The following talk was presented by Gottlieb at a symposium “The Modern Artist Speaks”
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
May 5, 1948
"The current reactionary trend in the art world has dangerous implications that concern both the artist and those interested in art. The main danger is a threat to freedom of expression, because of the attempt to stifle new forms of artistic expression. Artists who struggle to find new forms are always the first victims of a reactionary attack. The history of the modern movement is full of familiar examples. By now it has become a formula to attack new ideas on the grounds of extremism and unintelligibility. Every phase of modern art has in turn been attacked on these grounds, until the new phase became acceptable.
Although the present attacks are focused on those who emphasize the subjective side of abstract painting, the threat to other sections of the modern movement is implicit. The attacks are always focused on those who are considered the black sheep, for reasons of non-conformity. They are conspicuous, because they are different, and therefore make easy targets. Since almost everyone claims to be for modern art, that is sound modern art, which is not too modern, of course, the hue and cry is against extremism, against private symbols, against unintelligibility.
This so called unintelligible painting is labeled, totemism, fetishism, private symbolism, etc. These labels are flung at us like those other derogatory tags that stuck; impressionism, fauvism, cubism. These charges of extremism and unintelligibility are a smoke screen. The critics accuse us of lack of meaning to conceal their own lack of perception. This is the easiest way to justify a hostility to what is different, unconventional, unique and non-conformist. This antagonism to anything un-stereotyped is the crux of the matter.
We are now confronted with a situation in which the critics have ganged up on the non-conformist black sheep. A museum has even changed its name to oppose them; at the same time issued a manifesto against these dangerous creatures of a different color. Why are these black sheep considered so dangerous? I think the answer lies in the similarity of the attacks from both the right and the left. The most violent attacks have recently appeared in the art pages of the conservative N.Y. Times and the N.Y World-Telegram and at the same time in the American communist publication, Masses and Mainstream.
The black sheep, it seems, are neither white enough nor red enough, and that is very dangerous from either point of view. Why? Because even a few black sheep in the large flock might contaminate the others. The pure white and pure red might then become grey or maroon. With the cry of unintelligibility the critics attack whatever is out of line with the status quo of art. This is an expression of intolerance for anything different from the accepted pattern. Granted that some things peculiar may be meretricious. But this intolerance of everything that is off the beaten path, is an attempt to impose conformity. The true artist always refuse to conform to any standards other than his own.
That is why the attacks in Russia against Shostakovitch and Prokofieff are identical to the attacks that have been made here against American pioneers of abstract painting like Davis, Holty or Morris. In Russia, it was Malevitch and Gabo, in this country at the moment it is people like Rothko, Baziotes, Pollock, myself and many others who are being attacked. The names may vary, but the methods, the motives, the objects of attack are essentially the same. Only mediocrity is forever immune, because it is forever ready to conform.
Now let us acknowledge the fact that to explain the meaning of painting, is difficult. And when the form and content are really new, there is not even a vocabulary with which to attempt to explain the new work. This is a problem for critics and a difficult problem. I think it is about time for the critics to face this problem, as well as the fact that there are a few new forms and ideas in modern painting, that these have validity, that they are here to stay and will be developed whether opposed or not.
Eventually this new work will have to be evaluated critically. Critics cannot continue indefinitely to evade the issues and merely smear this work as unintelligible, because the audience is already quite large and knows better. I would therefore recommend that the critics get out of their befuddled condition. They should investigate the serious ideas underlying the painting which they malign. Let the critics discuss these ideas on their merits and then criticize the work in relation to the ideas.
This would be honest criticism and would also be a constructive effort. In this way, instead of derogatory epithets, the critics would be throwing light on so called unintelligible art. Having censured the critics, I would now like to be helpful.
Here are six questions, the answers to which I think could clarify some of the current fog of unintelligibility.
If it is true that it does not matter what the artist paints, why are so many attacks made on subject matter, i.e. totemic themes, race memories, etc.?
If it was right for Delacroix and Matisse to travel to far and strange places like Tunis and Tahiti for subjects, what is wrong with traveling to the catacombs of the unconscious, or the dim recollections of a prehistoric past?
If the origin of painting was the making of marks or poetic signs should we consider the painter and artisan-poet or is he the artisan-architect of a formal structure? Or both?
Can qualitative standards for art be fixed like in dairy products or should standards be fluid in accordance with our situation?
If our political and economic problems cannot be solved by past wisdom, can artistic problems be solved by the solutions of our predecessors?
Finally, is it necessary to have a double standard, one standard for American art and another European art, or should we have a reciprocal exchange of ideas on an international level, as scientists do?"