What is Art supposed to do?

A commentary by Douglas MacDiarmid commissioned for the first edition of Ascent – A Journal of the Arts in New Zealand, published by Caxton Press in November 1967.

This article elaborates on the freedom of the imagination, concentrating on freedom of expression and the initial effort required for contemporary achievement in New Zealand…

What is Art supposed to do?

‘To begin with, what do I mean by art?

I mean particular human skills, as opposed to natural activity. And then why? Why art of any sort? For even in the caves of prehistory there is evidence that eating, hunting, possessing and breeding were not enough to satisfy the clamouring of the mind. The imagination. This is perhaps the greatest single human force when you reflect that it has no limits, that neither progress nor understanding is possible without imaginative activity. In order to measure time it was first necessary to imagine the possibility. Likewise harnessing animals, transporting weights, and perhaps more important still, the development within society of morality, which art best is imagining the results of one’s actions on other people.

Some of the earliest alliances of art and imagination in Europe are the cave drawings of Lascaux in the south-west of France. Unfortunately visiting may no longer be possible owing to the deleterious effect on the cave walls of the breathing of crowds of people. But while the caves were still open to the public you could wander through subtly lit yellowish clay-coloured caverns leading and flowing one to another, the images of ancient hunted animals flowing and superimposed along roof and walls. It gave the impression of a simultaneous view of several periods of use and, whatever final interpretation is given these great drawings, it matters less than the fact of their being early expressions of man’s imagination.

As well as setting up harmful humidity, the concentrated breathing in that stale air brought one to a state of near hallucination. It became an effort to maintain a sense of reality, and so a shock suddenly at the mouth of the cave, back in fresh air and daylight to see way down in the valley a horse and cart moving together in the harvest. The mind reeled at having to adapt from the mysterious fleeting presences within, rather overwhelmed by the sense of time and effort that must have passed before the possibility of this simple farm scene, involving actual wheels on a cart drawn by a domesticated horse.

Haymaking 1955, oil. Private collection, New Zealand

It next became obvious that three hideous Nordic Trolls had taken this opportunity of sneaking out of the innermost dark to join our group and escape into the world. I couldn’t possibly have overlooked such unusually ugly tourists on the way in. Which brings us quite naturally to the dangers of imagination. For we must not forget, as an example, that at a time when man was patiently accumulating cathedrals to the glory of his faith, he was also capable of finding unfortunate physical differences reason enough for roasting many a witch.

It is a matter for debate whether progress in twentieth century imagination is either sudden or great. Things may have just been carried forward a bit in certain fields, the credit belonging to the momentum of time past—as well as the cursed way we still react to colours of skin, or opposing ideologies, and the sort of slaughter we condone in war at this very minute. We may not see it but are none the less involved.

Whether for good or evil, imagination has naturally been served by art. And in terms of art, good and evil can both be transcended. Take for instance, a painting pf a saint being hacked up for some religious end. It is a sight of complex barbarity, yet we can actually enjoy the picture as a work of art. Likewise, for me, Francis Bacon’s handling of paint is such to allow me to accept and even appreciate his tortured vision.

In any case, art is not a moral matter. Both art and morals require imagination, but then also water can be used for drinking or washing, and they are hard times indeed when either of these separate uses is forced to become one.

The ‘Cobra’ group of expressionist painters, founded in about 1940, developed the principle that ‘the act of creation is more important in itself than the thing created…’ The idea of representation is no longer even under discussion. What is aimed at through spontaneity in feeling and execution, is to get at nearly forgotten beginnings in the memory. And here a link is found with modern poetry, concerned with states of anxiety, pain rather than pleasure, means of demonstrating that forms—like words—can mask the truth.

Thus art provides a meeting point for the imagination. A mans of expression, with all that is implied of cumulative experience and result. And the very nature of imagination allows its links in art to be stronger—in the long run—than efforts to stifle or direct or forbid. Likewise to guarantee success. Expression of the imagination contains the essence of freedom itself. And a civilisation whose links with the imagination are unlimited is likely to be a lively civilisation, where arts and sciences flourish—in spite of William Blake’s “The Tree of Art is the Tree of Life; The Tree of Science is the Tree of Death.” He arrived at that conclusion because he imagined science to be the enemy of imagination. In fact, the arts and sciences share a similar activity involving different materials.

It is important to stress the nature of art as an imaginative link. Because somewhere down the road arose the idea that art should concern itself with what is pretty, nice, comfortable—pictures of ladies of the sort your mother could approve of, or gentlemen fishing, smoking a pipe or winning a battle. The sort of art you choose may be the consolation you are looking for. It may also be the only world where you find justice, where you get back something of what you put in and receive what you deserve, be it intensification or escape. If the soul has a mirror it may indeed be here.

But exclusive insistence on canons of beauty or escape can only become a limitation. For art cannot remain exclusively preoccupied with beauty any more than life can. Art is concerned with whit comes strongest and dearest to the imagination, which might put liberty first on the list for some, and explain why artists are often politically committed to one cause or another, especially in youth. The real surprise should be that mankind ever has anything beautiful to express. The answer may be that liberty is an optimistic ideal, and that nearly as strong as liberty as a force, is sensuality, in both frank and sublimated forms. For once man’s physical and moral needs are more or less respected, he begins dreaming of enjoyment to follow, and art has no difficulty in passing to considerations of pleasure, of enrichment of the mind, on keeping the mind open and exercised and eager.

Seated Nude 1964, oil on canvas 72 x 48.5 cm. Private collection New Zealand

This, at any rate, has become a blessing in many countries in our time. For princes and churches in the past did not encourage the imagination to flourish. Far from it. They more often required illustration of some official system. Thanks to which artists have done a vast job of reporting on figures and events of each age. We also have plenty of descriptions filtering through to show the progress of the soul from the caves out to the long-last achieved wish to fly about in the air. At this point it is not unreasonable that photography should take over the reporting. It can manage it faster and more accurately, and in some hands as dazzlingly as anyone could desire. Painters are free to penetrate regions of the spirit where the camera cannot follow. They are also free to go on reporting, and must be free to express what they want. For whether they paint what they see on the spot or take away a memory to work on, they have made a choice, and this becomes the point of their commentary.

A molecular age has brought particular repercussions on the imagination. A world more physically open, explained, visited, has meant the adventurous spirits are driven increasingly inward for territory to explore. The process has meant a revelation in texture, design, individual vision. And not the least important, admission that he who expresses what he sees is not necessarily more right than he who expresses what he knows. The past has left us a wealth of pictures dealing with things as they look. It would be ungrateful to quarrel now with generations whose aim is to express the spirit of things. Following the Cubists, the Abstract movement has served to get the bones of painting out into the clear—after all something had to happen at the end of last century, clogged as it was with detail and literature. And in spite of the present perplexity, there is evidence enough that serious painters are concerned with putting the bnes back into twentieth century flesh.

No one wishing to be present consciously in the twentieth century can afford to ignore what twentieth century imagination is trying to express. The task would be easier if the imagination were as reliable as a hammer or a knife—remembering that a hammer can slip and crush a finger and a knife break and cut a hand. Scarcely surprising then if the imagination sometimes flies wide of the mark, or serves up a salad of hitherto hidden confusion and horror. You can’t have liberty one way without the other.

It is at least important to recognise that the imagination of the period is striving to honour its responsibility. To come to terms with our congested civilisation and cities, our perplexity, offering everything from penetrating accusation to enthusiastic escape. In all of which it would be narrow-sighted to dismiss Op or Pop extravagances as worthless. Society has always suffered from the need for a good clown, and from tensions of societies as highly organised as ours, Dionysian release is the more urgent.

Difficulties in following and understanding arise because standards of criticism of liberty are hard to establish. And there are further complications and temptations to cheat when fashion rewards what passes for audacity and originality at the expense of more patient, less showy research. In our unparalleled liberty the individual responsibility is increased correspondingly, which in turn presupposes improved individuals—far from being necessarily the case among artists or anyone else.

Then the difficulty of establishing standards of comparison has meant that perhaps never before has the merely cunning artist had such golden chances. Once, an artist drew on the whole of his skill and knowledge, which was relatively complete enough o give an impression of integrity to the result. And continuity. But since the boundaries of possible knowledge have been pushed so much further, individual understanding has been obliged to break up into specialisation, and the artist has often specialised himself, with results both good and bad. For unless he is a very big man, fertile in invention, he falls into repetition or incoherence or both. He is focussed on his fascinating interior and sometimes can produce no more than one species of design, which he changes in terms of colour to spin the business out a bit. And when that wears thin or won’t sell, he adopts a new trick.

The dealers may be partly to blame for this. They have a tendency to bind painters with the sort of contract that requires so many oils, so many gouaches for such and such a regular date in order to have a show and keep sales up and speculation lively. You can’t bully the imagination like that and get away with it entirely. It dies out into obvious commercial posturing. Like Bernard Buffet. What’s the fun of being rich and famous if you can’t feel that you died some time ago?

Perhaps no period has been more concerned with the challenge of freedom than our own. But it’s a test for the individual, being free, and the results are fierce in contrast. On one hand, the mind is elated and stimulated by expression of freedom the exploding everywhere, whether above the artistic surface or below the political. On the other hand, such pretentiousness now exists that the mind boggles at it. Surely stupidity and vanity have never had such champions since the gods and giants of old were donging each other on the head.

Such a burst of pretentiousness may be due to a gradual change of attitude towards artists. They are no longer slightly despised servants of tyrants. Nowadays every artist worth his salt knows that he is a message-bearing genius—some appear vaguely uncertain as to what exactly their message will turn out to be by the time future ages have straightened them out, but others have got it gloriously clear into one little brush-stroke on an enormous canvas, or just the ideal hunk ripped off a sheet of metal.

In actual fact, an artist has no lack of reasons for being humble. If he’s honest, he’s constantly having to face up to the limit of his powers, constantly obliged to try to extend them. In the process he can become agonisingly lost. He can wake up one morning and for no definable reason have forgotten what he thought he knew. There’s no choice but begin feeling and thinking things out afresh. If that were no enough, he has also to contend with capricious and independent energies of his materials—for writers, words get out of hand, and Dali has illustrated the worries of at least one composer of music, whose notes have become biggish black ants and rushed into the centre of the page, while a luminous bubble-head of Lenin has appeared at the keyboard of the piano at intervals of an octave. Certainly for painters, one touch of colour can be enough to light up or extinguish the intention of a composition.

Provence 1966 – Douglas’ first acrylic painting, 44 x 77 cm

Try the experiment yourself. Cover a surface with colours—get them on fast enough for your subconscious to have played a major part. The result will have something of a sense of rhythm, or direction, emotional impact of some kind entirely apart from efforts or accidents of representation. Next try to control what you’re about, take a precise aim, and you’ll see what I mean. The artist is forever baffled by control—how to gain it—how to lose it—either way, in his own eyes, the ideal balance is still to come with the next picture. That may be what keeps him going, even creating a sense of distance from fellow creatures who do not pursue any vision in particular. Perhaps in some cases, only those who get far enough away from a certain balance and proportion manage to look back and obtain glimpses of any clarity. Is it permissible to wonder if only fundamentally unsatisfied people work up tensions enough to give point to their expression? Does one paint from what one has, or what one wants? The nature of vision is more likely to be nourished by the second.

Ideally, the painter is involved in all the complexity of a view into our strained, precariously poised relationship with the universe. And ideally, modern painting continues to give you this—plunges you into the contemporary adventure. It’s salutary to get a little lost—to ramble rather than hunt through the forests of the interior, free for experience and not dependent on finding one more animal to kill.

A word of comparison on the possibilities of open-mindedness in New Zealand and, say, France. It is not necessary not to have a complex just on the score of living in New Zealand. There could be advantages too.  For example, the number of French who feel the need to go further than the comfort of traditions from the extreme richness of their past is certainly exceeded by the number of those who, for many reasons, cannot. For this majority, nothing that the contemporary period has to offer can compare with some period safely past (electricity, plumbing, and gadgets that can be hidden, of course excepted). Furniture plays a decisive role in this attitude, and furniture largely indicates fortune, taste, political opinions and the sort of pictures that will fit.

I think it safe to say that the majority of French are still straining for the reconstitution of some past century—rather less Louis XV now that there are few attics that have not been ransacked, and few bargains possible as a result. The slightly severer Louis XVI is still fairly popular, and Napoléon III (Queen Victoria for us) has stopped being quaint and dowdy and been cleaned up and made attractive and comfortable. Recently the rage has tended more towards Louis XIII (our Stuart period), though furniture of this vintage is of a necessity only for those rich enough to be able to play up the ego more than convenience and comfort. (Here I salute in passing a Queen Anne table very prettily married to this French haute époque. It is a handsome table in terms of wood and colour and labyrinthine rhythm but sitting at it is misery. These pretty wooden legs occupy nearly all the space beneath.)

All of which is part of something permanently crazy in human society. Which period of Assyrian history was it during which you simply could not receive the So-an-So’s unless you had Egyptian furniture of the time of Thutmoses 9th, or some other worthy old mummy.

The design of the past is above all valuable when it inspires present day adaptations and improvements for our sort of living. It becomes complicated of course when much contemporary stuff is mass produced and plain ugly. And if you happen to have some good furniture to begin with, you will not want to throw it away and begin from scratch. What is encouraging along the very rich and bright, is how they can put the best of all worlds together. It can be managed if your likes are strong enough to liberate your taste and produce results that are exciting.

In New Zealand the weight of the past should not be hard to bear, but encourage favourable use of present resources. Surely the more people who work towards a contemporary responsibility, the more contemporary satisfaction there would be. The point I wish to make is that people who want to be thoroughly alive in France have an effort to make which is similar to the struggle not to be dead in New Zealand. Either way such people will be a minority (of benefit to the whole country), because of that initial effort. Getting the mind open a fraction means work. You can go out and give yourself trouble, come home and go on taking pains. Nothing of great quality will come to you like a bee to the flower. And why should it? Of course, eventually in 100 years or so something of what the active minority are about manages to seep through. It is up to everyone to decide for himself how long he can wait for fresh food.

As things stand in New Zealand there is danger of national insipidity. In too many cases one can observe the whole mental mechanism involved in trying to be thought nice but doing nothing to be clear. Which might go some way to explaining why the average New Zealander is afraid of colour, whether for the eyes or the personality. Colour is relegated to the painting of the roof, for the maximum disharmony of our largely hideous towns.

Most of our problems arise from our unadmitted smallnesses and fear. New Zealanders tend to resent and resist outside standards that are difficult to compete with and, as a result, remain closed in. Closed in and friendly. Because we are a genuinely, touchingly neighbourly people, and this is not enough. We need to get clearer in our friendliness and, instead of accepting ‘near enough’ and shoddy shanty-town functional, we must become better friends with the things we make before they can become the best we are capable of.

A mixture of timidity and laziness also prevents too many New Zealanders from being clear friends to word by word of their speech. New Zealand speech is notoriously unclear, as if communication between human beings were not already sufficiently difficult without that! This strikes me as the worst of faults. Not to co-operate energetically towards human communication. Not to have the guts to love one’s language enough to use it in a way that works. To be on this earth for such a short time and to mumble it away in half-hearted mediocrity. We’re blind and dull with so-called friendliness.

What’s to be done? Somehow get conscious of actions and surroundings. Seize all opportunities to compare. Avoid mindless repetition. Get at the heart of reasoning—which is to say, insist on what you really want. Insist with courage. Useless to accept this or that just so as not to be different from other people—as useless as trying to impress them. That only leads to the silly game of going one better.

I think a lot of us were brought up not to be inquisitive and exacting. Whereas, in order to be fair to everything from the ordinary to the unfamiliar, it’s not possible to be too inquisitive, too inquiring. Surely it is better to get the most of what’s presented and possible, instead of letting the mind shut with a snap out of habit, or fright, or the feeling of not knowing enough. Who does know all he needs?

If the contemporary variety (and confusion) were to be examined with fairness and feeling, the process could lead to significant change and solid achievement. But we have to want these things. Wholehearted wanting is the only corrective open to New Zealand.

I don’t know how much is left of a certain self-conscious striving to be New Zealanders that I remember in my youth. Like any natural growth, this is not to be rushed. Surely if we strove just to be individuals of the highest capacity we would be better New Zealanders into the bargain. You don’t stop being a New Zealander, by which I mean, cut years and experiences out of your life, just by wanting to, or by living elsewhere. I am specially well placed to give assurance of that.’

Witnesses of the Same Event 1966, ink drawing 50 x 55 cm. Private collection, Auckland

This is the full text of MacDiarmid’s article in Ascent, Volume 1, Number 1, November 1967, pages 11-15. The journal was edited by Leo Bensemann and Barbara Brooke for the iconic Caxton Press, Christchurch. Although a short-lived publication, only five issues were produced between 1967 and 1969, it filled a valuable gap in the development of New Zealand art culture between the Arts Year Books of the 1940s to 1951, and contemporary art journals, including Art New Zealand.

 The keenly anticipated first edition of Ascent was reviewed soon after publication in a Victoria University of Wellington magazine. The reviewer Mary Everett observed that Douglas MacDiarmid had approached the topic of what art is supposed to do in “very general terms”. The article “suffered from a lack of precision” but made some pertinent comments on the local scene, particularly on the subject of being clear in what we want.

 By 1967, Douglas had lived permanently in France, an expatriate New Zealander, for more than 15 years.

 A few pictures of the period have been added to this blog to illustrate what he was painting at the time and underpin the narrative, more than 50 years on…

To read more about Douglas MacDiarmid’s fascinating journey through life Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018)

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