Theo van Doesburg’s “Thought — Perception — Plasticism” (1918)

Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.

In De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York:1971).

• • •

The development of the plastic arts is determined by the perceptive urge.

The old plasticism revealed the perceptive urge through relationship experienced in nature.

The new plasticism reveals the perceptive urge through relationship experienced in plasticism.

It is a mistaken point of view to equate the essence of thought with perception, just as it is mistaken in relation to perception to equate it with the plasticism of nature through the senses.  The latter is a concept of Classical and Roman Catholic origin against which Protestantism took issue (iconoclasm).

Three stages may be distinguished in the nature of thought:

1.  pure abstract thought: thought for thought’s sake;

2.  concrete thought: thought about perception; and

3. a stage between these two; deformative thought.

In pure abstract thought all sensuous associative observation (of nature) is abstract.  Its place is taken by relationship of ideas.  The latter can be made [108] perceptible as exact (mathematical) figures, and employed in mathematics.  It can also be made perceptible in numbers.  In these figures, the concept, the content of pure thought, is given plastic expression.  In this instance, where it is the content of pure, conceptual thought which is given plastic expression, one may already speak of plastic perception.

I call concrete thought, thought relating to images derived from sensuously associative observation, such as a remembered scene, in which the intellect is not involved and, therefore, does not appear.

I call deformative thought, thought which does relate to images — even remembered scenes — but in which such images are affected and deformed by the intellect.

The images are associated with concrete phenomena, but they exist in an amorphous condition.

Although we must always proceed more or less speculatively in the abstract sphere, I nevertheless have serious reason to accept as truth in respect of the visual arts that this latter visionary mode of thought shows correspondence with a dream image, and that the amorphous character of these ideas or thought images is caused by the effect of the emotions — disturbances of mental repose — upon the intellect.  We might, therefore, also speak in this instance of emotional thought.

The serious reason why I accept as truth these three stages of thought relating to the visual arts rests upon the fact that we find these three stages of thought projected in the visual arts — or rather, in art.  Secondly, because my own development in plasticism has passed through these three stages during a period of twenty years.  Everyone who has sought for truth in the field of the visual arts will individually find this development of thought projected in his work in the same way as this development has revealed itself in art generally.

This development does not show a regular passage in art history, nor does it, perhaps, in the individual, but this does not invalidate the fact that these three stages of thought can be observed in plasticism.

Ordinary concrete or objective thought revealed itself in representational art.  Let us take as an example the art of Van der Heist (the question whether simple representation is art is not discussed here).  This stage of human thought is reflected in physioplastic art from the Paleolithic culture until our own time.

Deformative thought, which involves both sensuously associative images and intellect, but in which neither appears determinately, reveals itself [109-117] with many gradations in the majority of works of art from the ideoplastic art of the Neolithic culture to Van Gogh.  This stage of thought appears particularly suited to the production of art, which is to say at the same time that, in art, the intellect is the decisive factor.

Pure thought, in which there are no images deriving from actual phenomena, but in which there appear in their stead number, dimension, relationship and abstract line, is revealed through the intellect — as rationality — in Chinese, Greek and German philosophy and through the medium of beauty in the new plasticism of our own age.

The artist thinks in plastic relationships.  The painter in color, the sculptor in form, the architect in spatial relationships.  It may be that these relationships are associated with naturalistic representation, but, in this case, such an association indicates the stage of thought and its effect upon the quality of the perceptive urge.

Since not everyone has reached the same stage of thought, it is obvious that it is possible to point to works in our age (and perhaps in every age) which project one of these three stages of thought, to the extent that the development of thought is reflected in art.

The question as to which stage of thought is the true one gives rise to conflict in all spheres of thought.  This conflict will not cease until one of these stages is fulfilled, i.e., when a new mode of thought gives guidance to the whole of life and to our attitude towards life.

All judgment or criticism of the revelation in plasticism of a cultivated mode of thought is of no value because (philosophical, aesthetic, religious, political, scientific) truth is externalized in time as real life.

October 1918 [From De Stijl, Vol. II, No. 2, pp. 23-24]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 17, 2010.

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