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The Western Round Table on Modern Art (1949)
Edited by Douglas MacAgy


Wright: " . . . I thought we would come together here, perhaps, and do something for the public in their confusion concerning this thing we call 'modern art'––to clear things up a little bit and explain why this portrait of a time, of this generation of a civilization, where this particular art of painting is concerned, is also degenerate . . . "

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Bateson: "As I see the age in which I live, I think it's a very difficult and very confused age. And I think there are several patches in it which are laboring and sweating and striving to be towards a clarity––often in very confused ways, but still laboring and sweating and I think these pictures are a part of that sweating and striving. I don't believe they are on the way down. I believe, on the whole, they are on the way up."

Frankenstein: " I don't suppose anyone in Rome knew they were in a decline . . . "
Tobey: "I presume there were some, but they were called Christians!"

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Moderator Boas: "I ask the privilege of the gentlemen to participate a bit in this discussion as a historian of ideas . . . "I suppose I'm the only person present who knows anything about the history of man's appraisal of his own civilization. I started a four-volume work some years ago which is now at the end of its second volume, and we have only got up to the 13th century. You find that, beginning with Homer and running straight down to 'Joachim of Florus' a constant succession of people who say every single age they are living in is not only bad, but the worst of all ages; and they give precisely the same reason for it.
"In Homer, you find old Nestor says to the heros: 'You people don't know what men were like in my day. Heros were real men' . . . "

Wright: "Where are these civilizations now?"

Moderator Boas: "I think they are still alive. I don't believe that civilizations die, as Toynbee does . . . We have a lot that is Egyptian in our present civilization; a lot that is ancient Greek; a lot of Rome––Louisiana is still living under Roman law."

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Milhaud: "I want to hear about what the artist called 'degenerate art,' because we heard that term not so many years ago form another artist called Adolph Hitler.

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Wright: " . . . we instinctively hark back to the primitive. We find it in Negro sculpture, in those things Picasso presents to us, which could hang on the wall in any of the primitive African performances. I like to think we find either Picasso despairing, or in absolute collapse, spiritually speaking . . ."

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Duchamp: "Why do you call it 'degeneracy'? You seek in the primitive what might be good to take."

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Milhaud: "And healthy."

Wright: "Would you say homosexuality was degenerate?"

Duchamp: "No, it is not degenerate."

"Would you say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly, or is greatly, in debt to homosexualism?"

Duchamp: "I admit it, but not in your terms . . . I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual: so it happened, but it does not involve modern art itself."

Wright: "But no man in his confusion, in his inability to conduct his life and himself on a plane more or less of manhood as we understand it––maybe it's a mistake––feels the need of this refreshment, and goes to the darkie, goes to the primitive, wherever he can find it, and feeling strengthened by it begins to copy it, begin to imitate it . . . this thing that belongs like a property of childhood to the early days of the race . . .

Milhaud: "I don't understand the word 'copied.'"

Bateson: "I was going to challenge exactly the same point. I have seen in Bali an Indian dancer, a Hindu from India, who went to Bali to learn Balinese dancing . . . He had one of the top Balinese dancers as a teacher. And you see the Balinese trying to copy the Indian. The two things cannot copy each other. The bodies aren't put together the same way. The notions of beauty and human relations are deeply and implicitly different in the two creatures. And the same applies to us: the possibility of copying when you go to a primitive society is not there."

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Wright: "Isn't this true: that primitive man–– . . . that earlier periods in the art life of the savage races were more childlike?"

Duchamp: "No."

Moderator Boas: "No."

Bateson: "No, no, no; they think we are children.

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Frankenstein: "I wonder if you are not referring to what I often call the 'evolutionary fallacy.' That is to say, first of all, the idea that the evolution of society proceeds in a straight line; secondly, that that which comes at the end––at our end of the line––is somehow greater in quality, more significant, than that which comes at the lower end of the line."
"It seems to me that the whole line of thought involved there is completely fallacious, and furthermore overlooks an obvious fact . . . that that which we frequently call 'primitive' culture is infinitely more sophisticated in terms of different experiences that we ordinarily admit it is."

Moderator Boas: "Isn't the very term 'primitive' a relic of the evolutionistic period?"

Bateson: "I find it a very useful term to separate these cultures which have not got script from those cultures which have got script."
"It means, and it's relevant to this problem about progress that you are raising, that the addition of script to a human community––the fact that they can record, they can time-bind, they can send messages of various kinds––is a shift in the order of complexities."

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Moderator Boas: " . . . Now, if I can express my own opinion flatly, I don't think the present age is any worse than any other age . . . I am very, very deeply moved by modern painting, much more so than by most classical paintings; and by modern architecture much more so than architecture of the Beaux-Arts . . . I think it's a perfectly swell age. I see nothing degenerate, and I don't care what the sexual like of its inmates is, or anything of the sort."

" . . . the great pleasure I have received from modern art is basically its extraordinary freshness. Looking back, we have spoken of the feeling for history, which is certainly a part of us; but I think the most exciting thing in our day is the tremendous break with all past periods of civilization in an attempt to search for new forms . . . "




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