Art, Prophecy and Utopian Dreams

Ernst Neizvestny’s The Prophet. Photo: Bengt Oberger.

John Berger, the late British art critic, argues in his essay “An Article of Faith” (1968) that prophecy in art is “not indulging in idle fancy but responding intuitively to a concrete situation.” Prior to the First World War, “this atmosphere of promise and prophecy found its purest expression in cubism.” The Dutch de Stijl (The Style) movement, between 1917 and 1931, pursued “the logic of cubism further than the cubists dared to.” For Berger, however, “what were still intuitively real prophecies for the cubists became utopian dreams for the artists of de Stijl.”

Berger uses this notion of prophecy in an essay a year later, Art and Revolution. Unlike the members of the cubist and de Stijl movements, the artist at the heart of the text, the Soviet sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, did not clearly express such an article of promise or faith. Berger has to read the intuitive response to a concrete situation into Neizvestny’s work. The critic effectively writes a meta-prophecy — or meta-utopian dream — about the prophetic nature of both the artist and his sculptures.

Daniel-Henry Kahnheiler, “dealer and friend of the cubists,” sets the scene in the 1968 essay for the pre-war state of mind:

I lived those seven years from 1907 to 1914 with my painter friends… what occurred at that time in the plastic arts will be understood only if one bears in mind that a new epoch was being born, in which man (all mankind in fact) was undergoing a transformation more radical than any other known within historical times.

The transformation foreseen was, in the end, a “style applicable to all problems of two and three dimensional design […] for what could become man’s total urban environment.” Art “had become the preliminary model by means of which man could discover how to control and order his whole environment. When that control was established, art might even disappear.”

The elements of this universal design went against a host of persistent values and concerns:

the aesthetics of the hand-made, the virtues of permanence and indestructibility, the love of mystery and secrets, the fear that technology threatens culture, the horror of the anonymous, the mystique and the rights of privilege.

As many, if not all, of these values and concerns are relevant today, we can question the accuracy of the premonitions of a century ago. For Berger, that is not the central point. What is key is whether the experience of the artists in their own time was compatible with their ideas. Prior to 1914, they were: the radical transformation had not yet played out, so the possibilities of where it might go were wide open.

Berger points to two events that limited these possibilities; the First World War and the October Revolution. Both the war and the revolution could have reinforced the intuitions. Instead, they showed an unexpectedly “prolonged, confused and terrible” transformation. The “inversion of politics,” where ideology trumped practical political considerations, and the abandonment of international ideals for entrenched nationalist positions turned pre-1914 innocence into naïveté.

The Rietveld Chair. Photo: Ellywa.

De Stijl continued along the idealistic path. “What is missing is an awareness of the importance of subjective experience as a historical factor.” What concerns Berger more than the widening gap between intuition and concrete situation in itself is that the resulting ideas strengthen the position of ideology. He illustrates the point with an iconic design from the movement, the Rietveld Chair: “That chair haunts us not as a chair but as an article of faith.”

The “article of faith” haunts the global north as the beginning of modern disillusionment:

Today, although Europe (east and west) and North America retain the technological means capable of transforming the world, they appear to have lost the political and spiritual initiative for bringing about any transformation. Thus today we can see the prophecies of the early European artistic avant-gardes in a different light. The continuity between us and them — such as we might have believed in an attenuated form only ten years ago — has now been broken. They are not for us to defend or attack. They are for us to examine so that we may begin to understand the other world-revolutionary possibilities which they and we failed to foresee or reckon with.

It is within the context of searching out other possibilities that Berger tentatively posits Ernst Neizvestny as a model of a modern revolutionary hero. De Stijl was not good or bad, it was just a utopian idea unmoored from the flow of experienced history. The flip-side of the coin was to be found in the short-term historical determinism — effectively propaganda — of the early Soviet Union:

It is to the great advantage of the Russians that they think of art as prophetic. It is their tragedy that under the autocracy of Stalin, the belief in the prophetic quality of art was subtly but disastrously transformed into the belief that art was a means of definitively deciding the future now.

Neizvestny offers an alternative because “while he [was] working privately and in a spirit which [was] entirely uninstitutionalized, the import and intention of his work [was] public.” The work created, independent from the state apparatus, was for the most part monolithic sculptures. The approach was not the result of a principled stand against the system in place. He regularly submitted proposals for official commissions, and even received one in 1967. He was neither a rebel nor a purist, just an artist whose intuition was more often than not at odds with official prophecies.

At the same time, his work was deeply connected to the human condition. It started with the experience of lying on a battlefield, shot in the gut, after a skirmish behind German lines during the Second World War. “The poles of Neizvestny’s imagination are life and death: a polarity so fundamental and general that it can seem banal. Yet for him it is particular and unique.” While he typically expressed himself using the human form, “he [was] not concerned with its beauty but with its workings, its power, its resistance, its limits and its mysteries.”

Berger argues that “most artists during their lifetime have only one or two underlying themes” and that “ Neizvestny’s theme is the theme of endurance.” Essentially, the human capacity to resist death, not just on the battlefield and in the sense of basic survival but as a person with a certain dignity, as an independently creative artist.

Up until recently:

most heroes demonstrated their courage in a similar way: by deliberately risking their lives. Portraits or accounts of these heroes or their heroic actions tend to emphasize the nobility and the inspiration of the moment of the decision, the moment of joining battle — regardless of the result. It is a moment of danger, but it is also a moment of privilege, of honour: the moment of the ‘happy few’ at Agincourt.

Due to the “unnatural suffering existing on an unprecedented scale” witnessed during the Twentieth Century, Berger feels that this notion of heroism is outdated. The massive number of deaths during the two World Wars alone, despite continued tendencies to hold on to classical imagery — the Henry V reference brings the Band of Brothers series to mind — , are enough to recognize the inadequacy of the acts of “the happy few at certain chosen moments.”

Instead, “courage becomes the obstinacy of victims who resist their victimization: it becomes their ability to endure until they can put an end to their suffering.” In this way, the result matters. It is not enough to man the barricades during an explosive revolution. Heroism is the long and arduous resistance leading to the transformation of society. Artists in this view offer a prophetic view of this transformation through the creation of their art. For Berger, art, the process of artistic creation and artists themselves are inherently political.

From a contemporary Canadian perspective, this framing can be helpful in recognizing Indigenous artists who kept traditions and culture alive until the fall of institutions of forced assimilation. There are many issues with Berger’s argument. He does not recognize, for instance, that aesthetic and political priorities can conflict. At the same time, the general notion of heroism as resistance and survival has merit.

We are less interested here with whether the idea is worth considering and more with how it fits as a meta-prophecy. As such, the fact that Neizvestny immigrated to the United States in 1976, arguably undermining his role as a figure of resistance, is not significant. It was Berger who pulled Neizvestny out of relative obscurity, putting him on a pedestal as a modern revolutionary hero. It is therefore Berger’s subjective experience that needs to be explored.

The 1973 essay, “Between Two Colmars,” offers the relevant context:

In 1968, hopes, nurtured more or less underground for years, were born in several places in the world and given their names: and in the same year, these hopes were categorically defeated. This became clearer in retrospect. At the time many of us tried to shield ourselves from the harshness of the truth. For instance, at the beginning of 1969, we still thought in terms of a second 1968 possibly recurring.

These words echo what Berger wrote in 1968 about de Stijl and the death of hope in the trenches of the First World War. Berger also sees a parallel in the experience of the revolutions of 1848, as expressed in Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Despite arguing for a slow-burn revolution of resistance, breaking with the tradition of punctual, explosive revolutionary action, Berger’s experience was that of the drive for societal transformation culminating and stalling out in a brief moment.

In 1969, when Art and Revolution came out, Berger was in denial. His ideas were not responding to a concrete situation. The artist as modern revolutionary hero seems to have been a meta-utopian dream. Yet Neizvestny’s theme of endurance fit Berger’s post-1969 view of the world:

In a period of revolutionary expectation, I saw a work of art which had survived as evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured, I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across despair.

“The Two Colmars” is a reflection on the differences in Berger’s perception of a piece of art, the Grünewald Altarpiece, first seen in 1963 and revisited in 1973. In 1963, he sees the “bleakness” of a Sixteenth Century Europe ravaged by disease. “Disease is not for [Grünewald] the prelude to death — as modern man tends to fear; it is the condition of life.” It is a view that “places it historically.”

The Issenheim (Grünewald) Altarpiece. Photo: Jörgens.mi.

In 1973, Berger is “forced to place [himself] historically.” He looks beyond the subject to how the piece was painted:

It is painted inch by inch. No contour, no cavity, no rise within the contours, reveals a moment’s flickering of the intensity of depiction. Depiction is pinned to the pain suffered. Since no part of the body escapes pain, the pain is irrelevant; all that matters now is the faithfulness of the depiction. This faithfulness came from the empathy of love.

The notion of love is then unpacked using concepts we have come across before:

Love bestows innocence. It has nothing to forgive. The person loved is not the same as the person seen crossing the street or washing her face. Nor exactly the same as the person living his (or her) own life and experience, for he (or she) cannot remain innocent.

Who then is the person loved? A mystery, whose identity is confirmed by nobody except the lover.

“Mystery” is one of the persistent values Berger argues de Stijl movement abandoned in their utopian dream. It is one of the aspects Neizvestny explored in his sculptures of the human body. And here, it is linked to the creation of art, as observed by someone humbled by their powerlessness in the face of the movement of history.

“Innocence” was the character of the cubists imagining the potential for the radical transformation of society at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It was connected to yet necessarily beyond experience. Here, we see it as a state of love and empathy in the midst of despair.

Berger describes Art and Revolution as “a short essay and in many directions it only tentatively suggests beginnings.” The text does not declare unequivocally that Neizvestny was a model of a modern revolutionary hero. It simply makes the suggestion, backed by Twentieth Century realities and the increasingly ill-suited notion of the courage of the happy few. This modesty, it seems to me, is sufficient to avoid the charge of utopian naïveté.

It took the collapse of the transformational hopes built up at the end of the 1960s and the stultifying normalization of the 1970s for Berger to catch up with what he wrote. He makes very clear, though, that “the ten years do not necessarily mark a progress; in many ways they represent defeat.”

The meta-prophecy is an expression of Berger’s love of art, with an intuition of its own. It is steadily if only moderately hopeful, as that is all the concrete situation allows. It foresees art as a public and political assertion of empathy, innocence, endurance and so on in the face of disease, cynicism, systemic oppression and the like.

As Berger, an experienced and politically active art critic, recognizes the empathy in the altarpiece and relates to Neizvestny’s endurance only after his “defeat,” it is not clear why a general public would pick up on these cues. Even if they did, the distinction between prophecy and a utopian dream — between a live possibility and a historical artifact — is subtle. Art and Revolution is intended to be a tentative beginning; an interesting next step would be to figure out how such perspicacity has and can be developed in different communities.

All photos licensed under Creative Commons BY 3.0.

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Writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels: Our New Neolithic Age (‘21), Simulated Hysteria (‘20), Death Train of Provincetown (‘19), The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (‘17).

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Trent Portigal

Trent Portigal

Writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels: Our New Neolithic Age (‘21), Simulated Hysteria (‘20), Death Train of Provincetown (‘19), The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (‘17).

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