Letter from a Painter on the RCP Draft Programme

Socialism, Art and How We See

Revolutionary Worker #1261, December 12, 2004, posted at rwor.org

I am immensely impressed with the Party’s line and practice in general and the developments of this line as expressed in the New Draft Programme. As a Party supporter and as a painter I would like to add some observations on art I have made in the course of doing and promoting my work.

Draft page 110:

"Art is a distinct mode of communication and experience‑‑one way that people understand the world. Art is drawn from life but is ’higher than life.’ Art can tap deep feelings and aspirations, unleashing the imagination and giving people a deeper understanding of reality and how to change it. Art plays an important role in people’s lives, connected with our ’need to be amazed.’ "

Draft page 109:

"Our proletarian ideology leads us to appreciate the importance of science and other intellectual and artistic work that more directly serves the ongoing struggle of the proletariat, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, to appreciate scientific inquiry and intellectual engagement and artistic experimentation that is not tied in such a direct way‑‑and certainly not in a pragmatic, ’instrumentalist’ way‑‑to the policy and more immediate aims of the proletarian party at any given time."

For someone who has been wrangling over the role of abstract art and aesthetics in relation to revolution for a while, I found these sections very thought-provoking and visionary. As an abstract painter I would like to say something about what purpose I think this kind of painting has and how it can contribute to our understanding of the world.

Abstraction and Art

To most people in this country (perhaps excluding those connected to the "art world"), abstraction is most readily identified with abstract expressionism . Much of the promotion of this work (from galleries to reviewers to more powerful forces) has emphasized its emotional side‑‑particularly though not exclusively angst and bravura. In many ways, this has done a real disservice to our understanding of abstract expressionism and more generally abstraction. Look, for example, at Jackson Pollack’s works. They have emotional content but are actually most remarkable for their compositional originality‑‑the all-over, shallow, non-focal utilization of pictorial space. This visual development is what is really "wowing" about this work and has impacted much modern painting since then.

(A little side note on Pollack: It is interesting that recently Scientific American had an article that described how his drips are actual fractals‑‑across the board in all his work. Yet for Pollack imitators this is not true. Are we unconsciously aware of these fractals when we look at a Pollack‑‑could that be part of the amazing aspect of his work? And how did he happen to unconsciously do this?)

There are many types of abstract paintings and many works of art that focus on emotional content and as such contribute and play a social role both progressively and not. There is also abstract painting, which has to do primarily with SEEING. One of the "amazing" aspects of this kind of abstraction is its ability to enable us to see more and differently ‑‑to actually become aware of not just what we see but how we see. Understanding how we see is a part of understanding reality and our relationship to it. Each of us sees differently (from our observances of nature and all our surroundings as well as art) but there are laws underlying the way we see, too. We all participate consciously or not in perceptual experience. Painting plays a role in helping us to translate and understand this visual process. All paintings need to be a feast for the eye on some level. With abstraction this is especially important.

Bridget Riley is a British painter whose work is finally becoming better known, and she is a favorite of mine. Her work is a good example of the aesthetics of seeing. She has always been a close observer of nature and she has built her work based on studying color in painting historically in quite some depth. When she begins a work (she uses abstract shapes‑‑squares, ovals, circles, lines in complex arrangements), she does not start from a visual experience she has had but begins with composing her work intuitively or what the Party might call imaginatively. She works until she has established a visual "sensation" that is exciting to her‑‑something both new and familiar. Riley’s work might not initially seem extraordinary. But for the careful viewer, looking at her work is like encountering something one has never seen before. It is usually quite astonishing as well as beautiful. It totally engages the eye.

For example, she did a series of paintings of stripes in the late ’70s and ’80s. These paintings wed color and light in a way that resonates with the way we see these phenomena in nature. They are remarkable because they utilize as few as three and as many as five colors but look like they contain 30 or more. One has to ask, how do our eyes see all these colors that "aren’t" there, when clearly one IS SEEING them? They are also extraordinary because they exude a wall of colored light that seems to appear between the painting and the viewer. There is mood and feeling here, but there is much more. I would say the social role of Riley’s work is enabling us to SEE in new and different ways and to be more conscious of the process of seeing. Seeing this way is part of being alive.

The History to Making Art

I have also been trying to understand how painting aesthetics of different artists in different historical times are not walled off from each other. There is a history to the development of pictorial language and aesthetics that is based in how we see with paint as well as what we see with paint. (It is sometimes difficult to even find books that include discussion of the how of paintings [i.e. the plastic means by which a painting is constructed] as well as what was painted.) Experimentation in painting is not just spontaneous or purely individual but artists have always studied and built on what has been innovative in the past as artists and scientists do in other fields.

How we see as translated through painting is constantly changing. What seemed like an extraordinary way of viewing things through paintings at one time becomes more acceptable later on‑‑it becomes part of our visual language.

In the Draft on page 111 it says

"And there will be an atmosphere of experiment and openness to new ideas and trends and learning from different schools of thought. Emphasis will be on creating and popularizing new revolutionary works, but our policy will be to learn from, study and preserve important works of the past‑‑especially works that opposed the old order."

Although it says "especially," I wonder if the last part "especially works that opposed the old order" is limiting. I think that it should also include works of art that represent leaps in "art in its own right."

This is important to help people to understand how art developed. For example, Titian’s paintings (1400s-1500s) were of a religious nature, they did not "oppose the old order." But Titian’s revolutionary use of color‑‑ actually composing his paintings based on color‑‑was a true leap that has impacted painting ever since. The whole Venetian School was developed around his use of color with Veronese playing a key role in popularizing it systematically. (There are actually rebellious aspects to some of these artists’ works. For example, Veronese included the basic masses, beggars, dwarfs, black slaves in state function scenes but this was rare and would this be included in "opposing the old order"? I’m not sure.) Not to study and learn from these works because they don’t "oppose the old order" would be a mistake.

Identifying Artistic Advances

This is a very difficult area and I think that the Party clearly recognized this. Related to this Dave Hickey, a contemporary and interesting art critic, said, "We always see what is new, of course, and recognize it as such, but we see it with old eyes‑‑until the new work makes our eyes new again." (Bridget Riley, Paintings , 1982- 2000, Pace Wildenstein).

These new ways of seeing will not be easy to recognize but it is important to strive to do this. This raises some important questions about just how breakthroughs are recognized. Quite often they are misapprehended, overlooked and dismissed. When Riley’s op paintings first appeared in the ’60s they were quickly commercialized. Her images appeared on clothing and posters within a very short period of time. What she was really doing could not be appreciated. Even today, while she is presently getting a lot more attention, her work is sometimes seen as more beautiful stripe paintings but her real accomplishments with color and space‑‑with a different way of seeing‑‑are not so easily recognized. How do we allow things to be tested through time?

Anti-communism Among Artists

I have found among my artist friends who are progressive a very strong line that communism and/or socialism equal totalitarianism. These are artists who read the New Yorker, The New York Times, art magazines, go to talks, and who participated in the anti-war demos, etc. I think this is particularly sharp with artists because they often think they can only be creative when they have no restrictions on them, etc. Clearly this ignores all the restrictions that already exist in the "art world" as well as more broadly, to say nothing of the coming "restrictions."

These same artists can rail on about the difficulties of the art scene: its insular nature/the "boys club" world of the galleries and reviewers, etc., the lack of funding for the arts, cutting arts in education, the difficulty of supporting oneself as an artist, etc. Their anti-communism is also reacting to some of the errors and misconceptions and misrepresentations of socialist experience with the arts. I think that the Party has some understanding of these questions and it would be good if there could be more things written about the particulars.

"We Can’t Know Everything‑‑So We Should Be Good At Learning," Grasp Revolution, Promote Production‑‑Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation by Bob Avakian speaks to some of this.

When I saw the recent Malevich show at the Guggenheim I had questions about what had happened with him. The work in the show from 1915-1916 was astounding. Knowing just a very little about Malevich, I would say he was indeed trying to be "outrageous and challenge every convention." And the work was probably not work that the broad masses in their millions could understand. But Suprematism, as it was called (a terrible name that does probably reflect something of what they thought the work represented though), was breakthrough work and I thought it was astounding that he had been able to create such work at that time. After the revolution, Malevich (who I suspect was not a revolutionary or in the Party) was assigned to teach at an art academy. The work in the show from 1917 on (it only went as far as 1920 or so) had lost its strength. I think this was because he was trying to utilize his new visual inventions to depict scenes of the masses.peasant workers, etc. Interestingly there was a note at the recent Chagall show at SF MOMA that Chagall left this same academy because Malevich was imposing Suprematism on his work and the whole school. Chagall subsequently moved to France where he painted increasingly religious scenes and not very uplifting work.

Avakian points out that experimentation, etc., was still promoted after the revolution until Lenin’s death. The shift in Malevich’s work was before then. So this does get very thorny. It may be one of those things that can never be answered‑‑was it an incorrect Party line, was it Malevich’s errors or some combination of the two or something entirely different. The question is relevant because it seems periodically to come up precisely because Malevich made these breakthroughs and then his work deteriorated.

There is a very popular book on painting right now, a collection of the write-ups on the supposed 114 most important emerging painters today. In the intro, by Barry Schwabsky, he says: "And how to understand the late representational paintings by Russian avant-gardists like Kasmir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin remains difficult. Do they represent a true renunciation of abstraction or merely a pitiable though understandable submission to the realities of survival under Stalinism? The question is vital for the reception of their entire oeuvre."

So here is that question again.