Unreal Nature

March 7, 2016

Taking Pains

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… The deal is that you have to go without a map, and you can only go there on foot.

Final post from High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… the melodramatic and dogmatic skepticism of “deconstruction” is the inevitable offspring of a disappointed essentialism. The critical theory we need is one which recognizes that the abstractions of social thought — the “bourgeoisie,” the “mass audience,” or high and low themselves — are at best provisional constructions, useful conjectures that may sometimes allow us partially to organize or grasp a little piece of history.

One of the comedies (perhaps it is really a tragedy) of contemporary intellectual manners is that, at the very moment when some of the “hard” sciences have begun to look at cultural history for models of storytelling, cultural history is increasingly infected by contempt for its own methods. Natural scientists, formerly thought of as engaged in the search for grand systems of all-shaping law, now more than ever extol the special explanatory power of “just history” — that is, of descriptive chronicles which respect the role of accident and honor the intractable power of the individual case.

[line break added] (A key example of this celebration of historical narrative would be the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s recent reconsideration of the branching diversity of early animal forms, Wonderful Life.) Yet many contemporary historians of culture, ironically, denigrate such ways of recounting change as unsophisticated — and treat them as delusory distractions from a “real” history of the hidden working of large determining forces, supposedly concealed beneath the apparent diversity of observable events and personalities.

[line break added] This denigration of the errant and matters of mere contingency is doubly ironic in the case of those who deal with the history of modern art, for the progress of that art, in its bewilderingly different forms, provides us with some of the most telling instances in all of history of the force latent in unpredictable inventions, undetermined responses, and individual idiosyncrasies. Museums of modern art are, among much else, places where we go to replenish our faith in the power and fascination of things that did not have to happen.

To deny categories and types, however, is to risk seeming to deny values: to say that nothing is certain is often understood to be saying that anything goes. If the denial of authority is seen to result only in a surrender to facile subjectivism, then questions of critical judgment easily become just a question of who has the power to impose their views.

[line break added] And this argument, too, is heard from many sides of the debates over modern art and popular culture — the argument that all historians of value in art are delusory artifacts of arbitrary taste, inflicted on a field in which no true discrimination is possible. This view — which is a dim parody of its antithesis, the hunger for authority — informs blissful swoons over the pleasures of kitsch culture solely because they are “pop,” as well as tirades against the elitism of attempts to identify better or worse among the achievements of artists.

The forced choice between the authoritarian and the indiscriminate positions isn’t adequate either to the best traditions of response to modern art, or to the art itself.

… In such a world [as we live in today], the shared cult of modern images must entail a faith in contention and a dedication to constant reassessment, second thoughts, and argument.

… Clive James, the British critic of television and poetry, once wrote that to be a true pluralist “is a work of patience, of taking pains to attack categories while insisting on values, and there is no valid way of speeding the job up.”

… The big, rolling movements of modern culture, those wheels and whirligigs of exchange, in the end turn out to b just small, pedestrian movements — not foreordained cycles but the consequence of little, prodding, uncertain motions forward. Look at a funny upturned shoe [referencing works of shoes/feet by Elizabeth Murray, Philip Guston, and Robert Crumb among others], and if you are willing, you can see faith, energy, failure, and your father’s life.

[line break added] The modern tradition can continue to bring us glad tidings by taking us on extraordinary journeys to familiar places, but only on its own eccentric terms. The deal is that you have to go without a map, and you can only go there on foot.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




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