Twentieth-century painting has inspired reams of hostile criticism ever since the twentieth century began. Its various forms have been deprecated as childish and fraudulent, have been dismissed as non-art and anti-art. But Huntington Hartford must be the first person who has publicly and seriously connected modern painting with a communist plot.
For his reader's unintended amusement, Hartford presents excerpts from "a set of notes purported to have been taken down a number of years ago by a secretary of secret communist meetings in our country." These "notes" supposedly give the American Communist line on abstract expressionism:
Inspirational art must be discredited... insane, ugly, revolting art must be substituted... Remove all inspiring and beautiful art from exhibitions and substitute degenerate art in its place. Have murals painted out, abstract art substituted. Try for meaningless emptiness... Eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms. Tie Junk together and set it up as sculpture. Public justification--This is the NEW art, advanced, progressive, creative...
Hartford suggests that we "file these notes away somewhere under the category, 'ancient history,'" but he adds that "against the spirit of these notes, against the propaganda that still tries to brainwash us with the theory that liberty and anarchy are one, we must fight to the last drops of blood."
Hartford dislikes and disapproves of every major style, except surrealism, that has emerged since the post impressionists. He objects to modern painting on moral grounds. "The purpose of great art," he believes, "is ethical."
He explains that "The outward and visible sign of this morality in the case of painting is the subject matter as demonstrated upon canvas." In other words, a painting that lacks concrete subject matter, or in which the subject matter has been too much altered, has not fulfilled its moral purpose. More than that, the painting itself is somehow immoral, and the artist who painted it has sinned against society.
Hartford does not think the modern artist has sinned inadvertently; he accuses the artist of callousness toward mankind and aggressive, destructive feelings toward society. For the Fauves, he believes, the impressionists' partial breakdown of nature "was the first taste of blood in the battle with civilization they desired." The "battle with civilization" has been raging ever since.
In general, Hartford concerns himself as much with the artist's attitude and method of working as he does with the artist's work. He believes that if a painter has the wrong attitude, if he creates by the wrong process, then his painting can't possibly be any good. Hartford may be right. But too often, he discussess the painter's methods without ever seriously mentioning the result of those methods. He objects that painters who apply paint to their canvasses with the wheels of sports cars, pairs of boxing gloves or naked, paint-smeared assistants aren't really artists. Good enough, But he never really contends with the outside possibility that the paintings they produce in these bizarre manners may be art.
Hartford believes that even the less eccentric modern artists paint only for themselves and for a small, initiated elite. He thinks they ignore a basic aesthetic truth: all art should be intelligible to the public, and great art has always been so.
Hartford frankly represents a public to whom modern painting is not intelligible. And his writing reflects a resentful bewilderment. He never tries to understand or to analyze. Instead, as he says, "I am angry." He argues, in effect, "I see nothing in abstract art because there's nothing to see. Any one who claims to see anything in it is either a faker or a dupe."
He believes that modern painting, or at least its popularity, has resulted from a conspiracy among the artists, critics and dealers. He blames the dealers for being too commercial, for selling paintings like any other merchandise, and for demanding from the artist the kinds of paintings that are easiest and most profitable to sell. Perhaps the dealers deserve at least part of his criticism. But his idea that considering paintings in terms of dollars and cents is both a special product and a leading cause of contemporary art falls flat. He overestimates his forebears. When an Italian dramatist named Guiseppe Giacosa visited the United States in 1898, he proclaimed that "the primative measurement of works of art in terms of dollars and cents in the United States leaves me with a sense of disgust. I remember a visit to the home of a very rich collector of pictures in New York. He accompanied me himself, set me at the best point of view before each item, and declaimed in Ciceronian accents: 'Corot, ten thousand dollars; Millet, fifteen thousand,' and so on."
Although Hartford never quite proves the critics' malicious intent in promoting abstract art, he hits home when he denounces the gibberish with which they promote it. Early in the book he quotes Art News's comments on a De Kooning "Woman:". "she could have been outside a house as well as inside," babbles the magazine, "or in an inside-outside porch space. This state of anonymous simultaneity (not no-specific-place, but several no-specific-places) is seen more clearly in the few objects which appeared, then disappeared around the seated figure." Art News concludes that "Ambiguity, exactingly sought and exactingly left undefined has been the recurrent theme in 'Woman.'" Hartford is right. This is nonsense.
But Hartford's main target is not the critics, the dealers, or even the painters in general; it is Pablo Picasso. He dislikes almost everything Picasso has done since the Rose Period and claims that "Picasso's work has had the effect of wiping out almost all the gains that have painfully and step by step been made in painting during the last five hundred years." Hartford considers Picasso a potentially great painter who never developed, but chose instead to create "by means of mental gymnastics such as those glorified in IQ tests."
Perhaps Hartford has a point. Perhaps one could legitimately reshape his idea and say that Picasso is a great painter who has painted very few, if any, great pictures. He is certainly a man whose innovations, and whose career as a history of innovation, have been more significant than his individual works. Hartford refers at one point to the great retrospective exhibit of Picasso's paintings held at London's Tate Gallery in the summer of 1960. Viewing this exhibit, which included paintings done by Picasso from the age of twelve right up to that year, one was greatly impressed by Picasso's versatility, creativity and tremendous natural talent; one was much less impressed by the paintings themselves.
Hartford never finds time, in his condemnation of Picasso, to mention the artist's surrealistic paintings. Hartford likes surrealism. He thinks Salvador Dali is the greatest painter of contemporary times. He even forgives the surrealist painter, Tanguy, for not painting recognizable objects, because Tanguy's paintings are so meticulously three-dimensional. But what does Hartford think of Picasso's surrealism? How does he resolve the combination of his pet ogre of the twentieth century with his pet movement of the twentieth century? He shouldn't keep the answer to himself.
But Hartford obviously means well. He emerges from his book as a nice, slightly baffled man, who can appreciate a sunset, deplore the dehumanization of our modern environment, and feel real concern about man's fate. It's too bad that his book contains so much hystericism, so many contradictions, that readers will probably dismiss even his valid observations.