Follow by Email

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Busa,Paglia,Theosophy and Peggy Lee

From"Knowledge of Higher Worlds"by Rudolf Steiner (influenced Joseph Beuys)

Chris Busa, in responding on Facebook to the issues brought up in my article on Jed Perl’s new collection of essays “Magicians and Charlatans”, drew a parallel between Perl’s disenchantment with the current art scene and that of Camille Paglia’s. He referenced an article she wrote for the “Wall Street Journal”, which made the odd claim that art would do well to look to capitalism to refresh its roots, which she feels have always been capitalistic. Odd on the face of it as you would be hard put to find any artist of the 20thc who espoused the tenets of capitalism; all claimed to be left-wing in their political allegiance. However, when you think of the disruptive effect of say Cubism and Abstract Expressionism on the visual language of Western Art, with which we shape our world and our feelings, it has a lot in common with Schumpeter’s vision of Capitalism as “creative destruction”: as perennially disruptive of any sort of status quo. What is truly odd is that the Left in its embrace of Communism ignored that, as an economic system, Communism is most susceptible to rigid social control; the very things that the Avant-garde in art has always disdained. Much has been written about how slow it was for the Left to realize the horrors of the Stalinist regime, which loved humanity in theory but not in practice. Moreover, the money to purchase the Avant-garde’s work came rarely from the state but more likely from capitalists who felt their business acumen also applied to picking the art of the future. And when it does come from the state, it tends toward the reactionary. Is Paglia right? Is this the elephant in the room that no one wants to admit to: the avant-garde, despite its protestations, has a lot in common with the capitalist system?

The art of today is more interested in describing the notion of universal victimhood experienced by certain groups due to their perceived oppression by the Capitalist establishment. I remember my last days of academic teaching saw the marginalization of the traditional language of painting by the study of oppression due to gender bias or that perpetrated by a consumerist culture’s push toward commodification. It was anti-capitalistic in so far as capitalism is a synonym for patriarchal control. The teaching of a seemingly value neutral course on seeing and perception was construed to be patriarchal, partaking of the controlling gaze of the dominant male. Much of what passes for art education is probably a repackaging of the ideas prevalent in the thirties during the Great Depression when Capitalism was seen as bankrupt and incapable of advancing the well being of the masses. Stalinist Russia appeared to be the solution to the woes of the workers of the world. The art that grew out of that sympathy for the masses was Social Realist and the artists in this country best known for their politicization were Ben Shahn and Thomas Hart Benton. They pursued  neither technical nor spiritual exploration. It was stylistically derivative of other forms of realism. The difference is that then the battles they described took place in the street; today they take place in the classroom.

I still recall the words of William Bailey: In the Forties, when the Social Realists dominated the art scene, you would never have imagined the Fifties would be dominated by the likes of de Kooning, Gorky and Pollock. During the Thirties and Forties they were developing their art under the radar; it was an art rooted in technical experimentation of the visual language of  Cubism and Surrealism, which provided a vehicle for spiritual notions of the self. When it finally burst on the scene it transformed not only art but also the dynamics of the individual and society.

The youth of today, according to Paglia, are indoctrinated in the tenets of the Left; from kindergarten on we are taught to be political animals. Our identity comes solely from our function in the social fabric. Our success always comes at the expense of someone else's’ loss.  It is a zero sum game. Capitalism is disruptive of an individual’s clear identity within this structure, since it fosters the movement of money and privilege to those who are most successful at making money i.e. the most innovative and hard working or to those who inherited it and invested it well. Viewed from the point of view of the masses they achieved their riches through exploitation of the less fortunate. The struggle, if you want to call it that, of the individual in our society is to appear to be no better than anyone else. It could be seen as the application of religious piety to the social structure. There is always something ex nihilo in the capitalist enterprise, the introduction of something totally unexpected and transformational. So instead of a push and pull between social norms and the self, it is the social norms that come first and last.

Paglia makes one comment in her essay about the spiritual hollowness of Contemporary Art; I believe this is the direction she should be pursuing if she wants to diagnose accuratly the malaise of the modern scene.

“Thus we live in a strange and contradictory culture, where the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible. In the realm of arts and letters, religion is dismissed as reactionary and unhip. The spiritual language even of major abstract artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is ignored or suppressed.”

This is a strange jump from praise for capitalism to that of religion. Moreover, religion and capitalism are often antithetical in their ends. Christianity has always been the standard bearer of the oppressed. So how can she conflate the two?The religion of Mondrian and Pollock was not the religion of the Sunday worshipers of the fifties and sixties. It was hermetic and counter cultural. It was in its essence elitist.

Religion was rejected by Marx as the opiate of the ignorant masses. But the core of his ideas is best seen as a sort of social piety without the higher metaphysical realm. He posited that we couldn’t escape our identity in terms of our status within the class structure. Ignorance of this condition is a kind of state of sin that is referred to by Marxists as “false consciousness”. These egalitarian ideas that go back to Rousseau have bedeviled many a revolution and society as a whole. How far do you have to go to inculcate the sense of social awareness? Today the left finds fault with even the American Revolution as having its origin in the rich bourgeois slave owners and thus not reflecting the needs of those left out of the Social Contract. The French Revolution, the Bourgeoisie’s revolt against the aristocracy,  tried to extend the ideas of egalitarianism to all levels of society with increasing violence. According to the insightful book about the history of egalitarianism by MalcolmBull, ”Anti-Nietzsche”, there were several political thinkers in 18thc France who thought of ingenious ways of leveling society so that no accumulation of capital would allow any one group to distinguish itself from another. Quoting Simone Weill as well as Nietzsche, he perceives these thoughts to be dominated by gravity. Their tendency is to pull everything down to the same level. What happens to the transcendent values? As the limbo song says: how low can you go? It is a sort of anti-transcendence, where to be truly human is to become more animal and by animal they mean to accept being part of a herd.In the end Bull identifies with this leveling out.

Besant and Ledbetter:"Music of Gounod"from "Thought Forms"
Besant and Ledbetter "Vague Religious Feeling"
Much has been written about the influence of Theosophy, which was developed by Besant and Blavatsky in the late 19th and early 20thc, on the founders and the development of Modern art. The book “Thought Forms” written in 1901 by Besant and Ledbetter was read by Kandinsky and Mondrian and foreshadowed much of what came to be Modern Art. Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy and a major influence on Joseph Beuys, was originally a theosophist. Art is central to his religion and lives on in the Waldorf Schools that he founded. “Thought Forms” is full of non- representational images of various colors that evoke different states of spirituality or lack thereof. Their view of mankind is very hierarchal and spiritual in its insistence that we must transcend our human condition through the inclusion of divine forces beyond us. The last time such an approach influenced art was in the early Renaissance paintings of Botticelli and Piero. Botticelli’s “Venus” was a spiritual talisman used by Cosimo de Medici to counteract his melancholy, due to the excessive influence of Saturn. Piero de la Francesca’s work was built out of numerological and harmonic properties, which would allow it to resonate with forces beyond the sub lunar realm, which would only lead to decay and death. It is rather exciting to think that the aesthetic beauty of Botticelli’s “Primavera” emanates from energy beyond the painting. In our time, after Mondrian and Kandinsky, the Abstract Expressionists engaged spiritual ideas, in particular Pollock, whose work is truly transcendent .He underwent Jungian analysis, a psychological/quasi-religious system that sees the individual as part of the collective unconscious. Rothko wanted his work to be seen as tragedic engagement in a spiritual struggle. He bemoaned his inclusion in a kind of analytical abstraction that was scientific in its origins.
Besant and Ledbetter influenced Kandinsky
from"Knowledge of Higher Worlds"Rudolf Steiner.

Boghosian"Within the Iris"
It was serendipitous that in writing this piece, some clearing out of old magazines, brought to my attention the 2009/10 issue of  “Provincetown Arts” which features a cover article on the work of Varujan Boghosian, subtitled “The artist as Orpheus” written by none other than Chris Busa. The picture painted of Boghosian places him in a more ancient tradition than the obvious influences of Cornell and the Surrealists. Some critics understand another Armenian, Gorky, as drawing on ancestral roots that go beyond the influence of his contemporaries, or, more precisely, to remind these contemporary epigones that they are merely a recrudescence of ancient traditions thought to have been purged from the contemporary scientific realm. Varujan is artist as magician. The bringing together of disparate objects generates a mood or energy that casts the viewer into a trance or reverie. He is Prospero, a magician like Orpheus who as Busa says could cause animals to stop grazing or the trees to sway. His works are incantations that a magician like Yeats might chant in “Wandering Angus”, who “plucks till time and times are done, the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun” a combination of words that always throws me into a perplexed state of mind.

Is there any room for the magician in our modern culture? In an essay I wrote on “Berkshire Fine Arts” on the occasion of a show of Lester Johnson’s work at the Acme Gallery in Boston, I described the current art scene as made up of the same exhibition spread out over thousands of galleries world wide: a found object on the floor, photos on the wall and a manifesto about groups that have not benefited from recognition by society. The ultimate routinization of Duchamp’s charisma. The work is of such predictability that I am bewildered that the name of Duchamp is at all evoked as an inspiration.

I suspect that the culprit behind this state of the current art scene can be found in the triumph of science as an ultimate tool that can control nature. On the one hand it can be disruptive of norms but its overall goal is toward routiniization so as to make everything risk free. I always marvel at the expansion of the office mentality in Microsoft Works. It is a wonder of pure efficiency and order. No longer do we sit dumbly in front of a TV but now in front of the computer screen which creates a false sense of community via facegook and a false sense of order when Bill Gates auto corrects my horrible typing.

The sorcerer with his wand or baton could bring the world to a halt, calm the waters and bring peace between animals and mankind. Today Harmony can be engineered or legislated.

The magus’s rarity is implied in the title of Jed Perl’s latest book. “Magicians and Charlatans”. He does a good job of nailing the charlatans but for the life of me except for the usual characters of Picasso and Matisse, I can’t find any true magicians in these essays.

Steiner's Goetheanum 1924-1928 influenced Le Corbusier
I recall Rudolph Steiner’s observation that the highest level  of materiality in Western Civilization came around the time of Christ’s birth. He pointed to the extreme level to which the individual social persona was pushed as evinced in the amazing detail present in portrait busts of the time. In law he observed the development  of wills and deeds, which allowed these personalities to control the material goods they accumulated during this life from the grave. According to Steiner, Christ's birth had the cosmic purpose of pulling mankind up from the material abyss. Are we in a similar spot historically?. Never has human control over the natural elements been so complete? The message of the Gospel spoke of other realms that each individual must struggle with if they are to be truly human. Today we no longer even hear the howl of Allen Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters looking for the ancient heavenly connection” but the braying of the compliant beasts looking to be at one with the herd.

William Irwin Thompson, the culture critic, thinks that the explosion of interest in spirituality in the 60’s and 70’s was comparable to the American Indians of the 19thc who, in order to empower themselves in their battle against the Europeans, underwent self mortification in delirious “ghost dances”. It was a burst of spirituality in the face of Western rationality, a glorious sunset to be followed by the dark night of reason. Are we finally going trough an absolute extirpation of the spiritual type, has it become irrelevant? The question to be asked is Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?”

In the art schools of today, in the galleries it has been answered. An emphatic Yes: That is all there is.

Today, the PC cops will not even let you “break out the booze.” Or as they say in France to all references to alcohol: Drink with moderation.


  1. All we need to do is keep painting, to "keep the language of painting alive." All our various forms of expression contribute, more or less, to the culture's maturation.

    So, in spite of today's art schools and galleries, that's NOT all there is.

    And as for the "PC cops," I raise my martini glass!

    1. I would like to believe that but after dipping my toe into the Boston scene after a seven year absence I think it is just a bunch of automatons walking around doing "stuff". Even Peggy Lee has more feeling and sentiment than today's artist.I think I'll go back to watching "Turner Classics" for a little "High Noon" and "From Here to Eternity".

  2. Egalitarianism is turned on its head to justify and legitimize the artists and art world of today. Everyone is an artist now.
    Today the misguided post-Mandarin art world enables everyone to be an artist, whatever that means now. The multi-media art world of installation and video that Camille Paglia refers to in her article (which I had not heard of or read before since I don't read the WSJ propaganda) has been forced onto us through museums and galleries because in this post-mandarin period, it's inability to take a critical punch makes it perfect for our time. The young people today who forty years ago would have been dentists or lawyers are now artists. Today's installation art or performance art or art that "deals with gender identity issues" as I've read a thousand times in the New York Times Friday reviews, provides a career for the young, the rich, the middle class and occasionally poor to succeed. Paglia writes: "The vulnerability of students and faculty alike to factitious theory about the arts is in large part due to the bourgeois drift of the last half century. Our woefully shrunken industrial base means that today's college-bound young people rarely have direct contact any longer with the manual trades, which share skills, methods and materials with artistic workmanship." Having never been a working visual artist, she shows her ignorance - or my ignorance of today's art school graduates. I am a painter but have been a housepainter, plaster, roofer, janitor, night watchman, pulled wire for electricians, and done demolition among other jobs. Most working artists work. Has Paglia ever worked with her hands to make such a statement? What is she Fran Leibowitz now? Milton Resnick often told me of his time in Paris painting on the GI Bill. One day he said he was sitting at a cafe having a coffee. On the wall were the various manifestoes posted by the young French artists. A painter sitting next to him pointed to his and asked Milton to read it. Millton did and told the young man he would like to go his studio and see his paintings. The Frenchman replied " I don't have any paintings yet, just my manifesto."
    I remember hearing of how a school teacher in England requested his students to read Romeo and Juliet and was sued by a student for promoting heterosexuality. Likewise one is penalized for the unique ability to paint. It's not democratic. Neither was Michelangelo's ability.
    As Gorky described Social Realism - "It's poor art for poor people."
    I feel like today it is Dumb Art for Dumb People.

  3. I may have related this story of a conversation I had with an artist who teaches at a state university in the South.It was at a reception for some mural painting in the Gallery at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly,MA.The murals were done directly on the walls by local artists.I got into a conversation with this woman about the work on the walls.She enthused about painting and paint and recalled some great de Lautrec drawings she had just see.When I asked her about her work,she said she was an installation artist.When I asked her how that squared with her love of painting,she admitted she would rather paint but her getting tenure required she do something more contemporary.Of course the installations were about issues of commodification.

  4. Martin,

    Wonderful article…not time to chat but I would say that Duchamp does not inspire so much as gives one permission.


    1. Barbara - If I may ask, permission to do what?

    2. I think she takes issue with the use of "inspire" vs. "give permission".Inspire seems too dramatic where as permission is more matter of fact in the cerebral manner of Duchamp.

  5. There's a lot of lumping into polarizing categories here: good vs. bad, profound vs. dumb, etc. I do understand categorization, but maybe we do too much of it? How about we examine individuals, paintings, etc on case by case basis, too? For instance there's much great social realism out there--Hogarth, Goya, Lynd Ward, Jack Levine, for instance. And, while these artists produced a lot of great paintings, I've seen some real dogs by them, too. As far as people and individuals go, I've read that one of the U.S.'s most extolled leaders Lincoln, according to some historians, did some questionable things during the Civil War: Had he the right and if did, should he have suspended habeas corpus? Was it necessary at all? Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Emancipation Proclamation had no legality (after all creating laws is not the president's purview), and it only declared slaves free in the Confederate States, not in the slave states that stayed loyal to the North: Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and West Virginia. Some thought he should have pushed sooner--during the Civil War--to abolish slavery in the border states. Politically and strategically we can understand why he thought it was best not to this, but morally? Many thought Lincoln was too slow to embrace slavery as the central issue of the Civil War. So much is gray, in individuals and, for that matter, in everything else.

    Michael Ananian

    1. #1 The piece is polemical and does overlook the distinctions in quality that exjst among Social Realist artists.I was trying to think out from Paglia's essay and Busa's sense that things had changed in the art scene to try to explain why things had changed. #2 I had this insight that egalitarian ideas which were obviously inspiration for the social realist painters had reappeared in installation art. I think you agree from our past discussions that most museum director's careers are wrapped up in promoting this kind of work to the detriment or our work and our careers.No museum director is going to escape Greensboro to get a coveted job in NYC by showing Ananian or Mugar.The purity and power and magic of the visual that the Abstract Expressionists revived and informs your work has been lost on this generation.

  6. I good person to read on the interrelationship of politics and art is the late pragmatic and liberal philosopher Richard Rorty in his collections of essays on Nietzsche and his epigones such as Derrida and Paul de Man.His basic point is that art is a good terrain for the pursuit of individual uniqueness and private angst and should be encouraged but should not be carried over into politics,whose goal is to pursue egalitarianism.When it has happened,you get the death obsessed regime of Imperial Japan and the will to power obsessed regime of Nazi Germany.The point I am trying to make is the obverse of what happens when art goes into politics: when egalitarianism moves into art it has a deadening effect.De Man felt that art's best effort was to explore again and again human mortality and its fragility in the face of its nothingness, not concern itself with ideology.

  7. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)- True Story

    In the 1980's I went to MOMA for the hell of it with my wife. We walked by a very large canvas that someone had painted entirely black. That was it. It had a name, maybe "Darkness" or "Barnyard Smells" - it didn't matter. You knew at once the artist fooled the curator or buyer who donated this nonsense and was trying to fool the leftists and other cretins who pay money to go to MOMA.

    So about 20 minutes later we decided to play a trick on the art lovers at MOMA. There was a stairway/fire exit that was blocked by those portable/temporary folding doors that once opened spread out like an accordion in a zigzag fashion - maybe 5 panels or so. It was off white. My wife and I began to gesture toward it and made a huge fuss trying to indicate to others in utter silence that this was actually a piece of artwork. We succeeded. When we finally had 20 or so attendees now looking at our "newfound artwork" we left.

    I have never been back.

  8. Emailed Paul Pollaro about the use Paglia made of the word chthonic to describe the deep dark forces of nature. I used that adjective to describe his work. There is always a level of danger that these forces represent for human society.It seems that our culture wants to eliminate them in a sort of technocratic frenzy. But they always reassert their dominance just as we claim to have achieved some sort of utopia of complete material satisfaction. Do millennials experience dread in the face of existence?