Unreal Nature

May 31, 2018

Fierce Calm

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… “this kind of calm has to be fierce calm, it wasn’t the calm of slough, it was calm of a kind of fierce attention … “

This is from the essay ‘Situating Rust Garden: Carl Andre in Japan’ by Mika Yoshitake found in Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 (2014):

Andre’s contribution to the Biennale [Between Man and Matter: 10th Tokyo Biennale ’70], entitled Rust Garden, was inspired by his recent visit to the dry landscape gardens of Kyoto, as noted in the explanatory caption in the July 1970 issue of Bijutsu techō magazine. It consisted of dozens of bent pieces of thin, rusty steel wires, which Andre scattered laterally, one by one, across the entire floor of the gallery.

Rust Garden, Tokyo, 1970 (destroyed)

… the role of the body is significant here, as Rust Garden was conceived as an index of Andre’s body tracing a path of movement through the gallery space, a process very different from the system of equilibrium that determined his “cuts into space.” In fact, not only does the body serve here as a conduit for repurposing the wires within a different cultural function, but it also emphasizes what Minemura later theorized as the art of placement (haichi, meaning to position, arrange, or place) in Andre’s sculptural practice.

[line break added] Both the process of the work’s production and the viewer’s circumambulation of the space are delimited laterally by the ground plane. Andre would explore this on an expanded scale in his works on land in the late 1960s and 1970s … These works generate a place or designate a passageway along which to roam the earth, again assigning a new purpose and experiential value to the “humanized” material.

[line break added] In Rust Garden the seemingly oppositional qualities of spatial coherence and premeditation on the one hand and chaos and randomness on the other emerge dialectically. This same tension is pointed out in Alistair Rider’s assessment of the structures of interchangeability and permutations inherent in Andre’s Equivalents, which “endorse unlimited substitution and exchange, but … are always also premised on a very powerful counter-investment in singularity and uniqueness.”

This dialectic of repetition and singularity is in close dialogue with the condition of “onceness” (ikkaisei), which describes an ephemeral situation or artwork that can be repeated over time but never experienced in the same way.

… Though [Andre] admitted to a “natural tendency … toward calm or toward … rest,” he found that in Kyoto and other such places, “this kind of calm has to be fierce calm, it wasn’t the calm of slough, it was calm of a kind of fierce attention, a fierce equilibrium.”

My previous post from this book is here.




May 30, 2018

Which System Do People Understand Better?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… It’s important for my work that I question my motivation.

This is from Hans Ulrich Obrist and Wolfgang Tillmans: The Conversation Series Vol. 6 (2007):

[ … ]

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I got to know you there as part of a generation of artists who were looking for new paths and also for new ways of distribution in times of a severely depressed art market. You stood out because you were by far the only one who saw himself as an artist and, at the same time, worked in magazines, treating them as an equally valid artistic medium. Your choice as an artist to go into so-called commercial photography was a very special aspect of your work. Two years later, and for precisely that reason, I invited you to participate in Take Me I’m Yours at the Serpentine, which focused on artists who had chosen different means of distribution.

Wolfgang Tillmans: At the time, I was excited by the potential of the wandering image, how it can reappear in various forms. At the first exhibition of the Daniel Buchholz Gallery [1993], for example, I had a display case containing four different magazines from four countries. In each magazine, the same photograph, taken by me, appeared — and with all the mistakes and peculiarities one often encounters, like having a color out of register. I thought it was great that one and the same image could cost a few marks in a magazine or book, but a few hundred as a photo I had blown up and printed on my own. But I’ve never done advertising and have always had specific reasons for choosing the magazines I’ve worked for.

[ … ]

HUO: Your interest in this gray zone between an object and its representation also seems to be the reason why gold keeps appearing in many of your recent works. On the one hand, this leads us to issues of transformation and alchemy, but also to the issue of the value of art.

WT: The gold pictures from 2002 were an attempt to focus on a material that is consistently by far the most valuable, but also essentially useless. To photograph something that’s so impossible to replicate — its reproduction on, and as, paper, coupled with the fascination of seeing such a pile of it was an absurd and fascinating enterprise. In 2005 I photocopied a page from the Herald Tribune entitled “the Dark Side of Gold.” It was an article about the negative side of gold mining, and next to it was this advertisement with a huge gold Bulgari ring. And here again we encounter this entanglement that accompanies us all the time, probably always did, but which has now crystallized into such a strong feeling.

HUO: How important are market values to you? Do you keep an eye on market fluctuations?

WT: Not any more than the average person, but the interplay between the value of the raw material and the value of the work of art itself is something I find interesting. Which system do people understand better? At the moment, I’m working on a gong made of find gold. I can’t explain exactly — I’d have to say it’s related to intuition. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a few years now. I also want to know how it sounds. It’s hanging on the wall, like something that is almost a picture and not yet a sculpture. Its gleaming material presence and its guise as a musical instrument call into question my efforts as an artist.

[ … ]

HUO: Once you’ve discovered a new technique and want to continue to apply it, how do you manage to retain the vigor that comes from charting new territory?

WT: As with all things, it’s easy and difficult at the same time. If I want to create more, simply for the sake of making more of something, an astute observer will notice this. I think this kind of motivation is evident in a work of art. I think art can reflect psychology very accurately. It’s important for my work that I question my motivation. For example, if I’m contemplating a photograph and still have doubts, it always helps to recall the moment when I took the photo.

[line break added] What was the intention? Was I honestly drawn to what I was seeing, arranging, doing, or was it just the desire to create yet another image? Of course I do catch myself hoping that the next shot will be the one, but controlling that impulse is part of my job. It’s only when I free myself of my intentions that I become aware. It’s like you can’t just will meditation.

[ … ]

WT: The decisive thing is not to expose the act of manipulating coincidence. But this is a temptation that’s hard to resist because you want to show that you did it yourself — that you were there, that it wasn’t sheer coincidence, but rather, that you willed it. This desire to show authorship in art has a negative effect on very many works.




May 29, 2018

Scarcely His Own

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… left room … for something unexpected and unplanned: “something given to him” and “scarcely his own” precisely because it couldn’t be willed …

This is from ‘Imagining into Another’ by John Elderfield, found in Matisse / Diebenkorn edited by Janet Bishop and Katherine Rothkopf (2016):

One of the most mysterious semi-speculations is, one would suppose, that of one Mind’s imagining into another.
— John Keats, Marginalia to Paradise Lost, 1.53-75

Both of them began, as many artists do, with the wish to record something close at hand, to make an image of something that rang true to their experience of it. Then, in their different ways at their distant moments, Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn came to the realization that to make a true statement in painting — something that spoke credibly of its subject in their own, individual voices — would require attending very carefully to the language of their art: this obliged them to both pay attention and call attention to the means that they used.

[line break added] It is reasonable that critics have concentrated mostly on the stylistic affinities between the two artists, but their most important practical commonality may be a quality of alertness, a mixture of judgment and vigilance, about what happens in the process of making a painting.

… The difficulty was that, while painting had to be about something other than the act of painting, that “something,” if it were to seem credible, could only be defined as it was discovered in the act. This is why, I think, both of these artists enjoyed (or, more likely, suffered through) keeping a painting in a state of flux: to resist finalizing statement while registering the forming of statement. To do so left room, even as each was willing the surface into shape, for something unexpected and unplanned: “something given to him” and “scarcely his own” precisely because it couldn’t be willed, as John Keats described his own experience of inspiration.




May 28, 2018

The Convulsion During Which Twentieth-century Art Was Born

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… For little more than two brief years they pursued broadly similar aims …

This is from The “Wild Beasts”: Fauvism and Its Affinities by John Elderfield (1976):

… “This is the starting point of Fauvism,” Matisse said later, “the courage to return to the purity of means.” His talk of a return is significant. Fauvism was not only — and not immediately — a simplification of painting, though that is what it became.

… The means and methods of the past were used not in any spirit of submission, but of renewal. As Matisse aptly put it, “The artist, encumbered with all the techniques of the past and present, asked himself: ‘What do I want?’ This was the dominating anxiety of Fauvism.”

[ … ]

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Derain, 1905

… “You can’t remain forever in a state of paroxysm,” Braque insisted, explaining his abandonment of the Fauvist style. Matisse’s reason was the same. “Later,” he said, “each member denied that part of Fauvism we felt to be excessive, each according to his personality, in order to find his own path.” The post-Fauvist work by all of the members had in common a rejection of the excessive, for something more rational and classical in form.

[line break added] To all except Matisse, this meant a repudiation of color as well. With the emergence of the Cubist tradition, and its entrenchment as the dominant pictorial style of the first half of the twentieth century, color took second place to form in most subsequent painting; and so it remained, with isolated exceptions, until comparatively recent times.

[line break added] The logic of form created through color — of design in color — that Fauvism made possible seems not to have been fully accessible at once, except to someone as utterly obsessed with pictorial purity as Matisse. He realized immediately that color alone could evoke the complete range of pictorial attributes that other components of painting separately convey: depth as well as flatness, contours as well as planes, the substantive as well as the illusory.

The lesson of Matisse’s art, however, is finally more than a pictorial one. Not just the reality of color but the reality available in color is what his art continually demonstrates.

… If the liberation of color from natural appearances so that it could more truly describe his sensations was what Matisse took from the Fauve style, this aspect was not what immediately affected the course of twentieth-century art.

We may speak of the impact of Fauvism in two distinct, though overlapping, senses. First, there is the educative impact of the Fauve achievement: how the Fauves’ own development from Impressionist-mode painting to a synthesis of Post-Impressionist alternatives helped a large number of painters in the next decade to leave their Impressionist beginnings and come to terms with Post-Impressionism far more swiftly than the Fauves did themselves.

Second, we may note the specific stylistic impact of the work of individual Fauves on those who saw Fauve paintings and immediately developed their own Fauve-based styles, though often they soon abandoned them for more personal manners.

André Derain, Portrait of Matisse, 1905

… Even at its height, however, Fauvism was not a single coherent group but a grouping of separate allegiances, of pairs of painters following a similar vision: Matisse with Marquet, Matisse with Derain, Derain with Vlaminck, Marquet with Dufy, and so on. For little more than two brief years they pursued broadly similar aims, stimulated by each other’s examples and above all by Matisse’s, until that “paroxysm” of which Braque spoke — which was nothing less than the convulsion during which twentieth-century art was born — had finally passed.




May 27, 2018

Integration Must Begin Again Each Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… He is not a man of conflict. He opposes nothing. He integrates.

This is from The Philosophy of Simondon: Between Technology and Individuation by Pascal Chabot translated by Aliza Krefetz and Graeme Kirkpatrick (2003):

… Once in operation, the technical object frees itself from its inventor. Its superabundant functionality separates it from any plans or intentions projected on to it. The object acquires a concrete character, an internal coherence. For Simondon, it is necessary to acknowledge this as a mode of existence, a way of evolving, with its own rules and constraints. This mediation is one in which the object gains autonomy. It cannot be summed up in terms of either human intentions or natural processes.

It is one of Simondon’s recurring themes that the philosophy of technology lags well behind technological developments.

… The ‘artificial’ nature of technology accounts for its ostracism, its classification as an inferior activity, useful, but in no way a manifestation of that which is noblest in human expression.

Simondon wanted to move the discussion of technology beyond this idea. If the abstract technical object is artificial, the concrete technical object is not. This realization necessitates a paradigm shift: the classification of an object as natural or artificial no longer depends on its origin. The difference is no longer framed as a dichotomy between spontaneous, natural generation and laborious human production. What matters is whether the mode of existence of the object is abstract or concrete. The abstract technical object is artificial. The concrete technical object ‘approximates the mode of existence of natural objects.’

… Invention was forbidden in archaic societies: it upset the cosmic order. Traditional peoples had cosmogonies that told of the birth of the world and the life of the gods.

… This existence based on repetition and adaptation to archetypes is not historical. It does not bear the marks of time; it proceeds as if historical time were an illusion, a phenomenon of little interest. The passing days are not a burden. They are simply a backdrop against which is projected the return of a sacred, mythical past. The passing years do not induce melancholy because the world is reborn with each repetition of the natural cycle. Archaic societies occupy an eternal past.

Historical consciousness is revolutionary. It abolishes this cycle of time. Nothing more returns and nothing is repeated: the future is to be invented.

… The smith no longer receives his skill from the gods and makes swords for warriors who assume the role of the mythic heroes. From now on he will work his iron freely, unconstrained by mythical archetypes.

… The inventor is a man of action. He rejects adaptation: he judges it meager and insufficient since it does not create new dimensions. … Doctrines which insist that the essential activity of living things is adaptation assume that there exists, in the surrounding environment, some goal to be attained. Obstacles separate the subject from what he wants, obliging him to adapt as best he can to the forces that surround him. He either uses his cunning to circumvent these obstacles or allows himself to be carried along.

Simondon’s inventor has a different conception of existence. He is not a man of conflict. He opposes nothing. He integrates.

… For the inventor, ‘the complete universe’ is yet to be constructed: the movement towards integration must begin again each day and be taken further.

… The ‘coherence of the world’ must be invented because, for a technical consciousness, such coherence is not ensured by any transcendent myth. What coherence, then, have technologies invented? Or, to phrase the question in more Simondonian terms, what processes or qualities of technology might govern the establishment of such coherence?



May 26, 2018

In a Cloud

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… It is the cultivation of a special kind of visual experience, which fastens upon certain objects in the environment for its furtherance.

This is from ‘Seeing-as, seeing-in, and pictorial representation,’ a follow-up essay to the title essay in Art and Its Objects, (2nd edition) by Richard Wollheim (1968; 1980):

… It is important to appreciate that, while a standard of correctness applies to the seeing appropriate to representations, it is not necessary that a given spectator should, in order to see a certain representation appropriately, actually draw upon, rather than merely conform to, that standard of correctness. He does not, in other words, in seeing what the picture represents, have to do so through first recognizing that this is or was the artist’s intention.

[line break added] On the contrary he may — and art-historians frequently do — infer the correct way of seeing the representation from the way he actually sees it or he may reconstruct the artist’s intention from what is visible to him in the picture, and, for a spectator reasonably confident that he possesses the relevant skills and information, this is perfectly legitimate.

That the seeing appropriate to representations is subject to a standard of correctness set by an intention separates it from other species of the same perceptual genus i.e. representational seeing, in that with them either there is no standard of correctness or there is one but it is not set — not set uniquely, that is — by an intention. A species of the first sort would be the perception of Rorschach tests, and a species of the second sort would be the seeing appropriate to photographs.

The diagnostic efficacy of Rorschach tests demands that correctness and incorrectness do not apply to their seeing. By contrast, correctness and incorrectness do apply to the seeing appropriate to photographs, but the contribution that a mechanical process makes to the production of photographs means that causation is at least as important as intention in establishing correctness.

[line break added] What or whom we correctly see when we look at a photograph is in large part a matter of who or what engaged in the right way with the causal processes realized by the camera, and it is absolutely of a piece with this that the sitter/model distinction, which holds for paintings, does not hold for photographs.

[ … ]

… I now think that representational seeing should be understood as involving, and therefore best elucidated through, not seeing-as [as he’d claimed in the book’s title essay], but another phenomenon closely related to it, which I call ‘seeing-in’.

… The central difference between seeing-in and seeing-as, from which their various characteristics follow, lies in the different ways in which they are related to what I call ‘straightforward perception.’ By straightforward perception I mean the capacity that we humans and other animals have of perceiving things present to the senses.

[line break added] Any single exercise of this capacity is probably best explained in terms of the occurrence of an appropriate perceptual experience and the correct causal link between the experience and the thing or things perceived. Seeing-as is directly related to this capacity, and indeed is an essential part of it. By contrast, seeing-in derives from a special perceptual capacity, which presupposes, but is something over and above, straightforward perception.

… Seeing-as shows itself to be, fundamentally, a form of visual interest in our curiosity about an object present to the senses. This curiosity can take the form of an interest in how the object is or of an interest in how it might be or might have been.

… Seeing-in, by contrast, is not the exercise of visual curiosity about a present object. It is the cultivation of a special kind of visual experience, which fastens upon certain objects in the environment for its furtherance. And it is from this that the various characteristics of seeing-in, in particular those which distinguish it from seeing-as, follow.

… How, in perception generally and in the perception of the visual arts in particular, do seeing-as and seeing-in divide the field? The answer certainly does not seem to be that they divide the field according to the sorts of object perceived. On the contrary, there are many sorts of object which at times excite seeing-as and at other times excite seeing-in.

[line break added] An example which comes to mind is one which is often taken unreflectively as a central case of seeing-as: the seeing of clouds. For sometimes it seems correct to say that we see a cloud as a whale; but at other times, if the distinction is taken seriously, the situation seems to be that we see a ravine, or a vast sandy beach, or a cavalry charge, in a cloud.

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




May 25, 2018

Dream-like States

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:15 am

… with no ordinary purpose which touches life today but therefore with a purpose which goes outside and beyond it.

This is from Selections from the Journals of Myron Stout edited by Tina Dickey (2005):

April 26, 1966

It is as though … for the last three years, I’ve been “down” — physically depleted — I have been temperamentally or psychologically “asleep.” I recognize now that there have been so many times — quite regularly during those last three years — when I would get up in the morning, feeling still lethargic and drugged with sleep, that the idea of action was positively repugnant.

[line break added] I would sit down with my tea and read — removing myself as far as possible from the possibility of action — or of active thought, and though the reading I was doing could be and usually was something I was truly — even actively — interested in, yet I wasn’t “actively,” so to say, taking it in. I suppose I was taking it in in some way, however, for I believe I was “occupied” by it — perhaps no more than symbolically or visually — yet I would know what I had read; if broken off, I came directly into it when picked up at some later more active moment.

Yet the “tone” of such an experience seems to me to now have had a somnambulistic quality and there was something of a dream-like quality to it.

It wasn’t just when I’d get up; if I didn’t feel well enough to keep working in the studio [I] … went back to the sofa during the day. … Tiredness, not necessarily real, “active” sleepiness, but a stupored kind of drowsiness, or the real stupor/lethargy from arthritis; all these would encourage my sinking into this state.

It was a way of alienating myself from myself. It must have been what brought about my constant use of spy and detective novels, for reading them is, rather ritualistically, to dream.

It has been somehow necessary apparently in the state I was in to absent myself thus from myself.

It had always been my nature, before, to be actively occupied by what I was doing or reading or whatever my mind and imagination played about with, and it played back and forth, around and in and out, a wide field: in fact, too wide, perhaps, for the time span; for single focus concentration and development of following a single notion has always been so brief, a kind of “flightiness.”

In these somewhat dream-like states, however, I believe this problem somewhat eased me. I concentrated the focus, but to such an extent that I couldn’t get out of that focus and to another.

December 5, 1966

The “Basic Structures,” for instance, Tony Smith’s six-foot steel cube, or Mike Steiner’s metal forms (there are ten or twelve stainless steel cubes about fifteen inches [high] in his living room for seats), work of Bob Morris, etc. all have a sort of ritual character. The first thing I thought of in seeing Smith’s cube on [the] ARTnews cover (December 1966) was the Kaaba.

… One can say that both religion and art are efforts to achieve and sustain security and stability. The fact that today is such an insecure age gives strength to the idea of a basic religious impulse in these very contemporaneous expressions. They have a basic affinity with Stonehenge. They are quite primary objects, in-space, occupying and using space, their impersonality somewhat parallels our impressions from Stonehenge with no ordinary purpose which touches life today but therefore with a purpose which goes outside and beyond it. That affinity might seem at first to be tenuous, but I believe it possible that it is a deep-lying one.

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




May 24, 2018

Access and Contact

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

Andre grants us space and invents a place for us …

This is from the essay ‘A Theory of Proximity’ by Yasmil Raymond found in Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010 (2014):

… In thinking again of the amorphous island beneath the feet of the kouros and the displacement of the figure’s weight to the base, one sees that this is not only a technical achievement, but, more important, a pending promise to touch the ground. It would take approximately two thousand years of trials and interrogations for sculpture to descend from the plinth to the ground itself.

[line break added] Among those artists who made that transition their quest was Carl Andre, for whom the ground would become not only the terrain of his artistic production but also the site of a complex relationship with the spectator. From the earliest floor-bound metal works on which one is invited to walk to the later timber formations around which one navigates, Andre’s sculptures demarcate space into areas of access and contact.

[line break added] This permission of entry into and proximity to sculpture, which transforms it into a material marker, is nonetheless infused with a politics of solemnity and intimacy typically reserved for monuments, graveyards, tombs, and shrines, thus transforming the experience of art into a visit to a “place” where one enacts an unrepeatable event.


[ … ]

… he sought to achieve a more difficult task: to implicitly shift the emphasis from the optical to the bodily, redirecting our focus to the habitation of a place constructed by matter. The prevailing subtext of this characteristic of Andre’s work remains linked to his assertion that the very conditions of artistic creation constitute a direct relationship to a “place” that is able to reorient the direction of our ambulation inviting us to depart from the rigidity of the familiar and leading us toward a new terrain of cognition.

[line break added] With his sculptures Andre grants us space and invents a place for us to be present, to walk around, and to be beside the material, shadowing the original displacement of matter, which came from the earth and was then transformed into solid form only to be recuperated and reinserted into the production line of art.




May 23, 2018

What I Assume You Shall Assume

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:13 am

Weegee’s city moment lies in the paradox of darkness stripped away by explosive light only to reveal deeper darkness …

This is from the essay ‘Weegee’s City Secrets’ by Alan Trachtenberg found in Weegee: Murder Is My Business by Brian Wallis (2013):

… By the time of the book’s publication [Naked City, 1945], Weegee had not only transformed himself from a Lower East Side immigrant kid named Usher to a famed city photographer, a celebrity (the name Weegee was sufficient for instant recognition), but he had also risen from an ambulance-chasing crime reporter in harness with the tabloid press to a self-proclaimed artist with a unique style of self-expression.

[line break added] Reportage allowed him to express himself as at one with his subject, the city instant. “For the photographs in this book,” he confessed in the opening chapter of Naked City, “I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I cannot explain [the untellable secret], and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off … not afraid to laugh, cry, or make love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them.”

Weegee’s relation to the city is that it is part and parcel of himself, not a subject external to him but an extension of his being. He has no being apart from his immersion in and expressive rapport with the city, with its streets, its public and secret places. Wherever he turns, there he finds himself, not in the sense of mirror images but in the sense of cognate beings, what Whitman called “duplicates of myself.” To find himself duplicated is to find himself real, achieved as a person.

[line break added] Like Whitman, Weegee finds himself in all the others who comprise his city. It may be surprising to discover an aura of Whitman in Weegee’s writing — he seems at first so unliterary — but the analogy fits. Weegee’s dedication of his book “To You, The People Of New York” echoes Whitman’s incorporation of “you” as flush with the author in the making of the poem: “what I assume you shall assume.”

Weegee, too, can say about himself, as Whitman did, that he was “of Manhattan the son / Turbulent, fleshy, eating, drinking, and breeding.” Camera in hand, cigar between his teeth, eyes scouting the darkness, his own fleshy body about to pounce as the flash ignites, Weegee shares the poet’s insatiable appetite for sensation. In his words, “I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain,” we can hear echoes of Whitman’s “call in the midst of the crowd, / My own voice orotund, sweeping and final.”

… The lightning — a flash caught in the instant of its appearance — resembles writing in an obscure script, as if the secret of the city is inscribed across the night sky.

… It may be Weegee’s most closely guarded secret that not illumination by flash alone but revelation by written metaphor empowers the photograph to ascribe reality; [as Weegee wrote] being a “page from life,” “it must be real.” Weegee’s city moment lies in the paradox of darkness stripped away by explosive light only to reveal deeper darkness, the dark of the word wrapped in metaphor. Is it Weegee’s secret finally that what his flash illuminates is not the city street as such but the unvoiced city becoming real through collaboration of eye and pen, of flash, lens, and word?

My previous post from this book is here.




May 22, 2018

Slippery Signification

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… Discussions about pornography were and are still shaped by and embedded in fantasies about the destruction of the social body …

This is from ‘History, Pornography and the Social Body’ by Carolyn J. Dean found in Surrealism: Desire Unbound edited by Jennifer Mundy (2001):

… In the 1950s and 1960s when many histories of pornography were first published, they tended to be stories about great writers from Gustave Flaubert to James Joyce, who had been ignobly persecuted by uncomprehending judges, juries, and moralists. In other words, they tended not to be about pornography but about works that had been mistaken for pornography.

[line break added] In a more recent effort to account for the seeming versatility of the concept, one historian claimed that pornography is virtually anything elites believe threatens their power at a given time and place. Others have spoken not of pornography but of a ‘pornographic imagination’ that expresses the self-shattering experience associated with works that seem pornographic but on closer examination are sophisticated pieces of literature — the French writer Georges Bataille’s work in particular, but surrealist eroticism as well.

[line break added] Most of these accounts, all struggling to validate and preserve in different ways the formidable, perhaps subversive and often discomfiting feats of imagination that emerge in unexpected places, indicate that we cannot ever assume that we know what pornography is. And yet they also insist that pornography is distinct from great literature and from the psychic soaring, expansion, and longing we attribute to the imagination. Although undoubtedly we can draw formal distinctions between what we think pornography is and other work — indeed, film and literary theorists have done just that — we cannot explain the radically contingent, oddly empty and thus slippery signification of the term.

… [In an inter-World-War about-face] Over and over, a vast array of critics, writers, youth leaders, sexologists, and others throughout Western Europe and the United States no longer associated the open expression of sexuality with the destruction of the body politic but with its renewal, so that critics now conceived material once deemed pornographic as signs of a healthy, vital, renewed, and integral masculine social body.

… Some writers thus believed pornography was so omnipresent that they sought not to contain but to appropriate its energies in the interest of purifying the social body. Yet no matter how purified pornography was, it could never be sufficiently cleansed, and no matter how colonized by the expansion of the non-obscene, it could never be sufficiently conquered.

[line break added] For as pornography became or was perceived to be increasingly pervasive, it also became increasingly intangible, protean, and promiscuous and traversed the boundary between private and public often undetected. According to different writers, commentators, and even religious figures, pornography was present in the magazine that made its way into the sanctity of the domestic sphere and surprised the innocent family, and was ‘trash’ that masqueraded as decent and even advertised itself as a moral guide.

[line break added] Most often, as one French lawyer put it, pornography enters homes under ‘benign appearance,’ and he noted that in contrast to the last century, now ‘pornography is everywhere, and no place, however sacred it is, remains completely closed, because [pornography] is a supple, rich, intelligent enemy who hesitates at nothing.’

… Antipornography laws thus became increasingly expansive at a historical moment when pornography was becoming more difficult to define with any precision. While nineteenth-century prosecution proceeded with confidence in the solidity of the pornography concept, twentieth-century legislators, scholars, critics, and others instead presumed its conceptual indeterminacy even as they seemed to know what they were pursuing.

[line break added] This dogged pursuit of something that no one can quite define suggests that pornography is not intrinsically empty, as so many of its proponents insisted, but rather allegorized the pervasive body-shattering, sadomasochistic and homosexual eroticism that appeared in so many guises that its meaning was hard to pin down and necessarily exceeded all efforts to contain or eliminate it.

[line break added] In other words, pornography expressed and still expresses violent eroticism as a potentially permanent dimension of the social body, so palpably and yet so intangibly (and imprecisely) that the United States Supreme Court judge Stewart Potter was forced to conclude in 1964 that he knew pornography when he saw it, implying that he could otherwise provide no substantive definition of its meaning.

… Discussions about pornography were and are still shaped by and embedded in fantasies about the destruction of the social body, a concept that identified a generalized threat to the fantasmic integral male body after which social order was fashioned. This recent meaning of the pornographic explains why, for example, surrealism and other modernist and postmodernist art forms have a pornographic dimension — are believed, metaphorically, to violate the dignified and impermeable, ideally masculine social body — since they not only depict eroticism in an often explicit fashion, but also enact, mobilize (and often deflect) that body-violating desire in their formal innovations.

[line break added] Surrealism arguably internalized the dramatic cultural paradox of the interwar period: it renewed, purified, and reinvigorated the body by giving free rein to eroticism, and yet in so doing manifested the social body’s potential permeability — that which can never be entirely cleanses or eliminated. For cultural and aesthetic conservatives, surrealism represented a destructive, dignity-sapping link between sexuality and violence no matter what its explicit content. … Pornography, in this view, would now be a symptom of repressed anxiety about our capacity for violence that we are still working through.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




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