Are we wiser than our great-great-grandparents? They may have been wrong about much modern art, and their grandparents were likely wrong about Cézanne, but we are not wrong, so we must know so much more, be so much more enlightened. That might be so, but to be sure we might also want to take a look at what actually happened to Cézanne so long ago – or was it only yesterday?
History tells us that Cézanne was laughed at. To be vilified, criticized, attacked and abused – well, that’s just the normal combat of the salons, the expected blows to be taken in the arena of art. But to be laughed at is humiliation, and Cézanne felt it that way. His agonies were intense. But why would he care? After all, he knew he was right. But then what, for him, did it matter that he was right? Cézanne wanted what every artist wants – to be loved, admired, respected and rewarded for his or her genius. In the final analysis, despite whatever they may say, everyone wants success. Cézanne could have laughed off his detractors, but he had something at stake – namely that no matter how strong his or her conviction, no artist is great unless other people believe so. Cézanne expected and needed to be affirmed in his choices, and he had good reason to think he would be.
Cézanne, as a sophisticated and intelligent student of the art of his time, took two models for his own practice, the then leaders of the avant-garde Courbet and Manet. From Courbet he took the persona of the rough mannered country bumpkin pushing his way with muddy boots into the refined precincts of metropolitan culture. He wore the hat and beard, but was smart enough to know that the posture had to be taken in his work – heavy paint, crude drawing, clumsy spaces, botched modeling were the way. I’m talking about the early Cézanne. Manet taught him that the ruination of painting was the goal, and that it could be accomplished more completely and convincingly without the social alibi of a provincial background. In other words, the strength of Courbet’s public persona meant that in the end his art was not radical enough. Manet despoiled art with perfect self confidence, or seemed to. Unlike the provincial arriviste, he possessed the art of the museums as his birthright; his travesties of Titian and Giorgione were a product of a perfect familiarity that freed him from awe of the past but made his love that much more intimate. So Manet pointed the way forward, but Courbet taught the manner, and this might be one reason why Cézanne met resistance, that he could not carry himself with the same flair and insouciance as Manet. For the audience there was a dissonance – the ambition did not match the effort in exactly the right way.
This is pretty close to the point I want to make, but first we have to acknowledge that some people did respond to what Cézanne was doing, and secondly that even as they laughed the public were also asking if Cézanne was laughing at them, if it was all a send up of their own pretensions. In this respect Cézanne was adequate to his audience, because the typical leader of culture, to this day, is the provincial who moves to the metropolis and transforms themselves into a sophisticate. This is why anxiety is the ground note of sociability in all the arts, because ambitious, successful people start as outsiders, and are always afraid of slipping up – of saying the wrong thing, taking the wrong position, of having the wrong sort of taste. Completely assured cosmopolitans, like Manet, are a minority. The audience could sense the presence of a Manet within Cézanne’s work, and naturally that made them nervous, but the surface persona, much more easily classifiable, didn’t match.
It’s fascinating to anatomize Cézanne’s inability to strike the right pose, and the psychology of his audience, and I could go on longer, but the point to make is that there was nothing wrong with his calculations, on the aesthetic level at least. And if his audience had had the benefit of museum education departments to explain his intentions their laughter would certainly have been stopped, as the natural desire to laugh and scoff is so often stopped today. But no matter his or her intentions, what the artist has to meet are the tacit expectations of the audience. The audience has a feeling for how things should go, and the sophisticated audience has a sophisticated feeling, and no matter the efforts of criticism to make art legible, and to explain the logic of the most outlandish developments, that tacit dimension will never disappear. Art education and ubiquitous criticism just bury it deeper, make it less evident but stronger.
If an artist wants success, then what is to stop them from doing whatever it takes to achieve that? From a logical perspective, if Cézanne couldn’t judge his reception correctly then he must have been incompetent. But how do we explain an artist who sees the target clearly, is fully aware of its context and setting, has all the means to strike a bulls-eye, yet a constitutional inability to hit. There is something else going on here, and it’s worth study because it has to do with the measurement of genuine quality in art. This is a very difficult topic to take up, and the critic and philosopher Theodor Adorno made a brave attempt, with a concept deliberately chosen to have the same effect as Cézanne’s pictorial solecisms – naïveté.
Adorno chose the French word, which his translator has wisely distinguished from the normal English naivety, because there are in fact two ways to be naive. Following Hegel, Adorno believes that it is impossible for art to continue as natural, unreflective or unaware of its own preconditions. This of course is exactly the starting point of what we call today conceptual art. But it is crucial for Adorno to recognize a faculty that can’t be encapsulated by theory.
“Blindness was ever an aspect of art; in the age of art’s emancipation, however, this blindness has become to predominate in spite of, if not because of, art’s lost naïveté, which, as Hegel already perceived, art cannot undo. This binds art to a naïveté of a second order: the uncertainty over what purpose it serves.”i
So the true and necessary naïveté is to believe that art is possible despite all the evidence, but we have to bring the discussion down out of elevated realms to the day to day doings of real artists, and realize that we are really talking here about the conflict between the spontaneity of the individual and the tacit understandings of the collective. I want to offer another quote from Adorno, and I ask the readers of AbCrit to consider it carefully, through I’m aware that it is not the sort of talk most are used to.
“An absence of naïveté – a reflective posture toward art – clearly also requires naïveté, insofar as aesthetic consciousness does not allow its experiences to be regulated by what is culturally approved but rather preserves the force of spontaneous reaction toward even the most avant-garde movements….Naïveté toward art is a source of blindness; but whoever lacks it totally is truly narrow minded and trapped in what is foisted upon him.”ii
To those who can hear them, these words offer support and encouragement to many of the judgements expressed on this web site, however, I offer them reluctantly, as I fear that they will only deepen the prevailing naivety, which might be characterized, among other things, as life long dedication to lost causes. John Bunker, in his own naively spontaneous way, keeps flagging this point, which can be illuminated by another quote from Adorno:
“The suspicion must be kept in mind that artistic experience as a whole is in no way as immediate as the official art religion would have it. Every experience of an artwork depends on its ambience, it’s function, and, literally and figuratively, its locus. Overzealous naïveté that refuses to admit this distorts what it considers so holy.”iii
Naivety is a difficult concept to use precisely because of the ridicule entailed. To be naive is not to grasp the tacit, what everyone knows so well that it doesn’t need to be said. A naive person says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that always makes us laugh. No one wants to be naive, because no wants to be laughed at. If we are ever caught out in our ignorance of any social code we are embarrassed and quickly readjust our picture of things. Embarrassment is a mild form of humiliation, and humiliation is so devastating to any individual it can actually kill. Humiliation is an individual’s natural but self-destroying response to total rejection by the collective. But lack of naivety is nothing other than alignment of the individual consciousness with the group mind. The very existence of art depends on a “naive” ability to act without respect for the tacitly approved.
I put the word “naive” in scare quotes as a convenient way to sustain the contradiction between the two uses. The slipperiness of the term, the inevitable confusions and defensive reactions it will provoke is what makes it so appropriate. If one is too naive to play the game with the word naive, if the fear of humiliation is too great, then the true, necessary and valuable naïveté will never be available. And so the question arises whether one can be productively “naive” and know it.
Personally, I have to believe so, but if we ask Adorno the answer will be…well…yes and no. It may be an impossible question to answer. In any case, I doubt that quotations from Adorno will win me any approbation from the devotees of AbCrit, many of whom share a raft of tacit assumptions, one of which is likely that contradictions are always nonsense, a typically English blindness. But the difference between the situation today and that faced by Cézanne is that there are now many contexts and many tacit realms, and any public forum will speak to more than one of them. It’s probably naive to choose this one to talk about these matters, but maybe not. A catalogue text about a late model conceptualist at a continental Kunsthalle would get better coverage, but then only deepen the naivety of those who think they are too smart to be caught out by art. There are many contexts, many different sets of tacit values and many chances to say the wrong thing, but as an artist I continue to strive for universality – a “naivety” I share with my artist colleagues on this site.
To quote Adorno is to seek, and find, some protection for one’s own naïveté, and I shamefully admit that I take this route to avoid the inevitable and annoying debate that will emerge around the apparent contradictions in my argument, for which I don’t have the time. Blame it on the German. At least implicit in his thought is that an artist can be fully self aware and still work spontaneously and naively, but how that’s supposed to happen and how we can recognize it is a big mystery, and should probably remain so. But there can be no doubt that genuine artistic naiveté comes along with a high level of conscious understanding of the art. Adorno’s description of the composer Schoenberg could easily apply to Cézanne:
“When the not exactly avant-garde public of Naples proved to be less than enthusiastic about Pierrot lunaire, or when a comic opera with a highly complex structure failed to become the darling of the public in Frankfurt, Schoenberg could hardly understand it. He thought of his music as music like that of the Masters, nothing else. His listener must also have something of this naïveté, which is characteristic not only of Schoenberg’s private behaviour but also of Schoenberg as an artistic type, all the while people are trying to persuade the listener of the opposite.”iv
No one could say that Schoenberg didn’t know what he was doing, because absolute transparency of means and intentions are built right into his methods. And no one could say that he didn’t know what was expected by the audience, for he was very well educated and an astute critic. The only possible conclusion is that he was realizing objective possibilities in the material, meaning choices or decisions not yet recognized by the group mind.
This is the point to return to the start of this topic on AbCrit, the occasion an exchange about Frank Stella. Stella wants to make art like the old masters, and what could be more “naive” in the current art world? It’s not an empty claim to measure himself against the presumed “quality” of Rubens or Caracci, to make art as “great” as theirs, he actually tries to compose his pictures the way they did. He is using old master techniques. My references here are the huge paintings of the Kleist series, practically unknown. And the “naivety” entailed is of the kind described by Adorno in the first quote in this article – a belief against all the facts that painting, that art is still possible in the mass mediated, digital environment. But it’s not belief, it’s spontaneous expression, doing it not talking about it. Completely crazy, completely naive, completely admirable. Let’s not forget that in today’s art world any possibility can be theoretically entertained, that explanation of intentions is the passport into the education/tourism/culture complex. Naivety in the true sense then is not a state of mind, it’s a kind of action, a behavior perhaps, but for an artist more an accomplishment. So it can coexist with any kind of tacit understanding, and the inevitable ridicule no longer applies to the individual.
Robert Linsley, 2013
i Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota 1997 p.1
ii ibid. p. 269
iii ibid. p. 350
iv “Toward an Understanding of Schoenberg,” in Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music, University of California 2002 ed. by Richard Leppert, p. 629