Formalism, conceptualism and the death of desire

At the conclusion of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Well-Beloved, the hero, a successful sculptor of the Alfred Gilbert type, loses all interest in art in his later years:

“On another afternoon they went to the National Gallery, to test his taste in paintings, which had formerly been good. As she had expected, it was just the same with him there. He saw no more to move him, he declared, in the time-defying presentations of Perugino, Titian, Sebastiano, and other statuesque creators than in the work of the pavement artist they had passed on their way.
‘It is strange!’ said she.
‘I don’t regret it. I have lost a faculty which has, after all, brought me my greatest sorrows, if a few little pleasures. Let us be gone.’”

This passage has become something of a touchstone for me, the recognition of a limit that has to be incorporated into our experience of art. My first reaction was to accept the character’s change as a kind of death, but now I see it as likely an incomplete transition. If this artist had lived longer, perhaps he would have become a modernist. The question is what happens to desire when it dies, in the recognition that in art desire must die, and that desire never actually does die.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale Attesa 1965

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