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Non-figurative art - the subject becomes a phantom, but is still a subject

Painting is painting, as music is music.  This may seem a rather elementary thing to say but it is worth saying since many errors of judgment can be avoided once its nature and its limits are understood.  Painting is the most excellent  nourishment for the sight, as indispensable to it as good bread is for the stomach.  And, as the stomach works this bread joyfully to convert it into blood, so the sight joyfully works over real painting to extract from it light for the soul.  Painting in its own nature is neither a spectacle nor an object glimpsed from a particular angle determined by the principles of perspective; it is its own object, total like the fullness of the act of vision through which it is realised and which, consequently, determines what it is.  

We are, then, talking about painting.  About the painter and his act, two things that are entirely inseparable one from the other.  It is important that we do not forget this, and that we do not give a name to something to which it does not belong.  Many of the difficulties of our time derive precisely from this abuse - a terminology which does not correspond to that to which it is supposed to apply.  And this is not a new phenomenon.  In its beginnings, 'Humanism' seemed by definition to be concerned with Man; but this was an illusion and the closer Humanism came to realising its programme, the more the illusion began to fade.  In the last analysis, Humanism was to do with the atom; it had little to do with Man; this is a truth that, nowadays, can be understood with ease.  And so we are led, if we want to recover their real meaning, to ask ourselves first about the word, 'Humanism'  and then about the thing, 'Man'.  Is there really any correspondence between this word and this thing?  The answer can be found in works of art. They are more categorical than literary texts, less given to dialectical subtleties; they show, brutally, what the phraseologies conceal.  

The painters and sculptors of the sixteenth century go straight to the point.  They are humanists who express magnificently man as he is understood by the new formula.  What a marvellous sense of theatre!  What talent and, often, what genius!  Man presents himself as a spectacle for himself, and all the objects that surround him, produced by himself or by nature, they too become spectacles  ... Look, and observe ... perspective unity, only recently adopted and presented  as a discovery of capital importance, stupefies the vision by depriving sight of its living activity.  But what does it matter!  The painters continue to call themselves painters, though they are no longer concerned with anything other than subjects to be rendered with brushes and with colours.  For  it is certainly the 'subject' that matters; the brushes and the colours are no longer anything other than accessories at the service of the subject.  Could they possibly have any other role?  And if ever they did have any other role, was it not - this is, surely, what we think - just a matter of human ignorance?  It is the same  for the sculptors, who are certainly still chipping away at their blocks of stone, but who do everything they possibly can to transform them into a spectacle of flesh or of cloth, depending on the appearances of the subject they have chosen or been commissioned to do.  The hammers and chisels  have no role other than to hide the stone under seductive reminiscences  of sensible impressions.  Knowing the standards that this new creed imposed, it is easy to imagine the judgments they must have passed on the stone sculptors who precede them.  Painters and sculptors were certainly  convinced, following the humanist way of thought, that they had mastered nature, that it was she who had become the basis of their works and that, if they presented her in an ideal way, it was with a view to improving her.  This will be the conviction of the centuries that follow, down to our own times.

Of course, those spectacles will decline in vigour; points of view determined by the perspective system will lose their authority;  the subjects, in a word, dictated by the needs of a passive observer, will change, will become detached from the co-ordinates that had been commonly agreed by the world at large; they will become particular manifestations of the most isolated subjectivism; but, whatever we say or whatever we do, none of this marks any real change in the essentials of the humanist position.


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Since the Renaissance, since the apotheosis of Humanism (4), we have developed the habit of confusing the act of painting with the act of copying the visual appearances of the things that surround us.  It is these visual appearances that determine the nature of the painting, that hold our attention, and, worse still, arouse our emotions and feelings.  It is certainly in them that we have placed our understanding of what it is to be human.  Strange confusion, which attributes more humanity to the image of a man shown in perspective than to the man's own song; which sees more of human nature in the most rudimentary nervous reflex than it does in those co-ordinated  gestures which, depending on the support that is used, become dance, music, painting ... whose mere presence is always a joy and a delight.  Whatever the reason for it, it is this confusion which lies behind the conflict we see at the present time between those who are attached to the subject and those who reject it.  Of course, the first of these have a wider appeal than the second; they have the advantage of habit.  Nonetheless, in principle, it is the others who are right.  But merely banishing 'the subject'  is not of itself sufficient to give us a clear idea of what should take its place.  We can see this only too clearly in the works that have been presented before us, and even in the propositions of the artists, which serve as their commentary and justification.  I do not say this for the pleasure of indulging in criticism but simply to state a fact and, more importantly, to point out some of the dead ends into which those who are full of good intentions are all too likely to stray.  The young 'Salon des Réalités Nouvelles' in Paris is the meeting place of those who claim to have broken with the subject; there we find ourselves face to face with the results as they are produced and also with the personal reflections to which they have given rise. A special album with illustrations and commentaries has been produced to this end.  There can be no doubt of the chaos that prevails around a call to arms that, in itself, is perfectly justified and timely.

(4) The apotheosis of Humanism in the fifteenth and, above all, sixteenth centuries is characterised by the exclusivity of nature in its passive mode [la nature naturée]. The thirteenth century - as can be seen in the case of St Thomas - is characterised by an unstable equilibrium between active nature [la nature naturante] and passive nature [la nature naturée]. At that moment, the West has reached the furthest point possible for that order of magnitudes [ordre de grandeurs] which corresponds to the elaboration of its form. The preceding centuries were, essentially, ontological: it is active nature which provides the impulse that has enabled this order of magnitudes to expand. They are like seeds, in a process of germination. Time for them is positive, in act, projected towards the future. [But from the thirteenth century onwards,] the form begins to fold back on itself, time becomes more and more negative, destructive, heading in the direction of the atom, of dust. Nowadays, we are free to choose between the atom, what is left over after a long process of analysis, and the seed, which has the capacity to create organisms, between a process of disintegration and a process of integration, one that goes in the direction of a new form, a birth.  

This chaos, surprising as it may seem, is a simple consequence of the fact that, actually, our opponents of the subject are still in perfect agreement with its supporters, despite certain superficial changes which do no more than suppress the gross and obvious clichés of the subject, while still conserving its state of mind and embodying its main distinguishing features.  The proof of this can be seen very easily when we observe what marks of individualism can still be found at the heart of this group who launch their impassioned polemics against the subject, and when we compare them with what that same individualism is doing among those who still believe in the subject as necessary to their idea of what constitutes human value.  In the one we can see the work of subjectivism abandoned entirely to its own demon.  In the other, this same subjectivism is exasperated by being obliged to adapt itself to the representation of geometrical figures or impenetrable graffiti.  'The real object' of the conflict escapes the one just as surely as it escapes the other - that cannot be denied - and this 'object' is none other than painting itself, expelled [chassé] by the magical charm of the classical subject in the great days of the Renaissance, followed [pourchassé], so to speak, by the discredited subject of our own day and, eventually and inevitably, replaced by a subjectivism that is free of all restraint.

For, once the active reality of the object has been lost, once it has been situated outside ourselves, once we are able to look at it from a distance, then we can start to dismantle it.  That is what is called 'analysing' it.  And, from one cut to another, from analysis to analysis, we reduce it to particles and to dust, we disintegrate it completely, we separate it more and more thoroughly from its own coherent nature and give ourselves up to the hopeless game of representing it in ever more wild and improbable ways.  In substituting  an external and irresponsible point of view for the creative action of a subject going towards self-realisation through and within the object, Humanism had to end up in the intellectual position of a subject wandering like a phantom, detached from any physical or corporeal reality.  

So, the disorder which surrounds us everywhere and, in reaction, the desperate need that is being felt to pull the world out of it - these are shown at once by the exacerbation of the subject and, at the same time, by a longing for the object.  In all those fields in which experiments based on observation are piled up one on top of the other (what I am saying is as true in the fields of philosophy and in science as it is in the field of aesthetics) subjectivism, while it is troubled by a sort of foreboding that weakens it, is sill refusing to stand aside in favour of the primary  object - Man, source of all the problems and only possible solution to them.  Painting is a variant of these problems, or, rather, of this problem, since it is unique in its principle as is the real Man, despite the way in which he has been analysed and cut up into many pieces.  Each of us is a being  that has been diminished but which is still endowed with possibilities in which, if they were to be developed intelligently, we would find what we need.  

From all this, from everything that has already been said, we can see how urgent and necessary it is to acquire a full consciousness of the nature of Man - not Man as he appears to us when we observe him from a distance, but Man as he is experienced by us when we ourselves act.  To recognise our own nature - to know oneself - that is the natural rule to follow;  and once it becomes a habit, an internal property of the soul, at that point our judgment will cease to be obscured by Naturalism, whether that Naturalism presents itself in the form of subjective feeling or of an external spectacle.  We will know where it comes from and, consequently, that, in itself, it has no meaning and can in no way pretend to be  'nature' . Whether such a spectacle is adapted to the scale of the senses, or whether it has taken off into degrees of magnitude that dizzy the imagination, the fundamental error remains the same; it is impossible for the observer to enter into an intelligible relationship with the object when he is unable to recognise it as being of one substance with himself.  He chases after an insubstantial chimera that draws him into the void.  

The painters continued to respect the rules of the classical spectacle right up to the end of the eighteenth century, but nothing in the essential nature of that spectacle was changed on the day when they began to take liberties with the rules, when they obliged the spectacle to pass from a state of repose to a state of agitation.  The spectator was just a bit annoyed for a certain period of time but he quickly calmed down and adapted himself to the new representation, converted to the idea that individualism alone was the sole justification for a work of art.  We know where this has led, and we know that it has not brought any advantages other than the suppression of all control, thus opening the door to every subversion under the cover of genius fortified by literary sentiment.  But do not think  that this phenomenon is confined to the domain of the arts.  In spite of the passion for spreading knowledge which we indulge in such an unrestrained and uncoordinated way, there is a widespread lack of general culture and even of elementary curiosity; and this has been brought about by specialisation.  Individuals are closed up in boxes determined by the appearances that they  observe, or those that they themselves have brought into existence; and this has prevented us from seeing in other fields, perhaps better protected by their jargon, the signs of the same phenomenon.  The static classical spectacle has given way to a spectacle in a state of agitation and this has been presented - falsely - as a change in its fundamental nature.