John Ashbery’s ‘The Painter’ as representative of the Avent-garde

Ashbery’s poems are ‘abstract paintings in words’. Ashbery is the most creative of all avant-gardes. His poems justify what he advocates in his prose or theoretical criticism.. In fact Ashbery’s efforts were to unite the techniques of poetry and painting. While doing so he has to explain the similarities in these arts to their procedural outputs. In his view the practice of a painter is quite akin to a poet’s.

The movements in painting therefore had their special link to the movements in poetry. The Pinter is written in the light of surrealist art. Surrealism is a technique which used fantastic images and incongruous juxtapositions in order to represent unconscious thoughts and dreams.

“Sitting between the sea and the buildings/ He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait”
The touch of abstractism is seen in the painting of sea but in a poetic abstract way. What the painter wants to paint about sea is attempted by poets like Shelley in poetry. But the difference lies in the fact that the painting concerns our sense of seeing whereas poetry hearing and feeling as in ‘But just as children imagine a prayer’. It was surrealism the painter was trying to adopt as a theory. The most controversial of all surrealist aspects is it aspect of automatism. Ashbery in these lines gives a view of painter’s conception of this aspect. He wants the sea to rush up the sand and plaster its own portrait on the canvas. What comes next is Ashbery’s rejection of this view, ‘So there was never any paint on his canvas’. For him the possibility of automatism lies in its adopting some means. The canvas and brush are the means a painter adopts in painting. The means for a poet are the emotional overflow and conscious indulgence. What the people living in buildings advise him to do is the same Ashbery himself supports:
“Try using the brush/ As a means to an end”
All poems are subject to automatism. But the automatism Ashbery defines is totally different from one the poets of generations have been practising. In his view, the selection of subject at least should not fall prey to automatism. The poet and the painter both should try to choose something intimate to their feelings and bents. The inability to choose such a subject is expressed in painter’s inability to explain his choice to the people, ‘How could he explain to them his prayer’. But to show the approach of the critics as genuine and practical, Ashbery presents his painter acting upon their suggestion, ‘He chose his wife for a new subject’. The success this time though unexpected comes to the painter and the portrait gets appreciated by the critics. As if forgetting itself, the portrait, ‘Had expressed itself without a brush’.  It is in fact the practicability of theory that Ashbery wants to express. Surrealism in itself is not the genuine thing. If the painter or poet has mixed it with the artistic conscience it becomes genuine or practicable. The artistic conscience from art therefore should not be absent. All arts should be artistic in nature, and all artists should be artistical. Ashbery’s avant-garde approach is in this way quite clear. All experimental and innovational work should not cease to artistic. Surrealist conceptions are in fact the initial stages of all conceptions. It is the genius of an artist that makes them different from the conceptions of a common person. The artistic efforts in all works of art should always be there. It is the artistic effort that gives some idea or vision an artistic genre. All conception before being adopted in form or medium may look the same. But it is the artistic effort that gives them form or medium. Further, the form or medium should not be considered enough to give some conception its artistic identity. Colours and canvas should not be considered enough to make some idea a portrait. It should be the approach of painter that should help make it painterly. The painter forgot to understand this point and tried to paint the portrait of sea again.
‘Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush/ In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer’
In fact he forgot to understand that the portrait praised by the critics was painted up to the requirements of the medium. It was not the subject but the medium they had stressed upon. The sea is not less angry and large a subject. The sea is a subject, but to be less and large deals with the particularities of medium. So it was the medium they in fact talked about. The painter took it for subject and theory and started painted the portrait of sea again. The mode and attitude he adopted was again surrealist as in “My soul, when I paint this portrait’. If the news of his painting the sea spreads like a wildfire, it is because of painter’s inability to understand the true spirit of a theory. When he came to his old angry and large subject, he had to be disappointed again. The disappointment had become his ultimate fate as in ‘Imagine a painter crucified by his subject’.  It simply means that the subject should not dominate and overcome the true spirit of an art. The medium and attitudes should always be accepted as true spirit of some art.
Ashbery’s avant-garde views are not totally strange for art. What Eliot says about the importance of individual talent in the supremacy of tradition is proved.  Tradition does not mean modes and attitudes. It should also be meant in the sense of medium. Canvas and brush are the media of painting. An artist should not transcend his media. It shall simply mean that he is misled in his concepts. If the painter had not been too exhausted to lift his brush, he might have painted something up to the requirements of theory. The theorists refused to accept his efforts. They simply thought it non-professional. To remain and survive in the limits of art is the first requirement of art. If the artist breaks these limits and gets out of art he will never be accepted.  All indications of a subject began to fade and the fate of to be out of art is to be dead in art. The sea devoured the canvas and the brush means the subject needs some medium. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s