Unreal Nature

June 30, 2017

To Submit

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:33 am

… For years I’ve been wanting to submit …

The following are letters — or portions of letters — found in Between the Lines: A History of Poetry in Letters, 1962-2002 compiled and edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young (2006). Joseph Parisi was the editor at the time these particular letters were exchanged:

Stephen Dunn to Joseph Parisi ………………………………………………………………. Absecon, N.J., 13 September 1989

One more small change in “Loves.” I was looking over the other poems of mine that you’re going to publish with “Loves” and noticed that in “Landscape at the End of the Century” I refer to ants as “those Calvinists.” On page seven of “Loves” I call ants “those communists.” Now I know that often there’s not much difference between Calvinists and communists, but I thought that I’d better change one of them. …


John Updike to Joseph Parisi ………………………………………………………………. Beverly Farms, Mass., 16 December 1991

Dear Mr. Parisi:

For years I’ve been wanting to submit to Poetry, but wasn’t sure of the address. Karl Shapiro has given me your name, and I hope this reaches you. A self-addressed envelope is enclosed, with my holiday greetings and best wishes.


John Updike to Joseph Parisi ………………………………………………………………. Beverly Farms, Mass., 11 January, 1992

Dear Mr. Parisi:

Delighted to hear it. The dream of a lifetime, come true. I have been going over old papers and there, from the late 50s, was a rejection slip from Poetry (amid many others).

[three poems were accepted, and published in the July 1992 issue]


Charles Wright to Joseph Parisi ………………………………………………………………. Charlottesville, Va., 1 February 1995

Caro Gio —

Right after we talked this afternoon, Holly came home from teaching and I opined to her how guilty I felt about saying no to your kind offer of reviewing Robert’s [Pinsky] Dante book [Inferno], but how inadequate I felt to the task of talking about Dante, much less a translation of same which I had attempted 2 cantos of, and she said — “Don’t be silly. Of course you did the right thing. You can’t write criticism. You don’t know how.” So … that’s the indeterminate X I forgot to mention when we talked — I guess I don’t know how. She’s pretty much got it right, I’m afraid — I’ve never done it, and God knows I’d hate to start with Dott. Alighieri. …


Albert Goldbarth to Poetry ………………………………………………………………. Wichita, Kans., 1 April 1995

Dear Poetry:

I just finished reading through David Barber’s review [of A.G.’s Across the Layers: Poems Old and New] in your current April issue.

Sheesh. When a guy’s subscription is starting to lapse, you sure know how to turn the screws, don’t you.

Renewal stuffs enclosed.

Gratefully / Albert

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




June 29, 2017

Caught Between

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium …

This is from the essay ‘In Camera: On Luisa Lambri’s Haptic Eye’ (2011) found in Walead Beshty: 33Texts: 93,614 Words: 581,035 Characters: Selected Writings (2003-20015) edited by Lionel Bovier (2015):

… While the frame defines the epic detachment of the picture, codifying it as an organizational tool and situating its contents in formal morphological relationships to one another, the screen brings us back to earth, puts us back in the site of viewership and back into the corporeal world. When acknowledged, it is palpable and is everywhere present in the picture, its surface never disappears, no matter how we might try to make it do so; it is always present right before us.

[line break added] While the screen also implies the infinite, its infinitude does not extend into its center, but along its surface; its visible edges are always provisional and indefinite. The screen speaks less of composition than of interference, of mediation, presenting us with a membrane that lies in-between the observer and his/her object. Rather than optical detachment, screens emphasize touching, points of contact between itself and its object.

[line break added] Pictorial concepts such as “in front” and “behind” no longer exist: it is only moments of contact, of touching that organize the pictorial field; everything not on this plane recedes from clarity as a smooth undulation of form and color. Consider the scanner, which sees only on a single plane, which charts what touches its surface, and that which does not.

Optical images, technical images, operate as screens, and are comprised of intersecting planes. The photographer is given the plane of focus, and the plane of film to work with. Photographers manipulate depth of field to simulate perspective, but in fact they are simply trying to cheat the screen by emphasizing the frame, synthetically linking this optical picture to that of the pre-optical synthetic picture, much as the paysagistes [aka landscapers] attempted to cheat paint with their brand of “realism.”

[line break added] Yet unlike the canvas, the camera’s multiple surfaces, its planes of attention, are regularized and industrial in origin, and when they produce interference, it cannot be taken as evidence of “artistic style,” as an errant brushstroke might be. Thus the camera-based photograph is caught between the opacity of the industrial screen and the transparency of the frame, and each photograph is a negotiation between these. All of this is to say that while we look through frames, we look at screens; we scan the screen for incidents, for points of contact.

[line break added] This emphasis on contact constitutes a distinctly bodily oppositional term to the detached transparency of the photographic frame and the virtuality of the eye. As Roland Barthes wrote, “A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”

… it is this understanding of photography as a “skin” or screen that accounts for the photograph’s empathic power, its ability to create a counter-intuitive sense of connection across time and space through the proposition of a shared material intermediary that links the body of the viewer to that which is viewed.

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




June 28, 2017

The Activation of the Idling Picture

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

Barthes recognized the shape, the negative space, of absence, and sought the image to fill the space.

This is from The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space by Mary Price (1994):

… The concepts of absence, negative space, and the idling machine are all telling metaphors for an aspect of seeing. In the vocabulary of sight as well as in the vocabulary of literary criticism, the concept of “negative” is significant. Artists use the term negative space to mean the space between things where nothing is, between solid volumes, a space like the memory gap that holds a sufficiently precise outline so that none but the missing word will fill the gap. Only the exact shape of absence can be remarked. The boundaries of solids not only define the solids but define the space the solids exist in. If clouds in the sky are foregrounded in attention, the space visible between clouds is negative. One can learn to see negative space as shape.

The phrase “negative capability” was invented by Keats to mean a state “when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It is better, according to Keats, to reach for the “fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery” than let that go in order to construct the whole, which in any case remains mysterious and unknowable.

[line break added] The “irritable reaching after fact & reason” is that necessity for completion, connection and generalization or abstraction that cannot be absolutely reconciled with the uncertainties and mystery of the individual and particular. The uncertainties of reality contrast with models constructed to correspond to reality. Models inevitably simplify. Keats is saying let the uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts remain.

In Roland Barthes’s peculiar search for the photograph that would recall his mother to him after her death, he rejected all of the apparently realistic photographs left from his knowledge of her lifetime. He chose, as the use he required of the picture taught him the meaning, that picture of his mother when she was five years old. This act of choice recalls Wittgenstein’s metaphor of a machine “idling” as a paradigm of potential movement from which the impulse or lever to start has not been activated.

[line break added] Barthes’s search is an instance of the engine idling until the one picture activates the full flood of feeling and memory. Barthes recognized the shape, the negative space, of absence, and sought the image to fill the space. It is a sign of our times that Barthes looked for a photograph. Beyond the fact that many photographs of his mother existed, he sought the verification of her being that only a photograph could give him. He wanted something beyond “simple resemblance,” something only he could provide and the existence or effect of which he could never prove.

[line break added] The evidence was the authentication of her existence. For Barthes the point was of crucial importance. The something beyond “simple resemblance” was the aura without its object. The activation of the idling picture within his own startled attention could not be foreseen. He did not know for what he was looking, until one among the photographs he examined could give it to him.

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




June 27, 2017

A Surrogate Religion

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… it is that of the power of light slowly but inevitably to pulverize all of matter, as if the entire world would eventually be disintegrated by and absorbed into this primal source of energy and life.

This is from ‘Rothko and Tradition’ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

… Of course, artists are human beings like the rest of us, and their work may reflect, like any human personality, different, even warring impulses. In the case of Rothko, there is, to be sure, a fully epicurean potential that manifests itself instantly at any Rothko show by the recurrence of colors and color chords so rarefied that the words for our primary and secondary hues — blue or red or green — which are often applied to the titles of his paintings, seem laughably inadequate to describe chromatic sensations closer to something like tangerine or puce or crimson.

[line break added] In this, Rothko often emerges as a voluptuary who could savor and refine those elusive hues associated with the glories of the French hedonistic tradition, from Monet and Renoir to Bonnard and Matisse. Yet there is always, too, the countercurrent of a monkish opposition to this sensuous façade; and part of these paintings’ emotional density resides in what is almost a conflict between pleasure and denial, between the immediacy of hues that can glow like a sunrise and their inevitable extinction.

In this dialogue, Rothko’s wide range of tonal values acts as a constant curb, for his most gorgeous colors are often blotted out by the darkest of storm clouds or evaporated into near-invisibility by an invading stratum of white atmosphere, as if the life of the senses were being assailed or pushed away to some distant realm of memory.

[ … ]

… he has begun to be seen as the heir to a movement that was first defined and named in the 1940s, Luminism. Referring to a mode of landscape painting (as well as photography) that flourished in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Luminism has, of course, to do with the dominion of light. To be sure, the many American painters who practiced this mode have strong affinities with earlier European painting, especially with the work of Friedrich and Turner, but there is little doubt that the abundance and intensity of these visions speak for their importance to a peculiarly American experience.

Typically, a Luminist painting confronts us with an empty vista in nature (often a view of sea and sky from the shore’s edge) that is more colored light and atmosphere than terrestrial soil; and if there is any movement at all in these lonely contemplations of a quietly radiant infinity that seems to expand in imagination even beyond the vast dimensions of the North American continent, it is that of the power of light slowly but inevitably to pulverize all of matter, as if the entire world would eventually be disintegrated by and absorbed into this primal source of energy and life.

[line break added] A surrogate religion is clearly a force here, too, and scholars of Luminism have been quick to point to the analogies between this perception of a natural American light that can slowly lead us to the supernatural and the transcendental thought of Emerson and Thoreau, who also sought a mystic immersion into the powers of nature.

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




June 26, 2017

The Difference Between an Authentic Artist and a Faker

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… However strategic, innovation and provocation are never totally deliberate in true artists; they come from a largely involuntary adhesion of painters to artistic “values” that they are not yet aware of as values.

Continuing through Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade by Thierry de Duve (1991):

… Ultimately, one thing, pictorially speaking, is certain from the evidence of The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride: this painting, like the previous works that it manages to interpret, does not give the slightest bit of credence to the theory that defines (cubist) painting as a realism of conception. It does not articulate the least bit of interest in the opposition of the visual and the conceptual.

[line break added] The painting says what it does and does what it says; it is a thought of the image as much as an image of thought. It is superb visually and conceptually. It does much more than “give a plastic consciousness to our instinct”; it reveals and revulses the “plastic unconscious” of which it is the offshoot.

In other words, this painting is its own theory and its own theorist. It does not matter if the painter subscribed — perhaps paying mere lip service — to the contemporary ideologies that brought to its pinnacle the “realism of conception.” The painting knows that what is wrong in the interpretation of Cubism by itself is not the emphasis put rightly or wrongly on conception but rather its noncritical attachment to the concept of realism that it invokes and does not interpret.

[ … ]

… We must never imagine that an authentic artist — Duchamp no more than Manet — ever engages in provocation for the sake of provocation. The greatest wrong was done to the theory of modern art by those naive critics who went into systematic ecstasy in front of each of the audacities of “anti-art.” Without realizing it, they joined the most philistine approaches, agreeing to mechanically invert the indignation of the “bourgeois” into an equally unexamined enthusiasm.

[line break added] There are no artists worthy of the name who do not desire that a consensus be reached about their work. I said earlier that the desire to paint had the Louvre as its final goal: that means that this desire aimed for consensus and, if possible, for a “universal” one. But, of course, as we are only too aware in our historical moment, art after Duchamp saw a whole series of artists who had understood that an attitude of systematic provocation might be the best way to get to the Louvre.

[line break added] We must not be too hasty to project this dated mechanism of artistic ambition back onto the moment of Nude Descending a Staircase or even of the first readymades. And even for art after Duchamp, it will some day be necessary to find criteria enabling us to distinguish provocation as an arrivist strategy and provocation as a significant action, one that, ever since the avant-garde has existed, produces a novelty that is itself significant in relation to a tradition.

For the moment, we must try to understand how, in the very passage from a before-Duchamp to an after-Duchamp, provocation could have become a significant tactic in a history of painting that everyone designates as an intrinsically strategic history. To understand this, I will refer to the only criterion that, in my view, establishes the difference between an authentic artist and a faker. However strategic, innovation and provocation are never totally deliberate in true artists; they come from a largely involuntary adhesion of painters to artistic “values” that they are not yet aware of as values.

[line break added] Whether artists follow their talent or their genius, their intuition or their drives, their unconscious — however we put it — they are obeying an injunction whose origins or force they do not control but that orders them to transgress the taste in fashion, not because it is the taste in fashion but because it is in the recognition of their radical innovation that painters can find their certitude as painters. From this point on, provocation must be understood literally, as pro-vocation: it is an anticipated demand.

A demand for what, if not the name art or painting? The more an act of the artist appears provocative, an “anti-art,” the more it is clear that it has the meaning — violent and sometimes tragic — of a demand for recognition. And as this recognition takes the form of a nominal attribution more than that of a judgment of value, the artist provocateur calls out for the nomination of his work. Who will give it to him? Viewers, of course, and always in an a posteriori fashion: in short, posterity, no matter how close this posterity is.

The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride

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




June 25, 2017

What Kind Am I?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… Even if an artist strives to put his own individuality into his creation, this individuality is not given to him as determinative of his act, but is set as a task to be fulfilled in the object.

Continuing through the essay ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ in Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (1990):

… From within himself, a living human being positions himself in the world actively; his consciously lived life is a process of performing actions at every moment of it. I act through deed, word, thought, and feeling; I live, I come-to-be through my acts. However, I neither express myself nor determine myself through my acts; I actualize through them something that has validity with respect to objects and meaning, but I do not actualize myself as something that is determinate or that is being determined: only objects and meaning stand over against an act I perform. What is absent in a performed act is the feature of self-reflection on the part of the act-performing person.

… My act-performing consciousness as such poses questions only of the following type: what for? to what end? how? is it correct or not? It never asks such questions as the following: who am I? what am I? what kind am I?

My own determinateness (I am such as I am) is not, for me myself, part of the motivation of my act; the determinateness of the act-performer’s personality is not present in the context which determines the sense of an act for the acting consciousness itself.

… when I act through cognition, the act of my thoughts is determined and motivated solely by what has the validity of an object toward which that thought is directed. I can, of course, explain the success of a given act as being due to my giftedness and its failure as being due to my lack of ability; indeed,I can operate with such determinations of myself generally. But they cannot become part of the motivational context of an act as its determinants; they are unknown to the cognitionally acting consciousness.

The act of artistic creation, likewise, has to do solely with what has the validity of an object to which artistic activity is directed. Even if an artist strives to put his own individuality into his creation, this individuality is not given to him as determinative of his act, but is set as a task to be fulfilled in the object. That is, his individuality is a value which is still to be actualized in the object, a value that is not the bearer of the act, but its object: it is only in the object that it becomes part of the motivational context of the act of creation.

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




June 24, 2017

Describing the Resistance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… As all this is going on, what was to be expressed is expressed …

This is from the chapter on ‘Writing’ in Gestures by Vilém Flusser (2014):

…Writing is more than a habitual gesture. It is nearly an inborn capacity. There are centers in our brains that monitor writing, just as there are centers that monitor breathing. Only the one for writing is not contained in our genetic program, as nest building is contained in the genetic program of birds. With writing, then, we are concerned with a gesture.

[line break added] The proof: there are illiterate people who are not monsters, as is the case with birds unable to build nests. In fact, they constitute the majority of humanity. It is difficult to grasp the difference between genetic and cultural programming, for the way human beings inhabit culture is similar to the way animals inhabit nature. Still, it must be done: gestures must be distinguished from movements conditioned by nature, for the issue is freedom.

… There is a widespread erroneous belief that the machine “constrains” the freedom of the gesture; [but] one is freer typing than writing with a fountain pen, not only because one writes more quickly and with less effort but because the machine more readily permits an overstepping of the gesture’s rules, in fact, exactly because it makes the rules obvious. Concrete poetry, the effort to make writing two-dimensional, is possible only with the machine. Freedom is not only disregarding the rules (which can be done with the pen as well) but about changing them (which is possible with the machine).

[ … ]

… It would be better to ask about the layers that must be penetrated to be able to press the keys of the machine. Such a question offers a criterion for dividing literary criticism into two kinds, a stupid kind that would ask, “What does he want to say?” and a clever kind that would ask “In the face of what obstacles has he said what he said?” These obstacles are many, and among them are some that precede writing. They have to do with rhythmic and formal rules that weigh against the virtuality to be expressed and assert their own forms.

[line break added] But only after having penetrated these layers, only when the virtuality has met the resistance of the words, does one decide to write. Until then, the virtuality to be expressed might press out in another gesture, such as that of musical composition or painting. When we are talking about writing, we must start by describing the resistance of words.

There are words in my memory. Not only are they instruments for absorbing the virtuality to be expressed, giving it a typeable form, so to speak. Words are also unities that vibrate and have a life of their own. They have their rhythms, harmonies, melodies. In their roots, they conceal the timeless wisdom of all history, to which I am heir. They project a whole framework of connotations. And so, from the words in my memory, I can’t just freely choose the ones that “fit” the virtuality to be expressed. First I must listen to them.

… The power of words is so great that each word evokes a whole chain of other words without my knowing it. A whole mob of words can rise up against me and against the keys of the machine.

… The beauty of the act of writing consists in realizing the words. Being a writer does not necessarily mean being a speaker. A bard is not a poet. Words resist writing and speech in different ways.

My work begins only after my decision to articulate whispered words in the form of letters in the typewriter. I must first order the words so that the blurred initial thought finds expression. Various orders present themselves. A logical order — and I persuade myself that what I want to express is defending itself against being ordered logically. What is to be expressed must be adjusted.

[line break added] Then on to the grammatical order: and I persuade myself that the two orders do not agree. I begin to play with both orders and to proceed in such a way that what is to be expressed just barely slips between the contradictions of logic and grammar. Then comes orthographic order — and I discover the wonder of alphabetic code: the function of commas, question marks, the possibility of making paragraphs, of skipping lines, and the inviting possibility of so-called orthographic errors.

[line break added] (Question: Is a deliberate infraction of rules an error?) Yes, I make all these discoveries with my fingers on the keys of the machine and with the automated movement of the page in the machine. As all this is going on, what was to be expressed is expressed: it is realized. And so, in the course of writing, I am surprised to discover what it was I wanted to write.

It is not right to say that writing fixes thinking. Writing is a way of thinking. There is no thinking that has not been articulated through a gesture. Thinking before articulation is only a virtuality, which is to say, nothing. It is realized through the gesture.

My previous post from Flusser’s book is here.




June 23, 2017

Sometimes I Do Get Carried Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… I see the light eventually, but sometimes too late to spare myself the burden of self-rejection …

The following are letters — or portions of letters — found in Between the Lines: A History of Poetry in Letters, 1962-2002 compiled and edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young (2006). John Frederick Nims and then Joseph Parisi was the editor at the time these particular letters were exchanged:

John F. Nims to Brian Swann …………………………………………………. Chicago, 17 March 1978

Dear Mr. Swann,

I guess we’re having trouble keeping up with all of your MSS — especially when you send revised versions of some poems.

Can’t we slow up a little? It seems to me — if I may diffidently say so — that you are writing too much. The result — again an “it seems to me” — is a kind of thinness in what you write. It seems to come too easily. I don’t suppose we want all poets to be like Philip Larkin, who writes, or at least publishes, about one poem a year. One excellent poem! Maybe we could be more like Auden — who averaged seven, wasn’t it?

Anyway, I think editors would take your poems more seriously if you would send them out more selectively: maybe four or five poems you really like two or three times a year? To one magazine, I mean — say Poetry?

Excuse me if I presume
All best wishes,

Sincerely yours, / John F. Nims


John F. Nims to Mona Van Duyn …………………………………………………. Chicago, 12 December 1978

Dear Mona,

I am pleased to see your name on the envelope you sent the ballad in, because I’ve been hoping that we’d have some poetry of yours before too long. I was even about to write and plead.

“Ah,” I thought, “here will be one of the Great Poems of our time — one laying bare the mysteries of Life and Death that have long perplexed us weary mortals..”

But that’s not exactly what I found. This was not the kind of seminal poem I expected. At first I was disappointed. “This is not,” I felt, “major Mona. This is more a mere bagatelle, albeit not sans charm.” (That’s how I talk to myself.)

But then I got to like it. Why not? Why not just tickle the Muse instead of allus [sic] bowing and scraping to her? I think this would be fun to run next summer, say next July or August, when nobody wants to read another “The Waste Land” anyway. Poems to be read in hammock by lake.

[ … ]


Gary Soto to John F. Nims …………………………………………………. Berkeley, Calif., 5 January 1981

Dear John Frederick Nims,

Thanks for your observation about my similes. Sometimes I do [get] carried away, as you pointed out in the two poems you accepted for publication, but for some strange reason I can’t stop it. My hand keeps thinking in unlikely comparisons.

[ … ]


Jonathan Holden to Joseph Parisi …………………………………………………. Manhattan, Kans., 14 December 1984

Dear Joseph Parisi,

Thanks for taking the four poems and for the note. You mention my “patience” as if to apologize for having taken too long to report, but actually this was by far the fastest response I’ve ever gotten from Poetry. … I must say that from the editorial chores I’ve occasionally undertaken — judging contests, especially — I don’t know how you do it, it takes such stamina, not to mention an endless reserve of … would “spiritual generosity” be the word? Much harder than being a psychoanalyst and for rather worse wages. (It was Peter Lorre — the actor — who studied psychoanalysis for a while in Vienna. He quit that study in disgust, saying that psychoanalysis is like trying to “treat a disease” by focusing attention exclusively on “the asshole.” The connection between this parable and editing thousands of unsolicited poems I’ll let you complete.) …

[ … ]


Carl Dennis to Joseph Parisi …………………………………………………. Buffalo, N.Y., 15 January 1985

Dear Joseph Parisi,

I’m glad you liked “The Greenhouse Effect,” one of my favorites, but in a massive housecleaning and revision spree the two other poems you took have been dismantled and put away in my drawer of near misses. I think the end of “Clean Thinking” is strong but the tone is blurred so that the reader is not sure how exactly we are to take it, and the connection to Aunt Esther is by turns too tenuous and too emphatic. The poem seems to creak along and to be finally unconvincing. …

One of my New Year’s Resolutions, you’ll be happy to know, is to hold my poems a few months longer before I send them out. I see the light eventually, but sometimes too late to spare myself the burden of self-rejection when a hard-pressed editor has already given his time to them. I’m sorry for the inconvenience I may have caused you here. If you’d like to publish more than one of my poems, I’d be happy to send you some poems I have at hand which have escaped with their lives from the jaws of revision.

Sincerely, Carl Dennis

A note below Carl Dennis’s letter reads “J.P. wrote to ‘unaccept’ the poems on 22 January.”

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




June 22, 2017

Swept Under the Rug

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… by now the urgency once ascribed to photography in the discussion of the politics of art has waned, swept under the rug with other unfinished business.

This is from the essay ‘Toward a Minor Photography: Annette Kelm’s Discrete Cosmologies’ (2010) found in Walead Beshty: 33Texts: 93,614 Words: 581,035 Characters: Selected Writings (2003-20015) edited by Lionel Bovier (2015):

Each act of depiction is the taming of an unruly past, a condensation of conventions, histories, and processes into a singular surface that is subsequently apprehended in a flash. And herein lies the double bind of the depictive in art: depiction is the most conservative of gestures — naturalized, instrumental, idiomatic — and simultaneously the most contentious artistic act.

[line break added] Its sheer ubiquity and legibility place it squarely at the intersection of art and daily life, the very terrain that represented art’s greatest revolutionary potential. Since the turn of the 20th century, no medium has embodied the conflict over the depictive like photography: as the most widely disseminated popular medium and the most conventionalized representational form, it has been the subject of both ritualized scrutiny and nostalgic re-entrenchment.

Yet it would be a mistake to claim that photography has been restrained by convention; rather it has no identity outside of convention, and no history that is not equally a history of convention. The identity of photography is situated in the inverse relationship between materiality and convention: as its material solidity has receded, dispersed technologically (a process initiated soon after its invention), convention has come to define photography fully. This condition is not unique among objects of theoretical discourse; it is a state shared by all media identified and isolated as a tradition.

[line break added] Yet the photographic has undergone an even more extreme alchemical transformation that encompasses both art and the public sphere: not simply becoming a discursive collection of conventions — for this is what it always was — but its conventions becoming subsumed within those of depiction, becoming inextricable from and unidentifiable outside the language of the depictive.

… by now the urgency once ascribed to photography in the discussion of the politics of art has waned, swept under the rug with other unfinished business. In the wake of this stalemate, the production of photographs in art appears to have suffered from a curious bout of self-inflicted amnesia: rather than being instrumental, it parodies the instrumental, abandoning any aspiration to a revolutionary project for the pictorialism of a premodern Beaux-Arts, retroactively inserting itself into the tradition of the autonomous art object or the taxonomies of the archival document and its thoroughly disassembled instrumentality. Its contingent conventions and its elasticity of distribution and reception have become concretized, inert, and stagnant, accepting the mute museum wall as its foregone conclusion.

… Thus we have a photographic discourse, theoretical or otherwise, that has become a moody precipitate of is headier days — a hermetic, over-crowded, over-theorized, and stifling field comprised of tired idioms; a discourse-driven example of what Theodor Adorno termed “late style,” which he likened to an aged piece of fruit whose surface is “furrowed, even ravaged,” showing “more traces of history than of growth.”

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




June 21, 2017

The Gazer Must Be Willing to See What Is There to Be Seen

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… That state is intolerable. The investment of tenderness must begin again.

This is from The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space by Mary Price (1994):

… In photography, proficiency of execution may also be interpreted as mask or disguise, concealment of the warts and disfigurements, or, alternatively, concealment of natural goodness; we who prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet may be convinced that only surprise will catch a glimpse of truth, or only the amateurism of youthful innocence, or only lack of pose. Barthes calls the photographer who took the Winter Garden picture of his mother “the mediator of a truth,” the truth being his recognition of her unique being in the photograph.

[line break added] But Barthes rightly does not reproduce this most important photograph in his book. “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph,” he says. “It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.”

[line break added] This is certainly true. But what Barthes and other writers have done is to bring within the range of possibility an acknowledgement on the part of the rest of us that what they have discovered and named must exist for us too. They cannot name our precise wounds; they can only name their own; but we may now with tentative assurance begin to understand what their use of their photographs was. They have invested photographs with meaning; their language directs us to the idea of unseen truth in the photograph.

[ … ]

… The photograph is the film or skin of appearance. At the very least it calls attention to the fact of being a mask (transcribed from reality) by removal. In addition, the removal of the mask not only certifies its existential “maskness” but because it looks exactly as real objects look, or as we have learned to see them, the mask is taken as true depiction of those objects. Once again, the reason we take it as true depiction is that the photograph bears a strict and necessary relationship to its source in the visible world.

[ … ]

… It is indeed a photographer’s eye (mind, intention) that chooses what and when to photograph, sees a pattern in chaos, and bends the indifferent reality into meaning. Harold Rosenberg comments: “In our century, it has become customary to believe that if appearances are deceitful, reality is no less so. The need for masks is no longer felt — faces are enigmatic enough.”

… the words permitted to describe both character and face do not describe a photographed face. Such words as kind, cruel, brave, cheerful, mean, humble — words describing ways of acting — are not clearly coded to visual counterparts. Recognition of this fact, though unacknowledged, may lie behind the persistent use of the mask as metaphor for the face (whether as prepared expression covering “wound,” or naked expression indicating the usual mask has been dropped, or condition of face corresponding so exactly to the deceit of the mask that the face is the mask).

… The aura itself may be regarded as a mask. For an object to return one’s gaze, the gaze must be directed toward the object, and the gazer must be willing to see what is there to be seen, rather than investing the object with significance beyond its ability to sustain additional weight. As the account of Proust’s use of photograph as metaphor will show, Marcel’s sight of his grandmother without the aura of “intelligent and pious tenderness,” as if he were seeing a photograph, was bare, harsh, and strange.

[line break added] The surface was unmodified by filial regard. Marcel hastened to clothe her again. There is no aspect here that can be called reality. It would be wrong to suggest that the vulgar old woman he sees was the reality to the exclusion of the grandmother. Both are constituent, as are other aspects here irrelevant to a fictional character (atomic composition, medical history, the mind and memory of the grandmother herself before Marcel existed, for example), in the complex existence of one person.

[line break added] We assume, because all of us fictionalize our lives and the lives of others who have a part in our story, that to surround a grandmother with an aura of intelligent and pious tenderness is good, better than to see her plain. Marcel, in the image of his grandmother seen as if photographed, is reducing a beloved figure to purely physical appearance. That state is intolerable. The investment of tenderness must begin again.

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




Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.