How Free Is Free?

Peter Saul, “Cake and Pie” (2011) Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 96 inches. (all photos by the author or Hyperallergic)

Where political repression is not at issue, is it beside the point to talk about artistic freedom?

Last week I wrote about the new show of paintings by Peter Saul, who’s responsible for the most outrageously beautiful and beautifully outrageous images of the past half-century.

In the post’s comments section, a reader noted Saul’s singular bravado as a painter, and the longevity of his career, with the observation:

I guess it takes 50 years to be able to paint whatever the fuck you want and not worry about leaving the viewer behind.

I responded by paraphrasing something I once heard from the abstract painter Charles Seide (1915-1980), who “couldn’t understand why artists feel they need to justify what they’re doing, since art is the only human endeavor in which we are totally free.”

The reader replied:

It’s a great sentiment (Seide’s), but — unless you’re beyond the need for validation, or, unless you’ve earned it, like Saul appears to have — total freedom from justification is not really an option.

Which flatly contradicted my more open-ended statement, but which I also recognized as essentially correct.

Detail of Peter Saul, “Cake and Pie” (2011) (click to enlarge)

Essentially, but not absolutely, I believe, because the question of freedom becomes a matter of the chicken or the egg.

What is more limiting, we might ask, than context? Or rather, contexts. We’re all enmeshed in them: webs of historical, political, geographical, social and cultural conditions circumscribing our experience and perspective.

They are as much a part of our existence as the air we breathe. We are skewed with them and unmoored without them. They are the filters through which we sort the array of stimuli we absorb — and discharge — every minute of every day.

The chicken-and-egg question is between context as a constraint and context as a vessel. In other words, if an artwork is inherently bound to its contexts, is that because the artist has been subliminally imprinted with the core values of a particular place and time, influencing all that he or she touches, or is it because the artist has consciously addressed those values in the making of the work, manipulating them in the search for deeper meanings?

Despite my categorization, I’m sure it’s not an either/or. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in his seminal essay, “Cezanne’s Doubt” (from Sense and Non-Sense, 1964):

If I am a certain project from birth, the given and the created are indistinguishable in me, and it is therefore impossible to name a single gesture which is merely hereditary or innate, a single gesture which is not spontaneous — but also impossible to name a single gesture which is absolutely new in regard to that way of being in the world which, from the very beginning, is myself. There is no difference between saying that our life is completely constructed and that it is completely given.

The idea of context as a vessel, it would seem, is what Charles Baudelaire invokes in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) as “the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, [which distils] the eternal from the transitory.”

Even if the distinction between these two readings of context is ephemeral, my bias resides with the second (context as a vessel) because it is more aligned with the historical shifts — at least as chronicled in the history of Western art — which we have come to define as modernist, from Giotto to Caravaggio to Goya to Manet to Cezanne to Picasso to Pollock.

It is a distinctly formal approach, but it need not be formalist, at least with respect to the aridity that clings to the term.

The reason I’m backing away from strict formalism is because the stylistic shifts marked by the works of these artists make up a generational (or, in some cases, epochal) redetermination of art’s relationship to reality – both external and internal. Their technical, perceptual and formal breakthroughs form a continuum of sensual restoration and renewal.

To return to Merleau-Ponty on Cezanne:

His painting was paradoxical: he was pursuing reality without giving up the sensuous surface, with no other guide than the immediate impression of nature, without following the contours, with no outline to enclose the color, with no perspectival or pictorial arrangement. This is what [Emile] Bernard called Cezanne’s suicide: aiming for reality while denying himself the means to attain it.

In other words, Cezanne was engaged in the painful practice of separating perception from the tropes of art that had acculturated and contextualized it:

[Cezanne] is not satisfied to be a cultured animal but assimilates the culture down to its very foundations and gives it a new structure: he speaks as the first man spoke and paints as if no one had ever painted before. What he expresses cannot, therefore, be the translation of a clearly defined thought, since such clear thoughts are those which have already been uttered by ourselves or by others.

Cezanne was an artist who “worked alone, without students, without admiration from his family, without encouragement from the critics.” His freedom was hard-won. Even at the age of 67, “one month before his death — he wrote: ‘I was in such a state of mental agitation, in such great confusion that for a time I feared my weak reason would not survive … ’” and he could console himself only with the words, “’I am still learning from nature, and it seems to me I am making slow progress.’”

But what of Caravaggio? As a very young man, his fierce, uncompromising originality had already burst forth. He invented chiaroscuro and pushed realism to unflinching extremes. Breaking with established workshop practice, he painted alone, with no assistants other than a color grinder, in oil and from direct observation, posing and lighting tableaux vivants of his friends, lovers and acquaintances like a master filmmaker.

He had a naïve faith in his own vision, and plowed on despite the consternation and rejection he sometimes encountered from the powers that be (although it is also important to note that his work was always esteemed by a handful of powerful connoisseurs).

Giotto, it could be said, shared this sense of certainty, as did Manet and Picasso. And, for that matter, Peter Saul. Pollock would join Cezanne in the opposite camp. Goya started his career in the first and ended up in the second.

And so we have two sets of artists (extraordinarily delimited, I admit): one seemingly unfettered from their context’s mediated perceptions of reality; one that struggled mightily against them.

The dilemma of the twenty-first century is that our contexts have become so manifold that virtually anything can find a home inside them. This set of circumstances would seem to demand a degree of clarity — at least on an intuitive level (for those of us whose explorations, like Cezanne’s, “cannot … be the translation of a clearly defined thought”) — about why we make this choice over that.

And it demands the rigorous honesty that Merleau-Ponty saw in Cezanne:

Just as we may observe the movements of an unknown animal without understanding the law which inhabits and controls them, so Cezanne’s observers did not guess the transmutations which he imposed on events and experiences; they were blind to his significance, to that glow from out of nowhere which surrounded him from time to time. But he himself was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the leftovers of an unknown party. Yet it was in the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was on the approval of others that he had to wait for the proof of his worth. That is the reason he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances other people directed toward his canvas. That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.

Total freedom from justification is not an option, because we never finish justifying our lives to ourselves.


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