The New Humanism in Post-World War II Art

In the wake of World War II, New York City had emerged as the new epicenter of the art world. Abstraction dominated criticism and is still discussed in art history books as the predominant cultural expression in New York during that era. Clement Greenberg’s self-described “historical apology for abstract art,” “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” published in 1940, argued that in order for art to be as pure as music it must abandon all properties except for the material/medium itself.

By the time Rhino Horn and its artists emerged, the mainstream art world of the 1960s differed sharply from that of the previous decade. At that time, Abstract Expressionism had completed its ascendancy; many wealthy collectors now owned paintings of this school, and more commercial galleries were being founded than ever before. The New York School of Abstract Expressionism, with which America’s pioneering avant-garde artists were associated, was treated with reverence. Its most famous members, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), were celebrated icons in the years following World War II. American art historians, critics, and institutions, at least, were content to bestow enormous praise upon them, even if doing so marginalized some of the other important movements and artists of the time, such as the alternative mode of Figurative Expressionism and other styles that were rooted in quasi-representational art.

The new major schools of art-making in the United States during the 1960s, Pop-Art and Minimalism, wanted to separate themselves from the previous canon and to reject the need for self-expression, social commentary, narrative, or allusions to history, politics, or religion. To the extent that some of these artists did make a connection to these elements, as in the case of Pop Art, it was an ironic and satirical one. Instead of the poignant social and political iconography, which is seen extensively in the Rhino Horn work representing a degradation of man’s spirit and freedom, banal imagery of mass made products and popular culture distinguished Pop Art. Almost as soon as Pop Art arrived on the art scene it became popular. At the time highly influential critics like Henry Geldzahler lauded it as a movement that produced “artifacts of the brave new world of the postwar era, and that attracted intellectuals, and quite soon a large audience.” Within Minimalism, artists reduced their work to formal values, focusing on creating work that was stripped down to its most fundamental features: material, form, and space. Indeed, the art market of the sixties had seemingly little interest in political and social issues, and often disregarded such themes as emotion, spirituality, and the poignancy of our contemporary ethos. Instead, as Robert C. Morgan points out in his book The End of the Art World, collective consumer culture and mass production were celebrated and promoted.

Despite facing the possibility of being portrayed as unfashionable by an art world that championed Pop Art and Minimalism, at least one artistic faction made work intended to counter the economically driven perspective of the art market and the marginalization of humanitarian-inspired artistic production. These artists focused on social engagement and, in a phenomenon that behavioral psychologist Barry Schwartz dubbed “New Humanism,” they openly made allusions to political, social, metaphysical, and spiritual themes. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, however, the New Humanists were not the purveyors of a competing or consistent style but rather a loose and mainly theoretical association of diverse American and international artists whose work was focused on social, political, and metaphysical expression. Above all the movement was, in Schwartz’ words, “characterized by the artist’s willingness to oppose ‘the way things are,’ to provide a cultural criticism, [and] to help us see that optimism is a lie.”

Schwartz also claimed that there were two distinct trends in 20th Century art, which he labeled “pattern one” and “pattern two.” Pattern one is described as “paralleling or complementing science and the seemingly bold forces of technology, thereby playing a supporting role to historical patterns.” Examples of this pattern are seen in the styles of Impressionism, Futurism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Geometrical Abstraction, Neoplasticism, Constructivism, Op Art, Minimalism, and Pop Art. The second pattern is described as expressing “human resistance to the blind technocratization of the human and natural environments” and thus as “seek[ing] a central role for art within the human situation.” Examples of this pattern are seen in Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, Social Realism, and Humanism.

Nancy Spero 'The First Language' (1981) detail, panels 7 and 9, cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper with handprinting, overall 22 panels, 20 in x 190 ft. Nancy Spero was the antecedent of  Feminist art.

Nancy Spero ‘The First Language’ (1981) detail, panels 7 and 9. Spero was the antecedent of Feminist art.

Humanist art is certainly not a twentieth century innovation, it draws upon a range of different sources and has evolved over many centuries. Since the advent of the Renaissance, artists as diverse as (to name a few) Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Pieter Breughel (1525-1569), Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Käthe Kollowitz (1867-1945), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Phillip Evergood (1901-1973), John Heartfield (1891-1968), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Nancy Spero (1926-2009), Faith Ringgold (b.1930), Fred Wilson (b.1954), Krzysztof Wodiczko (b. 1943), Kara Walker (b.1969), Hunter Reynolds (b.1959), and Keith Haring (1958-1990) have visually expressed elements of humanity that are in part inherent traits of human nature and in part experiential responses to contemporary successes, failures, and aspirations. There can be volumes of textbooks just devoted to art in the humanist zeitgeist. If such a textbook were created there would be a complete shakeup of the Western Art Historical canon. Many of these artists (especially during the tail end of modernity and throughout the post-modern era) have not been included in popular discussion or treatment of Art History because they don’t fit neatly into the mold presenting Art History as a linear set of movements (in Europe and North America) that methodically precede one another. Humanism is rarely spoken about in contemporary art.

The term “Humanism” may have first been used by the German historian and philologist Georg Voigt in 1856, as a description of certain ideals that arose in connection with the Renaissance—the movement to revive classical learning—in Italy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although religious art was still dominant during the Renaissance, art came to function as the medium for empirical visual study of our relationship to the universe; as such, it formed a vital component in the quest to achieve scientific and spiritual knowledge that was previously thought to be beyond human comprehension. Accompanied by a similar rebirth in the areas of science and literature, civilization flourished throughout Europe and allowed artists to create works that were more experimental and individualistic than those of their recent predecessors, detached from previously rigid dogma, yet still associated with spiritual sublimity.

"The School of Athens" (1509-1510) by Raphael Sanzio displays many essential ideals of the Renaissance: individualism, secularism and humanism.

“The School of Athens” (1509-1510) by Raphael Sanzio displays many essential ideals of the Renaissance: individualism, secularism and humanism.

In the mid-eighteenth century, a different use of the term “Humanism” appeared, one that focused on the need for human betterment. This form of Humanism was expressed by both philosophers and revolutionaries, who saw the need for ethical justice and a moral constitution for humankind. In 1765, the author of an anonymous article in a French Enlightenment periodical spoke of “The general love of humanity [which was] a virtue hitherto quite nameless among us, and which we will venture to call ‘Humanism,’ for the time has come to create a word for such a beautiful and necessary thing.”

However, beginning in the 19th century, with rapid advancements in technology and industry came the horrors of modern warfare, xenophobic nationalism, and unwholesome conditions of living in heavily populated and industrialized urban environments. The autonomous Humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras seemed in some ways irrelevant in light of the dehumanizing problems that arose in the post-industrial world, and these developments also had an enormous impact on the course of art history. Since the early twentieth century, some of these stylistic movements (Cubism, Futurism, abstraction) have complemented the technological development and the technocratic direction of society; others, however, have resisted the technological urges and focused on humanity and on the vision of what we as a society have become. Schwartz says that “The Humanist (artist) expresses both the desperation of the human situation and his own assertion of freedom. His images express the unacceptable, but in his negation of past human choices, the Humanist affirms that men may live differently.”

Die Brücke member Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Self Portrait as a Soldier" (1915) expresses the traumas of war.

Die Brücke member Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Self Portrait as a Soldier” (1915) expresses the traumas of war.

During the 20th century, the need to render the figure in a naturalistic manner—as was typical of Renaissance and Romantic figuration—lost some of its importance, as the new brand of humanist and civic artists came to see naturalism as a limitation in rendering the authenticity of the human experience. Reference to the classical figure was, at the same time, used to depict a modern engagement with the plight of the once ideal man in his struggle with modernity. In 1905 a group of German Expressionists founded a group called Die Brücke (The Bridge) that emphasized expressing meaning and emotional experience over physical reality. Broadly speaking, “modern art” from the early to mid-20th century can be said to be deeply rooted in humanist ideals, with Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, Social Realism, and Humanism all having been inspired largely by political and/or social issues and conflicts. All of these movements, for example—or at least many of their practitioners—took stances against war or wars, both on and off the canvas. Indeed, artists throughout the twentieth century and since have been no strangers to protests, revolutions, and revolutionary organizations. Nonetheless, the legacy of modernism is more commonly associated with various sets of formal and stylistic properties than with idealistic content, and, as various modernist movements have come into favor while others have been ignored, the focus has been primarily on aesthetics rather than on a particular message or on the intention of the artists to express humanistic concepts.

The Rhino Horn group and its members were no exceptions to this trend. Despite the fact that some critics, most notably Hilton Kramer, responded to their humanist/figurative enterprise by seeking to turn them into artistic and perhaps even social pariahs, many of the members had already established solid reputations on the basis of their prolific solo work. Hence, it proved impossible to deflate their enthusiasm altogether or to prevent them from having an impact on the artistic and social scene in America in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Read: Barry Shwartz “New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change” and for a contemporary anthology of Humanist art check out “Art and Humanist Ideals: Contemporay Perspectives” by William Kelly.

I will be posting a review of these texts in future posts.

-Adam Zucker

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