Unreal Nature

August 31, 2017

“I Had Seen Something Living”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… “I had seen something living, something that would live with me, and that has lived with me.”

Continuing through Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (2000). The Rodin chapter is by Anne McCauley, and the Matisse chapter is by John Cauman:

… If anyone embodied the aesthetic goals of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen during the pre-war period, it was the internationally celebrated French master Auguste Rodin. Exalted for his powerful portrayals of fundamental human emotions, Rodin was also cast as a fighter against the establishment, the prudes and right-wing politicians who cloaked their nudes in allegory and drapery.

Stieglitz certainly would have known about Rodin’s reputation as the great refusé whose Balzac had been rejected in 1898 and whose other public projects had been criticized or never realized. He also could have seen his works in Europe prior to 1908. His immediate interest in the artist, though, was fueled by Edward Steichen. Steichen had met Rodin in 1901 during his first stay in Paris, and Rodin became one of his closest friends, favorite sitters, and mentors. After Steichen returned to New York in 1902, he took it upon himself to try to promote Rodin among American collectors.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, “The Thinker,” and “Victor Hugo,” 1902

… For Stieglitz, the fight to gain acceptance for Rodin’s works in America was over in May 1912 when the Metropolitan Museum inaugurated its Rodin sculpture galleries to much fanfare.

… For Steichen, Rodin continued to be a force and inspiration. … Kind to younger artists, humble, committed to the power of art to transform life, Rodin the man remained a role model for the rest of Steichen’s long and varied professional career.

[ … ]

… In April 1908 Alfred Stieglitz presented Henri Matisse at 291 — an exhibition of drawings, watercolors, lithographs, etchings, and one painting — and ushered in the first wave of modernism in America. This event was a direct consequence of Edward Steichen’s scouting expedition to Paris in the autumn of 1906.

Edward Steichen, Matisse — The Serpentine, c. 1910

… Despite this smattering of praise [along with much strong criticism from critics], Matisse found no champions in the New York press. For artists, however, the show was a revelation. One young artist attended out of curiosity and left profoundly changed. William Zorach described his visit to 291:

I rode up in the tiny elevator and entered the little gallery. The quiet light was full of a soothing mystic feeling and around the room, and on the square under glass in the middle of the room, I looked at what I now know were Matisse drawings. I was all alone and I stood and absorbed the atmosphere of the place and of the drawings. They had no meaning to me as Art as I then knew Art, but the feeling I got from them still clings to me and always will. It was the feeling of a bigger, deeper, more simple and archaic world. … I left feeling I had seen something living, something that would live with me, and that has lived with me.

… Among the European artists introduced by Stieglitz, Matisse stands apart. Only Matisse was given three one man shows at 291; only Matisse was considered a leading spirit of younger American painters. Matisse affected not only how American artists viewed Europe, but how they viewed themselves.

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




August 30, 2017

The Lie of the Photograph

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… It resides in a faith that the world dreams itself into the photograph, overcoming the play of chance.

Continuing through Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… “In photography, you’ve got to be quick, quick, quick,” Cartier-Bresson says, “like an animal and a prey.” Bypassing the plodding deliberations of the mind, the photographer records a “decision made by the eye.” This consolidation of bodily instinct and aesthetic judgment liberates the photographer to work “in unison with movement.”

Cartier-Bresson’s theory piggybacked on several contemporaneous strands of popular thought. Carl Jung had popularized the notion of synchronicity, according to which ostensibly random events could momentarily reveal the profound embedding of the individual psyche in the world. In 1952, the same year that Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment appeared, Jung’s essay “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle” was published. In it, he argues that a spontaneous density of meaningful connections distinguishes the archetypal pattern from the meaningless product of chance.

[line break added] “The problem of synchronicity has puzzled me for a long time, ever since the middle twenties, when I was investigating the phenomena of the collective unconscious and kept on coming across connections which I simply could not explain as chance groupings or ‘runs.’ What I found were ‘coincidences’ which were connected so meaningfully that their ‘chance’ concurrence would be incredible.” Jung’s account of synchronicity was a boon to photographers, for it underwrote the possibility of a collectively significant yet instantaneous correspondence between individual and world.

Another important cultural correlate was the enthusiastic reception of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, first published in German in 1948, and translated into English in 1953. Herrigel’s slim volume followed in the wake of D.T. Suzuki’s influential writings introducing Zen Buddhism to an anglophone audience before the war.

… Over time, Cartier-Bresson’s account of the decisive moment became a powerful alibi, and the photography market clung to it like a drug. If the photograph was an interface between the photographer’s uncanny aesthetic intuition and the world’s momentary revelation, it could claim both inspired authorship and documentary power. Buyers and sellers of photography could enjoy the perfect marriage of aesthetic sensibility and worldly relevance. The paradigm of the decisive moment underwrote Cartier-Bresson’s practice at large, suppressing acknowledgment of directorial intervention or editorial contrivance.

[line break added] His dazzling production of captivating photographs seemed to confirm that all he said about his capacities was true. Beyond that, the paradigm legitimated the significance of a broad swath of photography in society at large, from news reportage to art school assignments. By exalting the modern photographer as a master of chance, it muffled the maddening strangeness of a society relying extensively on accident for the production of its most vital images.

In truth, Cartier-Bresson’s famous theory saddles users of photography with two disabling forms of cognitive circularity. First, his theory would have us judge a photograph by its success in capturing the essence of its subject, but we often know the subject proper only through the photograph. The second form of cognitive circularity surfaces in Jung’s theory of synchronicity. According to Jung, if an event very much seems significant, then it cannot be the product of chance, and if it is not the product of chance, then it can be significant.

[line break added] The problem with this circular logic is that chance inevitably produces coincidences that very much seem significant, and so the fact of seeming significant is a poor guide to what has — or has not — been caused by chance. Indeed, only a few years after Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment appeared, a cognitive psychologist coined the term apophenia to refer to the strong propensity of human subjects to find meaningful order in random data.

Even if we accept the possibility of a photographer embodying Cartier-Bresson’s ideal of feline reflexes and Zen-like immersion in time’s flow, we will still lack criteria for distinguishing photographs produced by dumb luck. Although Cartier-Bresson argues that the sufficiently alert and sensitive photographer can seize the decisive moment of an event, his theory does not rule out the possibility that photographers can also capture such a moment by chance. The problem is latent in curator Peter Galassi’s jocular remark that “other photographers have a sober respect for [Cartier-Bresson’s] luck.”

… the crucial issue is not staging or cropping; it is chance. The lie of the photograph has nothing to do with honesty. It resides in a belief that the world reveals itself to the camera that is wielded by the seer. It resides in a belief that pictorial rhetoric stems from and reveals an underlying reality that surfaces momentarily when the shutter clicks. It resides in a faith that the world dreams itself into the photograph, overcoming the play of chance.

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




August 29, 2017

To Be Quicker, Truer

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… which by their very conscious opposition to surrealist antecedents are the product of surrealism.

Continuing through The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning by Dore Ashton (1972):

… A very good example of a gifted artist who was both shaped and tormented by his time is the poet and critic James Agee, who was born in 1909. A product of the South (Tennessee), educated in genteel Anglo-Saxon traditions that still prevailed at Exeter and Harvard, Agee had the good luck to get on the staff of Fortune magazine soon after his graduation in 1932. In 1936, when the appetite for documentaries was at its keenest and when scores of photographers (among them the painter Ben Shahn) were out recording the boundless misery, Agee was assigned, with photographer Walker Evans, to document the life of tenant farmers in Alabama.

[line break added] Both he and Evans had every intention of recording faithfully what they saw in the strictest documentary techniques, but both were artists of high caliber, and the impact of the experience was overwhelming. Their material was rejected by Fortune, so Agee resigned in order to complete his work in book form. It was published in 1941 under the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and sold only some 600 copies in all. Significantly, it was re-issued in 1960, widely praised, and in 1966 went through several paperback editions.

… His pressing need to reject a culture that cannot allay his pain in the face of the human condition he documented in Alabama leads to wild daydreams: ‘If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, buts of cotton, lumps of earth. … ‘

… That which the vanguard painter regarded with distaste as over-polished, over-refined, and remote from his inner necessities in the European modern tradition, led him to reject much of that tradition and to extol, as did David Smith, the ‘coarse’ traditions more true to the American experience. It led him, finally, to reject all conventions of pictorial nicety and to seek an almost impossible state-of-the-soul approach.

[line break addedAgee, several years before the visual artists, had already found it: ‘This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.’ The immense effort of James Agee to be quicker, truer to human actuality, and more acute than his art had ever before allowed, led him to a strange lyrical excessiveness that was not so far in timbre from certain surrealist writings (his incredibly long catalog of smells and textures, the slat-by-slat descriptions of tenant farmers’ abodes, and delirious descriptions of the collages of magazine illustrations stuck on the poor walls).

[line break addedAgee’s technique of evocation, his feverish catalogs of objects and swift deadpan passages of meticulous description, prefigure the phenomenological writings of the nineteen-fifties and sixties which by their very conscious opposition to surrealist antecedents are the product of surrealism.

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




August 28, 2017

The Symbol of an Impossible Consensus

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… there is agreement about the fact that disagreement is necessary in order for the name “art” to be invoked and provoked …

Continuing through Kant after Duchamp by Thierry de Duve (1996):

… the sentence “art is everything that is called art” is no longer a logical proposition the minute you add to it the mark of a “subject-of-utterance” that is presumed but necessary: “… called art by us.” Since we are fighting over the meaning of art, the word “art” cannot avoid taking on plural and contradictory meanings. Moreover, since the very fight over the meaning of the word “art” is its most salient meaning when art is equated with the avant-garde, its features can no loner be reduced to logical predicates.

[line break added] So, the question that the logician asked him- or herself undergoes a considerable rephrasing. He or she wondered what all the things humans call art might have in common, and you wonder what we might have in common that predisposes us to agree to call art the same things, whether because the agreement is in effect, or whether, in order for such a desire to grip us, in order for such a dream even to be thinkable, it might be in effect some day.

[line break added] The germ of an answer soon arises: we all have an aptitude for language, for communication — in short, for signs in general. Moreover, this common faculty is also our common fatality. We dwell in language as we do in society or history; it preexists us and constitutes us down to our very unconscious. What works of art have in common is what we have invested in them, driven by our common necessity to produce signs that in turn produce us.

… Consensus, which for your part you call successful communication, is no longer the enigma it was for the sociologist. It is simply the exception, a special case that exists when the message is exceptionally primitive, or the coding exceptionally strict, or the channel exceptionally pure. The rule is polysemy, equivocation, noise, dissemination.

[line break added] The rule is art, poetic language, the text without author, because each of its readers is counted among its producers. Art, all that by this common — and convenient — name we call art, is this infinite “rustle of language” (Roland Barthes) accompanied, assumed to the point of its madness, analyzed for its explosive pulverization, then catalyzed in the name of the impossible consensus it signifies and substitutes for.

… Where consensus about an avant-garde work exists, there is agreement about the fact that disagreement is necessary in order for the name “art” to be invoked and provoked; and where consensus does not exist, it exists negatively, since disagreement is necessary in order to signify that consensus is desired and desirable only when it is impossible. Thus, you have to interpret the identity of contraries that makes of art and non-art an indivisible couple.

… The consensus around the avant-garde is always a minority one; otherwise it is not about the avant-garde. It is always forced, since it is a result of force. It is always both alienated and alienating. And it is always anticipated when it is desired and premature when it happens. That is to say, when the other name of art is avant-garde, this sign is always caught in the grip of a double necessity — to be the symbol of an impossible consensus and to be the symptom of an inevitable dissension.

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




August 27, 2017

Situated Outside Lived Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… boundaries are just what life has nothing to do with …

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):

… [But] one contests the author’s right to be situated outside lived life and to consummate it. … Lived life becomes intelligible and obtains the weight of an event only from within itself, only where I live and experience it as an I, in the form of my relationship to myself, in the value-categories of my I-for-myself: to understand means to project myself into an object and experience it from within, look at it with its own eyes, give up my own situatedness outside its bounds as unessential.

… Lived life tends to recoil and hide deep inside itself, tends to withdraw into its own inner infinitude, is afraid of boundaries, strives to dissolve them, for it has no faith in the essentialness and kindness of the power that gives form from outside; any viewpoint from outside is refused. And, in the process, the culture of boundaries (the necessary condition for a confident and deep style) becomes impossible, of course; boundaries are just what life has nothing to do with; all creative energies withdraw from the boundaries, leaving them to the mercy of fate.

Aesthetic culture is a culture of boundaries and hence presupposes that life is enveloped by a warm atmosphere of deepest trust. A confident and founded act of constituting and shaping the boundaries of man and his world (outer as well as inner boundaries) presupposes the existence of a firm and secure position outside of him, presupposes a position in which the spirit can abide for a long time, can be master of its own powers, and can act without constraint. It should be evident that this presupposes an essential axiological consolidatedness of the enveloping atmosphere.

[line break added] Where this axiologically “bodied” atmosphere is absent, where the position of outsideness is fortuitous and unstable, and where the living axiological understanding is totally immanent to a life experienced from within (practical-egoistic life, social life, moral life, etc.) — any axiologically prolonged and creative dwelling on the boundaries of man and his life is impossible, and the only thing one can do is to mimic or simulate a likeness to man and his life.

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




August 26, 2017

To Be a Subject Means to Search

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… This intensity of interest, this “proximity,” becomes a measure of how real it is.

This is from the chapter on ‘The Gesture of Searching’ in Gestures by Vilém Flusser (2014):

… At present, the gesture of searching is providing increasingly compelling evidence that subject and object are always interwoven. A subject is always the subject of some sort of object, and an object is always the object of some sort of subject; there is neither subject without object nor object without subject. This is not the perception of a subject encountering an object. It is an actual relationship from which subjective and objective poles can be abstracted.

… There is neither an object that searching has not first turned into an object nor a subject that is not in search of something. To be an object means to be sought, and to be a subject means to search.

… Suddenly it becomes clear that the researcher is embedded in an environment that interests (matters to) him, both at close range and at a distance. There are aspects of the environment that interest him intensely and others that hardly touch him. The more an aspect of the environment interests the researcher, the more ‘real” it is for him. This intensity of interest, this “proximity,” becomes a measure of how real it is. And from this mass, the structure, the “mathesis” of his research arises spontaneously, providing a map for orientation.

… For the ancients, “theory” was a contemplative examination of eternal forms. For the bourgeois, it was a group of coherent hypotheses. In the present, theory is becoming a strategy for being-alive-in-the-world. The contemporary researcher, the contemporary theoretician, measures the nearness of the environment, but neither to observe its form nor to hypothetically explain it. It is rather to transform the approaching possibilities into freedom. Even in its theoretical aspect, the gesture of searching is once again becoming a gesture of living.

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




August 25, 2017

Who Nerves Their Energies

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:35 am

… he who rouses in others the activities that must issue in discovery, who awakes men from their indifference …

This is from the essay ‘Thomas Carlyle‘ by George Eliot, found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

It has been well said that the highest aim in education is analogous to the highest aim in mathematics, namely, to obtain not results but powers, not particular solutions, but the means by which endless solutions may be wrought. He is the most effective at producing that mental condition which renders acquirements easy, and leads to their useful application; who does not seek to make his pupils moral by enjoining particular courses of action, but by bringing into activity the feelings and sympathies that must issue in noble action.

[line break added] On the same ground it may be said that the most effective writer is not he who announces a particular discovery, who convinces men of a particular conclusion, who demonstrates that this measure is right and that measure wrong; but he who rouses in others the activities that must issue in discovery, who awakes men from their indifference to the right and the wrong, who nerves their energies to seek for the truth and live up to it at whatever cost. The influence of such a writer is dynamic.

… The character of [Carlyle’s] influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his opinion are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.

… You may meet a man whose wisdom seems unimpeachable, since you find him entirely in agreement with yourself; but this oracular man of unexceptionable opinions has a green eye, a wiry hand, and altogether a Wesen, or demeanor, that makes the world look blank to you, and whose unexceptionable opinions become a bore; while another man who deals in what you cannot but think ‘dangerous paradoxes,’ warms your heart by the pressure of his hand, and looks out on the world with so clear and loving an eye, that nature seems to reflect the light of his glance upon your own feeling. So it was with Carlyle.




August 24, 2017

The Moment Passed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

… The moment passed, the gallery closed, he turned forty, and the roar of the twenties could be heard in the distance.

Continuing through Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (2000):

… While [Marsden] Hartley, [Georgia] O’Keeffe, and [Paul] Strand [whose work were featured in 291’s last shows] had made dazzlingly inventive works between 1915 and 1917, in the years immediately thereafter all struggled to find a style, subject matter, and a vision that matched the intensity and originality of their early accomplishments. Stieglitz, perhaps more so than these artists, realized they were just beginning. In June 1917, only two months after the United States declared war on Germany, he closed 291.

Stieglitz recognized the truth that Picabia and de Zayas had articulated: much servile imitation and little true understanding of modernism existed in America, and the country still did not possess a supporting structure to nurture artists like Hartley, Marin, O’Keeffe, or Strand, and allow them to mature. As he asked in 1916: “Is the American really interested in painting as a life expression? Is he really interested in any form of art?” That would be both his question and his challenge in the 1920s.

[ … ]

… Between 1906, when he returned with wife and baby to Paris, and 1914, when he fled before the advancing German troops, Edward Steichen (or “Eduard,” as he was then known) served as the right-hand man for Alfred Stieglitz in his “fight” for modern art at the 291 gallery. Whereas Stieglitz, fifteen years his senior, had risen to international celebrity within photographic circles during the 1890s, Steichen, only twenty-seven when he settled back on the boulevard du Montparnasse, had two things that Stieglitz lacked: he was trained as a painter (as well as a photographer) and he had spent 1900 to 1902 meeting key people in the Paris art world and improving his French.

[line break added] More comfortable in German-speaking countries and unfamiliar with studio jargon, Stieglitz played Dante to Steichen’s Virgil as his ambitions for 291 extended beyond photography to include already established “fine arts.” But the play of power between Stieglitz and Steichen ran in both directions, with Stieglitz holding the purse strings and making the final decisions on whether what Steichen proffered would be shown. He also found his own artists, and listened to rival voices offering alternative talents.

Steichen’s exuberant labor for 291 was not merely about promoting advanced art or supporting his starving friends in Paris. It was about making America a better place in which creative people could play a role and be free to express themselves. Like the British socialist H.G. Wells who in 1906 found himself doubting the wisdom and sustainability of unfettered material progress, Steichen turned to Europe to find a culture that valued the spiritual and the beautiful.

[line break added] In 1918, greeted as the saviors of France, Steichen and his countrymen could in contrast feel proud of Yankee courage and technology. The 291 gallery had provided a “cause” for rebel Steichen when he needed it. The moment passed, the gallery closed, he turned forty, and the roar of the twenties could be heard in the distance.

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




August 23, 2017

Following No Script

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… the picture seems to brood uncertainly about this modernist dream.

Continuing through Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015):

… In the 1890s, photographers of artistic ambition responded to the technological watershed of their day by redoubling their efforts to overcome the mechanical aspects of the medium. The challenge was formidable. Decades of effort had largely failed to elevate photography to the status of a pictorial art, and every innovation making photography easier to practice left would-be artists a steeper hill to climb. With the introduction of the Kodak process, photography had lost even its lowly standing as a craft. It had become a diversion, like riding a bike. Not only did it require no traditional artistic skills, it seemingly required no skill at all.

… No one answered the challenges of these new circumstances more brilliantly than Stieglitz.

Alfred Stieglitz, Impression, 1892

… By using a handheld camera on the streets of New York to depict its vapors clearly, Stieglitz made a new subject of modern atmosphere. His approach implied that the materiality of gases mattered as much as their modulation of visibility. He underscored the point in Impression by representing the emission of vapors at their industrial source and associating them with the transformation of the street. Held fast by his apparatus, these vapors do not belong vaguely to nature or even to modernity; they belong to a particular city at a particular time.

… In the early 1890s, the scientifically informed Stieglitz had multiple reasons to distance vapor from the saccharine mysteries of the countryside and the soft focus of pictorialism.

[ … ]

Stieglitz recommends combing the city for a visually promising site, and then waiting patiently there for the good fortune of witnessing a compelling configuration of figures. His approach makes the city into a scattering of more or less accidental outdoor stages, outfitted with propitious lines and lighting. Happenstance then populates these stages with anonymous actors following no script but the responsibilities, habits, or whims of modern life.

[line break added] In the 1850s, Oscar Rejlander had sought to make photography into art by stitching posed scenes into a theatrical whole; forty years later, Stieglitz advocated taking a setting from the street and letting the unpredictable dynamism of city life supply the drama. The players — his “figures” — could be vapors as well as people.

[line break added] In making many of his early pictures on the streets of New York, the moment when “everything [was] in balance” was when the unpredictable flow of atmosphere turbulence and human bodies had inadvertently become a picture. One moment before and one moment after, everything would be different. Serendipity came in the click of a shutter.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Terminal, 1893

Stieglitz’s reworking of Romanticism brought it to a high pitch of ambivalence. On the one hand, he evidently wanted photography to partake of Charles Baudelaire’s redemptive dream of finding accidental beauty on the streets of the modern city. In his famous 1859 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire writes: “For any modernity to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity,’ it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it.”

[line break added] In The Terminal, Stieglitz distills an aesthetic power rivaling that of antiquity from the unpredictable circulation of bodies and vehicles of his city. On the other hand, the picture seems to brood uncertainly about this modernist dream. Enshrouded in vapor, the man and the horses seem vulnerable to dispersion or disappearance.

[line break added] At issue in The Terminal is not only the modern transience of the street, that endless kaleidoscopic unfolding of chance encounters, but also the historical transience of the social and material constitution of the street as such. The turbulent vapors of the image, in other words, speak as much to the evanescence of horse transportation, of labor as a kind of humane caretaking, as they do to the unexpected pleasures of the everyday.

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




August 22, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… they disturbed consciousness constantly, and helped to bring about impatience with all artistic precedents.

Continuing through The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning by Dore Ashton (1972):

André Breton had demanded nothing less than a total crisis of consciousness in his original surrealist manifesto in 1923. Eventually a large number of individuals in the artistic milieu appeared to have realized his imperatives. It was a long, slow coming, even in Europe which was amply prepared for his salvos against rationalism and materialism and which had long been nurturing well-developed sentiments against the bourgeoisie. In the United States the ground was not well fertilized for the elegant and highly literary formulations of the surrealist twenties in Paris.

[line break added] The crisis in consciousness came stealthily in small forays that enlisted just a very few of America’s artists over the seventeen years between Breton’s first manifesto and the outbreak of World War II. But those very few were to impress their attitudes upon a whole generation of artists beginning in the mid-nineteen forties.

… It was … a slow business, complicated by several American traditions: the old nationalist impulse that resented the importation of theory from Europe; the snobbery of the élite, which swallowed all Gallic innovations whole, and fostered bitter resentment among the local artists; the pragmatic bias which found the manic lyricism in surrealist texts excessive, and repulsive; the puritanism that fought off the hedonistic impulses so visible in surrealist poetry and painting. Above all, there was the Anglo-Saxon tradition of rationalism which set Americans against everything that denied the functions of common sense and logic.

… The great outbreak of discussion in the thirties provided the chink through which surrealists’ pollen might drift. The actual conditions — government sponsorship of the arts and a different orientation of awareness — did not favor immediate flowering. American artists were freshly exposed to a situation that was more than just a crisis of consciousness. The everyday scramble for survival, and later, the structure of a new social awareness in which they almost all participated, made the fantasies of the surrealist seem bizarre and remote.

[line break added] While in the mid-thirties the European surrealists were confronting the rapid fall of Europe as Fascism spread, they were still struggling as a small band of eccentric individuals against society. The Americans, on the other hand, had been assimilated by society to some degree and were fighting within it for change. No matter how isolated and depressed a painter might feel as he saw the mediocre American-scene mural produced on the project, he still took a certain comfort in the mere fact of there being a project.

… The dilemma posed for artists and writers alike in that tremendous stock-taking movement grew only later to unbearable dimensions. The important thing is that they disturbed consciousness constantly, and helped to bring about impatience with all artistic precedents. Once the impatience was defined, it was not difficult for the character of surrealist thought to infiltrate American artistic consciousness.

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




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