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Action Critic

The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience

by Harold Rosenberg
Horizon, 270 pp., $7.50

Nietzsche predicted that when science reached the limits of its logic it would curl about to bite its own tail, forcing the scientist back upon the only remedy—art. What Nietzsche did not foresee is that the artist, too, would reach the limits of art, which would then, in turn, curl about to bite its own tail, as it now does in New York, where the demand for the new is always forcing the painter beyond the limits of his logic. Nietzsche was ignorant of our “speedup in history-making,” one of the pressures analyzed by Jacques Ellul in his recent book on The Technological Society and its permanent revolution. These pressures are nowhere more imperative than in New York, the arena where the new is immediately submerged in “the next wave of novelty” before it can be appraised. Or, as Harold Rosenberg remarks, the new is established as a fact before it can be validated as art.

This perversion of history is the theme of his previous book called The Tradition of the New, the continuing break with the past that has itself become a tradition, constantly expelling the painter beyond the present. The instantaneous global diffusion of knowledge about the latest “trends” in painting, a diffusion promoted by museum directors, art historians, publishers of art books, art dealers, and the politics of the biennial, has progressively shortened the interval for esthetic response, so that the painter is a victim of the kind of art-history dictated by evangelists of the next. Thus the painter must be in ceaseless revolt against the momentary values that are merely a “prepared taste.”

Rosenberg is a critic passionately devoted to the contemporary who is also dissatisfied with the contemporary. This is a position calculated to arouse misunderstanding if not dissent, but it is an intelligent position and evidence of his incomparable acquaintance with what is happening, how, and to whom, in the New York School. In this collection of twenty-three abrasive essays he defends by attacking: he repudiates the vanguard audience and vanguard critics in order to defend the vanguard painter. Now that everybody is vanguard, we all live upon the endlessly renovated clichés that identify a painting with what is said about it—“present-day creation consists of art historian artists painting art history for art historians,” as Saul Steinberg says. So our experience of art derives only from our fashionable knowingness about “movements,” and a painting at once becomes a mere document. Since, then, art-history is our only esthetic and the art-bureaucracy continually is rewriting art-history by promoting what is current, the newest painting yields anxious objects, evidences of an intense and incessant revolutionary quest disturbing the painting and the painter by impermanence and a sense that “everything has been done.” Thus the new instantly closes possibilities to the painter, who must, however, remain in the vanguard, accepting the “unlimited risk” of other revolutionary possibilities. In The Tradition of the New Rosenberg spoke of revolutionary art as a comedy: “It declares that art is art in being against art; and then tries to establish itself as the soundest kind of art.” We have an esthetic of the non-esthetic, a condition that also gravels Ionesco, who says he rejects the vanguard.

The time is out of joint in our art-history, and Rosenberg understands this far better than William Snaith, whose present book on The Irresponsible Arts deals with the same situation. Only Snaith considers the artist derelict because in his search for unrestrained originality he no longer communicates. Snaith’s remedy—discipline and a concern for “human experience”—sounds like a reversion to Irving Babbit. Rosenberg accuses not the artist but the mandarins who have stepped up the tempo of art-history.

The irony is that painting, having been purged of literature by abstract expressionism, is again subject to literary interpretations. We can all, as Malraux said, freely enter the museum without walls where a knowledge of art-history enables us to “read” paintings as illustrations of cultural “tendencies.” Thus the literary reappears in the guise of the “trend,” and Rosenberg keeps insisting that we must find the reality of art in “the particular work.” Otherwise we have only the illusion of knowledge. Deluded by catalogs, we crowd shows to see who “rothko’d well,” who “newmanned,” who “whited on his whites.” This is one way of making painting a witticism, a surrogate for painting. Edgar Wind lately made the same complaint in his Reith Lectures—namely, that our facile opinions about painting have sapped painting of its immediacy, its shock. Rosenberg suspects that new painting, especially, should have a short life: “The work of art is like an irradiated substance; when its charge dies down, it begins to last“—to enter history, that is, as a document. We now try to make a painting last before we even see it, and our familiarity with art-movements is an immunity to painting, depriving it of its existential charge. And one critic has just stated that the same thing has happened to poetry: “We don’t really experience poetry any more, we only judge it.” Conversant as it is with “developments,” the vanguard has itself become an academy.

Yet the historical problem remains, for the painter necessarily works within a tradition, “the stream which, passing from mind to mind, enters into the motive and meaning of the work.” The painter, as Rosenberg says, is always engaged with the history of art. But the “backward glance” of the art-establishment corrupts this living tradition into schemes and categories: cubist construction, expressionism, assemblage, action painting, pop art. A living tradition is, instead, “a common direction of energies rather than a set of concepts, and any definition of it will apply to individual artists in it only to a limited degree.” Here is Rosenberg’s main theme: the contradiction between the need for a tradition and the formulas that immediately extinguish the “irradiation” of new painting. It is the old dilemma of Eliot’s tradition and the individual talent, and the painter is worse off than the poet insofar as people “know” more about painting than about poetry.

Rosenberg’s argument is a conservative one, deriving, presumably, from his reading of Gilsons Painting and Reality, which debated the difference between the ontological and the phenomenological status of a painting. Rosenberg questions Gilson’s thesis that painting, unlike other arts, has a static mode of existence, and his chapters on action painting are one more refutation of Lessing’s notion that painting is a spatial rather than a temporal art. He is concerned with the New York School, and New York’s history is, in the old Stalinist phrase, history for the moment only. Since “art cannot transform the conditions of its own existence,” the New York painter “builds and acts on a thin time crust.” Having an intimate sense of this city and the immigrant painters it has harbored, Rosenberg says, “We have lived our entire lives in transition.” More than elsewhere, painting in New York is eroded by impermanence, and within the conditions of its existence it must be transient. Abstract expressionism was a spontaneous overflow, inevitably followed by an action painting committed to a present more “specious” than even Schopenhauer imagined. Painters came to New York for life, not for art, and action painting confirmed the “anguish of possibility” they found there:

The change of art from picturemaking to creation and self-creation, into a means, that is, for each individual to define himself through his use of the materials of art, had coincided with the emergence of the big city crowds, mass migrations, displaced persons, and a widespread anonymity—in a word, of that “vie moderne” which Baudelaire recomemnded as the subject matter of art.

Action painting, reversing the ambition of the decadents who tried to make life an art, makes art a mode of life. “Painting,” said de Kooning, “is a way of living,” an existential feat. He is seeking in the canvas the kind of “immediacy” Gertrude Stein sought to bring into writing. As Rosenberg notes, action painting broke with architecture and the whole effort to return to the wall, turning, instead, toward pantomime and the drama.

Consequently action painting is art-in-the-making, an aspect of the “process” that is Whitehead’s ultimate basis of reality; and action painting is cognate with a modern tradition represented by Pirandello’s plays-in-the-making, Gide’s novel-in-the-making, and Fellini’s 8 1/2, a film-in-the-making. De Kooning’s Woman I is the outcome of “an irresolvable contradiction in the processes that brought her into being. She is a prodigy born of a heroic mismating of immediacy and will.” As Rosenberg puts it elsewhere, the action painter accepts as real only what he is in the process of creating. This is his way of guarding himself against the ideologies everywhere around him; and Ionesco has remarked “When I write a play, I have no idea what it is going to be like. I have my ideas afterward.” Throwing the painter’s life into his canvas is an automatism, of course, though Rosenberg recognizes that a great deal depends on who is being automatic. And he admits that there is an esthetic impasse inside action painting, since its existence as life negates its existence as art—and if it is art, it may be merely “apocalyptic wallpaper.”

Nevertheless Rosenberg extends Gilson’s notion of painting as a coming-into-being, a mode of dance (he is fond of quoting Rilke’s poem on dancing the orange). Under the pressure of this immediacy painting retains the shock, the possible “terror,” felt by “research scientists, explorers, mystics, revolutionists,” bringing a sense of confusion in which Rosenberg finds his justification for the vanguard: “New art is valuable for the novel state it induces in the spectator and for what it reveals to him about himself, the physical world, or simply his way of reacting to paintings.”

Yet when painting is process, there are attendant dangers. If the canvas is an act, then it is dispersed when the painter finishes, as the performance ends when the player exits. And there is no way of saying that a painting is “finished,” since the act is done whenever the painter stops painting. Furthermore, many painters have condemned their paintings to extinction by suicidal techniques—using perishable materials or, like Rauschenberg, erasing parts of existing paintings.

Then there is a fallacy of surprise, the “showman’s resource” Rosenberg detects even in De Kooning. Surprise, whenever it occurs, is a byproduct of intention, and the premise of action painting is a suspension of plan; the painting is “in the tube” and whatever “happens” is surprising. The “bogus decontrol” in some painting only proves that surprise is not in itself an esthetic motive, but a surplus value derived from consciousness of direction. As Rosenberg says, “Action painting solved no problems,” though it is “valid for individual beginnings.”

But the greatest danger is painting that comments on other painting, the “visual pun,” resembling Eliot’s technique when he quotes from Laforgue, Dante, Baudelaire. This self-reflexive painting, so scrupulously “cultured,” is an academism, an ideological manoeuvre that too often make pop art a criticism-object instead of an art-object. Rosenberg applies the term Gagart to the self-reflexive performance in James Rosenquist’s “advertising art advertising itself as art that hates advertising.” The direction of action painting, which focussed in the painter’s self, is sometimes reversed in pop art toward the response of the audience; then the shock is an advertising technique for manipulating objects like TV dinners.

Regardless of such perversions we must endorse Rosenberg’s view that no “subject” is unavailable to painting, whether it be the dribble or the dishes and signboards of pop: “what makes an object into art is its introduction into the art context.” The city has become a new paradis artificiel with its accumulation of manufactured objects, which serve us for nature. If painting is to abide by the conditions of its own existence, then “the specifically twentieth-century form of illusionism” will be displacing things into art, confounding the object with its image. After all, putting wrenches and smashed fenders into an art-context—isolating them as art-experience—resembles what is now going on in “concrete” poster poems, programmed verse, computer sentences, and lettrist ventures with type. The context of art-experience is created by the painter’s experience of art, which, says Rosenberg, “is the source of value in contemporary painting.”

Here, perhaps, is the major inconsistency in these implacable, restless essays: Rosenberg’s felt need for an esthetic, for the “formal values” that enable us to say whether a new painting is good, mediocre, or bad; and this can be said only when we can relate it to what was new in the past. So Rosenberg, too, needs history; and history must be esthetic history. The truth is, Rosenberg does not validate New York experiments as art. All he can claim for Hans Hofmann is that Hofmann taught not painting but only the conditions for creating painting. However, a painting is not identical with the conditions under which it gets painted. These essays are an indispensable examination of the conditions under which the New York painter paints, though Rosenberg does not—perhaps cannot—confirm the esthetic values in the paintings themselves, much as he may wish to do so.

We can object to this inconsistency no more than to his others, for they all arise from the contradictions within new painting itself: he is for and against action painting, for and against globalism, for and against art-history. But he is always against the academy, by which he means fashionable, perhaps commercialized, history invented as a means of promotion. This kind of history “throws all standards on the roulette of success.” The establishment is always trying to write the history on which it thrives, a history that is a vested interest. It condemns the painter to a solitude deeper than the bohemian solitude, for he is still alone—amid the vanguard.

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