April 12th, 2004

No hay mas ruta que la nuestra

The following is a translation of the final chapter of “How to Paint a Mural” by David Alfaro Siqueiros. I feel it is a good way to open this blog, and the book is not available in English.
I don’t agree with everything, but I do agree with a lot of it, specially with his take on social issues. Some of it will seem dated (it was written in 1951), and it would be interesting to see what his take would be on the torrent of technology that artists have adopted today…..
Anything in [brackets] is my own text added to clarify some areas. Even in Spanish, the text is a little dense, and I made no attempt to simplify it, because I don’t want to start hacking away at somebody else’s work.

Here it goes :

Chapter XVIII
Final Note:
Style constitutes the last extreme, the wrapping, the physiognomy of a work of art.
Function creates an organ. The style of a mural –like the style of any other painting done during a notable period in the history of art—should not renderred a priori. Such is, perhaps, the fundamental defect of all contemporary [now modern] painting. The first thing that a contemporary painter considers is what style he will give to his oeuvre. Of course he looks for an autonomous style that will have nothing to do with that of other painters, an original style, etc. The contemporary painter currently suffers from a syndrome of originality-by-any-means as the fundamental base of creative endeavor, and by doing so, he has only gained (as paradoxical as it may seem) to distance himself further from his own personality by running away from kindred influences. El Greco –as I have said in many occasions—did not try to hide Tintoretto’s direct influence up to the last moment of his life, and there is hardly a more original painter than El Greco. Naturally, this extraordinary Greek, trunk of the Spanish school of painting, contributed his own genius to the influence of his master, and therefore, enriched baroque conception.
Style should be a consequence of the social function of the mural, of the modern technique that a progressive, contemporary mural demands. By technique, I am referring to materials, principles, and scientific methods available to the painter in his era. And when I say that style should be the consequence social function, we indicate that it will not be solely the product of the artist as creator, but the product of the creative team and the corresponding audience.
Everybody seems to be talking about the necessity for a new realism, the formal vehicle of a new humanism in art, but it is almost generic and futile to try to formulate definitions regarding the style of this new realism. Would medieval Christians have been able to fix, or even anticipate the style, or styles, that would belong ultimately to Christian art? In reality it took Christianity twelve centuries (from the classical period) to find its own form. It was not until the Byzantine, Gothic, and pre-Renaissance periods that the so-called properly Christian form appeared. We will not have to wait twelve centuries, but our habits, tastes, and routines are not going to change overnight, because not only are we carrying the weight of the past cultures, we also have the baggage of 400 years of a minor (or lower) art, an art produced mainly for the homes of a minority (at least in the industrialized world). We can not shake off these remnants so easily.
So, what is the future of the visual arts?
To know that, we have to know the past well, and we have to document the present without any false illusions.
We have, first of all, three European examples. Greece as a case study for antiquity, or pre-Christianity. What is today called Italy can serve as the example for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or, in other words, Christianity and the Reform. And, lastly, we have France as the case study for the present era, or the end of traditional liberalism and the beginnings of democracy.

CASE STUDY #1: GREECE AND ANTIQUITY

MARKET: The theocratic state and a reduced slave-holding aristocracy.

SOCIAL PRODUCTION TENDENCIES: Public art, or official art, as fundamental; private art as complementary.

SUBJECT MATTER: The subject matter of the official theocratic state, the one that implied by their corresponding mythologies.

PROFESSIONAL DOCTRINE: That which required by the proselytizing function of the subject matter; clarity eloquence, figurative art with realistic intention. Polychromality, of course, for architecture and sculpture alike (the so called white Greek marble is a modern misconception).

MATERIAL AND PHYSICAL TECHNOLOGY: That which corresponded to the primary industrial development of that era, it showed more creativity during the flowering periods and more banality and archaicness during the descending periods.

PROFESSIONAL TECHNOLOGY: That which corresponded to the proselytizing nature of the artwork’s function and the generic nature of available materials and tools.

FORMS OF PRODUTION AND PEDAGOGY: The collective shop/factory, where training occurred during its daily production processes sustained by the official demand.

CASE STUDY #2: ITALY AND THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE

MARKET: The religious state, during the pre-Renaissance, and the religious state and a new rising aristocracy during the Renaissance.

SOCIAL PRODUCTION TENDENCIES: Public art, or official art, as fundamental; private art as complementary. Like in antiquity.

SUBJECT MATTER: That of the official religious state and its proselytizing Christian dogmatism during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance and the Reform we see the addition of the ascendancy of neo-classicism and neo-paganism.

PROFESSIONAL DOCTRINE: That which was determined by the proselytizing religious function; clarity, eloquence, figurative art with realistic intentions. Christian dogma, through exalted expressions; art aimed at ultra realism. Like in antiquity.

MATERIAL AND PHYSICAL TECHNOLOGY: That which corresponded to the embryonic industrial and technical development of its era, again showing more creativity during the flowering periods and more banality and archaicness during the descending periods. The fresco, tempera and encaustics were perfected and enriched and oil painting was developed.

PROFESSIONAL TECHNOLOGY: That which freed itself from its elitist function and the generic nature of its new material technology and tools.

FORMS OF PRODUTION AND PEDAGOGY: The collective shop/factory, where training occurred during its daily production processes sustained by the official demand. As in antiquity.

CONSECUENT FORMS OF MULTIPLYING AND DIVULGING THE ARTISTIC PRODUCT: Mass production, for the popularization of mayor works, by means of newly developed printing methods. Like the different types of engraving and lithography. Public art, the official art, enriched itself immeasurably with the technical contribution of the printing press.

CASE STUDY #3: MODERN FRANCE AS THE EXAMPLE OF OUR CONTEMPORARY ERA

MARKET: The private collector, and an ever reducing –and increasingly bureaucratic– new State demand. This represents the greatest reversal in history of the socio-economic base of the art world.

SOCIAL PRODUCTION TENDENCIES: Private art as fundamental; public art, or official art, as complementary, or more precisely, as circumstantial, in complete opposition to Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ideological functionality as a proselytizing agent ceases to be, and, consequently, estheticism is born, or “art for art’s sake.”

SUBJECT MATTER: Complacency, lack of transcendence, preciousness, etc., increasingly more accented: something which the lack of ideological momentum will consequently impose on art. The suppression of the heroic and trascendental, of the ideological and eloquent, of the social and educational, in favor of things which better correspond to the physical domesticity of the artistic product and the nature of its market.

PROFESSIONAL DOCTRINE: Individualist nihilism; as many theoretical formulations as there are artists. For the “moderns,” as well as for the “academics,” the tendency is towards “museumism” and folklore, that is, unrelenting retrospection disguised as a modern creative invention. This is, in actuality, a complete lack of comprehension of all the new, and very real, life sensations created with the advent of modern mechanics. What is simply instinctual is presented under a false scientific guise. To sum it up, it is a false modernity, or a modernity that is purely chronological.

MATERIAL AND PHYSICAL TECHNOLOGY: An archaizing tendency runs in direct counter-current with the superlative technical developments of the corresponding era (late 19th to 20th c.), and there is an absolute conformity with the embryonic technology of the past, and a careless disregard for the chemical revolution occurring in the field of plastics, and the overwhelming array of mechanical instruments, there does not seem to be a notable perfecting of traditional mediums, or even a significant contribution to the previous material technologies. Basically a complete anachronism permeates the practice of the “moderns,” as well as that of the “academics.”

PROFESSIONAL TECHNOLOGY: Technical intellectualism, sensuality, mysticism, etc., epidermic classicism. That is, a trend towards a superficial use of the style and mannerisms of the classical, while leaving generic forms intact, even though these are the fundamental forms of any corpus (without public form there is no classicism). The dictum is “plastic pleasure for its own sake.” I have named this: “epicurean estheticism,” since its drive lacks all social, or human, purpose in a democratic, or majoritarian, sense. This deep-rooted anachronism in material technology is reciprocated by an equally deep-rooted primitivism in professional technology: this is the epidermic version of the styles, or manners, of the Etruscans, of romantic lithographs, of popular art, of partial and superficial “constructivist” searches of merely snobbish airs. In the best of cases this amounts to mere intellectualist speculation, or to “chic” technology.

FORMS OF PRODUTION AND PEDAGOGY: The solitary “atelier,” that is; the production, in the mist of individual intimacy, of a product destined to individual/intimate appreciation. Domestic production, more and more, for the domestic market, but of course, with experimental pretensions. Pedagogy is of a routinary and scholarly nature within academia, and autodidactic within pseudo-modernism. Either case is equally catastrophic for the apprentice.

CONSECUENT FORMS OF MULTIPLYING AND DIVULGING THE ARTISTIC PRODUCT: Lithography and the diverse printing forms of yesteryear, now old and even more affected by their exposed limitations, are still being imposed by a mystic aestheticism that dominates the private market. Archaic mysticism combined with a complete lack of interest for new and extraordinary mechanical reproduction methods, since these are in aesthetic and social disagreement with the buyer. Select galleries, expensive monographs, distinguished magazines, and the like represent the maximum social shrinkage of art’s services in deference to the vanity of the collector and the speculative benefit of the art dealer.

CONCLUSION: The end of the Renaissance brought about the dawn of a decline in the SOCIAL aspects of the arts. This tendency has not stopped in regards to representative, or allegorical, art. Two movements have tried to stop this decline: the first one –class oriented—came about with the French Revolution (from David to Ingres). The second one –also class oriented– pretended to “recuperate the fundamental values lost with the Renaissance,” and it came about during the 20th century (from Cezanne to Picasso). These attempts were only superficial. They made no effort to actualize the social and material forms of production, and naturally, fell short of their (mainly theoretic) goal, and gave us, at best, a few cases of brilliance with varying degrees of decorative invention. Would anybody really be able to refute this historical reality? Are these trends the product of inevitable social tendencies? I think that the first question is irrefutable. As far as the second one, the answer to it would require a very specialized and deep analysis.

AND IN AMERICA? [The continent]

–American antiquity can, in all the essential aspects of our discussion, be said to equate ancient Greece.
–The same can be said about the Spanish colony in America and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe.
–We can not, however, say the same when we compare Latin America and France in this era [1951]. France’s art expresses an acute intellectual colonialism. Failed decadent and revolutionary y forms, now at the service of elitism and centered on Paris, seem acutely affected as a whole. They belie the pathetic horrors of lacking a vision.
–But there is an exception, although yet in its infancy, and that is the modern Mexican pictorial movement: our movement. This is a pro-classicist movement, like the one from David to Ingres, or Cezanne to Picasso, but which has taken a better route, the objective route, that of a new actualism, the theoretic desideratum of the modern artist. It is a re-appropiation of the public forms lost after the 16th century, but within the social and technological conditions of the democratic world. Furthermore, this movement hasn’t just stayed in the realm of discussion. In the last twenty-five years it has been sowing the seeds of a true and sustainable practice. Without a doubt, the only true universal route into the future.

Originally posted on ArtUnderground.

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