Unreal Nature

July 26, 2017

Discovered in the Blind Spot of Ordinary Perception

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:33 am

… The stray detail thus confirms and augments for him the evidentiary promise of the photograph, its marvelous delivery of a certain there and then.

This is from Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… According to [Sir Joshua] Reynolds, a great artist, even if restricted to a scene that appears in a camera obscura, will nonetheless draw on his experience to render the elements of the scene in their general significance, while the camera will attend exclusively to the arbitrary particulars before it. Setting the artist free to compose a scene from his imagination and synthesize his many observations of nature would only increase the superiority of his picture. The artist can also elevate his style through the use of historical, biblical, or mythological allusions, which can enrich pictorial meaning in ways that the camera obscura cannot. Reynolds thus defines art in a way hostile to the aesthetic claims that photographers would later make.

Countering Reynolds, Talbot in The Pencil of Nature tries to shoehorn photography into art by appealing to the aesthetic potential of accident. He proposes that the photographer with an artistic eye trained by study and experience will be able to recognize when the particulars of a scene momentarily coincide with a picturesque ideal.

[ … ]

Talbot, having developed a process that withdrew the skilled hand and restricted the imagination to scenes in the world, displaced the traditional sites of agency and substituted the eye. The eye would no longer be a passive receptor, an imagined target for the finished work, but a decisive agent in pictorial production. It was where the mind could register and sift the sensuous particulars of the world. What had been a matter of thinking and handling would now be a matter of seeing.

Talbot’s reconciliation of art and automation, however, had several shortcomings. One was the improbability of encountering a scene that offered a satisfactory configuration of forms and lacked extraneous details. Talbot had evidently arranged his broom carefully for a reason. What was the likelihood of finding an ideal arrangement in the world? Of finding an individual case coinciding with a desirable type?

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

… A second problem for Talbot’s scheme was the weak link between the picturesque photograph and the sensibility of the camera operator. It was one thing for a photograph to faithfully record a picturesque scene, and quite another for it to record the operator’s recognition of that picturesqueness.

… What would differentiate a photograph that spoke to the aesthetic refinement of the operator from one that attested merely to the quirks of dumb luck? The traditional arts had never posed this problem to a significant degree. A painter might have a lucky day, when conditions endowed the paints on his or her palette with the perfect viscosity, but there was no such thing in painting as a lucky masterpiece. The bond between aesthetic sensibility and pictorial output was presumed to be firm. The automatism of photography, whereby the action of light over a brief interval of time generated the image, destroyed this traditional lamination of intention and result.

… the eye of the operator, no matter how sensitive to the picturesque accidents of the world, lacks the capacity to take full credit for the plenitude of the photograph.

… Chance has filled the gap between the incomplete attention of the photographer and the indiscriminate receptivity of his or her apparatus.

… [There is] the possibility that a photograph might exceed the intentions that informed its production. Although Talbot describes this encounter as belonging to the photographer (“the operator himself discovers upon examination”), it belongs properly to any viewer. The first encounter motivates the photograph; the second interrupts the general intention that informed its making.

… One of Talbot’s principal challenges in defending photography was to salvage its significance from the noise of the arbitrary.

Talbot’s rationalization of the unexpected detail in photography consists of two moves. The first is to associate it with the wondrousness of photography writ large. The chemical emergence of the photographic image possessed a quality of magic, and Talbot claimed that the cropping up of unsuspected details in the finished photograph constitutes “one of the charms of photography.”

Talbot’s second and subtler move is to suggest that the surprising inclusions of photography tend to signify. [ … ] If the serendipitous encounter allows an operator to express his or her taste and sensitivity in a photograph, the unexpected detail allows a photograph to talk back.

But what, according to Talbot, does a photograph tak back about? The accidental details that he discusses are, for the most part, not any old notations and measurements, but notations and measurements that mark time and place. … The stray detail thus confirms and augments for him the evidentiary promise of the photograph, its marvelous delivery of a certain there and then.

[ … ]

… An automatic process sandwiched between the chance encounter and the accidental inclusion, photography combined immense depictive capacity with weak intentionality. It dispensed with the godlike designing powers of the artist in favor of aesthetic sensibility, serendipity, and the play of chance. Like the new social statistics, photography tended to shift the production of meaning away from design and toward analysis after the fact.

[line break added] Like a statistical table, the photograph contained an order that was stumbled across, discovered in the blind spot of ordinary perception. While Talbot suggested that the accidental stuff of photography could reveal instants of familiar beauty or orderly intelligence, photographers coming later, pressed by other doubts, would seek other wonders.

My previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.




July 25, 2017

Elude All the Nets Cast

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… the indefinable sense of movement (movement toward many things, it is true, but movement nonetheless) …

This is from The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning by Dore Ashton (1972):

In the welter of criticism that accompanied the ascendency of modern American painting there is little to justify the legend of the New York School. Yet, whenever the New York School is mentioned, we know what we mean. The fact is that at a certain moment enough painters seemed to converge in a loose community, with sufficient aggressive energy to command attention both in the American press and abroad, to constitute an identifiable entity. Yet a refined study of the period roughly spanning a decade from the early nineteen-forties indicates none of the usual attributes of a ‘school’ of painting.

Long after the image of a New York School had been shattered by subsequent circumstances, Harold Rosenberg, one of the major critics of the golden moment, contended that the group he himself had identified under the umbrella of ‘action painting’ could under no circumstances be regarded as a school.

[line break added] In The New Yorker of December 6, 1969, he wrote that style in modern art is determined not by place but by ideology, and his examination of the ‘great flawed art of Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb, David Smith, Still, Newman, Hofmann, Kline, Guston, and a dozen others’ indicated that they were ‘individuals bewildered, uncertain, and straining after direction and an intuition of themselves.’ Unlike the artists of the School of Paris, who were bound by the aroma of their ancient city regardless of their intellectual divergence, the New York artists lacked ‘the ephemeral influence that binds responses together beyond the antagonism of minds.’

… From the inside — from the point of view of the artists, that is — the movement appeared to be an extremely complicated set of prerogatives appropriated with a newfound zeal that could only be attributed to the peculiar circumstances of the post-war era. No single artist of this group voluntarily identified with the group, or accepted any of the sobriquets offered up by a succession of well-meaning critics. They did, however, accept the infusion of vigor that a communal activity sponsored, no matter how loose and ill-defined that activity was.

[line break added] Many of the artists were engaged in a surreptitious romance with the city itself, which became an almost mystical source of individuality. The ‘loft rats’ were proud of their penury, their bohemianism, and their absolute isolation from uptown city mores. Many of them took pride in their self-reliance, that old Emersonian ideal, and regarded survival as a sign of their artistic justification.

[line break added] The story that Willem de Kooning who, like everyone else, was starving during the early Depression years, refused a job decorating a department store and preferred to be evicted rather than sully his individuality and artistic integrity was often repeated. The streets of New York were de Kooning’s ‘place’ (and the ‘place’ of all the others who felt the mounting heat of creative activity in the city to be a true inspiration). The dance critic Edwin Denby, de Kooning’s close friend and most congenial memoirist, has told us how keenly exhilarated the painter seemed to be by the atmosphere of the streets:

I remember walking at night in Chelsea with Bill during the Depression, and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions — spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon light. … We were all happy to be in a city the beauty of which was unknown, uncosy, and not small-scale.

Aside from the sense of place, and the indefinable sense of movement (movement toward many things, it is true, but movement nonetheless), what seemed to draw artists together in the nineteen-forties was their common need to denounce all rhetoric and elude all the nets cast by ambitious cataloguers and historians.

[ … ]

… Once the European painter had accepted his inherited mantle as the enemy of bourgeois culture, he was free to concentrate on his own development within the ranks of the intelligentsia, where he had plenty of company. The American painter on the other hand could never find, as de Kooning once put it, a comfortable chair. To some extent the background against which he played out his internal drama served as a barrier to self-fulfillment.

[line break added] From Emerson’s self-reliance to William James’ pragmatism and John Dewey’s instrumentalism, all American philosophic doctrine tended to constrict the role of the dreamer. Practical consequences and action were the chief concerns of these anti-metaphysicians. The free-flowing discourse of the imagination, so essential to the nurture of the arts, was rejected the instant it appeared to lead to a body of theory (and theory, no matter how frequently modified, rejected, and overthrown, is still a vital part of the artist’s equipment).

… The strong modern influence from Europe made old-fashioned realism seem hopelessly provincial: to be an illustrator was to renounce all aspirations to art. At the same time the artist who renounced the language of the masses suffered the shame of becoming déclassé and the anguish of the solitary traveler. If he were neither reporter nor flatterer, America had little use for him; yet, a longing to be acknowledged was never overcome. Until the myth of the artist as inspired soothsayer took root in the late nineteen-forties, the American painter was almost always caught in his own conflicting desires to be wholly individualistic and, at the same time, a member of his society.

Until the Depression, then, there was little support for the artist’s view of himself as a necessary functionary in a sound society. If there had been a point of contact between society and the artist’s extreme isolation, many of the conflicts inherent in the early years of the century might never have erupted as violently as they did during the Depression. The absence of an artistic milieu — that median between society and the artist — was crucial. It was in the creation of such a milieu, in which the extraordinarily different temperaments of the abstract expressionist artists could find moral sustenance, that the nineteen-thirties mark a true art-historical epoch.




July 24, 2017

The Resonance of One and the Same History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… There is only a single history of modern art, and the task of historians is to capture it.

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

… The case of the readymade was not difficult to spot. For more than thirty-five years, what has been most significant in modern art has worked at the interpretation of the readymade’s resonance, sometimes through compulsive repetition, sometimes through violent denial, but also sometimes through a meaningful rethinking of it, and, in any case, always through a recognition (even if only an implicit one).

It is not possible to continue to believe that all of this was nothing but an enormous blunder and still engage in art history. Nor can one continue to believe that a new culture could have sprung up there, fully constituted and fully armed, on a tabula rasa. Revolutions of all sorts have failed to keep their promises. The first theoretical task of the historian of contemporary art must thus be to restore the major interpretants of this history to their historical continuity.

… We should never stop wondering at the fact that it was in the plastic arts alone, and not in music or literature, for example, that an incredible number of “isms” proliferated — “isms” that hid the names of painting and sculpture all the better to monopolize them. And we should marvel even more at the subsequent replacement of the “isms” with a new way of naming art movements, when the general word art, flanked by some qualifying adjective, began to substitute for the words painting or sculpture to such a degree that for most of us, today, the word art has ceased to refer to the totality of the fine arts and has come rather to be identified, even though this does not clarify anything, with the expression plastic arts.

It is as if at a certain moment in history, the specificity of painting reached the limits of its “essential conditions” stripped bare and, from this point on, the aesthetic judgment “This is painting” could no longer be uttered. Then two clans appeared, composed of artists as well as art critics.

The first clan — made up of traditionalists even when they are modernist — is that of the pure and steadfast defenders of a notion of specificity. They will go so far as to endorse the monochrome, and eventually even the ready-made canvas, but they will insist on positing a normative limit somewhere on what deserves the name painting.

[line break added] In their attempt to circumscribe the history of art, they will be led sooner or later to a fetishistic fixation on the name painting, accompanied usually by a fixation on the notion of craft, as we saw not so long ago with that current, symptomatic in the compulsive doubling of its name, known as “painting-painting” (peinture-peinture). The members of this clan generally claim a historicity of the medium that is itself specific and that is dominated by the paternal figure of Cézanne.

The second clan — most often composed of avant-gardists — appears today as a sort of flight into the future. Faced with an object that it is impossible to call painting, the members of this group try to avoid a specific judgment while valorizing the unclassifiable artistic quality that is being recognized in the object. So one comes to name an object art while attaching to it an epithet that tries to re-specify it, and that one fetishizes for a while, before dropping it to go on to another. An enormous historical misunderstanding on the responsibility of this substitution of the name of art for the name of painting has led this clan to claim Duchamp as one of its own.

It was urgent for us to get rid of this misunderstanding. There are not two histories of modern art, one that inscribes itself completely in the filiation of the father-Cézanne and that does not refuse to belong to the history of painting, and the other that inscribes itself completely in the denial of paternity by the bachelor-Duchamp and that believes that it is reinventing a completely new art in the denying of pictorial specificity. There is only a single history of modern art, and the task of historians is to capture it.

[line break added] They will not be able to do so by running to a peremptory judgment that eliminates one of the two currents to the benefit of the other, because they would then also be eliminating half of the facts that it is their duty to interpret. They are thus forced to be theorists and to produce an overall framework that accepts the two currents, shows their compatibility, allows within each of them singular value judgments, and restores the whole to the resonance of one and the same history.

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




July 23, 2017

Who Only Sees and Loves

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… for the most part, he does not act at all … he lives and experiences “every day,” and his self-activity is absorbed in observing and narrating.

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):

… We turn now to the analysis of the second type of biography: the “social-quotidian” type. In this second type of biography, history is not present as a life-organizing force.

… In the historical conception of humanity, the axiological center is occupied by historical cultural values which organize the form of the hero and of heroic life (not happiness and prosperity, not purity and honesty, but greatness, strength, historical significance, exploits, glory, etc.). In the social conception, the axiological center is occupied by social values, and first and foremost — by familial values (not historical renown in posterity, but a “good name” among one’s contemporaries, the “good and upright human being”); these values organize the private form of life; quotidian life (familial or personal), with all its everyday details (not events, but workaday existence) …

… Love of life in biography of this type is a love for the prolonged abiding of loved persons, things, situations, and relations (the point is not to be in the world and to have significance in it, but to be with the world, to observe it and to experience it again and again).

… In the second type of biography, the manner of narrating is usually more individualized, but the activity of the main hero — the narrator — is confined to loving and observing: for the most part, he does not act at all (does not have a character appropriate to a fabula); he lives and experiences “every day,” and his self-activity is absorbed in observing and narrating.

… The biographical hero [of this kind] becomes someone who only sees and loves, and not someone who lives

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




July 22, 2017

Frustrated Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… When disturbance and destruction occur intentionally, when they are “pragmatic,” their motive is impure and so not “pure evil.” And what is not pure evil is none at all but rather the frustrated search for freedom.

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

… Overturning the [chess] board is a “move” in the chess game, one of the gestures that can be made within the universe of the game. But it is a “move” against rules. So the disturber is not someone who “no longer is playing” but someone who has decided to continue to play, against the rules. Only the decision explains that the rules are disturbing him. If he really were no longer playing, then the rules couldn’t bother him. He decides to disturb the disturbing rules (to overturn the board and avoid the defeat to come) exactly because he was in the game when the decision was made.

In this example, Zerstõrung (disturbance) and Destruktion (destruction) part company. “To disturb” means to get rid of the rules that put things in order and so cause these things to fall apart. Nothing of this sort happens with the overturning of the chessboard. This movement does not undermine the rules of chess but rather confirms them by not following them (it dis-turbs, as a thief confirms the law). Disturbers (barbarians) are not necessarily destructive spirits. On the contrary, they can have a constructive effect.

[line break added] As the Germans disturbed the Roman Empire, they transferred its rules (its structures) into other areas, for example, into the Church. If destructive spirits (e.g. cynics or Epicurians) had triumphed, the empire would actually not have been disturbed, but it would have been destroyed. Disturbers disturb that which is disturbing; destroyers destroy structures. Disturbers are thieves and are unlike destroyers in that they do not deny the law. Disturbers are frustrated conservatives; destroyers are frustrated revolutionaries.

The player overturns the board because he is afraid he will otherwise lose. His motive is the avoidance of defeat through a rule averse “move.” His intention is to disrupt the game, to break it apart. He turns the board over “intentionally,” and for exactly this reason, the gesture is not evil. … Evil would be to overturn a board where two unknown players are sitting, whose game holds no interest.

[line break added] The motive for such a gesture would consist in a decision to disturb an uninteresting game. It would be a gesture with no intention. The motive would be “pure” (in a Kantian sense of disinterest, complacence). For what such a gesture disturbs, what provokes the gesture, is not a specific state of play, and not the rules of the game, as in the case of destruction, but the fact that this is a rule-governed activity.

[line break added] The decision does not mean “these rules are disturbing,” nor does it mean “these rules are wrong”; rather, it means “this game is disturbing because it has rules.” So, [it’s] not “made, but disturbing,” nor “badly made, and so disturbing,” but “made, therefore disturbing.” That would be “pure malice.” It is rare, because it is inhuman, that is, unintentional, a gesture with pure motives.

… Observing the gesture of destroying enables us to consider the question of evil. It lets us avoid the trap set by those who claim that disturbance and destruction are evil. … They are basically saying “disturbance and destruction are evil because the disturb me.” Disturbance and destruction are not evil, however, as long as they have an intention. Disturbance with intention is frustrated conservatism; destruction with intention is frustrated revolution. When they coincide, frustrated work is the result.

… When disturbance and destruction occur intentionally, when they are “pragmatic,” their motive is impure and so not “pure evil.” And what is not pure evil is none at all but rather the frustrated search for freedom. When they are without intention, however, when they occur with “pure motives,” then they are evil, which happens rarely because it is inhuman (as is “pure good,” regrettably). And then they are terrifying.

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




July 21, 2017

In the Lost Boyhood of Judas

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:30 am

… Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there.

This is from the ‘The Lost Childhood’ by Graham Greene found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life, we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future.

… Yes, Gagool has remained a permanent part of the imagination, but Quatermain and Curtis [three characters from King Solomon’s Mines] — weren’t they, even when I was only ten years old, a little too good to be true? They were men of such unyielding integrity (they would only admit to a fault in order to show how it might be overcome) that the wavering personality of a child could not rest for long against those monumental shoulders.

[line break added] A child, after all, knows most of the game — it is only an attitude to it that he lacks. He is quite well aware of cowardice, shame, deception, disappointment. Sir Henry Curtis perched upon a rock bleeding from a dozen wounds but fighting on with the remnant of the Greys against the hordes of Twala was too heroic. These men were like Platonic ideas: they were not life as one had already begun to know it.

But when — perhaps I was fourteen by that time — I took Miss Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan from the library shelf, the future for better or worse really stuck. From that moment I began to write. All the other possible futures slid away: the potential civil servant, the don, the clerk had to look for other incarnations. Imitation after imitation of Miss Bowen’s magnificent novel went into exercise-books …

Greene was born in Berkhamsted School where his father taught

… Why? On the surface The Viper of Milan is only the story of a war between Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona, told with zest and cunning and an amazing pictorial sense. Why did it creep in and color and explain the terrible living world of the stone stairs and the never quiet dormitory?

[line break added] It was no good in that real world to dream that one would ever be a Sir Henry Curtis, but della Scala who at last turned from an honesty that never paid and betrayed his friends and died dishonored and a failure even at treachery — it was easier for a child to escape behind his mask. As for Visconti, with his beauty, his patience, and his genius for evil, I had watched him pass by many a time in his black Sunday suit smelling of mothballs.

[line break added] His name was Carter. He exercised terror from a distance like a snowcloud over the young fields. Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey. I read all that in The Viper of Milan and I looked round and I saw that it was so.

… I think it was Miss Bowen’s apparent zest that made me want to write. One could not read her without believing that to write was to live and to enjoy, and before one had discovered one’s mistake it was too late — the first book one does enjoy [writing]. Anyway she had given me my pattern — religion might later explain it to me in other terms, but the pattern was already there — perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.

[line break added] Man is never satisfied, and often I have wished that my hand had not moved further than King Solomon’s Mines, and that the future I had taken down from the nursery shelf had been a district office in Sierra Leone and twelve tours of malarial duty and a finishing dose of blackwater fever when the danger of retirement approached. What is the good of wishing? The books are always there, the moment of crisis waits, and now our children in their turn are taking down the future and opening the pages. In his poem ‘Germinal’ A.E. wrote:

In ancient shadows and twilights
Where childhood had strayed,
The world’s great sorrows were born
And its heroes were made.
In the lost boyhood of Judas
Christ was betrayed.




July 20, 2017

He Was Certain

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… For more than forty years Stieglitz worked to achieve this goal …

This is from Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (2000):

… He was a man of enormous intellect and passionate, often radical convictions. Yet, ironically, within the last thirty years he has been incorporated into the very establishment he once decried.

Stieglitz, though, was correct in his assessment of himself: he was, at the very core of his being, a revolutionist, and it was this characteristic that propelled him to a preeminent position in American art. Throughout his life he presented himself as a passionate individual who refused, even as a child, to play games according to prescribed rules but made new rules and even new games.

[line break added] An iconoclast who could not accept things on face value but insisted on challenging conventions, Stieglitz was intensely ambitious and highly competitive: he wanted, as he once admitted, to “beat everybody on earth,” but once victorious, he lost interest and moved on to other things. “Whenever I feel success coming,” he declared in the 1920s, “I walk around the corner.”

[line break added] His defiance of tradition, his willingness to experiment, his faith in the efficacy of radical action, and his desire to work outside of accepted structures won him supporters among avant-garde artists and intellectuals. Moreover, his restless nature, coupled with his incessant need to subvert expectations, endowed him with the ability to discover fresh, more compelling causes in the wake of old ones, and thus to repeatedly reinvigorate his mission by bringing new ideas and new converts into his fold.

Gertrude Käsebier, Alfred Stieglitz, 1902

… When Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York in 1905, he had the audacious belief that America, as the most modern nation in the world, could and should be the world’s preeminent cultural force. And he was certain that New York, the city of ambition, the place where the hand of man — and the hand of modern man — was writ large, should be its center.

[line break added] For more than forty years Stieglitz worked to achieve this goal, mounting exhibitions, publishing brochures and periodicals, and steadfastly staying “on deck” at his galleries, as he phrased it, proselytizing to all who would listen. That time proved him correct bears witness to the strength of his paradigm; it is also evidence of his vision.

To be continued.




July 19, 2017

The Bond Between Effort and Achievement

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… If, however, the crux of artistic production was purely a matter of seeing, then photography could render manual skill unnecessary …

This is from Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

Talbot knew from the start that chance was a problem. His concern surfaces in a book he wrote to describe and promote his invention, The Pencil of Nature, illustrated with salt-paper prints and published in installments between 1844 and 1846. A remarkably prescient defense of photography, The Pencil of Nature anticipates a wide range of uses for the medium, including photocopying, courtroom exhibits, and botanical illustrations. For some uses, the radical indifference of the process seemed a boon. But for others, it was a problem. This was especially true when it came to Talbot’s aspirations to see photography become a new art. To overcome this problem, he enlisted chance.

This enlistment responded to the implications of substituting an automatic chemical process for a traditional kind of labor.

Talbot proposes that art is a matter of the eye. He implies that sensitivity to the chance encounter binds the eye of the photographer to that of the painter. Both photographer and painter rely on a capacity to detect the potential of accident to stir the imagination or soul. Under this scheme, the true creative act in the pictorial arts is the arresting of the eye, the momentary cropping of a portion of a chanced-upon visual field. Talbot embraces the notion of the pictorial composition as a found object, whose aesthetic potential only the sensitive eye can discern.

The contrast between Talbot’s handling of the issue of chance in his accounts of his invention of photography, on the one hand, and in his discussion of the production of a picturesque photograph, on the other, is revealing. In the invention narratives, chance delivers curious results that spark an arduous process of scientific inquiry and technological improvement. Stumbling on the capacity of table salt to arrest the light sensitivity of his photographic papers is merely a catalyst to diligent experimentation and intelligent tinkering.

[line break added] But in the production of a picturesque photograph, stumbling across a broom in a doorway and apprehending the aesthetic potential of the scene supplants rather than inspires labor. By suppressing the considerable difficulty of the calotype process, Talbot suggests that once a serendipitous discovery occurs, only the brief use of a camera, some paper, and some chemicals is required. As an invention, photography emerges from great foresight and labor; as a modern commodity, its satisfactory use ostensibly requires only a little practice and, if aesthetically pleasing results are desired, an educated eye and a bit of luck.

[line break added] Talbot thus understood and exploited the inconsistency between espoused morality and the emergent consumer economy. His accounts associate photography as a product with a modern mode of opportunism that existed uneasily alongside Victorian moral affirmations of the bond between effort and achievement.

Talbot could have done otherwise. He could instead have emphasized the hard work that making aesthetically pleasing photographs required. Even without acknowledging the true difficulty of his photographic process, he could have posited a kinship between photographer and painter by stressing the aesthetic preparation that can inform the work of both. After all, there are good reasons to believe that he had not actually encountered the broom in the doorway by accident.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

… The answer lies, I think, in Talbot’s investment in transferring the locus of creativity wholly to the eye. Such a transfer was necessary to reconcile his claim that photography was a labor-saving device with his claim that it was a medium of aesthetic value. For both claims to be sound, pictorial beauty could not be a function of work. If arranging brooms in doorways was the stuff of art, then presumably arranging paint on canvas would be as well, and issues of skill and manual facility would still loom large. If, however, the crux of artistic production was purely a matter of seeing, then photography could render manual skill unnecessary without forfeiting aesthetic potential.

[line break added] Talbot construes the real artistry of all pictorial art as an opportunism of sight. In his scheme, discovering a picturesque subject requires aesthetic sensibility and inspiration: transposing it to a surface, whether canvas or photographic paper, is merely a matter of mechanical industry. Talbot demotes the application of paint to canvas, or graphite to paper, to the status of ordinary labor, as if it were merely the burdensome execution of a creative perception.

… For … Victorians, drawing and taste, the felicitous hand and the aesthetic eye, were deeply entwined. Talbot pried them apart to exalt the power of photography as a labor-saving device.

… Once the photographic apparatus was set up and the lens cap removed, time did the work of making the image, and more or less became its subject. Photography embedded a moment of illumination on the reactive surface of the photographic plate.

My previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.




July 18, 2017

With Irony or Longing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… the muse of art history is as weighty a presence as the facts of nature.

This is from ‘A Postscript: Some Recent Neo-Romantic Mutations’ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

No one, I am certain, will ever define Romanticism clearly, but then, no one will ever be able to drive a stake through the heart of the word that, for want of a better one, we cannot refrain from using when we try to describe the protean range of new forms and feelings that emerge in the late eighteenth century. Considering that it may be called into service for both West and David, Goya and Blake, Friedrich and Delacroix, Canova and Rude, logicians could surely tell us that Romanticism means either much too much or nothing at all.

[line break added] Nevertheless, most of us in the business of history know that something shattering happened in the late eighteenth century — T.E. Hulme called it “split religion” — and that ever since, the shock waves have been registering with varying intensities on the Richter scales of art. The word, of course, is so slippery that it can accommodate even the most ostensibly anti-Romantic aspects of the modern movement, embracing every contradiction.

[line break added] What could be more Romantic than Mondrian’s or Malevich’s dream of purging painting of everything but a distilled abstract purity, as untainted by the seen, material world as, say, Flaxman’s Homeric outlines? What could be more Romantic than the realization in 1927 of a harmonious community of low-budget houses in Stuttgart, a vision of social and aesthetic utopia in which geniuses as individual as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe joined forces in a brotherhood of reformatory purpose and style whose pedigree could be tracked back to the likes of the Nazarenes or the Pre-Raphaelites?

[line break added] What could be more Romantic than Picasso’s or Matisse’s espousal of African art in an effort to reach under and beyond those moribund Western traditions that Romantic artists as different as Ingres and Blake had already hoped to undermine in a search for more vital and therefore more archaic sources of art? If we choose, the semantic fire of the infinitely molten concepts evoked by Romanticism can ignite speculation about any art of the last two centuries.

[line break added] Nevertheless, the nostalgic revivalist mode of the last few decades, best characterized by a word — postmodernism — as ungraspable as Romanticism itself, but at least restricted in time to the later twentieth century (until perhaps we start using it retroactively to characterize, say, the “proto-postmodernism” of Reynolds’s appropriations or Nash’s witty architectural eclecticism), has turned up a diverse spectrum of art that, instead of looking forward to the Brave New Worlds promised by modernism and worshiped at the shrine of progress, appears to resurrect with irony or longing (or a mixture of the two) a wide range of Romantic imagery and attitudes.

… Earthworks are surely the most spectacular and Romantically heroic efforts to establish some mystical contact between artists and the great universe of earth and heaven out there. As pilgrims to the sublime, breaking free from the confines of museums and galleries, these new voyagers have gone, often literally, to the ends of this earth in order to make a human mark so that we, and perhaps future extraterrestrials, will know that the impulses that produced Stonehenge and the great pyramids are still, against all odds, alive.

… The high seriousness of these artists, their total willingness to sacrifice earthly and urban pleasures in order to worship nature connects them to older Romantic traditions still filled with faith in the healing powers of art as virtually a substitute religion. But more familiar, especially in the restricted conventions of painting and drawing, is a sense of quiet retrospection about a lost world not only of real landscape but of its poetic equivalent in Romantic landscape painting.

… In most of these paintings the muse of art history is as weighty a presence as the facts of nature. Indeed, this kind of historicism permeates as broad a range of contemporary art as it did in the early nineteenth century and represents an about-face from the modern movements frequently willful rejection of the historical past as irrelevant to a new art for a new epoch of civilization.

[line break added] But now, for artists as well as for the rest of us, the past even includes the achievements of the heroic days of early-twentieth-century art, which may seem as remote from the younger generation as Greek or Gothic art was for the original Romantics. In the 1980s and 1990s, anything, from a Doric temple to a canvas by Clyfford Still or Bridgit Riley, exudes the seductive aura of past history.

It is fitting that the Neoclassic mode of the late eighteenth century, itself impregnated with longing, both melancholic and rebellious, for an irretrievable golden age, should once more be revived …

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




July 17, 2017

A Trébuchet

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… It is with an extreme lucidity, an almost clinical precision, that Duchamp marks the missing link that constitutes the creative act and situates it in the infra-thin difference between what was decided on but does not make its way into the work, and what makes its way into the work but was not decided on.

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

… In Duchamp’s thought and vocabulary, there is a profound affinity between the infra-thin and aesthetic judgment. The choice of a readymade is a judgement expressed in the “total absence of good and bad taste.” … It is itself not a name. It summons the name, provokes the coming of the name at the same time that it rejects it, and results in a Januslike pact simultaneously validating it in the perspective of consensus and in the perspective of disagreement.

… “One can only give examples of it” is what Duchamp said about the infra-thin in response to Denis de Rougemont, who asked him for a conceptual definition of it.

Here are some examples: “When the tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the 2 odors marry by infra thin.” “The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infra-thin.” “Velvet trousers — their whistling sound (in walking) by brushing of the 2 legs is an infra thin separation signaled by sound.” “Infra-thin separation between the detonation noise of a gun (very close) and the apparition of the bullet hole in the target.” And so on.

… The infra-thin cannot be a name if it is a decision suspended between two contrary decisions, one that cannot decide without immediately canceling itself.

… It is in vain that we, the viewers who do not know how to decide if the readymade must be named a painting, would expect their author to decide for us. Aesthetic judgment is as undecidable for the author as for the viewer. It is not the result of a decision, an intention, a project. Nor is it the result of an indecision, a failure of intentions, an uncertainty about the project. But it is definitely the infra-thin effect of an interval, of a difference and a lack:

[line break added] “Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to express fully his intention: this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work. In other words, the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.”

It is with an extreme lucidity, an almost clinical precision, that Duchamp marks the missing link that constitutes the creative act and situates it in the infra-thin difference between what was decided on but does not make its way into the work, and what makes its way into the work but was not decided on.

… Viewers who expect painting to satisfy their desire — their desire to see, their desire for the beautiful, their desire for craft, for example — can only be frustrated by the readymade and decide against it. Viewers who expect painting to at once cut off and reinitiate desire, who expect the unexpected, knowing that “vision,” “beauty,” and “craft” are suspect values, can open themselves to the opposite decision. For them, the missing link is the essential one: for them, it is essential that a link is missing.

… only if things remain undecided, only if we realize that in the undecidability of the readymade as of today lies its historical potential and that it grants painting, which it names and does not name, an open-ended reprieve.

… It is the bar between two names, an undecidable signifier and the signifier of an undecidability, a double-edged thing like a lapsus, a failed act, a Trébuchet.

Marcel Duchamp, Trébuchet, 1917

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




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