Thursday, April 14, 2011

does art have anything to do with life? (Robert Lax on Ad Reinhardt)

Robert Lax, Photo by Hartmut Geerken

During the early 1950s there was a big debate going on about whether or not art had anything to do with life.  Ad Reinhardt, artist and friend of Merton and Lax, claimed that "art is art is art", and that if people wanted nature, they should take a walk.

Lax admired Reinhardt and the clarity and purity that Rienhardt tried to achieve in his art.  He considered Ad's paintings as objects for meditation.  But he had his doubts about the idea that art should have nothing to do with life.

I'm beginning to think
r[einhardt] was wrong
not r[einhardt], but an idea i had
of him that i practically

that said life was the
opposite of art

& art was the opposite
of life

& proud of it

but i think life
has something 
to do with art

& it's just a matter
of finding

the special point

at which the two of them
get together.

- Robert Lax, Timeless Painting, Ad Reinhardt (Stuttgart: Staatsgalerie) 1985, p.85

See also Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) - "Art is art. Everything else is everything else."


  1. Interesting post that resonates with me right now - have you heard of someone called Michael Patrick Hederman ? I am reading his book called Kissing the Dark : Connecting with the Unconscious and he has a whole chapter on the relationship of artists( and poets) to "real life" and their vital role for us. I got it from Amazon for £1 !! It's hard to get into at first but there are some real gems worthlooking at.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Phil. I haven't heard of Hederman but his book sounds interesting and I will look it up.

    For some reason, I'm reading a biography of Alan Watts now. Since he was a contemporary of Lax and Merton, I was wondering how Watts' ideas of Zen and mysticism might have influenced them. A complex personality, Watts wasn't able to get insight into his own psychical trip-ups, despite his ability to speak brilliantly about these ideas to others.

  3. well, "r" escapes the cliche: it must have rubbed merton the wrong way, his father excelling as he did in impressionism

    i never forgave watts for being a drunk: his language lost its luster when i found out...but i guess alot of those crazy zen guys are alcoholics....

    it reminds me of john lennon releasing "imagine" while he was living in a mansion and being chauffered about in limosines

    i'd be interested in what you think of watts - my last therapist kept encouraging me to read him

  4. I'm having a hard time with Watts. I think he must be a narcissist - he could get the words right but had no ability for self-insight... I end up comparing him to Merton and Lax because they were all about the same age and all sort of looking in the same direction. Merton and Lax found a way for themselves, Watts was just so full of himself he couldn't even get what he was saying to others.

    There's something that artists can give to the world despite their own personality screw ups. Watts, though, was so self indulging it's hard to hear him, even after the fact. His life example tarnishes and poisons everything that he said. In the end he admitted that he was a fake, so he could, in a way, see it.

    But, compare him to Van Gogh or Beethoven, and you can see the difference.

  5. Here's a link to a video of Mark Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, on the role of art in society.

    I think he makes some good points, but I'm not sure he's got it all right (he makes too many absolute statements).

  6. Oops, forgot to add the link:

  7. by the way, my nephew recently bought a green chevy that Lennon used to drive around so that he wouldn't be noticed. I think he paid $5000 for it (a deal). It didn't run, but he found a half smoked joint in the ash tray.

  8. One more thing on Watts -

    I'm almost finished with Monica Furlong's biography (of Alan Watts) and it seems clear to me that what Watts was missing (running away from, avoiding at all costs) was the Christian concept of "sin" and that we are a Fallen people, both individually and as a race. If he could have ever made it to a confessional, he might have found his way.

    It's also clear to me that he is a "4" on the Enneagram (same as Merton), and had an inordinate and obsessive need to be special and extraordinary. Some Enneagram work might have helped him as well, and since that was considered esoteric, I'm surprised that he didn't run into it in his interests.

  9. i see what you mean about watts - but maybe he was an antidote to the guru complex that so many people were (and i guess still are)indulging in...

    i suppose he enjoyed that role himself though

    he is liked for being a prophet of the no "isness" ( i just made that word up) - take out the "is" nothing "is" it just seems so to me...that eliminates worry about there being something intrinsically wrong or "fallen" about the human condition, which i've always found hard to accept, though believe me i've tried

    nice story about lennon

  10. I finished the book today (Alan Watts bio by Monica Furlong).

    I think you're right - Alan Watts had to be who he was and his conviction of the wrongness of the "fallen" condition was valid within his framework.

    We each just get parts of the puzzle, anyway.

    I should post a photo of Lennon's green Chevy station wagon.

  11. we must give watts (nice name) kudos for introducing much of the west to the idea of the karass (as vonnegut called it in "cat's cradle) although he didn't call it such (web of coincidence and so on)

    karass - a group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God's will. The group can be thought of as the fingers that support a Cat's Cradle.

  12. Yes, I think so too - and perhaps I was too harsh in my critique of him. Alan Watts was/is an important link in the spiritual movement of the last century. Personally he was immensely charming and uniquely gifted. It's telling that the 3 biographies that Monica Furlong wrote: Merton, Theresa of Lisieux and Alan Watts.

    I actually wrote another post about the roles of Watts, Merton and Lax in the awakening of contemplative awareness, but I felt it was too ambiguous so I took it down. I'll put it back up. I'm interesting in your comments.

  13. one more thing: i seem to be free associating...
    art has nothing to do with

    but if you refer to what's become a symbol or event in the media, a common place, repeated buzz, such as the world trade center bombings, in an art work or song or poem,- it immediately creates controversy...

    unless you say something about going over there and kicking some brown skinned fellows ass

  14. I think it has something to do with sacred ground like battle fields.

    I was at the Gettysburg battlefield last weekend and you wouldn't believe the sense of "sacredness" that is bestowed upon that place of killing and dying. As if this is what gives us right and might or something like that.

  15. Forgot to tell you how much I like your image of karass and the Cat's Cradle. Thanks.

  16. I just bought a still life oil painting (flowers in a vase) at a garage sale in Evergreen Park Illinois. The artist's signature is Robert Lax. Was Lax also a painter?

    1. well, he did a lot of drawing and doodling, and some good photography. maybe oil painting, but I'm not aware of it.


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