Earlier this week I went to visit the Rothko room in the Tate modern. The lighting is low and the large canvasses have the power to elicit a strong, almost physical response – they pulse out at you from the walls of the gallery. They are representations of a world where what lies behind leaks out and disrupts your view. You are both drawn in by the dark, window-like frames and thrown back by the luminosity of the colour. The room seems to vibrate with a low resonance in what is more than a mere visual experience. There is, in my mind, a suggestion that however we choose to present the world, we cannot hold back what lies behind the façade. The sharp lines of the rational are corroded at the edges as the red bleeds though to the surface.
There is a certain horror to these paintings, in particular from Red on Maroon and Black on Maroon where internal frames are breached from behind. The luminosity is not such that you are offered any light relief, rather it is evidence of a malign intensity that is a necessary and inevitable component of life. Writing of Michelangelo’s work in the Laurentian Library, Rothko reportedly said that he “achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.”
Sylvia Plath was a writer who conveyed a dark, almost metallic view of the world. I have heard her described as being made of a certain soft clay that takes an impression of the world, capturing it in all its jagged nastiness. Both Rothko and Plath died by suicide. The place that we should afford these depressing takes on the world is an interesting question. We could add the movies of Lars Von Trier and Michael Heneke with his Funny Games. All offer a distinct but essentially forbidding vision of our world and they share a level of sophistication that clearly supersedes many of the more positive world-views.
In our contemporary merry-go-round of disgust and repeated disappointments, they offer a more realistic view of the world. As we spin light headed, we have seen – flashing by – the abuse of children by clergy, the ghost-like images from the Magdalene Laundries, the clown like face of Jimmy Saville, and in the last few days the floodgates have opened on the abuse of women from a variety of walks of life.
In the face of all of this I am rather struck by the misplaced optimism of those architects of modern management systems or the trainers who seek to eliminate bad behaviour from our workplaces. Do such efforts merely amount to a very light gloss over an instrincally opaque backdrop? If we travel back in time we find populations who properly bought into notions of hell and purgatory. They were looking at doing some serious time in the burning horror of hell and yet even then many failed to obey even the basic concepts of their religion. What chance does a corporate mission statement have?
Optimism at a philosophical level is often linked to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who held the view that we lived in the best of all possible worlds. This outlook was fiercely mocked in Voltaire’s Candide with his creation of the character Pangloss, hence the term Panglossian. Recently Stephen Fry was under the spotlight here for apparent Blasphemy. Gay Byrne had asked him what he would say to a traditional God-like figure, and he replied “How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil…. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.” Of course, it is not just Jesus-tinted glasses that can lead towards untrammelled optimism.
Take a look at the size of self-help and positive psychology sections in bookshops. There is clearly a strong demand for this type of product. The fact that a number of celebrities try and eliminate negative people from their lives may help them feel good about themselves, but it also explains the amount of garbage that’s on television. Being positive can be an act of kindness but it can also enable a kind of collective madness where we drift along in sea of inane trivialities. And, of course, the fact that we find plenty of positive thinking in the Trump White House should give the positive thinkers among us pause for thought. Where most see failure, he only sees success, where most perceive idiocy, he gives himself an A-plus.
One of his more embarrassing positive thoughts was in response to a question on what God meant to him. His response makes the skin crawl: “Well, I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this … here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals they say ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals.” It’s a study in positive thinking – and it’s dangerous.
We need Rothko and Plath and we are better for the Dostoyevsky and Houellebecq we read. We might not agree with them, we might be disturbed by their views of the world, but too much lying back contemplating how great we are is no way to live.
Rothko’s paintings can be viewed at tate.org.uk.