From March to September 2000 while I was writing this essay, the Museum of Modern Art, New York celebrated the millennium with a cycle of twenty five exhibitions that set in place a philosophy of Modernism that cut through all the isms of the last twelve decades. Making Choices (March 16th to September 26th 2000) is a diverse conglomeration that brings together works of art of the last century, which could not be conveniently labelled with any of the isms that I had found confusing – not to say irrelevant – while I researched the subject of modern art. One point became clear to me as it did to the curators of Making Choices. Modernism can be any work of art (photographs included) done since 1880, from Arp to Wyeth.
The title of this essay changed several times as I made my own choices and discoveries. I felt the need to adapt my initial thoughts to a dialectical process that continues. For example, one visit to the National Gallery London changed dramatically my limited perception of what I had called Christian art. For the first time I saw beyond the presence of Christ and his sleeping apostles and saw Bellini’s splendid rocky landscape at sunrise – a ravishing work of art. Prolonged conversations with other students, painters and friends made my research interdisciplinary and contributed to the metamorphoses of my text. At first I thought I had locked my self into a protracted dilemma but almost at once it became an adventure.
It had been pointed out to me that the task undertaken was ambitious, although linking art and Marxism via Hegel was a solution that had been contemplated by writers like Adorno, Lukacs and the Frankfurt School of Thought.
Because I had to write this dissertation from a painters viewpoint I changed the first title Marxism and Art to include the name of the German author of the Aesthetics, the philosopher Frederic Hegel. The discovery of Hegel’s majestic reflections on fine art initiated a dialectical process that forced one to look much further back than the last twelve decades, to the cave paintings in the Ardeche valley 30.000 years before Christ.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin conceded that a profound understanding of Marx’s Capital cannot be achieved without reading Hegel’s Science of Logic. Therefore Marxism could be applied to an investigation of the material conditions in which works of art are created, situating them within the appropriate context. I became convinced that to achieve an understanding of the social philosophy of art a balance between the spiritual and the material is a pre-requisite.
“Whenever I meet students they ask me the same question. Can art change society? In one sense the answer is obvious. Art has changed society just as technology has, and plague has and accident has and politics has…Most art may not change very much. But the idea of its potential to do so gives it powerful allure.” 1 It is not as a playwright but as a painter, living and trying to practice my craft in England, that I face an unexpected problem that reflects the ongoing debate in academic circles concerned with art history. The problem? Formalist modernity as opposed to Postmodernity, in non-artspeak language, narrative and object versus concept and subject matter. For the British to say that modernism is dead does not mean a lot because modernism in the visual arts never actually lived to the full in Britain. However it thrived in Europe in the last century. British patrons were slow to patronise the new art from the continent. Paradigms of modern art (not the same as Modernism) like Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Dali – a quartet of European artists who spent a lot of time in the Louvre- never found a single counterpart in Britain.2 On the other hand British culture was receptive to Post-modernist ideas welcoming and developing American Pop art in the sixties. British conceptualist art of the 1970’s was the beginning of an evolution of artistic thought and ideas that has made Britain a commercial centre of artistic activity in the late 20th century.
And it is as a painter that I want to study artist’s mores and their position in Britain in view of the fact that we are living in a society impervious to if not derisive of high art. Although Leonardo’s Mona Lisa still smiles when she muses on all the many transformations – not to say defacements – she has permitted modernism, for the purpose of our study we are drawn to the Dali Gioconda, a Marxist vampire, sporting Dali’s waxed mustache and clasping a handful of surplus profit. (her admirers’- including the paradigms of modern art mentioned above – entrance fees to the Louvre) [Dali’s portrait as the Mona Lisa after Leonardo Da Vinci, photograph by Phillipe Halsman, 1973] For Post – modernists Leonardo’s Lady Lisa became a symbol of their modern idea when she posed for the cover of New Yorker [February 8th 1999] (plate I) wearing a Monica Lewinsky mask. Could we surmise that recent art history from Dali and Duchamp to Andy Warhol and post-structuralism is ear – marked by the disguises the queen of the Louvre has worn in the last forty years to the ongoing masquerade of art history.