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Cubism and the General Culture

Albert Gleizes

1926
Man in a Hammock, Albert Gleizes

THE 'GENERAL CULTURE' UNDERLYING PARTICULAR DISCIPLINES

Intense specialisation, cultivated for reasons that have nothing to do with any serious or lasting benefit for mankind, has finally destroyed the essential basis of our life: our general culture. It is this general culture that maintains the link between elements which cannot be separated, no matter how different they may appear; and that enables the confrontation of results obtained in different fields that are all part of one and the same system, even if we are no longer aware of the fact.

The chaos into which our ideas have fallen, and the profusion of individual points of view, can only be explained as the result of a bad initial preparation - a preparation which has laid too much emphasis on analysis and on the evidence of the senses. Such a preparation does not enable the spirit to realise its own form in relation to what surrounds it. The disorder of our actions, which becomes more pronounced with every day that passes, stems from this lack of fundamental principle.

So enormous is the harm done by this specialisation that very few people can understand an individual working in one particular trade wanting to have an idea about what is going on next door to him. And this is particularly true with those trades that are thought of as being 'artistic'. It seems to go against all the established notions that a painter should dare to have any ideas whatsoever, not only about what is going on around him, but even about those things that are most directly related to his work.

It is, however, painting that has begun the reaction against such notions, whether they are held through honest simplemindedness or for other, more sinister, motives. For the past fifteen years, the painters have undertaken a methodical work of re-evaluation. They have asked themselves if the state in which their craft is to be found really corresponds to the ideal state in which it ought to be found. They looked at and studied what had been done elsewhere, and they saw how intolerable it was that this craft should be abandoned to the mercy of individual opinions; they quickly realised that the common ground that was needed could not be a matter of imitating or transposing anything external to the painting, but had to be based on a number of truths that are unchangeable, albeit marked by the fleeting and changeable realities that are specific to every age.

We know the successive stages undergone by the external appearance of the first work which - after a number of isolated efforts going back a long time, the last of them being that of Cézanne - was finally undertaken by the Cubists and the Futurists. We are less well-informed as to the profound changes that took place in the painters' thinking - changes that will doubtless be seen more clearly among the younger, rising generation than among those individuals who made the first efforts to clear the path. We should, then, try to clarify this, and so demonstrate how the daily, practical experience of a craft can give rise to a new consciousness of order, of the order that prevails at the most general level.


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PAINTING AS AN ACT WITH ITS OWN PRINCIPLES

Through the rediscovery of its technique, the painter's craft has been stripped of all the arbitrary elements that had fastened themselves to and eventually replaced its working structure. It has recovered the means that are proper to it and is now established on the solid ground that is the necessary starting point of all human activities. These different crafts and activities are like so many tentacles pushed out by humanity to sieze the world about it. They are not just put to work as a result of a simple need to adapt ourselves, but in pursuit of a real effort of the will to take command of space. The phenomenon of biological creation is pursuing its course.

So, when everything has been said and done, the phenomenon of creation cannot be a matter of copying the superficial appearances of something that already exists; it must be a new act, albeit one that is subject to general conditions. This is an absolute law, whether we are talking about things that are simply useful, or about works of art. It is obvious that we will fail if we try to impose the idea of copying other things in the realm of what is made for use. It is the same in the realm of the work of art. But in this latter case, all scientific values have been abandoned. Left to the mercy of all the anarchies, we have taken external appearances as the starting point. Then the isolated individual has got to work and, instead of the law that is common and imposes a sense of responsibility, we have finished up in the irresponsibility of acts that are arbitrary and unimportant.

A true act can only be realised in space on the basis of a universally valid law. The existence of such a law is revealed through the realisation, but the realisation is itself only a consequence of the existence of the law. The realm of artistic work has suffered from the debilitating influence of scientific lines of thought which showed only one side of the biological process, since they argued that only the realised fact possesses reality. The scientists only took the phenomenon of creation into account at the moment of its arrival in space. The ever more specialised academics thought they could understand how it was caused by pushing analysis to the point of absurdity. The created fact has revealed nothing. The result of all this research is that space only appears all the more empty.

That is why a part of our artistic and literary youth has gone into revolt against such pitiful results and launched invectives against their methods whose tendency it is to dissolve everything. By trying to go beyond what is considered to be real, they demonstrate their anguish and the regret they feel at their inability to believe in anything. (2)

The other side of the biological process - the side that has been ignored by positive science - is that which is ruled by intelligence. No scientist would hesitate to admit that all his calculations would be impossible without the permanent presence and action of this force which, however, has never appeared in front of his senses. So it is worth our while to take notice of it and honestly ask ourselves what it is.

Another section of our artistic and literary youth has seen what a large part of the responsibility for even the smallest actions in life belongs to intelligence and, reflecting on the fact, they have turned towards it. (3)

But we must add, quickly, that it is no use abandoning the first position, from which one side of the question could be seen, only to sacrifice everything to the second, which, equally, can only throw light on what corresponds to its own nature. For, if the fact which comes before the senses does not necessarily have to be understood by the intelligence, the intelligence too is perfectly able to function without regard to the facts. A co-operation between the two is indispensable if we are to understand the phenomenon of creation.



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HUMAN NATURE - INTELLIGENCE, INTELLECT AND SENSES

The most recent efforts to escape the impasse are still too much encumbered with material accumulated under the influence of the specialisations; consequently, they are too much conditioned by the spirit of analysis, which cuts and divides without restraint, introducing endless complications into what is simple. The reality of two active factors - the intelligence and the senses - can barely be percieved, mixed up as it is with a hermetic language and with intellectual systems that have not been clearly defined. Every movement of thought is still too closely associated with the particular deformations it has assumed in space to be easily traced back to the common source. The senses are still too exclusively dominant.

The natures of the intelligence and of the senses are different. The first is infinite, the second is finite. If, then, they are to work together, there must be an intermediate ground on which they can meet. Between the electric current and the light there must be a mechanism through which contact can be made. In the case of man, this neutral terirtory is as unmistakeable as any palpable scientific fact. It is the intellect - that property of the animal kingdom which has evolved continually until it has reached the level of man. The intellect makes the connection between the intelligence, which is at the origin of everything, and the senses, which are relative. It does this by making use of what has been successively acquired in the past; and it allows the latest item in the series of acquisitions to be preserved. Evolution, which is an arithmetical progression, is only possible because there is a place where the last term of this progression is preserved. That is what distinguishes man from the animals. He has at his disposal a much higher level of intellectual possibility. He has more memory that they have . He is able constantly to add one term more to the progression. Man is mathematically better organised than the animal.

If evolution is related to intellectual growth, the intellect is sometimes dominated more by the intelligence and sometimes more by the senses. The way in which it manifests itself, the way in which it appears to the senses, is determined by which of the two is more dominant at the time.

THE NECESSITY OF FORM

Everything that is provoked by the intelligence assumes its force in space and is adapted to the nature of the senses; so creation is an esemplastic fact. (4) We have not grasped the importance of this esemplastic fact; we have not even noticed it in its lower coefficients. Even less have we considered it in relation to the domination of the senses or to that of the intelligence. Science, cutting it up so as to study it analytically, has caused it to vanish, and so we no longer think about it.

But esemplasticity is the natural tendency of being in relation to what surrounds it, just as it was the initial tendency by which that being was realised biologically. So, everything that that being does is formal. The coefficients change, depending on the means by which this principle of esemplasicity is affirmed. Dance, onomatopaeia, the word, music, poetry are esemplastic facts whose coefficients are at a low level, whose reality before the senses is very fleeting. Writing, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture are, according to the technical nature of the material employed, more and more durable. Their coefficients are at a higher level and they are retained by the senses for a longer period of time. The first express the desire of the intelligence to enter into reality; the second adapt the intelligence to the slower working of the senses.

All these facts are subject to the apparent contradiction between the intelligence and the senses. Infinite intelligence is arithmetical. Then the intermediary, the intellect, intervenes; it plays on the relations and gives them the means by which they can assume a form. That is why, depending on whichever influence is predominant, this relation can be conceived sometimes as more arithmetical than geometrical - more to do with the intelligence than with the senses; sometimes more geometrical than arithmetical - more to do with the senses than with the intelligence. Sometimes, even, the relation will break down altogether, and this is what is happening at the present time, as the last of the forms given by the senses dissolves away into nothing.

On these biological foundations rests the cause of what have been called works of art - the highest manifestations of intellect in space, which embody the measures and proportions that characterise that intellect in all the different stages of history. Those esemplastic facts that were once made for use, for all the different uses of daily life, have mostly disappeared. But, by a mysterious prevision in the interest of the Intellectual Species, great areas of the poorly understood domain of works of art have remained from the past. We have stuck labels on them and regard them with a combination of awe and curiosity; but it never occurs to any intellectual worthy of the name that they could be anything other than useless luxuries, only good for studying the social life or, what he despises all the more because he has not the slightest understanding of it, the religious order of the period.

THE REDISCOVERY OF FORM

But were we to study the history of the species by a process of measuring and calculating those events in the esemplastic order that can still be verified - those that, up till now, have held together because of the inertia of their materials - we would achieve a knowledge of the past that was truer, more of the nature of synthesis, and more useful than that which we have at present, based as the latter is on texts whose words can only be interpreted with difficulty, on individual opinions and on distortions of an oral tradition. No longer would we be surprised at constantly finding analogous relations between esemplastic facts that are widely separated in space and time - analogies we try, vainly and artificially, to explain by talking about 'influences'. Eventually, we would come to understand that the external appearances assumed by particular esemplastic developments are always the same wherever the same point in our intellectual progression has been achieved.

It was by eliminating everything superfluous to the technical means of their craft that the Cubists finally reached the common ground where a general, synthetic culture becomes possible - a culture that allows the personality of each of the individual crafts the fullest possible freedom of development. We can understand this process of renunciation by following their evolution, starting with the study they engaged in of the idea of volume - the study that gave them their nickname - through to the more authentic possibilities inherent in the plane surface itself, passing by the complications of the cinematic idea of vision. Little by little, the technical means began to find a secure foundation, whose principles are unassailable, so long as we know that a work of art is not a means by which anarchy can express itself but, on the contrary, the most rigorous assertion of order, of its numbers and of its figures. The work of art again assumes a meaning that is worthy of its earliest history. And if it seems that the individual has disappeared, this is only because, a victim of an education based on analysis, on separation, he does not yet know that he is only real to the extent that he forms part of the collectivity around him. This does not imply being at the same level of intellectual development as that of the collectivity around him, but that he participates in a common order of relationships.

The space of an article is too small to allow all the developments that are necessary if the nature of this common ground is to be clearly expressed, but it is still possible to give some basic ideas.

THE RECOVERY OF A GENERAL 'FORMAL' CULTURE

It is only by means of a general culture that we can become conscious of that force which holds the atoms of the world together, which positive science calls 'cohesion', and which must be allowed to act on the elements which constitute our species if they are to understand to what extent they are dependent one upon the other. In this case we, who consider ourselves to be the most conscious and knowing part of the society, will call it 'intelligence'. Such a culture is nothing other than an awareness of the biological origins which we have in common, and of the forces by which they are determined and directed, as opposed to the differentiations that exist as a result of their realisation in space. Such an awareness is not a matter of the work of the senses but of the unchangeable nature of the intelligence. Consequently, the general culture cannot be just a question of giving a bit of colour to all the analytical forms which appear in the course of our intellectual activity. It has to be a lage synthesis of those forces which brought them into being, and it has to be sustained by the experience of a manual craft. That is why it can only be established on a basis of morality. Will we see the development of a new religious form? I leave the job of answering that question to others, at least for the moment, but I wish that the moral and religious forms of the past were better known than they are at present and that we would give up the habit of seeing in them only marks of a childish, 'primitive' mentality, or just a highly refined means of personal expression. All we have to do to cure ourselves of this habit is to pay less attention to the agitations of their external appearance and more to the certainty of the enormous esemplastic power which they embody, a power whose monuments crush our poor little efforts, ill-supported as they are by a tawdry social idealism, barely enough to conceal the vanity that lies behind it. Witnesses of this kind are an exact record of the stage, the level of relations, achieved in the development of the intellect by the states of mind which produced them.

The works of the religious ages fulfilled the desire for creation in space in a way that was worthy of it, and those who, from this point onwards, through their own experience of working with their hands, can understand the simple and direct instruction that they have to give, will regard them as moral standards to which everything should be related. They were not put up by partial, incomplete specialists like the artists of our own time; but all the specialisations, all the crafts, all the varieties of esemplastic thought met together in them and combined the best of their knowledge. In their harmony, whose measures, where they are still holding together, can be known, we can experience the relations that existed at the time when they were built, and so the general history of the Species can be fixed, not in a confusion of episodes whose real meaning is always open to dispute, but in an order as clear and precise as that of the movement of the stars.

It is only on the basis of an essentially esemplastic culture that the human edifice can be rebuilt; a work of building in which everyone can feel that they are a part of the whole through the strength derived from the awareness that they have a common source - whatever their particular position in relation to a human kind that is busy reducing everything to its individuality, and separating out the facts to the point at which they lose any sense of reality. The disorder of the facts will be resolved through the order of our ideas.

THE ROLE OF CUBISM

Has anyone estimated the effort of the Cubist painters at its true value? It doesn't matter. The spirit of analysis only wanted them to imitate appearances or, as a stimulation for the senses grown weary, it allowed them all sorts of transpositions of the real. The spirit of synthesis which is developing will understand them better. It will appreciate the subtle and intelligent savour that can be conferred upon everything only by numbers, once they are clothed in a material that can be appreciated by the senses. The general culture will allow the results that have been obtained in different areas to be brought together. No longer will the specialisations feel alien and incompetent when they look at what is being done somewhere else.

This coming together of those painters who were there from the start with those of the youngest generation, will allow us to measure the ground that has been covered. Perhaps we will begin to understand that it was not just the form of painting that was put in doubt but, most importantly, that of our whole way of thinking. Then there will be no mistake as to the meaning of the works shown. It is useless to think that they can be judged by standards that do not apply to them. Before you can enjoy them, you must understand their spirit. The men of the Renaissance despised those of the 11th century because they judged them with their particular state of mind which had changed the idea of form; those of the 11th century, for the same reason, despised all the art of the Graeco-Roman period. Can we do otherwise today? At present there is a conflict between two contradictory ideas. There is one that sees the painter's work as a matter of deforming external appearances in the intellectual mirror of the individual; there is the other, which is in the course of developing and affirming itself and which envisages this esemplastic fact as a biological reality quite independent of any external appearances other than the natural common law of movement and rest - a reality that reveals the harmony of those numerical relations that co-ordinate the senses and the intelligence. It is the decadence of the 15th century that confronts the rebirth of the 11th century. Same state of mind, same principles of construction. For it is only in its outward forms that the human species is capable of change.

Paris 1925
Published in Vers l'Unité , No.41, May-June 1926

Notes

1 On the 1st December 1925, an international exhibition will open at the gallery of the rue de la Ville l'Évêque, in the rooms of the Chambre Syndicale des Antiquaires, which brings together certain elements which will enable us to understand the real meaning of those researches in the plastic arts that have been taking place since the already distant beginnings of Cubism.- [Note by Gleizes. He is referring to the exhibition L'Art d'Aujourd'hui , organised by his own pupil Ynaga Poznansky - the first attempt in Paris to show the most recent developments in painting on an international scale. The article was published after the exhibition had closed. It was followed in Vers l'Unité by La Métaphysique Orientale by René Guénon, who was later to play an important but controversial role in the development of Gleizes' thought. - Translator's note ] Back

2 [This is almost certainly a reference to the Surrealists - Translator's note ] Back

3 [In the context of the L'Art d'Aujourd'hui exhibition, Gleizes is probably thinking of his own and Léger's pupils, who appear in the illustrations to his Book, Kubismus, published by the Bauhaus - Translator's note ] Back

4 [I have chosen to translate Gleizes' word plastique by Coleridge's word esemplastic (from eis en plattein -'to shape into one'), partly to avoid the modern connotations of the word plastic, but also to affirm a continuity, which I believe to be valuable, with Coleridge's line of thought -Translator's note ]



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