaire and Gauguin the photograph was symptomatic of industrial society and instrumental reason, and thus of the realism of maturity, which involves the realization that the world does not revolve around one’s ego. And they wanted the world to revolve around them. But this narcissistic repudiation of it had to do with their inkling, implicit in their awareness that the photograph could be reproduced ad infinitum, that modern society was fundamentally a mass society. For them mechanical reproduction was the beginning of the end of the imaginative self. Mechanical reproduction meant stifling reduction to sameness, the impersonal homogeneity of universal standardization, an instrument of procrustean social control. To be a modern adult meant servitude and submission to a mechanical system -- to indifferent administrative authority. They did not want to submit, for submission meant living death, and sometimes actual death, as the first world war, which spawned the Dadaist avant-garde, demonstrated.
The toy seems unfettered by social controls and administration, for it invites lively, spontaneous play, reminding us of what, from the perspective of rational adulthood, seems irrational and purposeless, if emblematic of a lost freedom. When Gauguin wrote that we suffer from civilization, and barbarism is rejuvenation, barbarism clearly means a return to youth. The barbaric works of art he found in Oceania were children’s toys for him -- playthings and spontaneous inventions of the primitive or instinctive psyche, which means the uncivilized and thus immature psyche, if to be civilized means to be mature and rational rather than the victim of one’s barbaric instincts, seemingly ever young. The imaginative toy is the enemy of the positivistic photograph for Baudelaire and Gauguin, for it overturns our everyday consciousness while a photograph reinforces it. It puts us back in an infantile frame of mind, rejuvenating us by embodying our instincts. Baudelaire and Gauguin agree that the child’s toy is the model and inspiration for the avant-garde work of art, that is, the work of art that is true to modernity, which is a new age of youth, indeed, a hopeful new childhood for humanity, free of the fetters of traditional models of behavior and thought. To be modern is to be young, and to be young is to be modern, and to rejuvenate one’s youth and instincts is to be eternally modern.
All these ideas of avant-garde art as a youthful new golden age of art -- presumably signaling a youthful new golden age of humankind -- are several centuries old. That is, the idea of being young and modern is timeworn, shopworn, and perhaps senile and obsolete. But let us ask whether the avant-garde has grown up since it first announced its presence, assuming that youth is capable of growing up, even if it doesn’t want to. "It is true that the great tradition has got lost, and that the new one is not yet established," Baudelaire wrote in 1846.(10) Has the new one finally been established? Has avant-garde art finally come of age? It seems so, as Harold Rosenberg’s theory of the "tradition of the new" suggests. According to him, the seeds of avant-garde art were sown in Paris in 1914, that is, shortly before World War I; and shortly after World War II, in 1947, they came to fruition in New York. For Rosenberg as well as Clement Greenberg, the most prominent critics in New York at the time, American Abstract Expressionism was the consummate avant-garde art.
The point was hammered home by William Rubin, the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art and Greenberg’s disciple, in a series of articles that appeared in Artforum magazine in 1967. Rubin traced the origin of American Abstract Expressionism to French Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism, giving it a distinguished European pedigree. The point was made decisively in the old Museum of Modern Art building before it was remade into the new Museum of Modern Art building. On display, in sequence, was a Monet water lilies mural, Kandinsky’s paintings of the four seasons, arranged as though fragments of a mural, and, climactically, Pollock’s No. 1, 1948, another mural painting. The European paintings were presented as steps on the way to the American painting. The baton of avant-garde art had passed to New York, which won the race for it, that is, made avant-garde art palatable for the masses -- an exoteric rather than esoteric phenomenon.
Does this mean that the avant-garde ripened into a grand tradition in the central city of the New World -- an appropriate place for the New Art to become acceptable and widely respected -- shedding its youthful playfulness and irreverent novelty for a refined seriousness and wise maturity? I don’t think so. I think avant-garde youthfulness was prolonged by being institutionalized in America. It became peculiarly pretentious and over-objectified in the New York School. Ortega notes that in his "generation the manners of old age still enjoyed great prestige. So anxious were boys to cease being boys they imitated the stoop of their elders. Today children want to prolong their childhood, and boys and girls their youth."(11)
Thus, as T. W. Adorno writes, "avant-garde," a "label. . . for many decades monopolized by whoever happened to consider himself most progressive, begins to conjure up comical associations of aging youth"(12) -- an ingeniously decadent condition. Even as the avant-garde aged, it kept giving itself face-lifts -- or, as we say in America, "esthetic surgery" -- to keep itself looking permanently young, that is, immature if not fresh. Avant-garde art has a Dorian Gray complex: It wants to stay young forever. It wants to continue on its rebellious way without showing any signs of wear and tear. It refuses to recognize that it is impossible to be young and modern forever.
The rapid succession of avant-garde movements -- their endless number, each impatiently spawning another like myrmidons (impatience is endemic to avant-gardism) -- is an attempt to give avant-garde art eternal youth. Each movement is the equivalent of a face-lift. A face-lift is an artificial rejuvenation, a way of saving face -- ironically just when it begins to show character, that is, convey selfhood that can hold its own in the world, remain proudly independent even as it fully participates in it. We see such faces, intense with insight into reality, giving them their own noble reality, in the sculptural portraits of ancient Romans. Inner strength and outer fortitude uncannily mingle in their faces, giving them unique presence. The portraits show individuals stoically one with their destiny. They accept the inevitability of death even as they live intensely. Master of their own treacherous instincts and society’s treacherous ways, they have too much self-knowledge and worldly knowledge to be afraid and ashamed of aging. Indeed, they welcome maturity: They have no wish to remain young forever, for to be young forever is to be emotionally impotent.
Youth lacks the willpower and strength of character to unflinchingly face -- and cunningly outsmart -- time. Traditional art aims to do so, and decisively does so in classical art, the inspiration and source of most European art until avant-garde art repudiated and trashed it. What avant-garde art offers instead is a face-saving artificial paradise, which is Baudelaire’s idea of art. Paradise is a place where there is no time and death -- where one is always young and innocent, that is, does not have to face the real world, and have one’s face marked by it, because there is no real world. At least until one is expelled from paradise. But the avant-garde artist believes she will never be expelled from it as long as she keeps making young-looking art. In contrast, traditional art always discovers death in paradise, disillusioning us about youth, as Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego suggests. A face-lift is a fear-filled falsification of the truth of time, of transience. A face-lift is a futile attempt to deny the trauma of aging, decay and finally death. The signs of time can be eradicated on the outside, but time eats one up from the inside.
The face-lift the avant-garde gives art implies denial of death -- the inability to deal with tragedy, which is the tragedy of avant-garde art. I think the emergence of death imagery and memorabilia in post-avant-garde art -- art which uses avant-garde and traditional conventions to convey death in an unconventional and untraditional way, for example, the installations of Christian Boltanski, which use found imagery and objects in a grid construction -- portends a healthy future for art. I am always optimistic about art when it engages death, however inadequately -- and one can never adequately represent death and convey its inevitability.
The avant-garde wish and struggle to stay young -- which means not to change -- involves the fear of growing old and becoming traditional. It is an anxious response to the trauma of time, more subtly, the trauma of becoming obsolete, which often takes the insidious form of becoming merely of "historical interest," another period art rather than the ultimate truth of art, which is a dubious way of having one’s existence perceived and remembered, let alone validated. The avant-garde’s anxiety about growing old is a new kind of anxiety, different in kind from the anxiety in which its rebellious originality is rooted, and which haunts its creativity.
Yet the subtle anxiety about aging is reminiscent of the less subtle anxiety catalyzing avant-garde rebellion. That seminal anxiety was aroused by the intimidating impersonality of industrial mass society and the intimidating prestige of Old Master art. Both appeared to be fated -- inescapable. Both were of historical consequence, indeed, grandly significant. And both were indifferent to the individual -- to the difference an individual can make, the serious difference the avant-garde artist struggled to make, the urgently needed difference that would give her the identity and mastery she felt modern society and traditional art could never give her, for she could not identify with and inhabit them. They were too existentially alien to satisfy her need for a sense of self that could stand up to them and even survive without them. (One should note that the revolutionary look of authentic avant-garde art is the look of extreme anxiety, as Picasso suggested when he praised Cézanne for his anxiety. Such anxiety is indicative of alienation from industrial mass society -- Cézanne paints nature, which was more existentially friendly to him, and also more differentiated than industrial mass society, at least in his highly nuanced representation of it -- and the Old Masters, whom he claimed to admire but could not emulate, for they lacked the modern anxiety he wanted to convey through his so-called vibrating sensations. They vibrate not simply optically but emotionally, which is their secret.)
Endgame anxiety -- anxiety about losing the avant-garde spirit of rebellion and becoming commonplace, becoming a part of the artistic and social status quo (banality is the only artistic sin, a sign of creative failure, as Baudelaire insisted, for the commonplace signals stasis and stultification, the ultimate catastrophes of life as well as art) -- and game-initiating anxiety are equally adolescent. But endgame anxiety is a consequence of "adolescence prolonged beyond its normal end," to use André Green’s words,(13) while game-initiating anxiety is typical of precocious -- and provocative -- adolescence. The anxiety that the game will end -- implying unconscious recognition that it has in fact ended in redundancy, defensively turned in on itself because it no longer has existential purpose, because it has been welcomed by the society it rebelled against, because its abnormality has become normal, because its anti-sociality has been socialized, assimilated to the point of overfamiliarity, because while it continues to bark it has no bite, because its creativity has been exhausted, forcing it to rest on its laurels, primp itself for posterity because it has lost inner necessity -- is the emotional sign of avant-garde decadence, that is, the banalization of the avant-garde.
In contrast, the anxiety that initiates the avant-garde game is charged with creative potential as well as destructive perversity. Prolonged adolescence -- youth clinging to itself, absolutizing itself, refusing to go beyond itself and grow up -- involves what Green calls a "kind of disorganized trauma" accompanied by "disruptive anxiety states," that is, states that disrupt "the provisional ego" of the adolescent. Sometimes the anxiety leads to "psychosomatic regression" -- obsession with the body or any of its aspects -- sometimes to "perversion and character disorder," and sometimes even psychosis, often signaled by "precocious mental development. . . that impairs the development of. . . secondary-process thinking."(14) The disruptiveness of endgame avant-garde anxiety is a form of disintegration. So completely arrested that it has nowhere to advance to -- so immature that it has become indifferent to secondary-process thinking, incapable of transforming provocation and precociousness into the critical consciousness of a mature mind -- the avant-garde rots in place. It becomes institutionalized immaturity, embalming itself in the myth of itself.
Adolescence is inherently unstable and precarious (the two traits converge in adolescent impatience) and endgame anxiety, with its accompanying symptoms and disorders -- its disruption of development, completely stopping it in its tracks -- suggests that the avant-garde attempt to disrupt society and destabilize art was never more than an externalization of adolescent discomfort with itself, that is, adolescence’s way of projecting its unstable, precarious, impatient self -- for a provisional self is by definition unstable, precarious, impatient -- into the world, as though the world had deprived it of the foundation that would make it feel stable and safe, indeed, as though the world was no foundation for a self, no place that would protect one from the youthful follies of one’s impatient self. I suggest that Picasso’s 1915 turn to Classicism is less an artistic regression than a maturation into a balanced self -- a self that finds its balance and foundation in tradition.
Prolonged, adolescent malaise -- the youthful unhappiness, with its precious moments of artistic glory, fetishized by the romantics -- casts doubt on avant-garde creativity and originality. They were all along unstable and precarious, and as such flawed and uncertain, especially compared to the foundational creativity and originality of the Old Masters. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, "This uncertainty gives the history of the avant-gardes an air of particular desperation. They were constantly torn between the conviction that there could be no future to the art of the past -- even to yesterday’s past, or even to any kind of art in the old definition -- and the conviction that what they were doing in the old social role of ‘artists’ and ‘geniuses’ was important, and rooted in the great tradition of the past."(15) The latter conviction consciously defends against the avant-garde’s unconscious anxiety that it is creatively inadequate. Such catastrophic anxiety no doubt fuels its creativity.
These signs of prolonged adolescence are self-evident in the key avant-garde figures of Rimbaud, Jarry and Lautréamont -- role models for the Surrealists, as André Breton said. All were adolescent in spirit -- Rimbaud was literally an adolescent when he wrote his poems -- and none lived long beyond chronological adolescence. I will argue that the emergence of the avant-garde is correlate with and inseparable from the emergence of "adolescence" as a concept -- invented by the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall in 1898 -- and that to be avant-garde means to be an extremely anxious adolescent. Adolescence and avant-gardism are correlates, as the historical facts suggest. Avant-garde artists were literally adolescents, and adolescents had avant-garde spirit, that is, they were as irreverent and rebellious as avant-garde artists. Avant-gardism is the acting out, through art, of contempt for authority and established tradition, in an attempt to discredit and replace it. The rebellion is usually carried out in the name of a new order, but there is no clear conception of it, and in fact it is unrealistic and naive. Like the French and Russian Revolutions, the avant-garde revolution becomes a totalitarian reign of adolescent terror -- a more brutal tyranny than the tyranny it replaced, just as the Communist tyranny was more brutal than the Czarist tyranny.
Perhaps the first event that signaled the privileging of adolescence was the publication of Rousseau’s Emile in 1762. It introduced the scandalous idea that puberty was "a second birth." Its characteristics were "a change of temper, frequent outbursts of anger, a perpetual stirring of the mind." Shortly afterwards, in 1774, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther appeared. Its adolescent hero became a romantic role model. Werther had the "sacred and inspiring ability to create new worlds," but, as Jon Savage writes, he was subject to "extreme mood swings . . . sensitivity to social slights . . . and self-pitying rhetoric."(16) Finding no way out of this emotional trap -- unable to resolve his conflicts -- he committed suicide. Unable to grow beyond his adolescent way of feeling and thinking, with its unrealistic expectations from the world and himself, he dead-ended in premature death, in effect confirming his arrested development.
Werther was a fictional character, although somewhat autobiographical -- the novel was Goethe’s attempt to work through his own adolescent attitudes and frustrations (including a love affair gone bad) -- but Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770, at the age of 17, by poisoning himself with arsenic, was a real person. In effect the first avant-garde poet, he was idolized as a misunderstood genius by Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. But they were more interested in his youth than his poetry: as Savage writes, "made permanent by death," his youth "would never fade." Like Werther, Chatterton made suicide á la mode for adolescents -- a fashionable way out of one’s youthful problems.
Perhaps more important than Emile, Werther, Chatterton and all the pathologically romantic adolescents in the world, was Article 28 of the National Council of [Revolutionary] France. It was one of 18 codicils added to the Declaration of the Rights of Man in August 1789. It stated: "one generation cannot subject to its laws the future generation." Thus the generation gap began, as scholars have noted. In the 1840s, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie Bohème appeared. Dealing with impoverished struggling artists and the lower-class working girls who were their mistresses -- suggesting the artists’ identification with the proletariat underclass, which lasted only until the artists became economically successful and, with that, bourgeois, whatever their lifestyle -- Murger’s bohemian artist became the model for the avant-garde artist, who maintained a bohemian lifestyle. More importantly, bohemia artistically legitimated Article 28, that is, it was an artistic celebration of the revolutionary rights of youth, more particularly, the right of youth to revolt against the older generation and change the world, implying that as long as one kept rebelling one would never change and grow old oneself. In other words, adolescent revolt became an "artistic" way of remaining eternally young, at least in spirit if not in the letter of one’s body.
At the same time that the adolescent bohemian artist made his appearance, the juvenile delinquent appeared on the social scene. Mary Carpenter’s 1853 book Juvenile Delinquents: Their Confinement and Treatment defined juvenile delinquents as youths with "diminished responsibility." Carpenter’s influential book argued that there should be separate prisons for adolescent juvenile delinquents and hardened criminals in their 20s. It was too late to psychologically treat and socially rehabilitate hardened criminals, that is, to change them for the better, personally and socially, but juvenile delinquents could still be emotionally and morally saved. That is, they could learn responsibility, and thus not become lifelong criminals -- permanently incapacitated, irresponsible, uncivilized human beings, that is, social barbarians and emotional primitives.
Carpenter’s ideas remain in effect today. The term "juvenile delinquent" first came into use in 1824, when it was defined by the New York State legislature as a person under 21. This became the common-law line of psychosocial as well as chronological differentiation between childhood and adulthood. In other words, the adolescent juvenile delinquent was regarded as a child in attitude and behavior, however much he also showed his precocity -- a sort of ironical adulthood -- by committing crimes against society. It is worth noting that just a year later, in 1825, Saint-Simon, who introduced the concept of artists as the avant-garde of society, died, two years after unsuccessfully attempting suicide. In 1845, the Fourieriste Gabriel-Désiré Laverdant, in his essay "On The Mission of Art and the Role of Artists," said that "the artist who is truly of the avant-garde. . . must know where Humanity is going." How can the adolescent avant-garde artist know where Humanity is going when he doesn’t know where he himself is going? Indeed, when he wants to remain young forever, make juvenile and delinquent art forever, which is to go nowhere in art and life -- now there’s a serious revolution against nature and society.
Avant-garde art is not only self-defeating, suggesting its built-in obsolescence -- Renato Poggioli has demonstrated as much -- but its insistence on youthful newness as proof of originality degrades art. Art is an invitation to change oneself. As Rilke suggested in his poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, this means to change from being an immature youth to a mature adult. Avant-garde art is immature art, however much avant-garde art has matured into establishment art. I propose that what I have called New Old Master art -- art that returns to tradition even as it assimilates modern insights into color and form, enriching sensation and complicating structure -- is a new adult art. That is, it is an art for reflective and self-possessed adults rather than anxious and impulsive youth, which means that it is an art that wants to consecrate life -- without denying its problems -- rather than "desecrate everything in its path," as Jacques Vaché, one of Breton’s arrested adolescent heroes, said art should do, as Breton noted. Vaché had "a sense. . . of the theatrical and joyless pointlessness of everything," he wrote to Breton in 1917,(17) shortly before dying from a drug overdose, together with his male lover.
New Old Masterism is an attempt to fight Vaché’s kind of nihilism, which is a direct result of adolescence prolonged by any means. It is worth noting that Breton compared the delirious effect of automatic writing to that afforded by taking drugs, suggesting that he recognized that Surrealism was also adolescent. Such adolescent nihilism expresses the refusal or inability or failure to grow up, to mature into a purposeful adult with character -- a civilized person under the sway of the reality principle.
Avant-garde nihilism, whatever its creative fruits, is a sign of the adolescent’s lack of realism. It is worth noting that avant-gardism has been called "creative destruction," which happens to be Schumpter’s definition of capitalism. This suggests, as Adorno ironically does, that the avant-garde’s so-called permanent revolution -- which means staying young forever, which is what the revolutionary face-lift attempts to accomplish -- is the capitalist motto, as Fortune magazine suggested. Thus avant-garde art is an unconscious endorsement of the capitalism that supposedly is its bourgeois enemy, a view confirmed by the bourgeoisification and commodification of avant-garde art. Such adolescent nihilism, with its regressive rebelliousness and scatological insults -- neither any longer shocking nor sensational, for profanity has become commonplace in public, even in the hallowed halls of Congress -- is still strongly in evidence in today’s self-styled avant-garde artists, for example, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, the American Sensationalist cousins of the British Sensationalists.
I want to use Alfred Jarry as my case history to make my point about the adolescent fatalism of avant-garde art, before moving on to an examination of the ambitions of the New Old Masterism. I will argue that Jarry perfectly exemplifies the psychoanalytic idea of the destructive and self-destructive avant-garde artist -- and of an avant-garde artist who has run out of creative steam once his destructiveness has spent itself. I will then argue that New Old Masterism is an attempt to reverse course from art invested in the subject to art invested in the object. The New Old Masters find fresh purpose in the human object and in the traditional symbols of its states of being and existential interests. Reminiscing about The Magnetic Fields, which he wrote with Philippe Soupault in 1920 -- officially the first work of automatic writing and the first Surrealist work -- in 1930 Breton wrote: "Perhaps no one will ever more concretely, more dramatically seize the passage of the subject to the object, which is at the origin of the whole modern artistic preoccupation."(18) If the psychoanalysts are correct in thinking that this is a regressive preoccupation, then it is time to return to the object, that is, to emphasize the passage of the object into the subject.
Jarry (1873-1907) is the exemplary avant-garde adolescent. His work is scatological and violent, a sadistic attack on sublimation and adulthood. Its negativity gives it an air of precocity, but is in fact a sign of anxiety, both annihilative anxiety and castration anxiety, which often converge in adolescence, all but completely blocking development. In Ubu Roi, the notorious drama he wrote when he was 23, we see him relieving himself of this messy anxiety -- expelling it in the form of language -- and dumping it on the bourgeois adults who supposedly caused it. He literally attempts to drown the audience in the shit of his anxiety. Ubu Roi opens with "the customized word ‘merdre’," as Elizabeth Menon calls it in her essay "The Excrement of Power," perhaps the most thorough analysis of Jarry and Ubu Roi ever made.(19) This provocative "mot magique" is repeated 33 times. As Menon writes, "the plot of Ubu Roi was simple," as simple as that offensive word.
Ubu was "a grotesquely obese mounted guard" -- "a monstrous, pompous, puppet-like character," as has been noted -- who cruelly "butchers the royal family in Poland," with the encouragement and prompting of his wife, and becomes the King of Poland. He proceeds to murder everyone he meets for their money. Thus the familiar unconscious equation of money and shit: the proliferation of the word "merdre" magically accompanies Ubu’s accumulation of money. Ubu then attacks Russia in an attempt to overthrow the Czar, but is defeated, and flees to France with his wife.
If the wife is a symbol of Jarry’s money-grubbing mother, as has been suggested -- Jarry, a homosexual, never had a wife, and was known to have worn woman’s shoes to the funeral of Mallarmé -- then Ubu represents Jarry in the role of omnipotent oedipal winner. But Ubu’s failure to extend his murderous reign of terror and satisfy his insatiable money-hunger in Russia suggests that Jarry realized that even omnivorous adolescent omnipotence has its limits. The imperial infant will lose his magic power when he confronts adult social power -- will collapse into ridiculous absurdity when he has to deal with a legitimate Emperor. Ubu Roi is usually regarded as the first work in what became the Theater of the Absurd, but I remind you that its "absurdity, incoherence, and defiance . . . of authority" are typically adolescent. Also, Ubu’s delusion of grandeur catastrophically broke down when it overreached itself. The play’s end suggests Jarry’s rude awakening to reality: His money was in fact running out, leaving him to perish in his own shit.
Ubu Roi began as "a dramatic sketch first conceived by Jarry at 15, with some schoolmates, to caricature a schoolmaster." Caricature is a form of character assassination. It subverts what it represents, often trivializing it by distorting it. A schoolmaster symbolizes the superego, that is, social authority and responsibility, and with them civilized behavior. We all resist the power of the superego even as we seek its approval. But the adolescent Jarry mocked it, an act of defiant rebellion intended to undermine its authority, and finally destroy it. And also to avoid social responsibility and decency.
What began as irreverent satire ends with nihilistic violence in Ubu Roi. Ubu is a failed superego -- an absurd puppet set in motion by his wife. More subtly, Ubu is a synthesis of out-of-control adolescent -- namely the rebellious Jarry -- and all-controlling superego -- that is, an authoritarian ruler. Ubu is rapaciously rebellious adolescent and tyrannically brutal adult in one. Thus his much noted grotesqueness, at once intimidating and repulsive.
His obese body is repulsive. His obesity implies that he is trapped in his body, that is, is more body than mind. Immersed in unhealthy baby fat -- Ubu is a picture of physical as well as emotional pathology -- Ubu’s self is unable to emerge and mature. Busily feeding on money -- an infantile dependence -- he becomes emotionally flabbier, suggesting that he will never grow up enough to gain control of his greed. His fat flesh confirms that he lacks the adult’s ability to contain himself. Ubu is a transparent case of completely arrested adolescent development. He is a juvenile delinquent run amuck.
Jarry was born into a bourgeois family and lived off his family’s money. His hatred found a target in the bourgeois, but it was ultimately self-hatred -- hatred of his dependence on his family. And of the fact that he himself was bourgeois. Is his hatred of his origins responsible for the originality of his art? It is a negative originality, that is, an originality premised on negation, and as such it is more destructive than creative. Ubi Roi is what Clement Greenberg called Novelty Art. It is in fact an artistic failure, and was recognized as such, but its provocative character gave it creative cachet. Innovative through destruction, perhaps, but destruction is not innovative.
Jarry was a rebel whose only cause was his destructive hatred. In the end it destroyed him. He died at the age of 34, after "spiral[ling] into an anarchical existence, ending his life in utter destitution and alcoholism." Thus life followed the lead of art: artistic nihilism dead-ended in personal nihilism. "Liv[ing] on a small inheritance" after coming to Paris, he never earned money of his own. "He cut a bizarre and eccentric figure around town, mounted on his bicycle, carrying and often exhibiting revolvers" -- Breton’s idea that firing a revolver into a crowd is the ultimate surrealist, not to say anti-social act, was supposedly inspired by Jarry -- but "his fortune was soon dissipated," and he along with it.
Ubu Roi perfectly exemplifies Michael Balint’s view that "modern art" is the result of "narcissistic withdrawal" leading to "degrading the dignity of the [human] object into that of a mere stimulus."(20) The "attitude towards" the object is no longer "on the mature level; it assumes more and more immature ‘pre-genital’ forms. . . . The treatment of the object, or the artist’s attitude to it" is "conspicuously on what psychoanalysis would describe as the anal-sadistic level. The objects are dismembered, split, cruelly twisted, deformed, messed about." Think of Picasso’s Cubist and Surrealist figures. Ma Jolie has been regarded as an ironic allusion to the French expression "faire de jolie," which means to mess about or make a mess of things, in effect destroying them, confirming Picasso’s idea of his Cubism as a "sum of destructions." He also remarked that he wanted to completely destroy the person pictured in his Cubist portraits. Instead, he stopped short of doing so by caricaturing the person, a form of character assassination, as noted, and, more tellingly, of what Freud called "soul murder."
Balint adds that "some forms and methods of representation in ‘modern art’ are highly reminiscent of primitive ‘anal’ messing." One wonders what he thought about Pollock’s all-over painting. This brings to mind Manzoni’s fetishization of artist’s shit, and Duchamp’s idea of putting excrement in a navel, one of Duchamp’s last proposals for a work of art, according to Dalí. "Less and less regard is paid to the object’s feelings, interests and sensitivities" in modern art, Balint remarks. "Kind consideration for, and ‘idealization’ of, the object becomes less and less important." All that matters is conveying the artist’s "narcissistic states," however perverse.
Interestingly, Balint gives us a clue as to why avant-garde movements quickly replace one another. If "the tension" in a narcissistic state is "so great" that it "tends to break down, disintegrate spontaneously even without any forceful attack from outside," as Balint writes, then narcissistic avant-gardism cannot help but repeatedly break down, suggesting its creative inadequacy. Clearly this is connected to its failure to respect the human object, even address it, as pure art’s indifference to the human object -- it is not altogether clear that pure art’s transcendence can be distinguished from indifference -- indicates.
Every feature of New Old Masterism is opposed to avant-gardism. They stand to one another as a mature adult stands to an immature adolescent. Perhaps the most salient trait of New Old Masterism is that it arises from a psychic position of reverie, in contrast to adolescent avant-gardism, which arises from a psychic position of anxiety. What I call reverie has been called contemplation, but I think reverie is a more accurate sense of what psychically occurs in contemplation. Reverie is akin to what Wordsworth called "memory recollected in tranquility." The problem with adolescent avant-garde art is that there is no tranquility or reverie in it, confirming its creative and human failing. And also its inability to remember -- to mentalize an experience so that it can endure in the unconscious and be retrieved in consciousness -- for unless one is in a state of reverie one has nothing to remember. It is only in reverie that memory can be constructed, which leaves adolescent avant-garde art stuck in the immediacy of the moment.
Much has been written about the avant-garde’s obsession with the moment, the sense of here and now immediacy that is the source of the so-called sensation and shock of the new, but the exciting moment is always transient and finite, even when it is what Bergson called a duration -- personally experienced time, and thus seemingly flexible time, time that organically grows, that seems innate to one’s individual existence -- rather than a universal instant in a mechanical sequence, a minor detail in an infinite series of anonymous moments. Adolescent avant-garde art has a flash in the pan look to it, and however hypnotically intense the sensations it initially conveys, it has little lasting effect on the self, offers little beyond its glittering surface -- offers little to remember and reflect on, and thus has no transformative effect, suggesting that it is a kind of infatuating fool’s gold. Like Stendhal’s branch of love, adolescent avant-garde art magically glitters when it first appears, seemingly fresh from the artist’s unconscious, but in the light of consciousness it quickly loses its novel glitter, becoming a passing fancy. One easily falls in love with avant-garde art, or becomes infatuated with it, but one just as easily falls out of love. Disillusion quickly follows illusion, for avant-garde art offers little food for thought, however instantly "impressive" it is.
In contrast, New Old Master art is imbued with memory -- founded on memory, and thus adulthood. Intensely immediate sensation is implicated in it, but never overwhelms the narrating of the memorable object, but rather convinces us of its uncanny presence, indeed, gives what would be an ordinary appearance esthetic reality, implying that it is inherently extraordinary, that the object has a subjective life of its own independently of its perceiver. The best New Old Masters have assimilated the important truth that seemed like a revelation when abstraction first appeared: sensation has a certain autonomy, it can exist as pure form, what Kandinsky and Malevich called non-objective sensation, sensation that owns itself rather than is owned by the object, sensation that does not need representational purpose to have meaning.
Pure abstraction shows that sensation exists independently, opening a realm of feeling that has nothing to do with the object, a self-validating realm of subjective feeling with a subtle life of its own. The integration of this pure or essentialist subjectivity, the climactic discovery of sensationalist abstraction -- the terra incognita of sensation that modernism stumbled upon in Impressionism, conquered in pure painting, and has been colonizing and apotheosizing ever since -- with object representation, the mimetic concern of traditional art, deepened by the astonishing feat of the Old Masters, who invented ways of conveying the object’s subjective life and with that its existential uniqueness and wholeness, that is, the simultaneity of its objective and subjective reality, is the ambitious task the New Old Masters have set themselves.
Reverie is the term Wilfred Bion uses to describe the "state of calm reflectiveness" the mother needs "to take in the infant’s own feelings and give them meaning. The idea is that the infant will, through projective identification, insert into the mother’s mind a state of anxiety and terror which he is unable to make sense of and which is felt to be intolerable (especially the fear of death)."(21) Reflective reverie is clearly something we all need to deal with our anxiety, especially the deep anxiety that our lives will come to nothing, end in meaninglessness, often accompanied by the feeling that we are not taken seriously by others, not given enough special attention -- a common enough adolescent feeling of futility that exhibitionistic avant-garde art intends to remedy by attracting a great deal of attention.
"Mother’s reverie is a process of making some sense of it for the infant, a function known as ‘alpha function.’ Through introjection of a receptive, understanding mother the infant can begin to develop his own capacity for reflection on his own states of mind." The alpha function is a "containing function." Without it -- without learning self-containment, which involves gaining and organizing a mind and structuring a self -- meaning seems to be stripped from life, "resulting in a terrifying sense of the ghastly unknown" or "nameless dread," that is, living death. In other words, without the capacity of "reverie for reflective meaning" we are unable to symbolize and name our feelings, only be attacked and destroyed by them.
Bion calls such raw, unprocessed feelings "beta elements." They are experienced as ugly, and expelled as fast as they occur, and thus unremembered. Thus one is unable to reflect on them and understand the workings of one’s psyche, a necessary step in constructing an authentic self and gaining self-knowledge, and experiencing beauty. The transformation of beta elements into alpha elements -- units of memory, which is perhaps the first form of mind (the first act of mind is to store feelings, the second is to see the connection between them, the third is to understand its nature, which is to recognize their commonality without denying their difference) -- is the imaginative core of creativity.
I am suggesting that the adolescent avant-garde lacks imagination in this sense, indicating that it is creatively incomplete. It does not so much offer us symbols of anxiety as the sensation of it -- which quickly fades, because it cannot be remembered, since it lacks symbolic form, or else its symbolic forms do not perform the alpha function, inviting one to reflect on them rather than mindlessly experience them. Adolescent avant-garde art is a beta art, and a beta art is always a revenge on life, while New Old Master art is a new alpha art, involving the restoration of beauty and maturity, and with that sanity, to art. Mauricio Lazansky, an important printmaker, once said that "Throughout history there have always been two kinds of artists: those who work for beauty and those who use art as a means of revenge for life." The Cubist Picasso used art as a revenge for life, that is, in a nihilistic beta way -- his raw planes are in effect beta particles expelled by the infantilized figure and used to bombard the spectator with their meaninglessness -- while the Classical Picasso attempted to give beauty new credibility and meaning, which means to give eternal meaning to the human object, thus overcoming the fear of death. But it lingers in the emptiness of the space Picasso’s Classical figures inhabit, which sometimes invades and informs them, reducing them to ghosts. Their contours give them presence, but otherwise they are pure myth, which is perhaps all that beauty is in modernity.
I am suggesting that New Old Masterism involves containing, storing, linking and finally unifying the variety of anxious sensations of narcissistic modernism in memorable representational modes to effect a sense of self that is neither traditional nor modern, but a stable compound of both. Such traditional modes are symbolically adequate, and thus able to contain anxious sensations without denying their presentational immediacy.
I am arguing, along with theorists who view creativity in terms of evolution, that there is no significant creativity without a foundation in tradition, which symbolizes all that is memorable, mature, and of demonstrable value in a society, implying that tradition can never lose meaning and will always reward reflection; and iconoclasm that questions the finality and values of tradition and challenges traditional modes of understanding, but that remains valueless unless it achieves its own finality by becoming part of and holding its own in tradition, thus gaining lasting meaning and proving its continuing value to society.
I happen to think that avant-garde art has not unequivocally done so, however representative it is of modern society, with its cult of youth, indeed, its fetishization of youth, and can never convincingly do so, because to be avant-garde means to be incorrigibly adolescent in attitude and thus unable to relate to and respect tradition, which does not mean to blindly conform to it. Adolescence can express itself but not reflect on itself, which is why avant-garde art cannot become seriously traditional, that is, a civilizing force.
Notes(1) José Ortega y Gasset, "The Dehumanization of Art," The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 4
(2) Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006), 5
(3) In Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 251, Kandinsky writes: "There is an unconscious, enormous power in children that. . . places the work of children on the same level as (and often much higher than!) the work of adults."
(4) Charles Baudelaire, "A Philosophy of Toys," The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York: Phaidon, 1995), 109
(5) Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 84
(6) Charles Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1859," The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 242
(7) Chipp, 83
(8) Ibid., 83
(9) Ortega y Gasset, 40
(10) Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1846," The Mirror of Art, 146
(11) Ortega y Gasset, 47
(12) T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1989), 36
(13) André Green, On Private Madness (New York: International Universities Press, 1988), 66
(14) Ibid., 67
(15) Eric Hobsbawm, Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth Century Avant-Gardes (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998), 25
(16) Jon Savage, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture (New York: Viking, 2007), 13. All references to youth culture are from this source.
(17) Quoted in Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 42
(18) Ibid., 106
(19) Elizabeth K. Menon, "The Excrement of Power: Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, and Dada," Paris Dada: The Barbarians Storm the Gates, ed. Elmer Peterson (New York: Gale Group and G. K. Hall, 2001), 33-66
(20) Michael Balint, "Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art," Problems of Human Pleasure and Behaviour (London: Maresfield Library, 1957), 117-24
(21) R. D. Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinean Thought (London: Free Association Books, 1989), 404
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.