Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rothko: A Call for Depth

I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.

You might be thinking - Richard is a realist painter, and he begins with a title that obviously shows his bias against flatness. He's got an agenda against abstraction and I don't think I care to hear his arrogant peal into Rothko. However, you will have misjudged me. The title is very close to my intention, but not in the way one might think.

In watching Simon Schama's The Power of Art last night, I came to an understanding. I have always enjoyed Rothko's work, especially his later pieces. His Seagrams murals and the Rothko Chapel have always struck a chord in me. They remind me much of Goya's late work: The Black Paintings. But I had never quite understood the context of Rothko's work and I realized how incredibly much I had in common with him. His great masters - Rembrandt, Turner, Goya- are the very same that speak to me. His work attempted to evoke that same poetry, that same subtlety, that gravitas of the spirit that they achieved. He was concerned with piercing through the illusions of man to the very depths of his soul and communicate to the pure emotive core. This is what man truly responds to: not cold intellect or sardonic irony.

But for the first time I connected the expanding consumer culture of 1950's America with this brooding idealist. I saw the shallow materialism which surrounded him and I understood his hope, his frustration, his vision. His work is not a flippant comment about the transient pop culture. It is not the self-obsessed, elitist, intellectual masturbation which speaks only to itself and "the dialogue". Rothko was an ascetic. He wanted to bind a chord of communion between other human beings in the only way he knew how, if only to prove that he was not alone. This could only be done by conveying meaning. His work was a resounding cry for eternity, for humanity, for depth.

I see an incredibly similar society today. I see the same materialism, the same consumer culture magnified by the media to the point of brainwashing every person from childhood to be nothing more than gluttonous and sarcastic cannibalistic sheep. Yet they are blinded to the very fact of their actions. We have unjust and futile wars raging and there is no protest music. We are the machine that drives economic colonialism and no one holds up the mirror for us to see. Where are our great masterpieces of emotion? Where is our clarion call?

Where is the cry against the cloak of the night, the sudden beam of light that reveals what is hidden?

At this moment art does not have such a call, art does not have such a light. Art is merely a smear of shadow in the corner, chanting to itself of it's own murkiness and wealth.

No, the depth I speak of has little to do with the illusion of three dimensional space. Not visual depth, but true depth. And art, for the moment, does not have this.


Denise Williams said...

Great article!

I have always admired Rothko in that the minimalism of his most famous works seem to illustrate that there is something behind the social veneers which commonly stand before us, amongst other things.

I agree with what you say about art speaking and having a purpose as well as society in general today.

Further, you ask many questions I have often pondered. I am only left to deduce one thing which I may be wrong of course in stating, but as John Maynard Keynes once said: I would rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong, therefore I will be bold enough to contemplate the issues in art you point out and say that when as a society, we don’t want to see what is before us, but rather would prefer to justify our end without regard, we produce and purchase art that does not show us what we should see, or validate what we are, or examine the challenges we face as a society. I think that is why much of the popular art produced today is left without emotion as it reflects the dead souls that reside in walking bodies not yet suffering physical demise, consumer zombies per se, which crowd our planet and threaten not only its health, but the entire human population’s survival as well.

New York City said...

I see your point about society. However, I have a rhetorical issue with John Maynard Keynes.

Something stated eloquently is often taken to hold truth.

But this is not necessarily so. Though I can't equivocally say that his preference could either be right or wrong, I can say that my preference is the opposite and I'll tell you why though in not so eloquent of terms. So I hope you'll judge it on it's logic and not its beauty.

I would rather be precisely wrong, because one who is precisely wrong will soon be corrected and thus be more precisely right rather than vaguely right.

This, of course, doesn't work if you're precisely wrong and don't precisely state your opinion loudly. That is why I state everything with volume and conviction.

This has a secondary benefit as well. Confidence will lead others to point out your weaknesses, which I find so often invisible to ourselves and our loved ones. And when you know your weaknesses, you know what you need to work on.

The first step to changing the world is changing yourself to who you wish you could be. Because you're the only one you can truly change. Then you will have the capacity to inspire others to change themselves, and that is the only way you can change others.

So, in conclusion I have a new maxim:

The fool may speak while the wise man listens. But if the fool listens after he speaks, he will soon be wiser by far.

Only say something brilliant if you know it's right. If you're not sure, say something foolish.

Denise Williams said...

LOL – In my generation, I am surrounded by many who suffer from the burden of having to prove themselves right no matter how wrong they are, or as I think of it: they endure the burden of always being correct. Hopefully the larger majority doesn’t suffer this ☺.

Yes, I agree it is good to be wrong if one is willing to learn from it. However, there are far too few individuals who actually possess the capacity to learn from their mistakes – many merely try yet another angle for the same purpose in hopes of achieving yet the same goal but to gain approval from those around them in doing so. . .. Many of our politicians throughout history have set a wonderful example of this behavior. It would be good if more people had your attitude.

Hopefully that’s what the world looks like tomorrow, or maybe even today.

The reason I quote Keynes is, I feel, when drawing a conclusion outside of myself, I hope, as I’m speaking, that I might be close to the truth, for if I am too far away from it, then I may inflict injury on the innocent as it might be possible that I will have lead other’s astray who might agree with my mistake, or perhaps view it as the only possible reasonable explanation – which would be such a tragedy.

I remember once being wrong when I was young, and I recall all those who agreed with me for they didn’t really understand what I had said, however incorrect it was, yet still it manifested into something entirely different than my intention – as it concluded neither was correct. I hopefully will never do that again, at least I now do my very best not to.

I used to think the truth was so simple to point out, now I see it is lost to those receiving it mostly. So, how can I be entirely correct in anything I state when it might have a completely different meaning once received?

I have to say, I truly honestly believe you are entirely RIGHT in what you say, I only wish I could say things so pointedly clear as you.

New York City said...

I have the greatest respect for Keynes. I believe it was he who said

"Do not ask what the world needs, ask yourself what you love to do. What the world needs are people who love what they do."

You did make an excellent point about others listening to one's foolishness and taking it seriously. So, perhaps I should make a little addendum to my philosophy.

Only speak foolishness in the company of wisdom.

Denise Williams said...

Wow, what a great statement! LOL, I actually went to bed last night, and then awoke this morning trying to figure out how to state the same thing concisely and eloquently.

I feel certain, you will one of those artists who are quoted throughout history. I however, will probably live my whole life and never say anything of consequence, much less worth repeating.

Anonymous said...

it seems you and i share the same respect for rothko's spirituality...