Unreal Nature

October 22, 2014

If He Should Become Sensitive to the Grace

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… It is … not a question of discovering the meaning of symbolic representation but, on the contrary, of inventing a relevance and a place in memory for them …

This is from Rethinking Symbolism by Dan Sperber (1974):

… Symbols are not signs. They are not paired with their interpretations in a code structure. Their interpretations are not meanings.

… Symbolism is, in large part, individual, which is doubly incomprehensible from the semiological point of view. Firstly, a system of communication works only to the extent that the underlying code is essentially the same for all; secondly, a code exhaustively defines all its messages. Symbolism, which is a non-semiological cognitive system, is not subject to these restrictions.

A corollary of this cognitive nature is that there is no multi-symbolism analogous to multi-lingualism. An individual who learns a second language internalizes a second grammar, and if some interference takes place, it is on a remarkably small scale. Conversely, symbolic data, no matter what their origin, integrate themselves into a single system within a given individual.

… One of the first things that the anthropologist learns in the field is strictly to observe the local forms of politeness. For at least a time, he has the impression that he is acting, rather than expressing himself normally; the symbolic values of these forms of politeness escape him, or he only apprehends them upon reflection. The longer he is there, the more easily he can pass from one ‘code’ of politeness to another, like an actor who changes roles. But if he should become sensitive to the grace of a gesture of offering; to the nuances by which the warmth or coolness of a welcome are expressed; to the perfidiousness of a disguised insult; if at the death of a friend he comes to feel comforted rather than troubled, by reproducing the traditional gestures of mourning; in short, if he should internalize these forms instead of imitating them: then, on returning home, he will catch himself following rules that are not in force, and resenting it when others break them.

[ ... ]

… The symbolic value of ‘fox’ owes nothing to the sense of the word, and everything to what we know or believe about foxes: to their skill as predators, their look, their coat, etc. What matters, symbolically speaking, is neither how foxes are semantically defined nor what foxes actually are, but what is known of them, what is said of them, what is believed about them.

… the conceptual mechanism never works in vain; when a conceptual representation fails to establish the relevance of its object, it becomes itself the object of a second representation. This second representation is not constructed by the conceptual mechanism which turned out to be powerless, but by the symbolic mechanism that then takes over. The symbolic mechanism tries to establish by its own means the relevance of the defective conceptual representation.

To return to Lévi-Strauss’ image, the symbolic mechanism is the bricoleur of the mind. It starts from the principle that waste-products of the conceptual industry deserve to be saved because something can always be made of them. But the symbolic mechanism does not try to decode the information it processes. It is precisely because this information has partly escaped the conceptual code, the most powerful of the codes available to humans, that it is, in the final analysis, submitted to it. It is therefore not a question of discovering the meaning of symbolic representation but, on the contrary, of inventing a relevance and a place in memory for them despite the failure in this respect of the conceptual categories of meaning. A representation is symbolic precisely to the extent that it is not entirely explicable, that is to say, expressible by semantic means. Semiological views are therefore not merely inadequate; they hide, from the outset, the defining features of symbolism.

My most recent previous post from Sperber’s book is here.




October 21, 2014

In the Last Analysis

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Let them be warned by the decorations that make vacuous the halls of the Art of Tomorrow museum.

This is from ‘Obituary and Review of an Exhibition of Kandinsky’ (1945) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

There are two sorts of provincialism in art. The exponent of one is the artist, academic or otherwise, who works in an outmoded style or in a vein disregarded by the metropolitan center — Paris, Rome, or Athens. The other sort of provincialism is that of the artist — generally from an outlying country — who in all earnestness and admiration devotes himself to the style being currently developed in the metropolitan center, yet fails in one way or another really to understand what it is about.

The late Marsden Hartley [ ... ] was a provincial of this latter sort. And so was the Russian, Wassily Kandinsky, who died two weeks ago in Paris at the age of seventy-eight. They were quite different as painters but both were alike in being provincial. Hartley failed to understand the School of Paris because he really lacked culture. Kandinsky was learned and at ease in his learning, and was one of the first, if not the first, to get an intellectual purchase on post-cubist painting, yet he failed in the end to understand it in practice.

… His best work remains those paintings in fluid contour and gauzy color that he executed between 1909 or so and the early twenties (the heroic period of the flowering of cubism which also saw such non-cubists as Matisse and Chagall at their best).

Improvisation (Dreamy), 1913 [image from WikiArt]

The abstract or — as Kandinsky himself called them — “concrete” paintings he turned out from the middle twenties represent a misconception, not only of cubism and its antecedents, but of the very art of putting paint on canvas to make a picture. Like many a newcomer to a situation, seeing it from the outside and thus more completely, Kandinsky was very quick to perceive one of the most basic implications of the revolution cubism had effected in Western painting. Pictorial art was at last able to free itself completely from the object — the eidetic image — and take for its sole positive matter the sensuous facts of its own medium, reducing itself to a question — purely on canvas, not in the observer’s consciousness — of non-figurative shapes and colors. Painting could become like music, an art contained in its own form and thus capable of infinitely more variety than before — at least in theory. But Kandinsky erred in assuming that this newly won freedom exhausted the meaning of the cubist revolution and that it permitted the artist to make a clean break with the past and start all over again from scratch — something which no art can do without losing all sense of style.

Transverse Line, 1923 [image from WikiArt]

Kandinsky, in principle, seems to have paid ample homage to the new awareness that easel-painting takes place on a flat, continuous, finitely bounded surface, but he lacked an intuitive grasp of the consequences of these facts in actual practice. As if in reaction against his earlier liquescent style, he came to conceive of the picture überhaupt as an aggregate of discrete shapes; the color, size, and spacing of these he related so insensitively to the space surrounding them — that which Hans Hofmann calls “negative space” — that this remained inactive and meaningless; the sense of a continuous surface was lost, and the picture plane became pocked with “holes.” At the same time, having begun by accepting the absolute flatness of the picture surface, Kandinsky would go on to allude to illusionistic depth by a use of color, line, and perspective that were plastically irrelevant.

Composition, 1944 [image from WikiArt]

… For a relatively short time Kandinsky was a great painter; he was and will remain a huge and revolutionary phenomenon — he must be taken into account always; yet he stays apart from the mainstream and in the last analysis remains a provincial. The example of his work is dangerous to younger painters. Let them be warned by the decorations that make vacuous the halls of the Art of Tomorrow museum.




October 20, 2014

The Exuberant Forces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… as if they were each time created and defined anew via artistic creation by associating the reason-to-be of the artworks with the unpredictable trajectory of someone’s passage in time …

This is from Art as Existence: The Artist’s Monograph and Its Project (2006) by Gabriele Guercio:

… The “who” question says a great deal about the methods and aspirations of the life-and-work model of the monograph. It sustains its attentiveness to being singular by pointing to a situation in which considerations of what an artist does go along with considerations of who an artist is and becomes through artistic creation.

… the “who” question raises others: about historical and biographical issues, stylistic attributions, manifestations of character, the vindication of the status of an artist, and the expressive power of his or her works. In particular, asking “who?” vis-à-vis the works of art is to see them as things that can materialize anthropocentric qualities, personality, the facts of a life, and history itself. In a monograph, whether the biographical and the artistic dimensions are dealt with separately or interwoven, the “who” question almost always precedes the “what” question. What is art? What renders the works specimens of the category of art, and what do they convey? Whereas the “what” question is more likely to suggest the search for an essence, the establishment of a supposedly solid ground, in asking “who?” a monograph uncovers an irregular, mutable territory of inquiry. It seeks answers that take into account the fluctuations of life itself, as they affect the history of an artist and are in turn reflected in it. These fluctuations can hardly be grasped according to prefixed general criteria; their comprehension must originate from a readiness to discern that particular constellation of elements that makes up the oneness of the artist as author and as human being.

… Despite bearing different, even contradictory results, the nineteenth-century life-and-work model always delivered visions of identities in the making. Art was no longer evaluated solely according to technical merit or conformity with established standards of beauty. Sometimes reviving the histories of the old masters or debating the status of contemporary artists, sometimes based on new documents, aesthetic criteria, emotional responses, connoisseurship, and art historical expertise, envisioning “who” the artist is encouraged a transformation in the perception of what artworks are and do.

… “Who?” addresses the figures of the human as if they were each time created and defined anew via artistic creation by associating the reason-to-be of the artworks with the unpredictable trajectory of someone’s passage in time and the disclosure of a singularity of being. The monograph therefore subverts any supposition of essence regarding both art and human identity and interrogates nothing but pure existence. Monographers tend to ascribe to artworks, and to art itself, the very characteristics of life, with “life” signifying the life of the artist as well as life in general.

… “Who” — the artist — embodies the breakthrough into the visual of the exuberant forces, elements, and tensions of human existence. Over and above any evaluations of artistry and aesthetic worth, “who?” ponders how and why the artist’s works transform existence into presence and presence into existence. While methods and responses may vary endlessly, and while there may be no final answers, the “who?” of the monograph nonetheless radically affects the view of the visual arts. It gradually but systematically transforms the field from a repository of objects severed from the world and reality into a space where art shows its power to condense, trace, and disseminate states of being and becoming.

My most recent previous post from Guercio’s book is here.





October 19, 2014

To See While Blind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration. And another name: happiness, eternity.

This is from the essay ‘Kafka and Literature’ found in The Work of Fire by Maurice Blanchot (1949):

Kafka sought above all to be a writer. He was driven to despair each time he thought he was prevented from becoming one. He wanted to kill himself when, having been placed in charge of his father’s factory, he thought that he would not be able to write for two weeks.

… How can existence be completely devoted to a concern for arranging a certain number of words in some order? That is what is not clear. Let us admit that for Kafka writing was not a matter of aesthetics; he did not have the creation of a valid literary work in mind, but his salvation, the accomplishment of the message that is in his life.

… Why did a man like Kafka feel lost if he did not become a writer? Was that his calling, the true form of his mandate? But how did he come by this half-certainty that while he might not fulfill his destiny, his own way of missing it was to write? Countless texts show that he attributed an immense importance to literature. When he notes, “The immensity of the world I have in my head. … Better to explode a thousand times than hold it back or bury it in me; for that is the reason I am here, I haven’t the least doubt about that,” he again expresses in his usual way the urgency of a creation that blindly clamors to be let out. It is most often his own existence that he feels is at stake in literature. Writing causes him to exist. “I have found meaning, and my monotonous, empty, misled, bachelor life has its justification. … It is the only path that can lead me forward.”

… “Have listened to myself from time to time, perceiving at times inside me something like the mewing of a young cat.”

It seems that literature consists of trying to speak at the moment when speaking becomes most difficult, turning toward those moments when confusion excludes all language and consequently necessitates a recourse to a language that is the most precise, the most aware, the furthest removed from vagueness and confusion — to literary language. In this case, the writer can believe that he is creating “his spiritual possibility for living”; he feels his creation linked, word by word, to his life, he re-creates and regenerates himself. Literature then becomes an “assault on the frontiers,” a hunt that, by the opposing forces of solitude and language, leads us to the extreme limit of this world, “to the limits of what is generally human.”

… He rarely lingers on the inadequacy of art. If he writes, “Art flies around truth, but with the determination not to get burnt by it. Its skill consists of finding a place in the void where the ray of light focuses most powerfully, without knowing beforehand the location of the light source itself,” he himself is responding to this other, darker reflection: “Our art is to be blinded by truth: the light on the grimacing face as it pulls back, that alone is true and nothing else.” And even that definition is not without hope: it already is something to lose one’s sight and, more than that, to see while blind; if our art is not light, it is a form of darkening, a possibility of attaining the flash through the dark.

[ ... ]

… Art is like the temple of which The Aphorisms speaks: never was an edifice built so easily, but on each stone a sacrilegious inscription is found engraved, so deeply engraved that the sacrilege will last so long a time that it will become even more sacred than the temple itself. So is art the place of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security. It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration. And another name: happiness, eternity.




October 18, 2014

Withering Into Truth

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… For secret meaning it must have, to involve you during so many days, so many months, so many years, in this nearly exact balance of the wish by the fear, which makes you spend your time considering your inability to do just what you most wish to do.

This is from Journal of the Fictive Life by Howard Nemerov (1965):

… One thing the ‘novel’ did, quietly, offhandedly, maybe by accident: It gave readers the possibility of believing in the past, in their own past, as substantially existing behind them (even though examination would have proved their memory of this past projected by means of novelistic fictions, hence absurdly at variance with what happened).

‘The novel,’ then, was a way of constructing a certain feeling of reality, rather than a reality, by means of formal presuppositions about life, especially the one which claimed that life was a story (with all the following propositions about purpose, identity, history, God). This idea the novel inherited rather casually from drama, from magical poetizing.

But the special technique which ‘the novel’ added to the tradition was what one might broadly call realism, meaning by this word only one aspect of what is usually meant; that aspect is detail.

A. Life is like a story, life is a story.
B. Detail.

The question of the existence of ‘the novel’ could not come up while B was regarded, was able to be regarded, as the intensifying means to doing A. But as soon as the amount of detail began to be perceived as possibly unlimited, as possibly photographic in essence — and a photography, so to say, of all the five senses, plus memory, imagination, and thought — the relation of A and B had to become one of antagonism. The crucial, or balancing example of this process was Ulysses, with its equal (and opposite) allegiance to mythos and chaos.


… One is divided between the desire to keep on working, to be working, which is a condition usually of happiness and difficulty at once, and a desire to do only significant work, only work which is necessary.

… you say wearily, and with a superiority not entirely earned, ‘To do all that again, describe the furniture, provide those people with different noses …’ And to a certain extent this attitude of boredom is essential if one is to be an artist at all: to have a keen nose for what has even barely begun to stink.

… There comes a time in life — or there may come several such times — at which it appears necessary to ask yourself what you are doing. The question has to be put in a number of its aspects, for example, How did you get into this? What did it mean to you when you began? Does it still mean the same? Above all, perhaps, What is the secret meaning of ‘writing’? For secret meaning it must have, to involve you during so many days, so many months, so many years, in this nearly exact balance of the wish by the fear, which makes you spend your time considering your inability to do just what you most wish to do.

… Yeats speaks of the desolation of reality, and this is for him a religious condition; it may be like what is intended by another splendid phrase of his, about withering into truth. But there is perhaps a prosier desolation of reality than that: In middle life, you perceive as though suddenly what was always there to be perceived, that all the stories are only stories. Beyond the stories, beneath them, outside the area taken account of by stories, there are the sickbed, the suffering, the hopeless struggle, the grave.




October 17, 2014

The Stupidest Thing You’ve Ever Done

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… it also has the enormous advantage that only now can you draw something out of it which never occurred to you as a possibility before …

This is from What is Art? Conversations with Joseph Beuys edited with essays by Volker Harlan (2004):

… I cannot say that anyone has to believe in what I have done, quite the contrary: everything that people place out there — and this should also be how it is with the new concept of culture — should exist in the world as a question looking to be augmented, improved, enhanced. This is the kind of faith one can have in art; one can say that it is on the path towards something; because, in keeping with the principles of life — let me just say for once very generally — it certainly cannot be about something that has already been perfected. In certain circumstances such predetermined views of how things should be could even be the death of art. It is something living, sometimes only an initial impulse.

[ ... ]

… I certainly do not claim that any lasting value attaches to these experiments that I have conducted. That cannot be my concern. My concern can only be whether one can instigate this kind of process, this movement; in other words, whether one can bring people to and into this kind of movement, in the culture that holds and has held sway, and has numbed them into inaction; whether things can be freed up and released, so that people accomplish this together.

[ ... ]

… So the criteria for something, for what’s involved here, the criteria as to its quality, can again really only be discussed in direct relation to something, by circling around it a thousand times, looking at it and trying different things out. Above all, it becomes interesting when you’ve completed something and think it’s perfect, and then suddenly see that in fact it’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. And then you have to rework it, in other words, correct it, and that’s particularly difficult. But it also has the enormous advantage that only now can you draw something out of it which never occurred to you as a possibility before, because it wasn’t at all visible. The mistake one makes in the first attempt can turn out to be an extraordinary gift as far as the work is concerned.




October 16, 2014

Other Minds

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… Philosophy, for Cavell, is defined as ‘responsiveness, as not speaking first’ …

This is from Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality by John Mullarkey (2009):

Cavell has something more conceptual in mind when he invokes the realist ontology of photography, namely, that, in essence, ‘objects participate in the photographic presence of themselves; they participate in the re-creation of themselves on film; they are essential in the making of their appearance.’ What is real is not one, simple reality, nor one world, but the presence of a world, the being of a world.

This participation of objects in their own coming to filmic presence, and our witnessing of it in the cinema, is both fascinating and mysterious for Cavell. On the one hand, film lets us be fascinated with objects, with the elements of a world. We can see them as they seemingly are, for themselves: ‘film returns to us and extends our first fascination with objects, with their inner and fixed lives.’ On the other, this is a mystery, the mystery of film as permanent recording (but of nothing, for it is not a reproduction of the world) as well as evanescent performance (yet one that is seemingly repeatable). Cavell is fascinated with this mode of presence to and absence from film — ‘I am seeing things, things not there, experiencing them as overwhelmingly present'; and it leads him to ask, ‘how can one be present at something that has happened, that is over?’ The photographic quality of film is ‘unlike anything else on earth,’ in that it lies in the absence of what it ’causes to appear to us.’ It does not bear a relationship to anything present, yet we are still in the presence of things which are not present.

… Only that which appears within the projected frame counts or exists for film, and yet the frame only masks a whole world, it does not exclude it.

What is significant in all of this is that Cavell has revealed our ordinary (‘natural’) experience of film to be of theoretical interest (and personal fascination) on account of the mystery of our presence to and absence from it, on account of the ontological enchantment of being and non-being when watching a film and the world it views.

Cavell is mindful to point out that most of us have forgotten just how mysterious photographs (and so also the photographic nature of film) are.

… Philosophy, for Cavell, is defined as ‘responsiveness, as not speaking first'; it is an acknowledgement of limits, of alterity, of other minds. And this is precisely what modernism in film means too: the need to ‘acknowledge’ its limit as outside the world, for exactly this allows film to fulfill its role in ‘letting the world exhibit itself.’ The ‘significance’ discussed earlier, which makes any automatism artful, is due to the care and integrity with which it appears in the film, a care that is itself established intersubjectively, embroiling the camera, the projection and the audience’s reception. Referring to the famous 360-degree tracking shot of Scotty and Madeleine in Vertigo, Cavell writes that the meaning of this shot applies only ‘in this context, in this film.’ Tiny, nuanced moments, no matter how trivial, can be productive of meaning if done carefully, responsibly, acknowledging the specificity of the narrative and its audience; ‘why did the hand do that? Why did the camera turn just then?’

Our acknowledgement of each film’s particulars is also a response to its careful acknowledgement of the specifics of its world. Its careful details show a mind, an intent, a something that wants something from us.

My most recent previous post from Mullarkey’s book is here.




October 15, 2014

Awa Yusi?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… if the Dorze universe ‘consists principally of messages’ they know nothing of it, nor do I.

This is from Rethinking Symbolism by Dan Sperber (1974):

… A grammar is a device that generates the sentences of the language it describes by means of given axioms and by the operation of rules, independently of all external input. All sentences, the whole language, are contained in its grammar. Inversely, according to Lévi-Strauss, myths are generated by the transformation of other myths or of texts which carry a certain mythicism; in other words, by a device that allows an infinite and non-enumerable set of possible inputs. No grammar therefore generates by itself the set of myths, any more than the mechanism of visual perception generates by itself the set of possible perceptions. The device that would generate myths depends on an external stimulus; it is thus similar to cognitive devices and opposed to semiological devices: it is an interpretative, and not a generative, system.

Lévi-Strauss says that ‘the universe of primitives (or those claimed to be such) consists principally of messages.’ In fact, it is the universe of the French, and more generally, of Westerners, that consists of messages. In current usage, any object of knowledge has, perforce, a sense, a meaning — from the meaning of life to the meaning of the color of leaves in the autumn. To say that a phenomenon has no meaning is to avow that nothing at all can be said of it. The Frenchman lives in a universe where everything means something, where every correlation is a relation of meaning, where the cause is the sign of its effect and the effect, a sign of its cause. By a singular inversion, only real signs — words, texts — are said, sometimes, to mean nothing at all.

But this semiologism, though it is found in other cultures as well, is in no way universal. For the Dorze, for example, the question, ‘What does it mean?’ (awa yusi?) can only be asked about a word, a sentence, a text or a directly paraphrasable behavior, such as a nod. Even when a natural phenomenon is considered as the effect of a supernatural will, it is not counted as meaning it. In short, if the Dorze universe ‘consists principally of messages’ they know nothing of it, nor do I.

The attribution of sense is an essential aspect of symbolic development in our culture. Semiologism is one of the bases of our ideology. For centuries, this semiologism has, tacitly and undividedly, dominated symbolic production. It is less surprising therefore that those whose work for the first time questions this domination expressly render it a first and last homage. If they feel a need to call themselves semiologists, it is to hide — from themselves as well as others — the fact that they have ceased to be such, that they don’t know which sign to avow.

My most recent previous post from Sperber’s book is here.




October 14, 2014

The Terrible

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… histrionic impatience, the anxiety to express, makes him try to rape the medium …

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of Georges Roualt’ (1945) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

Art lovers yearn now for the Terrible. If any art is going to be allowed to take such liberties with nature as modern art does, then it ought to repay us with emotion — shake and scare us the way titans like Michelangelo do. What is involved is really the Sublime, but the term is a little ashamed of itself by now and is excluded from the useful cant of contemporary writing on art and literature. Nevertheless, the Terrible of our time (it is even better form to call it the “disquieting”) proves just as hollow in the end as the Sublime of the romantics.

The same taste that feels the cubists to have sacrificed “emotional content” to “intellectualism” and “technique” discovers a latter-day titan in Roualt and is overcome by his “volcanic force.” No one who visits Roualt’s large show at the Museum of Modern Art can fail to discern a remarkable painter, see several very effective pictures, and recognize a quantity of genius. Yet that remarkable painter is not a great or a major artist. The quietness that unfailingly characterizes great painting does not enter here as it enters into some of the most agitated of Tintoretto’s and Delacroix’s works — artist’s triumph over the medium, and the medium’s final acquiescence.

The fault with Roualt does not lie precisely in the extruded emotion or the bombast, but rather in a lack of deference. He refuses to let his intentions be shaped by the etiquette and physical conditions of his art; histrionic impatience, the anxiety to express, makes him try to rape the medium and anticipate the spectator’s emotions by presenting a fait accompli before the fact — there the spectator’s emotion is in the picture before he has had time to feel it. He gets a portrait of the way he ought to feel. And so many of us feel guilty about emotional impotence that we hurry to assent.

Georges Roualt, Crucifixion, 1918

Roualt turned out some remarkable paintings from 1916 on — especially the Three Clowns (1917), the Portrait of Henri Lebasque, the Crucifixion (1918), Self Portrait (1929), the Last Romantic, the Wounded Clown, and also the tapestry of the Wounded Clown — but all, except perhaps the tapestry, reveal on repeated view a curious fissure between technique and the whole picture — as if the Ding an sich had failed to manifest the appropriate phenomenal evidence. The style runs off by itself; we come away remembering colors and textures but not complete works of art. Whence it dawns on us that this passionate religious painter is really a kind of narrow virtuoso, maintaining content in order to exploit a style — unlike Matisse and Picasso, who work at and change style in order to achieve content. And the content of Roualt’s art has to be explicit and emphatic in order to support a style whose intensity does not compensate its limited range, and which down at bottom lies sick with academicism.




October 13, 2014

Excess and Instability

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… The … monograph … envisions artists and artworks as points of excess and instability that cannot be squeezed into a totalizing frame of … art history.

This is from Art as Existence: The Artist’s Monograph and Its Project (2006) by Gabriele Guercio:

… The birth of public museums played a role in the formation of new ideas about the nature of artworks, yet it also had the effect of removing the art from its historical context and depriving it of its indigenous meanings and functions. In a museum, paintings and sculptures could be judged, not only as portraits, landscapes, or historical subjects, but also as they seemed to reveal art itself, as “absolute masterpieces” belonging to history and to the history of art and yet capable of transcending time. These perceptions of the past affected the practice of contemporary art as well, fostering among artists the dream (or myth) of an absolute art as well as the compulsive attempts to achieve the impossible: works that would finally materialize the idea of art itself.

… In place of the museum’s privileging of skillful achievements and visions of masterpieces alone, the monograph presented a complex web of data that illuminated the artworks’ capacity to signify human subjectivity, materialize the dynamic flux of life, seek cultural fluency in the world, and expose the stylistic, thematic, and emotional qualities of authorship.

… Though he focused on the particularity of each master, Vasari was eager to show a uniform course of history, a genealogy interconnecting the deeds of the artefici from Giovanni Cimabue and Giotto to Michelangelo and after. The writers of the monograph increasingly explored the discrete, irreducible aspects of oneness of an artist’s works. Viewed in retrospect, their books question, if they don’t actually undermine, the faith in the chronological reconstruction of broad artistic contexts and traditions. The nineteenth-century monograph, that is, envisions artists and artworks as points of excess and instability that cannot be squeezed into a totalizing frame of history and art history.

… as issues of identity and “someoneness” became crucial or even overcame other kinds of preoccupations, the monograph deepened its focus on the thin divide between life and work. It looked for places where the biographical and artistic realms could be reunited. The artwork stopped appearing as a means of representation — the duplicate of a world out there or the mirror of a subject’s preexisting creation — to reveal its potential as the vessel of life and the site of presence coming to being and disseminating itself into the world.

… A monograph could praise the artist, disclose unpublished documents, merge stylistic and historical analyses, or produce a catalogue raisonné of the oeuvre. But it could also perceive forms as materializations of a self, connect visual elements and lived experience, or understand art, culture, and history in absolutely biographical terms.

… The polymorphous character of the life-and-work model and its methodological anarchism, and even the lack of expertise of some of its practitioners, helped shape the monograph’s destiny. From the early nineteenth century, the monograph became a sui generis genre that could internalize and improve as much as question and defy a series of more or less dominant views of the visual arts.

My previous post from Guercio’s book is here.




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