Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#5)

If one has never drawn a line, one does not even exist. But if one has the honesty to present nothing more than the line itself, one not only exists but also honestly and transparently dramatizes that simple self-assertion is the only requirement of a true human life. One of the aims of Rothko’s ouvre, in my reading.

Furthermore, we can say to a certain extent that the paintings of Rothko provide a formal framework for the ethical manipulation of formal, visual distinctions as arguably the only truth available in the art of late capitalism. In particular, the strategic imperative to take without giving implies a certain ethics or directionality for the kind of formal manipulation of distinction that is the color field painting: the perpetual reduction or subtraction of distinctions that we do, in fact, observe in Rothko’s development. This perpetual reduction or subtraction of distinctions, illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 but easy to observe throughout Rothko’s whole career, implicitly moves toward a universal generality the culmination of which would be the absolute absence of distinction. This is nothing less than the classic value and ideal of equality—the absolute ground zero of indistinction.

But we have also seen how the existence of at least one line is an absolute necessity for a thing to exist, and certainly for the human being to exist as a free, responsible subjectivity.

To summarize the problem or question that seems to structure Rothko’s experimentation, we can recast it as a basic tension or paradox. On the one hand, Truth is a movement toward absolute indistinction—dissolution of the false, unreal market-generated stratification of individuals, groups, and works of art—the perpetual removal of lines between things and people. But on the other hand, to exist and stand as a truly autonomous human subject against a false and unreal society requires one at some point to somewhere draw a line against it, to say this is where one stands, at any cost, against the status quo. This accounts for the long-run tendency of Rothko’s canvases to become increasingly sparse in composition, as well his fascination with the separating lines of the “Black on Grays.”

What this means for us, moving forward, is that legitimately and properly free human activity—the province of the artist as well as the philosopher—must be concerned with nothing more than the drawing of lines and the right to starve by them. Of course, this is not to suggest that the space for experimentation has narrowed, quite the opposite! Within the lines the individual or group draws against the market and the society that seeks to dissolve everything into its hiearchy, there is an infinite world of experimentation, a space far wider and deeper than the possibility space of those who seek success in the dominant hierarchy of the art market. Under today’s conditions, anything less than an absolute declaration of distinction between oneself and the status quo, a declaration of solidarity with others who have pledged distinction from the same status quo, and the right to starve together—anything short of this is the opposite of creation, it is the opposite of true and active life, it is the melting of one’s skin into a canvas one never even participated in painting but that is painted by others who control you and paint on you. This emotional experience, the late modern experience of one’s freedom being passively, slowly melted or sort of finely chopped-up by a vast and mystified expanse of false, alien choices and foreclosed pathways—this, I believe is the emotional core of the early Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea:

To proliferate artistic content in exchange for money is, in a sense, to melt, to disintegrate, to effectively die as an “I,” as the borders of oneself are traversed and eroded by the swirling shards of the status quo, by the circulation of money, by so many little sharks or boomerangs or arabesques or pins sewing loops in and out of one’s nervous system, in and out of the bulbous organs of the body literally formed by the circular interaction of economy and individual, as the artist literally becomes nothing more than a slow swirl at the edge of the sea—a sea of money—ultimately making it impossible to identify where the one stops and the other begins.

An objection will be raised to the effect that Rothko explicitly understood his color fields as participating in the grand tradition of mythic painting. It would seem that this is inconsistent with the interpretation elucidated presently, myth seeming to imply a grand, latent meaning rather than the mere formalism of the manipulation/reduction of distinctions. This is true, but Rothko was also interested in reducing myth to its bare essentials. For Rothko, I believe, this project of developing a mythic dimension in painting that was properly modern meant the development toward a non-nostalgiac myth. I do not think Mark Rothko attained this sort of teleological endpoint that I argue is implicit in his theoretical and practical development, but I would like to consider this question in light of a theoretical reflection on myth and nostalgia, concepts with which Rothko was notably concerned, and with reference to one of his last canvases.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "Mark Rothko and the Freedom to Starve (#5)," (December 14, 2018).