It was Piet Mondrian who, before World War II, shared the longing for fundamental change with many colleagues  on the left, such as the Surrealists in France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and radical socialists in various countries, not only in Europe. Like those on the left, he embraced the vision of “the new man.” “When he thinks, he feels, and when he feels he thinks”, he exclaimed. The deep split that characterized modern man in societies characterized by production undertaken for the sake of profit was deeper than many on the left thought it was. Alienation had many facets. The divide between the emotional and the intellectual sphere was all too obvious to Mondrian. Art, as he saw it and as he tried to create it, was to assume a healing function, contributing to an awareness of man’s “incomplete”, amputated existence. And it would, perhaps, contribute to efforts to overcome the split. Making man whole again.

Today it is clear that all the attempts made so far to create new, just societies as a prerequiste to the appearance of “the new man” have failed in many respects; they failed to overcome hierarchy; they failed to activate the direct and autonomous participation of the subaltern classes in the “running” of society – in the debate of relevant social issues and in the decision making process, that is, Everywhere, a new “elite” representing (or at least claiming to represent) “the working class” took over from the old, ousted ruling class. The focus, thereafter, was on production, on fast-track industrialization. Direct producers found themselves exposed to demands urging them “to make sacrifices” in order to achieve stepped-up industrialization. At best, their material circumstances were somewhat improved. When an arms race ensued, such gains were eaten up. New forms of social security in the form of free health services, public education, abolition of lock-outs and mass unemployment were overshadowed by the new insecurity built into an internal repressive apparatus mobilized against “counter-revolutionaries” or “dissidents” and by the threat of a new world war and nuclear annihilation.

We know that consumerist desires, conformism, careerism, the growth of a vast bureaucratic apparatus (“the modern state”), unchecked productivism and ecologically devastative practices, unleashed by the industrial sector,  by “industralized” agriculture, by the transport sector, by consumers and, thanks to irrational town planning, by builders, characterized the “real socialism” of the 20th century as much as “free market” economies in the West and the so-called Third World.  Everywhere, “advances” in development, modernization, etc. contributed to hypertrophic specialization, increased “differentiation” or “social stratification” (in other words, supposedly blind social dynamics in line with the  “divide and rule” politics of the hegemonial block), and the one-sided development of  human potentials. The vision once expressed by Marx that in a free society, every individual could choose to be an engineer or natural scientist in the morning, a poet or painter in the afternoon, and a sports-fisher in the evening (to paraphrase him, in a slightly updated, more contemporary way), came to nought, both in the modern world that embraced the “American way of life” and the opposite, now largely defunct camp where the “new elite” dreamed of “overtaking the U.S.”

Can it be said therefore that Mondrian had to teach something to the Left? Just as Paul Klee who, marvelling at the invention of the tape recorder, shouted: Look, “matter hears! And the time is not far away when our hands will move through solid bodies as if they were made of air.” Today, the most aware among us realize very well that matter “does not forget”: the concrete and steel of suspension bridges “remembers” excessive stress and accumulates such “memories” until the breaking point is reached. And the human body, overexploited, “remembers”, as well. And so do animals, so do vast overexploited farm areas, so do forests, so does the atmosphere, and so do the oceans. Our dreams dry up when we are overexposed to the sterile images and the buzz of the mass media. Our intelligence withers when hypertrophous instrumentalization of such a potential reaches a certain threshold. Does it make sense to point to Mondrian, the painter of interlocked squares and rectangles, produced by using black, white and pure, monochrome colors? I would say, we are still unable to ascertain the positive effects of confronting such works of art. Is it true that they speak, at once, to the emotions and the intellect? Is it true that they help create a balance between the two, and more than a balance: a simultaneous, interrelated activity of both faculties of the human mind? I can neither confirm it fully nor can I rule it out, in any scientific, empirically proven sense. But I can rely on my own experience: seeing his works of art, but also that of other artists I care for, I sense that both thoughts and feelings are triggered, and perhaps both at the same time. Confronting relevant art, including that of Klee, of Mondrian and other seemingly “non-political” artists, intuition as well as reflection are involved. And, as certain thinkers (especially on the Left) have pointed out, practice (práxis) helps develop and thus “heighten” or “increase” (in a qualitative way) the human faculties involved in the process. The actual use of the human hand, that is to say,  manual práxis, in the course of history,  was exactly what brought about the evolution of the concretely differentiated faculties tied to this organ –  if not in vast, noticeable ways in the concrete individual, then at least in a phylogenetic way in the human species. But even in the concrete history of individuals, practice (práxis) has effects on individual capacities, on abilities.  Being confronted with music early on, children tend to develop a greater musical sensibility. Being confronted with visual art, with aesthetically sensitive (or “art”) cinema, with theater performances, a child or an adult develops certain capacities and sensitivities, as well. Or has a certain chance to do so.

I know that a sense of justice is not necessarily sharpened in any direct, traceable way by a square done by Joseph Albers ( – to take this example). But confronting paintings of Albers may increase our sensitivity – certainly much more than a mediocre, or worse yet, a mass-produced “naturalist” painting sold by an “art” hawker to the aesthetically unaware and “underdeveloped” consumer. At the Black Mountain College where Albers taught, his paintings may have influenced the sensitivity of students who became fine poets and in some, perhaps even in quite a few cases, critical, socially aware poets who protested against the war in Vietnam and the lot of the working class in American society.

Today, in Belgium as elsewhere, artists keep working in meaningful ways to create art that speaks to the heart and the intellect, touching our emotions and  fanning our thoughts. Some work in the ‘tradition’ of Mondrian, others in that of Magritte, still others take up the thread spun by the COBRA artists, still others are in touch with a post-war U.S. experience that gave birth to happenings and to installations while simultaneously integrating a bit of the spirit of Surrealism, the Surrealists’ enchantment with chance, the surprising, and their breath-taking awareness of the beauty incorporated in the ordinary, the objets trouvés found in unsuspected places, in everyday life.

Perhaps, to further a certain sensibility and to de-automatize customary ways of seeing is already a lot. If other critics and among them, truly progressive ones, clamor for more, for interventions by searching  artists that sharpen our consciousness and help us discover our desire to change our life and the world we live in, hoping to make it better, more just, more rational, more democratic, I cannot contradict them. 

                                                                                - Andreas Weiland