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)