Concerning the sclerosis of a rudderless art world
and the means of reaffirming its fundamental principle:

A Response to the Detractors of Contemporary Art

Paris: Jean-Paul Rocher, 1999

Translated by David W. Seaman


Pour lire ce texte en Français, cliquez ici

Society creates barriers to make its own evolution distinctive while casting doubt on the development of new ideas brought by cultural avant-gardes.

The evolution of society is perfectible: yet while the assimilation of new advances should be immediate, the process of evolution is slowed, even momentarily stopped, by those barriers.

Painting has effectively resisted progress and protected itself from all new art forms by blocking any possible evolution, thanks to the intervention of the mindless minutiae of the Neos, of contemporary crowd-pleasing pompier painting, and of conventional academic painting.

When these groups make their scornful pronouncements and display their engendered variations, they are merely marking the delays and highlighting society's resistance to change.

One must admit that painters were never happy to accept the arrival of impressionism or abstraction.

But painting's evolution from hieratic involvement to the amplified anecdote while passing through the spiritual to arrive at aesthetic concepts and virtuality has been too strong and irresistible, and could not fail to acknowledge the quintessential contributions of those whose suffering enabled it to overcome the obstacles.

Two constituents of society face each other: on the one hand the creative artists who are little known, rejected, too far out of step with a society that has trouble accepting innovation; and on the other hand the media-hyped Neo-borrowers who dilute creation with an amalgam blended of true creation and of retarded familiar forms. These Neos reflect the contributions of the creative artists through the bias of fashion, making them easier to assimilate for people who are more particularly preoccupied with the superficiality of things; then long after, they take the innovations back into their account and hide the unique creators of these new forms and pass themselves off as the ones who made these contributions.

But this diluted, imperfect creation can only result in palliated satisfaction compared to the emotional shock produced by creation at the moment of impact.

The stronger the Neos become, the more they delay the moment of recognition of future creation, which is the sole generator of great joys. With the Neos, we are on familiar ground, where the persistence of forms or the minimal deviation from the form is accepted because it is already assimilated.

But in art the Neo does not exist, it is only redundance through lack of creativity. All the current groups, through lack of fundamental original theoretical innovation, have been unable to detach themselves from Dada and from Lettrisme. Singly or collectively, the Neo represents cultural drifting, the impasse of a recognized former school of art.

Art, at such a time, has a reduced life, and is only used for monetary ends. It goes seeking its reason for existence in outrageous multiplication, no longer knowing purity. Its goal is mass production of objects whose unalterable reproduction seems to be its only ambition. It aims only to make beauty uniform, based on platitudes of objective perception, lacking creative means.

I regretfully sense that it is not the problem of the decision-makers. Like most of society, they are fully satisfied with earlier discoveries. Society benefits from cultural advances, but not in immediate assimilation; it incorporates innovations and profits from them when it finds them useful, caring nothing about the creators. The evolution of art is not an irresistible forward march toward an Edenic goal, but a zigzag wandering. It meanders among the vagaries of fashion and its triumphs, the Neos, the cultural institutions and their representatives, the faux-new-philosophers, the sects, the fakes, common taste, and so forth.

The elements that make up society must be solid, since despite the aberrant choices made, society ultimately succeeds in assuring its survival and continued evolution. This evolution is saved thanks to the assimilation of the strongest creations, which it adopts at the optimal moment.

Creation in art is the act of creating a form which did not exist, that is, of inventing a new style, thus a new aesthetics based on a new theoretical preoccupation.

In this work, the author makes an effort to sort out the creators in the domain of painting, to put their contributions in context, and to show their originality in contrast to the mass of Neo painters throughout contemporary art.

He will put in perspective, finally, in contemporary art, that which seems to him the most progressive movement of this time, and he will justify it. He will situate that movement which prolongs Human history through the history of painting.



All creation is the expression of a change in people s relation with the world.

A new philosophical or artistic concept will have trouble making itself heard, as it has to find its way among all the nuances of perception. One must study it to make its beneficial contribution concrete for oneself. It makes a person sensitive to the level of his or her own culture and intelligence. New, stronger joys flow from its application and assimilation. Only those who want to will be concerned.

To each according to his or her perceptions; to each perception the maximum of joy.

The creative act results from a break with the preceding school of art. The artist feels pushed, not to take up what others have done before him, but to construct a personal work that is unique, innovative, and rich in new beauties. The new art innovation makes the artist s works eternally beautiful.

The more important his or her contribution, the more difficult it will be to gain recognition. By changing the aesthetic norms through evolution, artists expose themselves to the temporary misunderstanding of their contemporaries whom they will have to sway to their views.

For example, Piero della Francesca studied and resolved the problem of perspective. Before him, painters had only sketched the bases of depth of field in a painting and the results were clearly insufficient. This ancient problem and its solution were indispensable if one were to approximate a faithful representation of reality, but no one had succeeded in developing a theory of perspective and convincingly reproducing it in paintings.

Piero della Francesca published a treatise on perspective in Italy in 1482, entitled De Prospectiva pingendi. In his mural paintings he applied his new theories of perspective, which were proven correct, thus for the first time in the history of painting showing a perfect integration of human figures in the chosen setting.

This creation, the practical use of perspective coming from the study of mathematics and geometry, changed the composition of paintings and made human figures appear more realistic in elaborately painted settings of all sizes.

This practical discovery, this new concept, offers more joy thanks to a perfect legibility of the painting, which becomes immediately comparable to reality and integrated into it.

Following Francesca, after a period of resistance, painters in turn had to assimilate and master his contribution, in order to successfully paint high quality works; they could no longer paint the way they had before for fear of seeming backwards.

Liberated by the resolution of the problem of perspective, they could quickly devote themselves to solving other shortcomings of art and make aesthetic progress in their paintings.

The name of Piero della Francesca, thanks to his contribution, is inseparable from the discovery of perspective, as is the name of Leonardo for sfumato, of Caravaggio for chiaroscuro, of Monet for impressionism and his research on light, of Picasso for having reduced paint to geometry, of Duchamp for having substituted the ready-made for the banalized figurative object, of Max Ernst for having adapted frottage to his art, and so forth.

Thus a true creator is the person who explicitly defines the structure of a discipline to the detriment of all others, henceforth considered exhausted, and who explores this structure and fights all his life for it.

The concept did not exist, but once discovered and set in a theoretical model, it exists.

The medication heals the illness, the Aeolian airplane of Clément Ader flies, electricity advantageously replaces oil, Piero della Francesca publishes a treatise on perspective, et cetera. There is progress, thus act of creation. All these creations are verified at every instant; they are scientifically universal.

Only a few rare painters can boast of this remarkable degree of innovation. They are the promoters of a new visual art, and followers will flock to its sides, each one chiselling out a parcel of it in a style particular to this aesthetic, with their own personal imprint. Together they form a school or a movement.[1]

In other terms, those are the painters who follow the creator of this new system--which can be enlarged and developed--and unite around an idea or a new theoretical preoccupation.

Often, even, the movement will increase with poets, novelists, architects, dramatists, philosophers, musicians, photographers or even filmmakers, etc. All are preoccupied with this new theory which will thus be worked out in all artistic disciplines.

A Neo will not have this power of concentration around his concept, since he represents only a tiny part of something borrowed from a vast system.

His idea can not be divided, because it is already a small division.

No movement will be formed claiming to come from his example. He will work out his solitary borrowed idea alone on the periphery without being able to make it evolve. Throughout his life he will drag around like a ball and chain this fixed image that he can not abandon for fear of losing his identity. His inability to go beyond himself and this obstinacy in an after-image will be the cause of his failure and his ultimate disappearance from the domain of painting.

A painter who does not succeed in attracting disciples and forging a school based on his theoretical or concrete propositions of new concepts is insufficient in the face of creation and is unworthy of claiming it.

Yesterday as today, followers have been initiated, voluntarily or not, around new ideas and in the name of creators. They have been shaped by their contact, before the public could benefit from it.

In the History of painting there is not a single creative painter who has not formed a school, whether voluntarily or not. That is a fact.

Every school or movement in painting constitutes an essential and maximal step in human aesthetic knowledge at a given moment.


In the wake of numerous new people joining the heart of the movement, we notice a drying up of creativity, at the same time as the appearance of a certain lightness, with easier styles that evolve less than their elders. This redundant aesthetic rehashing generally marks the end of the movement. Nevertheless the end will not really come until the arrival of another generation of more progressive painters who will fight for a new theory and a new aesthetics. Or by the painters, who, recognizing the sclerosis of their movement, will anticipate their departure and form a new more progressive group with others.

For example, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Max Ernst were in on the beginnings of the Dadaist adventure, before participating happily as we know in André Breton s Surrealist movement where they made their mark with magnificent, creative works in several disciplines.

Or consider Marcel Duchamp, who was influenced initially by Cézanne and the Fauves in his apprenticeship in painting, and then became a Symbolist, a Cubist, and finally a Futurist before finding his personality and innovating in his own domain.

The third or fourth generation of painters of this school, like Wilfredo Lam, Camacho, or Hérold illustrate well the creative exhaustion compared to the first ones to arrive in the movement. The elders could give free rein to their creative imagination facing the worlds to conquer. The alchemy of rarity moves everything they created in art works, sought after on account of their historical precedence and also the emotional attraction obtained by the first pictorial babbling of a new school.

Then for the generation of followers, once the creativity is diminished, there is nothing left for them except the possibility of exploiting the weak nuances that are still available, or else uncovering a little known theme of a predecessor and exploiting it in every manner possible, ad nauseam--such is the case of Warhol, of Arman, of Christo, of Nauman, of Kosuth, of Villeglé, of Buraglio, of Raynaud, of Garouste, or Wenet, or even Paik and Lalanne. They thus become some sort of post-something, or Neo-something.

Often these copycats, aided by incompetent gallery owners, who are indelicate and opportunistic, will attract more glory and honor in their lifetime than the true creators, whom they will obscure for a time before sinking, after a reevaluation, into the trash cans of history along with their works.


The acts of the Neo rely upon the abusive prolongation of the abusive values of a previous formally recognized school.

Nothing is more regrettable than a Neo who is in fashion. Through his lack of creativity he hangs onto the form that made him catch on, and he multiplies it to the extreme, he makes the exceptional banal.

His success is more representative of the past school than of his own merit, coming more from what he borrowed than from his own personality.

"The danger is always in pleasing the most immediate audience, which surrounds you, welcomes you, and finally sanctifies you and bestows success upon you...and all the rest. On the other hand, maybe you need to wait fifty or a hundred years to find your real audience, but that is the only thing that interests me. "

--Marcel Duchamp

Neos can also create a new artistic group, some time after an earlier successful school, when it has been replaced artistically. They use the former diluted precepts as a basis for reflection and elaboration, to form an art that would like to be progressive, but which is in fact only a backward turn toward aestheticism.

Or again, the Neos may be a painter or a group of painters united in reaction against the modernity that they do not understand, which they cannot tolerate for various reasons. Only the desire to create art has pushed them to denigrate the current art, denying the reality of historical evolution.

It is edifying to observe that in the majority of their manifestos Neo movements claim positions opposed to the most progressive art schools of their contemporary world, while borrowing from them enough so that they think they are able to claim to be truly up to date, thus justifying their existence.

This is demonstrated by the bouquet of excerpts of definitions of the principal post-war Neo movements which one can find in the Aventure de l'art au XXe, published by the Editions du Chêne.

These definitions are excerpted from their authors or are made by art journalists who specifically studied these movements:

"Abstraction-Creation against the return of realism and against surrealism...."

Jean Dubuffet, art brut: "Production of every sort presenting a spontaneous character and strongly inventive, as little as possible indebted to customary art or cultural cliches and having for authors obscure people, foreign to the professional artistic circles.....

"Poor art intends to go beyond the 1960's, like pop art, and attaches itself to certain conceptions of previous years, not hiding its borrowings from new French realism and American neo-Dada in its refusal to assimilate art works into a consumer product...."

"Cobra, without actually having a program, was presented in fact as the inheritor of primitive and popular art, of expressionism and Dada,...."

"Hyperrealism finds its definition in the 1970's in New York, in reaction against abstract expressionism and conceptual art...."

"The idea-force which led painters (surfaces-supports) to create a new movement was to reaffirm painting as such, that is to say, after the neo-Dada of the 1960's and in reaction against the fashion of conceptual art, coming to the evidence forgotten to its detriment such as this: painting is colored matter placed on the surface, on a ground...."

"Transavant-garde, created in reaction to the conceptual art of the 1970's and to the avant-gardes attached to progressive political ideologies...."

Neo movements claim the right to proclaim their state of mind, their private moods, in reaction to the preceding school of painting. They do not enroll in a harmonious evolution, but fight in reaction against the preceding step by lacking the most elementary objectivity which would bring them to the recognition of these movements.

Being unable to guarantee culturally their extension into history, their static state of mind leads them to a return backwards to where their understanding of painting retains them, or to the level of their ability.

Reaction, according to the definition in the Larousse dictionary, means: to, against, upon. Speaking of a body, action on another whose action one felt. Action in return or in depth. Opposition by a contrary action; fight against; resistance. Movement of opinion acting in a sense opposite to the preceding opinion.

Reaction parties: name given to political parties which oppose political or social changes not coming from the traditional principles they support.

In Hachette's Tout en Un we read: Reaction, reactionary: action of a party which wants to return to the past. Act of returning.

When one acts by reacting, one reacts out of spite in the face of something that one does not understand and can not accept. One wants to make it turn back, to bring it back to where one understands it without taking into account the progress it made through evolution.

The evolution of painting is held back by the lack of perceptions that are avant-garde or at least modern.

That is what all the movements cited above are involved in: a return backwards to the bases that have been earned, but that are retarded, recognized by all and thus instantly assimilable.

These movements are not for the revolution, they are against it, reacting against it. They display their intimate personal pretensions (tastes) to a universal history. They have forgotten that painting (like all disciplines) is an irreversible evolution, a durable progress.

Giotto, della Francesca, Caravaggio, Monet, Derain, Picasso, and Ernst did not create against anything, or in reaction to anything; they created to respond to an insufficiency in the accomplishments of human knowledge and visual arts.

With recognition and interest, they have used the bases of the preceding steps as a springboard to realize themselves. They made art evolve thanks to the addition of their style, thus opening new possibilities for evolution in the history of painting.

As history has demonstrated.


1 The promoter of a new style is incapable of exploring all the dimensions of his discovery; he leaves to other painters who recognize that they are following this new aesthetics, the task of developing his discovery, much as Monet, Picasso, or Max Ernst left important aspects of their new art to be deciphered by Renoir, Degas, Braque, Juan Gris, Masson, Dali, and their friends in the group.

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Copyright © 1999 by Alain Satié; translation copyright © 1999 by David W. Seaman

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