Abstract Critical

Naïveté and Truth in Modern Art

Written by Robert Linsley

Are we wiser than our great-great-grandparents? They may have been wrong about much modern art, and their grandparents were likely wrong about Cézanne, but we are not wrong, so we must know so much more, be so much more enlightened. That might be so, but to be sure we might also want to take a look at what actually happened to Cézanne so long ago – or was it only yesterday?

History tells us that Cézanne was laughed at. To be vilified, criticized, attacked and abused – well, that’s just the normal combat of the salons, the expected blows to be taken in the arena of art. But to be laughed at is humiliation, and Cézanne felt it that way. His agonies were intense. But why would he care? After all, he knew he was right. But then what, for him, did it matter that he was right? Cézanne wanted what every artist wants – to be loved, admired, respected and rewarded for his or her genius. In the final analysis, despite whatever they may say, everyone wants success. Cézanne could have laughed off his detractors, but he had something at stake – namely that no matter how strong his or her conviction, no artist is great unless other people believe so. Cézanne expected and needed to be affirmed in his choices, and he had good reason to think he would be.

Cézanne, as a sophisticated and intelligent student of the art of his time, took two models for his own practice, the then leaders of the avant-garde Courbet and Manet. From Courbet he took the persona of the rough mannered country bumpkin pushing his way with muddy boots into the refined precincts of metropolitan culture. He wore the hat and beard, but was smart enough to know that the posture had to be taken in his work – heavy paint, crude drawing, clumsy spaces, botched modeling were the way. I’m talking about the early Cézanne. Manet taught him that the ruination of painting was the goal, and that it could be accomplished more completely and convincingly without the social alibi of a provincial background. In other words, the strength of Courbet’s public persona meant that in the end his art was not radical enough. Manet despoiled art with perfect self confidence, or seemed to. Unlike the provincial arriviste, he possessed the art of the museums as his birthright; his travesties of Titian and Giorgione were a product of a perfect familiarity that freed him from awe of the past but made his love that much more intimate. So Manet pointed the way forward, but Courbet taught the manner, and this might be one reason why Cézanne met resistance, that he could not carry himself with the same flair and insouciance as Manet. For the audience there was a dissonance – the ambition did not match the effort in exactly the right way.

This is pretty close to the point I want to make, but first we have to acknowledge that some people did respond to what Cézanne was doing, and secondly that even as they laughed the public were also asking if Cézanne was laughing at them, if it was all a send up of their own pretensions. In this respect Cézanne was adequate to his audience, because the typical leader of culture, to this day, is the provincial who moves to the metropolis and transforms themselves into a sophisticate. This is why anxiety is the ground note of sociability in all the arts, because ambitious, successful people start as outsiders, and are always afraid of slipping up – of saying the wrong thing, taking the wrong position, of having the wrong sort of taste. Completely assured cosmopolitans, like Manet, are a minority. The audience could sense the presence of a Manet within Cézanne’s work, and naturally that made them nervous, but the surface persona, much more easily classifiable, didn’t match.

It’s fascinating to anatomize Cézanne’s inability to strike the right pose, and the psychology of his audience, and I could go on longer, but the point to make is that there was nothing wrong with his calculations, on the aesthetic level at least. And if his audience had had the benefit of museum education departments to explain his intentions their laughter would certainly have been stopped, as the natural desire to laugh and scoff is so often stopped today. But no matter his or her intentions, what the artist has to meet are the tacit expectations of the audience. The audience has a feeling for how things should go, and the sophisticated audience has a sophisticated feeling, and no matter the efforts of criticism to make art legible, and to explain the logic of the most outlandish developments, that tacit dimension will never disappear. Art education and ubiquitous criticism just bury it deeper, make it less evident but stronger.

If an artist wants success, then what is to stop them from doing whatever it takes to achieve that? From a logical perspective, if Cézanne couldn’t judge his reception correctly then he must have been incompetent. But how do we explain an artist who sees the target clearly, is fully aware of its context and setting, has all the means to strike a bulls-eye, yet a constitutional inability to hit. There is something else going on here, and it’s worth study because it has to do with the measurement of genuine quality in art. This is a very difficult topic to take up, and the critic and philosopher Theodor Adorno made a brave attempt, with a concept deliberately chosen to have the same effect as Cézanne’s pictorial solecisms – naïveté.

Adorno chose the French word, which his translator has wisely distinguished from the normal English naivety, because there are in fact two ways to be naive. Following Hegel, Adorno believes that it is impossible for art to continue as natural, unreflective or unaware of its own preconditions. This of course is exactly the starting point of what we call today conceptual art. But it is crucial for Adorno to recognize a faculty that can’t be encapsulated by theory.

“Blindness was ever an aspect of art; in the age of art’s emancipation, however, this blindness has become to predominate in spite of, if not because of, art’s lost naïveté, which, as Hegel already perceived, art cannot undo. This binds art to a naïveté of a second order: the uncertainty over what purpose it serves.”i

So the true and necessary naïveté is to believe that art is possible despite all the evidence, but we have to bring the discussion down out of elevated realms to the day to day doings of real artists, and realize that we are really talking here about the conflict between the spontaneity of the individual and the tacit understandings of the collective. I want to offer another quote from Adorno, and I ask the readers of AbCrit to consider it carefully, through I’m aware that it is not the sort of talk most are used to.

“An absence of naïveté – a reflective posture toward art – clearly also requires naïveté, insofar as aesthetic consciousness does not allow its experiences to be regulated by what is culturally approved but rather preserves the force of spontaneous reaction toward even the most avant-garde movements….Naïveté toward art is a source of blindness; but whoever lacks it totally is truly narrow minded and trapped in what is foisted upon him.”ii

To those who can hear them, these words offer support and encouragement to many of the judgements expressed on this web site, however, I offer them reluctantly, as I fear that they will only deepen the prevailing naivety, which might be characterized, among other things, as life long dedication to lost causes. John Bunker, in his own naively spontaneous way, keeps flagging this point, which can be illuminated by another quote from Adorno:

“The suspicion must be kept in mind that artistic experience as a whole is in no way as immediate as the official art religion would have it. Every experience of an artwork depends on its ambience, it’s function, and, literally and figuratively, its locus. Overzealous naïveté that refuses to admit this distorts what it considers so holy.”iii

Naivety is a difficult concept to use precisely because of the ridicule entailed. To be naive is not to grasp the tacit, what everyone knows so well that it doesn’t need to be said. A naive person says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that always makes us laugh. No one wants to be naive, because no wants to be laughed at. If we are ever caught out in our ignorance of any social code we are embarrassed and quickly readjust our picture of things. Embarrassment is a mild form of humiliation, and humiliation is so devastating to any individual it can actually kill. Humiliation is an individual’s natural but self-destroying response to total rejection by the collective. But lack of naivety is nothing other than alignment of the individual consciousness with the group mind. The very existence of art depends on a “naive” ability to act without respect for the tacitly approved.

I put the word “naive” in scare quotes as a convenient way to sustain the contradiction between the two uses. The slipperiness of the term, the inevitable confusions and defensive reactions it will provoke is what makes it so appropriate. If one is too naive to play the game with the word naive, if the fear of humiliation is too great, then the true, necessary and valuable naïveté will never be available. And so the question arises whether one can be productively “naive” and know it.

Personally, I have to believe so, but if we ask Adorno the answer will be…well…yes and no. It may be an impossible question to answer. In any case, I doubt that quotations from Adorno will win me any approbation from the devotees of AbCrit, many of whom share a raft of tacit assumptions, one of which is likely that contradictions are always nonsense, a typically English blindness. But the difference between the situation today and that faced by Cézanne is that there are now many contexts and many tacit realms, and any public forum will speak to more than one of them. It’s probably naive to choose this one to talk about these matters, but maybe not. A catalogue text about a late model conceptualist at a continental Kunsthalle would get better coverage, but then only deepen the naivety of those who think they are too smart to be caught out by art. There are many contexts, many different sets of tacit values and many chances to say the wrong thing, but as an artist I continue to strive for universality – a “naivety” I share with my artist colleagues on this site.

To quote Adorno is to seek, and find, some protection for one’s own naïveté, and I shamefully admit that I take this route to avoid the inevitable and annoying debate that will emerge around the apparent contradictions in my argument, for which I don’t have the time. Blame it on the German. At least implicit in his thought is that an artist can be fully self aware and still work spontaneously and naively, but how that’s supposed to happen and how we can recognize it is a big mystery, and should probably remain so. But there can be no doubt that genuine artistic naiveté comes along with a high level of conscious understanding of the art. Adorno’s description of the composer Schoenberg could easily apply to Cézanne:

“When the not exactly avant-garde public of Naples proved to be less than enthusiastic about Pierrot lunaire, or when a comic opera with a highly complex structure failed to become the darling of the public in Frankfurt, Schoenberg could hardly understand it. He thought of his music as music like that of the Masters, nothing else. His listener must also have something of this naïveté, which is characteristic not only of Schoenberg’s private behaviour but also of Schoenberg as an artistic type, all the while people are trying to persuade the listener of the opposite.”iv

No one could say that Schoenberg didn’t know what he was doing, because absolute transparency of means and intentions are built right into his methods. And no one could say that he didn’t know what was expected by the audience, for he was very well educated and an astute critic. The only possible conclusion is that he was realizing objective possibilities in the material, meaning choices or decisions not yet recognized by the group mind.

This is the point to return to the start of this topic on AbCrit, the occasion an exchange about Frank Stella. Stella wants to make art like the old masters, and what could be more “naive” in the current art world? It’s not an empty claim to measure himself against the presumed “quality” of Rubens or Caracci, to make art as “great” as theirs, he actually tries to compose his pictures the way they did. He is using old master techniques. My references here are the huge paintings of the Kleist series, practically unknown. And the “naivety” entailed is of the kind described by Adorno in the first quote in this article – a belief against all the facts that painting, that art is still possible in the mass mediated, digital environment. But it’s not belief, it’s spontaneous expression, doing it not talking about it. Completely crazy, completely naive, completely admirable. Let’s not forget that in today’s art world any possibility can be theoretically entertained, that explanation of intentions is the passport into the education/tourism/culture complex. Naivety in the true sense then is not a state of mind, it’s a kind of action, a behavior perhaps, but for an artist more an accomplishment. So it can coexist with any kind of tacit understanding, and the inevitable ridicule no longer applies to the individual.

Robert Linsley, 2013


i Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota 1997 p.1

ii ibid. p. 269

iii ibid. p. 350

iv “Toward an Understanding of Schoenberg,” in Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music, University of California 2002 ed. by Richard Leppert, p. 629

  1. Alan Gouk said…

    I withdraw my comments on Adorno as ill-informed. Having read more, I find little obscurity. In Coherence and Meaning for instance, his account of form and content, and intentionality, are admirably lucid and balanced. However his highly abstract speculations are primarily concerned [ as in all modern philosophy ] with clarifications in the use of language; when he turns to adducing specific corroboration for supplementary covert value judgements in musical or pictorial examples, any specialist is bound to demur, which is why Taruskin has difficulty.
    For example— he says that ” Schoenberg himself distinguished almost mechanically between the preparation of 12 tone material and composition, and on account of this distinction he had reason to regret his ingenious technique”.
    Though Schoenberg may well have felt somewhat trapped by the method, he continued to try to demonstrate its flexibility and versatility almost to the end. To relax it [as he occasionally did ] would be to lend ammunition to his enemies and critics.
    The 12 tone system is an organising procedure; in itself it carries little implication for ” form” as defined by Adorno, which for Schoenberg came from inspiration fuelled by the vicissitudes of his emotional and intellectual life.{ A thoroughly old -fashioned aesthetic position in Adorno’s scheme of things]
    He was criticised by the younger Darmstadt composers for pouring new wine into old bottles, by continuing to employ or to parody classical forms in some movements.
    The advocates of “total serialism” claimed greater logical rigour for their employment of the procedures, but as always, the pursuit of “the new” does not guarantee greater formal or qualitative strength, and quality is confirmed in the end by the empathetic tolerance of new listeners.
    However that they ,[ the totalists] “incurred the loss of articulation without which form is almost inconceivable” is a value judgement which supporters of the new music would find problematic.
    ONe other thing—in An Appetite for Poetry [1989], Fank Kermode graphically describes the current babel of conflicting schools of literary criticism, and records how academics in University faculties of Literary and Cultural Criticism owe their continued existence to the publishing of “research”, i.e. churning out contributions to the art theory industry, thus perpetuating the trickle-down of factional interests and agendas held by a very few original voices.
    Why visual art-students would even want to enter this minefield is beyond me.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      My first thought was “that’s quick,” but it seems that you haven’t read a lot. Not that there’s any requirement to do so.

      I agree with your last comment, which is why I have no interest in that industry. But there’s still a few people worth reading.

      The more important question is whether Adorno gets so caught up in his speculations that he loses touch with the object, namely art. But that’s a pretty widespread failing, that even artists can be guilty of. Any journalist critic who rattles on about minimalism or earth art or any other such conventional category is lost in an intellectual fog, because such things have no real existence. That’s why artists tend toward what I think is called nominalism – that there are only particular single things no general categories. Every artist wants to claim their own difference, and resents being grouped, isn’t that so? If Adorno sometimes got too abstract he can hardly be blamed for that ordinary failing, and I think he did a much better job than most. I’ve found his judgments on particular works to be not so bad, but his forte is something else. He is also popular with artists, or some at least, and I suspect that is because he knew what it is from the inside, as a composer. He always defended Schoenberg from the systematic 12 tone composers, in exactly the same terms that you use, yet Schoenberg loathed him and entirely rejected his interpretations, however complimentary they may have been. He probably resented the way that Adorno set him against Stravinsky in the Philosophy of Modern Music book, and that may in fact be an example of a too systematic and theoretical effort. It’s not my favorite. Certainly from Schoenberg’s position it must have been politically very unwelcome. I think his books on Berg and Mahler are pretty good. But he’s vulnerable to the charge of being a failed composer turned critic. It’s hard to be objective about these things, especially in an era where many artist are also theorists, critics and writers, when in fact every substantial artist is at least something of a theorist. Maybe you’re too intellectual.

  2. CAP said…

    This whole essay is wayward to me. Cezanne’s early works were dismissed admittedly, but by the time he found his mature style he quickly had followers, before he even showed much. Degas and Gauguin were amongst them. Part of the reason his reputation rises quite quickly is because the Impressionist group recognise his ‘sensations’ and his radical shift to volume over colour as basic or prime. They might not have wanted to follow him, but they could see what he was doing.

    The early Manet-influenced perversities are just not very good -even as just that. I wouldn’t say he was naive though. Although he came from the provinces, he went to a very good school, was intelligent, well read and according to Mary Cassat reliably remained a gentleman and always removed his hat in her presence. He also had a private income and no real need to chase a career. Initially he was intent upon shocking or offending, as young men often are, but he really didn’t have the ammunition, technically or emotionally, to deliver the kind of epat he had in mind. I think he just wasn’t mature enough, or know himself well enough at that point. If you want to call this naive, then he was naive.

    He’s a great advertisement for late bloomers though.

  3. Ryan said…

    Is 38-years-old still “young” enough to place me in a new generation? Am I of this AbCrit “coterie”, or outside of it? Or is all that crap insubstantial and ultimately irrelevant?

    I hate to break it to y’all, but there is just no such thing as “continental philosophy”, as there is really no such thing as “alternative medicine”, or “Christian Science”. There is philosophy, there is medicine, there is science. Those other, added adjectives literally mean that, whatever it is you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.

    “Conceptual art” is another example of this…

    So, trust an essay-writing university professor who self-admittedly doesn’t read philosophy to be the first to quote a “continental philosopher”, claim to “have no academic pretensions”, AND do it all without any outward sign of self-awareness or embarrassment!

    Wow. Maybe I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.

  4. John Pollard said…

    Abstract Critical brings lots of good painting to people and some interesting ideas. It also brings some personal disputes that play out like a family therapy session and so, for this reason, I will not comment on what can sound quite hurtful insults at times.
    However, more seriously, I’m sure it does put some people off from posting and this should be kept in mind. How inclusive does Ab Crit want to be?
    I’m certainly careful with what I post.
    So, on the subject of continental philosophy, I won’t mention Heidegger.

  5. Alan Gouk said…

    Corrections—I was rushed. Spelling–Schelling–repellent–series , not sees. More sherry anyone.

  6. Alan Gouk said…

    Ah !– that will be the Terry Ryall who wanted to have me banned from abcrit for being rude to J H . Once again, to try to paint me as an anti-intellectual in the proverbial English mode is disingenuous if you have read any of my articles. After all I come from an admittedly grossly impoverished version of he same educational background as David Hume and Thomas Reid, [though not presumptuous enough to claim any further affinity].
    For example, Wordsworth and Coleridge were no doubt aware of speculative thought on matters aesthetic and poetic from the German idealist background, Shelling, the Schlegel brothers; and Coleridge in his Boigraphica Literaria has even been accused of plagiarism of the Germans, with his “primary and secondary imaginations”, the origins of Romanticism being firstly Germanic, and have often been traced to the pietism of protestant Germany in the early 17th century.
    But it was not, in my view,[and others] these theories that preceded and influenced the poetry so much that the theory was called in to justify a mode of feeling in and for language which arose from a sees of deep blows to the emotional life which were bound to affect any hyper-sensitive temperament in those decades. The true motivations and well-springs of art lie in the dialectics of the emotional life, not on the level of theory or discussion, which carry on their own semi-autonomous dialogues in parallel, [ though this in itself is a Romantic formulation, or myth?
    I used to think of myself as more than half a romantic, but on reading Frank Kermode on The Artist in Isolation in The Romantic Image, I see that I am not . I find it all faintly repellant. [ I recommend it to R L. He'll love it , its so literary heavy ]
    Its just that the ” festerings of society” {Keats] have got so much worse since Keats wrote, and that the audience for my kind of abstraction has shrunk through the base propaganda of those for whom everything is a tease at the expense of the serious-minded, to be replaced by the ” puerile Utopias” [ Baudelaire] on offer in ” the technological flux”.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      Alan,there is (as I see it) an unwelcome structural problem here which prevents me from properly addressing your view that I wanted to have you banned from abcrit. More on that later.
      What you and I and others have said in this particular thread is open to a process of scrutiny and assessment,and that, I hope you would agree, is as it should be. Individuals can look at what has been said in terms of content and tone and come to a balanced and objective view about opinions and comments. You feel I have unfairly ‘painted’ you as anti-intellectual and I don’t. I feel I have made a broadly-cast comment(if somewhat exaggerated)intended as a plea for a more tolerant tone. Those interested to do so can decide which of us has most justification for our differing viewpoints. Moving back in time a little, I hope we would both agree that the decision to remove our respective comments from a particular thread (I can’t remember which it was now) was contrary to the spirit of open exchange of views that Abcrit should (and indeed does most of the time) seek to promote. Sadly, no general scrutiny of what either of us actually said can now take place and because of that I am unable to defend myself in any meaningful way against the cheap-shot assertion that I wanted to have you banned from Abcrit,so,enjoy the moment. Think of it as an early Christmas present from those whom you have dubbed the Abcrit police:-) If you know who these shadowy figures are, please let me know.
      Finally,I agree it is regrettable that the audience for your kind of abstraction has shrunk. Ultimately perhaps all that most artists really have that is meaningful is provided by what they do. It’s a lonely job.
      Now,where’s that sherry?

  7. Terry Ryall said…

    I’ve had an idea. let’s shoot all intellectuals, burn all the books that have difficult/weird content and, oh yes ( silly me, I nearly forgot this)let’s declare year zero. The world would be a far better place, right?

  8. Alan Gouk said…

    Please delete the “all” from my last comment . I meant to say too readily or too carelessly . Put it down to the pre–Christmas sherry , La Gitana Fino of course , not the Harvey’s Bristol Cream that J H. drinks, or is it Sanatogen. And no, we are not all paid up members of UKIP on abcrit, in spite of la Holland’s attempts to paint us as such. “We” stands for everyone on abcrit including those who want to appear to be sniping from the outside.

    • John Holland said…

      Really, Mr. Gouk, you’re going to have to do better than simply making up your own sleights. When the hell have I ever mentioned bloody UKIP? What on EARTH are you on about? Have you really nothing better to do- what about top and tailing the sprouts?
      As for the Bristol Cream/Sanatogen ‘dig’, er- ? Maybe you should just say I smell, and be done with it.

      Obviously, though, I’m enormously impressed with the sophistication of your sherry choice. Well done. And Happy Christmas.

  9. Alan Gouk said…

    There you go again Robert,–talking down to your readers as if you were”nt part 0f the alleged coterie and as if they could”nt get your subtleties . That is what I objected to. And as for continental philosophers [ J.H.] , if any of them had anything to say about painting or sculpture outside of abstruse linguistic theory , I”d be quoting them too. On Cezanne, give me Kurt Badt any day, and on aesthetics , Adorno dismisses Croce all too easily, along with idealism generally, but I might read a bit more. Have none of you a ny Christmas shopping to do ?

  10. Alan Gouk said…

    Sorry–I withdraw that last bit . Not off the point . Just mistaken . Reading J.H. on David Webb’s recent show reveals a perceptive side to him. I don’t want to perpetuate our little spat, which will be incomprehensible to others since the preremptory taking down of its start by the abcrit police. Merry Christmas.

  11. Alan Gouk said…

    Chris Edwick has already said all that needs to be said on this subject . And what age is he or she ? We do not need to know. Glad to see that J. H. is back though just as off the point as ever .

  12. Alan Gouk said…

    Intellectuals like Adorno [ and Linsley ] can convince themselves that black is white and that the moon is made of green cheese, which as far as I know it isn’t. But even if it were proven to be so, I would still continue to see it as a fulgent disc floating in the sky.
    The way I paint is temperamental and semi-involuntary ?–Even if some theorist of artistic expression were to prove it futile, wrong-headed, head in sand-, it would not affect my way of working in the slightest. So yes, in that sense I am an example of naivete and proud of it — “a lifelong dedication to lost causes”[ according to Linsley ].
    How ageist can you be ? How do you know what the average age of contributors to abcrit is?
    And to say that you rarely or never read philosophy or art criticism ?– Come off it !–Hegel , Marx, Adorno ?

    • John Holland said…

      I think it’s easy enough to guess the age of a contributor- it takes at least sixty five years to accumulate this level of bitterness.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I’m glad to hear that you paint pretty much the way everybody does, and have no criticism of that. The problem of how self aware one can be and continue to work productively remains. I thought readers would realize that what I said on this topic applied equally to me as to anyone – a difficult thing to handle, perhaps requiring a degree of tact and discretion (interpreted by some as a “meta-critique” or excessive self-consciousness) – but maybe one shouldn’t overestimate one’s readers.

      You’re right, the question is not the future of abstraction in general, but the usefulness of abcrit. If abcrit belongs to a coterie then there ain’t much. I don’t mind polemics and am not intimidated by anyone’s vehemence, just don’t have a lot of time to waste. I don’t write to score points, but to think out loud about what bothers my work.

      Tried to read Hegel once but had to admit defeat. What I know about Hegel I learned from Adorno. I have absolutely no shame in admitting a lack of rigour in philosophical matters because I have no academic pretensions. Don’t even aspire to be a critic. Everything I know about philosophy, politics, religion etc. came to me from my work.

      • JohN Holland said…

        Robert- it’s a shame that your essay has provoked such misplaced ire, because if I understand it at all, you’re really just talking about the venerable problem of the need for artists to find a way between cultural and technical sophistication, and artistic instinct. Not really so contraversial, I’d have thought.

        You did two things that are the AbCrit equivalent of walking into a bullring in a Manchester United kit, though- you mentioned a modern Continental philosopher, and followed the associated habit of using untranslated French terms. Personally, I reach for my gun every time I hear the phrase ‘objet petit ‘a’ ‘. Given that Le Gouk so enjoys taking offence, this is a shame, because there doesn’t seem to be any really substansive disagreement of what you are saying once the willful misreading is dealt with.
        As you say, if AbCrit is to serve any purpose there needs to be a way of not just avoiding all the witless cliche and visual illiteracy of so much, er, ‘contmporary discourse’, but also taking into account the inescapable, if possibly unfortunate, fact that the last fifty years have happened.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        thanks John. You’re probably right, but maybe there’s more to it. All the topics reduce to simple and universal problems, and then, as you say, they are not really controversial. But maybe there’s another level of naïveté that matters more, and is more difficult to compass. Cézanne was a great artist, and art comes out of strong feelings – some people feel more strongly than others and so are more vulnerable. Maybe all important concepts in art have their common use and their deeper meaning, usually not present in the “discourse.” Or maybe this is all too much fuss over something not so important. Or maybe I just have my own peculiar way of seeing things, that I take one small corner of Adorno and give it more importance than others do, but then I’m glad of that. Don’t really know – it’s all up for grabs.

        I’ve never read Lacan, but like many artists I know that’s who you are referring to. I’ve never read most philosophers. Only have time for a few favourite writers, those who help me in my work, and Adorno is pretty great.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        but not to forget – the personal reactions of artists contribute to psychologizing the whole thing. It’s not really about the individual, but about the way the individual does and doesn’t fit the group.

  13. Alan Gouk said…

    Since Robert Linsley is one of abcrit’s most frequent contributors, it is odd that he should continue to affect a posture of studied superiority and an obscurantist too clever by half meta-critique vis a vis the tenor of the debates ongoing. But not any odder than the back-handed compliment [ I take it] implied by his attribution of self-conscious naivety to the rest of us.
    Perhaps this should be taken as a charitable acknowledgement that by sticking to our guns through thick and thin for the last 50 years we are getting a little bit of something right, in spite of the elephantine pressure of those who need to keep in step with the “technological flux” and the “dominant conceptual framework” so called.
    BY the way, Richard Taruskin describes Adorno as “highly over-rated” , perhaps because he too senses the wilful tortured theoretical obscurity of the uber-intellectual mindset. Not surprising that Linsley should be a fan.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Hey! I called him “obscurantist” first.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Ah yes – the pleasant raillery and good-natured joshing of abcrit.

      But what I hear most clearly is “us, “our” and “we,” which prompts me to ask where are the young voices on abcrit? Where are the young, or at least middle aged, artists who have paid their dues and now have come to tell us that “we” have it all wrong and THEY know what abstraction is and should be? Without that I can’t see a future for abstraction.

      Oddly enough I’ve never found Adorno obscure or convoluted. Even odder I never read philosophy and rarely read art criticism, because I usually find it too theoretical and abstract. No accounting for taste.

      Taruskin is likely competitive with Adorno in the field of music theory/criticism, so I would make allowances for that. Classical music has become important for my work, so I’ll give Taruskin a try. Right now I’m learning something from Charles Rosen, and Adorno.

      Don’t really think I’ve got a meta-critique anywhere. More like trying to grasp a painful truth. There is a long-standing anglo-american bias against dialectics, dialectics meaning the attempt to think contradictions without resolving them. I don’t understand an artist who can’t live with contradictions, anymore than I can understand the need to be right. It seems to me that both of those attitudes are more obscurantist than Adorno.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Nobody knows what abstraction is, younger artists are not so entrenched in the myth and dogma and assumptions of 20C abstraction. Same with the obsession with paint and people talking about painting as if it were a person, rather than a medium for the creation of images.
        The computer graphic/digital revolution offers some sort of potential for research that wasn’t there before, especially computer vision research and image analysis. Images are now data. I don’t find that problematic I think it’s very exciting, bringing some promise of new life to the tired arguments and tired pictures of the academy of abstraction.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        But Robert, I can and do live with contradictions, and I can and do live with not being right all the time. If I pretended to the opposite, I would be complacent about ambiguity and misjudgement in my art, which I think is more your territory than mine.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        now I don’t know what you’re talking about, unless it’s a put down of my work – which would be unjustified, not least because you’ve never seen it.

  14. Ryan said…

    I think Clement Greenberg once mentioned meeting Adorno, and noted that they basically were in agreement.

    I find the pre-emptively defensive tone of this article distracting.

  15. Robin Greenwood said…


    • Robert Linsley said…

      Just discovered an article by Julian Bell in the LRB February last year, on the RA Manet show. He says:

      “Manet is at home with goofballs….because on a certain level he himself is goofiness personified. He is a well meaning, well heeled optimist who wants to take on the whole world of painting and come out on top, all the while remaingIng ‘sincere.’ And while half the story is that he had within reach a primal power of attention able to deliver such an ambition….its comic rejoinder is that he couldn’t fathom why his innocent, omnivorous ambitions were so apt to wrongfoot the Paris public.”


  16. Peter Stott said…

    One may know what one is doing, if I make an abstract painting I know what I am doing. However within that, nobody knows what knowledge, if any, art contains, nothing has been distilled from it.In that sense, one is engaging in alchemy, it’s a case of knowing and at the same time not knowing what one is doing, when one makes art.

  17. chris edwick said…

    I don’t get this essay at all.

    Cezanne’s journey wasn’t that of a naiveté. It was a struggling journey to authenticity, the classic journey of all good artists. We don’t struggle to become naive enough to be able to act without the tacit approval of the collective, nor is a great artist uncertain over what purpose their art serves.They know. Artists also know they are the peculiar few who stand outside the collective and are blessed with a hunger to respond creatively to this astonishing place
    they find themselves at, here, now.

    Great art is not unaware of its’ preconditions at all. It’s the complete opposite!Picassos’ Guernica!!! Great art is made by its’ preconditions by artists who are constantly struggling not for naiveté but to develop that combination of their own personality and their chosen medium of expression and like a 1977 punk a good artist would welcome audience responses of attempted humiliation toward them as a sign of their accomplished freedom from the collectives’ stupidity; partly, the reason they chose to become an artist.

    The audience does not have a feeling for how things should go at all.The audience is dull and uneducated and ignorant and easily fooled.It thinks Damien Hirst is an artist which of course he isn’t. He’s just another in the long line of industrialist capitalist purveyors of the merely decorative which began with Warhol, and was followed so enthusiastically by Koons. We have an army of followers of Duchamp who hated art and could only take the pissoir…and sign it…”Hey Duchamp, if you don’t like art go and play chess for the rest of your life!”..oh you did.Good.

    Great artist don’t have to struggle for naiveté. They want to grasp all the world has to offer with its complexity in spite of the ignorance of its audience. What they achieve is the authentic and it takes years. Picassos’ cubist pictures are some of the worst art ever. Cubism was a great idea though and a necessary part of arts emancipation and a typical revolt of the young and bolshy but blimey those awful mud pies. If I could let you have your choice Picasso you’d pick a Marie Therese Walter, (you know you would)a culmination of his ability to manipulate paint and bring it under the command of his strongly developed physical, sensual appetite for one very particular woman and painted when Picasso was 51; finally an authentic and great artist.

    Its a shame we lost the love of the authentic but it’s returning.I understand how Warhol disliked the gloomy war shadowed authenticity of the abstract expressionists but he didn’t want to be an artist anyway. He just wanted to be famous.His acolyte, Hirst is the same but insultingly cynical. Instead of feeling annoyed though, I’m sorry for him. It must be a nightmare to look at those beautiful red sparkly shoes of Dorothy’s and know that you can never have them because you chose to be the Wizard of Oz.3 clicks takes you to your earthly paradise but you’ve got to go on the journey first. Some can’t be arsed. Ah! the rashness of youth!

    As an artist I am very self aware, more so then ever in the history of time. My problem is how to get out of bed and pick up that brush when this awareness tells me of the theory of relativity and evolution and the god particle and the age of the cosmos…and of my overwhelming insignificance. However my awareness also paradoxically, tells me this from Professor Brian Cox. “We are the cosmos made conscious. Life is the universe made aware of itself. Our significance lies in our ability to understand and explore this universe”

    …i.e. make art! or dance or sing or make a garden…whatever..

    How much more significance could you ask for than to realise you are the cosmos, aware of itself. That’s what good art is; the cosmos trying to figure itself out or at the very least just celebrating its existence. Gilbert and George, please stop shoving spunk and shit in my face. Have a roll over in your Oscar Wilde gutter and look up at the stars. Pollock knew he was Nature, but I know I’m god, co creator of the universe, something known for the first time in all time. That’s why I get out of bed and grab the brush, not struggling for naiveté but empowered by a mind bending consciousness that tells me my every breath and brushmark is a miracle and a revelation. Who cares that the collective are watching Corrie and buying spot paintings.

    I create, therefore I am. Sure there are many different contexts and sets of values but to become authentic, mine are all that matter. In fact, mine are all there are!

    But Dear Robert Linsley..maybe I just didn’t understand your essay at all.

  18. ahab said…

    In speaking with a sculpture student recently, I explained how I felt relatively sure that my own deeper concerns and knowledge of the world come through best in sculpture I’ve made that is unconcerned with deliberate illustration of them. And that it’s okay to make things simply because you want to and just however you like without worry for how well it will be received by one audience or another. And that the most contemporary aspects of any person will be imbued in the thing he makes only by making it as good as he thinks it needs to be, rather than working to prove his point with a convincing style or ‘read’. And that deeper meaning and profound feeling in art begin with, very much as you say, “realizing objective possibilities in the material” — basic doing.

    She looked at me with surprise in her eyes and replied, “In four years of art school no one’s ever said that.”

    I’ve printed this article for her.

    • Peter Stott said…

      Whatever the cosmos consists of, whatever is ‘out there’ to be encountered in the making of an an image, that interface is as profound and mysterious now as ever and everywhere about. That adventure is not equal on one level, for example materials experimentation x money and space,location,logistics, but it is equal on another level, for example, if there is a Transcendental Order to be perceived then that potential is ubiquitous, Van Gogh, De Kooning, Caravaggio all encountering essentially the same thing. That’s the bi-polarity of it, ripping up the unfortunates