Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#1)

Major premodern painters found freedom by circumventing or subverting the wishes of their patrons. Because the classical premodern artist faced a more or less unified set of masters—that is, a fairly unified, coherent social dogma backed by political force and other-worldy hellfire—it was possible to appease them on the surface but outwit them in the final artistic achievement. Today, the situation is fundamentally different. After the death of God, our authority is now the market, a fickle multiplicity of authorities. Mark Rothko writes:

In matters of art our society has substituted taste for truth, which she finds more amusing and less of a responsibility, and changers her tastes as frequently as she changes her hats and shoes. And here might the artist, placed between choice and diversity, raise his lamentations louder. Never did his afflictors have as many shapes or such a jabbering of voices, and never did they exude such a prolixity of matter.

This means that today we do not even enjoy the conditions for a strategic and subversive compliance. Sheer fantasy is the common justification of collaborationism, that one will placate one or two masters in the short-run in order to circumvent and subvert the rest in the long-run. Rothko continues:

For the artist, now, there can be neither compliance nor circumvention. It is the misfortune of free conscience that it cannot be neglectful of means in the pursuit of ends. Ironically enough, compliance would not help, for even if the artist should decide to subvert this conscience, where could he find peace in this Babel? To please one is to antagonize the others. And what security is there in any of these wrangling contenders?

Under the reign of the market, which does not even have the formidable, although obviously ideologically mystified dignity of traditional religious grandeur, we do not have the ability to play the classical game of visionary individuals against the grand order, the market being so uncontroversially and transparently superficial, ephemeral, and meaningless.

But as our current situation has in some sense become more drastically and frighteningly hallowed, what we have gained is choice. Under current conditions, all we have is free conscience, a shared knowledge that there are no longer any excuses; no temporary compromises with the enemy can be justified when the enemy itself might, through a shift of taste, change shape tomorrow and leave you humiliated with nothing but your treason. The historical shedding of religious and political mystifications which the market has demanded of its participants has had the effect of peeling away from us everything but our conscience, the basic ability to reflect on ourselves and our position in society, and has brought it to an absolute imperative; for the searching soul, for the artist or the intellectual, our society offers us no viable route to a meaningful life, no anchors, no solidity, modern capitalism conspicuously removing even the very existence of battle lines between creativity and dogmatic power. It is not enough to simply “be creative,” when that is precisely how domination functions via the market, through creation, through the material and symbolic production of a desire that never ceases, never ceases changing form, and never ceases justifying all manner of short-run compromises.

In the elimination of all exit routes, modern capitalism inadvertently accentuates the only thing it must permit to remain. Choice and the right to starve. “The freedom to starve! Ironical indeed. Yet hold your laughter. Do not underestimate the privilege. It is seldom possessed, and dearly won,” writes Rothko. This is all we have, a free conscience, the freedom to make a commitment and starve in executing it. This is too much to bear, you say? We all deserve a modicum of comfort and happiness, a middle-class home and good schools for a troupe of well-fed kids, from which we will nonetheless pursue artistic resistance against a corrupt society? A common position. Following Rothko, however, it has already been explained why for us this route has been foreclosed, why one “one master is better than ten,” and that facing the caprice of the market we may never again “know the size and shape of the hand that holds the whip,” a prerequisite to the compromise-subversion model of classical painters. But better yet, if we take the historical development of Rothko’s painting as an index, there is a sort of geometrical truth in modern painting that delineates at once both the error of many would-be revolutionary artists today and the positive truth or destiny of our contemporary situation.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#1)," (December 14, 2018).