Unreal Nature

April 7, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… rather than regard it as either a charming or regrettable digression from the greatness of tradition … think of the grotesque as … a powerful current that continuously stirs calm waters …

This is from the title essay by Robert Storr found in Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque (2004):

… We are taught to choose our words carefully, lest they betray us.

… One of the most efficient ways of disciplining language so as to limit misunderstanding is to radically prune the variant usages that flourish around a given term — elaborating the connotations it has acquired over time — and, instead, define it solely by its basic denotations. Name it and nail it; that is the leveling tendency implicit in most appeals to plain talk, and the instrumental one mandated by businesslike pragmatism. There is a more elevated motive as well. The idea of “purifying the language of the tribe,” to borrow Stéphane Mallarmé’s phrase, is one of the primary impulses of modernism. Other programs for cleansing art of the embellishments and blemishes introduced by Baroque or Romantic grandiloquence were advanced by still more draconian formalists from the late nineteenth through the twentieth century. Iconoclasts of similar stripe are with us today. But the distinction between sticking to essentials with the goal of yielding unalloyed truths and constraining language to enforce norms of behavior is a fine one at best, and at worst no distinction at all.

Martin Schongauer, Saint Anthony Tempted by Demons, ca. 1480-90 [image from the Met Museum]

[ … ]

… In the 1970s, Susan Sontag denounced [Diane] Arbus as a narcissistic tourist in the land of the miserable and the misshapen, a purveyor of ethically cheap thrills that debased the standards of concerned photography:

Arbus’s work is a good instance of a leading tendency of high art in capitalist countries: to suppress, or at least reduce, moral and sensory queasiness. Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. … The gradual suppression of queasiness does bring us closer to a rather formal truth — that of the arbitrariness of the taboos constructed by art and morals. But our ability to stomach this rising grotesqueness in images (moving and still) and in print has a stiff price.

… Lost in such critical shorthand, is a full appreciation of the grotesque’s astonishingly protean artificiality and its capacity for inspiring genuine delight as well as provoking disquiet.

In contrast to idealistic modes thought to embody what is most becoming in nature, hence most noble in culture, no other mode of art is so frankly and so subversively artificial. The sometimes confrontational but frequently seductive manner in which the grotesque calls received aesthetic wisdom into doubt is precisely what has recommended it to artists from so many different periods and of such dissimilar styles and intentions. Indeed, rather than regard it as either a charming or regrettable digression from the greatness of tradition — or from a modernist vantage point, as a swampy bywater of the mainstream — it is more useful and more accurate to think of the grotesque as a full-fledged, multilayered countertradition, a powerful current that continuously stirs calm waters, sometimes redirecting their flow.




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