The Ironical in Art

AS irony is the supreme method of perception, so it would seem in art that all æsthetic impulse must at last end in that comic calvary wherein the painter, the poet and the musician play the crucified before their own sly eyes.

This thought was evoked in me as I stood before the extraordinary sculptures of Matisse lately exhibited in the Gallery of the Photo-Secession. Matisse, Picasso, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Flaubert, Felicien Rops, Geiger: who do they represent except Art doubling on itself, thought and feeling achieving a sublime mockery of itself, Columbus cursing his new-found America?

To write “the book of revenge” (as James Huneker calls Flaubert’s “Bouvard et Pecuchet”), to paint the picture of revenge, to chant the psalm of revenge—is not that the secret dream of all great artists? In the last analysis, all revolutionary art, like all religion, is a kind of vengeance. The dreams of artists are nympholeptic dreams of Perfection. Never being able to reach perfection they revenge themselves by ridiculing it. Have not Matisse and Picasso done this? Is it not that the secret of Futurism and Post-Impressionism and all the other isms that now run riot and will continue to run riot in a glorious and impenitent world in spite of the bleatings of the obscure employe of the Wall Street Edition of a bright and spleeny evening sheet?

Irony in art is the expression of a lifelong vendetta of a penned-up, often impotent Ego against the commonplace and the limited; the cry for perfection á rebours. Richard Wagner was a demi-god, and he dreamed of heroic fornications and Olympian sex-frenzies. Not being able to satisfy this madness in the “Ring” and “Tristan and Isolde”, [sic] he wrote “Parsifal,” the apotheosis of venom, spite and unassuaged lust. He spat on women and deified the eunuch. Wagner should have lived in a harem of Junos; but being only mortal with the voluptuous dreams of a thousand Joves packed into his body, he flung at the world his opera of revenge,—“Parsifal,” the epic of spleen.

Every great painter dreams of doing a “Parsifal” in color.

The root of nihilism in art is spite. “Les Fleurs du Mal” is spite. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” is spite, “The World as Will and Idea” is spite. All Futurism, Post-Impressionism, is spite. Great men are known by their contempts. There have been geniuses who have never given their spite to the world; it was because they lacked the time, not the will.

All great movements begin with the gesture of hate, of irony, of revenge. This is as true in art as in social history. Irony is the perpetual heaven of escape. Nothing can follow the mind into that sanctuary. Against self-disdain and self-mockery the world wars in vain. It redistributes and revalues everything that comes to it for appraisal.

There is a revaluation going on in the art of the world to-day. There is a healthy mockery, a healthy anarchic spirit abroad. Some men are spitting on themselves and their work; that is healthy, too.

[18] After thinking of some of the things that Matisse and Picasso have done I thought that all seriousness is a defect of vision. It is quarry for Fate and Fury. There is no form of seriousness, even in art, that has not in it the germ of disaster for the mind that is a slave to it. It is the soul of tragedy, the protagonist of every emotional and mental ill that besets the human being. There is something in seriousness that runs counter to the spirit of things. No ideal is complete until you have smashed it. No art is perfect until the creator of it has caricatured it. Do not affront the God of Carelessness! In a universe that wavers and totters and flows and blends, that melts and reappears eternally, Seriousness attempts the static pose. It tries to stanch motion by predicating a cohesive finality. Before an imponderable, riant god it assumes a cumbrous avoirdupois. There is a hidden diabolism, Puck-like, in this New Movement. Will the bright employe of the Wall Street Edition take it all too seriously?

Has Matisse, has Picasso, has De Zayas whispered into the ear of his generation what Satan whispered into the ear of St. Anthony, “Suppose the absurd should be true?” The absurd has an inexorable logic; it is the mother of irony and the wing of Perception and the Cain-brand on the forehead of every new movement. There is life itself to prove the supremacy and legitimacy of the absurd.

Why should the dreamers and thinkers and painters of the Other Plane despise this age we live in?—this age of shreds and pasteboards, of superficialities and stupidities, of inanities and material prosperity? Has it not given to us the divine ironists, the supreme haters, the mockers, the merry-andrews of art? Has it not given to us the disequilibrated geniuses of destruction, the pessimistic analyzers and dissociaters of all the humbug done under the sun in the name of classicism? Out of the entrails of this disorderly age have come Thomas Hardy, Swinburne, Baudelaire, Rodin, Monet, Cézanne, Manet, Schopenhauer, Whitman, Nietzsche, Verlaine, Debussy, Wagner, Matisse, Picasso, Carlyle, Bloy, De Maupassant, Remy de Gourmont, Redon, Geiger, Anatole France, Marinetti, James Huneker, De Zayas, Maeterlinck, Jules Lafarge, Arthur Symons, Hauptmann, Saudermann, Tolstoi, Ambrose Bierce. It is a glorious age and a glorious anarchic world of color, motion, vibration and scintillating creative-destructiveness! We have made our wounds sing, and sometimes we have put a tongue into them and made them spit out the venom in our souls. We have drawn the unguents of ideal beauty and the acids of healthy mockery from our sores. Blessed be the devil of material progress! It stands forever redeemed in Ibsen’s venom and the diabolic spleen of Felicien Rops.

There is a kin of mind that grows more beautiful the closer and more continued its contact with the ugly. It is the kind of mind that grows in direct contrast to physical and economic development. It becomes stronger through an enkernelled principle of revolt and dissent as it comes into contact with the things that tend to weaken it. It is the revolt of the cell against the organism. It is the root-principle of genius, of ironic genius and spleen-genius.

[19] After all illusions have gone the prying Intellect still remains—the stealthy ghoul who creeps to the grave after the interment of the corpse. That is irony. That is the phase the intellectual and æsthetic worlds have reached.

Is all painting, all art, ascending into the heaven of irony, the zenith of scorn and mockery?

Benjamin De Casseres.


Source: Camera Work, April 1912, No. 38, pp. 17-19