Unreal Nature

August 22, 2014

Putting the Skins On

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… it all has to do with tantalizing your memory.

This first is taken from ‘Interview with Ruscha in his Hollywood Studio’ by Paul Karlstrom (1980-81) found in Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages by Ed Ruscha; edited by Alexandra Schwartz (2002):

[ ... ]

Ed Ruscha: The first work I did involving vegetable matter and organic materials came out of a frustration with materials. I wanted to expand my ideas about materials and the value they have. I was concerned with the concept of staining something, rather than applying a film or coat or skin of paint on a canvas. I started looking at ideas as though they were stains, rather than skin. I had to open my eyes to all kinds of stains. It falls into categories of vegetable things, vegetable matter, liquids that come from them and get put onto paper. [ ... ]

Paul Karlstrom: How do you get the medium?

ER: Oh, just by crushing them up with a mortar and pestle.

This next is from an interview, ‘Ed Ruscha,’ by Fred Fehlau (1988):

[ ... ]

Ed Ruscha: … There was a period when I couldn’t even use paint. I had to paint with unorthodox materials, so I used fruit and vegetable dyes instead of paint. I had to move some way, and the only way to do this was to stain the canvas rather than to put a skin on it. Now I’m back to putting the skins on.

[ ... ]

ER: … At one time I used to think that art was strictly visual, and you’re not supposed to go and dig deeper into messages. But now I believe it all has to do with tantalizing your memory. … The most that an artist can do is to start something and not give the whole story. That’s what makes mystery. And in a sense, if you believe that, then you can almost believe that nothing can be explained, which returns us to philosophy. That, in turn, circles all the way around to just looking at paintings again.




August 21, 2014

The Sense of an Ending

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… There is, I believe, no art other than the cinema which has a comparable capacity to reconstruct analytically and thereby explicate the possible modes of perceiving a localized slice of human history …

This is my final post from Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View by George M. Wilson (1986):

… It is often maintained, roughly, that the strategies, forms, and techniques of classical narrative cinema lock members of an audience into an epistemic position that makes it impossible for them to criticize either their own habits of perception in film viewing or the modes of perceptual intelligibility that the films themselves display.

[ ... ]

McCabe’s associated indictment of traditional films is that they “ensure the position of the subject [that is, the viewer] in a relation of dominant specularity.” When one first comes across this charge, one feels immediately that dominant specularity is not a position that one, as a sensitive filmgoer, would want to be in. The phrase invokes the picture of a brutish viewer who aggressively glares his films into submission. However, McCabe’s conception is rather the opposite. It is the conception of passive film spectators who, immersed in transparency, allow their perception and understanding of the screen events to be wholly the products of the narrative apparatus. It denotes the relation to film of viewers seduced from the critical use of their perception and understanding by the regimenting dictates of classical narrative and narration. This is the chief target of McCabe’s attack on the classic realist film text, and this passiveness is a phenomenon that merits his rightful, if somewhat overstated, concern.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] It is not to be denied that normal film viewing is too often intellectually passive and only superficailly critical of its object. Far too often conventional films strongly encourage this stolidity and offer few rewards to alertness and analytical reflection. These complaints have over many years acquired the status of truisms, but they are, nonetheless, still true. What is distinctive about the position that McCabe and other recent theorists occupy is the contention that the forms and strategies of classical film render this situation inevitable — render the practice of that cinema a prison house for the perceptually inert. It is supposed to be in the nature of the forms in question that they forego the possibility of eliciting a radical transformation of vision and a recognition of the vast contingency of the manner in which we ordinarily function as observers of the world. Once again, I can merely repeat that the films that we have here examined are testimonies that these “essentialist” theses are false.

… As I have attempted to show throughout the book, many of these questions about how we operate in apprehending film stories have, quite naturally, interested most of the best film makers as well. Their work constitutes a heritage of reflection on film which has been registered in film, and it is important to retain that heritage and value it properly. There is, I believe, no art other than the cinema which has a comparable capacity to reconstruct analytically and thereby explicate the possible modes of perceiving a localized slice of human history as an evolving field of visible significance. Classical narrative film, in particular, engenders and investigates possible modes of seeing a pattern in the events of such a history — a pattern that yields, either genuinely or speciously, “the sense of an ending.” It models, in this way, our search for closure and coherence in our long-term view of things. A theory of point of view in film, as I conceive it, is a theory of these reconstructed forms of being witness to the world.

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




August 20, 2014

Their Own Physical Raw Material

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… Man is an ingenious creature, making much social capital of small physical resources.

This is from Symbols: Public and Private by Raymond Firth (1973):

… A few years ago an anthropologist addressing a group of people on a social studies course confessed that before meeting them he nearly went and had his hair cut — that he did not was due to the length of the queue (line) at the barber’s. He used this as an illustration of how bodily characters, such as length of hair, are used as symbols, create expectations about conduct and provoke social reactions. Put this together with Hallpike’s recent generalization that among men, wearing long hair is equivalent to being outside society while short hair is equivalent to social control — and that in an attenuated form the same principle can be extended to the hair of women. Add to it the Elizabethan John Heywood’s proverb ‘long hair, short wit,’ or the French ‘longues cheveaux, courte cervelle.’ We can then ask what is there about hair, especially in its length, that makes it of such social, even symbolic interest?

[ ... ]

… What is noteworthy is the widespread reaction of criticism, from ridicule to high indignation and even physical violence, which [the] male wearing of long hair has aroused. If its effects were not often so serious, the popular response would be comic to an external observer. To many middle-aged people in Europe and in American, a canon of absolute value has come to be attached to short male head-hair, associated with cleanliness, efficiency and masculinity. Ignorant of the widespread practices of wearing male hair long, accepted and esteemed, in other cultures; and in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century society among men of the highest status and fashion, modern outbursts against male long hair illustrate not only the changeability of fashion but also the relativity of the moral judgments so expressed.

… Until recently, male travellers passing through Yugoslavia were scrutinized at the border and if their hair was thought to be unduly long, they were made to cut it before being allowed to enter the country. Similar action was taken at various times by the governments of South Vietnam, Panama and Singapore. In Malacca a magistrate warned that he would not hear evidence from long-haired male witnesses, as it was unbefitting the dignity of the court.

… on the whole, deliberate shaving of the head, close cutting of the hair, has taken on a ritual quality, intended to mark a transition from one social state to another, and in particular to imply a modification in the status or social condition of the person whose hair is so treated. … But cutting the hair close or shaving the head often [also] denoted mourning. In a soliloquy on hair in Gryll Grange Thomas Love Peacock, quoting Aristotle, wrote: ‘In mourning, sympathizing with the dead, we deform ourselves by cutting off our hair,’ … [However] where the initiative does not lie with the person primarily concerned, an enforced cutting or shaving of the hair may convey contempt and degradation, an extreme reduction in status.

… ethnographic literature gives a wide range of examples where the power of hair is regarded as not simply emotional but magical. The hair is believed to have in itself some quality of affecting either the person from whom it has been obtained, or the person with whom it is newly put in contact.

… As anthropologists have amply demonstrated, the essence of interpretation of such symbols, hair or other, lies not in attributing empirical significance to the symbolism of each item in itself, but in recognizing the symbolism of the conjoined likenesses and contrasts, in systematic arrangement. Man is an ingenious creature, making much social capital of small physical resources. So, if women have long hair, men may have it short; if women wear theirs short, men may grow theirs long. And if both sexes wear their hair at much the same length then they differentiate by style of dressing it. Refinements within the system can mark out also stage of social progression and social status.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The cutting of hair can be made a formal process and a symbolic process — but not simply of sexual loss, as Berg would have it, or entry into social control, as Hallpike would have it. It may signify social loss — of a display feature of the personality, an abasement of the personality, a sacrifice. When one shears one’s head for a person who has died, or on entry to a religious order, sentiments both of loss and of submission may be thought to be involved. But anthropologically, attention is directed to the marks of personal status that are sacrificed with the locks of hair, or more simply to the social definition of a change in relationship. Such hair symbolism means that men and women in specific kinds of society at specific periods are using their own physical raw material in terms of the social norms to provide indices to their personality and make statements about their conception of their role, their social position and changes in these.

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




August 19, 2014

No Place Left to Go

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… he clowned out of a historical instinct that he himself was half unconscious of.

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of Giorgio de Chirico‘ (1947) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… At the beginning of his career Chirico was struck by the German Swiss painter Böcklin, whose work is one of the most consummate expressions of all that we now dislike about the latter half of the nineteenth century; however, I cannot believe there was not some perversity, half-concealed from himself, some desire to shock his peers and betters, in this admiration of Chirico’s — a desire that sprang perhaps from his despair of equaling the profound matter-of-factness of the impressionists and of Cézanne and Matisse. Like many a twentieth-century Italian, with the glorious past behind him and the glorious present elsewhere — in Paris, London, Berlin — he clowned out of a historical instinct that he himself was half unconscious of.

The Red Tower, 1913 [image from WikiArt]

… The early work [of Chirico] parodies the perspective of the Quattrocentist masters and the means in general by which the Renaissance attained the illusion of the third dimension; and because it parodies, it destroys. From his tangential position Chirico, by an exaggeration that amounted to ridicule, helped the cubists exile deep space and volume from painting. See only how completely schematic and secondhand is his delineation of depth, how flat all surfaces in these early pictures, how the shading and modeling are applied in undifferentiated patches, like a decorative convention, and how light is handled as if in a shadow box.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914 [image from WikiArt]

Having performed this parody, which was in the nature of a final summing up and relegation of all the problems that had occupied Western painting between Giotto and Courbet, Chirico had no place left to go. Failing or unwilling to understand either what he had done or the character of painting since Manet, he could find nothing to replace that remnant of the Renaissance which he had destroyed.

Happiness of Returning, 1915 [image from WikiArt]

[ ... ]

… negligible as this stuff [Chiroco's later work] is at its best and symptomatic as it may be of a real degeneration and of an impotence to react cogently to modern life, still it has some reality as a gloss on the history of painting, an illustrated lecture on the ABCs of baroque painting. Irrelevant as painting inside painting, it is sheer cultural evidence, a kind of funeral oration more affecting than anything that could be put into words.




August 18, 2014

Disrupting Their Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

This is from Defining Moments in Art: Over a Century of the Artists, Exhibitions, People, Artworks, and Events that Rocked the World, general editor Mike Evans. The book features items sequentially, starting in 1863 and ending in 2008. I am selecting items from back-to-front (starting in 2007) because I enjoy going from recent to distant more than the reverse:

Key Artist Richard Long wins Turner prize; Date 1989; Why It’s Key One of the best known British Land artists

… Long is the forefather of the Green art movement that is now turning white-box galleries into places to worship the great outdoors.

by Richard Long

Key Artist Richard Serra, controversial Tilted Arc scrapped; Date 1989; Why It’s Key Important Minimalist sculptor noted for his large-scale sheet metal constructions.

… Inconvenience was part of Serra’s aesthetic mission. He expressed his objective for Tilted Arc as, “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza … Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.” But the people who worked in Federal Plaza were frustrated by being forced to act as “viewers” of an object disrupting their day and making it hard to find a spot to eat lunch. Locals also accused the sculpture of attracting graffiti and rats, and providing a tempting site for terrorist activity.

In 1989, after a prolonged public hearing and bitter artistic dispute, Tilted Arc was cut into three pieces, removed from Federal Plaza, and carted off to a scrap-metal yard.

Richard Serra, Curved Arc

Key Artist Allan McCollum, Perfect Vehicles series; Date 1987; Why It’s Key Interrogates the status of the artwork in the age of mass production

… in the 9180s McCollum turned to Appropriationism and sought in his work to question the status and meaning of the art piece, demythologizing it, examining its uniqueness in a world constituted in mass production, and its value in the mercantile art market.

Those themes are particularly well exemplified in his famous Perfect Vehicles series, started in 1985. the Perfect Vehicles pieces are sculptures which all bear the exact same form — that of traditional Chinese jars — but they differ in size and color. Those vehicles can thus measure from thirty centimeters to over two meters, and they are all painted in a uniform everyday acrylic color — red, blue, black, or yellow for instance.

Allan McCollum, Perfect Vehicles




August 17, 2014

No More than This

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… That which indefinitely trembles at the border of the sketch, the suspended whiteness of the page or the canvas …

Continuing through the essay ‘The Sublime Offering’ in A Finite Thinking by Jean-Luc Nancy (2003):

… The sublime is not “greater than” the beautiful, it is not more elevated [élevé], but in turn, it is, if I dare put it this way, more removed [enlevé], in the sense that it is itself the unlimited removal of the beautiful.

What gets removed and carried away is all form as such. In the manifestation of a world or in the composition of a work, form carries itself away or removes itself, that is, at once traces itself and unborders itself, limits itself and unlimits itself (which is nothing other than the most strict logic of the limit).

… the imagination can still feel its limit, its powerlessness, its incommensurability with relation to the totality of the unlimited.

… The sublime is the self-overflowing of the imagination. … [I]t gains access to something, reaches or touches upon something (or it is reached or touched by something): union, precisely, the “Idea” of the union of the unlimited, which borders upon and unborders the limit.

What operates this union? The imagination itself. At the limit, it gains access to itself as in its speculative self-presentation. But here, the reverse is the case: that “part” of itself that it touches is its limit, or it touches itself as limit.

… The sublime totality does not respond to a schema of the Whole, but rather, if one can put it this way, to the whole of the schematism: that is, to the incessant beating with which the trace of the skema affects itself, the carrying away of the figure against which the carrying away of unlimitedness does not cease to do battle, this tiny, infinite pulsation, this tiny, infinite rhythmic burst that produces itself continuously in the trace of the least contour and through which the limit itself presents itself, and on the limit, the magnitudo, the absolute of greatness in which all greatness (or quantity) — is traced, in which all imagination both imagines and — on the same limit, in the same beating — fails to imagine. That which indefinitely trembles at the border of the sketch, the suspended whiteness of the page or the canvas: the experience of the sublime demands no more than this.

To be continued. My most recent previous post from Nancy’s essay is here.




August 16, 2014

And So Doth He

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… Shall we understand another on his terms or on ours?

This is from the essay ‘Ripeness is All’ found in The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976):

I am concerned here with understanding precisely what Shakespeare meant. It is true that “when we read Shakespeare’s plays,” as one scholar says, “we are always meeting our own experiences and are constantly surprised by some phrase which expresses what we thought to be our own secret or our own discovery.” But the danger is that the meaning we find may really be our own secret, our own discovery, rather than Shakespeare’s, and the more precious and beguiling for being our own. The danger I have in mind can be illustrated by our attitude toward one of the most famous Shakespearean phrases, “Ripeness is all.”

… “After repeated disaster,” [one recent critic] says of Gloucester in King Lear:

he can assent, “And that’s true too,” to Edgar’s “Ripeness is all.” For man may ripen into fulness of being, which means, among other things, that one part of him does not rule all the rest and that one moment’s mood does not close off all the perspectives available to him.

In this way we discover in Shakespeare’s phrase the secret morality of our own times. It is a meaning I can enter into quite as deeply as anyone, but it is not what Shakespeare meant.

… In Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric (1560) we read:

Among fruit we see some apples are soon ripe and fall from the tree in the midst of summer; other be still green and tarry till winter, and hereupon are commonly called winter fruit: even so it is with man, some die young, some die old, and some die in their middle age.

Shakespeare has Richard in Richard II comment on the death of John of Gaunt:

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he:
His time is spent

That is, as fruit falls in the order of ripeness, so a man dies when his time is spent, at his due moment in the cosmic process. Again, Touchstone’s dry summary of life and time in As You Like It:

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot

does not mean that we ripen to maturity and then decline, but that we ripen toward death, and then quite simply and with no metaphors rot.

… the [ripeness is all] metaphor shifts our point of view from a man’s attitude toward death, from the “readiness” of Hamlet and the “Men must endure” of the first part of Edgar’s speech, to the absoluteness of the external process of Providence on which the attitude depends.

But this is not what the phrase means to the uninstructed modern reader, and this poses a problem. The modern meaning is one that is dear to us and one that is rich and important in itself. It would be natural to ask, Need we give it up? I see no reason why we should give up the meaning: maturity of experience is certainly a good, and the phrase in a modern context is well enough fitted to convey this meaning. But it is our phrase now, and not Shakespeare’s, and we should accept the responsibility for it. The difference in meaning is unmistakable: ours looks toward life and his toward death; ours finds its locus in modern psychology and his in Christian theology. If we are secure in our own feelings we will accept our own meanings as ours, and if we have any respect for the great we will penetrate and embrace Shakespeare’s meaning as his. For our purpose in the study of literature, and particularly in the historical interpretation of texts, is not in the ordinary sense to further the understanding of ourselves. It is rather to enable us to see how we could think and feel otherwise than as we do. It is to erect a larger context of experience within which we may define and understand our own by attending to the disparity between it and the experience of others.

In fact, the problem that is here raised with respect to literature is really the problem of any human relationship: Shall we understand another on his terms or on ours? It is the problem of affection and truth, of appreciation and scholarship. Shakespeare has always been an object of affection and an object of study. Now, it is common experience that affection begins in misunderstanding. We see our own meanings in what we love and we misconstrue for our own purposes. But life will not leave us there, and not only because of external pressures. What concerns us is naturally an object of study. We sit across the room and trace the lineaments of experience on the face of concern, and we find it is not what we thought it was. We come to see that what Shakespeare is saying is not what we thought he was saying, and we come finally to appreciate it for what it is. Where before we had constructed the fact from our feeling, we now construct our feeling from the fact. The end of affection and concern is accuracy and truth, with an alteration but no diminution of feeling.

My previous post from Cunningham’s book is here.




August 15, 2014

Singing with a Rusty Voice

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:34 am

… There’s something about that guy who sings alone.

This is taken from ‘A Conversation with Ed Ruscha’ by Trina Mitchum (1979) found in Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages by Ed Ruscha; edited by Alexandra Schwartz (2002):

[ ... ]

Trina Mitchum: Who is your favorite artist?

Ed Ruscha: Hieronymus Bosch. He hasn’t had that much influence on my work, either.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (detail) [image from WikiArt]

TM: Has anyone?

ER: Munroe Leaf is somebody who has influenced me. He was a cartoonist who made big square books for kindergarteners and first graders. The title would be something like Good Morning and you’d open the book up and there would be little stick figures inside going through their little routines of teeth brushing and so forth. Absolutely dry, simple stuff. Kids brushing their teeth, feeding their dog.

TM: There is something wonderful about simple, commonplace things.

ER: Yes. There’s something so direct about simplicity. There’s a lot of conviction in the misspelled grocery sign. It’s go heart, but then there might be a grammatical mistake. It’s like the difference between a musician who goes to a recording studio and does a very polished professional recording job and the guy who is down in the subway singing with a rusty voice. There’s something about that guy who sings alone.




August 14, 2014

The Day After Easter

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… “Jim, do you think that the end of the world will come at nighttime?” and Jim replies simply, “No, at dawn.”

This is from the chapter ‘Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause‘ in Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View by George M. Wilson (1986):

Rebel without a Cause seems to operate as a fundamentally reassuring contemporary morality play. The characters, parents and children, act out the semiofficial version of “the youth issue” and, in the course of the plot, come to discover an ideologically acceptable resolution of the conflict.

… of all the films discussed in this book, none better illustrates the dangers of a premature attempt to read a film as symptomatic of an extracinematic “ideology” that is thought of as determining its form and content.


[ ... ]

… The spiritual entombment of mass urban society impels the young to seek some release. Yet this release is dangerous and opens more easily upon a prospect of the void. A glimpse of that prospect impels them back into the safety of the baffled herd. Like their parents, they retreat into the shelter of an enclosure without a view of any kind. In Rebel, with this ultra-Hobbesian outlook, these are the fundamental processes that underlie both social cohesion and its resulting tensions. They are presented as processes of nature that are fixed and inexorable in their operation. Their emblem in the film is “the ancient rhythm of the stars.”

… The condensed duration of the film’s events makes sense as the product of a use of time that is as schematic as the use of space. The day we watch is the day after Easter, and it carries the connotation that something is being re-created and renewed. But that something is not the harbinger of a hopeful rebirth or resurrection. Rather, the predominant significance of the restricted duration lies in a metaphorical association of the domesticating revolution that subdues the rebel with the silent, unshakable revolution of the earth in its orbit. The human changes in the narrative transpire with the same mechanistic regularity and irresistibility with which the day passes, and these changes renew what the film posits as the fundamental forms of human social life. Related to this is the “temporal” image of the smallness of such a transformation within the history of an individual’s life. In his early discussion with the juvenile officer, Jim asserts that the one thing he most wants not to be is like his own pathetic father. On the other side, his father repeatedly claims that he was once a young man like Jim with the same troubles and that “in ten years time” these troubles will be as nothing to him.


… Despite Jim’s blindness to the essence of what is happening to him, and despite the grim resolution of the series of events, neither he nor the other kids is treated with contempt or hostility. On the contrary, the film is, on balance, sympathetic to their youthful sensitivity, vitality, and emotional honesty.

… In the last shot of the film, the camera cranes slowly up to show the dawn breaking over the observatory. … Plato asks, “Jim, do you think that the end of the world will come at nighttime?” and Jim replies simply, “No, at dawn.”

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




August 13, 2014

Some Unsatisfied Demand

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… For a personal symbolism in the religious field to be both creative and successful it would seem to have to reflect some unsatisfied demand in the power structure.

This is from Symbols: Public and Private by Raymond Firth (1973):

… As a symbolic instrument, a person may use his own body as a means of communication, to indicate by bodily action or reference some more abstract idea. When a person kneels in prayer he is symbolizing his humility before what he conceives as a higher personality, a god; when he says to someone else ‘I bow to your opinion,’ he symbolizes his deference to authority. These are simple instances, but there are many more subtle ways of using one’s body to express a social relationship. As Mauss put it: ‘The body is the first and most natural instrument of man.’

[ ... ]

… symbols may be regarded as means whereby the individuals simply express their own experiences or feelings and attempt to communicate these by comprehensive images to other people. Any question about the validity of the symbols then relates to the degree to which they are thought to reflect accurately the experiences and feelings signified. The meaning of the symbols is the clue they give to the state of mind of the person who expresses them. Quite another significance of the private symbols may be thought to lie in the degree to which they express experiences or feelings of what may be called the audience. The dream, trance presentation or other symbolic form is regarded as relevant not only to the individual’s situation but also to that of those to whom it is communicated.

… It is characteristic of many mystics that they have felt a need — almost a compulsive need — to communicate their experience and to assert its validity. Not only again do they claim their symbolic presentations as true; they claim this truth as having more than a personal application. So, commonly the personal symbolic experience of a mystic has resulted in a call for a commitment by others, for a recognition of the social validity of his symbolic order. And this in turn has often meant a need for judgment by the established forms of authority in the society. (The personal symbolism of a poet is usually easier to handle; except perhaps in a dictatorship, his market is apt to be uncluttered by power considerations.)

… For a personal symbolism in the religious field to be both creative and successful it would seem to have to reflect some unsatisfied demand in the power structure.

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




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