Yes, but: Rebellion after Guston and Clemenza

Rise of Rebellion: DailyServing’s latest week-long series

As we continue our week long series Rise of Rebellion, we take a look at the cyclical nature of conflict and growth through the work of Philip Guston and the wisdom of Peter Clemenza in our latest article by Andrew Tosiello.

Philip Guston. "Oasis", 1957. Oil on Canvas. 61.5 x 68 in.

To be perfectly honest, I’m probably the last person who should be writing about rebellion. Not only am I beginning to comfortably occupy a full-time job and its attendant material security, but it has been a long time (if ever) since I’ve really stuck it to the man. More importantly and the main reason that this essay begins as quasi-apology (to the reader and the editors) is that, truth be told, I’m not fully convinced by rebellion as an effective strategy for wholesale change. (Sorry Daily Serving. I hope this won’t negatively impact future writing opportunities!)

It’s not that I don’t want to believe in rebellion, believe me. I do. In my heart I long for uprising and the final, decisive casting off of oppression after intense struggle —I’m a romantic. Unfortunately, that desire just doesn’t seem to be sustainable when I really consider it.

Rebellion, to me, suggests a fight against an existing system with the goal of toppling it and replacing it for good. It’s a dialectical process with teleological implications. Revolutions aren’t aiming for half-measures, they’re not seeking compromises and they certainly don’t anticipate their own downfall at the hands of future insurgents. Rebellion’s appeal lies in its all-in quality. It provides a sense of security about one’s (hell, the world’s) destiny being within one’s power and that it will be that way forever.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think that standing up for what’s right isn’t necessary or justified. It is. I do want to draw a distinction, though between protest and rebellion. In many ways, they’re similar, but they’re not the same. Where protest seeks to modify a system, rebellion seeks to overthrow one; consign it to the dustbin of history. Protest stands a chance of working (and has worked) and of producing lasting change. Rebellion, well, you know where I stand.

Philip Guston. "Daydreams", 1970. Oil on Linen. 180.0 x 203.5 cm

In 1970, Philip Guston debuted his now famous figurative paintings at the Marlborough Gallery. It was a shocking turn from pure abstraction by one of its most respected practitioners. It was enough of a rebellion for Hilton Kramer to title his review of the show “A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum,” and for Marlborough to drop him from its roster. Yet, Guston described the change in his work as resulting from a sense of moral duty to directly engage with the world and its politics.

It would be foolish to try and cast Guston in the role of a revolutionary leader striking a blow for figuration and then to discredit him by pointing to the failure of Neo-Expressionism as a lasting movement. Guston’s rebellion was purely a personal one, it would seem and he can’t be blamed for those he inspired. Of course, this myth of the rebel Guston can be deflated when the fact that those late paintings were a return to his earliest themes and had developed out of his experience making his lyrical abstractions. Additionally, his late paintings did not render hollow his previous work, but rather strengthened it by suggesting the existence of those same themes, only submerged or sublimated in paint. Guston was not a rebel, but someone committed to growth, no matter what the cost. This growth, of course, was achieved only through struggle, but not one which was aimed at toppling or overthrowing, but building and enriching.

This is one view of a productive, if not rebellious, engagement with struggle against established modes. As the two sons of Vito Corleone plan the first salvo in an inevitable mob war in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the fat caporegime Peter Clemenza tells them, “These things have to happen once every ten years or so. It gets rid of the bad blood.” This sentiment not only proves Clemenza’s veteran status, having endured previous conflagrations, but presents an anti-romantic view of such struggles, assigning them no more purpose than to relieve building tensions. It is an odd sentiment in a book that valorizes violence and decisive action as means to achieving one’s destiny.

Clemenza’s comment demonstrates an understanding of this war not as a part of a teleological process, leading to a final, lasting resolution, but an unending, though productive, cycle of strife and peace. In contrast to the sons who see war as fated and fraught with unalterable consequence, Clemenza views it as an almost neutral occurrence with little lasting effect.

Rather than seeing art through the eyes of Clement Greenberg who saw a history of rebellions leading to a final purity, one can imagine a series of struggles which purge bad blood, produce new alliances, allow for new ideas and subtle change. It seems to be both realistic and hopeful, but it isn’t rebellion.