A Dream of Reason- VI: Part 1 The Mediators (1964)

The Mediators (1964)


            These notes, written in 1964 and revised along their original lines in 1993, are based on interviews with painters Isabel Bishop, Philip Reisman, Isaac, Moses and Raphael Soyer. Isaac is my father. Moses and Raphael are my uncles.

Their art matured in the 1930’s. They are usually classified as “regionalists” (New York artists), “social realists” and painters of “The American scene.” They are now deceased.

Theoretical terms and concepts include “deviance,” “career” and “role.”

Methodologically we seek a middle way between pursuing the phantom of complete a-theoretical description and reducing the object of inquiry to a mere instance of general principles.


2.1. Section Opening

            During the triumph of abstraction our subjects were “figurative.” During the reign of “Pop” with its commercial standards, techniques and themes they maintained personal vision and painterly values. (They remained unrepentant “fine artists.”)

2.2. The Establishment Model

            In sociology it is generally accepted that the greater the deviance of constructs (i.e., the further they depart from the dominant institutional models of their time) the greater, everything else being equal, their “shallowness” and disorganization. (This recalls the fate of rebellion in Paradise Lost; one might refer with some justice to the “Miltonian Model.”)

2.3. The Avant-Garde Model

The dominant art culture envisioned itself as a triumphant avant-garde. “Avant-garde” assumes progress in an objectively required direction, not merely “I want to go there” but “you should go there whether you want to or not,” and “you will go there or spend all your energy resisting.” (Now more than in our subjects’ lifetimes, we are sensitively attuned to voices from the various “dust bins” of history.[1])

2.4. Section Conclusion

            After the 1940’s our subjects’ paintings and disciplinary self-understandings are deviant vis-à-vis dominant art cultures. Yet they are not shallow or disorganized.

These artists confront dominant frameworks with a viable alternative. They neither surrender to nor deny the new. Their work is relevant to but does not fit establishment and avant-garde models/critiques of deviance.

3.Artistic Identity and the Great Tradition

            Our subjects are committed to “the great tradition” (i.e., in Isabel Bishop’s terms “the main line”) in the art of painting. “Guides” from the great tradition “appear” and dialogues open as new needs and potentialities emerge within an artist’s work. Rembrandt and Monet, for example, are relevant to Moses Soyer’s movement towards richer color and freer “handling”: My colors have become brighter: red, deep blue. My colors have become richer through all the years of practice, study and work. Rembrandt moved in his later years from a brown monochrome to The Prodigal Son and the Brunswich Family. The Brunswich is a symphony of colors. His colors have become brighter and deeper. Monet’s last works were a series of landscapes. At the end it didn’t matter what time of day it was. He was almost part of nature. He almost painted an overall landscape. This development of richer and deeper colors and of a broader approach seems to be true for many artists in their old age. It comes with work.

4. The Contemporary Scene

4.1. The Realm of Shifting Alliances

            Who “we” are depends on who “they” are. From Moses Soyer’s perspective, for example, “we,” the Soyers, focus on people in their interrelationships. “They,” Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper, focus on the scenes in which these relationships unfold (on the appearance and mood of houses, railway stations, factories, deserted streets). “We” are painters of unexaggerated everyday life. “They,” Philip Evergood and Ben Shahn, focus on dramatic moments and events. “We,” including Burchfield, Evergood, Hopper, and Shahn, are humanists and contributors to the great tradition as opposed to abstractionists, pop painters and academicians.

4.2. The Realm of the Other

            Our subjects interpret abstract and pop painters as of the present moment only, and academicians as having nothing of their own to say. They can never be accepted as allies (not even against each other), always “they.”

5. Becoming an Artist


Influenced by Hughes’ (1971, 124-131, 136-140) and Becker’s (1960) focus on “career,” I asked, “When did you become an artist? When does one become an artist?”

Reisman: When you get through being a student and begin to work on your own you have to retrain yourself. That is the time when those who have nothing or little to say get out. Others take refuge in making products. You learn a safe way of working in art school; it leads to platitudes.

  1. Soyer: You become an artist when your production strives to incorporate your own vision.
  2. Soyer: One becomes an artist when one has an individual point of view to express in one’s medium.

One must have something of one’s own to say… The academician continues painting but never becomes an artist:

  1. Soyer: Good painters never copy nature. Those who do are the most dreadful. Good artists interpret. Arnolfini by Jan Van Eyck is not a copy of nature. It is really an anti-copy. Could I copy you? I could paint you and express you but not copy you. Academicians copy.
  2. Soyer: There can be banal representational art. No matter how awful these other things are, most representative work is worse…absolute platitudes.

No one said that one becomes an artist when professionally recognized (e.g., by a one-person show at an established gallery) or first “make a living” from art.

For our respondents, social recognition does not distinguish among painters between artist and non-artist…. An academic painter (e.g., Cabenal, Bouguereau) can receive high honors and grow rich from sales yet never be an artist. An artist (e.g., Van Gogh and Cezanne in their life times) is no less an artist if unrecognized …Or would you assert that Van Gogh (who sold almost nothing in his life) was not an artist while alive but only after death? – The posthumous honors accorded Cézanne and Van Gogh are literally recognitions (i.e., they recognize that which – recognized or not – exists).

To be an artist is to make a personal contribution to the great tradition.

6. Existence as Mediation

            Our respondents conceive human history, art and their interplay as continuity in discontinuity and unity in diversity.

Bishop: I’m interested in persons with definite class markings. I am interested in Bronx girls, mostly they are from the Bronx. They work in the neighborhood (the West Village, Manhattan). I want to express their character and also that they are not stuck in it: that they can become the Beacon Hill duchess of what-have-you. The limits, and also that they can get out of them. I feel their reality in this open ended way.

  1. Soyer: So much has happened in the last thirty years in art that to express a thought – and it should have immediate impact – it has to be expressed in a more contemporary technique…. It is not necessary to develop a new language but to use the old language in a new context.
  2. Soyer: Tradition like nature has to be renewed. You can’t return to Michelangelo and Rembrandt. You have to inject something new.
  3. Soyer: Man is the noblest creature in the world, therefore the noblest theme in art. To that theme I bent all my energy and talent. In this I followed Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Degas.

Humanity endures in and through its differences…recognizable in 16th century Italy, 18th century Japan, 17th century Benin, 13th century Mexico, and on and on.

In sociology roles are traditionally understood statically. Yet roles are in plays, and plays unfold in time. – Art participates in the play of humanity’s self-creation.

If there ever is a death of art it will be murder.

End of The Mediators, an Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason VI: Part 2 On Instruction


[1] (1998) The terminal illness of institutionalized communism was, whatever else it also was, an infection by repressed poetry.



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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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