The joy of hatred

A minor matter it may be, and with no legal repercussions, I hope, but let me mention that I hate Piet Mondrian. I only realized this yesterday. Prior to that I rather liked him, or more precisely, dutifully applauded his uncompromising abstractions, his pursuit of “the absolute” in growing disregard of all the traditional “content” of painting, such as representation, draughtsmanship, colouring and shading; the “pure plasticity” he advertised. The actual enjoyment was tepid at best. I knew he was Dutch, which makes me quizzical; and of a Calvinist background, which puts me on my guard; and a convert to Theosophy, which sets off the alarm. From photographs, I have guessed that the man himself would irritate me, regardless what he was. I do not like “tight little people.” But I’ve long been willing to waive my prejudices on behalf of a great artist.

Was Mondrian “a great”? That is the consensus of the art market. And how can one sniff at the judgement of someone who will pay 50 million Natted States Dollars for a grid of black-lined rectangles filled with flat primary colours (or white). True, there can be something romantic in a torrid competition, as at Christie’s last year, when the price of Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black was dong’d five times past the starting estimation.

People may pay what they want for art: at least the money doesn’t go to the poor, who’d be sure to waste it. Again, I do not hate Mondrian for that; and anyway it is hard to envy a man who died years before one’s birth. It can be done, but as I say, it is difficult.

No, I have decided that I hate Mondrian for his pictures. And that I hate them, not individually, but as a series — the whole career that began in soft twee chocolate-box depictions of Dutch landscape; that adapted repeatedly to the latest trends; and ended in the tyranny of professional abstraction. The final style, of his two famous Boogie-Woogies — the latter quite unfinished and rough, giving the game away from close up — has, I admit, a certain unique purity of expression. But this expression is pure style. I can no longer see his paintings as art, only as decorative objects, famous for being famous. And they are not decorations I would want in my home.

Perhaps my disapproval should be stated more gravely. I do not see a consistent development from representation to abstraction. I see chops and changes instead.

This notwithstanding I continue to adore e.g. Ellsworth Kelly, and Josef Albers, and to be entranced by their respective presentations of sharply delineated colour fields, which omit in order to reveal. And in the case of Kelly, to see a direct development from his early draughtsmanship of curves under Paris bridges, and the spookily nondescript oval faces. And in the case of old Albers, an investigation of optical effects, of genuine use to students. These men were chaste, and honest, craftsmen. I consider such work to be “catholic” in some broad sense, which I shall define in visual art as “discernments of truth within expositions of unexpected beauty.”

The truth is outside us; the sincere artist wants it manifested: called into view. In the nature of things, he will offend the Puritan, who thinks he has all truth already, and so interprets the beautiful in art as idolatry. (This is the opposite of Plato’s critique.) The Puritan will finally accept art only as perfume or decor. My hatred for Mondrian resonates with what I detect as his own edgy, puritanical self-loathing. He sought to make the kind of art that could destroy art: that could bust right through it.

I hate Mondrian, because I have come suddenly to the conclusion that he was not “making art” at all. He, who seemed most obviously trying to seek some “absolute,” was temporizing, fooling and pretending. The movement of De Stijl was aptly named: for it was style, only; a commercial art; trade in a currency from the beginning. It was, to my mind, the sort of thing Christ overturned in the courtyard of the Temple. Its proximity to the Temple condemns it.

And it points to what prevailed after the War: “minimalism” as an expression of pure style; the final collapse of the West’s art traditions, into cute, glib, demeaning “installations.” It points to the smug removal of “content”; to the creation of art that makes no demands. It does not lead towards the depth in colour field, but beyond, to the complacent generation of Warhol. Art, ambitiously reduced — to a form of clothing; to dressmaking for the current vogue.

Hatred has a use. It can be the flex in a pole-vault, the spring in a dangerous leap to freedom. It is important to survival, intellectually and aesthetically. My new-found hatred of Mondrian, for instance, helps me understand not only my long-standing love for the sun-filled contours and gleeful rotundities of Ben Nicholson at his most “abstract”; but for the playful, transcendental humour in Paul Klee — who noticed all the trends, and mocked them, in compositions one-tenth their size.

Hatred can be liberating. It can be a joyful creative force. Truth can surprise the hater of untruth by filling his receptive vacuum; has already helped him identify untruth, in confrontation with its persistent grimness. And it will not be clamped into a frame, for it is the power that declares, “I am and I joy forever.”

But of course, if gentle reader can find joy in Mondrian, he is welcome to keep it.