Unreal Nature

December 31, 2014

The Anonymous

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:01 am

… they … contributed to a movement that durably influenced contemporary aesthetics.

This is from the essay ‘The FSA‘s Documentary Style: From Reportage to Vision’ by Gilles Mora found in FSA: The American Vision (2006):

… In keeping with his administration’s avowed goals, Stryker asked his photographers to “recognize the pertinent thing in a particular situation” and make it clearly visible. The FSA photographer was free to do as he or she wished in attaining that objective. Original methods and responses were practically guaranteed by the photographers’ mixed bag of artistic disciplines (painting and photography in the case of Shahn and Delano), prior professional experiences (Lange and Evans), or, in some instances, the lack of any photographic background at all.

Echoing their abandonment of particular stylistic effects, the FSA photographers elevated the anonymous, recording a wide range of anonymous subjects, characters, actions, and places. In so doing they and other politically committed artists of the Great Depression contributed to a movement that durably influenced contemporary aesthetics. In literature (John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck) as in painting (Edward Hopper, Thomas Benton), the protagonist of 1930s American art was an anonymous figure. He was not a “man without qualities” in the existential sense Robert Musil described in his novel by that name, but a common man, wholly removed from celebrity or social extravagance, either of which would have singularized him. This protagonist was the antithesis of the heroes created during the previous decade by writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and by Hollywood.

Russell Lee, Conversation at the General Store, near Jeanerette, Louisiana, 1938 [image from Wikipedia]

… An in-depth study of American documentary photography of the 1930s — in which the FSA played a key role — would help distinguish those photographers who had a genuine vision from those who had merely a good eye and those who were only doing their job. It would provide a better understanding of the growing importance, beyond commissioned pieces, of the rise of the documentary style that was first delivered by Walker Evans and is rich with the ambiguities found at the intersection of art and document. The documentary style progressively came to influence all American photography and to this day remains its unrivaled model.

My previous post from Mora’s essay is here.




December 30, 2014

The Raging Sickness of Color

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… One can glimpse through the badness of his painting how greatly Masson conceives …

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of André Masson‘ (1942) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… There is little of the dull or second-rate about his work, and to fail as he does is more worthy than to succeed as any dozen safe and minor artists can. Masson is a surrealist, but he has absorbed enough cubism, in spite of himself, never to lose sight of the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great. His endeavor to expand painting concentrates on the means, not on the subject; color and line are to be detached and dissociated from their old habits of meaning, and made to express or suggest what is inconceivable to anything but the eye’s imagination.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] One can glimpse through the badness of his painting how greatly Masson conceives; and so it is only by some physiological, tactile deficiency in himself that I can explain the collapse of his actual work; the raging sickness of color, the obtuseness with which he rattles together pigment, design, space — the art nouveau, the hard, machined insensitivity of line in his drawings, and their maladroit literary flourishes. A débacle, in which there are at the most three acceptable pictures; but as I have said, little that is second-rate, nothing that is stereotype. Masson could cover up his faults rather plausibly and without too obvious dishonesty, and I praise him for his unwillingness to be anything but himself.

André Masson, Meditation on an Oak Leaf [image from WikiArt]




December 29, 2014

Demanding Novel Modes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… What is happening … is that a new and different set of phenomena, viewed in a new and different way, demanding novel modes of composition and notation, has become the occasion for picture making.

This is from Realism by Linda Nochlin (1971):

… it was not until the advent of the Romantic theorists of the early nineteenth century that being of one’s time was viewed not merely as a possible good but as a positive advantage, and, putting it even more strongly, some Romantics affirmed that not being of one’s time automatically guaranteed literary or artistic failure.

… for the Realists … — … confronting the concrete experiences and appearances of their own times with an earnest and serious attitude and a fresh, appropriate imagery — was the only valid approach to creating an art of and for their own epoch. They therefore rejected both the pompous rhetoric and the grandiose subjects of the past, neither of which, they felt, had any relevance to modern life, and turned to such novel or hitherto neglected areas of modern experience as the lot of the laboring poor, both rural and urban, the daily life of the middle classes, modern woman and especially the fallen woman, the railroad and industry, and the modern city itself, with its cafés, its theaters, its workers and strollers, its parks and boulevards, and the life that was led in them. Of all these themes of contemporary life, none was felt to be so much the very epitome of modern experience, or was treated with such concreteness and urgency by mid-century artists, not only in France but in England and throughout the Continent, as the theme of labor. [for example, Courbet and Millet]

[ … ]

… While it was in the world of the agricultural laborer or the urban proletariat that the Realist movement found its inspiration in the years immediately following the 1848 Revolution, it was in the very different milieu of the park and the picnic, of the suburban pleasureground, the seaside resort or racetrack — junctures of eternal nature and transitory worldly fashion — that the modernism of the 1960s and 70s in France evolved. This development of Realism (in the work of Manet, the young Batignolles painters and, later, the Impressionists) came about by the convergence of plein-air painting and contemporary themes — themes neither wholly urban nor wholly rural, and which were as far from raising any awkward issues of industrial poverty and exploitation as they were from extolling the solid virtues of those who are bound to the soil and to work with their hands.

… Baudelaire, as early as his 1846 Salon, had already asserted that Parisian life was ‘rich in poetic and marvellous subjects’ and, by the sixties, both Manet andDegas had set out, more or less systematically, to capture this new urban reality in their paintings. Yet at the same time, they rejected any implication that this reality was ‘poetic’ or ‘marvellous’ in the old romantic sense of these terms.

… it is perhaps Manet who was the city-dweller par excellence. ‘To enjoy the crowd is an art’ declared Baudelaire, and Manet seems to have developed the art to an extraordinary degree. It is with him that the city ceases to be picturesque or pathetic and becomes instead the fecund source of a pictorial viewpoint, a viewpoint towards contemporary reality itself. In Manet’s case, this has nothing to do with a specific and systematic depiction of the haute monde, nor is it related to the minute topographical accuracy which informed the urban scenes of eighteenth-century vedutisti.

… This sort of pictorial structure, which emphasizes the random and fortuitous and denies any literary meaning to the occasion of the work of art, this new way of presenting the phenomena of the times have led critics in the past to assert that Manet, Degas and the Impressionists generally were (unlike Daumier) quite uninterested in the human, emotive qualities of urban existence — were in fact not interested in subject matter at all but only in the purely formal, visual elements of art. The mere phrasing of such an assertion is of course entirely misleading — as though art must be, or can be, divided into the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective,’ the ‘expressive’ and the ‘visual,’ into ‘form’ and ‘content.’ What is happening with Manet, the Impressionists and later French Realism generally, is that a new and different set of phenomena, viewed in a new and different way, demanding novel modes of composition and notation, has become the occasion for picture making. The old categories of reality and the old ways of embodying them in art were rejected simultaneously by Realist artists, and in so doing they were obliged to create an entirely new structure for art as a whole.

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




December 28, 2014

Paper Existence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

… “It is always the individual who stops up the gaping hole around words, between each word and the others and between them and the object: he closes it up by stuffing his body into it.”

This is from the essay ‘Pascal‘s Hand’ found in The Work of Fire by Maurice Blanchot (1949):

… “The Pensées,” says Béguin, “are by no means composed to answer a fear, as we too often imagine, but rather to disturb a peace that is dangerous to the soul. … Above all, Pascal will devote himself to reviving new fears in his interlocutor by showing him that, if one holds on to the claims of intelligence, everything is absurd, incomprehensible, grotesque, or rather that everything is terrifying, heavy with menace. ‘I will not suffer him to rest.’ It is at this precise moment that he composes, with all the care of a writer weighing his words and calculating the effect of his rhythms, the famous Pensées through which the shiver of anguish passes: eternal silence, realms that are unaware of us, the last bleeding act, we run into a chasm. … These are in no way, as it seems so often to be acknowledged, notes made in a personal diary, still palpitating with the memory of frightened instants. They are for the use of other people, they are calls to order that are to be meticulously placed in conversation at the precise second most favorable to disturb false certainties. A fine fight is begun, in which Pascal, who has exercised his weapons in the fencing of the Provincial Letters, handles his feints and his points.”

Pascal is the writer who from lucidity drew bewilderment, who made use of language perfectly governed and controlled to make men feel their condition as random and aimless beings, who knew how to make them despair as he wished, knew how to frighten them, abase them, then raise them above themselves, opened an abyss beneath their feet and made from this abyss a throne for their glory — and all using only the resources of an art we all know is capable of everything, and first of all of making itself absent, so that everyone forgets it and yields to the movement that impels it, without ever recognizing its nature.

Pascal is the model that Valéry should have held as exemplary. And yet he holds against him the hand that guides him, that he sees, that he is alone in seeing, as if for this Pascal, Valéry would have preferred unawareness and blindness.

Valéry’s attitude is instructive. It teaches us that in art, effects seek to return to their causes, and demand to form only totality with them, a single world with two poles. Valéry, opening the book of the Pensées, is not unaware of their demonstrative purposes. He knows that they must disturb, cause despair, in order to give souls the feeling of their emptiness, and through that lack teach them to know fullness. This aim, which also shocks him, assures him thus that Pascal does not write to express himself or to confess, but to convince, that this groaning, shivering book is thus one whose groans are planned and whose emotion is calculated. Yet Valéry, who claims to reduce all art to a calculation and all poetry to a long reflection on its means, here sees only lies and impropriety in this thought-out use of art to persuade.

… It may be that this was the pure masterpiece of a man who writes on command, as Valéry said, and who no more believes in what he asks us to believe than he is afraid because of the reasons for fear with which he misleads us. How should this work touch us less, convince us less, if this were so? It is the same work, not a line is changed, just as unfinished as the other — for writers of pure rhetoric die, too. It is the same, yet, quite obviously it is its opposite.

Why would the “I enter into fear” and the fear into which he leads us both stop being true if, beyond the motives and the language of this fear, both more than sufficient to impress us, we were to discover an impassive mind, a soul that has freed itself from fear? It is because in truth, in a work made of words, language, to fulfill itself even imperfectly, needs existence to lend it support, to come raise it up from a kind of downfall, and to try to warrant its invincible bad faith.

death mask of Blaise Pascal [image from Wikipedia]

… what happens to the one who devotes his existence to language so as to give the truth of existence to his language? The lie of a paper existence, the bad faith of a life that just represents life, that is experienced in tests of words and avoids existing by dint of miming what it is not. The purer the success, the greater the failure. Poetry in this sense is the realm of disaster. At the instant in which language is most intent on wanting everything for itself, and closest to shrounding everything in its unreality, we see poets throw themselves body, life, and soul into the words that they bring to life, at once to win from these words their existence as a poet and to precipitate, by this veritable death, the annihilation of which art is the supreme horizon in the world. But we also see other poets exclude themselves as much as possible from the poem of which they are the origin, not only to keep from mixing their life with their song but, in face of this song, be to nothing but a perpetual absence, a forgotten non-existence such that it pretends never to have existed, so that the work can believe itself alone. Rimbaud (to a certain extent) is such a poet, and (to a certain extent) so is Mallarmé.

Like no other work, a poem needs the presence of a poet, and, like no other work, it does without it. All the different manifestations of language demand, according to infinitely variable relationships, the participation of existence in language.

… The language of the Pensées, to be true, must be a language overwhelmed by existence. Brice Parain often uses this striking expression: “It is always the individual who stops up the gaping hole around words, between each word and the others and between them and the object: he closes it up by stuffing his body into it.” We have seen that in this gaping hole the poet would stuff his body, not to stop it up but to become a gap himself, sometimes to the point of actually disappearing, like Empedocles, in order to make this hole real, to realize this void.

[ … ]

… Detestable residue, forever irreducible with regard to a truth that is without sign and without trace (just as those who come to convince and who need wisdom and signs are nothing in comparison with those who, coming to convert, have neither sign nor wisdom, only madness and the cross). But this fault is inscribed in langauge, and to seek to surmount it, even in vain, that alone justifies language. Pascal is more guilty of that, and more justified, than anyone else.




December 27, 2014

In Their Eternal Imprecision

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… It is frightening to think how many things are made and unmade with words; … they have their life and we have ours.

This is from The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke edited and translated by Ulrich Baer (2005):

… How dangerous and merciless is life up to the final moment, a well-tamed creature, and yet inside of it how many insatiable forces that threaten it like wild beasts.

[ … ]

… language is what all have in common, but which no single person has produced because all are continuously producing it, that vast, humming, and swinging syntax to which everyone feels free to add by speaking what is closest to his heart. And then it happens that someone who is different from his neighbors on the inside loses himself by speaking himself out like the rain that is lost in the sea. For everything that is unique to an individual if it does not wish to remain silent, needs its proper language.

… What one writes at the age of twenty-one is nothing but screaming — and does anyone consider whether a scream ought to have been screamed differently? Language is still so thin for us in those years that the scream passes through it and carries with it only what clings to it. One will always develop in a way that makes one’s language fuller, denser, firmer (heavier), and this of course makes sense only for someone who is sure that the scream in him also incessantly and inexorably gathers force so that later, compressed by countless atmospheres, it emerges evenly from all of the pores of the nearly impenetrable medium.

… It is frightening to think how many things are made and unmade with words; they are so far removed from us, trapped in their eternal imprecision, indifferent with regard to our most urgent needs; they recoil at the moment when we seize them; they have their life and we have ours.




December 26, 2014

Open the Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch and say, “Mamma, can I open the light?”

This is from Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir by Ezra Pound (1970):

… The image is the poet’s pigment. The painter should use his color because he sees it or feels it. I don’t much care whether he is representative or non-representative. He should depend, of course, on the creative, not upon the mimetic or representational part in his work. It is the same in writing poems; the author must use his image because he sees it or feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed or some system of ethics or economics.

An image, in our sense, is real because we know it directly. If it have an age-old traditional meaning this may serve as proof to the professional student of symbology that we have stood in the deathless light, or that we have walked in some particular arbor of his traditional paradiso, but that is not our affair. It is our affair to render the image as we have perceived or conceived it.

… When I find people ridiculing the new arts, or making fun of the clumsy odd terms that we use in trying to talk of them amongst ourselves; when they laugh at our talking about the “ice-block quality” in Picasso, I think it is only because they do not know what thought is like, and that they are familiar only with argument and gibe and opinion. That is to say, they can only enjoy what they have been brought up to consider enjoyable, or what some essayist has talked about in mellifluous phrases. They think only “the shells of thought,” as De Gourmont calls them; the thoughts that have been already thought out by others.

… All poetic language is the language of exploration. Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments. the point of Imagisme is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.

I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch and say, “Mamma, can I open the light?” She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art. It was a sort of metaphor, but she was not using it as ornamentation.




December 25, 2014

Almost Biblical

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

Merry Christmas!


… when there is less light, your eye opens up and makes more of the light that is there.

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

[ … ]

Murch: Somebody once asked W.H. Auden, “Is it true that you can write only what you know?” And he said, “Yes it is. But you don’t know what you know until you write it.” Writing is a process of discovery of what you really do know. You can’t limit yourself in advance to what you know, because you don’t know everything you know.

[ … ]

Ondaatje: … In literature, even in something as intimate as a poem, those early drafts can be just as wayward and haphazard as the early stages of a film. Look at the gulf between the untidy, seemingly almost useless, first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and the remarkably tight and suggestive final version of her nineteen-line villanelle. It becomes clear that all the subtleties of nuance and precision of form were achieved during the editing. So much so that it’s almost difficult to recognize the link between the original lines and the final poem. I’m sure the gulf is just as great, even greater, in film.

M: Very much. film travels at one mile an hour through its projector. So in Apocalypse Now we shot over two hundred and thirty-five miles and reduced it all to two-and-a-half miles — a ratio of just under one hundred to one. That’s high, but not unique. Michael Mann’s recent film The Insider had a similar ratio.

[ … ]

O: Miles Davis, talking about his music, said, “I listen to what I can leave out.” That seems similar to what I’ve heard described as your “blue light” theory — how sometimes you artistically need to remove a key element of a scene.

M: I formulated this idea during The Conversation — probably because we wound up taking so much away. It went from almost five hours to less than two.

As I began to eliminate things, I would have the feeling that I couldn’t remove a certain scene, because it so clearly expressed what we were after. But after hesitating, I’d cut it anyway … forced to because of the length of the film. Then I’d have this paradoxical feeling that by taking away something I now had even more of it. It was almost biblical in its idea of abundance. How can you take away something and wind up with more of it?

The analogy I came up with was the image of a room illuminated by a bare blue lightbulb. Let’s say the intention is to have “blueness” in this room, so when you walk in you see a bulb casting a blue light. And you think, This is the source of the blue, the source of all blueness. On the other hand, the lightbulb is so intense, so unshaded, that you squint. It’s a harsh light. It’s blue, but it’s so much what it is that you have to shield yourself from it.

There are frequently scenes that are the metaphorical equivalent of that bulb. The scene is making the point so directly that you have to mentally squint. And when you think, What would happen if you got rid of that blue lightbulb, you wonder. But then where will the blue come from? Let’s take it out and see. That’s always the key: let’s just take it out and find out what happens.

So you unscrew the lightbulb … there are other sources of light in the room. And once that glaring source of light is gone, your eyes open up. The wonderful thing about vision is that when something is too intense, your irises close down to protect against it — as when you look at the sun. But when there is less light, your eye opens up and makes more of the light that is there.

So now that the blue light is gone and the light is more even you begin to see things that are authentically blue on their own account. Whereas before, you attributed their blueness to the bulb. And the blue that remains interacts with other colors in more interesting ways rather than just being an intense blue tonality.

That’s probably as far as you can go with the analogy, but it happens often in films. You wind up taking out the very thing that you thought was the sole source of an idea. And when you take it out, you see that not only is the idea still present, it’s more organically related to everything else.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the one thing that is never talked about is the reason, the real reason, that Raskolnikov killed the landlady. If Dostoevsky actually explained why he killed her, everything else would be minimized and it would not be as interesting and complex. It reminds me of something my father said when people spoke about his paintings. He related it to a comment Wallace Stevens made: that the poem is not about anything at all, the poem is what it is. It’s not there to illustrate a point.

First draft of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop; the final poem can be read here

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




December 24, 2014

Photographic Territory

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… It opened to them new photographic territory that touched on the most banal aspects of everyday life, “infra” or “micro” subjects …

This is from the essay ‘The FSA‘s Documentary Style: From Reportage to Vision’ by Gilles Mora found in FSA: The American Vision (2006):

… The period’s approach to documentary photography can be boiled down to three general tendencies: the nascent photojournalism featured in mass-market magazines such as Fortune (1930), Life (1936), and Look (1937), which consisted of “picture stories” (illustrated text with obvious editorial, narrative, or commercial agendas); the socially useful “photodocument,” in the great reformist tradition of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, which the New York Photo League, particularly under the guidance of Sid Grossman and Aaron Siskind, devoted considerable pedagogic efforts to establishing; and, beginning in the early 1930s and championed by the critic Lincoln Kirsten, a new aesthetic current that Walker Evans eventually named the “documentary style.”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] (Kirstein made particular use of Berenice Abbot’s work as well as Walker Evans’s in advocating for this style. Evans’s 1938 MoMA retrospective, “American Photographs,” and its exhibition catalogue, with a preface by Kirstein, served as manifestos for this school of thought.) The FSA photographers found themselves (without always knowing it) at the intersection of those three distinct approaches, which shared little more than the use of photography’s inherent qualities to bear witness to reality. They would submit to the ambiguities and enjoy the advantages of each.

… It’s important to keep in mind all those distinctions to appreciate the FSA photographers’ complex explicative work, which was far removed from the era’s superficial and frequently brutal photojournalism. Some fifteen years would pass before the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith would confer on his profession a richer and more profound status by perfecting the photo essay as an honest tool for analyzing reality. For the FSA photographers, in the meantime, the concept of syntactic construction crucial to Smith’s form of photo essay was totally foreign. The Library of Congress’s FSA archive contains only three collections of photographs conceived and designed by photographers themselves, the albums of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Jack Delano.

Arthur Rothstein‘s iconic FSA photo of a dust storm [image from Wikipedia]

… “I am a photographer hired by a democratic government to take pictures of its land and its people. The idea is to show New York to Texans, and Texas to New Yorkers.” [Russell Lee]

For most of the FSA photographers, that didactic dimension surpassed any aesthetic or political impulse. It opened to them new photographic territory that touched on the most banal aspects of everyday life, “infra” or “micro” subjects unknown to a field that had been dominated throughout the 1920s by the superficiality of fashion and commercial photography, exemplified by Edward Steichen’s work.

To be continued …




December 23, 2014

The Dying Out of Folk Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… The [primitive] artist makes up for a certain repetitiveness by his quiet, steady fervor …

This is from ‘Primitive Painting’ (1943) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

“Primitive” painting belongs to the Industrial Age. It emerged toward the close of the eighteenth century and defined itself as independent of tradition, whether that of sophisticated art or that of folk art. It was mainly an effort to find a new outlet for the plebian “artistic energy” that was left without an object by the dying out of folk art in an urban civilization. This outlet could not be found in sophisticated art, because the persons who embodied such “energy” were too poor or too isolated to possess themselves of the culture that sophisticated art presupposes.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] All this was pointed out by a German scholar, Nicola Michailow, in a very important, almost epochal, article (prompted partly, one may suppose, by the Nazis’ solicitude for anything and everything that can be construed as “folk”). The practitioners of Laienmalerei (lay or unprofessional painting), as Michailow calls it, had to fill by their own independent efforts the vacuum left by the extinction of living folk art. It is to the lack of formal training and of almost every other advantage of a continuous tradition that their painting owes its “primitive” character. The self-taught painter, Michailow adds, is to be found mostly among the petty bourgeoisie, that much-maligned class, which more than any other has inherited the “primeval creative urge of the Volk.”

… Michailow and Jean Lipman, in her recent book, both tend to exaggerate by omission the non-derivative character of primitive and popular painting. Yet I feel sure that in most cases it was through acquaintance with reproductions that the purchaser came to want pictures and the amateur to want to paint them. Moreover, it is unthinkable that self-taught artists would have dared to paint, as they did so often, pure landscapes and still lifes, had not sophisticated art already provided them with examples. Consider only how long it was before sophisticated art arrived at the landscape and the still life.

… The [primitive] artist makes up for a certain repetitiveness by his quiet, steady fervor and his appetite for his work. His painting goes back to the first assumptions of pictorial art and re-examines them in all their original freshness, reminding one again of the excitement there is in simply discovering that it is possible to depict three-dimensional things on a flat surface. But unlike children’s art, this painting is not simple-minded; it achieves subtleties by means that seem only in themselves simple and crude. Its best common quality, in fact, is this ambiguity created by the simple thing itself and the richness of its effect.

There are, however, demands which this art cannot ordinarily meet. The reliance upon formulas and ready-made elements is often hardly compensated for by the freshness of invention elsewhere. The tight design and the insistent rhythms, to which the naive artist is always prone to surrender himself, are a liability as well as an asset, for they tend to overcome everything else and destroy dramatic movement; and it is only by its very intensity that even some of the best of this popular painting can retrieve itself from decoration.

… The American popular painting trade was unable to survive the competition of photography and the cheap reproduction . According to Mrs. Lipman, it can be considered to have died in the eighteen-seventies.




December 22, 2014

The Trivial Kitchenry of Doing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… ‘His Christ is merely a rather fat model sitting with his back against a wall, and two women with wings on either side of him. …’

This is from Realism by Linda Nochlin (1971):

… for the Realist, the imagery of death is weighted down to earth by an obsessive preoccupation with the triviality of the context in which it occurs. The dying person is firmly anchored to the here and now by an insistence on the social milieu in which he dies, the objects which surround him, the account of the daily round of events in which his death, far from being a significant solemnity, constitutes no more than a distressing interruption. A classic example of this type of death scene, in which the impassive objectivity of the author seems perfectly to capture the utter self-interest and indifference of the subject-matter — the Norman peasantry — is the death of the ‘pe’ in Maupassant’s story Le Vieux, where the peasants, in order to save time, start the funeral feast before the old man dies, and laconically, in their coarse dialect, berate him for finally dying before they have finished their funeral cakes. A similar merging of the experience of death with the banality of daily life occurs in Zola’s L’Assommoir, in the section dealing with the death and funeral of Mère Coupeau, where it is mainly the expenses involved that preoccupy the survivors who again express themselves directly and in their unelevated argot, in scenes described by Zola with every detail of their circumstantial triviality.

For the Realist, the reduction of the vertical significance of death requires an expansion of its horizontal circumstantiality, so to speak. In the past, men had no doubt feared death, suffered excruciatingly in the course of it, died surrounded by bed-pans and medicine bottles and quarrelling relatives anxious to get down to the reading of the will and back to the business of daily life, yet the imagery of the act of dying was itself, in the seventeenth century, for example, elevated above and purified of all such petty, mundane details by a belief in a transcendental meaning lying beyond.

… Precisely what had been resolutely expunged from the classical space of death, most thoroughly in classical tragedy — the perceived details, the contingencies of social behaviour, what the French critic, Roland Barthes, has called the ‘trivial kitchenry of doing’ — is returned to it by the Realist.

… Could an age in which ‘hard-headed people’ to use the words of Matthew Arnold, viewed the Bible as a ‘set of asserted facts which it is impossible to verify’ and hence to be rejected as either imposture or fairy-tale, continue to paint miracles, visions, transfigurations and apotheoses, angels bearing crowns of martyrdom on clouds of light? For Courbet the answer was an unqualified negative. ‘I cannot paint an angel because I have never seen one,’ he frankly declared, and when a young art student brought him a study of the head of Christ, Courbet, having asked him whether he had been personally acquainted with the subject in question and having received a negative answer, advised him to do ‘the portrait of your papa’ instead.

Manet’s admirers specifically praised the non-religious qualities of his treatment of a traditional religious theme: ‘They say that the Christ is not a Christ, and I admit that may be the case,’ declared Zola; ‘for me it is a corpse painted in full daylight with freedom and vigor.’ George Moore stated: ‘His Christ is merely a rather fat model sitting with his back against a wall, and two women with wings on either side of him. There is no attempt to suggest a Divine death or to express the Kingdom of Heaven on the Angels’ faces. But the legs of the man are as fine a piece of painting as has ever been accomplished.’

Edouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels, 1864 [image from WikiArt]

… When one of Mayhew’s London poor, a fourteen year-old boy, admits,upon questioning that while he had ‘sartenly … heer’d of God who made the world,’ but ‘couldn’t exactly recollec’ when he’d heer’d on him,’ that he ‘knew there was a book called the Bible’ but didn’t know what it was about and ‘didn’t mind to know,’ had never been in a church, but ‘had heer’d they worshipped God there; didn’t know how it was done,’ then one is hardly surprised to discover that he ‘didn’t know what happened to people after death, only that they was buried. Had seen a dead body laid out; was a little afeared at first; poor Dick looked so different, and when you touched his face, he was so cold! oh, so cold! Had heer’d on another world; wouldn’t mind if he was there hisself, if he could do better, for things was often queer here … ‘ Such confinement to the factual here and now is both an exaggerated product of and an expression of the withering of the forces of religion on the minds of men, which, on a vastly higher level found its prophetic utterance in Ludwig Feuerbach’s battle-cry of the new secularism and his impassioned plea for the substitution of the image of man, in his social context, for the image of God as the guiding light of Western Civilization:

It is a question today, you say, no longer of the existence or non-existence of God, but of the existence or non-existence of man; not whether God is a creature whose nature is the same as ours, but whether we human beings are to be equal among ourselves; not whether and how we can partake of the body of the Lord by eating bread, but whether we have enough bread for our own bodies; not whether we render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but whether we finally render unto man what is man’s; not whether we are Christians or heathens, theists or atheists, but whether we are or can become men, healthy in soul and body, free, active and full of vitality. [ … ] In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual, and consequently also the political and social position of mankind. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of God is for me nothing but the question concerning the existence of non-existence of man.

My previous post from Nochlin’s book is here.




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