Knox Martin: What Art Is

Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888/1890. Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 64 cm. Foundation E.G. Buehrle, Zurich, Switzerland. Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

Ira Goldberg: What is art?

Knox Martin: Once I gave a talk on art to a very mixed audience in Oregon: some college students, journalists, and collectors. Someone in the audience said, Sir, nobody knows what art is. Tolstoy said that art is subjective. I replied, What does he know?

Art is a very specific thing made by artists. I had on the lectern a reproduction of Cézanne’s Boy with the Red Waistcoat. Pointing to the reproduction, I said, This is art. Every museum in the world would agree. There are over 500 books on Cézanne. Who else thought this was art? Dufy, Gauguin, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and de Kooning. Matisse said, If Cézanne’s right, I’m right. Picasso said, Cézanne is my father. De Kooning said, Everyone thinks I am a super-cubist, but it is Cézanne that I work through. This has changed the world. Everything has changed because of this painter. This is art. I can talk about it. I can point to it. And I can do it Now, a gentleman, his name was Shore, had collected some of my work. There were three paintings of mine on the walls. So I said, I can point to art, I can talk about it, and I can do it. Look at these paintings. This is art. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Usually with an audience, once you finish, people come up to you. But, in this case, there was a strange avoidance. It was like, how dare you show us in these very simple terms what art is.

How does the viewer perceive art without that understanding? Don’t people tend to bring their experience to their viewing of art?

Whatever the viewer brings to the work should be swept away by what the work is. In fact, many so-called works of art, like illustrations, only provoke what’s already inside the viewer. They push buttons. A big button pusher just went for 120 million dollars, The Scream by Edvard Munch, who has nothing to do with art or painting in any possible way. Munch is the Mickey Mouse of the art world. That painting takes its rank alongside the Campbell’s soup can by Warhol or some other iconic thing that people see. They don’t have to pay any dues to see it.

What do you mean by dues?

If you’re going to talk about art, you’ve got to talk to an artist, and I mean an artist. You’ve got to talk to someone at the level of a de Kooning, the only other artist that I’ve really been able to talk to. Cézanne has said about art whatever Matisse has said about art. Matisse would refer to Nicolas Poussin. Nicolas Poussin would refer to the Venetian School. In a strange way, at the end of everything, art is like an internal joke among artists. The vast umbrella of the world of art covers everything.

But what specifically does an artist do? An artist makes art, and he demands the credentials of art. He’s investigated art, and he knows what art is. It’s not anatomy; it’s not proportions; it’s not brilliant execution; it’s not photographic likeness; it’s not journalism; it’s not individual pain. It is opening up the elements that make those pieces of art perpetually fresh, timeless.

Okay. So now you have just answered the question, What is an artist?

Let’s say it this way: In the early days, when I was a student at the Art Students League, I would come from the museum filled with what I had just seen and talk to the instructor, my authority. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I was talking about art. Instantly, the barrier was put up, and he promoted whatever he was involved with. Instructors could only point in the general direction of art. But they could also be bombastic about say, social realism, and I’d say that’s journalism.

But to them, it’s something pertinent to their own experience. What they’re calling it, they thoroughly believe it is. What makes you right?

All you have to do is run through a list of what you’re involved with, what you’re liking. When people come to my class, I ask who they’re interested in. If they mention any of the British painters—Frances Bacon, Turner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough—I say, Go get your money back. This is not the place for you. In other words, you are insurmountable, an insurmountable barrier. If someone comes over to me and raves about Mexican artists—Siqueiros, Orozco, Diego Rivera—I say, You’re not talking about art. You’re talking about social illustration.

Why would they be moved by that art?

Because people are moved by Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or Flash Gordon.

But there are some people who are moved by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and also by Picasso’s Guernica.

No, no.

There cannot be people who have an appreciation for both? You’ve said before, It’s not just what the art is, it is what the viewer brings to it.

No, what the viewer brings to art is what kills it. Art teaches you. You look at art and things are swept away. If you bring intellectualism to it, or an idea, you’ve modified what the art does. Life is so short. What do you take with you? What do you spend your hours with? What do you look at? What do you do? Matisse said that every morning he would read poetry, and that would be like a breath of air. He would rouse himself by that. He would look up at the Cézanne that he had on the wall, right? And then he would do the thing. If you have an allotted time, a chart and a map, you say, What could I do with my life? My mother once said to me when I was a kid, Show me who your friends are and I’ll show you who you are. I have in every room a Cézanne, a Watteau. I have Titian books, Matisse books. I have the greatest poetry of the world, and the great music. I listen to Mozart, or Bach, or Beethoven. In other words, what greater thing can you fill your life with than the greatest things that man has ever done?

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    There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain. — Georges Braque