Petty-bourgeois Art


LIAM: A relative civilization will always have two sides to it, viz. a material and a spiritual, and this no less so on the petty-bourgeois levels of, in the main, twentieth-century art than on the preceding bourgeois stage of relative civilization.

ALAN: You say 'levels', which should be distinguished, I take it, from sides?

LIAM: Yes, by 'levels' I refer to earlier and later phases, either of which will have materialist and spiritual sides which, to further complicate things, constitute a lower and a higher approach to art - materialist art always being lower, in any morally objective scale of values, than its spiritual or, to speak in grammatically parallel terms, spiritualist counterpart.

ALAN: And how would you define those levels?

LIAM: In regard to petty-bourgeois civilization (which is the bourgeois part, as it were, of what, these days, one would call bourgeois/proletarian civilization), either as a stemming from the bourgeoisie on the earlier level or as an aspiration towards the proletariat on the later level.  The former will be more representational than abstract, the latter more abstract than representational.  Indeed, it may even be entirely abstract.

ALAN: And yet be materialist or spiritualist, depending on the type of art?

LIAM: Yes, on whether, for example, the art in question is concerned with distorting the natural or, in the case of the spiritual approach, transcending it in a kind of painterly supernaturalism.

ALAN: Can you give me an example of each type of art, on whatever level?

LIAM: Most certainly!  But first I would like to point out that petty-bourgeois civilization is divisible into what may be termed a genuine and a pseudo camp, that is to say, a camp of legitimately and historically relevant petty-bourgeois nations on the one hand, and a camp of traditionally bourgeois nations on the other hand that, while to some extent changing with the times and embracing an authentic petty-bourgeois element, remain closer to their bourgeois roots, and this in spite of exposure to petty-bourgeois influences from without, i.e. from the more genuinely petty-bourgeois nations.

ALAN: I presume you are alluding, within the traditional framework of civilized painterly art, to nations like America and Germany on the one hand, and to nations like Great Britain and France on the other?

LIAM: Yes, I am distinguishing between such quintessentially twentieth-century nations as Germany, Italy, Japan, and the USA in regard to the genuinely petty-bourgeois camp, and nations like Britain, France, Belgium, and Holland in regard to what may be called the pseudo-petty-bourgeois camp, which is largely composed of nations that came to world prominence in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries but declined, like their respective Empires, in the twentieth century.

ALAN: I see.  And would there be a kind of materialist/spiritualist division between each of these camps?

LIAM: No, each camp is itself divisible in that way.  For example, in the traditionally bourgeois camp, Britain and Holland pertain to the materialist side, France and Belgium to its spiritualist counterpart.  In the genuinely petty-bourgeois camp, the USA and Italy pertain to the spiritualist side, Japan and Germany to its materialist counterpart.

ALAN: Would one be correct in contending that there exists, as by natural right, a friction between the materialistic nations and their, so to speak, spiritualistic counterparts?

LIAM: Indeed, such a friction, occasionally degenerating into open hostilities, has long existed between nations with an ideologically antithetical constitution on the basis of a sort of feminine/masculine distinction which is traceable, it seems to me, to the cosmic tension between stars and planets at the roots of evolution.  Hence the traditional rivalry between Great Britain and France in the bourgeois camp, and the more recent rivalry, which came to a head in World War Two, between Japan and the USA in the petty-bourgeois camp, not to mention between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy - Germany, though to some extent spiritualized by Hitler, fundamentally aligned with the materialist side of things, a fact which had never escaped Italian attention!  However, not all friction between materialists and spiritualists leads to war.  It is more likely to lead to competition in business or sport or technology or art.

ALAN: You began by mentioning art.

LIAM: Well, it is my firm contention that the materialistic nations tend, as a rule, to produce a materialist art, spiritualistic nations being more given, by contrast, to the production of a spiritualist art.  But this is relative, not absolute, since in a relativistic civilization, on whichever class level, both types of art will be produced in any given country.  It is just that a nation will be predominantly dedicated to the production of one or other of the two types, according to its ideological integrity, which, so I maintain, is traceable to ethnic roots.

ALAN: So we may expect France and the USA, for example, to be predominantly concerned with producing a spiritualist art, Britain and, say, Germany more given, by contrast, to the production of a materialist art.

LIAM: Yes, but one must distinguish between the pseudo-petty-bourgeois nations and the genuinely petty-bourgeois ones, since, as a rule, the exact type of spiritualist or materialist art that each nation produces depends on which camp it is in, a distinction having arisen, in the course of time, between what we may term mainstream petty-bourgeois art, on whichever level and irrespective of which side, and subsidiary petty-bourgeois art - the former appertaining to the genuinely petty-bourgeois nations and the latter to those nations which retain some allegiance to their bourgeois traditions.

ALAN: Can we take each art one at a time, starting with the mainstream?

LIAM: Of course!  And on the spiritualist side, as mainly pertaining to the USA, we may note a progression from Impressionism on the earlier level to Abstract Impressionism or, as it is better known, Post-Painterly Abstraction on the later level; a progression, in other words, from an Impressionism stemming from the natural in semi-representational form to an Impressionism aspiring towards the supernatural from an abstract base - a distinction between, for example, Whistler and Rothko.  The essence of Impressionism, on whichever level, is to transcend the natural, to create an impression that, negating optical focus on the earlier level and transcending it on the later one, relates to awareness and thus to the visionary.  The earlier Impressionism, stemming from the bourgeois stage of relativistic civilization, will be apparent, as reflecting an external impression; the later Impressionism, aspiring towards a proletarian absolutism, will be essential, as reflecting an internal impression.

ALAN: You mention the USA, and yet most of the earlier kind of Impressionism, the concrete kind, so to speak, was created in spiritualistic France, apparently beneath the orbit of mainstream petty-bourgeois civilization.

LIAM: That is true, though it was created by petty-bourgeois artists who, like Monet and Pissarro, existed within the confines of an essentially bourgeois civilization.  Hence the opposition among traditional and naturalist painters which Impressionism initially aroused in France.  Most of it had to be exhibited at the Salle de Refusé!  However, if Impressionism began in France, it soon passed to the USA where, with the development of petty-bourgeois civilization from the earlier to the later levels, it was eventually superseded by Post-Painterly Abstraction, as America took over the lead from France in the production of mainstream spiritual art.

ALAN: An art which presumably had a mainstream materialist counterpart in ...?

LIAM: Expressionism, as pioneered by the Dutchman Van Gogh, and its offspring Abstract Expressionism, the progression from the one to the other largely taking place in Germany - Expressionism before and during the Weimar Republic, Abstract Expressionism during and following the Second World War.  Though the emigration of various German artists to the USA during the Hitler era necessarily resulted in this materialist art being planted in American soil and to some extent influencing certain indigenous artists, like Jackson Pollock.

ALAN: In what way is Expressionism materialist?

LIAM: By distorting the natural world rather than transcending it on the earlier level, in accordance with subjective expression of the artist's emotions vis-à-vis his external environment, and by taking the same distorting process to a point where it turns in upon itself, so to speak, and expresses distorted emotions independently of external stimuli on the later level.  Expressionism is the subconscious expression of the external natural world, Abstract Expressionism the subconscious expression of itself - the former being the converse of Impressionism, which is the impression of the external natural world on the superconscious, the latter being the converse of Abstract Impressionism, which is the superconscious impression of itself.  Just as Van Gogh and Monet are largely painting the external environment from different minds - the emotional mind and the awareness mind respectively, the one extrovert and the other introvert, so Pollock and Rothko are delineating, in their separate abstract approaches to the internal environment of the psyche, different minds - the distorted subconscious and the transcendent superconscious respectively.  Although they are both late petty-bourgeois artists, the one is romantic, the other classic.

ALAN: Thus Abstract Expressionism is romantic petty-bourgeois art, Abstract Impressionism its classical counterpart.

LIAM: Precisely!  Though one shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that romanticism is necessarily materialist and classicism, by contrast, always spiritual - as I hope to demonstrate shortly.  To be sure, there is certainly a romantic approach to the spiritual life or art.... However, now that we have discussed mainstream petty-bourgeois art, we can proceed to the subsidiary variety, which will mainly pertain to the traditionally more bourgeois nations like Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium.  Taking the materialist side first this time, we will discover Cubism and Vorticism on the earlier level, both of which partly transcend the natural environment, and Neo-Plasticism and Op Art on the later level, both of which completely transcend it.  Unlike spiritualist art, however, neither level of this materialist art is concerned with representing the superconscious, since both of them exist on their own terms, at face-value, and may therefore be said to reflect a classical approach to materialism - the 'thing-in-itself' approach of Braque on the earlier, semi-representational level, and of Mondrian on the later, exclusively abstract level.  Alternatively, one could cite Wyndham Lewis for Vorticism and Vasarely for Op Art, as reflecting a similar progression from the semi-representational to the non-representational, or abstract.  In each case, on whichever level, the technique is rigid, cubist, mechanistic, and strictly classical, sharply contrasting with the romantic distorting/subjective materialism of Expressionism and its abstract successor.

ALAN: A distinction, no doubt, between classical order and romantic disorder, the strictly governed and the anarchic - as between Braque and Nolde on the earlier level, and Mondrian and Pollock on the later one.

LIAM: Precisely!  A distinction which is reversed on the spiritual side of this subsidiary petty-bourgeois art, where we find Pre-Raphaelitism and Symbolism on the earlier level, but Metaphysical Painting and Surrealism on the later one, both levels romantic to the extent that they rely heavily on appearance, which is taken from concrete representational symbolism to abstract representational symbolism with the development from the one to the other, particularly from Symbolism to Surrealism, as from Redon to Dali.  The use of appearance necessarily limits the transcendental potential of each level, since Symbolism is the result, in many ways unfortunate, of applying a romantic technique to a spiritual art, or what is intended to be so, and such a contradictory use of appearances toward essential ends simply mirrors the limitations of a bourgeois or pseudo-petty-bourgeois approach to this art, just as the contradictory application of a classical technique to a materialist art, rigid and abstract ... such as one finds in Cubism, paradoxically enhances its materialistic integrity.  And this is the main reason why such art as has been produced by the pseudo-petty-bourgeois nations like Britain and France is subsidiary to mainstream petty-bourgeois art, since the latter, whether on its material or spiritual sides, employs the best possible technique for the art in question.  In the case of (materialistic) Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism - a subjective romantic technique.  In the case of (spiritualistic) Impressionism and Abstract Impressionism - an objective classical technique.  Thus the approach to materialist art is negative, the approach to spiritualist art positive, appropriately so in each case, since the contraction of materialism and the expansion of spirituality is particularly relevant to a petty-bourgeois age and civilization.  Where, however, the traditionally bourgeois nations are concerned, we find a positive, or classical, approach to materialist art and, by contrast, a negative, or romantic, approach to its spiritualist counterpart, approaches which mirror a relativistic duality favouring the materialistic, in accordance with bourgeois criteria.  Only with genuine petty-bourgeois art does dualism lean towards the absolute, as technique and subject matter interrelate on a homogenous plane - one necessarily favouring the spiritual.