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Updated: Jan 25, 2020

Stephen Hornsby-Smith
Stephen Hornsby-Smith

The needle in the hay stack clutching at straws

The longevity of 20th century wars most notably the wars against imperialist fascism took a time out, a cooling-off period but were a joined-up and inter-connected single war against abusive dictatorships ! The battles might have been fought on a more sophisticated level by the 1980's but represented a century of pushing Modernist cultural practices over the edge, a cultural displacement to rule without centuries of Art to guide it ! Modern Art came unstuck because it was politically convenient to do so, and not because it had run its course. It was the war torn powerless homeless, and abandoned that lead to the up-beat need to transform Art and culture to re-westernize modern life in Europe by the catalyst of Art migration to a safer place, a sanctuary for displaced Artist's and Art theoreticians. This Art and cultural vacuum was soon filled by New York optimism that offered a migration for Art beyond European pain. NY had a Atlantic wall beyond the reach of Soviet military and cultural invasion, and the Western God's of relativism and post-structure philosophy by the 50's placed in harms-way at the Soviet front door. The Soviet reaction to NY was predictably a rejection of this new emboldened threat to its supposedly science of cultural history distorted by Stalin and those who followed him.

Whether it was 'Bourgeois Art or 'Degenerate Art', NY stood proud in its 'firewall of cultural fusion of the esoteric and the popular' that it aligned to face the Soviet threat. Art had once again emerged as a political football to engage in cultural warfare at the distance beyond the extremist's who continued to torture Art and its freedoms this time by the 'superior race of Marxist ideology'. NY's resolved brand of consumerism and individual diversity was a West re-born against the 'Art concrete' of Constructivism that regressed into Socialist realism. But the first victim of this Battle was the medium of Painting who had its arteries hardened by a burgeoning spirit of entrepreneurial NY brand of homegrown Abstract Expressionism. Marginalizing its western competitors and its rivals in the East it rejected Soviet mass production, the factory of Art churned-out cold and aesthetically redundant 'workers of the world' work by central party control of production. If NY hadn't intervened then the Soviets would have flooded the Art scene with anti-Western Art propaganda.But nothing could contain the positivism and creative buzz of NY even if the medium of Painting lapsed into theoretical misgivings and disorientation. This signaled Western Painting's growing unease at not being 'bailed-out' by philosophical leverage at the top Art table. Even by the 1990's the restoration of Post-Soviet Painting never converged with Western counterparts to mutual advantage, because it was deemed (in my view wrongly) that there wasn't the interest in the market or from the public. Perhaps Painting today will never receive once again its status as the 'Art progressive' modernized by modernism of the 1930's ? Or, Some of us will move hell or high water to never let Painting and Paint down ;perhaps we will have to fight with our brushes or some other cliche ?

NY had magnetized all creative industries whilst remaining unscathed from the ravages of physical and psychological agony of Europe, partly shell-shocked and almost universally displaced by the Blitz and other horrors that the world could never have imagined could happen by the hands of German people's schooled in rationalism, moderation and an inquiring collective mind and hitherto central to the intelligencia of Europe. The truth was that Modernism had fulfilled its remit of exposing such human distortion and cruelty and if Fascism could take root in Germany it could take root anywhere ! But this was not the what people were desperate for ! They wanted to rebuild and restore and improve, and if Painting was a weapon in Soviet hands it had to be disciplined and regulated to re-convene in a New York City of the Western world ! I think it lost its battle to technology, new techniques and new priorities....? Or Painting was asset stripped by Art consumerism and objectified as part of the throw away culture ? Perhaps Warhol wasn't to Painting what McCartheism was to the Hollywood, but Warhol was incomparably unaffected by the consequences of what he set in train against Painting! Actually he bloody loved it ! All that Painting bashing via tins of soup !, All that iconoclastic blood-lust ! He was a bloody Art abattior on legs for Painters !" ....he probably liked to watch (in voyeur mode) people tearing people apart yet pretended to be a vegan !??!

The economy of the US was able to combine European rebuilding and social renewal by the Marshall Plan that was introducing Keynes to Western Europe whilst combining it with free market liberalism in the USA. Sure it gave America a head start in having an advantage by being more open to laissez-faire Capitalism than any potential European competitors, but it invested shed loads to allow Europe to recover even at its own long-term disadvantage - perhaps that what you call a mixed economic policy economy as inspiring the agenda of the American vision.

French philosophers galvanized a 'Relativism,post-structuralism and deconstruction' that improved western cultural theories could dismantle the impending Marxist threat at home and abroad. To the Soviets Western relativism was seen as a morally corrupt indulgent academic and bourgeois exercise in cultural imperialism. But there is no doubt that one by one this Art and cultural practice enabled and enobled a growing rejection of primitive Marxist historical dialectic from its supporters within the intellectual economy even in the Marxist establishment in the 'underground East', let alone in the West . But it demanded an esoteric response that Paint could not follow ! This was overshadowed by the burgeoning self-confidence of progressive social relaxing of social rules and conventions in the West that was appealing to the puppet dictatorships of Czechoslovakia and Hungary ready to throw out its Russian guests. Had a persuasive nonchalance of California and its symbolic open society combined with the free market actually formed its own Capitalist inevitability in the act of destroying the growing desperate Soviet regime ? How could it balance the Art of Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon and and David Hockney in it s confines of Marxist Dogma without the popular support of growing suspicious in the bread queues in Moscow compared with Fast Food Big Macs on tap in the USA.? How it must have confounded the East when increasing levels of obesity in America were being seen as a status symbol and not a Western affliction in the East?! How the ideological had fallen at the feet of Western society that was largely indifferent to Eastern anger and hatred of freedom ?

But what of Painting today ? Certainly its contemporary status is inversely proportionate to the death of Socialist Realist Art from the Soviet Union. Since the Berlin wall collapsed in 1989 the medium of Paint has been 'returned to the people' by popular consent in the UK and by mass participation ! There is a paradox at work here where it has become more 'redistributive without being coecively egalitarian by the very Capitalist free market economy ! It enjoys freedom without censorship by popular participation with very few overheads, no pay backs and doesn't need the individual to pass hundreds of exams to belong to the 'fellowship of the paint' ! It has truly been a success underwritten by popular TV programmes and not enforced by 'instruction'. This process is also gathering momentum without any barriers en plein air or in the 'Studio', and doesn't need to belong to the top fashionable top table of the cognecienti and is no longer restricted by fixations on 'Form', that crippled Western Art and fuelled Soviet Socialist Realist 'Art of concrete'. The digital (p)age has transformed the medium of Painting by making it accessible and life enhancing. It has bent mind and matter by rejecting superannuated dictat of 'form' by creating its own freedoms of originality within the compass and on the canvas. The landscape of Painting is now absorbed by originality,freedom of expression for the many not just the few but bypassing the cronyism of upstairs and downstairs ! Transcending this is a watershed led by Paint that aspires to become an essential part and contribution to the 160/70 years of the modernist school and taboo breaker of 'Let's misbehave !' (Cole Porter) instead of some conspiracy to destroy by revolution or counter-revolution cultural and aesthetic life ! Why not? As for the Soviets ? They were a 19th century needle in a hay stack just clasping at straws, refusing to admit of the existence of a more grand and fulfilling life- long love of Art !


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