Part Four – Exercise 4.2: Newman Summary

Read the text of Newman’s essay in Art in Theory and write a short summary (200 words)

Summary: Barnett Newman ‘The First Man was an Artist’, 1947 (Newman, 2003) 

Newman argues against the expansion of science into a ‘theological way of life’ and criticizes science for its ignoring its roots of a scientific inquiry in finding proof through asking the question of ‘What is it?’ He considers the ongoing domination of scientific method by claiming the ‘non-material world’ as problematic. Although he argues that paleontology could provide us, based on a postulate of the aesthetics, with an answer of what the ‘original man’ was.

Newman knows already the answer. He opposes his conception of the ‘original man’ as a creator and ‘artist’. The creative acts, an icon, a semblance to God, are the driver of the original ‘poetic gesture’ since the fall from Garden Eden. A gesture as pre-lingual and pre-reflective act not caused by a need to communicate or to explain, but merely as an aesthetic act of creation, primordial and unmediated by social acts. Newman compares this with the signs of courting behavior by animals. The ‘original man’ in his aesthetic expression is therefore an artist and the act, the art work, an end in itself. In the aftermath of that creation icons could become utilitarian as shown by the example of the mud figure and the ‘ax-head idol of stone’.

(204 words)


Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970), whose work Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) I looked up in part 2, made various changes during his career.

After his graduation in philosophy. he worked in his father’s clothing business until the Great Depression.  He moved on with a life a painter (inspired by Expressionism) and art teacher, married 1936 Annalee Greenhouse, and exchanged painting in the early 1940s for a his studies in natural history and ornithology. Newman went back to his art practice in 1944 (inspired by Surrealism), destroyed all his earlier paintings, and eventually found his breakthrough as an abstract expressionist painted in 1948 with his painting Onement I. His essay The First Man Was An Artist, 1947 can therefore be seen not only in a political, economical and social context (Great Depression, Alfred Barr’s influence in establishing an American art scene in 1936, WWII, American Abstract Expressionism), but also in his personal biography and exposure to philosophy and natural science, elements he clearly had build on with his through provoking essay. Further, this essay was published one year before his other essay The Sublime is Now, 1948, an argumentation in context of Kant for the exalted not comprehensible sensation versus the rather contained notion of beauty.


Art as “culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting sensuous medium” – Richard Anderson


From my reading I took visual notes in a mind map and added further contextual notes where I found that those are relevant for my understanding of the text.


Mind Map

Stefan513593 - Part 4 - Newman's First Man an Artist

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – Part 4 – Newman’s First Man an Artist



  • Bennett, T. (2005) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Malden; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Davies, S., Higgins, K. M., Hopkins, R., Stecker, R. and Cooper, D. E. (2009) A Companion to Aesthetics, Blackwell companions to philosophy, 2nd ed. Malden, MA; London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Freeland, C. (2003) Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions, paperback ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press Inc. .
  • Newman, B. (2003) ‘The First Man was an Artist’, in: Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden, MA; Oxford, UK; Victoria, AUS: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 574 – 577. V


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