Unreal Nature

December 31, 2013

Without Nouns and Transitive Verbs

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… It is possible that the connoisseurs of some future age may — all other things being equal — prefer the more literal space of abstract painting to the fictive kind.

This is from the essay ‘Abstract and Representational’ (1954) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

… What counts first and last in art is whether it is good or bad. Everything else is secondary. No one has yet been able to show that the representational as such either adds or takes away anything from the aesthetic value of a picture or statue. That a work is or is not representational no more determines its value as art than the presence or absence of a libretto does in the case of a musical score. No single element or aspect of a work of art autonomously determines its value as a whole. How much any part is worth aesthetically is decided solely by its relation to every other part or aspect of the given work. This holds as true in painting and sculpture for the element of representation, absent or present, as for that of color or physical substance.

It is granted that a recognizable image will add anecdotal, historical, psychological, or topological meaning. But to fuse this into aesthetic meaning is something else; that a painting gives us things to recognize and identify in addition to a complex of colors and shapes to feel does not mean invariably that it gives us more as art. More or less in art do not depend on how many different categories of significance we apprehend, but on how intensely and largely we feel the art — and what that consists in we are never able to define with real precision. That the Divine Comedy has an allegorical and analogical meaning as well as a literal one does not make it necessarily a more effective work of literature than the Iliad, in which we fail to discern more than a literal meaning. Similarly, the explicit comment on a historical event offered by Picasso’s Guernica does not make it necessarily a better work than an utterly “non-objective” painting by Mondrian that says nothing explicitly about anything. We can never tell, before the fact, whether representational meaning — or any other given factor — will increase and intensify aesthetic meaning, or whether it will weaken and diminish it. Until it is actually experienced, a work of art remains a law unto itself.

That those who condemn abstract art generally do so in advance of experience is shown by the completeness with which they condemn. To hold that one kind of art is invariably superior or inferior to another kind is to judge before experiencing. The whole history of art is there to demonstrate the futility of rules of preference laid down beforehand — the impossibility of anticipating the outcome of aesthetic experience. The critic doubting whether abstract art could ever transcend decoration — as Daniel Kahnweiler does — is on ground as unsure as the Hellenistic connoisseur would have been who doubted whether the mosaic medium could ever be capable of more than merely decorative derivations of encaustic panel painting. Or as Joshua Reynolds was in rejecting the likelihood of the pure landscape’s ever occasioning works as noble as those of Raphael. As long as art, and the judging of it, have not been reduced to a science anything and everything remain possible in it.

It has never been more essential than today to keep in mind the precariousness of all assumptions about what art can and cannot do. If the practice of ambitious painting and sculpture continues in our time it is by flouting almost every inherited notion of what is and is not art. If certain works by Picasso as well as Mondrian are worthy of being considered pictures, and certain works by Brancusi and Gonzalez as well as Pevsner, sculpture, then it is despite all preconceptions and assumptions, and only because actual experience has told us so. And I don’t think we have more reason to doubt, by and large, what it tells us than what it told his contemporaries about Titian.

That being said, Greenberg goes on to muse on the difficulties of abstract art:

… Not only does the abstract picture seem to offer a narrower, more physical, and less imaginative kind of experience than the representational picture, but the language itself of painting appears, as it were, to do without nouns and transitive verbs, so that often we cannot distinguish centers of interest within the abstract picture’s field and have to take the whole of it as one single, continuous center of interest, which in turn compels us to feel and judge it in terms of its over-all unity to the exclusion of everything else. The representational picture does not, seemingly, force us to squeeze our reaction within such a narrow compass — otherwise how could we like the Flemish primitives as much as we do?

It is the language, then, the space, of abstract painting that causes most of the dissatisfaction we feel with it — not the absence per se of recognizable images. And if, as I believe, abstract sculpture meets less resistance than abstract painting does, it is because it has not had to change its language as radically. Whether abstract or representational, that language remains three-dimensional and literal. The construction, with its transparent, linear forms and its denial of mass and weight, may jar eyes accustomed to the monolith, but it does not require them to be re-focused in the way that the abstract painting does.

But in painting, shall we always regret the other kind, the transfigured kind of space the old masters created for us? Perhaps not. It is possible that the connoisseurs of some future age may — all other things being equal — prefer the more literal space of abstract painting to the fictive kind. They may indeed find the old masters wanting in physical presence, in corporeality, preferring instead the physical emphasis of the more or less flat, more or less opaque plane surface that is declared as such. There have been such reversals of taste before (only in this case, I hope, it will be an expansion rather than a reversal, and leave the old masters even safer in their eminence). These hypothetical connoisseurs may be more sensitive than we to the condensed, very concrete and literal play of color and shape, they may even find this richer in “human interest” than representational painting. And who knows but that they may not point to our age as one that produced a great school of art (especially in this country), yet was unable to supply it with an adequate audience. Just as we tend to think that the contemporaries of, say, Velasquez were not as adequate to him in the way of appreciation as we ourselves are.



December 30, 2013

Would They All Become Artists?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists?

This is from Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan (1964):

… The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics. If the operations are needed, the inevitability of infecting the whole system during the operation has to be considered. For in operating on society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most affected. The area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed. The effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory. Each new impact shifts the ratios among all the senses. What we seek today is either a means of controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios of the psychic and social outlook, or a means of avoiding them altogether. To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune. No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies.

… The percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered clichés about the impracticality of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndham Lewis, ‘The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.’ Knowledge of this simple fact is now needed for human survival. The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist.

… If it is true that the artist possesses the means of anticipating and avoiding the consequences of technological trauma, then what are we to think of the world and bureaucracy of ‘art appreciation’? Would it not seem suddenly to be a conspiracy to make the artist a frill, a fribble, or a Milltown? If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists? Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into social navigation charts? I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties. Would we, then, cease to look at works of art as an explorer might regard the gold and gems used as the ornaments of simple nonliterates?



December 29, 2013

There Is No Power to Establish This Power

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… And as for art, it is not inherently creative, unless it can generate consciousness either to study its birth or reveal its failure.

This is from the essay ‘Giacometti Stranger’ (1966-67) in The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art by Yves Bonnefoy (1995):

… “I want to sculpt Marilyn Monroe,” he once remarked, and his gaze, which at that instant was slightly to the right, moved a little to the left, and he had this smile which asked that one not take too seriously this surfacing anxiety; “and I try to make it longer, longer … ,” he continued, his hands coming together, moving up around a mass of invisible clay toward a point above his head.

Power. Is that not the first word that immediately came to mind to describe this work, when one entered Giacometti’s studio, filled with standing figures swaddled in wet rags? A tiny, dark studio where one sensed millions of footsteps of tireless activity and where a book and many other objects on the torn sofa or the edges of tables seemed to have lost their usefulness since the advent of an obscure event (the collapse of reality’s levels, the shamanistic flight from the world?) in which time had ceased to exist.

We felt Giacometti was constantly engaged in a unique experience, but at the same time one that was free and fascinating, for it seemed to derive from something other than simple moral force. And free he certainly was, because the primal appearance of the simplest emotional attachments provoked certain inhibition in him. As a result, and it is a moving contradiction, Giacometti, while capable of finding pleasure in the world, was not at all concerned with material possessions; in life he turned away from experiences of having and toward those of being with the same inevitable rapidity as in his work as a sculptor. In the two or three insubstantial items — the stale,  hardboiled eggs on café counters, the cognac, the coffee — which so often made up his daily fare, and in the blind alley and open door leading to his studio, in the darkened walls covered with sketches, in the stove he did not want and did not know how to use, in this entire still life marked by the plain but profound colors of his days, who has not recognized the many brutal signs of the preeminence of being over its visible emblems. And who has not come to him more or less consciously, as to the ferryman of another shore, he who is better prepared than anyone else, in his jacket flecked with plaster, to venture out toward the abyss where life begins to change?

… Certainly, this is only a dream; there is no power, except for the simplest power, the kind one does not seek.

The truth, or in any event the philosophy, that remains with me can be affirmed as follows: the Stranger is irrefutable; there are no reasons for not seeing through his eyes that the world is empty, unintelligible although expressible, without perspective or center despite the useless procession of the gods. Yet, the Stranger is also nothing; one only need attach oneself to whatever exists — to “anything” even a stone — for this specter, who once lay in wait for us, to disappear. And thus love, which cannot be forced as one  knows, is also enough, also necessary. There is no power to establish this power. And as for art, it is not inherently creative, unless it can generate consciousness either to study its birth or reveal its failure.

And about Giacometti, who “abandoned” his work every moment in the way Rimbaud did once and for all, and who each night was brought back to the damp clay by an inexhaustible stubbornness — one imagines him bending over the statue, unswaddling it as if hoping to hear a cry from the futile image — I would say that instead of honoring him by again admiring “the famous laurels” of our dark world, we must take very seriously what he called his failure.



December 28, 2013

About Which Science Has Nothing to Say

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… What a fish is is not the sort of thing a scientist (except, perhaps a linguist) could find out.

This is from the essay ‘Are Whales Fish?’ in Humans and Other Animals by John Dupré (2002):

… the notion that there is a ‘scientific’ usage of the word ‘fish’ is a decidedly suspect one. The appeal in the definition to such technical matters as the possession of gills or cold-bloodedness seems rather a quasi-scientific rationalization of an extra-scientific linguistic intuition than the report of a genuinely scientific usage. Indeed, as is so commonly the case with attempts to define biological kinds, it is not even strictly true of all its intended referents. Some species of tuna maintain body temperatures as much as 20 degrees higher than their surroundings, and so should qualify as warm-blooded. And the lungfish Protopterus has been shown to get only 10 percent of its oxygen from water through its reduced gills. If its gills were to disappear completely at a subsequent evolutionary stage, I doubt whether it would thereby cease to be a fish. Given, then, that neither ‘whale’ nor ‘fish’ is really a scientific term, the rationale for the dictum taught religiously to all our children that whales are not fish (and it is interesting that it is something that reliably requires to be taught) is more than a little unclear.

… Despite the foregoing considerations, I have already conceded the obvious fact that whales are not fish. Why not? We might ask both why this fact is obvious, and why it came to be a fact at all. The first question is easy enough. Educated speakers will, I suspect, almost unanimously refuse to apply the word ‘fish’ to Blue whales, Killer whales, and similar creatures and for that matter, to dolphins. Ultimately I suppose that this is the only relevant evidence, and that it is decisive. On the other hand, I also suspect that if pushed to rationalize this linguistic intuition, most people will be found to believe that scientists have found out what fish are, and what whales are, and that the latter are distinct from the former. Here, as I have argued, they would be mistaken. What a fish is is not the sort of thing a scientist (except, perhaps a linguist) could find out.

Much more interesting, then, is the second question. Is there a good reason for teaching our children that whales are not fish? Even if these are not scientific categories, one might argue that some useful scientific knowledge is transmitted by using them this way. Whales are, after all, mammals, and no other mammals are much like fish. Being mammals ourselves, we tend to know quite a bit about this class or organism, and we certainly learn a good deal about whales by knowing that they are mammals. But this argument is not compelling. The obvious rejoinder is that some mammals are fish. In fact, if we taught our children that whales were mammalian fish, they would both learn to apply general knowledge about mammals to whales (they bear live young and suckle them, are warm-blooded, etc.) and might learn that ‘fish,’ unlike ‘mammal,’ was not a term for any coherent scientific grouping of organisms but a loose everyday term for (perhaps) any aquatic vertebrate. Indeed, the argument that because whales are mammals they cannot be fish seems to me to be a paradigm for the confusion between scientific and ordinary language biological kinds.

… ordinary language classifications are typically quite as well motivated, and the kinds to which they refer may be just as objectively real, as biological classifications. It is just that they are differently motivated.

… I want to claim, however, that these imported terms from scientific discourse should be understood quite differently from more familiar and well entrenched ordinary language terms, and that the failure to make this distinction indicates a significant confusion common to many philosophers and lexicographers. Whereas the definition of mammal as, say, ‘warm-blooded, hairy vertebrate with four-chambered heart and which nourishes its young with milk from maternal mammary glands’ is entirely appropriate, the definition of fish as ‘cold-blooded, aquatic vertebrate with gills, and (usually) scales, fins, etc.’ is much more questionable. These definitions look very much alike. But, I have suggested, the terms to which they apply are of quite different kinds. thus, while it is quite appropriate to say that it is a scientifically attested fact that all mammals have four-chambered hearts, it seems to me something like a category mistake to say that it is a scientific fact that all fish have gills — not because they might not but because science has nothing to say about all fish.

This last remark perhaps gets to the heart of the present problem. It is, I think, not widely accepted that there are any matters of much importance about which science has nothing to say. And certainly the question, ‘What kind does this organism belong to?’ will strike most people as paradigmatically the kind of question about which science must be the only authoritative arbiter. Ironically, perhaps, the idea of an authoritative and unique answer to such a question really assumes some version of essentialism, the idea that some fundamental, essential property of a thing makes it the kind of thing it is, and essentialism was central to the Aristotelian and Scholastic views of knowledge against which modern science developed in large part as a critical reaction. Essentialism in biology, more specifically, was delivered its death blow by the triumph of Darwinism, and the consequent recognition that an organism might belong to a quite different kind from its ancestors, and that variation rather than uniformity was the norm for a biological kind. In a biology premised on variation and change, there is no reason to expect any unique answer to questions about how organisms should be grouped together, and a fortiori, there is no reason to expect science to provide such answers.

… It may be that excessive scientism, whether among lexicographers, high school science teachers, or just regular folk, will continue to favor a continuing convergence between scientific and ordinary language taxonomies. If this is the case, it does not reflect a gradual Peircean convergence on some objective reality but, rather, the hegemonic power of one, sometimes imperialistic, method of knowledge production. Perhaps for most folk in the West such imperialism is relatively harmless; for most of us urban and suburban folk what we call organisms doesn’t matter very much.

… Nevertheless, there are reasons for resisting, or at least pointing out, this imperialism. With regard to its effects on Western culture, the main such reason is simply to resist the excesses of scientism. The achievements and successes of science are amply evident, but it is also important that human culture has aims and projects that are distinct from and incommensurable with those of science, and science does not hold the answer to every question of human interest. … Especially in relation to cultures with more regular and direct interaction with nature, we would do well to explore thoroughly the basis and function of such classifications before criticizing them for their non-convergence on our own scientific categories. Once again, the perception of the value of Western science will hardly be enhanced by insisting on unsubstantiated claims to insight where this is not to be had.

… the classifications favored by science are distinguished from the rest not by their superior objectivity but simply by the specific, though various, goals that characterize scientific investigation of nature.

… finally, as well as misrepresenting in detail the scope of biological discovery, the denial that whales are fish propagates, in my view, bad philosophy. It reflects the assumption that inclusion of one kind within another can only reflect a positioning of the subordinate kind within a unique hierarchy of kinds, the hierarchy gradually being disclosed by biological science. But in fact there are many such partially overlapping and intersecting hierarchies. This situation would be usefully highlighted by the much more perspicuous claim that whales (and dolphins and porpoises) were mammalian fish.

Regrettably, I have had to admit that whales are not fish, for the sufficient reason that almost everyone in our culture, ignoring the partially excellent advice of Goldsmith, agrees not to call them so. Most folk assume, I take it, that biological kinds either fully include one another or are wholly disjoint. And thus since certainly not all mammals are fish (and vice versa), none can be. It would be futile and ridiculous of me to attempt a campaign for the reinstatement of whales into the realm of fish. Nevertheless, the recognition that there is no good reason for their having been excluded from this category would be salutary.



December 27, 2013

Modern Masters of Communication

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

…  real power lies in what is not said, in what is not spoken …

This is from the essay ‘The Porcupine and the Car’ (1981) found in Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 by Bill Viola (1995):

Once, a friend of mine gave me a shopping bag full of used audio cassette tapes that he had retrieved from the garbage at his office. Thrilled at the prospect of unlimited free recording time, I got an idea to set up a tape recorder right in the center of activity in my house, the kitchen, and to try and record everything that went on. My idea was to have an ongoing, almost continuous, record of all sonic activity in that space. When played back, it would create a sort of stream of consciousness parallel world to the present, but displaced in time. I kept the recorder loaded with tapes all the time I was at home, which then being my summer vacation was practically all the time. By the end of the week, when I had accumulated well over 24 hours of tape, I suddenly realized a distressing thought. I would need 24 hours, exactly the time it took to record, to play all this stuff back. Furthermore, if I kept this up, say, for a year, I would have to stop after six months to begin playing back, and if I got really ambitious and made it my life’s work, I would have to stop my life when it was only half over to sit down and listen to all the material for the rest of my life, plus a little additional time for rewinding all the cassettes.

… with the exception of a few crazy artists now, and some archeologists far in the future, we can generally say that garbage loses value over time, while information seems to be the process of something gaining value over time. As a rule, information is something to preserve, garbage is something to be destroyed. However, both can be looked on as a kind of waste product, a physical burden, and for contemporary society both are among the most pressing problems of the day. An ancient Sufi saying states that a heavy load of broken pottery and a heavy load of books is the same for the donkey.

… Artists have known for a long time that the most interesting connections in things involve areas of low, or ambiguous, information, so-called “gaps” in recognition. This is the time of involvement, of participation by the viewer, in a work of art. The process of learning itself demands that initially one must be confronted with something one does not understand. René Magritte wrote: “People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking ‘What does this mean?’ they express a wish that everything be understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things.

This view is exactly opposite to the one that a student of communication receives at university, yet it is the very basis of communication. Modern masters of information, such as the CIA and many politicians, know full well that real power lies in what is not said, in what is not spoken, and survival depends on making statements that are as multifaceted and ambiguous as permissible. Disclosing information, “communication” as most people know it, can mean sure disaster as far as these people are concerned. Yet the broadcast media, the students of media, and many video artists continue to operate under the old models, creating more and more boring works.



December 26, 2013

The Voice In Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… when a documentary narration falters, stops or acknowledges its inadequacy, … the personal, subjective potential of that voice-over is unexpectedly permitted to surface …

… documentary becomes a negotiation between the film and its subject, of which the narration is a constituent part.

This is from New Documentary, Second Edition by Stella Bruzzi (2000, 2006):

… Voice-over is the unnecessary evil of documentary, the resort of the ‘unimaginative and incompetent’ (Kozloff 1988). Direct Cinema pioneer Robert Drew, in an article combatively entitled ‘Narration can be a killer,’ contends that only documentaries that eschew narration as a structuring device can ‘work, or are beginning to work, or could work, on filmic-dramatic principles,’ that only films that tell a story directly (without voice-over) can ‘soar’ into a utopian realm ‘Beyond reason. Beyond explanation. Beyond words.’ As Drew dogmatically concludes, ‘words supplied from outside cannot make a film soar,’ so ‘narration is what you do when you fail.’ Drew’s objections to narration are echoed by the majority of theoretical writing about documentary, which, along with certain practitioners, has cemented the view expressed above by promoting the idea that the term ‘voice-over,’ when applied to documentaries, signifies only the didactic, single, white, male tones of The March of Time and its sorry derivatives. Most to blame for this negative perception of voice-over documentaries has been Bill Nichols’ definition of the ‘expository mode’ as didactic, the oldest and most primitive form of nonfiction film.

… However varied the use of narration has been both before and after The March of Time, the overriding view is that the documentary voice-over is the filmmakers’ ultimate tool for telling people what to think. This gross over-simplification covers a multitude of differences, from the most common use of commentary as an economic device able to efficiently relay information that might otherwise not be available or might take too long to tell in images, to its deployment as an ironic and polemical tool.

… The traditional voice-over form emphasizes the unity, and imaginary cohesion of its various elements; so that the dominance of the narration covertly serves to emphasize the incontrovertibility of the images by refusing to dispute and doubt what they depict. Narration could thereby be viewed as a mechanism deployed to mask the realization that this mode of representation, and indeed its inherent belief in a consistent and unproblematic truth, are perpetually on the verge of collapse, that commentary, far from being a sign of omniscience and control, is the hysterical barrier erected against the specter of ambivalence and uncertainty. Indeed, many of the unconventional voice-overs signal their doubt that such a neat collusion between voice and image can ever be sustained, that even narration is not invariably allied to determinism, but has the potential to be a destabilizing component of a dialectical structure that intentionally brings cracks and inconsistencies to the surface. In certain documentary films — when voice-over becomes a truly subversive tool, and one not bound by the conservatism of the expository form — the narration becomes a component capable of engendering such a dialectical distance, one that both draws the audience into sympathizing for the image and sets them critically back from it.

… The classical fictional model of the voice-over is as the revelation of a person’s inner thoughts or the use of the internal monologue to ‘turn the body “inside out”‘. As Silverman continues:

The voice in question functions almost like a searchlight suddenly turned upon the character’s thoughts; it makes audible what is ostensibly inaudible, transforming the private into the public.

In direct contrast to this, the words delivered by a documentary voice-over are, traditionally, public or collective utterances, and, to return to Cavalcanti’s distinction between the ‘rationality’ of sound and voice as opposed to the ’emotional stimulus’ provided by images, the words introduce, interpret or explain images that might otherwise, in a multitude of ways, remain incoherent. The ostensible purpose of the ‘voice of God’ model is to absent personality and any notion of the internal monologue, to generalize, to offer an omniscient and detached judgment, to guide the spectator through events whilst remaining aloof from them. As Mary Ann Doan elaborates, ‘it is precisely because the voice [in a documentary] is not localizable, because it cannot be yoked to a body, that it is capable of interpreting the image, producing the truth.’ What consequently occurs when a documentary narration falters, stops or acknowledges its inadequacy, as occurs in both Nuit et brouillard and The Battle of San Pietro, is that the personal, subjective potential of that voice-over is unexpectedly permitted to surface, a rupturing of convention that forces a reassessment of the text/narration relationship and how that relationship impinges on the effect a film has on the spectator.

… documentary becomes a negotiation between the film and its subject, of which the narration is a constituent part. Voice-over does not signal the obliteration of the ‘purity’ of the factual image, although it may offer an alternative and even contradictory view of it.

My previous post from Bruzzi’s book is here.



December 25, 2013

Landscaped On Minds

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… Rules, rubrics, commandments, codes, regulations lie heavy on us, unless we can render them resilient once more in the heat of social action …

This is from On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience by Victor Turner (1985):

… The plain truth is that I am prejudiced against system-building, though seduced by it: the elegance of a summa entrances; with all logical loopholes closed, each part crafted to sustain the whole, the whole a hierarchy of consistently interrelated logical elements, who could resist the temptation to make of all he knows or might conceivably know such a crystalline edifice? But I am not prejudiced against attempts to find the systematic in nature and culture. Every society has its sets of interrelated ideas, principles, procedures, norms, and the like. But the life, the animating force, the source of vitality that we experience as biotic and social beings continually destroys and creates all types of systems, rendering even the most apparently marmoreal and enduring of them, even the oldest rock, provisional, evanescent, and open-ended. A common human delusion is that the very-slowly-changing is the timeless — even, cognitively, the axiomatic. Fear of change is the mother of the structuralist gods.

… Be sure that I am no iconoclast in this, for I love the iconic system and systematic icons that the incessant doing and thinking of my own kind have imprinted and landscaped on minds. Each is a clue, a sign, of a species-specific interiority we can fathom in no other way than through its most widespread and its rarest manifestations, its tools and customs, its poems and imaginings, its praxis and philosophy. It requires a Moses, a Buddha, a Jesus, a Homer, a Dante, and a Shakespeare, to reveal to us what has been inside us all along. We are a species whose members must help one another to understand what it is that our species is for, what it means. Each individual experiences life too briefly to communicate to  his coevals and successors the conscious derivatives of that experience — though some have more fully than others the gift of penetrative communication. But we learn from each other not merely how to survive, poorly or sumptuously, but how to find meaning in our singular lives and in our intersubjective life with those whose life-spans overlap our own.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] We learn that it is not merely a full belly or a warm skin in winter or a blissful copulation that makes for a full life but also the abandonment (“sacrifice”) of personal goals for the sake of significant others (sometimes known as “love”) which makes for satisfaction, even when we know that our own unique life has to be snuffed out for the sake of a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation, a religion, or some similar image of ongoing humanitas. For our species, “meaning” is entwined with intersubjectivity, how we know, feel, and desire one another. Our means of communication (languages, cultural codes) are saturated, whether we know this or not, with the experiences of our progenitors and forerunners. But these codes can never be re-experienced unless they are periodically, or at least occasionally, performed. We have to try to re-experience in performance, whether as ritual, festival, theater, or other active modalities of religion, law, politics, or art, as best we dan, the socially bequeathed sparks of lives now biologically extinguished. Rules, rubrics, commandments, codes, regulations lie heavy on us, unless we can render them resilient once more in the heat of social action, transformed into guidelines rather than dogma. (In Lincoln’s sense: “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present”.)

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



December 24, 2013

A Hair’s Breadth

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… sometimes there seems — at first glance — to be no more distance than that between a great work of art and one which is not art at all.

This is from the essay ‘ “American-Type” Painting’ (1955) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

… When I myself not so long ago complained in print that Hofmann was failing to realize his true potentialities, it was because I had not caught up with him. Renewed acquaintance with some of his earlier work and his own increasing frequency and sureness of success have enlightened me as to that.

Hofmann’s pictures in many instances strain to pass beyond the easel convention even as they cling to it, doing many things which that convention resists. By tradition, convention, and habit we expect pictorial structure to be presented in contrasts of dark and light, or value. Hofmann, who started from Matisse, the Fauves, and Kandinsky as much as from Picasso, will juxtapose high, shrill colors whose uniform warmth and brightness do not so much obscure value contrasts as render them dissonant. Or when they are made more obvious, it will be by jarring color contrasts that are equally dissonant. It is much the same with his design and drawing: a sudden razor-edged line will upset all our notions of the permissible, or else thick gobs of paint, without support of edge or shape, will cry out against pictorial sense. When Hofmann fails it is either by forcing such things, or by striving for too obvious and pat a unity, as if to reassure the spectator. Like Klee, he works in a variety of manners without seeming to consolidate his art in any one of them. He is willing, moreover, to accept his bad pictures in order to get in position for the good ones, which speaks for his self-confidence. Many people are put off by the difficulty of his art — especially museum directors and curators — without realizing it is the difficulty of it that puts them off, not what they think is its bad taste.

… The abstract-expressionist emphasis on black and white has to do … with something more crucial to Western than Oriental pictorial art. It represents one of those exaggerations or apotheoses which betray a fear for their objects. Value contrasts, the opposition and modulation of dark and light, has been the basis of Western pictorial art, its chief means, much more important than perspective, to a convincing illusion of depth and value; and it has also been its chief agent of structure and unity. This is why the old masters almost always laid in their darks and lights — their shading — first. The eye automatically orients itself by the value contrasts in dealing with an object that is presented to it as a picture, and in the absence of such contrasts it tends to feel almost, if not quite as much, at loss as in the absence of a recognizable image. Impressionism’s muffling of dark and light contrasts in response to the effect of the glare of the sky caused it to be criticized for that lack of “form” and “structure” which Cézanne tried to supply with his substitute contrasts of warm and cool color (these remained nonetheless contrasts of dark and light, as we can see from monochrome photographs of his paintings). Black and white is the extreme statement of value contrast, and to harp on it as many of the abstract expressionists do — and not only abstract expressionists — seems to me to be an effort to preserve by extreme measures a technical resource whose capacity to yield convincing form and unity is nearing exhaustion.

… The late Monet, whose suppression of values had been the most consistently radical to be seen in painting until a short while ago, was pointed to as a warning, and the fin-de-siècle muffling of contrasts in much of Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s art caused it to be deprecated by the avant-garde for many years. The same factor even had a part in the underrating of Pissaro.

Recently, however, some of the late Monets began to assume a unity and power they had never had before. This expansion of sensibility has coincided with the emergence of Clyfford Still as one of the most important and original painters of our time — perhaps the most original of all painters under fifty-five, if not the best.

… It was only two years ago, when I first saw a 1948 painting of Still’s in isolation, that I got a first intimation of pleasure from his art; subsequently, as I was able to see still others in isolation, that intimation grew more definite. (Until one became familiar with them his pictures fought each other when side by side.) I was impressed as never before by how estranging and upsetting genuine originality in art can be, and how the greater its pressure on taste, the more stubbornly taste will resist adjusting to it.

1957-D No. 1, Clyfford Still, 1957 (done two years after this Greenberg essay) [image from Wikipedia]

… there is no such thing as an aberration in art: there is just the good and the bad, the realized and the unrealized. Often there is but the distance of a hair’s breadth between the two — at first glance. And sometimes there seems — at first glance — to be no more distance than that between a great work of art and one which is not art at all. This is one of the points made by modern art.



December 23, 2013

Sweetheart Hearts, Full of Nougat

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… We learn each element as a precipitate, but in the living experience of the time every element was in solution …

This first is from Documents from the Store by Claes Oldenburg (1961):

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.
I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.

I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways.

I am for an art that comes out of a chimney like black hair and scatters in the sky.

[ … ]

I am for the art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper.

[ … ]

I am for art that is smoked, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes.
I am for an art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses, like a handkerchief.
I am for art that is put on and taken off, like pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie, or abandoned with great contempt, like a piece of shit.

[ … ]

I am for art that coils and grunts like a wrestler. I am for art that sheds hair.
I am for art you can sit on. I am for art you can pick your nose with or stub your toes on.

I am for art from a pocket, from deep channels of the ear, from the edge of a knife, from the corners of the mouth, stuck in the eye or worn on the wrist.

[ … ]

I am for the art of conversation between the sidewalk and a blind man’s metal stick.
I am for the art that grows in a pot, that comes down out of the skies at night, like lightning, that hides in the clouds and growls. I am for art that is flipped on and off with a switch.
I am for art that unfolds like a map, that you can squeeze, like your sweety’s arm, or kiss, like a pet dog. Which expands and squeaks, like an accordion, which you can spill your dinner on, like an old tablecloth.

[ … ]

I am for the art that comes up in fogs from sewer-holes in winter. I am for the art that splits when you step on a frozen puddle. I am for the worm’s art inside the apple. I am for the art of sweat that develops between crossed legs.
I am for the art of neck-hair and caked tea-cups, for the art between the tines of restaurant forks, for the odor of boiling dishwater.
I am for the art of sailing on Sunday, and the art of red and white gasoline pumps.

[ … ]

I am for the blinking arts, lighting up the night. I am for art falling, splashing, wiggling, jumping, going on and off.
I am for the art of fat truck-tires and black eyes.

[ … ]

I am for the white art of refrigerators and their muscular openings and closings.
I am for the art of rust and mold. I am for the art of hearts, funeral hearts or sweetheart hearts, full of nougat.

[ … ]

I am for the art of crayons and weak grey pencil-lead, and grainy wash and sticky oil paint, and the art of windshield wipers and the art of the finger on a cold window, on dusty steel or in the bubbles on the sides of a bathtub. I am for the art of teddy-bears and guns and decapitated rabbits, exploded umbrellas, raped beds, chairs with their brown bones broken, burning trees, firecracker ends, chicken bones, pigeon bones and boxes with men sleeping in them.

The following is from ‘The Analysis of Culture’ by Raymond Williams (1961):

… We can learn a great deal of the life of other places and times, but certain elements, it seems to me, will always be irrecoverable. Even those that can be recovered are recovered in abstraction, and this is of crucial importance. We learn each element as a precipitate, but in the living experience of the time every element was in solution, an inseparable part of a complex whole. The most difficult thing to get hold of, in studying any past period, is this felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time: a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living. … Almost any formal description would be too crude to express this nevertheless quite distinct sense of a particular and native style. And if this is so, in a way of life we know intimately, it will surely be so when we ourselves are in the position of the visitor, the learner, the guest from a different generation: the position, in fact, that we are all in, when we study any past period. Though it can be turned to trivial account, the fact of such a characteristic is neither trivial nor marginal: it feels quite central.

The term I would suggest to describe it is structure of feeling: it is as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible parts of the activity. In one sense, this structure of feeling is the culture of a period: it is the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization. And it is in this respect that the arts of a period, taking these to include characteristic approaches and tones in argument, are of major importance. For here, if anywhere, this characteristic is likely to be expressed often not consciously, but by the fact that here, in the only examples we have of recorded communication that outlives its bearers, the actual living sense, the deep community that makes the communication possible, is naturally drawn upon. I do not mean that the structure of feeling, any more than the social character, is possessed in the same way by the many individuals in the community. But I think it is a very deep and very wide possession, in all actual communities, precisely because it is on it that communication depends. And what is particularly interesting is that it does not seem to be, in any formal sense, learned.

… if we reflect on the nature of a structure of feeling, and see how it can fail to be fully understood even by living people in close contact with it, with ample material at their disposal, including the contemporary arts, we shall not suppose that we can ever do more than make an approach, an approximation, using many channels.



December 22, 2013

Still There Remains this Wilderness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

… We must struggle against the destruction of lived experience which all writing initiates; we must at every moment be ready as much to abandon the work as to create it, and to know that it, too, is a cloud, a mass of ever-contested beauties, of ever-exceeded aspirations, of dizziness, and sometimes of ravages and sudden clarities.

… still there remains this wilderness, which, like a chasm, is all the more fascinating and alluring to a human being subject to spells of vertigo.

This is from the essay ‘Notes on Mondrian’ (1977) in The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art by Yves Bonnefoy (1995):

Two expanses, one azure, the other green, separated by a line where, at intervals, another blue and black cling, made iridescent by a trace of white. But near the top — a center that moves, matter suddenly become light — floats the orange-red mass of the large cloud. About this work, which Mondrian painted in 1908 or 1909, at the threshold of his early maturity, it can be said that it only barely seeks to represent or even suggest the things of this world. It does not escape notice either that the mark of the brush is often visible, crushed into the paint here, zigzagging freely there, a trace of blue penetrating the beige-ocher; no one can fail to remark that on this bit of canvas there are only five or six patches of color in all, which have been brushed on quickly; this is already a kind of abstract painting. All the same, a little blue from the top reappears in the lower part mixed with the color of clay. If this is accomplished through the hatching — applied rapidly here in order to intensify and thus ensure the balance of pure colors — elsewhere, closer to the horizon where the white signifies foam and indicates the sea, the blue blends more intimately with the green, which, still moist and malleable, gives the impression of a haze drifting coldly through a few patches of dense grass. Precisely where the representation might seem absent, the object a mere pretext, subtleties are perceived which indicate a practiced awareness of the earth; this painting was also once a gaze in which affections were pondered and through which at one time even dreams passed.

The Red Cloud

the cloud, possessed of an extraordinarily intense and fiery blaze — a light without visible origin — and endowed with remarkable form — a letter of an unknown alphabet, but with something breathing, if not sexual, a red mass that has cast its seed — becomes even more intense, offering itself as a sign, in the sense that the sudden flight of a bird or the strange appearance of a  rock were once constantly interpreted as such by the archaic mind. It portends something augural. Forgetting that a painting is not our life, we tell ourselves that it is here that we must linger, here in this phosphorescence that we must light a fire, here that we must lead the fettered animal to its sacrifice.

… It is nevertheless true that this great sign dominating the bare earth, this cloud shining like another burning bush, does not on second glance offer the vividness of the epiphany that earlier painters liked to suggest. For example, the tongues of fire on the day of the Pentecost came straight down on the Apostles from a point in the sky, and painters in the Middle Ages, followed by El Greco, were able with one profound stroke to represent the rectilinear flashes of light and the amazed look of acquiescence. The image long favored such unequivocal figures, for these worked to offset its fundamental unreality. However, Mondrian’s cloud — an ardor that swells yet divides, a light, yet one that is also a mirror in which another, an invisible, origin might be reflected — has in its radiance the gentleness that speaks of disillusionment and melancholy.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] In this contested majesty, it is a beauty, above all, that finally stands out: beauty and not divinity, the hearth where soon only the embers of a fire will turn red. This event in the sky, is it indeed a sign? But on the condition that we do not forget that the absolute it expresses will last only a moment, will be effaced in the already less surprising figures and iridescence of color, and that these, in their turn, are going to be endlessly transformed or dissipated, an expression of the “exchange” perpetually taking place and not of a seal that might close the world. How many times have I looked at the clouds! And I remember certain ones but only as moments in my relationship to my own being, in the space pierced by the deceptions of life as we live it. So that contemplating this bright fire I know that in a few seconds — and it does not matter much whether the painting is going to last or not — the hieroglyph will have vanished.

… There has been a hint of an epiphany; a painter thinks he has seen the form, the transfiguring flame, that breaks away from the nothingness of the world; but Mondrian is sufficiently of our godless times to see through this illusion, making it acknowledge from the very depths of its furtive form that it is only a distorted reflection of a self-seeking desire. No outside power — no higher voice — issues from our signs. Our land is “a desert country by the sea,” as Shakespeare wrote, at the darkest point in his work, the middle of The Winter’s Tale.

… We must struggle against the destruction of lived experience which all writing initiates; we must at every moment be ready as much to abandon the work as to create it, and to know that it, too, is a cloud, a mass of ever-contested beauties, of ever-exceeded aspirations, of dizziness, and sometimes of ravages and sudden clarities.

But I want to return to Mondrian and, by way of conclusion, say that in reality, like Racine and Mallarmé who were kindred spirits, he persisted in seeing the truth of existence beneath the truth of writing, the murkiness that lies within the crystal. Let us return a moment to The Red Cloud, where the artistic sign had asserted itself with the most arrogant autonomy. Let our eyes follow the movements of the brush in the color, a graphism that tears itself from the world; and we will see that a flat image is created — a banner with two bands stamped in red — but that at the limits of the green and blue, in the narrowness of a bit of white and black vibrating to infinity, it is the reality of depth as it actually is that thus asserts its opposition, proving that it has not been destroyed. This horizon is an other dimension. Not the third dimension of perspectivist space but an unending heterogeneity that erects presence against the image, a fissure that claims what no writing could ever accept: namely, that there is an elsewhere [un ailleurs] in the distance and thus, in turn, a here [un ici] — in sum, a place — which, having meaning only for a life lived in passing time, commits us to the experience of being.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The Red Cloud, even though all divinity has been abandoned, remains as much a tearing apart as the satisfied start of something new. Through the light it sheds, we better understand both the melancholy of Mondrian’s richest period — this “red glow” I have already mentioned, this lyricism, in fact — and the more openly anguished paintings of the interwar years, including his desire at the time to add to his primary work as painter a concern with the decor of the room, of the house, of all that insistent life from which he wanted so much to remove himself. These apparently flat figures, like patterns of tiling, are a desperate effort to keep the dreaded dimension contained behind a grid. For even if the unrestrained practice of writing has deprived the outside world of its positive quality, has caused it to become deserted like this heath beside the sea in 1909, still there remains this wilderness, which, like a chasm, is all the more fascinating and alluring to a human being subject to spells of vertigo.

Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937-42



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