[Marxism] The problem of Motherwell

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 8 06:40:35 MDT 2011

The problem of Motherwell

Robert Motherwell was not only a prolific artist until his death 
two decades ago, but also gained recognition as a writer and 
teacher on Abstract Expressionism. In his early writing he 
advocated a significant role for art and artists as allies and 
even leaders in the struggle for revolutionary social change. And 
while some of these observations were insightful, under the weight 
of events, Motherwell came to repudiate the optimism he once held 
about the bond between art and social life.

One painting from the series he entitled “Elegy to the Spanish 
Republic” (1965-67) is included in the AGO exhibition. A classic 
Motherwell image, featuring his trademark large black ovals 
pushing dark yellow shapes at the edges and imparting feelings of 
a dark strength and tenderness, it is among his most moving works. 
As the title indicates, and notwithstanding a growing skepticism, 
he continued until the end of his life to feel great sympathy for 
potentially emancipatory struggles such as the Spanish Revolution.

Extolling the combative spirit of the movement he helped to 
develop, Motherwell once declared that, “Abstract Expressionism 
was the first American art that was filled with anger as well as 
beauty.” Although he continued to champion abstraction in art, in 
his own way he acknowledged that it could represent a retreat in 
the face of social reaction and political disappointment. “Until 
there is a radical revolution in the values of modern society, we 
may look for highly formal art to continue,” he commented, tellingly.

Furthermore, although the artist continued to assert that art 
could only be truly understood and develop on the basis of an 
internationalist outlook, he did grow increasingly conservative 
politically. Under the influence of the Cold War, and his own 
relatively privileged position, Motherwell came to view the 
prospect of socialism as incompatible with the supposed freedom of 
the artist. He justified his abandonment of explicitly left-wing 
views by claiming that “The middle-class is decaying, and as a 
conscious entity the working-class does not exist.”

What hope he saw then lay in the activity of the individual, the 
artist. Defending the trend toward increasing abstraction in art, 
Motherwell argued that, “now artists especially value personal 
liberty because they do not find positive liberties in the 
concrete character of the modern state.”

In short, the artist fell back on rather banal, anti-communist 
conceptions, so popular in the academic and artistic worlds in 
Cold War America, counterposing all too easily and self-servingly 
artistic and social aspirations. He argued, for example, that 
“Criticism moves in a false direction, as does art, when it 
aspires to be a social science,” as though any conscientious 
critic or artist would propose such a thing. Moreover, he asserted 
that art could not be rationally understood: “[M]ake no mistake, 
abstract art is a form of mysticism.” Not a very helpful 
conclusion to reach.

full: http://wsws.org/articles/2011/aug2011/abex-a08.shtml

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