Unreal Nature

August 17, 2017

The Nursery

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… “when the smoke has cleared away you’ll go back to your habitual worship of eternal repetitions of mere externals of people and things … — but you won’t feel satisfied.”

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

… When the large International Exhibition of Modern Art opened in February 1913 at the 69th Infantry Regiment’s Armory in New York [aka the Armory Show], among the more than 300 artists represented were many whom Stieglitz had previously shown, thus confirming, as Stieglitz and critics of the time recognized, the prescient nature of many of the exhibitions that had been presented at 291 from 1908 through 1912.

… While privately [Stieglitz] despaired that the notoriety of the Armory Show was overwhelming the art, publicly he supported it: he lent work to it, bought several pieces from it, and gave interviews to the press defending the exhibition. Gleefully proclaiming that “the dry bones of a dead art are rattling as they never rattled before,” he announced in the New York American that the Armory Show consisted of work that demonstrated that “art begins where imitation ends,” and he predicted that “when the smoke has cleared away you’ll go back to your habitual worship of eternal repetitions of mere externals of people and things … — but you won’t feel satisfied.”

… In late 1914 and early 1915 Stieglitz recognized, as he had often in the past, that he needed to separate himself from the growing crowd of art enthusiasts in New York. Radical, unexpected actions were necessary to confound his critics, reclaim his position as New York’s preeminent iconoclast, and reassert 291’s intellectual integrity. He explored two experiments ardently championed by his trusted young colleague de Zayas … Although unforeseen at the moment of their inception, these activities would force Stieglitz to begin to confront the roles of commerce in the artistic enterprise and the machine in modern life and art, and the character of modern American art.

… With his strong romantic tendencies and his elitist, symbolist heritage, Stieglitz had a deep belief in the artist as a creative genius, capable both of begetting works of great originality and of divining profound, even transcendent truths. With such an understanding, he could not conceive of art as a commodity that could be bought and sold like groceries. Art was a spiritual expression, not a product, and Stieglitz maintained that the public needed to share this faith — or learn how to share this faith — and support artists in the same way they supported religious leaders. Capable of divine revelation, art for Stieglitz was to be understood as a selfless act, not something made for personal gain.

[line break added]  De Zayas, far more democratic and pragmatic, also tried to be far less idealistic. He saw art as a direct expression of contemporary life, not removed or isolated from it. Because he had confidence in the public’s ability to “further modern thought by weeding out the true from the false,” he was content to rely on the consumer society’s basic law of supply and demand. “I thought that if the pictures do not sell themselves,” he wrote several years later, “they could at least speak for themselves; and I thought the best policy I could adopt was to leave people alone to think for themselves.”

[ … ]

… At the same time that Stieglitz at least initially supported de Zayas and Picabia’s investigations of America’s new mechanistic and commodity culture, he also looked to “discover America” through alternative paths. In the years around the Armory Show, he came to realize just as his perspective as a photographer had allowed him to approach modern art from an unconventional vantage point, so too might other non-traditional and non-hierarchical ways of making art help him and other American artists to understand all forms of expression more fully and American art more specifically. He looked for these alternative routes in so-called primitive or naive art.

The first exhibition to explore these ideas was in 1912 when he and the American painter Abraham Walkowitz organized a selection of drawings, watercolors, and pastels by children aged two to thirteen.

… while [de Zayas] extolled the unconscious as “the sign of creation” and consciousness “at best that of manufacture,” de Zayas, like Stieglitz, insisted that “those who consciously imitate the work of children produce childish art, but not the work of children.” Instead, the modern artist “has had to abandon the complex study of realistic form … and turn to the imaginative and fantastic expression of Form in order to have a complete understanding of its expression.” They must be “seekers of the inner spirit in outer things,” as the 1912 excerpt published in Camera Work from Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art had preached.

Stieglitz saw the ideas provoked by children’s art as central to the mission of 291 after the Armory Show; so much so that one critic dubbed 291 “the nursery of genius.”

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




August 16, 2017

The Arrested Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… He goes beyond Talbot’s concern with the capacity of the picturesque to arrest the sensitive eye, asking instead what the arrested eye actually sees.

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

… To counter the mechanical aspects of the medium, this new generation [in the 1890s] developed a code of tactics that historians today call pictorialism.

… In the name of resisting crassness and inauthenticity, the purveyors of pictorialism invented and idealized a disappearing past that opposed not only certain forms of commerce but also substantive modern freedoms, particularly for women.

But to dismiss pictorialism as nothing but reactionary or complicit nonsense would be a mistake. The movement generated reams of tiresome tenderness but also moments of illuminating struggle and progressive commitment. To say that retreat into misty sentiment was futile is not to say that industry and commerce did not have their horrors, or that pictorialism and its anti-modern sentiments had nothing worthwhile to say about them.

… The cultivated individual able to appreciate a modulated attention to art, [Peter Henry Emerson] posits, will also bring such a modulation to his perceptions of the world. To illustrate this claim, Emerson asks the reader to imagine an encounter in the field, wherein “we row by on the lake, and are struck by the picture” of a beautiful village girl on a landing stage, with a path behind it leading to a cottage backed by poplars. “If we are cool enough to analyze the picture,” he continues, “what is it we see directly and sharply? The girl’s beautiful head and nothing else.” “Thus,” he concludes, “it is always in nature, and thus it should be in a picture.”

… the eye focuses on the main elements of a scene and relegates the secondary elements to a blurred periphery. Current optical science tells us that the area of sharp focus in human vision is indeed extremely limited, far more so than people generally realize. Rather than challenge academic doctrine in favor of the study of nature, as Constable had done, Emerson uses modern optics to reconcile a traditional pictorial principle with aesthetic experience in the world. He goes beyond Talbot’s concern with the capacity of the picturesque to arrest the sensitive eye, asking instead what the arrested eye actually sees.

… Because most photographers sought uniform sharpness in their pictures, Emerson had first to disabuse his readers of this ideal. In his discussion of the village girl on the landing, he describes how a pervasive sharpness would contravene our experience of beauty in nature:

Let us, however, still keep to our scene, and imagine now that the whole shifts, as does scenery on a stage; gradually the girl’s dress and the bark and leaves of the willow grow sharp, the cottage moves up and is quite sharp, so that the girl’s form looks cut out upon it, the poplars in the distance are sharp, and the water closes up and the ripple on its surface and the lilies are all sharp. And where is the picture? Gone! The girl is there, but she is a mere patch in all the sharp detail. Our eyes keep roving from the bark to the willow leaves and on from the cottage thatch to the ripple on the water, there is no rest, all the picture has been jammed into one plane, and all the interest equally divided.

Emerson adds the caveat that even the principal subject should not be left in perfectly sharp focus. Echoing Leonardo, he writes: “Nothing in nature has a hard outline.” “Experience has shown,” he adds, “that it is always necessary to throw the principal object slightly (often only just perceptibly) out of focus, to obtain a natural appearance.

Peter Henry Emerson, A Stiff Pull, 1888

… There are signs that Emerson came to feel very quickly after the first edition of his book appeared that he had become too much like the pontificating photographic amateurs he despised. In his “epitaph” for naturalistic photography, he credited the doctrine with many good acts, including the furtherance of “monochrome photography to the utmost of its limited art boundaries,” but also suggested that it “encouraged many amateurs to babble and make the words ‘art,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘nature,’ stink in the nostrils of serious artists.” In becoming a booster of naturalistic photography, Emerson had, to his chagrin, abetted the airy pretensions of a swelling class or rule-quoting enthusiasts.

Emerson had good reason to flee a close association with the “babble” of the amateurs. At the time, the trend now known as pictorialism was becoming a monotonous set of conventions, and photography competitions and journals brimmed with photographs of moody landscapes, rustic maidens engaged in simple domestic chores, and wistful scenes of old-world charm.

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




August 15, 2017

Thrown Together

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… There has never been a place in our present industrial system for the artist, except as a flatterer of the rich and idle, or as a mere servant of business enterprise.

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

… If one conscientiously examines all the statements made subsequently by the major artists of the forties and fifties, the obvious value the W.P.A. had for them was that of artistic community. They often point out that the artist, like everyone else, was starving and the Project was a meal-ticket; that for the first time in their lives they could devote all their time to their work; that it coincided with their interest in a reformed society. But the most compelling force that emerges is their sense of having found each other.

[line break added] From the days of the Project onward, there would be the median between artist and society that had long sustained the European artist: an artistic milieu. How important this was can be judged by the defensive statements of the few artists who either didn’t qualify because of income, or preferred to remain independent. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi felt bitterly isolated when he was excluded, and Barnett Newman claimed: ‘I paid a severe price for not being on the project with the other guys; in their eyes I wasn’t a painter; I didn’t have the label.’

… Throughout the brief life of the federal art projects there were threats from the political right. Sensing that the increasing hostility in Congress could boil over with very unpleasant consequences, Roosevelt apparently decided not to make a stand for the arts’ projects when the controversies grew fiercer in 1936. Lewis Mumford took up the standard and wrote an impassioned letter which was published on December 30, 1936, in The New Republic. Mumford lectured the President on the social importance of the arts, of which he implied Roosevelt was unaware.

[line break added] He pointed out that the dispersion of works of art throughout the country had brought new meaning into the lives of ordinary citizens: ‘Industry does not supply these needs; it never has and, since the motive of profit is lacking, it never will. Private philanthropy is too puny to endow them. Nothing short of the collective resources of our country as a whole has proved competent to bring the fine arts into the lives of everyday Americans.’ Then, pointing to the economic dilemmas that undoubtedly motivated Roosevelt’s moves against the funding of the projects, Mumford presented what was certainly the prevalent liberal attitude:

To dismiss the workers on the arts project and dismantle the projects themselves, will not ‘release’ a large body of people for commercial or industrial employment. There has never been a place in our present industrial system for the artist, except as a flatterer of the rich and idle, or as a mere servant of business enterprise. … Now that the community itself has devised appropriate ways for patronizing and encouraging the arts and giving them a permanent public home, it is time that art be taken for what it is — a realm like education which requires active and constant public support.

Even if the painters and sculptors on the projects in New York squabbled among themselves, fought for better wages, and engaged in considerable picketing activity, they were, when threatened by the philistines, a united front, wholeheartedly defending the principle of federal aid to artists and all its wholesome, cultural byproducts. The pressure from the Right, in fact, probably had a salutary effect in metropolitan circles. The burgeoning community of artists was thrown together for self-defense, if for nothing else.

… The continuity of the artistic life, which many experienced for the first time on the project, proved to be the catalyst that was to change the diffident American painter into a professional who would finally see himself as an equal in the world of modern art.

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




August 14, 2017

Where Their Universe Sets Itself to Signifying

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… in question is our culture, not the threshold nature/culture in the abstract, and our history, not that of an essence …

This is from Kant after Duchamp by Thierry de Duve (1996):

Imagine yourself an ethnologist — or an anthropologist — from outer space. You descend to Earth. Knowing nothing about it, you are unprejudiced … You quickly notice, among other things, that in most human tongues there is a word whose meaning escapes you and whose usage varies considerably among humans, but which, in all their societies, seems to refer to an activity that is either integrative or compensatory, lying midway between their myths and their sciences. This word is art.

… you postulate the existence of a universal unconscious structure that underlies the disparate corpus constituted by everything humans call art. … At the intersection of magical action and scientific knowledge, artistic making attributes a symbolic power to the things it names, at times gathering together, at times dispersing, human communities.

And you conclude that these symbols that humans exchange in the name of art must have — for them, who are perhaps unaware of this, it is a minimum; for you, who know nothing but this, it is a maximum — the undeniable function of marking one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying. Likewise, you conclude that the name “art,” whose immanent meaning still escapes you — indeterminate because overdetermined — perhaps has no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible. In this game of symbolic exchanges, the word “art” would be nothing but the empty square that sets them in motion.

[ … ]

Armed with all the certainties acquired over the course of this journey through ethnology, the history of art or of styles, and logical ontology, you finally plunge into your corpus in order to extract a model from it, the embodies proof of your theory, its paradigm. And out of it you pull — indeed, yes — a urinal.

… Having arrived at this stage, you are contemplating your paradigm as if it were a marble Aphrodite. It is supposed to sum up all works of art preserved as such on the planet Earth, and to reduce them to their common essence: they are called art by humans. But don’t you realize that your theoretical definition of art simply brought full circle the empirical inquiry with which you started? Aren’t you sensing the irony and the biting humor of this ready-made urinal? Aren’t you worried by the absence of freedom that is the consequence of such an autonomy collapsed into tautology?

[line break added] Don’t you feel disgusted or made ridiculous by the idea of accepting that anything whatever be made into the paradigmatic model of art’s universality? Aren’t you upset at the prospect of seeing so vulgar an object put an end to an entire stylistic heritage? If this urinal has not yet succeeded in instilling in you some sort of suspicion as to the validity of your theory, then you really must be from outer space. Perhaps you affect the detachment of the Martian observer, seeking shelter under the notion of scientific objectivity.

[line break added] In fact, you are either a blind idealist or an inveterate cynic. But if, on the contrary, you feel awkward after all the work you have done since you first imagined yourself as an extraterrestrial ethnologist, when the heterogeneity of your corpus led you to become, successively, a historian of art and a philosopher obsessed with the ontology of art, then your case is different.

… You realize that when a urinal can be art, then anything can be, provided one believes it. … When the ontological definition of art ends up being equated with the empirical description — art is everything humans call art — that was your starting point when you were an honest but outside observer, then the autonomy of art has become a caricature of itself. And when all the disparate things accumulated through the history of styles as the heritage of humanity seem to lead to an institutional definition of art that is deliberately running in circles, then humanity itself must feel dispossessed.

[line break added] And so do you. For after all, in question is our culture, not the threshold nature/culture in the abstract, and our history, not that of an essence, and our performative speech acts, not a self-defining institution. The detachment of the observer — the ethnologist’s outsideness, the historian’s overview, the logician’s neutrality — are unsuitable when the meaning of art, not just its recognition is at stake.




August 13, 2017

The Possible Hero

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… The author cannot think up a hero …

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):

… Character is in the past, type is in the present; the environment of character is somewhat symbolized, whereas the object-world surrounding the type has the nature of an inventory, or stock of goods. Type is the passive position of a collective personality.

… It should be evident that the intuitive generalization, which produces the typicality of a human being’s image, presupposes a firm, calm, confident, and authoritative position of being outside with respect to the hero. How is this firmness and authoritativeness of the type-creating author’s position achieved? It is achieved through his profound inward nonparticipation in or aloofness from the world he is imaging: axiologically, this world is, as it were, dead for him.

… What is least of all possible is rendering oneself typical; typicality that is referred to oneself is perceived axiologically as an affront. In this respect, typicality is even more transgredient than fate. I am not only unable to perceive my own typicality as value, but even more: I cannot allow that my deeds, actions, words (directed upon that which has the validity of goals and objects, even if only upon the most proximate ones, namely, “goods”) should actualize nothing more than a certain type, that they should necessarily be predetermined by this typicality of mine.

[line break added] The almost insulting character or typal transgredience makes the form of the type quite acceptable for accomplishing the task of satire, which generally looks for trenchant and offensive transgredient deposits in the existence of a goal-directed and internally meaningful human life that lays claim to objective validity.

… All of the problem-related elements are transposed from the context of the hero into the context of the author; they develop with reference to the hero and in connection with the hero, but not in the hero, and their unity is provided by the author, and not by the hero, who is the bearer of the cognitive-ethical unity of a lived life — a unity which is reduced to the utmost in the type. It is, of course, completely impossible to introduce any lyrical elements into the type.


… The author is compelled to contend with old or with more recent literary forms, compelled to overcome their resistance or to find support in them, yet what underlies this movement is the most essential, the determining, the primary artistic contention — the contention with the cognitive-ethical directedness of a life and its valid persistence as a distinct life.

[line break added] This is where the act of creation (for which everything else is but a means) attains the point of highest tension in his creative activity, if he is significantly and seriously a primary artist, that is, if he is an artist who collides and contends immediately with the raw cognitive-ethical element of a lived life, with the chaos of a lived life (element and chaos from the aesthetic standpoint), and it is only this collision that ignites the purely artistic spark.

… The work of art is regulated by two systems of laws: the hero’s and the author’s, i.e. the laws of content and the laws of form. Where the artist deals from the very outset with nothing but aesthetic quantities, the result is a contrived and empty work that does not overcome anything and, in effect, does not produce anything that has axiological weight. A hero cannot be created from start to finish out of nothing but purely aesthetic elements, a hero cannot be “made”: he would not be alive, and one would not “feel” his purely aesthetic validity.

[line break added] The author cannot think up a hero, devoid of any independent status in relation to the author’s creative act that affirms him and gives him a form. The author-artist finds the hero as already given prior to and apart from his own purely artistic act: he cannot engender the hero out of himself — such a hero would be unconvincing.

Of course, the hero we mean is the possible hero, that is, the one that has not yet become a hero, has not yet been shaped aesthetically, for the hero of a work is already invested in an artistically valid form, that is, we mean the givenness of a human being as another. It is this givenness of the other that the author-artist finds prior to his own artistic act and it is only in relation to this givenness that his act of aesthetic consummation acquires axiological weight. The author’s artistic act encounters a certain persistent (resilient, impermeable) reality which it cannot ignore and which it cannot totally absorb into itself.

[line break added] It is this extra-aesthetic reality of the hero that will enter as a shaped reality into the work produced. And it is this reality of the hero — the reality of another consciousness — that constitutes the object of aesthetic vision which imparts aesthetic objectivity to that vision. This reality of the hero is not the reality (the actuality and possibility, regardless of whether physical or psychic) of natural science, the reality confronted by the author’s free creative imagination, but rather the inward reality of a life’s own directedness to values and meaning.

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




August 12, 2017

In Listening

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… Because the listener, in listening, is himself what he is hearing, adapting oneself to the music means becoming the music.

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

… The gesture of the seer has been so thoroughly stylized through myth and tradition that every day and everywhere, in television and in advertisements, we can watch it becoming a pose. The pose of the statesman, gazing with determination at the stars, for example. The gesture of thinking has, by way of Rodin, become a cliché.

[line break added] The gesture of the listener, conversely, does not seem to have been stereotyped in the same way, although it is related to seeing and thinking, inasmuch as it involves not a movement but a positioning of the body. Looking back at medieval iconography with gestures in mind, however, one finds the gesture of listening to be one of the central themes. It is Mary’s demeanor at the conception, the demeanor of being fertilized by the word (logos).

[line break added] Mary “receives,” which is to say she hears a voice. It is instructive to observe the way the gesture changed with the coming of the Renaissance. In the Gothic, the gesture was one of surprise, of being called; in the Renaissance, that of a resolute, attentive Mary. If we are concerned with hearing music, if it is the Renaissance gesture that is of interest, we should look at Ghirlandaio and not to Giotto.

And yet we must pause for thought almost immediately. Music is heard differently from speaking voices (logos). With speaking voices, one hears as one deciphers, one “reads,” which is the reason the deaf can read lips. They cannot do this with music.

[ … ]

… Someone listening to music … is not actually concentrating on himself but — within his body — on the incoming sound waves. That means that in listening to music, the body becomes music, and the music becomes a body.

The gesture of listening to music is, accordingly, a posture that incorporates music (in listening, it is characteristically no longer possible to distinguish the plot from the passion, action from suffering, so the music from the body). So the objection that the listener cannot adapt to the message because he is in a passive position is refuted. Because the listener, in listening, is himself what he is hearing, adapting oneself to the music means becoming the music.

… The reception of music in the belly (and chest, sexual organs, head — all body parts disposed to oscillation, in short) is pathos, and its effect is empathy with the message. The acoustic message alone literally has this pathetic character. In all other messages the effect is only metaphorical. In listening to music, a person is “touched” by a message in an entirely physical (not a metaphorical) sense; he is empathizing with the pathos of the message (Pan and Orpheus come to mind readily, but so does aerodynamics).

… Listening to music is the gesture that defeats the skin by transforming it from a boundary into a connection.

… It is exactly because the gesture is so profane, so technical, so public, because there are schools of music and musical animations and happenings, it is for this very reason that music is the very greatest, most sacred mystery. It does not need to conceal itself, for in its magnificent, supercomplex simplicity, in mathematical simplicity, it is obscure.

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




August 11, 2017

There Is Nothing Sane About the Worship of Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… There are two ways of disliking Art, Ernest. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally.

This is from the ‘The True Critic’ by Oscar Wilde found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

Ernest: Well, now that you have settled that the critic has at his disposal all objective forms, I wish you would tell me what are the qualities that should characterize the true critic.

Gilbert: What would you say they were?

Ernest: Well, I should say that a critic should above all things be fair.

Gilbert: Ah! not fair. A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiassed opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiassed opinion is always absolutely valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question, is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all.

[line break added] Art is a passion, and, in matters of art, thought is inevitably colored by emotion, and so is fluid rather than fixed, and, depending upon fine moods and exquisite moments, cannot be narrowed into the rigidity of a scientific formula or a theological dogma. It is to the soul that Art speaks, and the soul may be made the prisoner of the mind as well as of the body. One should, of course, have no prejudices; but, as a great Frenchman remarked a hundred years ago, it is one’s business in such matters to have preferences, and when one has preferences one ceases to be fair.

[line break added] It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of Art. No; fairness is not one of the qualities of the true critic. It is not even a condition of criticism. Each form of Art with which we come in contact dominates us for the moment to the exclusion of every other form. We must surrender ourselves absolutely to the work in question, whatever it may be, if we wish to gain its secret. For the time, we must think of nothing else, can think of nothing else, indeed.

Ernest: The true critic will be rational, at any rate, will he not?

Gilbert: Rational? There are two ways of disliking Art, Ernest. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally. For Art, as Plato saw, and not without regret, creates in listener and spectator a form of divine madness. It does not spring from inspiration, but it makes others inspired. Reason is not the faculty to which it appeals. If one loves Art at all, one must love it beyond all other things in the world, and against such love, the reason, if one listened to it, would cry out. There is nothing sane about the worship of beauty. It is too splendid to be sane. Those of whose lives it forms the dominant note will always seem to the world to be pure visionaries.

[ … ]




August 10, 2017

Not Pleasure, But Knowledge

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

Stieglitz would come to discover and exploit the way in which photography could reveal what he firmly believed were objective truths and yet strip them of their specificity and render them not as literal descriptions but symbols.

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

… If painting and photography were dialectical opposites, and if painting in this new age had to be anti-photographic, then it stood to reason, as de Zayas clearly articulated in a series of articles written in 1913 and expanded in 1915, that photography had to be non-painterly. Positioning photography firmly at the center of the intellectual and aesthetic discourse he envisioned would occur in the twentieth century, de Zayas argued that photography was a vehicle not for aesthetic pleasure but truth because it provides “the plastic verification of fact.”

[line break added] Whereas art, and especially abstract art, is subjective and strives to present emotional truths, what de Zayas came to call “pure” photography was, or could, be objective. De Zayas suggested that the “artistic-photographer,” like Steichen, “uses nature to express his individuality,” whereas the “pure” photographer, like Stieglitz, “puts himself in front of nature, and without preconceptions … [ and] with the method of an experimentalist, tries to get out of her a true state of conditions, “to arrive at “a comprehension of the object.”

[line break added] Proclaiming that “Photography is not Art. It is not even an art,” de Zayas suggested that the medium “escapes through the tangent of the circle,” circumventing traditional artistic methods, and thus it reveals “a new way to progress in the comprehension of form.” Moreover, he predicted that because all art expresses the spirit of its time and because the religion of the modern age was science, photography would “surpass art,” for it would provide this scientific age with the “material truth of form” that it so clearly demanded.

By 1914 Stieglitz had spent more than twenty years struggling to have photography accepted as an art, and only a few years earlier he had strenuously defended the photographer’s creative individuality, applauding those photographers and critics like Charles Caffin who recognized that a pictorial photograph aims “to be beautiful. It will record facts, but not as facts.”

[line break added] Nevertheless, he enthusiastically embraced de Zayas‘ ideas, telling one correspondent that with the publication of his articles “the meaning of photography as a medium of expression is finally getting its place”; he even took credit for their formulation, noting that they were “one of the blossoms of the seed sown by me.”

[line break added] While he never extracted himself from his photographs, as de Zayas suggested, the idea that photography could not only surpass art but reveal fundamental, perhaps even objective truths, that it could impart not pleasure, but knowledge, proved to be far more appealing to Stieglitz than the symbolist evocations of many of the pictorial photographers he had previously supported. Moreover, Stieglitz would come to discover and exploit the way in which photography could reveal what he firmly believed were objective truths and yet strip them of their specificity and render them not as literal descriptions but symbols.

Recent scholarship has shown that almost every one of the major European artists exhibited at 291 actively explored how photography could be used in the construction or dissemination of their art. Rodin, for example, recognizing photography’s ability to control information, carefully supervised photographs made of his sculpture, while Constantin Brancusi, who was exhibited at 291 in 1914, became so concerned with the ways in which photographs informed interpretations and revealed or concealed the works’ essence that he learned to make his own photographs.

[line break added] Exploiting photography’s commercial applications, Rodin and Matisse frequently allowed photographs of their [other works of] art to be exhibited alongside originals, as they often were at 291, thus allowing visitors and potential purchasers to view many more works than could otherwise be accommodated in a single venue. Seizing on photography’s ability to provide an easily accessible visual encyclopedia, almost all of these artists collected photographs of works of art by present and past masters and thus entered into a dialogue with art from all time and all continents.

[line break added] Several, Rodin and Picasso in particular, used the photographs they or others took of their own work in progress, to reevaluate formal, tonal, and compositional relationships within their canvases or sculpture by examining them in the limited black-and-white tonal range; to explore alternative paths by drawing, cutting, or pasting photographs together; and at times to merge what had previously been two or more separate pieces into one new work in a photographic collage.

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




August 9, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… Her photographs are mash-ups of different moments and semiotic categories.

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

… Perhaps more broadly than any other practitioner, Cameron took advantage of the complex operations of chance in photography. In photographs, accidents appear in two related but divergent forms: the glitch and the inadvertently recorded detail. Cameron in her practice embraced both. She not only resisted an endless stream of suggestions to touch up her photographs to improve their technical standing but also prized certain of their unforeseen details.

… She frequently wrote “From the Life” or “From Life” on prints and albums, highlighting the existential relation that obtains between camera and subject.

Cameron’s dual emphasis on the living presence of her subject and the material process of her photography signified an exchange of performances. Her sitters and theatrical casts performed for her, and she performed for them. They left traces of their living presence before the lens on the light-sensitive surface of the plate, and she left traces of her living presence behind the camera in the fingerprints, streaks, discolored patches, and other blemishes of her prints. The mingling of signs of performative exchange is one of the most striking qualities of her photography.

… the photograph in general circulation [during Victorian times] tended to suppress this dialogic process. In other words, photographer and sitter worked together to generate a picture that seemed a natural expression of the sitter’s selfhood, as if image and person were one and the same. Cameron, to the contrary, left conspicuous evidence in her pictures of her role in the exchange that had made them.

For Cameron, the exchange of performances that went into the making of a photograph was part of a larger fabric of social bonds.

… the exchange of lively energies in her studio overcame the deadly mechanical process that photography could otherwise be. By insisting on long exposure times and refusing studio contrivances that helped sitters hold still, she invited signs of bodily life, including trembling hands and welling eyes, to infiltrate her apparatus.

[line break added] In her photographs, these signs mingle with traces of her own untamable bodily energy, which she never allowed conventional expectations of technique and scruple to suppress. In this way, she answered Eastlake, who had set painting’s “living application of that language which lies dead in [the artist’s] paint-box” against photography’s “obedience of the machine.” Cameron was explicit about her ambition to invest her photography with passion.

… Cameron’s glitches suspend her photographs in the gaps of culture. These gaps — between the original and the copies that produce it, the signal and the receipt that made it such, and the image and the materiality it can never shed — leaves traces in her pictures. Her photographs are mash-ups of different moments and semiotic categories. Collodion glitches stem from the moment of exposure, and other defects from the moment the photograph was printed. Some glitches in the final print are surface blemishes, while others are reproduced images of flaws on the negative.

[line break added] Some derive from the performance of the sitter, while others derive from that of the operator. This is not to say that the photograph becomes a final space where all splits are sutured and all traces unite. On the contrary, Cameron’s photographs are self-contesting registries in which glitches, chemical and optical, manual and mechanical, continually reproduce the divisions constituting the circuit of meaning production in Victorian culture generally and photography specifically.

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




August 8, 2017

Extreme Ambivalence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… There was a dangerously narrow line between the yearning for integration with America and the unwillingness to be entrapped by its provincialism.

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

… One of the editorials in View magazine of 1943, a periodical that was assiduously read when the New York School was in formation during the early nineteen-forties, cast a look back to the twenties and thirties and found that:

the two main themes of inspiration were the unconscious and the masses. The genuine artist, the pure poet, the authentic composer according to his political inclinations, believed either that his mission consisted in expressing the deeper feelings of the masses, or in giving form to his own dreams.

… At the time this editorial appeared, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, William Baziotes, and others were, in fact, deeply immersed in scanning distant archaeological horizons. Their quest had been prepared, as the View writer correctly noted, by the two most compelling issues of the previous decade: radicalism in aesthetic views and radicalism in social ideas.

… Their reverence — or at least the reverence that the rebellious students felt — was reserved only for artists proved in Paris. When Stuart Davis asked his young friend to write an article on his work for the magazine Creative Art in 1931, Gorky’s highest praise came in the form of associating Davis with his own modern heroes:

This man, Stuart Davis, works upon that platform where are working the giant painters of the century — Picasso, Léger, Kandinsky, Juan Gris — bringing us new utility, new aspects, as does the art of Uccello.

To work in the modern tradition was indeed a struggle. Very rare were the critics, galleries or museums that took the least interest in such work, which is undoubtedly why the charismatic figure of John Graham or Frederick Kiesler assumed such crucial importance.

… Picasso thoroughly dominated those who wished to enter the magic circle of modern art, and that commitment to ‘the new spirit’ in aesthetics was the deepest commitment made by those fledgling painters about to experience the Great Depression.

This alignment, which the editorialist for View generalized by speaking of the unconscious and the artists who sought to give form to their own dreams, often brought with it considerable conflict. The American artist, who was in fact a pariah and often doubted his right to be an artist, was never entirely comfortable with the doctrine of art for art’s sake. The unspoken need to be acknowledged by society as a professional was at least as strong as the need to be distinguished from the ‘true professionals,’ the Europeans.

[line break added] The same artists who assiduously studied Cahiers d’Art, or listened to Graham’s latest account of what Picasso was up to, often had moments of total rejection, in which they would praise, as did David Smith, the coarseness and directness of their own tradition, or speak deprecatingly of French cuisine in painting. Many artists in the Village suffered from episodes of extreme ambivalence (and continued to express it will into the nineteen-fifties).

At issue was the value of the sole historical distinguishing mark of the American artist: his isolation and loneliness. Individualism as an institution acquired in artistic circles a kind of hallowed legend, fed by both writers and painters.

… There was a dangerously narrow line between the yearning for integration with America and the unwillingness to be entrapped by its provincialism. Always during the twenties and thirties the political dangers, exemplified in numerous persecutions of ‘bolsheviks’ and celebrated breaches of the Constitution, worried the artistic community. The moment the concept of an ‘American art’ was broached, scores of reactionary journalists and entrenched special-interest groups sprang forward to denounce modern art. A progressive young artist, being trained in those years before the deep Depression, always sensed the risks in identifying with America as an ordained American artist.

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




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