Unreal Nature

July 6, 2015

Good Bad Faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:34 am

… who you know found the nerve of the good faith / bad faith problem and drilled right into its core over and over like a malevolent dentist.

Continuing through Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

… The question of good faith / bad faith is the subtext of today’s lecture on satire and irony in abstract art. We expect of abstraction, perhaps more so than of other art forms, that its intentions be whole, that it be meant earnestly. Traditionally we think of abstraction as pure and unmitigated, a set of black-and-white principles that will not admit of grays. In other words, we associate abstraction with a kind of idealism. The question arises, If we are suspicious of idealism, are we then suspicious of abstraction? Is it necessary that abstraction be ideal and that it be in good faith?

… the whole question of abstraction’s likeness to something — although it tries to be a picture of nothing, it constantly could be a picture of something — is abstraction’s steadily attacked Achille’s heel.

… Rothko may make us think anew about the evening sky, but having once thought about the evening sky, we think about Rothko differently. Hence, the extreme difficulty of ever coming up with a pure abstraction that remains resistant to association and reference.

… A heroic irony is at work in the pop art of both Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, an irony that posits knowing skepticism as a positive ideal, an irony in which bad faith is a necessary ingredient for a good society. And that is extremely hard on abstraction.

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1943

… Now we come to the high prince of bad faith, not just in pop art but in the latter half of the century: Andy Warhol, an original, who you think might be a con artist, who you know found the nerve of the good faith / bad faith problem and drilled right into its core over and over like a malevolent dentist. Warhol is to the emperor’s new clothes what Chanel is to the little black dress. He may not have invented the concept, but he has become its spokesperson. For nose-thumbing on a bold scale, look at Warhol’s Crossword of 1961, clearly a send-up of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie

Andy Warhol, Crossword, 1961

To be continued.

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




July 5, 2015

Who Invisibly Sing Behind the Walls

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:39 am

… we never know when we are passing from one to the other, which one we are living in, which one dying in.

This is from the essay ‘Idle Speech’ found in the collection, Friendship by Maurice Blanchot (1997):

… Chattering is the disgrace of language. To chatter is not to speak. Prattle destroys silence while preventing speech. When one chatters, one says nothing true, even if one says nothing false, for one is not truly speaking. This speech that does not speak, entertaining speech that is always going from here to there, with which one passes from one subject to the next without knowing what is at issue, speaking equally of everything — of things serious, of things insignificant, with as much interest, precisely because it is understood that one is speaking of nothing: such a way of speaking, an escape before silence or an escape before the fear of expressing oneself, is the object of our constant reprobation. In truth, everyone chatters, but everyone condemns chatter.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The adult says it to the child, you are just a chatterbox, just as the masculine says it to the feminine, the philosopher to the plain man, the politician to the philosopher: chatter. This reproach stops everything. I have always been struck by the willing and eager approbation that has been universally given Heidegger when he condemns inauthentic speech under the pretext of analysis and with the sobering vigor that is characteristic of him. Speech scorned, which is never that of the resolute “I,” laconic and heroic, but the non-speech of the irresponsible “One.” One speaks. This means no one speaks. This means we live in a world where there is speech without a subject who speaks it, a civilization of speakers without speech, aphasic chatterboxes, reporters who relate and give no opinions, technicians without name and without power of decision.

[line break added] This discredited speech brings the discredit with which it is fraught upon the judgment that is made about it. The person who calls the other a chatterbox causes himself to be suspected of a chattering that is worse still, pretentious and authoritarian. The reference to seriousness, which requires that one speak only advisedly, in accordance with solemnity, or else that one not speak, but that one only begin to speak, soon seems an attempt to close language; words are to be stopped under the pretext of restoring them their dignity; one imposes silence because, alone, one has the right to speak; one denounces idle speech and for it one substitutes a peremptory speech that does not speak but instead commands.

[ … ]

… is it perhaps the same speech which is at times a marvel of authenticity, at other times a hoax or pretense, now the plenitude of the enchantment of being, now the void of the fascination of nothingness? One is the other. But one is not the other. Ambiguity is the last word of this third language that one must necessarily invent if one wants to judge or simply speak of these two possibilities, both of which are such that they occupy all space and they occupy all time, universe and anti-universe that coincide to such a degree that we never know when we are passing from one to the other, which one we are living in, which one dying in.

… How is it that so many words obstinate in being only words, a discourse that exhausts its resources against itself, how is it that this verbal expanse all of a sudden gives way to something that no longer speaks but that one sees: a place, a face, the anticipation of evidence, the scene that is still empty of an action that will be nothing more than the emptiness made manifest? Yes, nothing is more startling: here, the cliff in the late afternoon brightness, the smoke-filled cabaret, the young woman, the garden under the snow, the little seminarians who invisibly sing behind the walls from a distant past …

… “The narrative that reveals the possibilities of life is not necessarily an appeal, but it calls forth a moment of rage without which its author would remain blind to these excessive possibilities. I do believe this: only a suffocating, impossible ordeal can give an author the means of achieving that distant vision that a reader wearied by the narrow limits set by convention is waiting for. How can we linger over books to which the author was not obviously compelled?” [Georges Bataille]




July 4, 2015

The Smell of Wet Bathing Suits

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:11 am

… This kind of landscape perception is something no instructor can teach.

This is from the essay ‘By Way of Conclusion: How to Study the Landscape’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

For a number of years I taught an undergraduate course at Harvard and at Berkeley that was called “The History of the American Cultural Landscape.” It dealt with such commonplace things as fences and roads and barns, the design of factories and office buildings, the layout of towns and farms and graveyards and parks and houses , and toward the end of the course I talked about the superhighway and the strip and certain new kinds of sports which I referred to as psychedelic. Throughout the course I showed a good many slides, and each student had to write a term paper on some aspect of the contemporary American landscape.

… Like every other instructor, I have read many hundreds of term papers. In my case, they discussed some aspect of the contemporary landscape — usually the landscape of the small town or the farm countryside. Those which I found most enjoyable and most perceptive dealt with such topics as the front porch or the local Civil War monument, or with barns and roads. I enjoyed them not only for their content — they often revealed obscure historical information — but because they seemed to be based on childhood memories and family traditions. It was from such papers that I learned about the complicated make-up of towns which to the outsider seemed entirely homogeneous: the nicknames for certain sections, certain streets and alleys, the location of all-but-invisible ethnic communities.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The papers told of family customs, high school rituals, church festivities; they revealed half-forgotten farming practices and beliefs, and the existence of small gardens, where plants unheard of in the region were grown, year after year. All this made for pleasant reading. But there were also papers — not many of them — that recorded everyday sensory experiences of the landscape: the sound of snow shovels after a blizzard, the smell of wet bathing suits, the sensation of walking barefoot on the hot pavement. A woman student from North Dakota wrote of her family driving each fall to the nearest town to see the autumn foliage in the streets and yards; out where she lived there were no trees. This kind of landscape perception is something no instructor can teach. We can only be grateful when it comes our way, and encourage students to record such fleeting memories as these, and share them. They often make a whole landscape, a whole season, vivid and unforgettable.




July 3, 2015

Of All Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… fact becomes shadow, law becomes probability.

This is from the essay ‘Thoreau’s Vision of the Natural World’ found in The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1978):

… Behind all religions lurks the concept of nature. It persists equally in the burial cults of Neanderthal man, in Cro-Magnon hunting art, in the questions of Job and in the answering voice from the whirlwind. In the end it is the name of man’s attempt to define and delimit his world, whether seen or unseen. He knows intuitively that nature is a reality which existed before him and will survive his individual death. He may include in his definition that which is, or that which may be. Nature remains an otherness which incorporates man, but which man instinctively feels contains secrets denied to him.

A professional atheist must still account for the fleeting particles that appear and vanish in the perfected cyclotrons of modern physics. We may see behind nature a divinity which rules it, or we may regard nature itself as a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined deity. Man knows that he springs from nature and not nature from him. This is very old and primitive knowledge. Man, as the “thinking reed,” the memory beast, and the anticipator of things to come, has devised hundreds of cosmogonies and interpretations of nature. More lately, with the dawn of the scientific method, he has sought to probe nature’s secrets by experiment rather than unbounded speculation.

Still, of all words coming easily to the tongue, none is more mysterious, none more elusive. Behind nature is hidden the chaos as well as the regularities of the world. And behind all that is evident to our senses is veiled the insubstantial deity that only man, of all earth’s creatures, has had the power either to perceive or to project into nature.

As scientific agnostics we may draw an imaginary line beyond which we deny ourselves the right to pass. We may adhere to the tangible, but we will still be forced to speak of the “unknowable” or of “final causes” even if we proclaim such phrases barren and of no concern to science. In our minds we will acknowledge a line we have drawn, a definition to which we have arbitrarily restricted ourselves, a human limit that may or may not coincide with reality. It will still be nature that concerns us as it concerned the Neanderthal. We cannot exorcise the word, refine it semantically though we may. Nature is the receptacle which contains man and into which he finally sinks to rest. It implies all, absolutely all, that man knows or can know. The word ramifies and runs through the centuries assuming different connotations.

Sometimes it appears as ghostly as the unnamed shadow behind it; sometimes it appears harsh, prescriptive, and solid. Again matter becomes interchangeable with energy; fact becomes shadow, law becomes probability. Nature is a word that must have arisen with man. It is part of his otherness, his humanity. Other beasts live within nature. Only man has ceaselessly turned the abstraction around and around upon his tongue and found fault with every definition, found himself looking ceaselessly outside of nature toward something invisible to any eye but his own and indeed not surely to be glimpsed by him.




July 2, 2015

A Whole New Set of Eyes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:42 am

… an editor [is] judge, jury, and executioner.

This is from the interview with Mark Livolsi in First Cut 2: More Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham (2012):

[ … ]

Did the detailed nature of the work appeal to you?

I think there was an obsessive component, a need to make order out of chaos. The chaos of infinite options, of infinite ways of cutting, of infinite performance choices, and what seemed like an infinite amount of dailies, and turning it into one final, decisive piece of storytelling.

[ … ]

On the Prada DVD commentary, the director David Frankel said an editor is an artist and you said you thought an editor was judge, jury, and executioner.

I said that? [laughs]

[ … ]

… An editor is a whole new set of eyes for what will make the story work in the film. With that in mind, a director may be invested in and love how he shot a scene. The writer may love the way he or she wrote the scene. The actors may feel a scene was their best performance in the film. And the DP [director of photography] may think that a shot is the most beautiful one in the whole movie. But when I as the editor get the material, if it’s not moving the story forward or not telling it in the best possible way for whatever reason, then I have no qualms about throwing it out or about figuring out another way to make it work — if it can be made to work.




July 1, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:20 am

This is from the author-photographer’s ‘Introduction’ to Los Angeles Spring by Robert Adams (1986):

… We cherish intimations of mercy. I found once, in the smog, in a depression on an otherwise scraped plain beside a freeway, three kumquat bushes; they had been some farm woman’s treasure, next to a house now splintered under earthmoving machinery, and they stood that afternoon more alien than could have been the first such plants from China. Any thought that they might survive was unreasonable. It was difficult to think at all, in fact, against the noise of the traffic. They would not survive. And yet each had, untended by us, gone on to cover itself with golden fruit, as if by the most romantic script. They were implausible but real.




June 30, 2015

Monsters Found

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:24 am

… The New Guinea artist, on the other hand, tends to find his monsters more nearly “ready-made” in the very substance of nature.

Continuing through the essay ‘Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction’ by the book’s editor in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):

… We experience the entire history of past art in varying degrees fragmentarily and largely shorn of context. Few artists who appreciated Egyptian or Japanese art knew any more about its purpose or its cultural context than they did about that of Africa or Oceania. This ethnocentrism is a function nevertheless of one of modernism’s greatest virtues: its unique approbation of the arts of other cultures. Ours is the only society that has prized a whole spectrum of arts of distant and alien cultures. Its consequent appropriation of these arts has invested modernism with a particular vitality that is a product of cultural cross-fertilization.

[ … ]

… Picasso associated the return to fundamentals with the rediscovery of that direct magical affectiveness he knew to be the inherent power of the visual arts, an affectiveness with which the Western tradition [i.e. the increasingly complex and recondite modernism] had somehow lost contact. The “revelation” of this magic had come to him on his first visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro.

… As all tribal art — given its tendency to frontality and symmetry — is more “iconic” than “narrative,” it is probably hazardous to distinguish between African and Oceanic art on the score of storytelling. Nevertheless, most Oceanic and all Northwest Coast sculpture (a special favorite of the Surrealists) seems to me to have a more visible if symbolic relation to narrative statement than African art. To this extent, we can understand why Cubism, which is an “iconic art,” would lead its makers to Africa, while Surrealism, which is a symbolically “storytelling” art, would lead its practitioners to Melanesia, Micronesia, and the Americas.

To put this in another form, I would hazard the generalization that, relatively speaking, Oceanic and Northwest Coast art leans toward the expression of myth, while that of Africa leans toward that of ritual. Whether ritual is abstracted from myth or, as some anthropologists feel, mythology is elaborated from ritual, need not concern us here, for simply in terms of the nature of the modes, we can say that ritual is more inherently “abstract” than myth. Thus, the more ritually oriented African work would again appeal to the Cubist, while the more mythic content of the Oceanic/American works would engage the Surrealist. This does not mean, to be sure, that mythical personages are wholly absent from African art; on the contrary, there are some examples of them. Rather, they appear in that art more in the spirit of the way they are called forth in liturgy than in the sequential storytelling manner of the myth, which — to the extent it can be accommodated in sculpture — leads to composite or totem-pole-like agglomerations such as are more common in Oceania and on the Northwest Coast than in Africa.

… While there are numerous hybrids of men and animals among African masks and figure sculptures, they tend conceptually to be further removed, further abstracted from nature than the more ubiquitous monsters of the Melanesian peoples. Relative to many Oceanic arts, African sculpture could almost be characterized in terms of a prevailing anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, both qualities of the Classic. The New Guinea artist, on the other hand, tends to find his monsters more nearly “ready-made” in the very substance of nature. Nowhere in African art, for example, do we find anything comparable to the malevolent hybrid Imunus of the Papuan Gulf region, which are largely made up of branches or roots of trees. The result of this “natural selection” is an accident-accommodating, meandering, linear object, the near formlessness of whose contours is antipodal to African aesthetic ideals.

But not to modern taste — especially that of the Surrealists, who particularly liked such objects.

Imumu or Kakame figure

To be continued.

My previous post from this book is here.




June 29, 2015

Ground-level Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:19 am

… These are not just neutral, unconventional art materials …

Continuing through Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

… more interesting and widely evident in the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the staged collision between order and disorder, between geometric rule structures and recalcitrant irregularity and shapelessness. This was not simply a change from one thing to another, but involved an aggressive hostility against the precedent.

… order in the work of the late 1960s is something that cannot simply be, it must be shown to be something that is imposed, contrasted, and contested.

… A prime example of this new interest is a series of Smithson works called “Non-Sites,” which involved photo-maps with realizations in the gallery of minimalist-like boxes containing rocks and earth from the various points in the “non-site.” The sites are meant to be utterly banal — Franklin, New Jersey, is one, for example — and the idea is to map out a collision between order imposed by a map and the actual gritty, nonorderly facts of life found literally on the ground. Smithson’s is a diagrammatic or didactic collision, which again involves the clarity of the overhead view versus the chaos of ground-level reality, in which minimalism’s rigidity is made evident by piling it against the rough chaos that it contains and cuts through.

Robert Smithson, A Non-Site, Franklin, New Jersey, 1968

… [In his Device of 1962] Johns has nailed rulers onto the sides of the picture, and then dragged the rulers in circular pivots through the paint on the picture.

detail from Device

… the message [here] … it seems to me, has a more complex meaning or implication than the mere opposition of order and disorder. It has to do not with the collision of measurement and chaos but with the fusion of the two things. What the Johns says to me is that creating order creates disorder. That is, by imposing one order, you must efface another, and that all acts of measure and regularity involve destructive force. There is a kind of violence to rationality itself.

Jasper Johns, Device, 1962

… We see a lot of work in the late 1960s where the promise of shaping by material, and by program and method, no longer means the geometric playing out of possibilities, as in Le Witt’s cube, but rather overtly liquid pourings and castings. But I raise Pollock in connection with this Serra piece [the thrown lead works] only to contrast them, because what I want to point out is the difference between the almost lyrical nature of Pollock’s choreography, of his dance, and the imagery of manual labor in Serra’s piece.

Giacometti once made a sculpture called No More Play, and in a certain sense that is the subtitle of Serra’s work. It is all about hot metal, toxic materials, dangerous work. And this is personal to Serra — as archaeology is personal to Heizer — in that he has experience in a steel mill, and that his father worked in boatyards. But it is also, as with Heizer, symptomatic of the time. Heizer and Smithson both work with bulldozers and earth-movers to get what they want done, and now Serra in this lead-flinging piece with its steel-mill overtones seems to say to Judd and others, “To hell with tinsmiths and custom body shops. No more hands-off phoning in the plans for anything.” Instead, they literally go to work with an earnest, hands-on, blue-collar ethic.

… Their materials are the useless end of the utilitarian world, materials with an exhausted functionality, materials that speak the opposite of efficiency, that speak instead of overflow, of a society producing too much, and consequently of waste, detritus, and garbage. These are not just neutral, unconventional art materials; they imply a combination of overflow and excess with pollution and defilement.

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




June 28, 2015

I Would Prefer Not To*

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… The movement of refusal is rare and difficult, though equal and the same for each of us …

This is from the essay ‘Refusal’ found in the collection, Friendship by Maurice Blanchot (1997):

At a certain moment, in the face of public events, we know that we must refuse. The refusal is absolute, categorical. It does not argue, nor does it voice its reasons. This is why it is silent and solitary, even when it asserts itself, as it must, in broad daylight. Men who refuse and who are tied by the force of refusal know that they are not yet together. The time of joint affirmation is precisely that of which they have been deprived. What they are left with is the irreducible refusal, the friendship of this certain, unshakable, rigorous No that keeps them unified and bound by solidarity.

The movement of refusal is rare and difficult, though equal and the same for each of us, when we have grasped it. Why difficult? Because one must refuse not only the worst but also what seems reasonable, a solution one could call felicitous. In 1940, refusal did not have to be exercised against the invading force (not accepting it was a given), but rather against the opportunity that the old man of the armistice thought he could represent, not without good faith and justification.

… What we refuse is not without value or without importance. Indeed, this is why refusal is necessary. There is a reason that we will no longer accept, there is an appearance of good sense that disgusts us, there is an offer of agreement and conciliation that we will not hear of. A break has occurred. We have been brought back to a candor that no longer tolerates complicity.

[ *  << in case you can’t remember where the post title comes from and it’s driving you crazy]




June 27, 2015

And No Doubt the Price Is Reasonable

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:13 am

… we have … learned to accept without questioning a vast and growing assortment of edicts indicated by signs and lights and symbols and inscriptions …

This is from the essay ‘Roads Belong in the Landscape’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

Which came first, the house or the road leading to the house? Medieval scholars with their love for origins and symbols may well have long wrestled with the question, eventually coming up with a theological counterquestion: Which of the two objects had been divinely ordained to be first? It could have been reasoned that if God had meant us to stay home, to be sedentary, to put down roots as farmers or husbands (a word which once signified house-dwellers), he would have first commanded us to build a house. But if he had intended us to be forever on the move — hunters or herders or pilgrims in search of an elusive goal — he would have ordered us to beat a path, to make a road and follow it.

Odology is the science or study of roads or journeys and, by extension, the study of streets and superhighways and trails and paths, how they are used, where they lead, and how they come into existence. Odology is part geography, part planning, and part engineering — engineering as in construction, and unhappily as in social engineering as well.

… Within a few decades we have learned to abandon our traditional attitudes toward the road and to adopt new driving skills, new ways of coping with traffic, a whole new code of highway conduct and highway law; learned to accept without questioning a vast and growing assortment of edicts indicated by signs and lights and symbols and inscriptions on the surface of the road itself. We have learned to drive defensively and to outwit traffic jams and lurking policemen. We have also learned to take advantage of the proliferation of highway-oriented businesses and diversions and to discover the joys of speeding, of seeing the landscape flash by at an inhuman rate. We have become so submissive that radical odologists are encouraged to propose further electronic controls within our own vehicles, further restrictions on our use of the highway, further tolls and fees.

That is the price we pay for uninterrupted steady flow, and no doubt the price is reasonable. But odologists seem to forget — and we ourselves sometimes forget — that the road serves other needs. For untold thousands of years we traveled on foot over rough paths and dangerously unpredictable roads, not simply as peddlers or commuters or tourists, but as men and women for whom the path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were and where we belonged. …

That final ellipsis is in the original. It’s followed, inevitably, in the next paragraph, by Frost’s “Two roads diverged … “. Noooooooooo … !

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




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