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March 22, 1941 - Image 3

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1941-03-22

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P RSRP C'T I V ES-

Parbre

1,PA P AV LP A-, T- A a r .V TK~rA C

A HERETIC LOOKS AT PAINTING
...by John Maxon

.

XTISTS of this generation are for-
ever requiring explanation, and the
great tradition of the apologist has dwin-
dled into the mulings of a Christian Zer-
os and babblings of a Sheldon Cheney.
What is left to the mere spectator is a
mass of material, either unintelligible
or insulting. Modern art is in the degen-
erate state where it begets Maginot-
type defenses. Philosophers have talked
and written, and theories of art have
been lucidly set forth. This day of un-
grace has seen the arrival of one new
idea, the stream of consciousness, and
the strong reinforcement of an old one,
the inalienable privilege of the artist
to consider his innermost feelings of in-
terest to the outside world. What has
finally occurred in painting is terrible
confusion; the painter is at cross pur-
poses with himself. In his own mind he
is torn between an abiding interest in
the very theory of painting itself, and
a conscious faith that he must express
something. These two concerns are en-
tirely natural ones, but the hectic na-
ture with which they are pursued proves
that something has gone askew inside
art.
Now, the stream of consciousness
ideal and that of the surrealists are
pretty much the same in end and in
techeic. It is considered to have emerged
in painting about the time of the first
World War. It had its antecedents,
though, chief being the Belgian noble-
man-painter, James Ensor, and the Ger-
man, Boecklin. But outside of insane
asylums, pictures did exist in descrip-
tion before then, precisely, in one of
Saki's short stories written before the
War. That story is The Stalled Ox. It
contains the complete descriptions of
typical, objectively painted surrealist
pictures. This description turns out to
be rather fine criticism of this genre
of art. To an unconvinced and heretical
mind, the titles, Ox in a Morning-room,
Early Autumn, and Barbary Apes
Wrecking a Boudoir say about all there
is too say about surrealism, even as, the
desc ption of some paintings in another
of his stories says all that is worth say-
ing about that most fashionable and
most lovely to the eye of modern paint-
ing modes, the neo-romantic.
This satire of another generation il-
lustrates neatly the sad state of modern
picture-making. Does anyone immed-
iately object, 'What of social commen-
tary?' Yes, what of it? Just look at it
as it appears in paint, and then take
cover. Someone remarked to me a few
weeks ago, 'If one could discover what is
really meaningful in the world of the
moment and could mirror it accurately,
such a one would be a very great artist,
indeed.' Very true, but how is that to
be? Our modern aesthetic seems to be
predicated upon personal expression;
look at where that has taken the art of
painting. The thing distils into the sad
essence that painting today is pointless
and useless. 'Oh, but the minute one
demands use, one requires art to cease
to be art.' So be it, if modern painting
is what it appears to be. Why should
a mere painter eypect his self-expression
'to be of any interest or currency out-
side of himself and his own circle? As
it stands, the legitimate truth about
most painters and the use for their art
is that painting is mostly a hobby, no
more, no less.
A visitor walks into a gallery and what
does he see? Unless he is more mature
than one can well expect, he does not
see paint on canvas. IHe is sure to
look for images. Now, this is in the
normal, traditional way to see pictures.
This habit may be unsophisticated, but
it is so com on that the painter dare
not ignore it Most people demand of
a painting sor meaning not strictly
viual. That pgle do do this suggests
hat muinzu ol inheritance from tee

pictograph is most important, still. I
have looked on its appearance in sur-
realism with suspicion, but it is of prime
importance.
The motion picture is the only med-
ium of visual art now in the world with
truly catholic appeal. It possesses in
realistic terms what art for thousands
of years could present in painting only
as symbols. It is the only sort of picture
which commands a spontaneous mass
reaction. In a sense, with the decline
of religion and the influence of the
church, it has taken the place, in mass
,appeal, of the religious and ceremonial
art of the middle ages. I suspect that
the motion picture is the only picture
made today of real importance, even
though it does not fulfill the theory of
personal expression, so long current. But
when one compares the new medium
to pre-renaissance tradition, a great
measure of truth may be seen in the
assertion. Certainly, the only pictures

But truth in art must be catholic in
time and in space. That is why much of
art is but transient and decaying. This
kind of art deals with specific truths
which are mnore more facts than ulti-
mate truths. Genre painting is a good
example of this sort of evanescent art.
All too frequently its interest is only his-
torical, not aesthetic. In recording facts,
the genre painter is prone to forget the
great fact of painting which is that
painting is the organization of three
dimensional experience in terms of two,
and that one requirement of painted
greatness is nobility in this organiza-
tion. Or, again, one may consider period
music. Much of the interest to be got
out of eighteenth century of the gal-
lant sort is this same kind of historical
stimulation. The music was all manner-
isms with no content. It is the content
which is true and is truth. Too often
antique music, or even most modern

conlriltdtoi'
James Turner Ja'kson is an English major, now in his senior year. He
has written for several years but until last fall he saw fit to conceal the
fact urdcr a bushel basket. Bushy headed Jackson has been called one
of the best undergraduate writers going in the country, by Allan Seager, of
the English Department. After a flingat the Hopwoods this spring, Jack-
son intends to go to New York, try for the magazine market, and perhaps
get to work on a novel.
John E. Bingley, lit school student, is as much of surprise to us as he
will be to you. Beat the story forecasters by handing in two unsolicited
manuscripts, one of which gets top billing for this issue. Comes fronj
Massachusetts. but outside of that, we still don't know much about him.
Expect to know more.
John Maxon writes art criticism for The Daily, and teaches in the
architecture school. He expects a controversial hornet's nest to follow
this currentexpression of his heresy.
William Kehoe, another surprise package, won a third prize in the
Freshman Hopwoods this year with the story we print. We consider his
work to be extrenely promising, without any mental reservations about his
being a freshman. An unassuming guy, he does not make like a great plan-
ner" but with the help of God and an ingratiating fiction editor, Kehoe will
no doubt ippear on these pages again.
Dennis 1 lagan, Irishman of the old guard, has had more stories
printed in Pe pectives than any other author in the magazine's history.
Won Freshman Hopwood award in 1937, graduate last spring, and returned
to do something about a Master's degree in English. Has one of finest
senses of form in a story around town. Intends to reach Fame and For-
tune via Hollywood, Cal., if he can borrow twenty bucks from someone. Likes
beer and azz

To be a truth, the idea must contain
some kind of valid meaning. If this
.meaning is only a guess, that is none
the worse for it, even though it may well
be worse for us. If historic art has en-
dured with any truth and value at all,
that truth is twofold: there is the
present and valuable truth for today,
and there is the historical and function-
al truth of the past. For example, we of
this generation find beauty, goodness,
and truth in the Brandenburg Concerti
of J. S. Bach, or in the ceremonial
smone Buddha of the Guards' Mess Hall
of Gandhara. Yet, these same Branden-
burg Concerti were created as after
dinner music for a provincial nobleman,
and the great detached Buddha once
smiled down upon burning incense and
tapers in a dark and hidden sanctuary
in northern India; its truth was a re-
ligious truth no longer comprehensible
to us. But in all cases these masterpieces
embodied truths and values to which
changing generations give shifting im-
portance. No one truth is enduring in
art.
No one truth is enduring, I have
said; but there is one truth that is.
That truth is the truth of material. A
painting is pigment disposed upon a
surface; a symphony is potential sounds
from a hundred men, symbolized by
shorthand on staff paper; a statue is
dressed stone; a basin is chased bronze.
And to this reality and truth of material,
one must add the truth of the work,
the very act of the artist's creating, it-
self. There is a basic truth in a poet's
sitting down and taking words and
meanings, putting them together, and
from this deriving a pattern of addition-
al meanings, beauties, and a new truth.
That kind of truth is permanent, even
though the canvas rot, the bronze cor-
rode, or a language become dead. Quite
true, this may become, thus, a meaning-
less truth, for it is somes hat like the
old philosophic catch question of wheth-
er or not there can be a sound without
an auditor. If one will admit the ex-
istence of sound, lacking a hearer, one
can admit a basic truth in a work of
art even though the substance is cor-
rupt or unintelligible. But this is not
a very useful truth, save in its guise of
agnostic fundamental, a little beyond
man's immediate grasp.
One has, then, the truth of imagina-
tive experience, the truth of observa-
tion and fashion. the truth of function,
and the last truth, the truth of mater-
ial. The best painting sees these syn-
thesized into an harmonious whole, as
in Rembrandt's Juno, the Giovanni Bel-
lini Christ Bearing the Cross, or in Goy-
a's many portrait pieces. The thing
of significance for the modern is that
these old things contain eternals that
do not penetrate into our modern works.
Modern painting has become a cult in
its forms, and there are no longer any
immediate truths for the uninitiated,
The problem of the artist is the prob-
lem of all men of sensibility today. The
problem is the everpressing one of de-
termining what is still true in the world.
One by one, all the old truths have been
challenged, and in practical applica-
tion they have failed. One condemns as
meaningless and insignificant all mod-
ern painting. Yet what else can it be
under the circumstances? The painter
can be no less confused than any other
man, and if he has taken his hiding-
place in incoherencies and lies, that is
not so much his crime as his terror. All
the painter can do is realize that, for
the minute, now, another medium has
stolen his power, that visual authority
and appeal is temporarily out of his
hands. Whether he will ever recover his
lost prestige is not now to be answered.
The only thing is to recognize painting
for what it now is, a delightful pastime.

being bought are the movies, and be it
noted, there is a demand for them,
When one has to go out and drum up
trade, it is a good sign that the com-
modity is not requisite. And modern
architecture seems to be building houses
where pictures are just quite unneces-
sary. All of which is very saddening to
the painter; but it is true, and the
painter ought to face the fact, even as
he ought to mirror truth in art, if he
will continue to paint.
Executing an about face from what
I believe to be the facts, I shall try to
discuss what truth in art, in the art of
painting, is. Here, I am on highly sub-
jective and personal grounds. and what
I am proposing is just what I have
damned in modern painting, the intrin-
sic interest in personal opinion.
Truth in art is truth to experience.
But the experience is not necessarily
practical. It may be-indeed, usually
is-imaginative. Whatever is valid in
your life, inner or outer, makes for
the stuff of artistic truth, if only it be
justly and honestly presented. The art-
ist is a man of extraordinary sensibil-
ities gifted with the power to communi-
cate in some way or other his reactions
from these sensibilities. Whatever, then,
is true in his experience will be true in
his art.

music, is lacking in a fundamental
idea, an idea which music must possess
to be significant. This idea, I submit,
the same intellectual or emotional pro-
cess expressed in musical terms that one
sees as elements of formal composition
in painting. Timeliness of fashion and
cliche enables the artist to present a
work of art without any idea, any fund-
amental image, any basic truth. This
ability to create the appearance of
something out of nothing only by, force
of habit is responsible for the enormous
mass of insignificant material that
passes for art in the world today.
Yet, I believe, it is impossible to in-
sist on a permanent norm for truth,
eveni though this may appear contra-
dictory. It is impractical to do this,
for to do so would require a set cosmos
and order of being. This ordered cre-
ation is simply not a part of modern
intellectual experience, in spite of the
fascist counterfeits touted the world
over. All the truth that art or anything
else can present today for the receptive
mind is an hypothesis. Truth itself
seems to be only a kind of relative val-
ue; that is why art can mean all things
to all people. However, in art, it must,
as I have tried to indicate, to be truth
at all, endeavor to go beyond the shreds
of mere cliance and simple appearances.

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