Sunday, May 20, 2007

Modernism and Esotericism

A widely held misconception about modernism contends that the movement is primarily an intellectual one. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that miscasts the entire movement into an academic exercise. Modernism does indeed have a strong intellectual component, but that comes as a response to the essentially esoteric nature of the root modernist experience. It originates in the search for the unique individual voice, the new, the now, the idiosyncratic, the practical solution, the most functional design, the integration of materials with form, and the creation of architectural spaces that use materials to serve the cultural, social, spiritual and psychological needs of the users of them. These are all modernist principles but they are not intrinsically intellectual. At their root, they are experiential.

The operating platform of modernism is the direct primary experience of the work. One can read about Mies van der Rohe's architecture, but can one really get at what his buildings are about before walking through one? The personal experience is at the root of modernism and the intellectual response to that is an effort to make that experience more conscious and meaningful to the larger group. This intellectual response has been a necessary component in bringing the avant garde into conscious social meaning and debate, but it is not the source of the movement. The source is rooted in an esoteric spiritual experience of making the work. We know this because so many serious modern artists in the canon address it, either obliquely or directly, when discussing their creative process. That esoteric root experience gets lost in the criticism and the theory because it does not conform to either. It is irrational, and the direction of modernism is to start with the irrational and move towards the rational in interpretation.

In the case of modern architecture, the paradigm shift was to build to serve the needs of the users of the space first; and in doing so, to integrate the environment, to simplify, to bring the design into the moment, serving the needs of today rather than the decorations and conventions of tradition. At their best, these buildings take on an almost numinous quality with a holistic integration of interior and exterior, user and building, space and materials. The field of architecture came to understand that the space that one inhabits can shape the experiences within it. And the space should as much as possible be in service to the needs of the user. Those needs cross the spectrum from the purely pragmatic to the spiritual.

This esoteric nature of modernism is best pointed to in personal story. When I was 23 I made a week long trip to the National Gallery in Washington DC. I had been a huge fan of Francis Bacon's paintings. I had read about him, seen many reproductions of his work in books and I felt that I knew what his work was about. On my first day at the National Gallery, I walked around a corner in the museum and entered a room of Francis Bacon paintings. All I can say here is that the experience changed me. His work had been described to me before and I had seen it reproduced in many places, but the experience of being in front of his triptych "Sweeney Agonistes" initiated me into a secret society of Francis Bacon viewers. I could describe the experience of seeing the paintings, but that would defeat my point. They had been described in detail to me previous to my visit and yet the descriptions were so peripheral to the personal experience of the work, that I could not say that I knew Bacon's work until I stood in front of it.

I am also a great admirer of Marc Rothko and his color field paintings. I have seen them in many collections and spent time in the excellent retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But I know that my experience of his work is impoverished by the fact that I have never made the pilgrimage to Houston to see his chapel, where he created the most complete environment for viewing his work. In most contemporary art collections, Rothko hangs next to other painters of his time, and his work is curated and lit to fit the room. Unfortunately, Rothko intended his work to be hung closer to the floor and to be illuminated in a more dim and diffuse light than is usual for a museum. In his retrospective, the curators took this into consideration and it transformed the experience of his work. The paintings glowed with an inner energy that I hadn't seen so clearly in other installations. His chapel is said to be the realization of his aesthetic vision. Without going to see it, one can only get so far with the experience of knowing Rothko.

In this post I am calling these experiences in art esoteric, because they are individual experiences that are only available in the presence of the work, in a particular context and setting. As such, these experiences of the work initiate one into a kind of secret knowledge that cannot be achieved in another way. The knowledge is secret because it can only be achieved by direct experience. There is a gate that you must pass through. And once one has those experiences, theory and criticism can serve to illuminate, discuss their significance and put them into context. But theory and criticism are not the experiences themselves. This is an important distinction to make, because one might conclude by reading much contemporary criticism that the writing and the theory is the real content. Not so. It all starts in the making and the experiencing of the work itself. Without those basic experiences, modernism makes little sense and appears dense and impenetrable. It does then become an academic exercise. But if we stay close to the root of the movement; to the unique expression of inner experience, the manifestation of the idiosyncratic voice, the explorations of language and form, and all of the aspects of modernism that bring such energy, freedom and joy to the creative process, the intellectual and critical responses to the work become a useful tool for integrating the new work into the world. They become a guide for inner experience and the discernment of meaning. I believe that is what criticism, theory and the academy should aspire to.


susan christian said...

Reading this tonight clarified something for me; a recognition happened somewhat like your sudden
shift when you walked into the Natl Gallery and saw the real Francis Bacons. Something like that. I fell in love with colorfiled painting forty years ago after a transformative experience of the same nature when i went to see a smallish show of Jules Olitski paintings at M.I.T. I couldn't get over how they solved every problem. As a young painter i wanted that - to have "problem" not be the issue. Somethng about color instead of drawing. Of course there was drawing in the Olitskis but it described not "nature" but the enormous distinction between the shape of the canvas on the one hand and the unshape of infinity on the other.
Anyway, I was able to get an intellectual grip on this, but I've been frustrated by the fact that so many people think of that world of painting as a flash in the pan, a little fad. To me it was a big clue to what we could think about instead of illustration, which bores me to suicidality.

But this essay makes a connection for me: modernism as Protestantism. The materiality/transcendence link is the exact analogue of direct experience of the divine unmediated by the priesthood - that was radical,
and so is the "esoteric" experience of spiritually
immediate art unmediated by the critical intellect but offering new intellectual grounding. Unmediated art experiencee is something many of us are unprepared to leap into, and thus the mistake gets made of attributing the invitation to walk into that room full of Rothko,
or whomever else is inviting us to BE THERE WITH IT - to attribute the difficulty of doing so to some kind of intellectual pretension is getting it exactly backwards.
Good lord.

Susan Christian in the backwater of rural Washington State

Aric Mayer said...

Susan, thank you for your good words. Your analogy of Modernism as Protestantism is one I hadn't thought of before, but it seems appropriate. I would hope to keep the priesthood, but to make it serve the people, rather than the other way around.

Of particular interest in this to me is the way art flows towards cultural significance. All art starts in some kind of creative enterprise that is usually private and somewhat personal, and then flows towards a broader public audience. As it does so, it generates an amount of cultural meaning that is independent of the original creative act.

While much ink and some blood has been spilled over the second part of that process, the first part, the creative act, is still as much an expedition into the unknown as it ever was, and does not conform to premeditated theory or criticism. In most cases, the art has come first and the intellectual response second. And it is that primary unmediated personal experience of making the work and of viewing it that the whole endeavor stands upon. I think that Modernism is far from over so long as it stays attached to its foundation built on that experience itself.