Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the social background of confusionism

I used to work for a company that marketed office supplies, in which capacity I learned that you can get specially laminated Kandinsky prints for the walls of your office or factory, for the purpose of motivating your staff. Even though I am sympathetic to a future in which call centre workers might take their easels and pots of paint into work, and work on their pictures during their lunch hour, or even while they're on the phone, I have some reservations about this enterprise. After all, motivational pictures generally serve to dramatise management turning a deaf ear toward their workers' legitimate concerns.

Jean Arp, whose pictures, duly laminated, might well be available from the same company said: “we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men's minds”.

I suggested that the regulative idea of art that underlies Kandinsky's paintings follows from the attempt to apply functionalist logic to works that are supposed to have been produced in complete freedom. I don't just mean Kandinsky but his milieu, his class even, who took naturalistic conservatism for granted even as they became interested in the basically anti-bourgeois ideas of romantic anti-utilitarianism.

It is reasonable to explain a great many consumer products on functionalist grounds. A ballpoint pen, for example, can be understood as something that exists to solve a technical problem as efficiently as possible. It conforms to a technical limit, even if this limit involves criteria relating to its function as a commodity as well as as a writing implement. The same principle cannot be applied to so called cultured art, unless the ideas of art pour art are to be abandoned, and for all art to be treated as kitsch art, merely conforming to a need like any other product.

This culture, which could not accept inefficiency or kitsch, compelled its painters to imagine and to show a technical limit for art, at or around the point at which it becomes unintelligible. Such a limit was duly invented. Consequently we have a moral concept: "high art", and a descriptive concept: "abstract art", for the same sort of thing: the confusion and alterisation of culture.

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