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We did final work on this number into the wee small hours of a Saturday night, and more than forty-eight takes were recorded. Everything that could have gone wrong did during the shooting of this number: an arc light went out; there was a noise in the camera; one of us missed a step in the dance, where Fred was supposed to catch me in the final spins; and once, right at the end of a perfect take, his toupee flipped off! I kept on dancing even though my feet really hurt. During a break, I went to the sidelines and took my shoes off; they were filled with blood. I had danced my feet raw. Hermes saw what had happened and offered to stop the shooting. I refused. I wanted to get the thing done. Finally, we got a good take in the can, and George said we could go home - at 4:00 a.m.Ginger Rodgers’ feet covered in blood, and Matisse’s mud and flies
That is what normal people never understand. They want to enjoy the artist’s products – as one might enjoy the milk of a cow – but they can’t put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies.Astaire and Matisse both struggled to make to make things look easy, but if you don’t see the struggle you miss the point. There’s no confusion of art and life, no delusions of utopia; the art, visibly as artifice, brings out in us a heightened desire for the impossible without denying its impossibility. Picasso did something else, but not for very long. He represents in 20th century painting something similar to what Michelangelo represents in the 16th, but in no way equal in importance. He manifests a contradiction in form, and manages to stabilize it and somehow to present it as a unity. It’s an illusion but a compelling one. Michelangelo is the equal of Shakespeare in the creation of a similar but far more powerful illusion: he’s the first to record, to describe and present, the modern imagination, the confusions of Hamlet.
The drawing by Raphael is an object lesson, literally, in the principles and poetics of the High Renaissance: simultaneously static and full of motion, a perfect but lightly held balance of action and reflection, observation, representation, and free craft; rigor seemingly without tension, or tension seemingly without its affect. The figures fly off the page, yet they're anchored as solidly in place as they would be seated and face forward in a Byzantine mosaic. Michelangelo did something even more compressed, since he put the tension seen among the figures on a page within single figures and single blocks of stone. The torqued muscles in a torso of a Michelangelo sculpture manifest a tension, equal parts unity and schism, unmatched in western art. And in writing that I’m not saying anything new or even debated. I first made the comments about the Raphael while standing in front of it at the Metropolitan Museum, to an old acquaintance and a man he’d introduced me to, a well-dressed Swiss. My friend smiled. His companion shrugged and said, “of course”. The only audience for whom any of this is new is the audience of pedants who write and read only for intent, who read text without for subtext, who are interested in the ideas of Rawls and G.A. Cohen without noticing the culture they’re a part of.
As with Gerome and Manet, but again at a much higher level, it’s not a question of technical facility but of its use. Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the greatest technical sculptor in the history of the west, or of the world. Few people think of him as a better artist than Michelangelo. Bernini indulged his skill; it was easy for him to take things for granted and he did. But he didn’t fetishize technique so much that he wasn’t in awe of Poussin, whose technical skills by comparison were limited. The Baroque was considered decadent precisely for the discord between easy artifice and rough integrity, but the period was focused less on the balance of ideal and worldly order as in the Renaissance, or on the more extreme dichotomy of otherworldliness and corruption -the panicked pretense of Counter Reformation Mannerism- than on a worldly sophistication as such: the narrativizing of ideal order. The Baroque is the culture of monarchy and aristocracy at the beginning of the age of theater, the age of the bourgeoisie.
By the beginning of the 20th century we’re far from all of this. It had been hundreds of years since fine art, the art of luxury, had played such a central role in the cultures of the day, or in our understanding of it. By the 19th century the bourgeoisie had many other -cheaper and more appropriate- ways to represent its interests and its preoccupations than mimicking the manners of the old regime. By 1914 nearly everyone admits the aristocracy is dying. It’s only if you want to see progress and advancement in everything that the next big thing becomes an improvement by default, as a car with a top speed of 60 miles an hour is better than one that goes no more than 20. Argue for progress in taste and we’re back again to intention and the imperatives of philosophy.
Picasso as a Modernist, in the 1920s, was a Mannerist. What Lichtenstein learned from him was that he had to find a way to deal with crap, to make something of value from what he had around him, and for him as it had been for Picasso, value meant ideal form.
Lichtenstein needed for personal reasons to find a way to return idealism to the romance comics he himself saw as fascist. He had to rescue the ideal from the banal. He had no interest in the mundane or every-day. The thought that something could be mundane and profound wasn’t idealist enough, and idealism was a moral imperative.
Antagonistic critics say that Pop Art does not transform its model. Does it?Comic books are structured as films are, as visual narrative; the unity is a unity over time. But to Lichtenstein they’re simply indexical, non-art. By his logic to see comic books as art would be an error. The question is whether we see that designation as Broch does, as Eliot and James do, as the following and articulation of a sensibility -even couched in the language of a moral imperative- or whether we choose to see those imperatives as philosophers do, as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried do, as representing a truth not about one person’s metaphysics –a relation to the world- but about the world itself.
Transformation is a strange word to use. It implies that art transforms…. I think my work is different from comic strips—but I wouldn’t call it transformation; I don’t think that whatever is meant by it is important to art. What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes, but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified.
Artists as artists can never allow themselves to forget that their models of utopia are inseparable from their chosen craft. Painters use paint, writers use words, singers, actors, and dancers, use their bodies. Their search for order is through artifice and whatever perfection they reach is perfection in artifice. There’s no art more ironic than a Fra Angelico. Without irony there’s only pedantry, and the sincere delusions of pedantry are much more dangerous than the ironic delusions of art. Most vocations are predicated on optimism. Art and historical writing are the only fields where you can spend your entire career articulating failure and tragedy with the only optimism being your ability to describe them well.
Lichtenstein’s paintings have a mix of innocence and irony that Picasso rarely matched. What was half-empty for Picasso the European was half-full for Lichtenstein, the American who wanted to make paintings, not films, not novels or comic books, and who had to find a way to make it work, while Picasso could rest on his laurels, or pose like a bohemian. Greenberg traveled a similar route from observer to pusher of kitsch but here he is in 1957: “I suspect that posterity will find a lot more that is truly ridiculous in Picasso’s recent art than we can” Lichtenstein needed be able to make -and at his best he succeeded in making- an art that gave full credit both to high irony and American optimism. He bypassed the tragedy, like Astaire and Matisse, but with more effort and a stranger result. Warhol couldn’t escape it: he had to face optimism and its opposite, and he found a way, resulting in the most profoundly terrifying paintings since Picasso’s in 1906.