In this paper, I propose to discuss the New Realism and its place in the painting of today. That is, where it comes from, the outer forces which seem to be behind it, the "necessity" for artists to indulge in it, the validity, if any, that it possesses. I do not believe that it has any validity, or, to make myself clear., I believe that it possesses a validity in much the same way that competent commercial painting possesses it. I propose, also, that the commercial aspects, that is, the money value of this painting, are as "real" as the commercial aspects of "poster" painting, however, the New Realism has cloaked itself in the more ,.respectable" mantle of Art, or, better, "shock" or "ironic" or "American aas-it-re allyis-underneatb-all-our-pretended-happiness" Art. As such, in the miiids of many people, it stands as a sort of brave and defiant neo-Dada. This would be fairly amusing, if it were not for the fact that many of the people who think of it as a valid method were not in high places in the art world. As everyone must know, this neo-Dadaistic tendency on the part of the New Realism is at best, rather displaced. Dada was a very conscious movement to disturb the opinions of the bourgeoisie, it was very consciously anti-art, or more exactly, it was against the idea of "art" that the bourgeoisie held. As such it was exceptionally successful as wrecker; that was its purpose. With the New Realism, however, we have before us the phenomenon of the bourgeois buyer purchasing soi-disant "antibourgeois" paintings from galleries, under the influence of favorable reviews., This would not be a phenomenon if everyone involved in this were aware that it is bourgeois "taste" controlling all this flurry. Instead, everyone involved is apparently convinced that he is in the vanguard of the furthest advanced guard. It is as if Dada never existed, and now that it does, it is beloved of those it supposedly is meant to shock. To this point, Edward Sapir, in a paper on Fashion, says: "A specific fashion is utterly unintelligible if lifted out of its place in a sequence of forms." I do not feel that the word "fashion" here negates my argument. On the contrary, if Dada is admitted to be a fashion - and it certainly must be admitted to be such (a fashion, perhaps not intended for the "consumer" but for the "producer") - then the New Realism, as neo-Dada, may be validly considered to be the same, or, better, may be considered to be a truer fashion, since it is executed with the conspicuous desire to be accepted by the new "art-loving" middle-class, as something "revolutionary."
As long as I have brought tip the concept of Fashion, I would here like to insert the idea of the theory of "obsolescence" which is all the rage now in the market and motivational research divisions of large companies and their advertising agencies. Briefly stated, this is a theory which maintains that a product, if old, is naturally inferior to one which is new. Manufacturers are obsessed with the modern fetish of Progress as being always good. The new product is better than the old: none can tell you why, nor, as a matter of fact, no one who is inflamed with this concept of Progress - in all areas of human experience, including art, can tell you why. The idea of Progress has assumed a natural excellence. It is considered good in much the same way as well-cooked food is good. The outcome of all this is the warped idea that the new is, by right, better than the old. In art, it takes the form of the contemporary mode being an improvement over that mode in favor yesterday. This is, of course, bunk. No one that I know of now believes that urban, civilized man is more "advanced" than his primitive forebear: what has happened is that he has discovered and used things that were not necessary or even desirable for the latter. This does not make him better unless one believes in the concept of Progress as a God. In his Speculations, T. E. Hulme says: "In November 1829, a tragic date for those who see with regret the establishment of a lasting and devastating stupidity, Goethe - in answer to Eckermann's remark that human thought and action seemed to repeat itself, going round in a circle - said: 'No, it is not a circle, it is a spiral.' You disguise the wheel by making it run up an inclined plane; it then becomes 'Progress,' which is the modern substitute for religion."
This concept of Progress as being an absolute, a natural good, has unfortunately asserted itself not only in those segments of modern life which obviously stand to profit by it, e.g., manufacturing and politicking, but in the arts themselves., particularly the plastic arts. The literary arts have weathered the deluge of rubbish grouped together under the general classification, "beat" writing, which was. and is, in its final floundering, a degree (not a kind) of neo-romanticism. The plastic arts are now wallowing in the slop, and will probably wallow much longer, since it is another "accepted" fact that for an artist's work to be shown in a gallery or museum implies "excellence." This idiot thinking has never infected the literary world, at least, not in the same explicit way that it has infected the world of the plastic arts. No one in his right mind considers Harold Robbins, for instance, a good writer, merely because he has succeeded in publishing The Carpetbaggers. It is a bad book, bound and distributed in the same manner as good books, but still a bad book, and Robbins is a bad writer. Nor are dozens of bad painters made good if they are shown in dozens of "reputable" galleries-, those galleries show them because they think that they can find, or make, a mark-et for the junk they show. It is a hard fact that a gallery is essentially a store that sells things, and if the gallery doesn't think that a certain commodity will sell, it will not handle that commodity. At the present time, galleries are selling the New Realism because the New Realism is in vogue, and its practitioners are, consciously or not, part of the selling game. What I propose to do in the succeeding sections of this paper is to examine the New Realism, and to suggest that it is, even if an art of "inevitability," a poor art, distinguished by sterile facility, cynicism, and middle-class opportunism. I also wish to suggest that this New Realism has no chance at excellence, since it is not, to start, a legitimate art. Before going on to the first section, I want to make clear, however, that I am not "defending" all abstract painting: I also wish to make clear, though, that I consider abstract painting a valid form of painting, where the values of good and bad maybe applied. These values have no meaning when applied to work which, in itself, has no value, unless one wishes to concede that this ketchup bottle is "better" than this cupcake.
Before I come to a more detailed examination of the New Realism, I want to quote rather extensively from an essay entitled Modern Art, written in 1914 by T. E. Hulme. It was this essay, the discovery of it, that first led me to think out these remarks on the New Realism. Hulme got most of the ideas from a German aesthetician named Worringer, and used these ideas to make his own thinking, on the art being produced in England at the time, clearer. I have used these views, twice-removed, to be sure, to try to make my thinking clearer. They are remarkable ideas, and I cannot seem to find in them any flaw or omission which makes them invalid for my purposes. Let me quote from the essay.
Take first the art which is most natural to us. What tendency is behind this, what need is it designed to satisfy?
This art as contrasted with geometrical art can be broadly described as naturalism or realism - using these words in their widest sense and entirely excluding the mere imitation of nature. The source of the pleasure felt by the spectator before the products of art of this kind is a feeling of increased vitality, a process which the German writers on aesthetics call empathy (Einfühlung). This process is perhaps a little too complicated for me to describe it shortly here, but putting the matter in general terms, we can say that any work of art we find beautiful is an objectification of our own pleasure in activity, and our own vitality. The worth of a line or form consists in the value of the life it contains for us. Putting the matter more simply we may say that in this art there is always a feeling of liking for, and pleasure in, the forms and movements to be found in nature. It is obvious therefore that this art call only occur in a people whose relation to outside nature is such that it admits of this feeling of pleasure in its contemplation.
Turn now to geometrical art. It most obviously exhibits no delight in nature and no striving after vitality. (2) Its forms are always what can be described as stiff and lifeless. The dead form of a pyramid and the suppression of life in a Byzantine mosaic show that behind these arts there must have been an impulse, the direct opposite of that which finds satisfaction in the naturalism of Greek and Renaissance art.
This is what Worringer calls the tendency to abstraction.
What is the nature of this tendency? What is the condition of mind of the people whose art is governed by it?
It can be described most generally as a feeling of separation in the face of outside nature.Now, let us distill these remarks into two generally useful precepts which we may articulate as follows:
1. Naturalistic art occurs when the society takes pleasure in the natural reproduction of nature's forms, when it feels at one with nature.
2. An abstract art (or a tendency toward abstraction) occurs when the society feels removed from the nature surrounding it, when it feels either fearful or contemptuous of nature. (3)
Let me make clear one thing concerning these two precepts: I conclude that Hulme meant, by nature, not only the forms and growths and manifestations of nature, but the entire attitude of the world in which any given society is forced to live.
The general art movement today, in the United States, and, I suppose, from what I know of it, in the rest of the western world, is that form or school of painting which is called abstract-expressionism. I think I will call it abstraction and be done with it. However, abstract painting has always had its enemies, people who see in it what they wisely condemn as "sterility," or, better yet, a disavowal of humanism. Did it never occur to these people that abstract painters paint that way because that is how they feel as artists in this world? They paint that way because they are not humanists. My point, of course, is Hulme's point: that is, the world in which we live today is certainly, in no way that I can imagine, friendly or at one with any human being living in it, let alone the artist. The "tendency to abstraction" which Hulme saw occurring before his eyes in England prior to the First World War has culminated in the American painting of the last 20 years or so. That is not to say that the "realistic" or "naturalistic" painter has ceased to exist. It is simply that the great majority of painters seem to feel more at home, more as if they are doing work which has some real meaning for them as painters, as abstractionists.
It must be obvious that what I am trying to get at here is the role of the New Realism as it pertains to these two general categories. I am not going to ram through the idea that painters today should paint abstractly. I want to make it perfectly clear only that the great body of legitimate work being done is abstract, and the reasons for its being abstract may be found in the lucid statement of Hulme's concerning abstraction and the kind of world in which it manifests itself.
Now, what of the New Realism, and what is it doing here? It is neither abstract painting, nor is it naturalistic painting in terms of a depiction of the outer world of natural forms. What it is, is a depiction of certain things in this outer world which have heretofore found their objectification in that form of art which maybe called kitsch, or mass art. It is a "reality" made clear to us by these New Realists, but the reality is one which, long ago, was prostituted and warped by the mass taste and the mass media; a specious reality, much like the reality of "poster" art. In terms of the absolute, actually, some of the commercial products from which the New Realism constructs its art are, ironically enough, more pleasing, even aesthetically, than the art products. In this case, I think of Lichtenstein and the comic strips he paints. However, the New Realist adherent would probably tell me that Lichtenstein's purpose in this "super" comic-painting is to show up the shallowness and vapidity of American life, although a good comic strip is anything but shallow and vapid. On the other hand he might maintain that this is neo-Dada, although it wouldn't shock your aunt from Peoria. A third defense, let us call it the romantic defense, would be that this painting is a kind of apotheosis of the "simplicity" of the true American zeitgeist. A romantic and sentimental view, at best; or perhaps we may call it the "innocence" approach. I feel that this third defense is the one which might be used most frequently by our imaginary adherent, although the first may also be used quite often. I will not discuss the second defense here, since it must be clear by now that the New Realism, whatever else it may be, is not neo-Dada. I would here like to show that our imaginary adherent is not so imaginary by quoting from two different reviewers on two New Realists, Wayne Thiebaud and Billy Bengston. The first painter is praised for Reason One, let's call it the "indictment" defense; the second for Reason Iwo, or the zeitgeist defense. Here is Brian O'Doherty on Wayne Thiebaud: ". . . Triple-tier sandwiches, hot dogs, pies, cupcakes, melons, chocolate, meringues, fruit cups, salads, layer cakes, all placed in orderly rows, as regimented as the people who eat them. A similarly insistent feat in poetry would make Mr. Thiebaud the Walt Whitman of the delicatessen ... For Mr. Thiebaud is the wordless poet of the banal ... The entirely deadpan air with which he does it can be interpreted, if one wishes, as a comment on the comfortable desolation of much American life, as seen through the stomach." Aside from the patent stupidity of comparing Whitman's "cataloguing" with Thiebaud's, we have here what we might call the classic example of the "indictment" defense. It is a defense, or a critique, which is at its very best, subjective, and hence, utterly romantic. But before continuing, here is Irving Sandler on the same painter. "These still-lifes are simultaneously attempts at 'realism' and ironic take-offs on bright, banal and unpalatable confectionery advertisements."
So we see that both Mr. Sandler and Mr. O'Doherty have sagely agreed that this delicatessen display is an indictment of the soft and sloppy, well-fed American and the "materialistic" culture he inhabits. These are incredibly dull reviews, lazily conceived and thought out, and would delude only those who refuse to reflect on anything. Both reviewers blithely jump into the pictures shown and make their crass judgments, or as Hulme would say, they permeate the pictures with their own activity.
Now let me move to Mr. Sandler's review of Billy Bengston: "He sprays and paints his pictures, . . . with shiny automobile enamel, thus providing them with an 'American' look. In the exact center of each of his works, Bengston has painted a top sergeant's stripes, symbols for the American hero. To make this content completely obvious, he gives his pictures such tides as 'Billy the Kid: 'Earp,' 'Red Ryder,' and 'Hollywood Calling."'
This is what I have referred to above as the zeitgeist defense. In a sense, it is more absurd than the other, since it implies that the disparate materials used to make a work of art are to be considered suggestive in themselves of movements, customs and intellectualizations quite apart from the whole work. This sort of thing died with the end of analytical cubism (at least it is hoped). No one of any intelligence thinks that the use of automobile enamel, sergeant's stripes, and "Americana" titles makes a thing American. No artist of any value uses materials in that way. If Mr. Bengston were to use oils, leave out the sergeant's stripes and the titles, would his paintings be then less "American"? Or just what would they be without the surface gimmicks? To this point, Hulme again, in Modern Art. "It may be said that an artist is using mechanical lines because he lives in an environment of machinery. In a landscape you would use softer and more organic lines. This seems to me to be using the materialist explanation of the origin of an art which has been generally rejected. Take the analogous case of the influence of raw material on art. The nature of material is never without a certain influence. If they had not been able to use granite, the Egyptians would probably not have carved in the way they did. But then the material did not produce the style. If Egypt had been inhabited by people of Greek race, the fact that the material was granite would not have made them produce anything like Egyptian sculpture. The technical qualities of a material can thus never create a style. A feeling for form of a certain kind must always be the source of an art. All that can be said of the forms suggested by the technical qualities of the material is that they must not contradict this intended form. They can only be used when the inclination and taste to which they are appropriate already exist. So, though steel is not the material of the new art, but only its environment, we can, it seems to me, legitimately speak of it exercising the kind of influence that the use of granite did on Egyptian art, no more and no less."
Before I talk about what I earlier called the "innocence" approach, as being one intimately connected with the zeitgeist idea of art, I would like to go off the track of the New Realism, as it exists in painting, to talk about the assemblagists for a moment, and how they relate to the above remarks by Hulme. As far as I am concerned, one of the finest sculptors in America today is John Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain uses, as materials for his works, scrap metals almost exclusively. However, none of the works (the metals are mostly from wrecked cars) suggest "death on the highway," "speed," "violence of Ameri can life," etc. In a color spread in LIFE on Mr. Chamberlain some months ago, however, the writer of the article implied that these things were what Mr. Chamberlain meant to depict in his use of scrap. In the same article they showed a color picture of a wrecked car and its reflection in the water, or some such arty nonsense, and remarked on the great similarities between this and Mr. Chamberlain's sculptures. To cap this overwhelming stupidity, they quoted Mr. Chamberlain at the end of the article as saying that he used scrap metal because there was an automobile graveyard near his studio and the metal was not only cheap and workable, but it was already colored, a fact that interested him greatly I seem to recall also that be spoke of Michelangelo having a marble quarry near his studio, and hence, that particular material was easy for him to come by. In other words, Mr. Chamberlain briefly said exactly what T. E. Hulme said years ago concerning the nature and use of materials. LIFE, however, apparently either did not see the discrepancy between Chamberlain's remarks and their own, or else, as is usual with them, showed their utter contempt for their readers' ability to think. The point I want to make is, again, that Chamberlain is a sculptor, not an assemblagist, although many of these latter have aped him. Unfortunately they have simply used the same materials he uses. What is produced is very different. One does not see, nor is one supposed to see, a fender as fender in Chainberlain's sculptures-, the fender becomes part of the work and contributes to its whole ness. It is not the putting together of things, which still remain things put together, it is true sculpture. Against this we have the ludicrous example of the sculptor I read of who merely throws a whole car into a crusher and displays it. In between these extremes of art and charlatanry, or, to be charitable, caprice, we have the assemblagists.
Locke, the rationalist, says of Wit, that it lies "most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures, and agreeable visions to the fancy." On the other band he placed Judgment, which, he said, consists "in separating carefully one from the other, ideas wherein can be found the least differences, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another . . . " The irony here, of course, lies in the fact that for Locke, Wit equalled Art, which he rejected as trivia, and against which he placed the rational, "sober," conception of Judgment. It is the voice of the Philistine. Everyone knows by now what happened. The romantics stared into the heavens, wept and moaned over the fact that Art was the orphan of the age, and, in their work, did nothing about it except to make Locke seem correct. Locke may not have known what Art was, but neither did the heart-sore romantics. It took some 150 years to clear the garbage away, and now we seem to be shoveling it back again - of course, in the name of Art, and the "Contemporary."
If one were to tell a friend who recently returned from, let's imagine, the South Pole, that a large group of the recent exhibitions in New York showed cupcakes, salads, billboards, window shades, comic strips, sergeant-stripes, ketchup bottles, pies, and the like, and if that friend were not convulsed in helpless laughter, he might ask you who the innocents were, or what the innocent "revival" was all about. For this patent "innocence" of the New Realism is, indeed, a revival of a kind of cult which flourished after the First War in art circles, and which was led, in part, by Gertrude Stein. Its repercussions are still with us, and I would like to quote from Wyndham Lewis, in Time and Western Man (1927), to make clear that this phenomenon was indeed so at that time, and that it certainly is not new. From there, I will try to work in the concept of the market for the New Realism, and who comprises it. The quote follows: "I suppose there is no one who has not noticed, passim and without attentiveness, perhaps, in a hundred different forms, the prevalence of what now amounts to a cult of childhood, and of The Child. This irresponsible, Peterpannish psychology is the key to the Utopia of the 'revolutionary' Rich; the people, namely, who have taken over, have degraded, and are enjoying the fruits of revolutionary scientific innovation - far from its creative ardours, cynically scornful of its idealisms, but creating out of its ferments, which they have pillaged, a breathless Milennium." And again: "Romance and scholarship plus advertisement, take the place of really new creative effort. Some quite ridiculous piece of the mildest 'daring' in the world, or the tamest 'experiment,' is advertised as an outrage. And as an outrage it is accepted, oil the word of the advertiser; though there is nothing there to disturb the pulse of a rabbit, and no more invention than is required to spell a word in an unusual way, or to paint a bird with a monkey's tail." At the risk of over-quoting, I must insist on being allowed this remark, also by Lewis, almost 30 years later, in a book entitled The Demon Of Progress In The Arts. "Extremism is symptomatic of a vacuum - a time in which there is no rationale for visual expression." By "extremism" here, Lewis is referring to extreme abstraction, that is, the art of the "New Real" as it was then (1955) manifested in Europe. The interesting points here are two:
1. The fact that the use of the term New Real as exemplified by the European painting of perhaps ten years ago is directly juxtaposed to the use of the term New Realism as exemplified by current American painting. Everything is different except the words, the "magic" word, "New," being the key to the entire world of fad and fashion in art.
2. Lewis's quote strengthens and corroborates Hulme's ideas on "naturalism" and "the tendency to abstraction" as outlined earlier in this paper. Lewis, being a humanist, or let me say, a Greek humanist (a classicist in the Hellenic tradition), looks, ill his book, for a return to "naturalistic" painting, as against what he termed the "absurdities" and "sterilities " of the New Real.
Now we come to what may seem an impasse. In the New Realism we see displayed a turning away from abstract painting towards a naturalism, however narrow. However, it is not the naturalism which Lewis looked for, nor is it the naturalism which Hulme spoke of as "a feeling of liking for, and pleasure in, the forms and movements to be found in nature." No one can seriously maintain that he takes pleasure in the "forms and movements" of a cupcake, unless he is a genuine naif, which brings us, by devious route, back to Lewis's child cult and its absurd Utopianism, the "breathless Millennium."
Now I come to what is the major point of this paper, and that is: why the New Realism? Now that it is under way and "accepted" by the snobbish "avant-garde" and the idiot fringe of "art-lovers" swarming around it, it is difficult to separate the desires of the painters, the demands of the market, the vagaries of gallery owners, and the snobbism, fear of being "dated," and gullibility of the nouveau-riche collector. Added to this, of course, are the slothful and careless writings of the established reviewers. So we have an intricate net of which the mesh is made of snobbism, status, "progress," and carelessness, and the cord which ties it up, to continue the analogy, is money. But how did it start?
Let us formulate several basic ideas, which, though they are platitudes, are necessary to the development of this argument.
1. Abstract painting, in America, over the last 15 or 20 years, has been led by painters who were dissatisfied with painting both as it was given to them by the cubists and neo cubists, and by the naturalistic painters, most of whom painted what may loosely be called "social" paintings.
2. It was during the misery of the Second World War, and the days that followed it (still with us, of course), that is, during a time when all the members of "civilized" societies, including, of course, the artist, were not at one with nature in any way, when the world was a place to be feared, or avoided, that American painting's "tendency to abstraction" went all the way in that direction to total abstraction.
3. American abstract painting has been (despite the tongue-clucking of critics like John Canaday, who is simply a bourgeois humanist) the most valid painting for our time, in terms of the artist's relationship to his world. I want to make clear that this does not mean that representational painting is bad. It is, simply, not as valid for us as abstract painting in much the same way as the sonnet is no longer a valid form for the contemporary poet. It is, basically, that the contemporary poet does not even consider it.
4. Brilliant work, in any art form, brought to perfection, and perhaps exhausted by the artist, puts that artist's disciples in a terribly straitened position. They must either copy him, revert to an earlier form, or invent a different form. The only other alternative, in a fairly sane and not overly-avaricious society, is for the younger artist, or disciple, to work on a certain aspect or aspects of his master's work, and bring that to a flowering. This last is what has usually happened over the years, in all the arts. It is very difficult for the young artist to do this however, when he is under constant pressure from a lunatic market to do something "new" and "progressive." It becomes even more difficult when that lunatic market spends freely on, and lauds even more freely, the "new" and "progressive." Lewis speaks of the painter in this situation as "a figurine in a ballet, advancing ... with a score of men exactly like himself, in a studied rush."
Out of these basic ideas, we can extract at least one cause of the phenomenon called the New Realism, which is, briefly stated: the manner and/or style of painting which has come to be called the New Realism has come about because the disciples of the masters of abstract painting have not had a chance to develop certain, let us call them peripheral and interstitial, ideas in these masters' works because of the constant pressure upon them by a market for something "new" and "advanced" with which to titillate the snobbish middle-class, a middle-class which originally damned the early work of the abstractionists and which cannot now "socially" afford to commit the same Philistine error. This syndrome is completed by the critics who damn that which is bad or academic in the more recent abstract painting, but who will not look at, or cannot see, that which is good. The whole thing is complicated by the cries for a "return to the Figure."
Now let us examine the worth of this New Realism as art.
Alright, we have the abstract painter whose work I have called most valid for our time, granted the fact that our time is one of a "feeling of separation" from outside nature and the natural world. We also have the naturalistic painter, who still finds that the forms of nature, and the world in general, have a rapport with him as a man and as an artist. I will call him the humanist painter, as against the abstract painter, whom I shall term the antihumanist, or as Hulme will have it, the "religious" painter - one who believes in absolute ideals. To this point, Philip Guston has said of his painting: "You don't care how you appear; you have given that up." What matters is what appears, not how you appear. Or as Olson has said in Projective Verse: "Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the 'subject' and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects."
So, we have the humanist painter and the anti-humanist painter. One depicts, let us say, the sky, the sea, still-lifes, etc. The other makes paintings which are either pure abstraction, like Pollock's, or tend to abstraction very strongly, like de Kooning's Woman paintings. The only other area left open is the area of what we might call "social" painting, which is "humanistic" according to the above definitions, but which carries a heavy, and usually obvious message, sometimes poignant, sometimes satiric, sometimes bitter.
Let us assume for a moment, in spite of the pragmatic solidity of the existence of the New Realism, that these three areas of painting, which actually fall into the two familiar major groupings, are the only ways that an artist can paint; as a matter of fact, they are the only ways in which artists have always painted. Impinging on these two ways of painting, we got Dada; we have already given the historical and aesthetic reasons for this movement, and determined that the New Realism is not neo-Dada. To repeat: Dada had a conscious, non-aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) raison d'etre, it was directed toward a specific group, or group opinion, for the purposes of shock as a final cause. Neo-Dada may be labelled so, but as such, it has no worth, since the final cause finds no fulfillment - in short, it is an art directed against a group opinion which does not exist.
Now, we have the solid fact of the New Realism before us. It is most certainly not neoDada; it is most certainly not abstraction; it does not tend to abstraction, but, rather, tends away from it. Then what is it? Is it "social" painting? But where is the message in it, unless it is what O'Doherty and Sandler seem to think is an "indictment" of our soft society, or a reflection of our zeitgeist? But here we get into the subjective-critique system which may be compared to the filling of a bag labelled sugar with the critic's salt. The dreary fact is that the only "indictment" of our society inherent in the New Realism is the fact of its being.
It seems, then, that we are left with the fact that the New Realism is naturalistic painting. And just here is where it fails, here is where it reveals itself to be a form of painting which has not a particular, real value to the painter or the viewer, since what it depicts in the world are those things which are most gross, most used, most owned by everyone. A culture, however decayed, may not be legitimately defined by its crudest and grossest elements, unless those elements are deeply and specifically a cause of the culture's decay. The packaged food, ill-baked cakes, comic strips, etc., are not in any way causes of the tawdry and vulgar in America, but they are the effects.
To carefully select certain areas of American experience, and to single out specific effects indigenous to these areas; then to make of these narrow effects an "art" seems to be the modus operandi of the New Realists. At its worst, it is one-of-a-kind kitsch, and its display is loosely akin to showing an Eskimo papier-maché model of an igloo and telling him that it, in some way he will never comprehend (since he is not "sophisticated" or "Progressive"), "represents" or "indicts" his barren world and his customs. At its best, it is an art of the narrowest provincialism, an art in which the painter has tried to make a taken-for-granted manufacture of our times, or a form of kitsch which is one of a million like itself, into a representation of the entire zeitgeist. To be completely uncharitable, it is an art which sells you the comic strips or the hamburger for several thousands of dollars - and, laughably, succeeds. The most ridiculous aspect of it is that it is most at home with those people whom it is "attacking."
I don't presume to say that this is bad painting. I have heard men who are much more aware of the problems of painting than I am say that certain of these New Realists are technically proficient, if not excellent. The more's, of course, the pity. To squander a talent for painting on such a narrow, fashionable "aesthetic" seems a violent denial of one's self as an artist. I do say, however, that it is bad art. Instead of a search for a way of revealing the forms of a world (or of the painter's mind), either friendly or hostile, this art has become a frenzied rout in which the critic-dealer-buyer triumvirate lead the pack, waving fistfuls of dollars. This month the fashion will be cupcakes or automobile enamelling, next month geranium plants or bathroom tiles. The "art-loving" bourgeoisie will fearfully accept it, LIFE will talk nonsense about a vital, harsh art, singularly American, and painters of intelligence will hear themselves referred to as "not avant-garde enough."
I will not, of course, predict the span of life that this New Realism will have, but I will say that I am sure it will die, in fact, it will probably do itself to death as soon as something more "progressive" and "advanced" becomes the fashion. Unfortunately, as Olson says of "subjectivism," we will all be "caught in its dying."
1. In his weekly art column in the New York Post, Irving Sandler said recently: "Contemporary New Realism has a satiric edge which relates it to Dadaism, and to the attempt of the Dadaists to undermine conventional, moral and artistic values." And one may add, undermine all values except those of the monied buyer of paintings. He can be duped, but never shocked.
2. By "vital," Hulme did not mean the opposite of "uninteresting," or "weak." He meant the word as specifically referring to life and living things.
3. It will be objected that cave paintings have been discovered which are naturalistic, and that cave dwellers made them in the face of a hostile world. However, cave dwellers seem to have been at one with that world; they were hunters functioning within it, much the same as the animals they hunted. Also, these paintings were not "art," per se, but performed a magical function. A third point may be made, which is that many of the cave paintings, of different periods perhaps, were completely un-natural, the animals depicted with grotesque masks, etc.
4. To make a literary analogy we have Creeley's: "Form is never more than an extension of content." In other words, one does not squeeze the content into a ready-made form, nor impose a form upon an '*available" content.
5. Georges Sorel, in his Reflections On Violence, equates Utopists with reactionaries - as did Marx, also. A shocking discovery for many "progressive" people.
Kulchur, Winter 1962: 10-23