Chris Busa, Camille Paglia, Theosophy and Peggy Lee

Considering Leftist Political Theory in Contempoirary Art

By: - Mar 18, 2013

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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.

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 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 affect 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 social control and rigidity: 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 the masses 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 anticapitalistic in so far as capitalism could be 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 and 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 know 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 it takes place in the classroom.

I recall the words of William Bailey, who said that in the Forties, when the Social Realists dominated the scene, you would never have imagined the Fifties would be dominated by the likes of DeKooning, Gorky and Pollack. 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 transformative. 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 accuratley the malaise of the modern scene. I believe this void is most responsible for the desiccation of the artistic landscape.

“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 countercultural.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 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, although with increasing violence. According to the insightful book about the history of egalitarianism by Malcolm Bull, ”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.

 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 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 only leads 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.

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 successfully 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. The incantation that a magician might chant like Yeats 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 for “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 benefitted from the recognition by society as whole. 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.

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 of principalities and powers 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 cultural critic, thinks that the explosion of interest in spirituality in the 60’s and 70’s was comparable to the “ghost dances” of the American Indians who empowered themselves in their battle against the Europeans  through self-mortification to capture the energy of divine spirits. 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.”

Reposted with permission from Martin Mugar's Painting.