The False Path of Activist Art

In 1984 Suzi Gablik, an American art commentator, published Has Modernism Failed? It was a question made urgent by the collapse of modernism’s ambitions into a disorienting postmodernism. At the same time there was the seeming collapse of artistic autonomy—and hence credibility—into an acceptance of the values of the marketplace. In the United States this was the hyper-capitalist, busily self-promoting art market that was skewered by Robert Hughes in his Time articles and essays. His summary was, “What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture.”

The evident desire of so many prominent contemporary artists for fame and money, and the confluence of art with marketing, were symptoms of a crisis in art that alarmed Gablik. In 1991, she published The Reenchantment of Art, an examination of the paths taken by various artists to re-establish art and artists with moral credibility and social relevance. These paths towards environmentalism, community-building and social justice have now become a broad transit-way in the United States and Australia, with the tarmac made smooth and wide with taxpayers’ money. Gablik’s two books provide a fascinating background to art’s latest fashion.

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In Has Modernism Failed? Gablik outlines the broad movements and trends of art over the past century. She highlights the role of the consciously avant-garde artists; she does not mention the alternative trajectory of artists like Matisse and Dufy who existed quite peaceably within their society, or of artists like Rouault who challenged their society but still valued what was good about it. But what Gablik loses in subtlety she gains in succinctness. She presents cogent summaries of large and complex processes:

Modern society … represents a systematic reversal of the values by which people in traditional societies have always lived. The emergence of modern art during the early decades of this [twentieth] century resulted from the coalescence of certain component ideas that form the basic structure of modern society: secularism, individualism, bureaucracy, and pluralism … By secularism I mean the despiritualization of the world, the modern refusal of the sacred. It refers to that rationalizating process, tributary to the development of science and technology, through which the numinous, the mythic, and the sacramental have been, in our society, reduced to rags; and the gradual triumph, under advanced “late” capitalism, of a bureaucratic, managerial type of culture characterized by mass consumption and economic self-seeking …

At this point in our history, art finds itself without any coherent set of priorities, without any persuasive models, without any means to evaluate either itself or the goals which it serves. To the postmodernist mind, everything is empty at the center. Our vision is not integrated—it lacks form and definition. Is it any wonder, then, that art has fallen prey to difficulties of legitimacy—or that, like a dark body which absorbs everything and gives out nothing, it should be undergoing what seems, by now, like a permanent crisis of credibility?

Gablik correctly identifies philosophical pluralism as the crucial factor that ended modernism’s artistic explorations. She also identifies the unavoidable problem with undifferentiated pluralism: it instils an equivalence of meaninglessness. Allied to this pluralism is the primacy of the individual’s rights over social claims; an agenda that previous generations and many non-Western cultures would think either mad or wicked:

The real crisis of modernism, as many people have rightly claimed, is the pervasive spiritual crisis of Western civilisation: the absence of a system of beliefs that justifies any allegiance to any entity beyond the self. Insistence upon absolute freedom for each individual leads to a negative attitude towards society, which is seen as limiting to one’s projects, and ultimately constricting … There is no doubt that even freedom can become desolating, that after a while, even the artist may not know what to do with it … At the very least, it is a phenomenon with a very short history that has not been essential in the past to human survival, or to a rich human culture—and with the backfire of scrutiny, we may yet come to see that it may prove inimical to both.

There is this related observation:

For some time now it has been evident that the critical intransigence of the avant-garde is evaporating in front of our eyes. Provocations that once seemed radical have long since lost their power to shock. Even the most difficult art has become comfortably familiar, and the unpredictable predictable.

Gablik gives examples of postmodern art which are so gratuitous, so skill-less, and so value-free that they disorient public appreciation.

The failure of art to connect with a broader audience is one of Gablik’s main concerns. In Australia, we can point to Sydney’s annual Sculptures by the Sea or the Archibald Prize’s People’s Choice Award as worthwhile attempts to link art with a broader public. Gablik is right to highlight the inconsistencies of artists who promote their “outsider” status, but who also scurry for every bit of celebrity and wealth they can gather. She overstates the case when she identifies the avant-garde as the “conscience of bourgeois civilization, the only anti-toxin generated within the body of our society to counteract the spread of secular, bureaucratic consciousness”. In fact, one would be forgiven for thinking that the avant-garde was one of the most potent agents for the spread of secularisation, and that avant-garde artists and movements have routinely deplored the restrictions imposed on or by anybody’s conscience, especially the middle class’s conscience or the conscience of the Church. In the first years of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton pointed out that modernism was not a new idea nor the development of an existing idea; instead, it was the abandonment of an idea: the Christian idea, the framework provided by Christendom.

To correct the US art market bubble, Gablik advances the concept of art as something freely given, an ideal that Lewis Hyde promoted in his book The Gift. She quotes Hyde:

A work of art is a gift, not a commodity … Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?

Gablik advocates non-commercial systems—bartering, gift, exchange, or to de-commodify the art so the “artwork” is an action, ritual or offering:

The idea of making art for profit appears when spiritual, moral and economic life begin to be separated from one another with the development of foreign trade, and it marks the distinction between a gift-giving society and a market society.

One can offer an alternative perspective. Art may be a gift in its initial stages as the artist is gifted with a vision—an intellective flash, an intuition, an inspiration—for an artwork which he may later sell, but this does not mean that either the buyer or the artist thought of the transaction exclusively in mercenary terms. Payment reflects, in part at least, that the “labourer is worthy of his hire” and the exchange of money recognises that to have the time to complete his art an artist is entitled to a livelihood. A distortion occurred, as Hughes observed, when artists whose inadequate training denied them excellence in the traditional skills of drawing, sculpting and painting had their over-rated work promoted and sold at inflated prices by “celebrity” gallery owners to undiscerning buyers.

In the final chapter of Has Modernism Failed? Gablik highlights some of the small creative actions and the changes among art institutions which she sees as positive initiatives to bring a less commodified, less narcissistic art to society:

As artists, museums, universities and other cultural institutions engage in a process of reevaluating themselves, they are forming what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called “a new front.” This has brought about an astonishing breadth of practice and a new density of interaction with the world. I have long argued for a more balanced, less “object-centered” aesthetics—a tempering—of the focus on objects by a focus on relationships—both as a way of challenging the patriarchal order and also of overcoming our obsession with consumption. I am happy to report that there are clear signs the atmosphere has changed across a wide spectrum of artistic activities and institutions—and that in the last few years, alternative values and new organizing principles have emerged everywhere … after a half-century of purist ideas, art has become purposeful again, valid and useful in ways that transcend the work itself. The field has been fertilized for the return of art’s moral authority.

But whose morals, what sort of spirituality, and exactly how is art made purposeful? And who confers that credibility and authority? The answer to those questions becomes obvious in Gablik’s next book, The Reenchantment of Art. In the first chapter, she presents the need for a new paradigm for art, a different paradigm than that of modernism which saw art as an arena to pursue individual freedom and expression:

The emerging new paradigm reflects a will to participate socially: a central aspect of new paradigm thinking involves a significant shift from objects to relationships … Whereas the aesthetic perspective oriented us to the making of objects, the ecological perspective connects art to its integrative role in the larger whole and the web of relationships in which art exists. A new emphasis falls on community and the environment rather than on individual achievement and accomplishment. [Gablik’s emphasis]

However, when traditional, defined dogmas have been set aside, what is left to ratify the authority of this emphasis on the community and the environment? Her answer—and it is now a common answer among the artistic, political and intellectual elites—is this: credibility is conferred by concern for a crisis so obvious to everyone and so threatening that it must be addressed. For Gablik, impending environmental disaster and the breakdown of society under the pressure of a socially-maladjusted capitalism were the crises that seem to have resonated when she wrote The Reenchantment of Art. In the 2004 revised edition of Has Modernism Failed? the economic crisis in the US and the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were new and obvious additional threats that indicated a pressing need for “transdisciplinary” dialogue and for large-scale social and political re-orientation. Art that addressed these sorts of concerns was thereby imbued with moral authority and could once again confidently enter the public sphere.

Gablik differentiates between a deconstructive postmodernism and a reconstructive postmodernism. Deconstructive postmodernism is the more obvious of the two, at least in the art institutions and academia. It is playful, transgressive, dismissive, cynical. It is in reconstructive postmodernism that Gablik sees hope for art. “Reconstructivists are trying to make the transition from Eurocentric, patriarchal thinking and the ‘dominator’ model of culture toward an aesthetics of interconnectedness, social responsibility and ecological attunement.”

This example of the ritual-enacting, reconstructive art of Fern Shaffer is commended:

At the edge of a frozen lake, a woman dances herself into a visionary state. She wears an extraordinary garment of raffia and string that transforms her into the supernatural being she is impersonating. Her presence in the landscape is like a numinous symbol of wings and flight, signifying the possibility of transformation into another mode of being—the freedom to change situations, to abolish a petrified, or blocked, system of conditioning.

Gablik posits that the best role for artists is that of modern-day shamans, helping to reconnect the spirits of nature with man in a symbolic, re-mythologising and even in a literal way. One doesn’t need to be a pantheistic feminist eco-warrior to agree with some of her statements. Her diagnosis in some respects echoes the diagnosis made decades earlier by Chesterton. This sentence is Gablik’s, but it rings with Chesterton’s concerns and his style:

Modern man, however, has left the realm of the unknown and the mysterious, and settled down in the realm of the functional and the routine. The world as an emanation of spirit, of visionary powers and mythical archetypes, is not congruent with the world of mechanization, which requires matter-of-factness as the prevailing attitude of mind.

And now step forward, not the saints favoured by Chesterton such as Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, but the socially and ecologically-conscious artists to lead us back to enchantment and interconnectedness. The art which embraces activism hopes to vivify itself as it vivifies other people and their environments through magic, ritual, landscape healing and new mythologies.

Gablik wants culture to be reinvigorated with self-giving, community-building spirituality—surely a commendable goal. But the philosophical pluralism that makes meaning ambiguous in deconstructionist art also makes meaning ambiguous in these reconstructionist spiritual practices. The artists may think their rituals and practices are rich with metaphysical and re-enchanting content, but what gives this assurance to them or to anybody else? A purely private faith remains a non-rational and incommunicable conviction which is vulnerable to the merest puff of scepticism.

Gablik has moved the problem of authority back from the artwork to the individual’s belief system, but it is the same problem. Where is the justification “for any allegiance to any entity beyond the self”? And if these social and environmental issues are exposed as exaggerated or if they fall out of fashionable concern, what then is left of art’s authority?

It is here that knowledge of Thomistic/Scholastic categories would have helped to avoid the confusion. To locate the authority of an artwork according to its congruence with social or environmental issues is to denigrate the autonomy of the artwork; it has its own authority—its own integrity and credibility—that must be respected. Jacques Maritain, in Art and Scholasticism (1921), uses Thomistic categories to locate art among the various activities of humanity. First, he differentiates between Speculative intellection and Practical intellection. Speculative intellection is the province of philosophers and sages; its sole aim is to know first principles such as being and essence. But Practical intellection, of which the practice of art is one expression is different, because:

Here man tends to something other than knowledge only. If he knows it is no longer to rest in the truth and enjoy it; it is to use his knowledge with a view to some work or action. Art belongs to the practical order. It is turned towards action, not towards the pure interiority of knowledge.

The Practical order is itself divided into the realm of Doing and the realm of Making. Doing is concerned with human good, with ethics, prudence and morality: that which takes man either towards or away from his true end, defined, of course, by the Thomists in religious terms. Activism of whatever sort belongs to this realm. When Gablik wants artists to be exemplary, socially-conscious people, she is demanding an effort in the realm of ethics—the realm of Doing—which is extraneous to the province of art—the realm of Making. Doing is concerned with the perfection of the person; Making’s sole concern is the perfection of the artwork. Gablik and activist artists tend to conflate these two realms with near-fatal results for art of the highest quality; in fact, it is only because the reconstructionist artist ascribes ritual or symbolic quality to their work that it is differentiated from common activities like picking up litter, counselling a workmate or planting a shrub. One imagines that we would all like artists to be individuals rich with moral virtues, but this wish is not relevant to the production of great art, and history is replete with example after example of famous artists having ignoble vices.

The US fiction writer Flannery O’Connor meditated with diligence on her art and found much inspiration and direction in Maritain’s Thomistic exposition. She wrote:

St Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is a good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.

O’Connor saw that this confusion of categories, together with the denigration of reason and the eclipse of orthodox religion, were all related and all affected the quality of art. Reason and truth, two of art’s key ingredients, only had validity where there was belief in a broadly consistent and reasonable—albeit ultimately mysterious—universe. She noted:

St Thomas called art “reason in the making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have become separated, so imagination and reason have become separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or a simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that can only be done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.

O’Connor also observed that the demand for moral improvement in art came with the attenuation of a commonly-held religion. She wrote that the modern age, in the absence of religion, expected that art would “provide us with gifts that only religion can give”, and that this expectation led to compromised art: propaganda masquerading as art, or sentimentality masquerading as art.

Another Neo-Thomist, the German philosopher Josef Pieper, observed that the demand for either philosophy or art to conform to a social program was to strangle philosophy or art:

To take a concrete example. The government of a country may quite well say: “In order to carry out our five-year plan, we need physicists trained in these particular branches of their science, men who will help to put us ahead of other countries”; or: “We need medical research students to discover a more efficient cure for the ’flu.” Something of this kind may happen, and still it could not be said that there was any essential interference with the science in question. But: “At the moment we need philosophers to …”—well, what? There is of course only one conclusion—“to elaborate, defend and demonstrate the following ideology”—it is only possible to talk or write in such terms if philosophy were being strangled to death at the very same moment. Exactly the same thing would be true if someone in authority were to say: “At the moment, we need some poets to …”—well, and “to what”? And again, there is only one possible answer: to prove (as the saying goes) the pen is mightier than the sword in the service of some idea of the state. And that, obviously, is the death of poetry. The moment such a thing happened, poetry would be cease to be poetry, and philosophy would cease to be philosophy.

When the practice of art is directed towards the perfection of the work itself, its integrity as an autonomous object—good in itself—is thereby honoured. The appeal of great art is this peculiar, perfected autonomy. And this is the true measure of an artwork’s credibility: is it the best expression of what it is meant to be in itself? On this basis, many activist artworks seem to be flawed due to the compounding of art with a demand for social improvement. But when there is none of this double-mindedness, but attention only on the good of the artwork, the result can be special, as Maritain celebrates:

Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing … it places the artisan in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing ceases at the door of every workshop.

Further, the true and best source of artistic inspiration is not any social justice or environmental concern, but the spiritual preconscious of the individual artist. Maritain identifies this as the vital but obscure source of man’s creativity; it provides the creative impulses, the intellective flashes and the poetic intuitions that emerge to consciousness, often only in a fragmented but still vibrant manner. He says that in art, “All power comes from poetic intuition.” If poetic intuition is lacking, an artwork may be produced by intellection, but it will be arid; likewise, if an artwork is produced only from concern about some social issue, the artwork is often going to be clunky or insipid. Genius draws from the greatest depths of the spiritual preconscious, where the poetic intuitions are pure, free, powerful and individual: the works produced are richly human, multi-faceted, imaginative and intelligent.

If Maritain’s exposition is correct, or even if it is only correct in its direction, then any survey of the arts in the contemporary West is likely to be alarming because the drift is away from these mysterious, spiritually illuminated sources of an individual’s creativity. Maritain concludes:

Religion alone can help the art of our epoch to keep the best of its promises. I do not say by clothing it in a gaudy devotion or by applying it directly to the apostolate, but by putting it in a position to respect its own nature and to take its true place.

Gablik would perhaps agree with the emphasis on spiritual beliefs as the basis for art’s renewal; she differs in that she champions expressions of a subjective pantheism. Her rejection of an art of avarice and social indifference is justified. It is always helpful to be reminded (here I freely paraphrase) that a garden is more trustworthy than a gallery and dependence on community is more satisfying than dependence on commerce. But her prescriptions will not improve art. For a start, they ignore the reality of unequal talent and creativity among artists. Moreover, the role of the artist’s preconsciousness as the source of creativity isn’t considered; and she seeks to replace a dysfunctional individualism with a tendency to emotion-based group-think. Further, her position gives no heed to the alternative tradition of great twentieth-century artists such as Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall and Sadao Watanabe—to name only three—who were not greedy materialists but spiritual, socially sensitive and original artists who gave beautiful, inspiring, skilful and truly creative art to all of humanity.

Gary Furnell, who lives in rural New South Wales, is a frequent contributor of prose fiction and non-fiction

One thought on “The False Path of Activist Art

  • whitelaughter says:

    art in Australia will be saved by the bogans. They are the ones who will see the sad remains of a vintage car and spend decades carefully restoring it to its original glory; who know and buy what they like; and throw out what looks ugly.

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