Realist Masquerade

When the post about Ian Wallace’s Poverty went up on Facebook, there were comments from Ydessa Hendeles. She is a very interesting artist and has been an important figure in Toronto for many years. She remembers when the Poverty series was first shown there, and recounts that there were criticisms of the content. I know well the moralism of the Canadian art scene, which leads to all kinds of prohibitions. The most commonly heard attitude is that Wallace has no right to represent the experiences of others, the more so that his picture shows his friends acting the roles of derelicts or homeless people—supposedly he is belittling the lives of the poor. Actually, the reception of Wallace’s work, in Canada at least, has never gone beyond the art world, so the criticism itself is in bad faith, but it also distracts from the many interesting features of the work, which do have some relevance to abstraction.

As pointed out by Hendeles, the entire work has a formal, or formalist, level on which the content of the image doesn’t really matter. But looking closer, the image does matter, as does its referent, namely poverty itself. Suffice to go back to Baudelaire, who said that there were two kinds of aristocrats—those with inherited property and family name, and aristocrats of the spirit, namely artists, who might actually be broke but have a social superiority anyway. An artist can take any role, and usually whatever role they take is in the nature of a sales pitch or appeal for support, a performance. Baudelaire’s claim to an aristocracy more legitimate than the “real” one is partly performance for the benefit of the aristocratic patron, partly a compensation for the shame of his real poverty, but it also belongs to a time in which aristocratic identities were crumbling. No social identity or role is stable anymore, but in the early days of that modern condition artists took the freedom to masquerade as they chose, along with con artists, frauds and sharpies of all kinds. A noble legacy, and one to be proud of (or some might say it was until the Trump victory). But since this is art, we have to recognize that social masquerade has a tradition, going back to Watteau at least, and I would say even to the mythologies of Titian and Veronese.

Antoine Watteau, Les Champs Elysées 1717

Wallace’s kind of abstraction, with its monochrome rectangles, is the idealist branch that goes through Mondrian. I’m more interested in the realist branch of abstraction, but that might draw a blank with most people, since it’s only been traced by me. The point is that poverty is real, but the poverty that matters is that of the artist, which is not only a lack of money. The artist sees him or herself in the poor, but poverty is also allegorical—a poverty of imagination, of artistic means and possibilities, of sensibility, of a totally impoverished even though wealthy culture. Reality is revealed in the masquerade of poverty, and the masquerade is the art that keeps culture alive. This post has gone on long enough, but I think it proves that we should not have too narrow a concept of abstraction.

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