X Magazine
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X, The Painter in the Press

...The Art of painting is itself an intensely personal activity. It may be labouring the obvious to say so but it is too little recognised in art journalism now that a picture is a unique and private event in the life of the painter: an object made alone with a man and a blank canvas...
A real painting is something which happens to the painter once in a given minute; it is unique in that it will never happen again and in this sense is an impossible object. It is judged by the painter simply as a success or failure without qualification. And it is something which happens in life not in art: a picture which was merely the product of art would not be very interesting and could tell us nothing we were not already aware of.
The old saying, ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’, expresses the opposite idea to that which animates the painter before his canvas. It is precisely what he does not know which may destroy him. (Though of course the meaning of the adage really depends on the quality of the deception)...
The idea of objectivity in the evaluation of pictures introduces the concept of rational and scientific assessment.
There are some sciences involved in the making and in the study of pictures, but the art itself is finally not a science and will not submit to scientific regimentation because its life depends on the degree to which it is inhabited by mystery, speaks to us of the unknown. It is simply an avoidance of the interesting difficulty to subject the inexplicable to the process of rational explanation. For since the real pleasures of painting and the reality of its meaning exist in the part of its structure which cannot be explained, all suggestions and pretensions at explanation must lead us away from the area of greatest interest. This is to say that such analysis as purports to lay bare the machinery which makes a painting work — makes it a good painting — not only leaves out the most important factor, the element of mystery, but actively denies the reality which is the justification for the art at all...
This idea of art as an instrument of salvation, social or psychological, is so widespread and has become such common currency... that it may be foolhardy to attempt to throw doubt on it.
Nevertheless it may be remarked that this idea devolves finally on the extent to which the activity is a function of hope. Hope for a better life, a better civilisation or whatever term one wishes to use; meaning anyhow some far off desired perfection of life; implying that art is animated by a pious aspiration for this state. The virtue of hope becomes the animating principle of art. But the virtue of hope has only a serious position within the eschatology of true religion. To the man who prays it is the supreme virtue.
Art on the other hand speaks to us of resignation and rejoicing in reality, and does so through a transformation of our experience of the world into an order wherein all facts become joyous; the more terrible the material the greater the artistic triumph. This has nothing at all to do with 'a constant awareness of the problems of our time' or any other vague public concern. It is a transformation that is mysterious, personal and ethical *[* An ethos is a difficult thing that cannot be formulated and codified; it is one of those creative irrationalities upon which real progress is based. It demands the whole man and not just a differentiated function — Jung]. And the moral effect of art is only interesting when considered in the particular. For it is always the reality of the particular that provides the occasion and the spring of art — it is always "those particular trees/ That caught you in their mysteries" or the experience of some loved object. Not that the matter rests here. It is the transcendent imagination working on this material that releases the mysterious energies which move and speak of deepest existence...
...the tendency to elevate (or degrade, if one happens to be a humanist) the activity into a surrogate for religion. In doing so they involve categoric prohibitions inimicable to the spirit of art which is the spirit of real freedom...
I state the case more or less in philosophical terms taking the attitudes as relevant to some degree: but in the end they are not relevant at all. This is my real objection.
That the mass of art criticism should have drifted so far from the reality of painting that no one any longer wishes to speak of enjoying pictures* [*Instead one speaks of understanding — '"Understanding" is something that people more respectable than myself assure me that they burn to apply to everything. If they look, for example, at a picture, and are in danger of feeling pleasure from it, they either declare that "they don't understand it" or they apply their understanding to some object which, but for their assurances to the contrary, I should have suspected wasn't the picture: in either case, it seems, they feel the better for having avoided submitting to the indignity of pleasure.'  — A review in The New English Weekly, July 28, 1949.]... It may well be that the difficulty is endemic in the manner of analysis rather than in any philosophy of the art.
The manner of analysis most often used may be distinguished by its two main characteristics: the historical and the technical...
Pictures are labelled 'avant garde' 'reactionary' or more dubious labels still, and all serious standards of judgement or enjoyment go by the board...
For the notion of progress in the arts, (either spiritually or artistically) has been discredited by many respectable intellects (Kierkegaard and Baudelaire above all, both of whom encountered the idea when it first reared itself in its present form in Europe)....
Also part of this category, but strictly an extension of it, is the obsession with derivation, and the premium on any obvious kind of originality which follows from this. Discoveries made by such methods are of doubtful validity if evaluation of particular pictures is the aim, and this is even so in their own terms, i.e. historically...
The co-existence at one moment of two such painters as Ingres and Delacroix, or the odd derivations that started great painters such as Cézanne (from Delacroix himself at the beginning) or Van Gogh (from Mauve at one point) on their path towards a shocking individuality incline me to doubt the usefulness of these criteria when applied to contemporary painting. That is to say in the judgement of paintings at the time when they are made.
The historical view with its doubtful presumption of understanding laws of time and development leads to the pedantic and the dry side of the study of painting, but it is really less irrational and remote than the technical element in critical analysis.
Technical criticism of painting is a very dubious activity if the aim is evaluation and not merely identification or the examination of master-work by painters themselves...
...For even the painter himself cannot be fully aware of the way in which the picture gets made: there is a wide area of the unpredictable in the act of pushing paint about in the definition of an image...
There are ambiguities in the art of painting but they are the ambiguities of a fine precision: the discovered fact of the image containing at the same time the reverberations of the unknown, the truly mysterious...
I would take this further and add that painting is itself precise in its ideas. In the sense that the image is the idea in its purist form* [* The image is a principal of our knowledge. It is that from which our intellectual activity begins, not as a passing stimulus but as an enduring foundation — St. Thomas Aquinas, Opus XVI.]...
I believe that a reorientation is necessary. That certain facts must be accounted for and some vigorous redefinition pursued. Not formal or scientific definition, but that clarity about the nature of the experience of art which will bring back a note of immediacy and personal gaiety into the effort to articulate the sensations produced by good pictures.
The interesting thing is what happens in the specific picture: its precision in terms of the sensations it produces — the illusion it creates and the effect of this illusion on the psychology opposed to it.
General philosophical and technical information however interesting in itself is secondary to this reality.
Certain illuminations may be possible; chiefly about the mind of the man who made the picture. Thus it is revealing that Soutine made no formal preparations for his painting and occupied himself with desultory reading in the poets and philosophers... Such illuminations, even when they consist of small factual information, may reveal to us a morality of approach which might otherwise remain beyond us and ignorance of which might make it the more difficult to share the more secret levels of the picture's existence.
In this respect the words of painters themselves are always of value...
The sever judgements so often passed by painters on critics are not without reason. For the painter finding what for him is a collection of unique objects treated as a vague expression of personality...:
Mr.—'s exhibition is not quite convincing and must be regarded as transitional. He's proceeded from his earlier nervous lines and bland washes towards more solid forms.
Is the art of painting such a dull matter as this implies? We know that it is not...
What I would advocate is a form of subjective writing about art which would eschew the dry impersonal notion that the picture had an existence outside our experience of it: that there was some absolute formula whereby its value could be estimated... The passionate voice of a man speaking clearly about the things he loves and castigating that which threatened their existence or the justice of their survival...
But the reader most likely sees by now the ground I wish to occupy which is exactly that of a famous dictum voiced unheeded in 1846:
To be just, that is to say to justify its existence, criticism should be partial passionate, and political, that is to say written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons. [— Charles Baudelaire]
X, The Painter in the Press




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X, Official Art and the Modern Painter

To-day it is not uncommon to hear art experts predict the next step in the history of painting... A common claim of this kind, for instance, has been that America has 'taken the lead' from Paris, or Europe simply, and that certain American painters are making the sort of pictures which shall determine the next direction the art of painting will take (though it must be noticed that it is a plain fact such pictures are also being made in Japan, Bulgaria, Chile, etc.) These claims nearly always deal in large numbers of painters at once under the cover of 'movements'. Any one with a small knowledge of history must realise how far the number of great painters involved in these movements exceeds that of the richest period ever recorded.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter


A situation has occurred wherein a premium is put on any work qualifying for the term ‘progressive’... the whole machinery of organised culture... all compete to produce and to patronise 'modern and progressive' art... In fact we now have an official art to the furtherance and protection of which the whole Establishment is committed... Those painters who to-day work under the banner or label of the Modern, the Progressive, can hardly accuse the public of not taking notice.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter


For I am not interested in taking a stand on the grounds of aesthetics (one respects Mondrian) except to say these techniques which lay claim to freedom and to releasing powers of an imaginative order depend in fact on a strict aesthetic both narrow and constricting. And here we have the prime characteristic of an Official Art. It is noticeable that rejection and selection no longer operate in terms of merely quality but on kind. This is exactly the situation confronting the Impressionists who attempted to show their works in the salon of 1865.
— X, Official Art and The Modern Painter


...It would be phony, however, to pretend too great a concern for the effects of the system of selling pictures on the character of contemporary painters. It is very likely unhealthy and occasionally disastrous even to some people of real talent. Yet the nature of art is so strange, so unpredictable, and the circumstances of its production so remote from the world of commerce that it would appear the truth is less alarming than the facts might lead one to suppose. It is possible that the occasions of corruption being so frequent the flowering of genuine vision is all the more intense, the more purified, and consequently more valuable than ever.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter


Il faut être absolument moderne — Arthur Rimbaud
Behind all the muddle that fills the philosophical justifications for the new art there lurks another old bogey it would be well to drag out into the air for a minute.
It is the idea of progress in the arts; the notion that we move forward from one good thing to another in a simple progression and in a single direction.
Baudelaire dealt so profoundly with this that it requires a certain arrogance to set up an attack on it from any other angle. Also Wyndham Lewis in a more muddled way, but still forcefully and with vigour... But this can be said: if there were such a thing as a direct and simple progression from the work of one generation to the next the historical difficulty of the Progressive Artist could not exist...
The point is this;... the popular notion of the Progressive and the New Art may not after all be the last word on a complex subject. That there may be, even to-day... such a thing as the absolutely modern. That as before it may be something unexpected, and not completely accounted for in the arrangements for encouraging the arts.
For to be contemporary is not necessarily to be part of any movement, to be included in the official representations of national and international art. History shows that it may well be the opposite. It may be that it is the odd, the personal, the curious, the simply honest, that at this moment, when everyone looks to the extreme and flamboyant, constitutes the most interesting manifestation of the spirit of art.
...It may be necessary to be absolutely modern.
— X, Official Art and the Modern Painter


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X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art


It is not necessary to subscribe to the tiresome conception of the artist as rampaging Bohemian to understand that the activity of painting is socially useless, or at best occupies a dubious position. (I take it as unnecessary to remark on the futility of the notion of art as a social function of man.) In the remote purity of his solitariness, where the work of art is made, the artist is supremely the anti-social creature. This solitariness is not necessarily achieved in the country or by the seaside; one can be very much alone on the top of a bus, etc. The artist, as artist, occupies a position that is fundamentally neither social not amenable to social arrangement.
Society has always honoured this fact in one way or another. Despite the effect of the great men of the late 19th century, who it might be thought would have rendered the world safe for those who came after them, it was still possible even for Picasso to spend some time in the wilderness...
— X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art


Encountering a work of art is in many respects rather like meeting a person. One may not recognise his quality at first, may be put off by a surface aspect and find out later he is quite different etc., but if one's response takes the form of a moral judgement one is unlikely ever to find out anything about him...
Mob reactions can be recognised in that somewhere, if one has an ear for such things, the voice of the preacher of the moral code may be detected adding its dead tone. That note of dead insensibility by which life is reduced to dullness.
Nowhere is this more frequently apparent than in that sort of comment on a work of art which starts out from a position of moral complacency.
For here is the phenomenon one constantly encounters in art discourse: the evident distaste and occasionally the open hatred with which the critic views the personality behind the work he professes to criticise as art or even to admire.
It is a comic phenomenon and historically is often a pathetic one. When one reads on the faded page Sir Edmund Gosse's comment on James Joyce's prose: 'worthless and impudent, a perfectly cynical appeal to sheer indecency' one recognises the hysteria of the mob reaction; but now it has the pathos of someone making a colossal ass of himself publicly and unconsciously.
But we should resist the temptation merely to laugh: for there is involved in such cases a dilemma in which even a man of sensibility may find himself trapped when he unconsciously slips into the comfortable bog-hole of moral righteousness...
The dilemma arises from the confrontation of the merely educated mind with an expression of that violent free force which is the human imagination in movement.
It may be said that this is a confrontation of moralities. There is a sense, and a very exciting sense, in which art is moral. When Stendhal says a good picture is nothing but a construction in ethics, one recognises a truth about art which opens up vistas that are at the same time liberating and terrifying. The ethics of art are terrifying because real art by increasing our knowledge of ourselves increases in exactly the same proportion the ethical commitment. This is an indecent thing to do from the point of view of the established moral code. For the moralist like Sir Edmund suspects rightly that the very code itself, like the law of the land which is an extension of it, can be transformed by successful crimes. His alarm is well founded...
...in the end each man experiences only himself. To refer to your neighbour or twenty million of them for your touchstone of reality is a logical nonsense in the life of the individual person... The painter celebrates life where he finds it. His morality is the morality of enjoyment, of the continuous development of his own taste without shame or fear. It is a sort of heroism.
— X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art


The techniques for making art thus morally acceptable, of drawing its fangs, are endless; and each generation finds its own. Just now the democratic machinery for rendering art safe is so efficient that it seems that the system can absorb anything. It would be exciting to think that somewhere in Europe there was a man making art which was so violent and true that the system could not take it… But it would be a very optimistic man who would hold such a belief  — though of course we can always hope since the very condition of his existence demands that we cannot be disappointed in that hope.
— X, Mob Morals and the Art of Loving Art




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Foreword to X: Volume I
Numbers 1-4 ,(Barrie & Rockliff 1961)


…There is never any lack of talented mediocrity ready and willing to satisfy the demand... and it is the productions of those... that deflect attention from the real thing, the productions of the individual vision...
If two things are granted, and they are not often denied, (i) that the productions of the true artist are vital to a healthy society, (ii) that even in the best societies there is the constant risk that these very things will wither and die for want of the minimum support, then the collection of writing, poetry, and art brought together here needs no further apology...
There is at the heart of any interesting idea of art or poetry an anarchic volatile centre —  a sort of living principle which will not tolerate categoric definition so that even the wildest of surrealist or anti-art proclamations militate against the sort of freedom the artist values. This does not mean that we exist to initiate a drift from principle and clear proposition. It means that only propositions sufficiently accurate to include the necessary complexity of any interesting artistic viewpoint are good enough for us. And that any attitude based upon the notion that there exists a total and rational explanation for the artistic impulse and activity is for us the enemy of real poetry.
And so it is that throughout all the critical articles published in this journal will be found a questioning and sceptical curiosity about the prevailing and fashionable conceptions which now dominate the scene... the real enemy now is probably confusion-general; complete intellectual confusion with a prevalent readiness to pounce on anything that looks like a moral issue provided it be simple, accessible, and public enough — in short, safe.
If we allow ourselves a convenient division of purpose the first aim, to bring to the light of day the work of the best with qualification that preference be given to the unknown and the neglected or the known but unhonoured, is a clear and basic function which demands absolute precedence, while the second, to question and expose the nature of prevailing and fashionable theory and practice, is a more complex function difficult to perform.
The hardest thing that anybody can do is to think for himself, to like something because he likes it and not because he knows or is told that ten or ten thousand or ten million other people do. The artist is a man who experiences for himself and believes in the validity of that experience...They are individuals, not a group; not even a group of individuals. And if they have anything in common it is the seriousness with which they take their art — not that lugubrious dedication one associates with people who confuse art with social amelioration, but the apparent frivolity with which they ignore the terrible worries of our time in favour of the apparently selfish delight of creating some image of personal vision, some faint echo of the eternally liberation 'I am'."
— David Wright and Patrick Swift



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