“I want to assassinate painting,” Joan Miró is reported to have said, in 1927. Four years later, the Catalan modern master elaborated, in an interview: “I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have utter contempt for painting.” Peter Schjeldahl on Joan Miro
Throughout his long life Miró pushed the boundaries of what a painting might look like. So much of his surrealist work featuring the cartoony alien creatures are fun, but his experimentations with ground, process, and the idea of painting as a thing are the most exciting parts of his work. This physical experimentation was more DaDa inspired and pushed painting’s histories into weird and strange contortions. The late burned paintings are case in point. They were first completed as High Modern paintings – authentic Miró paintings – and then attacked as contemptuous objects and left to exist as a physical challenge to Miró’s own economic value, the work’s aesthetic meaning as well as a critique of the history of painting itself. I have a cherished image of old Miró stepping back after torching each painting, taking a long hard look – then side spitting and wiping his mouth on his sleeve – ¡Vete a la mierda!
“In his catalog essay, William Jeffett relates Miró’s process of creating these canvases. “First the canvases were cut with a knife and punctured with sharp objects; paint was then applied and petrol was poured over them and ignited. Further paint was applied and again burned with considerable care; a wet mop was used for control and a blowtorch for concentration on specific areas.” While Jeffett claims the inspiration for these canvases rests in the shattered facades and street chaos of the youth protests of the late 1960s, he also admits that they represent an “attack on art itself…on the bourgeois reduction of art to elite culture or economic commodity.” In an interview, Miró made clear the intentions behind these works: “I have burned these canvases on the level of form and profession, and as another way of saying shit to all of those people who say that these canvases are worth a fortune.” The “Burnt Canvases” anchor a fundamental quality of Miró’s later works, where his confrontations with Fascist Spain were intertwined with his critiques of an international art market that he saw as powerfully corrupting in its own right.” James Polchin on Joan Miro
Many of us are still trying to be Modern, or rather we believe in the Modern, which makes us Modernists, true acolytes. In the last post Adam Curtis made the point that our societies continue to look backward because we haven’t the imagination to see ahead – to paraphrase – we have no picture of the future. What we Modern believers fail to understand is that actually Modernism ended. The job was done by the mid 50s. Artists had cleared the way for the future burning out centuries of tired ideas about art and leaving us with a clean slate. It was up to us to move on from the Modern Era and begin again. The sixties and seventies can be forgiven in that regard. Those artists were trying to transition into the next century. But we who followed never got past the idea of the “End of History.” We elided Modernism with Capitalism. We equated artists with entrepreneurs. We began to talk about art like it was business. And we began to use the Modern era as an official state culture. From the 1980s on art became, for like of a better description, an industry. Today all the rebellion and danger of Modernism has been worn smooth and made palatable and profitable for the e-commerce era.
MIró’s art capitalist provocations seem innocent and a bit naive these days while our rapacious art economy revs up for a post-pandemic feeding frenzy. Works like the burnt paintings have become brand name experiences for the buying public. Miró’s authentic gestures of defiance are used as pitch points to sell the work for a premium to a hermetic market place. Our love affair with Modernism has groomed us to actively engage with the aesthetics of destruction and we in turn have created a market that hungers for products of “authentic rebellion”. We love the shabby chic, the classic ruin, the “bad painting” and the interestingly-aged vintage object – especially when it’s presented to us through the aesthetics of Modernist Capitalism.
Questions arise – if we expect the assassination of painting and we welcome and encourage the assassination is the artist really a criminal of culture or is the artist complicit in our expectations of culture? Is there such a thing as a “bad (meaning culturally or socially challenging) artist culture” any longer – are we shocked or flummoxed by art these days? How does a desperate act become just another quotidian artistic process or gambit? Is it possible – here at the end of history – to make “bad painting” or an avant-garde action when every kind and type of art is immediately priced, branded and marketed? Can we burn this “art” down or would that action and that object become “sellable”? What does artistic rebellion look like these days? And finally and maybe most important, what would Miró have us do?