November 8, 2010

Independent Moral Agents

Motherwell in his studio, New York, 1943 
Photograph by Peter A. Juley & Son

Excerpts from The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, edited by Stephanie Terenzio and first published in 1992 by Oxford University Press, NY:

The social condition of the modern world which gives every experience its form is the spiritual breakdown which followed the collapse of religion. This condition has led to the isolation of the artist from the rest of society. The modern artist's social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world.

No synthesized view of reality has replaced religion. Science is not a view, but a method. The consequence is that the modern artist tends to become the last active spiritual being in the great world. It is true that each artist has his own religion. It is true that artists are constantly excommunicating each other. It is true that artists are not always pure, that some times they are concerned with their public standing or their material circumstance. Yet for all that it is the artists who guard the spiritual in the modern world.

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But such pictures are also assertions of positive values, conscious or not, presentational structures (in the language of modern logic) there to be felt. In my own work, for instance, sometimes there is humor, a kind of blague as a critic recently wrote, with different ranges of reference - technical, social, and perhaps even metaphysical - I am not sure. Sometimes my essential loneliness creeps into the work, or anguish. But I try to suppress these qualities. It is more seemly to keep one's suffering to oneself. I resent it when I see that I was unable, on occasion, to muffle the shriek that lies deep in nearly everyone. My main effort is to come into harmony with myself, to paint as I breathe or move, or dream, to make works that are as natural in their execution, as inevitable in their ultimate form as a stone or a wall. To realize such an ideal is a lifelong task.

I take neither my subjects nor the mode of painting them from the world of intellectuals. I have been mainly a lyrical artist, a "poet," if you like, with occasional dramatic or satirical overtones. I loathe every form of ideology: politics, religion, aesthetics, domestic relations. I am interested in persons who are independent moral agents. Most "intellectuals" I have seen were quite properly labeled by a friend of mine, Harold Rosenberg, the poet, as "a herd of independent minds." But I also dislike painters who talk as though they were carpenters or some other kind of craftsman, who speak as though art is not a question of inspiration - of something in you that arises as simply, beautifully, and unpredictably as the flight of a bird.

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A hundred years ago Leconte de Lisle wrote what could have been a dada slogan, "I hate my epoch." But the problem now, as then, is to change the epoch, not to pass through it uninvolved, like Duchamp's Young Man on a Train.

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