Unreal Nature

July 31, 2017

The Machine Runs Only on Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… This moment, which Duchamp struggled hard to freeze on crystal, is not the moment of expansion, or of explosion, or of the setting on fire; it is, on the contrary, the moment of contraction, of shrinkage, when everything is possible but in suspense.

This is from the essay ‘Possible’ by Jean Suquet found in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp edited by Thierry de Duve (1992):

Everyone knows that he scribbled a moustache on the Mona Lisa, baptized a urinal “Fountain,” spun a bicycle wheel with its fork in the air, and fabricated puns from the crudest obsession. I don’t want to dilute the salty taste of these healthy snickers. Throughout his life, with obvious pleasure, Marcel Duchamp said “No” — a “no” that brought glory to his name, and rightly so.

[line break added] But what if these negations were really only shadows cast by the sun of a “yes,” whose rays sparkle through the splinters of the Large Glass? This hermetic window, to whose crystallization the glorious naysayer almost secretly devoted between fifteen and twenty years of work, will be the object of our questions.

… When Duchamp crystallized his scheme for the Large Glass (not yet having lost interest in someday unveiling it to onlookers), he considered accompanying it — as if with a manual of instructions — with a brief and dry text that would set his frozen machinery in motion. And here I want to make the point that I will be hammering to the end: the machine runs only on words. For Duchamp very carefully retained the notes, scraps, and sketches that, made in 1912-1915 in Paris, preceded the actual construction of the Large Glass; but not until the Large Glass, “definitively unfinished” in 1923, broke while confined to a crate in the back of a jolting truck on a Connecticut road, not until then did the words, firing from the cracks, start the engine.

[line break added] Instead of repairing the shattered Large Glass as soon as he was informed of its breakage, Duchamp decided to publish, at the cost of more very meticulous work, the corpus of writings that recorded his plans — resurrecting the imaginary flesh: the fabric of words that would drape again the skeleton of rods and gears. Only then did he restore the image between two new plates of glass, now to be read through the foundational grid of his writings.

[ … ]

… Infinity, by definition — to expand on one of the tautologies that Duchamp loved — is that which has no end. Consequently, and most logically, the Large Glass remained definitively unfinished

… Why? … One glimpse at the Large Glass is enough: it represents the instant before, it is a delay in glass. The chariot is drawn back. The scissors are closed. When they open (in a minute? soon? tomorrow? never?), they are going to spread the strings which are going to liberate the weight which is going to fall into the liquefied gas which is going to rebound as a splash which is going to be dazzled by the oculist mirrors which are going to direct drops to the tender gravity who is going to … Well, but nothing is going anywhere in the Large Glass.

[line break added] None of this is shown. Here we are at the heart of the contradiction. In clear sketches and with sentences that don’t stop along the way, Duchamp imagined the plan for a picture that would strip the Bride bare. And when the moment came to realize it, he chose a point of view that held the last veil in suspense. However much the jolting chariot comes and goes — as the Bride’s letters come and go, as the weight falls, as the gas runs and the balls roll — however much time runs with both legato and staccato movement, the Large Glass cuts through it all. It represents an instantaneous state of rest, it is an allegorical appearance, exalting above all a single moment.

[line break added] This moment, which Duchamp struggled hard to freeze on crystal, is not the moment of expansion, or of explosion, or of the setting on fire; it is, on the contrary, the moment of contraction, of shrinkage, when everything is possible but in suspense. Note 82 perhaps provides the key. I want to avoid distorting it, and I know very well that separated from its context its meaning is altered, yet I will quote from it two major propositions: le tableau est impuissnat … le langage peut [the picture is impotent … language can].




July 30, 2017

In the Voice of the Other

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… What renders the hero so weak internally (so unserious, one might say)?

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 itself, inner life is not rhythmic and — we can put it even more broadly — it is not lyrical. Lyrical form is introduced from outside and it expresses the axiological relationship of the other as such to the experiencing soul, and not the relationship of the experiencing soul to itself.

… Almost all object-related and meaning-related moments in the hero’s lived experience that could have persisted against the fullness of aesthetic consummation are absent from the lyrical work — whence the ease with which the hero’s self-coincidence, self-equivalence is accomplished. (Even in the philosophical lyric, meaning and object are rendered totally immanent to lived experience, are contracted into lived experience, and as a result leave no room for noncoinciding with oneself and for going out into the open event of being; the thought here is thought that has been lived through, thought that believes only in its own factual existence and neither supposes nor sees anything outside itself.)

What gives the author such full power over the hero? What renders the hero so weak internally (so unserious, one might say)? What makes the isolation of lived experience out of the event of being so complete?

… [There is] the illusion that the hero preserves himself and preserves his own inner position — the accumulated stock of pure self-experience; it produces the illusion that in a lyrical work the hero has to do only with himself and for himself, the illusion that he is solitary, and not possessed. This illusion makes it easier for the author to penetrate into the innermost depth of the hero and take complete possession of him. It enables the author to permeate all of the hero with his own, i.e. the author’s, self-activity: the hero is pliant, yielding, and surrenders all of himself to the author’s self-activity of his own accord.

… Lyrical self-objectification is a seeing and hearing of myself from within the emotional eyes of the other and in the emotional voice of the other: I hear myself in the other, with others, and for others. Lyrical self-objectification is a being possessed by the spirit of music (a being permeated and saturated by it). The spirit of music, the possible chorus — this is what constitutes here the firm and authoritative position of being the inner author, outside myself, of my own inner life. I seek and find myself in another’s emotional-excited voice; I embody myself in the voice of the other who sings of me; I find in that voice an authoritative approach to my own inner emotion or excitement; I sing of myself through the lips of a possible loving soul.

… Distinctive forms of “playing a fool” are also possible in the lyrical mode. In all cases where the hero begins to free himself from possession by the other — the author (i.e. the author ceases to be authoritative); where meaning-related and object-related moments gain immediate validity for the hero, that is to say, where he suddenly finds himself to be in the event of being, in the light of to-be-attained meaning — in all these cases, the ends of the lyrical circle no longer meet, and the hero can no longer coincide with himself: he begins to see his own nakedness and to be ashamed, and paradise is lost.

… Such, then, is the essential character of lyric and of the author-hero relationship in it. The position of the author is strong and authoritative, whereas the independence of the hero and of his directedness in living his own life is minimal: he does not really live a life of his own, but only reflects himself in the soul of the active author — the other by whom he is possessed.

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




July 29, 2017

Enigmas Solved Remain Enigmas

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… the painting to be painted is assumed in the gesture, the painted painting is the stiffened, frozen gesture.

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

If you watch a painter at work, you seem to be watching a process in which various bodies (that of the painter, his tools, the pigments, and the canvas) move in some fundamentally obscure way that “results” in a painting. Still, you don’t have the feeling of having understood the process. And so, behind the observed movement, you project a further, invisible movement of an invisible body, perhaps the “painter’s intention” or his “idea of the painting to be painted.”

[line break added] From such an approach to painting, which can serve as an example of the occidental approach to the world, come familiar attempts to explain the phenomena we seem to be observing, the difficulties with which arise at the point where “idea” is equated with “painting” or “subject” with “object” (or whatever one wants to call this spurious dialectical pair). But this looks less and less like a genuine problem. Rather, we are dealing with a question that has been improperly posed because the phenomenon to be explained has not been properly observed.

[line break added] The suspicion arises that in observing the act of painting, one does not actually see what he thinks he sees. That is a tricky assertion. Would observing the act of painting properly just once be enough to dispel the problem of “body-soul” or “mind-matter” that has been consecrated by centuries and by religions, philosophies, and ideologies? Yes, it would be enough, if it were successful. The question is just this: how can you really observe something properly? Can you observe anything without having some kind of point of view? Don’t you always see what you believe you see?

[line break added] So if at first the demand to finally look at painting properly seemed banal, obvious, now it seems impossible. The truth lies in between. In fact, it is very difficult not to see things as the dominant point of view demands. But it is not impossible. There are methods of bracketing out prejudices of observation, even if these prejudices lie very deep in the observer. It is symptomatic of the crisis in which the occidental perspective finds itself that there are such methods and that they are being applied everywhere.

What you see when you observe the act of painting are synchronized movements, that is, the “gesture of painting.” At its most basic, “something” moves. But the moment you try to give “something” a name, you are in trouble. You do not see how the painter moves his body: you just think you see it. You don’t see the body of the painter, still less the painter that’s moving it. You see a moving body …

… One must have explanations that link the movement to its future. The meaning of the gesture, the painting to be painted, is the future of the gesture, and if one is to understand the gesture, it must be explained from this future.

… A phenomenon analyzed causally becomes, for the analyst, a problem that can be solved by enumerating the causes. A phenomenon analyzed semantically becomes an enigma for the analyst, a puzzle that is solved through deciphering. Yet, in the case of the gesture of painting, the gesture itself requires the one who is analyzing to take this position. He has to see the gesture as enigma because a causal analysis is insufficient to explain it.

… One analyzes problems to be able to see through them and so to get them out of the way. Problems solved are no longer problems. One analyzes enigmas to enter into them. Enigmas solved remain enigmas. The goal of an analysis of the gesture of painting is not to clear painting out of the way. Rather, it consists of entering into the enigma of painting more deeply so as to be able to draw a richer experience from it.

So an analysis of the gesture of painting is not itself a gesture that comes from outside, that is directed toward that of painting. It is rather itself an element of the gesture to be analyzed. The gesture of painting is a self-analyzing movement. It is possible to observe a level on which it analyzes itself. Specific phases of the gesture, for example, a specific stepping back from the canvas or a specific look, mean self-criticism, autoanalysis.

[ … ]

… The facts are these: we are gestures. Through them, we come up against the events of the world in which we are gesticulating, the world that gesticulates through us, and that we “mean.” But some of these events have meaning, point toward a future, which is to say toward us: for we are their future. These events are the gestures of others, in which we recognize ourselves.

… The meaning of the gesture of painting is the painting to be painted. This is not discussed very much in this essay because the intention was to pursue the gesture itself. Of course, the painting to be painted is assumed in the gesture, the painted painting is the stiffened, frozen gesture.

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




July 28, 2017

“I Love You”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… We are trained to the thought of it as if there were nothing else … Then hate, which no one meant to teach us, comes of itself.

This is from the ‘The Necessary Enemy’ by Katherine Anne Porter found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

She is a frank, charming, fresh-hearted young woman who married for love. She and her husband are one of those gay, good-looking young pairs who ornament this modern scene rather more in profusion perhaps than ever before in our history. They are handsome, with a talent for finding their way in their world, they work at things that interest them, their tastes agree and their hopes. They intend in all good faith to spend their lives together, to have children and do well by them and each other — to be happy, in fact, which for them is the whole point of their marriage. And all in stride, keeping their wits about them. Nothing romantic, mind you; their feet are on the ground.

Unless they were this sort of person, there would be not much point to what I wish to say; for they would seem to be an example of the high-spirited, right-minded young whom the critics are always invoking to come forth and do their duty and practice all those sterling old-fashioned virtues which in every generation seem to be falling into disrepair. As for virtues, these young people are more or less on their own, like most of their kind; they get very little moral or other aid from their society; but after three years of marriage this very contemporary young woman finds herself facing the oldest and ugliest dilemma of marriage.

She is dismayed, horrified, full of guilt and forebodings because she is finding out little by little that she is capable of hating her husband, whom she loves faithfully. She can hate him at times as fiercely and mysteriously, indeed in terribly much the same way, as often she hated her parents, her brothers and sisters, whom she loves, when she was a child.

[ … ]

… Love. We are early taught to say it. I love you. We are trained to the thought of it as if there were nothing else, or nothing else worth having without it, or nothing worth having which it could not bring with it. Love is taught, always by precept, sometimes by example. Then hate, which no one meant to teach us, comes of itself. It is true that if we say I love you, it may be received with doubt, for there are times when it is hard to believe. Say I hate you, and the one spoken to believes it instantly, once for all.

Say I love you a thousand times to that person afterward and mean it every time, and still it does not change the fact that once we said I hate you, and meant that too.




July 27, 2017

He Also Listened

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… “The ‘work of art’ was never … of much interest to Stieglitz,” … “it is what the work of art symbolizes, what is behind it that counts.”

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

… In 1902 when Alfred Stieglitz founded the Photo-Secession, in 1903 when he began to publish Camera Work, in 1905 when he opened The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York, and in 1907 when he began to exhibit art other than photography at this gallery, he had little conception of the ideas he would engender, the changes he would help to effect, or even specifically what he wanted to accomplish, except that he knew he wanted to shake the status quo.

[line break added] Many of the actions he took were in reaction to the activities — and often the perceived threats — of others around him. Many were prompted by his rebellious nature, his inherent distrust of conventionalism, and his need to defy expectations. Especially before 1907, his steps were not part of a planned, programmatic agenda, but were instead almost entirely improvised either by Stieglitz himself or his close associates, the result of their rich, free-spirited, wide-ranging, catholic, and uncensored debate.

… From 1902 through 1907 Alfred Stieglitz, at first unwittingly and then with increasing awareness, began to construct an environment that proved to be highly receptive to new ideas in photography and art. During these first few years of the twentieth century, he developed both a philosophical framework and the necessary supporting structures that enabled him and a growing cadre of supporters to initiate a dialogue among different kinds of artists and thus to launch one of the most influential challenges to the nature of American art in the twentieth century.

… With the spirited urging of his trusted young protégé, the photographer and painter Edward Steichen, Stieglitz rented three small rooms on the top floor of a building at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York to use as a gallery. Initially, Stieglitz and Steichen thought they would use the space to show, in successive installations, selections from Stieglitz’s aborted international exhibition. Yet their great ambition and delight in risk-taking quickly led to other ideas and other plans.

[line break added] Because Stieglitz feared there would not be enough good photographic work to sustain a gallery, and because both men passionately believed in the need for photography to be seen in comparison with the other arts, they proposed to exhibit not only the “very best” photographs from around the world, but also other art that “the Council of the Photo-Secession can from time to time secure.” They hoped that by exhibiting paintings, drawings, or sculpture they would draw artists and critics into their space and thus initiate a dialogue about the relationship between painting and photography.


… To a very great extent, the Little Galleries, or 291, made Stieglitz both the artist and the force in modern American culture that he came to be. At 291 the restless, impulsive photographer could respond quickly to ideas, issues, events, and criticism, and, if necessary, change direction. More important, 291 pushed Stieglitz out into the larger world. As he stood watch at the gallery, as he phrased it, day after day for at least six months of each year from 1905 through 1917, 291 brought him into contact with different kinds of people, many of whom had radically new and, for him, highly stimulating ideas.

[line break added] At the gallery he talked endlessly, as he himself readily admitted. Yet, as evidenced by the rapid evolution of his understanding of art at this time, he also listened intently to his colleagues. He studied their work and absorbed their ideas, and, in turn, frequently became the most vocal and passionate champion of both. Several of Stieglitz’s coworkers from the time remarked that he was as interested in the ideas provoked by the art as the art itself. “The ‘work of art’ was never … of much interest to Stieglitz,” Hutchins Hapgood recalled several years later, “it is what the work of art symbolizes, what is behind it that counts.”

My previous post from Greenough’s book is here.




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.




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