Unreal Nature

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.




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