Unreal Nature

July 31, 2014

Cast of Mind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… this wholeness of perspective does not mean that everything we want to know or judge is knowable and open to judgment.

This is from the chapter ‘Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ in Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View by George M. Wilson (1986):

… Inevitably, Lisa’s last interview with Brand collapses into disaster. At this meeting, as before, he is oppressed by a dim sense of having seen or met her on some earlier occasion. But this, aside from his appreciative predatory interest, is all. He does not remember who she is or what their relationship had been. Moreover, his manner has never seemed so coldly mechanical, so suffused with a glazed charm. While he chatters on, more and more trampling the past as he does, he calls out cheerfully, “You know you are a strange woman, Lisa.” To this she has only the power to respond helplessly with the words “Am I?” Although he does not really understand the real force of his remark, Lisa is, of course, a very strange woman. It is the depth of this strangeness — the completeness of illusion and the strength of unacknowledged determination — that the film has so carefully laid out. However, the appalling strangeness of their whole relationship is most clearly revealed by the new fashion in which Brand has come to serve as a reflection of Lisa’s sensibility. For in this scene, and earlier at the opera house, he enunciates, in his own style, many of the ingredients of her conception of the meaning of her devotion. He tells her, “I followed you upstairs and watched you in your box, but I couldn’t place you. And I had to speak with you. I know how this sounds. I assure you that in this case, it’s true. You believe that, don’t you?”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Or again, “I have a feeling — please don’t think I’m mad — I know it sounds strange and I can’t explain it — but I feel that you understand what I cannot even say and that you can help … Tonight when I first saw you and later when I watched you in the darkness, it was as though I had found that one face among all others.” In his apartment, he continues in the same vein. “I knew last night, didn’t you?” He asks her, and echoing thoughts of hers about the unreality of time for them, “You’re here, and, as far as I”m concerned, all the clocks in the world have stopped.” Finally, from him to her, the most absurd line of all, “I know you won’t believe it, but I couldn’t get you out of my mind all day.” In the first of the two scenes, we are not quite certain how his words are to be taken. But in the second, our doubts are answered. In his mouth at this time, her notions have become the hollow discourse of the practiced and sophisticated seducer. The convictions that have guided and then shattered her life are played by him like cards to which the infatuated woman should, he supposes, appropriately respond. Two faces of romantic love are captured here. There is the emotion that backs a world transcending commitment, and there is the decorated strategy of a game of sex. The power and emotional complexity of Letter depends upon our lively sense of the dialectic between these facets of the claims of love.


… it can seem, if the characters are substantially unchanged at the end, that there is an unidentifiable force, a determinative agency in operation, that binds them repeatedly to the only paths that they are able to perceive, paths that cross for a moment but, on the whole, diverge. This possibility is thus offered by the ending, but is also left as a troubling ambiguity.

That these matters are not closed off and specified assigns a limit to what this film’s narration will claim to answer. Since Letter is throughout concerned with limits of perception, expression,, and representation this should come as no surprise. In this respect, the narrational strategies of the film are deployed with dexterity and precision. At several points in this chapter, we have seen why the narration cannot be read as a mere visual rendering of the contents of Lisa’s letter. The interrelationship of sequences and the design of shots and mise en scène are used too persistently as a means of commenting upon Lisa and her experience for that. For instance, we noted how the camera is authorized to step out of Lisa’s field of knowledge and interest for a moment and how the repeated element of theatricality defines the unconscious self-dramatization that she and others perform. It is impossible to escape the impression of an intelligent and sometimes ironic observer, the implied filmmaker as it were, who is continuously observing with special insight into the wider patterns that Lisa ostensibly describes. In this light, the letter only fixes the more superficial aspects of narrative sequence and remains subordinate to the visual sensibility that relates it all for us. Indeed, what is essential to the letter, within the framework of the film, is the way that it expresses Lisa’s cast of mind and the way it elicits Brand’s vision of her while he reads it.

… I have urged that this film refuses to resolve some of the chief issues that it poses. This renunciation of judgment and ultimate explanation is fully consonant with what I take the aims of the visual narration to be. There is an affirmation here that film can bring us to see the whole of a complicated pattern with acuity and insight. It is possible to resist the temptations of an engaging but false picturing of the relevant events, to resist simple expression of a sensibility too involved with or too analytically removed from the action. The goal is that these people and their circumstances are to be seen from a variety of angles and thereby with a sort of critical empathy. But this wholeness of perspective does not mean that everything we want to know or judge is knowable and open to judgment. In these lovers’ lives, there are truths that they cannot at all discern, which the film reveals to the properly responsive viewer. Nevertheless, there are also mysteries about their lives which this and, probably, any narration will not dispel. It is a part of the affirmation of the possibility of seeing things more openly, broadly, and clearly to acknowledge as well the limits to what we can expect to see in such a case.

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




July 30, 2014

Ideas in Motion

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… symbol is an expressible representation of something which in itself lies beyond the sphere of expression and communication …

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

… Arnold Hauser … has regarded allegory as the translation of an abstract idea into a concrete image which, however, is but one of a number of possible expressions of the idea. With a symbol, he has argued, idea and image are fused into an indivisible entity. A symbol can be interpreted in various ways (whereas an allegory usually cannot) and this variability of interpretation, this apparent inexhaustibility of the meaning of the symbol, Hauser maintained, is its most essential characteristic. So, the allegory is the expression of a static, the symbol that of a dynamic process of thought, setting ideas in motion and keeping them in motion. He saw the allegory as a kind of riddle, to be solved; but the symbol as capable only of interpretation, not of solution. This is from the standpoint of art. But from the standpoint of religion a not dissimilar attitude has emerged. Gersham Scholem, as part of his massive study of Jewish mysticism, has regarded allegory as ‘an infinite network of meanings and correlations’ but all within the limits of language and expression. Symbol radically transcends the sphere of allegory. If allegory is a representation of something expressible by another expressible something, symbol is an expressible representation of something which in itself lies beyond the sphere of expression and communication, a hidden and inexpressible reality.

[ … ]

… Ronald Berndt, Mary Douglas and Terence Turner have examined aspects of the symbolism of the human body; Nur Yalman has studied the symbolism of food and the symbolic equation of eating and sex in caste relations in Ceylon. Victor Turner has written of the ‘forest of symbols’ in Ndembu ritual; Hortense Powdermaker looked at symbolic meanings in the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ of the cinema and in world views of American college youth; Leslie Hiatt has given an analysis of literary symbolism in Nabokov’s Lolita, which he calls ‘a “Freudian” cryptic crossword.’

As a result, certain basic questions have been sharpened. In the range of anthropological materials, where does one look for symbolic forms? How does one recognize symbols, by what criteria of identification? What is the meaning of symbols, in relation to that which they symbolize, and in relation to one another? What is the nature of the symbolizing process as a mode of thinking? And what is the relevance, and the effectiveness, of symbolic behaviour in relation to general behavior at the individual and the social level?

My previous post from Firth’s book is here.




July 29, 2014

A Resignation to the Minor

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… There is a poverty of culture and resources, a pinchedness, a resignation to the minor, a certain desire for quick acceptance …

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of Ben Shahn and of the Pepsi-Cola Annual’ (1947) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

Ben Shahn’s gift, though indisputable, is rarely effective beyond a surface felicity. What his retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art makes all too clear is how lacking his art is in density and resonance. These pictures are mere stitchings on the border of the cloth of painting, little flashes of talent that have to be shaded from the glare of high tradition lest they disappear from sight.

… his real originality, such as it is, emerges only with the entrance of the influence of photography, a medium he has practiced in addition to painting. It was the monocular photography, with its sudden telescoping of planes, its abrupt leaps from solid foreground to flat distance, that in the early 1930s gave him the formula which remains responsible for most of the successful pictures he has painted since then: the flat, dark, exact silhouette placed upstage against a receding empty, flat plane that is uptilted sharply to close the back of the picture and contradict the indication of deep space. Chirico is felt here.

Shahn gains better control of his medium as he goes along. Yet there has been a certain loss of vigor. Nothing improves upon or repeats the shock of Handball. There is an attempt to strengthen and vary color, but to little avail.

Ben Shahn, Handball

… This art is not important, is essentially beside the point as far as ambitious present-day painting is concerned, and is much more derivative than it seems at first glance. There is a poverty of culture and resources, a pinchedness, a resignation to the minor, a certain desire for quick acceptance — all of which the scale and cumulative evidence of the present show make more obvious.




July 28, 2014

Reflected in the Mirrored Surface

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 Artwork Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor; Date 2003; Why It’s Key Kapoor’s first public outdoor installation in the United States has become an icon of Chicago

… A daily stream of humanity passes underneath the belly or “omphalos,” as people move through the surrounding plaza. Gazing upward, the viewer is reflected in the mirrored surface as one of an infinite number of animated brushstrokes in a swirling cosmos. From a distance the enormous sculpture resembles a drop of liquid mercury.

Cloud Gate

Key Artwork New Coca-Cola by Wang Guangyi; Date 2002; Why It’s Key dramatize[s] the clash between symbols from China’s Maoist past and those of its capitalist present

… The color red provides an even brightness to both the imposed values of Mao and corporate America without distinction.

New Coca-Cola

Key Artwork Smoker #1 (3-D) by Tom Wesselmann; Date 1999; Why It’s Key Final work in iconic Pop art series

… Started decades before, when smoking was still considered cool, the “smoker” series and its jaunty glamour and sex appeal exemplified Wesselmann’s credo, which he described to Irving Sandler in a 1984 interview as “Painting sex and humor are the most important things in my life.”

Smoker #1 (3-D)

My previous post from this book is here.




July 27, 2014

Doesn’t Let Itself Be Incorporated, Appropriated, and Fixed as an Acquisition

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

This is the essay ‘Ordinary Ethics’ in A Finite Thinking by Jean-Luc Nancy (2003):

… nothing is more ordinary than the call, most often an undecieved one, to the “sense of existence,” and nothing is rarer than responding to this call in a fitting (“responsible”) way …

… The fact that this sort of response is rare doesn’t mean that it is a privilege reserved for a few or that it is very difficult to obtain: rather, it means that it belongs to the essence of the sense of being not to give itself as a laid-down sense (and so, to make the point again, to be not properly given), and that the dignity of man comes from his being exposed to this essence of sense as that which touches him most closely. What touches him — or that upon which he touches — doesn’t let itself be incorporated, appropriated, and fixed as an acquisition. If sense were acquired or, what amounts to the same thing, needed to be acquired, there would be no ethical possibility. If, however, the action of sense is the exercising of the relation with (“touching”) what is nearest but cannot be appropriated as a being, then not only is there an ethics, but ethics becomes the ontology of ontology itself (as for appropriation, it is the event of being, the Ereignis).




July 26, 2014

Not the Light that Guides Them

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… these truths are only the clothing of forces; they are practices, not the light that guides them. … The plurality of truths, an affront to logic, is the normal consequence of the plurality of forces.

This is from Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths?: An Essay on Constitutive Imagination by Paul Veyne (1983):

… Like the Dorzé, who imagine both that the leopard fasts and that one must be on guard against him every day, the Greeks believe and do not believe in their myths. They believe in them, but they use them and cease believing at the point where their interest in believing ends. [ … ] Lévi-Strauss’s sorcerer believes in his magic and cynically manipulates it. According to Bergson, the magician resorts to magic only when no sure technical recipes exist. The Greeks question the Pythia and know that sometimes this prophetess makes propaganda for Persia or Macedonia; the Romans fix their state religion for political purposes by throwing sacred fowl into the water if these do not furnish the necessary predictions; and all peoples give their oracles — or their statistical data — a nudge to confirm what they wish to believe. Heaven helps those who help themselves; Paradise, but the later the better. How could one not be tempted to speak of ideology here?

… Contradictory truths do not reside in the same mind — only different programs, each of which encloses different truths and interests, even if these truths have the same name.

… truths are not sprinkled like stars on the celestial sphere; they are the point of light that appears at the end of the telescope of a program, and so two different truths obviously correspond to two different programs, even if they go by the same name.

… Religion, politics, and poetry may well be the most important things in this world or any other; nevertheless, in practice they occupy only a narrow band of our existence, and they tolerate contradiction all the more easily since it generally passes unnoticed. This does not mean that these beliefs are any less sincere and intense. The metaphysical importance or individual sincerity of a truth is not measured by its wavelength. In any case, we speak of truths in the plural and believe that the history of religions has something to gain from this.

… these truths are only the clothing of forces; they are practices, not the light that guides them. … The plurality of truths, an affront to logic, is the normal consequence of the plurality of forces.

… causality is always at work, even among those who supposedly undergo its effects. The master does not inculcate an ideology in the slave; he has only to show that he is more powerful. The slave will do what he can to react, even creating an imaginary truth for himself. The slave undertakes what Léon Festinger — a psychologist with an innate shrewdness, whose insights are instructive — calls a reduction of dissonance.

… this conflict takes place on a conscious level, or rather at a level situated just beneath it, where we know full well what it is we must not discover. Betrayed husbands and blind parents see what they must not see from a long way off, and the furious and anguished tone of voice with which they instantly retort leaves no doubt concerning their unwitting lucidity.

… We have already seen that it is important to know that opinions are divided, and this results in the Balkanization of each mind. Unless one cultivates disrespect as a heuristic method, one does not simply dismiss out loud what many believe, and, by the same token, one does not condemn it mentally, either. One believes in it a bit oneself.

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




July 25, 2014

The World’s Most

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

Are people who lack confidence better artists?

This is from the 2005 ‘SPIEGEL interview, conducted by Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knöfel’ found in Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007 edited by Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (2009):

Mr Richter, your paintings fetch record prices at auction. You’re considered the world’s most expensive artist. The more famous you become, and the more worldwide acclaim you receive, the more pronounced your reputation grows for being shy and unapproachable. Is it advantageous to be perceived as an expensive mystery?

Certainly, though I don’t see myself as a mystery. I’m just fairly reserved. I was never that good with words — I don’t enjoy talking — and that makes me a little shy. I’m also fundamentally skeptical towards myself, hence towards others as well. And that’s why I’m never shure if what I do is right or whether it’s any good.

We can’t believe that, coming from the world’s most sought-after artist.

But you have to. I’ve always admired that wonderful self-assuredness in others. For example, the inbred confidence of my colleague George Baselitz. He can just walk onto a stage and start talking. Or, in the past, as a student at the [Dresden] Academy, I was always amazed that my fellow students could be so enamored with their own creations that they could sit in front of them and sing their own praise. When I paint, I tend to be disappointed that the result is just another painting.

Just another painting — that art collectors would give their right arm for. Mr. Richter, your modesty comes across as coquetry.

There’s not much reason to be smug. Why shouldn’t I be a little deferential in the face of all the masterpieces in the history of art? You can’t really philosophize about the essence of art anyway. It’s impossible to explain, let alone prove, what’s so good about a painting by the Dutch master Pieter Saenredam — you can only see it. But there is one consolation: uncertainty can be quite a motivating force.

Are people who lack confidence better artists?

I have no idea. After all, I don’t know how Mr. Rubens felt.

Pieter Saenredam,The Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht, 1644

[ … ]

Aren’t the prices that your works command reason enough to feel self-assured? We’re talking about millions of dollars being bid at auctions. There must be more than one collector who has become rich by selling one of your early works.

When you hear about these record sums, it’s flattering, of course, but at the same time it’s shocking. Above all, this kind of thing is not a good source of motivation. In fact, when I’m in a bad mood, I see this kind of success as a sign that something has gone askew in the world — that the buyers know nothing about art, and that I somehow conned them. And they do indeed tend to pay far too much for art. There is a huge discrepancy between the true value and relevance of art and the insane prices people are paying for it.

What’s so terrible about spending a lot of money on art?

There are buyers who bid via telephone for a work of art they’ve never actually seen. That’s not art appreciation — it’s neglect. And it’s a factor that contributes to diminishing culture. People’s appreciation of art, their interest in art, is waning. Perhaps all people want to do is invest their money. But they don’t need art.




July 24, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… the narration declares its responsibility to the thesis that any overview of events such as the ones in this film will be slightly off-center, in dubious epistemic focus, explanatorily disconnected, and, in various ways, incomplete.

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

… Often … a complex of expressive behavior includes a finely nuanced action or response that is almost impossible to discriminate. Other psychologically meaningful stretches of activity include items of behavior separated by long duration and occurring in widely distanced locations. For this reason, an observer is not situated to follow the unfolding patterns through their full extent. The embodiment of the mental in human action is something we characteristically perceive only in a scattered, piecemeal, and erratic way. Similarly, we suppose that every event has causal antecedents that stretch back more or less indefinitely through time and causal consequences that stretch forward just as indefinitely. Again, no observer has perceptual access to even most of the primary links in any of these causal chains.

… Film gives us the ability to pick out from the complicated and obscuring blur of experience those aspects of phenomena that constitute such a pattern and to reassemble for the screen the latent unity that the limitations of ordinary experience would disguise.

… the idea that fiction films can ever successfully and honestly realize the purposes just described has been the brunt of a lot of influential “anti-narrative” criticism.

… Any norm or schema of filmic exposition which purports to select out and analyze significant phenomenal patterns is liable at the same time to exclude other aspects of the phenomena whose inclusion would destroy the seeming significance of the subject under view. Relatedly, the use of analytic film procedures can suggest an interpretation of the depicted situation which derives more from our conventionalized reading of those procedures and less from the facts of the situation itself. And, of course, the implied interpretation may be false.

… In our ordinary experience of the world, nothing outside of us singles out for our attention the most significant aspects of, and patterns in, the space-time slices we perceive. Nothing presents us with the telling close-up or the synoptic long shot, and nothing cuts the moments of perception into a segmented, transparent ribbon that adheres to a “dramatic logic” in the visible action. For this reason, the phenomena we witness often appear to us as puzzling, indeterminate, ambiguous, and without a guiding structure. This is a fundamental truism about our fragile perceptual connection to the world and, as a fact about our universal limitations as perceivers, it is one that has the deepest human consequences. Naturally, it is no part of the conceptions that underlie most traditional narrative film to deny these undeniable propositions, but it is a part to treat these propositions as specifying conditions that it is the function of film narrative and narration to transcend. The idea, as discussed before, is to extend our perceptual powers in ways that cut through some of the limitations and unveil the perspectives that they hide.

… the alternative style that Bazin envisages would respect the continuity and complexity of the spatio-temporal integration of a field of action while being willing to leave the causal and psychological/teleological integration of the action less articulated. In regard to the appropriate shift in style, he hails the use of greater depth of field and the more frequent occurrence of long takes as its most typical components.

He also cites Jean Renoir as the most important exponent of the kind of film narration that he is trying to describe and names The Rules of the Game as one of its leading instances. Certainly, one does have a sense of the narration of that film as struggling under limitations that any embodied observer would face. It represents a continued and intermittently frustrated attempt to keep under surveillance a complex of interlocking activities which progressively become too irrepressible and impenetrable to be kept effectively in sight. Characters that seem to have been misplaced five minutes before pop up suddenly in deep focus, screened by some action in the foreground, an action that subsequently results in inexplicable tears or evolves into an unexpected piece of farce. These people are likely not so much to enter and exit a scene as to fall by graceful happenstance into the tracking camera’s range.

from the rabbit hunting scene in The Rules of the Game [image from Wikipedia]

… The film assembles the fragments of a spectacle that almost no one in 1939 was prepared to see. The film’s governing attitude is not a blanket skepticism about human knowledge and perception, and the fragments it assembles tell a great deal. But the narration declares its responsibility to the thesis that any overview of events such as the ones in this film will be slightly off-center, in dubious epistemic focus, explanatorily disconnected, and, in various ways, incomplete. The audience sees that these fragments cannot honestly be joined into a well-shaped whole and, in some respects, they see why. In accomplishing this, The Rules of the Game discovers a new form for narrative film.

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




July 23, 2014

‘we are symbols and inhabit symbols’

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Symbolic statement has tended to be viewed as preferable to realistic statement because, it is argued, it is capable of conveying more general and more profound meanings.

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

… Pervasive in communication, grounded in the very use of language, symbolization is part of the living stuff of social relationships. Western literature is shot through with references which recall to us questions of existence and identity in symbol terms. In an essay on The Poet, Emerson wrote of the universality of the symbolic language: ‘things admit of being used as symbols because nature is a symbol’ (but so is culture) — ‘we are symbols and inhabit symbols.’ In Sartor Resartus Carlyle held that in a symbol there is both concealment and revelation. Oriental writings show analogous views. What is it in such statements that some of us find so attractive? Is it truth or illusion about human personality?

… Marilyn Monroe, labeled one of the greatest sex symbols of her time, is said to have commented that she thought symbols were ‘those things that clashed together.’ Beneath her wit, it may be, lay a sense of how vague such labels of symbol really are.

… for many of us the prime relevance of an anthropological approach to the study of symbolism is its attempt to grapple as empirically as possible with the basic human problem of what I would call disjunction — a gap between the overt superficial statement of action and its underlying meaning. On the surface, a person is saying or doing something which our observations or inferences tell us should not be simply taken at face value — it stands for something else, of greater significance to him.

… [The] classical symbolist view in literature, which had its analog in painting (see later), made two kinds of statements about symbols which in effect challenge much of the anthropological approach to the subject. They asserted the primacy of the private recognition of the symbolic; and they claimed that the referent or reality itself, can be apprehended only through the symbol. An anthropologist is concerned primarily with the public use of the symbolic, and his aim is to separate symbol from referent so that he may describe the relation between them.

… How does one identify an object or an action as symbolic, not only for the interpreter but also for the author of it, when he provides no overt clue? It is an issue which should concern anthropologists more than it has done heretofore. … [A]n anthropologist faced by a problem of identification of private symbols [in real life as opposed to in literature] can ask justification of his attribution because what he observes has consequences.

[ … ]

… [in the visual arts] study … reveals, in addition to the rich and fascinating content and system of thought involved, a couple of points of more methodical interest. One is the quest for symbols which obviously operated in the Middle Ages as it does today — a search for some concrete representation of what is not evident to the senses but is felt to be of prime meaning. The other point is the difficulty of symbolic transfer — of ensuring that the object created or selected by one person as a symbol is identified by other persons as having the same meaning. This difficulty is increased when even though the creator of the symbol deliberately set it up as such, he is long since dead and no check can be made of the inferences as to his intentions. And it exists in another form when the imputation is of unconscious symbolism, which needs most careful collateral evidence to justify. It is evident that medieval painters and sculptors meant more by their work than just illustration; this is clear from the bestiaries and from contemporary theological writings. But whether our modern interpretations of the clerics actually conform to what the artists and craftsmen meant, seems often to be an open question.

… Developments in the twentieth century became even more complex as attention focused more strongly on the significance of other than purely descriptive or ‘naturalistic’ values in art. In Britain a philosophic note was struck by R.G. Collingwood, who in traditional idiom saw art as the pursuit of beauty, which he defined as imaginative coherence, but regarded this coherence as qualitatively different from the coherence of an object of thought. It was in his view an immediate or intuitive awareness of relations between parts of the object, involving a ‘symbolic vision’ which is a ‘premonition’ of the truth explicitly reached by science and philosophy.

… there is the conception of symbolization as a process of reference, not to objects of the external world as ordinarily perceived, but to some other reality — whether in the mind of the artist, in that of the observer, or in the innate quality of existence in general. And cutting through such categorizations are the efforts of some modern artists to avoid all symbolization whatever, to present their creative effort as a direct confrontation with experience, in the attempt to provoke a dynamic reaction and change the situation. ‘In proportion as the artist is pure, he is opposed to all symbolism,’ wrote Roger Fry. Yet even abstract painting, while rejecting the traditional symbolism of conventional representational art, acquired a symbolic value in the quality of the response evoked in the viewer. Though it may be claimed that non-objective art has broken through the process of symbolization itself by confronting the viewer with a ‘direct experience’ of the forces involved in the creation of the painting, this claim has proved hard to maintain in its entirety. The language of identification with creative forces of nature in which some exponents of abstract art clothed their arguments; the influence of systems of mystical thought on some abstract painters (for example the theosophy of Kandinsky and Mondrian); the attempt to give personal significance to formal structures — this has tended to involve symbolic forms of expression at some stage. Michel Seuphor states that to Mondrian femininity is symbolized by the vast horizontal receptacle of the sea; masculinity is symbolized by the wooden pilings against which the waves break and which protect the dunes from the sea.

… Even where it is held that the conformations of non-objective art are ‘symbolic only of themselves,’ and the term ‘metasymbolic’ has been introduced to discuss their achievement in analytical style, it has been argued that what has been involved has been a spiritual revolution, and ‘the history of the destruction of the outer world of appearance signifies a gradual spiritualization of art, for it leads to ever more symbolic statements.’ In an early statement on the issues Herbert Read distinguished between symbolism in the ordinary sense, employing concrete imagery, and symbolism which employs abstractions without parallel in visual experience and operates by unconscious or intuitive process. One of the most articulate movements of this last type, surrealism, made an endeavor to utilize a dialectical process of artistic activity opposing conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, deed and dream.

… There are two significant points in all this. One is that for the most part the creative symbolism of these art forms has been implicit, not explicit; the process of exploration, identification and labelling of symbolic patterns has often been done by observers and interpreters, unacknowledged by and often unknown to the artists concerned. Secondly, when such symbolic pattern has been recognized in their work, it has been part of the modern canon to claim for it a clearer autonomy, a greater dignity in the aesthetic scene. Symbolic statement has tended to be viewed as preferable to realistic statement because, it is argued, it is capable of conveying more general and more profound meanings.

Problems of the relation of private symbols to public symbols are raised especially in such art. How does the individual vision of the artist become translated into the set of symbols which win public acceptance? Does art arise from a fundamental paradox — the equal insistence on the creative effort of an individual, and on the capability of his product to be recognized and accepted by a body of other individuals — a public? Does the artist’s belief that he alone must be the ultimate judge of the validity of his effort mask a parallel belief that only if the result of his effort is acceptable to some other individual can he himself accept it as valid?

A great range of views opens up here. If the artist sees art as basically a means of communication he obviously must try for a code by which what he has to ‘say,’ that is paint or sculpt, can be interpreted by those to whom he wishes to communcate.

… [If not, then] The artist says in effect: interpret the painting in your own way, in terms of your own experience, let the combinations of line, mass and color convey their own message to you — or more strictly, let them suggest to you some stirring of the sensibilities which will make for you a cognizable experience, an ‘event.’ Symbolic meaning in the more figurative sense is not expected — may be even denied. There is a belief in a direct relation between the physical object and the appreciation of the viewer so that the forms of the painting do not ‘stand for’ something else than themselves. They are expected to evoke reaction without the mediation of other images. According to the fashionable ‘structuralist’ phraseology, the art forms ‘mediate’ directly, in a primary way, between the raw impulse-phenomena of human nature and the culturally defined position of the spectator. There is also a further attempt to reduce the importance of the material art object, in favor of the mental image — hence ‘conceptual art,’ ‘minimal art,’ ‘hyper-realism’ and other varieties of concern to obliterate as far as possible the humanist elements in art.

But as I see it, the artist is not in fact eliminated as interpreter. It is recognized that we are confronted by a personal aesthetic of the artist. And even in the most advanced fields of modern art there is still curiosity on the part of art critics and public as to what the artist ‘intended’ by the work. The artist himself often shows no particular reticence in explaining what he has meant to do, sometimes in naïve theoretical terms.




July 22, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… It is the tragedy of Ryder that he attempted to go too far too fast — alone.

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

The total impression made by the centenary exhibition of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings at the Whitney Museum is that of an unrealized vision. The vision itself, had it been more completely precipitated, would have sufficed to establish the artist beyond dispute as the greatest American painter. As it is, taking the evidence of this show into account, I would find it uncomfortable to argue his case against Eakins’s and Homer’s.

The evidence is unsatisfactory because of its scantness and because of the bad physical condition of many of the canvases themselves. As Lloyd Goodrich explains in a well-written catalogue note, Ryder “strove half-consciously and without adequate training, for the richness of the old masters. His pictures were built up with underpainting and layer on layer of pigment and glazes. … Unfortunately he had little knowledge of traditional techniques, and in trying to secure his effects he used dangerously unsound methods. He painted over pictures when they were still wet, thereby locking the under surface in before it had dried and hardened, so that the different surfaces dried at different rates of speed, causing serious cracking. He used strange mediums — wax, candle grease, alcohol; and he made much too free use of varnish. In showing visitors his paintings he would wipe them with a wet cloth or literally pour varnish over them”

The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), 1895

Ryder was beyond question one of the most original and affecting painters of his time, whether in Europe or this country. In the task of stating his originality he seems to have had no help at all from his contemporaries. Taking his departure from the academicism that dominated his age — he mentioned Corot and Maris as his favorite painters — he had to cut his art out of the whole cloth and search in isolation for a means to convey the surprisingly new things he had to say.

Seacoast in Moonlight (or Moonlit Cove), 1890

Ryder’s main impulse was to simplify nature into silhouetted masses of darks and lights; color was a matter of dark and light modulations within these masses. The primary effect is of simple blocked-out pattern, startling because of the emotion discharged by the novelty of a relatively few shapes, novel in their contours and in their placing. Yet his most successful canvases — I think here of Moonlight on the Sea and The Forest of Arden — owe more of their effect to a subtle, rhythmic weaving together of color and value tones. Where the picture did not stand or fall entirely by the placing of three or four large shapes, the artist was able to retrieve his uncertainty and clumsiness by imposing a general, all-inclusive tonal harmony. Here Ryder resorted to more conservative means and renounced in effect such complete correspondence between his vision and its embodiment as he attempted in his more startling but less successful pictures — where he attempted to qualify the solid simplicity of the silhouette by building up a thick, enamel-like surface that by reflected light would intensify the few color tones.

The Forest of Arden, 1888-1897

The moral is that one should never go too fast in art. It is the tragedy of Ryder that he attempted to go too far too fast — alone. I say tragedy, because Ryder had, obviously, gifts enough to have made him a major artist in a better place and time. Once again it is necessary to register another casualty of American provincialism.




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