Unreal Nature

August 17, 2015

Meaningful Traces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… new forms arose independently of the environment. They then prospered, or stagnated, or died off, according to their ability to keep adjusting their utility …

Continuing through A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe (1989):

… In one view, modern art became modern when it began a hopeful search for fundamental things; in the other, when it began to rid itself of inappropriate illusions. In either case, mundane subjects, and mundane meanings, were no longer the issue.

But a third alternative, much favored in more recent writing, calls down a plague on both these houses. It holds that the notion of an emptied-out art is just as false as the utopian dream of an ideally full one. In this materialist view, what you see in the forms of modern art is neither a route to higher truths nor a lesson in cognitive austerity but an index of the material conditions of modern society.

Rodin_WalkingMan
Auguste Rodin, Walking Man, 1877-78

… Yet all these aspects of modern art are closely tied together: its capacity to present a truth about the world, its self-consciousness about its structure as a language, and its connections to a social context. We need to think at all these levels if we are going to come to more serious terms with the forms we have already been discussing. One is fragmentation — literally, in Rodin’s practice of exhibiting broken-off sculptural parts instead of whole figures, or metaphorically, as ellipsis, in the way Degas segments figures and crops scenes to suggest a glimpse chopped out of a larger continuum. The other is repetition — the clustering of identical motifs, as in Rodin’s Shades, or near-identical motives, as in The Burghers of Calais and the dancers of Degas’s later groups.

[ … ]

Marey_pelicans1882
Étienne-Jules Marey, flying pelican, 1882

… The basic ideas about the dynamic order of life that Marey and Bernard held were shared with many other progressive thinkers, and most notably with Darwin: the idea that change was integral, not incidental, to the order of nature; that knowing the way an organism functioned was the key to understanding it; and that transient events, properly understood, were meaningful traces of permanent laws. A later nineteenth-century artist would hardly have needed to see chronophotographs to be affected by these notions. Especially in terms of a widespread fascination with evolutionary theory, they had long since come to bear on the whole question of understanding, and representing, human variety.

Rodin_the-three-shades
Auguste Rodin, The Three Shades

… What Darwin saw about change in nature, as opposed to what contemporary social thinkers wrongly made of his ideas, was that new forms arose independently of the environment. They then prospered, or stagnated, or died off, according to their ability to keep adjusting their utility (not their repertoire of basic equipment) to changing situations. The maintenance of experiment and variety, rather than the narrowing drive to a defined goal, was the engine of long-term success.

In this latter sense, Darwin might well offer us, by analogy, a guide to understanding how Degas’s art worked — not because he was a contemporary or an influence, or because the art obeys some “natural law,” but because Darwin’s view of evolution contains a key insight into the way innovations occur and take hold in the history of populations.

… If there is a general lesson to carry away from studying the emergence of these various uses of fragmentation and repetition in early modern art, it must have to do, not with the drive to newly absolute simplicities of certainty or negation, but with play, in the serious sense of the word: the play between observed particularities and hidden orders, between individuals and societies, and especially between mobile forms and changing contexts of use, as the engine to produce the variety of particular meanings we have seen underlying these resemblances. That play of “meaningless” forms, from which arise new ways to model the world, is a key way social meaning is produced.

Rodin_burghers-of-calais
Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Callais, 1884-86

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

-Julie

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