Max Raphael by Max Pechstein 1910
“The Demands of Art”. By Max Raphael. With an introduction by Herbert Read. Translated by Norbert Gutterman. Princeton University Press (Bollingen Series), 1968. 258 pp.
Some fight because they hate what confronts them; others because they have taken the measure of their lives and wish to give meaning to their existence. Max Raphael was a very pure example of the second type.
He was born was born near the Polish-German border in 1889. He studied philosophy, political economy and the history of art in Berlin and Munich. His first work was published in 1913. He died in New York in 1952. In the intervening forty years he thought and wrote incessantly. Only a fraction of his work has been published and most of it is out of print. He left thousands of pages of manuscript which his widow and friends are ordering and hoping to publish. Their subject matter ranges from paleontology to classical architecture, from Gothic sculpture to Flaubert, from modern city planning to epistemology.
For five years I tried to interest European publishers in his work. In vain. A fact which I mention only because in a few decades it may be hard to remember how unknown and unrecognized Max Raphael still was in 1968.
His life was austere. He held no official academic post. He was forced several times to emigrate. He earned very little money. He wrote and noted without cease. As he traveled, small groups of friends and unofficial students collected around him. By the cultural hierarchies he was dismissed as an unintelligible but dangerous Marxist; by the party communists as a Trotskyist.
To appreciate the possible role of the book under review demands a clarity about the present situation of the arts. (Nobody who is not prepared to grapple with fundamentals should approach the book.) It is a situation of extreme crisis. The validity of art itself is in question. Many significant artists in the world question whether art is justified – not on account of the quality of a particular talent but on account of the relevance of art to the demands of the time in which we live.
Raphael quotes a remark by Cézanne (in the context of a quite different analysis):
“I paint my still lifes, these natures mortes, for my coachman who does not want them, I paint them so that children on the knees of their grandfathers may look at them while they eat their soup and chatter. I do not paint them for the pride of the Emperor of Germany or the vanity of the oil merchants in Chicago. I may get ten thousand francs for one of these dirty things, but I’d rather have the wall of a church, a hospital, or a municipal building.”
Since 1848, artists unready to be mere paid entertainers have tried to resist the embourgeoisement of their finished work, the transformation of the spiritual value of their work into property value. This regardless of individual political opinions as such. In the years after Cézanne, the resistance of artists became more active and more violent – in that it was built into their work. What Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc., all shared was their opposition to art as a cultural alibi for existing society. In the last decade the tactics of resistance have changed. Less frontal confrontation. Instead, infiltration. Irony and philosophic skepticism. The consequences in Tachism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Neo-Dada, etc. But art is still transformed into the property of the property-owning class. In the case of the visual arts the property involved is physical; in the case of the other arts it is moral property.
Art historians with a social or Marxist formation have interpreted the art of the past in terms of class ideology. They have shown that a class, or groups in a class, tended to support and patronize art which to some degree reflected or furthered their own class values and views. It now appears that in the later stages of capitalism this has ceased to be generally true. Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and its functional value as a stimulant of sensation. Works of art become objects whose essential character is like that of diamonds or sun-tan lamps. The determining factors of this development – internationalism of monopoly, powers of mass media communication, level of alienation in consumer societies – need not concern us here. But the consequence does. ART CAN NO LONGER OPPOSE WHAT IS. The faculty of proposing an alternative reality has been reduced to the faculty of designing – more or less well – an object. Hence the imaginative doubt in all artists worthy of their category. Hence the fact that the militant young begin to use “art” for more direct action.
One might argue that artists should continue, regardless of society’s immediate treatment of their work: that they should address themselves to the future, as all artists after 1848 have had to do. But this is to ignore the world-historical moment at which we have arrived. Imperialism, European hegemony, the moralities of capitalist-Christianity and state communism, the practice of constructing “humanist” cultures on a basis of monstrous exploitation – this entire interlocking system is now being challenged: a world struggle is now being mounted against it. Those who envisage a different future are obliged to define their position toward this struggle, obliged to choose. Such a choice tends to lead them to impotent despair or to the conclusion that world liberation is the pre-condition for any new valid cultural achievement. (I simplify and somewhat exaggerate the positions for the sake of brevity.) Either way their doubts about the value of art are increased.
In this present crisis, is it any longer possible to speak of the revolutionary meaning of art? This is the fundamental question. It is the question that Max Raphael begins to answer in “The Demands of Art.”
The book is based on some lectures that Raphael gave in the early thirties to a modest adult education class in Switzerland under the title “How Should One Approach a Work of Art?“ He chose five works and devoted a chapter of extremely thorough and varied analysis to each. The works are: Cézanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire” of 1904-06 (the one in the Philadelphia Museum), Degas’ etching of “Madame X Leaving Her Bath,” Giotto’s “Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” (Padua) compared with his later “Death of Saint Francis” (Florence), a drawing of Rembrandt of “Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh’s Dreams,” and Picasso’s “Guernica.” (The chapter on Guernica was of course written later.) These are followed by a general chapter on “The Struggle to Understand Art,” and an appendix consisting of an unfinished but extremely important essay entitled “Towards an Empirical Theory of Art,” written in 1941.
The editing, production and translating of the present volume – under the direction of two of Raphael’s friends – are a model of an efficient labor of love.
I shall not discuss Raphael’s analyses of the five individual works. They are brilliant, long, highly particularized and dense. The most I can do is attempt a crude outline of his general theory.
A question that Marx posed but could not answer: If art, in the last analysis, is not a superstructure of the economic base, why does its power to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why, asked Marx, do we still look toward Greek art as an ideal? He began to answer by speaking about the “charm” of “young children” (the young Greek civilization), and then broke off the manuscript and was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
“A transitional epoch,” writes Raphael, “always implies uncertainty: Marx’s struggle to understand his own epoch testifies to this. In such a period two attitudes are possible. One is to take advantage of the emergent forces of the new order with a view to undermining it, to affirm it in order to drive it beyond itself: this is the active, militant, revolutionary attitude. The other clings to the past, is retrospective and romantic, bewails or acknowledges the decline, asserts that the will to live is gone – in short, it is the passive attitude. Where economic, social and political questions were at stake Marx took the first attitude; in questions of art he took neither.” He merely reflected his epoch.
Just as Marx’s taste in art – the classical ideal excluding the extraordinary achievements of paleolithic, Mexican, African art – reflected the ignorance and prejudice of art appreciation in his period, so his failure to create (though he saw the need to do so) a theory of art larger than that of the superstructure theory was the consequence of the continual, overwhelming primacy of economic power in the society around him. In view of this lacuna in Marxist theory, Raphael sets out to develop a theory of art that he calls empirical “because it is based on a study of works of art from all periods and nations. I am convinced that mathematics, which has travelled a long way since Euclid, will some day provide us with the means of formulating the results of such a study in mathematical terms.” And he reminds the skeptical reader that before infinitesimal calculus was discovered even nature could not be studied mathematically:
“Art is an interplay, an equation of three factors – the artist, the world and the means of figuration.”
Raphael’s understanding of the third factor, the means or process of figuration, is crucial. For it is this process which permits him to consider the finished work of art as possessing a specific reality of its own:
“Even though there is no such thing as a single, uniquely beautiful proportion of the human body or a single scientifically correct method of representing space, or one method only of artistic figuration, whatever form art may assume in the course of history, it is always a synthesis between nature and (or history) and the mind, and as such it acquires a certain autonomy vis-à-vis both these elements. This independence seems to be created by man and hence to possess a psychic reality; but in point of fact the process of creation can become an existent only because it is embodied in some concrete material.”
The artist chooses his material – stone, glass, pigment or a mixture of several. He then chooses a way of working it – smoothly, roughly, in order to preserve its own character, in order to destroy or transcend it. What is represented is materialized in the worked, raw material; whereas the worked raw material acquires an immaterial character through its representations and the UNNATURAL unity which connects and binds them together. “Artistic” material , so defined, a substance half material and half spiritual, is an ingredient of the material of figuration.
The two processes which produce the material of figuration (the process of transforming raw material into artistic material and that of transforming the matter of sensation into means of representation) are continually interrelated. Together they constitute what might be called the matter of art.
Figuration begins with the separate long drawn-out births of ideas and motif, and is complete when the two are born and indistinguishable from one another.
“The characteristics of the individual idea are: (1) It is simultaneously an idea and a feeling. (2) It contains the contrasts between the particular and the general, the individual and the universal, the original and the banal. (3) It is a progression toward ever deeper meanings. (4) It is the nodal point from which secondary ideas and feelings develop.”
“The motif is the sum total of line, colour and light by means of which the conception is realized.” The motif begins to be born apart from, but at the same time as the idea, because “only in the act of creation does the content become fully conscious of itself.”
What is the relation between the pictorial (individual) idea and nature? “The pictorial idea separates usable from unusable elements of natural appearances and, conversely, study of natural appearances chooses from among all possible manifestations of the pictorial idea the one which is most adequate. The difficulty of the method comes down to proving what one believes – proof here consisting in this, that the opposed methodological starting points (experience and theory) are unified, brought together in a reality of a special kind, different from either, and that this reality owes its pictorial life to a motif adequate to the conception and developed compositionally.”
What are the methods of figuration? (1) The structuring of space. (2) The rendering of forms within that space EFFECTIVE. The structuring of space has nothing to do with perspective: its tasks are to dislocate space so that it ceases to be static (the simplest example is that of the forward-coming relaxed leg in standing Greek figures) and to divide space into quanta so that we become conscious of its divisibility and thus cease to be the creature of ITS continuity (e.g., the receding planes parallel to the picture surface in late Cézannes).
“To create space is to penetrate not only into the depth of the picture but also into the depths of our intellectual system of coordinates (which matches that of the world). Depth of space is depth of essence or else it is nothing but appearance and illusion.”
The distinction between actual form and effective form is as follows:
“Actual form is descriptive; effective form is suggestive, i.e., through it the artist, instead of trying to convey the contents and feelings to the viewer by fully describing them, provides him only with as many clues as he needs to produce these contents and feelings within himself. To achieve this the artist must act not upon individual sense organs but upon the whole man, i.e., he must make the viewer live in the work’s own mode of reality.”
What does figuration with its special material (see above) achieve?
“Intensity of figuration is not display of the artist’s strength; not vitality, which animates the outer world with the personal energies of the creative artist; not logical or emotional consistency, with which a limited problem is thought through or felt through to its ultimate consequences. What it does denote is the degree to which the very essence of art has been realized: the undoing of the world of things, the construction of the world of values, and hence the constitution of a new world. The originality of this constitution provides us with a general criterion by which we can measure intensity of figuration. Originality of constitution is not the urge to be different from others, to produce something entirely new; it is (in the etymological
sense) the grasping of the origin, the roots of both ourselves and things.”
One must distinguish here between Raphael’s “world of values” and the idealist view of art as a depository of transcendental values. For Raphael the values lie IN THE ACTIVITY revealed in the work. The function of the work of art is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains. This process is determined by the material of figuration and it is within this material, which Raphael discloses and analyses with genius, that mathematics my one day be able to discover precise principles. The process is directed toward creating within the work a synthesis of the subjective and the objective, of the conditional and the absolute within a totality governed by its own laws of necessity. Thus the world of things is replaced within the work by a hierarchy of values created by the process it contains.
I can give no indication here of the detailed, specific and unabstract way in which Raphael applies his understanding to the five works he studies. I can only state that his eye and sensuous awareness were as developed as his mind. Reading him one has the impression, however difficult the thought, of a man of unusual and stable balance:
“Since we cannot know ourselves directly, but only through our actions, it remains more than doubtful whether our idea of ourselves accords with our real motives. But we must strive unremittingly to achieve this congruence. For only self-knowledge can lead to self-determination, and false self-determination would ruin our lives and be the most immoral action we could commit.”
To return to our original question: what is the revolutionary meaning of art? Raphael shows that the revolutionary meaning of a work of art has nothing to do with the subject matter in itself, or with the functional use to which the work is put, but is a meaning continually awaiting discovery and release.
“However strong a given historical tendency may be, man can and has the duty to resist it when it runs counter his creative powers. There is no fate which decrees that we must be victims of technology or that art must be shelved as an anachronism: the ‘fate’ is merely misuse of technology by the ruling class to suppress the people’s power to make its own history. To a certain extent it is up to every individual, by his participation in social and political life, to decide whether art shall or shall not become obsolete. The understanding of art helps raise this decision to its highest level. As a vessel formed by the creative forces which it preserves, the work of art keeps alive and enhances every urge to come to terms with the world.”
“We have said that art leads us from the work to the process of creation. This reversion, outside the theory of art, will eventually generate universal doubt about the world as given, the natural as well as the social. Instead of accepting things as they are, of taking them for granted, we learn, thanks to art, to measure them by the standard of perfection. The greater the gulf between the ideal and the real, the more inescapable is the question: Why is the existing world the way it is? How has the world come to be the way it is? De omnibus rebus dubitandum est! Quid certum? We must doubt all things! What is certain? (Descartes). It is the nature of the creative mind to dissolve seemingly solid things and to transform the world as it is into a world in process of becoming and creating. This is how we are liberated from the multiplicity of things and come to realize what it is that all conditional things ultimately possess in common. Thus, instead of being creatures isolated among other isolated creatures we become part of the
power that creates all things.”
Raphael did not, could not, make our choices for us. Everyone must resolve for himself the conflicting demands of his historical situation. But Raphael does show, as no other writer has ever done, the revolutionary meaning of the works inherited from the past – and the works that will be eventually created in the future. And this he shows without rhetoric, without exhortation, modestly and with reason. His was the greatest mind yet applied to the subject.
John Berger, Landscapes, Verso 2016.