Dore Ashton’s Engagé—Art Criticism in the Face of Contemporary Tragedies

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place

—W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940)


Portrait of Dore Ashton. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

A sense of life’s tragic dimensions has sometimes produced art criticism that does more than merely conclude in futile, Sisyphean fashion with some supposedly unchanging “condition humaine.” After all, tragedy in art is not always about hopelessness, nor is it necessarily even humorless. From the appearance of Aristotle’s legendary Ars Poetica in the 4th century B.C. to the emergence of Dore Ashton’s internationally recognized art criticism in the late 20th century, tragedy in the arts has sometimes served to awaken hope in a life beyond tragedy. Whether one has in mind the audience-elicited catharsis advocated by Aristotle in dramas or the sober existential resolve of the visual arts to counter contemporary tragedies illuminated by Ashton in her writings, tragedy has at times offered resistance rather than resignation as a starting point.

Yet it is easy to undervalue or even ignore this observation, since mainstream art critics embedded with the status quo routinely insist upon the inevitably tragic course of life in order to oppose popular demands for social justice and to foreclose any visionary hopes for transforming the grim plight of humanity at present. For these prominent conservative and liberal art critics in North America, the reference to tragedy leaves the reader with no choice but to accept as an outgrowth of so-called “human nature” the horrible tragedies of U.S. Imperialism in Latin America or the tragic plunder of the planet more generally speaking. If something like “original sin” really were to blame for social ills, then changing the system of political economy would only alter who is tragically victimized, not whether or not the tragic victimization of people can be eliminated. It was quite rightly the large contingent of mainstream Western authors (including art critics) dominating the “free press” whom Roland Barthes had in mind when he wrote in the 1950s that “Tragedy is merely a means of ‘recovering’ human misery, of subsuming and thereby justifying it in the form of necessity… nothing is more insidious than tragedy.” Similarly, Alain Robbe-Grillet spoke against the standard usage of tragedy in much modern art when he declared:

One question persists: Is it possible to escape tragedy?.... I assert that this unhappiness is situated in space and time, like every form of unhappiness, like everything else in this world. I assert that humanity will some day free itself from it. But of this future I possess no proof. For me as well it is a wager. “Man is a sick animal,” Unamuno wrote in The Tragic Sense of Life; the wager consists in believing that he can be cured, and that it would be a mistake to imprison him in his disease. I have nothing to lose. This wager, in any event, is the only reasonable one to make.

There is, however, a very different use of tragedy in art or art criticism than the conventional one condemned by Barthes and Robbe-Grillet and that is where the writings of Dore Ashton come into play -- along with the art works of the New York School, as for example in The Spanish Elegies of Robert Motherwell or in the somber colorfield paintings of Mark Rothko, in relation to which many of her notable essays were written. What is perhaps her best known book, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (1973) is an unsurpassed look at the ethical, philosophical, and political stances by the Abstract Expressionists to overcome the tragedies of recent history, such as the victory of fascism in Spain in 1939. In the case of Motherwell and Rothko, as well as Ashton, tragedy in art—a passionate lamentation about things that should never have happened—was summoned as a means of thwarting similar tragedies in the future, rather than asserting in a resigned manner that tragedy could not be avoided. Tragedy in art for the New York School was seen as the antidote to tragedy in life, not just as mere compensation for it.

A reason for the standing now enjoyed by Ashton’s book on Abstract Expressionism, itself the result of two monumental historical tragedies—the Great Depression and World War II—was aptly identified by art historian Robert Rosenblum:

[The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning] has the enormous, in fact singular, advantage of being written by an active observer and participant in the artistic and cultural upheavals that characterized the New York art milieu of the 1950s. But, in addition to being an eyewitness account, it is a story told by an author who is a professional art critic and student of cultural history. This combination has made Ms. Ashton’s book a classic in the literature on abstract expressionism.

Among the exemplary things about her book on the New York School is the chapter, entitled “Existentialism.” In it, Ashton sketched how the sense of gravitas induced by recent tragedies spawned the sober advent of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s. I quote her on these developments:

When [Harold] Rosenberg and Motherwell wrote pessimistically in Possibilities [Winter 1947/48], offering the barest hope that something might come of the artist’s individual struggle, they had already begun to see the renewal of conflict between artists and their society…. [T]here were sociologists who could speak of an age of corporations and conformity (while I.F. Stone referred to the ‘haunted fifties’)…. If alienation was to be the leitmotif of the decade following the war, the visual artists had a head start.

Such an interpretation of the cultural matrix in response to which the New York School definitively emerged is perfectly in accord with painter Robert Motherwell’s own view of what he, Rothko, Pollock, De Kooning, and the other artists were about. In a 1950 essay in which he coined the term “The New York School,” Motherwell wrote as follows:

It is easier to say some of the things the New York School is not. Its painting is not interested in giving information, propaganda, description, or anything that might be called (to use words loosely) of practical use…. But I think that the art of the School of New York, like a great deal of modern art that is called “art for art’s sake” has social implications. These might be summarized under the general notion of protest…. I believe that all art is historical, that there is no such thing as an eternal art that transcends a specific historical period…. The modern emphasis on the language of art…is not merely a matter of internal relations, of the so-called inherent properties of a medium [as Greenberg claims]. It is instead a sustained, systematic, stubborn, sensitive, and sensible effort to find an exact formulation of attitude toward the world as concretely experienced …. It is interesting that the rejection of the lies and the falsifications of modern Christian, feudal aristocratic, and bourgeois society [in the US], of the property-loving world that the Renaissance expressed, has led us, like many modern artists, to affinities with the art of other culture [from Latin America, Asia, and Africa].

These crucial observations help to explain why Dore Ashton would also be so keenly interested in the art of Latin America. It should be clear, for example, from her essays on Nicaragua in the 1980s and on Armando Morales why she is considered a critic of the first rank not only in the US but also in Latin America. The eloquent alertness of her pieces can hardly be paraphrased by us in a way that does not diminish them. Therefore, reader are invited to read these pieces directly themselves, and without an intrusive summary.

The only thing left for me to do is not to “recapture” the poetry of her art criticism (which would be impossible anyway), but first to refer people directly to her critical essays and then to explicate briefly how they operate so effectively. One of the first books to consult if the reader wishes to see Ashton’s art criticism at its most perceptive and poetic is her superb text from 1969, A Reading of Modern Art. In it she has written some of the most remarkable pages even penned about the formal values and extra-formal associations of Mark Rothko’s paintings (see pages 19 to 28) and also those of Robert Motherwell (see pages 108 to 118). The type of “formalism” used here is not the “normative” or orthodox formalism of Clement Greenberg, which was based on the single-minded precept of so-called “medium purity” in alignment with the “essence of the medium.” Indeed, Greenberg’s orthodoxy is implicitly criticized by Ashton in the elegant Preface to A Reading of Modern Art for being far too narrow and reductive. Conversely, Ashton’s unorthodox variant of formal analysis is, like that of Roger Fry, one of “non-normative formalism,” which insists on the “dual nature” of painting as being both about the poetic language of painting and the prose of life at the same time, neither to the exclusion of the other. This is how Ashton made the case for her quite distinctive and unavoidably paradoxical type of art criticism:

The mission of the contemporary critic is often construed as a purgative activity, aimed at ridding commentary of ornamental maunderings…. But in the passionate effort to deal with essences, or things in themselves, much modern criticism has deleted a whole realm of experience. The trouble with the purist or isolationist critical approach is not that it is in itself improper, but rather that it is arbitrarily limited. The first effort of the critic should be to see the unique quality inherent in a work, the quality that immediately attracts the receiver and moves him. But the critic must also remember that other action of a work: its expansiveness. If it moves us, it can move us emotionally, morally, psychologically, intellectually, historically, depending on a host of subtle considerations. It seems to me that twentieth-century art must be considered in a double perspective…. Like a big city, twentieth-century art has many quartiers.

While not dismissive of theory per se, Ashton uses an analytical approach to art criticism that is anchored in evocative description about the formal configuration of the art object. There is for her no a priori theory that mandates an automatic form of analysis regardless of the art object being experienced. Consequently, her art criticism is seen as “not formalist enough” by orthodox formalists like Greenberg and as “too formalist” by orthodox exponents of the “social history of art,” with their foregrounding of the art’s context over the object to arise from it. In response to the latter criticism, Ashton noted as follows in an “Author’s Note” to The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning:

My favorite philosopher is Gaston Bachelard. I like particularly his unbounded contempt for those who, like the psychoanalyst, ‘try to explain the flower by the fertilizer.’ Knowing about an artist’s ambience does not ‘explain’ his work…. I have written a book that is not about art, nor about artists individually, but about artists in American society. It is, if you like, a close scrutiny of the components of the fertilizer which, undeniably, has something to do with the flower.

Similarly, despite being a prominent figure on the left, she has also expressed skepticism about just how far class-analysis could go in “completely” explaining an individual art work. Here her position seems to be closest to the existentialism and unorthodox Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre who, in his Critique of Dialectical Reasoning took issue with the mono-causal use of class analysis in the arts. To paraphrase Sartre provocative challenge: Paul Valery was petit bourgeois, but not every petit bourgeois person is a Paul Valery. The important thing in criticism is to explain the difference, not ignore it.

Owing to the openness of her approach and her storehouse of technical knowledge about artistic practice derived from countless studio visits, as well as intense visual inquiry, Ashton uses a formal analysis in her criticism that is often poetic in its language. If we consider for a moment Roland Barthes’s discussion of modern poetry, the special pertinence of the “poetic” for Ashton’s art criticism will perhaps become clear. “Poetic” in the days of classicism, as Barthes argued, was an ornamental variation of a previous prose. It was accomplished more through circumscribed formal conventions, than through an ad hoc formal means. Modernist poetry (especially “free verse”) became at once more suggestive and less didactic, thus inverting the earlier relationship in classical poetry between an essentializing thought and a mere transcriptive language. Unlike classical poetry that translated pre-existing philosophy into a more poetic idiom, modernist poetry sanctioned unplanned, unexpected, and disordering encounters with an irreducibly concrete experience resulting. Language became the logic, not a mere translator of it, by means of what Barthes called, “a kind of formal continuum in the language from which there emerges an intellectual or emotional density impossible with it.”

Opposed as it is to the colonization of the senses by the intellect, of the sensory by the theoretical, modernist poetry and modern art are often more about discourses of the body than that of bloodless abstract theory. Accordingly, the poetic in modernist terms has an irreducibly ambiguous quality to it that, if eliminated, spells the reduction of poetry into something less sensuous and more instrumental. As an earthy, embodied, cultural artifact with deep sensory appeal, modern poetry and art are not just embellished translations of prior philosophical ideas and previous theoretical concepts. Thus, there is a back and forth play between language and life, which makes the “poetic” oxymoronic and thus dependent on the gôut du paradoxe. The integrity of modernist poetry or modern art thus hinges on an acceptance of the particular, rather than the general, of the unanticipated as well as the preplanned. These are sensory-based attributes that are lost if the poem or art work is completely clarified along practical lines or totally explained by critical theory. In short, if a modern painting can be entirely reduced to words, then it never should have been painted to begin with. Similarly, there is a fundamental asymmetry between texts and images that precludes either being a mere substitute for the other.

This characterization of modernist poetics by Barthes allows us to appreciate at least in part what is so distinctive about Ashton’s “double perspective” art criticism. Just how compelling her criticism is at its best was once explained by the painter Robert Motherwell in his review of her book on Mark Rothko:

Dore Ashton has got inside the artistic mind of Mark Rothko, and in doing so, has come upon the sensibility, ultimate concerns, and ideas of the Abstract Expressionists milieu…. [She is] an incomparable guide, whose scholarship and personal testimony must not be ignored.

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David Craven

David Craven is the Distinguished Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico.