Barnett Newman—”The First Man Was an Artist”

By LIZ HAGER

Barnett Newman, Onement III, 1949,
Oil on canvas, 71 7/8 x 33 1/2″
© 2008 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York;
(Photo courtesy MoMA)

Barnett Newman deeply believed in the spiritual content of abstract art.  Superficially, his work appears to focus on issues of form, such as shape and color. However, as the essay below makes clear, those forms carried symbolic meaning weight.

What was the first man, was he a hunter, a toolmaker, a farmer, a worker, a priest, or a politician? Undoubtedly the first man was an artist.

A science of palaeontology that sets forth this proposition can be written if it builds on the postulate the the aesthetic act always precedes the social one. The totemic act of wonder in front of the tiger-ancestor came before the act of murder. It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before the desire to discover the unknown.

Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void. Philologists and semioticians are beginning to accept the concept that if language is to be defined as the ability to communicate by means of signs, be they sounds or gestures, then language is an animal power. Anyone who has watched the common pigeon circle his female knows that she knows what he wants.

The human in language is literature, not communication. Man’s first cry was a song. Man’s first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water. Even the animal makes a futile attempt at poetry. Ornithologists explain the cock’s crow as an ecstatic outburst of his power. The loon gliding lonesome over the lake, with whom is he communicating? The dog, alone, howls at the moon. Are we to say the the first man called the sun and the stars God as an act of communication and only after he had finished his day’s labor? The myth came before the hunt. The purpose of man’s first speech was to address the unknowable. His behavior had its origin in his artistic nature.

Just as man’s first speech was poetic before it became utilitarian, so man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned the axe. Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin. Archeologists will tell us that the axehead suggested the axehead idol. . . (A figure can be made out of mud, but an axe cannot.) The God image, not pottery, was the first manual act. It is the materialistic corruption of present-day anthropology that has tried to make men believe that the original man fashioned pottery before he made sculpture. Pottery is the product of civilization. The artistic act is man’s personal birthright.

The earliest written history of human desires proves that the meaning of the world cannot be found in the social act. An examination of the first chapter of Genesis offers a better key to the human dream. It was inconceivable to the archaic writer that original man, that Adam, was put on the earth to be a toiler, to be a social animal. The writer’s creative impulses told him that man’s origin was that of an artist, and he set him up in the Garden of Eden close to the Tree of Knowledge, of right and wrong, in the highest sense of divine revelation. The fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as the fall from Utopia to struggle. . . nor, as the religionist would have us believe as a fall from Grace to Sin, but rather that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life to be, like God, “a creator of worlds,” to use Rashi’s phrase, and was reduced to the life of toil only as a result of jealous punishment.

In our ability to live the life of a creator can be found the meaning of the fall of man. It was a fall from the good, rather than from the abundant, life. And it is precisely here that the artist today is striving for a closer approach to the truth concerning original man. . . for it is the poet and the artist who are concerned with the function of original man and who are trying to arrive at his creative state. What is the reason d’etre, what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden. For artists are the first men.

—Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist” (1947)

Wider Connections

The Nation—“Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime”
Melissa Ho—Reconsidering Barnett Newman

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5 Responses to “Barnett Newman—”The First Man Was an Artist””

  1. I always admired Newman: a painter, a man of letters, and an aesthete.
    I have always wondered about this article, the premise being that the first expression of man was that of a “poetic cry in awe and wonder”.
    I believe that there is something to Newman’s argument (published in Tiger’s Eye”, I believe in 1948 or so??) Anyway, Looking at Newman’s statement, and reading some of the research done since the time of that writing, it would seem that Man’s first act was a creative one, true, but also that this act might have been driven by a need for territory. Of course when you see the word “territory” many associations come to the fore: Robert Ardrey, Kropotkin, Levy-Strauss, and Wynne-Edwards. I would argue, in light of the research by these scientists, that, yes, the first man was an artist, but he did not exist in isolation: it is possible his first markings were territorial AND marks of self- expression at one and the same time. One of Malinowski’s primary needs is “shelter” – could not the paintings in Lascaux be territorial and expressions of self?

    • Woody,

      You’ve provided a thoughtful addition to the dialog started by Newman in his essay (?) statement (?). I thank you for inviting me to pause and re-think this, after having posted and let it go into the ether long ago.

      Indeed, I think this is a complicated argument, and Newman gets into areas of religious spirituality that are not known or experienced by me.

      On the one hand, in our world organisms fight for sustenance (survival), at least until they can reproduce. In that sense all human actions might be seen as territorial, i.e. the protection of scarce resources, as a mechanism to help us pass along our genes. Paradoxically, humans have been wildly successful at survival on the planet precisely because, as a species, we have been able to work together (territorial disputes not withstanding). So, I can agree with your notion that man was not alone, that art might have been (and still may be) a form of marking territory.

      Although I am not deeply-versed in philosophy, anthropology or religious belief, I am fascinated by the origins of art. Why do humans make art, when I am sure from all that I’ve read that it is not an activity necessary to sustain us until we can reproduce? Of course even coming up with a definition of art is challenging, so I’ve come to think of it in its anthropological sense, i.e. embellishment. In any case, I expect this to be a life-long inquiry.

      Newman provides his own answer here to the question “Why do humans create?” In my scientificially-oriented brain, I’m trying to live with the ambiguity his spiritually-oriented answer creates—”What is the reason d’etre, what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden,” where Eden is a world “oof right and wrong, in the highest sense of divine revelation.”

      I guess all I can say at this point is that I’m continuing to live in ambiguity. The human brain is both a scientific marvel and creative mystery. What genius!

  2. I am certain Newman meant “original man” in the sense that he was already social, already forming a metalanguage, and using tools. Let us say “original man” here means Neanderthal (whom anthropologists now believe were advanced socially enough to have music, to have buried their dead, and had some conception of past and future). I am not an anthropologist or a scientist, either, but I follow these developments in those fields, anthropology being one of those that Doris Lessing believed will reveal valuable insights into the human condition that could save humankind from itself at some point in the future when we are dangerously close to destroying ourselves…
    Anyway, when Newman said, “The first man was an artist”, he meant that he was not a warrior and that he was more prone to expressing awe at the world in which he found himself. I had been re-reading Ardrey – his view is that man has an animalistic basis to behaviour, and that (if I could paraphrase here) the first tools were weapons, and that the primary need was for territory. I read something recently that caused me to respond to this article by Newman, and it went something like “Art is what we make when we are clothed, fed, and have a safe place to reside”. I don’t think true art is borne of fear or hunger, and so I started thinking about Ardrey’s premise and I thought, “Couldn’t the Australian rock carvings and the Venus of Willendorf and so forth be magical symbols of territory, or relate to territory, as well as being expressions of fertility, and “awe and wonder”? These images and objects would have had to have been made by man – and recognized perhaps by other men (tribes) as such, which would mean that where they were placed and susequently found meant that the area was occupied, was being exploited already by a group and therefore serve as a sign of such activity. If this is the case (and everything is theory and conjecture on man’s first intentions at art making) then these objects served both purposes: :an expression of the sublime and markings of territory.

    That explanation/response is a little ling-winded, but it’s a complex topic. All I can say is thank goodness Newman was able to write and consider such possibilities…

  3. Yes, it is a complex thought; yes it is a complex issue. And there are no ‘solutions’, there can only be discussion, sparks for thinking and endeavours to understand, continuing the journey and keeping the discourse alive.

    • I remember the controversy here in Canada when The National Gallery of Art purchased Newman’s “Voice of Fire” for 1.6 million dollars: there was a great hue and cry about the acquisition. It was so controversial that a public forum was organized by the gallery about 5 months after the announcement, and experts from across Canada and the United States – including contemporaries of Newman from that era – were gathered in Ottawa to discuss everything from the theme of the work to the choice of colour to a scientific analysis (including photographs taken at a microscopic level of the layers of paint and gesso that had been applied to the canvas!) to how the paint was applied. The sculptor Robert Murray remarked that “If Barney were alive and here to see this controversy he would find it amusing, but he would be overjoyed that discussions about art – serious art – were now part of daily conversation.” Having said that, I can only agree with you, Astrid, that a continued rational and civil discussion about art is the best we can hope for until a definitive definition about what is and isn’t art (and why we create art) is finally arrived at – which, personally speaking, I hope never happens… The mystery of art, and the kaleidoscopic grandeur of our efforts to create it, are what makes it so exciting and dynamic…

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