Art For The Next 50 Years

Writing after the death of Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol declared that ‘people will be discussing new beauty in Beuys as long as there are people.’ That was forty-four years ago, and Warhol’s faith in his friend remains as affecting as the beauty in Beuys today. In 2020, unexpectedly, I find a future-tensed faith in an artist who made room for new beauty in the imagery of our collective past.

In fifty years, it will be more important than ever to look at, and to make like, Blake. Leaning, or maybe more careering, over the pages of an open book; back curving into an inhumanly long, sinuous neck; the one eye we can see dark in a field of barely-tinted chalky wash that fills not just our reader’s face, but their companions’ clothes, the fence behind them, even the sky behind that fence, on and on. This is how one of the two youthful figures in William Blake’s Age Teaching Youth (1785–90) sits. But what are we doing looking at such (seemingly) long-gone work on the eve of the twenty-first century’s third decade? I’m here thinking precisely about age teaching youth. I’m thinking about the future – so far as we can consider one, at the moment – that is embedded in, and made possible only by, the past.

There is something uneasy, today, in the suggestion that we might turn to the past with anything other than the diagnostic suspicion of the critical gaze. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has it, a ‘paranoid reading’ of our culture has come to be synonymous with the practice of reading (by which she means also of discussing, of thinking, of art-making) itself. To Sedgwick’s understanding, this paranoid practice of cold, suspicious critique emerged in the late twentieth century from the feeling that to blindly trust the ideas culture hands us down is to risk being duped into accepting a story that doesn’t fit our actual interests. It’s certainly, and usefully, this kind of critique that underpins much contemporary art practice.

Reading the Tate’s Blake show (11 September 2019 to 2 February 2020) with this critical spirit, we can see how Blake’s work can be – and has been – mobilised to support a narrative of nationhood for Britain that delivers a special sting when I’m in the show, a week after the December election confirmed that Brexit would indeed be happening, and quickly. The Tate acknowledges Blake’s embeddedness in empire and nation, yet this does feel somewhat halfhearted; here he is, the canonical man, in a gallery built to consolidate British national narratives.

But Blake also offers us a model of how we might turn to our cultural history (including his own work as it appears to us now) with a utopian feeling: a sensibility that allows us to see the seeds for a radically reimagined future sown in the material specificities of the past. José Esteban Muñoz theorises this feeling as an astonishment that ‘helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see … wish-landscapes in painting and poetry.’ To understand Blake as simply reinscribing tradition is to ignore the astonishment of his vision, and the brashness of his utopian imagination.

Biblical figures turn their faces toward us throughout the show; official religion offered Blake an inheritance so visually rich as to permeate the artist’s work for the whole course of his creative life. But Biblical faces also turn themselves away from us, obliquely, here. In a seaside Eden, washed out in blues and tender, bashful pinks, Adam and Eve kiss under a crescent moon. A host of angels descend on the manger, but here they’ve come in fancy dress, looking like a Vitalist clump of tessellating musculature before their time. Blake’s first innovation, I think, is the absolute bodily ecstasy with which he renders scenes of faith, and mythological imagery: there are muscles everywhere, erotic shadows under everything, an attitude that celebrates convention for  providing the structural basis for its own revision. Age teaches the young, and the young metabolise their lesson into something quite other.

Then we launch into Blake’s more radical departures – his thrillingly impenetrable, keyless self-made mythology. Here we have The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (1795), with heaping bodies looking like they’re in the later stages of somebody’s warehouse party, an owl staring out at us obscure and frightening, and something reptilian lurking between these two. Then we get Albion, stood atop a rock and emanating light like an angel, thrilling because he isn’t (quite) one himself. Blake’s sensibility here is akin to Frank O’Hara’s in Having a Coke with You (1960), which for Munoz exemplifies astonished, historically embedded utopianism. O’Hara looks to art history and prises open in it a space for his own, new, specific joy: ‘I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world / except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick / which thank heaven you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together / the first time…’

What I want to say about Blake by way of thinking how art might push through to the future (despite the dissolution of our federal arts department, the threatening scarcity of arts funding, and the precarity of arts work) is that his utopian sensibility – his astonishment along the rifts he prises apart in his own cultural inheritance – can be useful to us now too. I find myself thinking that a resurgence of religious art – of a Blakean sort, immersed in tradition without obediently repeating it, or asking for assent from its audience – may be the kind of work that could represent a useful departure from the suspicious, diagnostic treatment of cultural history that has characterised the twenty-first century so far.

I mean ‘religious art’ very much to say art that is radical and that departs from a status quo, which looks in astonishment on the past and reads it as a map to the future. I think this revolutionary affect of astonishment is what Blake gives audiences within and without the gallery, as I see the tiger burning bright, a glint in its eye, on an endless iteration of pages. Blake knelt down to his cultural past and rose with an utterly radical, materially specific vision for the future. It’s this attitude that I think artists, in our contemporary moment of suspicious critique, political disillusionment and disavowal, can usefully take to picture a more coherent future. It may be this aesthetic attitude which can deliver us a world that we can still tolerate in fifty years’ time.

This essay originally appeared in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2019

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