11 July 2007

"The Canvas Enlists the Viewer"

I was looking again, recently, at John Updike's 2002 novelization of the history of modernist painting, SEEK MY FACE.

One of the minor characters in John Updike's story is known, in the novel, as Bernie Nova. I suspect that Bernie must be a slight fictionalization of some real painter or intellectual or both, but I don't know enough of the relevant history to guess who.

Bernie is a friend of Zack, who is clearly based on Jackson Pollack. One day in the 1940s -- the war was still on, though these young men were oblivious to it -- Bernie and Zack and others of their crowd (including one Roger) argue about the future of painting in a diner, sitting in the dark leatherette booths. This gives Updike his chance to unload Bernie's big theory on us.

Bernie snaps at Roger, "Your Surrealist friends are French playboys, playing with Freud, who was playful enough. Who says that being asleep is more profound than being awake? Dreams are a muddle -- brain-slime. What matters is not the psyche but metaphysics. Penetration into the world mystery; for this the painter's mind should be as pure as the scientist's and the philosopher's."

A little later in the conversation, Bernie again: "The canvas enlists the viewer in sympathetic participation with the artist's thought. It expresses the mind foremost, and whatever is still sensuous is secondary, an incidental accident. Truth before pleasure."


So for the question: did anybody in the US in the era depicted talk like that about art? Was he part of a social circle around Pollack? or part of the post-war development of abstract expressionism?

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.