An Unenviable Situation

Sunday, January 19, 2020


Friday, January 17, 2020

repeats, because I can't get this stupidity out of my head.
--
"Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus" It means just what it says. Ferdinand I was a Catholic absolutist.
Justice is for and of god. Kant's twist is silly, Arendt's obliviousness to history is just odd. Spinoza was writing after Westphalia.

Arendt, Truth and Politics
The subject of these reflections is a commonplace. No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician's or the demagogue's but also of the statesman's trade. Why is that so? And what does it mean for the nature and the dignity of the political realm, on one side, and for the nature and the dignity of truth and truthfulness, on the other? Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent and of the very essence of power to be deceitful? And what kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm, which more than any other sphere of human life guarantees reality of existence to natal and mortal men–that is, to beings who know they have appeared out of non-being and will, after a short while, again disappear into it? Finally, is not impotent truth just as despicable as power that gives no heed to truth? These are uncomfortable questions, but they arise necessarily out of our current convictions in this matter.

What lends this commonplace its high plausibility can still be summed up in the old Latin adage "Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus" ("Let justice be done though the world may perish"). Apart from its probable author in the sixteenth century (Ferdinand I, successor to Charles V), no one has used it except as a rhetorical question: Should justice be done if the world's survival is at stake? And the only great thinker who dared to go against the grain of the question was Immanuel Kant, who boldly explained that the "proverbial saying ... means in simple language: 'Justice shall prevail, even though all the rascals in the world should perish as a result.' " Since men would not find it worth while to live in a world utterly deprived of justice, this "human right must be held sacred, regardless of how much sacrifice is required of the powers that be . . . regardless of what might be the physical consequences thereof."[1] But isn't this answer absurd? Doesn't the care for existence clearly precede everything else–every virtue and every principle? Is it not obvious that they become mere chimeras if the world, where alone they can be manifested, is in jeopardy? Wasn't the seventeenth century right when it almost unanimously declared that every commonwealth was duty bound to recognize, in Spinoza's words, "no higher law than the safety of [its] own realm"? [2] For surely every principle that transcends sheer existence can be put in the place of justice, anq if we put truth in its place–"Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus"–the old saying sounds even more plausible. If we understand political action in terms of the means-end category, we may even come to the only seemingly paradoxical conclusion that lying can very well serve to establish or safeguard the conditions for the search after truth–as Hobbes, whose relentless logic never fails to carry arguments to those extremes where their absurdity becomes obvious, pointed out long ago.[3] And lies, since they are often used as substitutes for more violent means, are apt to be considered relatively harmless tools in the arsenal of political action.

Reconsidering the old Latin saying, it will therefore come as something of a surprise that the sacrifice of truth for the survival of the world would be more futile than the sacrifice of any other principle or virtue. For while we may refuse even to ask ourselves whether life would still be worth living in a world deprived of such notions as justice and freedom, the same, curiously, is not possible with respect to the seemingly so much less political idea of truth. What is at stake is survival, the perseverance in existence (in suo esse perseverare), and no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously–namely λἐγειν τα ἐὀντα,  to say what is. No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is.
--- 
1. Eternal Peace, Appendix I 
2. I quote from Spinoza's Political Treatise because it is noteworthy that even
Spinoza, for whom the libertas philosophandi was the true end of government,
should have taken so radical a position. 
3. In the Leviathan (ch. 46) Hobbes explains that "disobedience may lawfully be
punished in them, that against the laws teach even true philosophy." For is not "leisure the mother of philosophy; and Commonwealth the mother of peace and leisure"? And does it not follow that the Commonwealth will act in the interest ofphilosophy when it suppresses a truth which undermines peace? Hence the truthteller, in order to cooperate in an enterprise which is so necessary for his own peace of body and decides to write what he knows "to be false philosophy." Of this Hobbes suspected Aristotle of all people, who according to him "writ it as a thing consonant to, and corroborative of [the Greeks'] religion; fearing the fate of Socrates." It never occurred to Hobbes that all search for truth would be self-defeating if its conditions could be guaranteed only by deliberate falsehoods. Then, indeed, everybody may turn out to be a liar like Hobbes' Aristode. Unlike this figment of Hobbes' logical fantasy, the real Aristotle was of course sensible enough to leave Athens when he came to fear the fate of Socrates; he was not wicked enough to write what he knew to be false, nor was he stupid enough to solve his problem of survival by destroying everything he stood for.
On Charles V
When he renounced his crown in 1555, retiring to a monastery he took nine of Titian’s paintings with him, including the monumental ‘Triumph of Faith”, La Gloria”, “and he is said to have looked at it in his dying days with such persistence and intensity of feeling that his doctors took fright.”

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Adults.

Farnaz Fassihi (NYT) on twitter "Tehran billboard replaces Gen. Soleimani's photo with the names of victims perished in airplane tragedy."

Unimaginable in Saudi.

"Unforgivable" "Ashamed"

The New Yorker, 2013,
Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October, 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. “If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!” he shouted. “When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.” He stomped out of the room. “It was a great moment,” Crocker said.

The coöperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.” The flow of information went both ways. On one occasion, Crocker said, he gave his counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained him and brought him to Afghanistan’s new leaders, who, Crocker believes, turned him over to the U.S. The negotiator told Crocker, “Haji Qassem is very pleased with our coöperation.”

The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation [SIC-pompous/pretention] of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”
WaPo Nov. 2018
Top Saudi intelligence officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asked a small group of businessmen last year about using private companies to assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom, according to three people familiar with the discussions. 
The Saudis inquired at a time when Prince Mohammed, then the deputy crown prince and defense minister, was consolidating power and directing his advisers to escalate military and intelligence operations outside the kingdom. Their discussions, more than a year before the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, indicate that top Saudi officials have considered assassinations since the beginning of Prince Mohammed’s ascent.
Saudi officials have portrayed Mr. Khashoggi’s death as a rogue killing ordered by an official who has since been fired. But that official, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, was present for a meeting in March 2017 in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where the businessmen pitched a $2 billion plan to use private intelligence operatives to try to sabotage the Iranian economy. 
During the discussion, part of a series of meetings where the men tried to win Saudi funding for their plan, General Assiri’s top aides inquired about killing Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and a man considered a determined enemy of Saudi Arabia. 
The interest in assassinations, covert operations and military campaigns like the war in Yemen — overseen by Prince Mohammed — is a change for the kingdom, which historically has avoided an adventurous foreign policy that could create instability and imperil Saudi Arabia’s comfortable position as one of the world’s largest oil suppliers. 
As for the businessmen, who had intelligence backgrounds, they saw their Iran plan both as a lucrative source of income and as a way to cripple a country that they and the Saudis considered a profound threat. George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, arranged the meeting. He had met previously with Prince Mohammed, and had pitched the Iran plan to Trump White House officials. Another participant in the meetings was Joel Zamel, an Israeli with deep ties to his country’s intelligence and security agencies. 
Both Mr. Nader and Mr. Zamel are witnesses in the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, and prosecutors have asked them about their discussions with American and Saudi officials about the Iran proposal. It is unclear how this line of inquiry fits into Mr. Mueller’s broader inquiry. In 2016, a company owned by Mr. Zamel, Psy-Group, had pitched the Trump campaign on a social media manipulation plan. 
A spokesman for the Saudi government declined to comment, as did lawyers for both Mr. Nader and Mr. Zamel. 
Old news. So boring.

Akbar Ganji in Foreign Affairs
Who Is Ali Khamenei?

Ted Koppel in the WSJ, April, 2011
The Arab Spring and U.S. Policy: The View From Jerusalem: Israeli officials want a public commitment from Washington to protect the Saudi regime should it come under threat.
Iran is a democracy compared to the Gulf states. That scares them more than anything else.
MBZ is Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE

Friday, December 20, 2019

working, reworking... the last paragraphs 12/22

"A teacher of mine, Abe Ajay, an arch modernist, a friend of Ad Reinhardt who worked with him at The New Masses, used to complain that Beethoven ruined his music with images. 'All those wonderful notes and then... Birds!!'"

In art as in philosophy the questions relating to mimesis are the same in 1950 as in 1906 and 1860. Abstraction means abstraction from.  The works of art acknowledged as the highpoints of the time record the same desperate stab at representation: the crises of Manet and Picasso reenacted on new ground. With few exceptions later  art concerned with the “tragic and timeless” is an art of intent, made of a few gestures done with an air of high seriousness. I can enjoy the works of the Zero school without asking them to carry more than their weight. Rauschenberg’s best early works have all the terror in the nightmares of a closeted Willy Loman, or a character out of Tennessee Williams, without the melodrama. His best works are figurative and crushingly intimate. But Barnett Newman’s paintings are claimed to be in the grand tradition, and the claim is hollow. My glib cocktail party version of this is seen in the two images, of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, from 1951, and a still from the last scene of John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers.  Both are attempts at representation and the thematics are nearly identical: the individual in the American landscape.  But where one originates in the specific and resolves to something approaching grandeur, but a grandeur only allowed for after an acknowledgement of tragedy and irony, both concerning the story and the artifice of film, the other is unabashedly both grandly self-aggrandizing and grandly unspecific.  Of the two, Newman’s high art is the one that deals in the wishful thinking foundational to kitsch.  But it’s also foundational to Modernism itself.  Modernism is aspirational, and kitsch is the ultimate in aspirational logic: to dream is to succeed; pretense is reality.  But again there is the difference between aspiration—desire—and its description.  

Pollock is a harder case; but the literature on him as well is still caught up with the romance of overreach.  I’ve spent a lot of time with Clark’s Pollock in Farewell to an Idea[i] Overreach is what the book is about.  Writing on the 19th century Clark pulls ideas out of material substance, but by the 20th he begins to push them in.  Despite his protests it was clear by then that he was never as interested in the working class as he was in the revolution, and we know now they’re not the same thing.  Farewell to an idea (more than once I’ve written it as “Requiem…” ); so he has no problem transitioning from Pollock to Adolph Gottlieb.  Gottlieb ended as kitsch, and Pollock began with it: look at Guardians of the Secret.  But Pollock at his best made paintings that even as a child reminded me of Uccello.  I remember that because I always thought that was strange, and beautiful.  Clark’s language reenacts the crises of modernity as defined by Modernism. His recent book is as mannered as its subject. Farewell to an Idea is an elegy, and a fitting one, but it doesn’t answer my questions about Pollock.  

Pollock’s paintings are commonly associated with music, with ‘free’ jazz, Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. I’m going to take a different tack, not because jazz doesn’t is the obvious parallel, but because it is. But it’s not the parallel favored by the high-brow intellectuals of modernism: the philosophers, for whom the parallels need to be high-brow as well (and more serious than art.) 

Classical musicians are modern people performing a historical art. As with lawyers, historical research is part of the job. That’s the strength and weakness of  performance of the classical canon: the works are no longer part of a living tradition. The strength and weakness of jazz is that it developed in the shadow of a great but dying one. You get the sense that in the mid 20th  century of a  century of a mutual sense of jealously and even awe between the classically trained and the brilliant autodidacts (or their heirs), and tragedy mostly attached to the latter. The Swing era will be remembered as a brief period when people working in a popular form thought of themselves as making art without the need to capitalize the word. Like the great Hollywood films of the same era the art comes out of the craft through great effort but not fuss. I don’t think it’s worth arguing anymore than jazz produced the most important music of the first half of the 20th century. But for now this is a sidebar. I’m interested in historians and craftspeople as opposed to philosophers, and the best discussion I’ve found of the tension between expression and communication, between emotion and form, is an exchange between two pianists in the classical tradition known also as scholars, but not pedants. 
    
Alfred Brendel describes a moment in one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas when the “chains of music itself” are thrown off.  This moment comes as the end of a slow progression towards an aesthetic or anti-esthetic “musical self-immolation” Modernism has always flirted with self-immolation, in art and politics: the sloughing off of the physical mediating form in the desire for pure experience.  And in the context of communication, of human exchange, that pure experience is one of unification, of one person with another, with a group, or with “the absolute.”  I’m going to include a long passage from the exchange between Brendel and Charles Rosen in the New York Review because it both explicates and exemplifies the tensions of the Modernist relation to culture and the meaning of culture and cultural history in the modern era and the present.  It’s a wonderful exchange between two people fully engaged with—and within—the tradition they’re discussing.  And very clearly Pollock’s in there too.

Brendel: In Charles Rosen’s review of William Kinderman’s highly stimulating book on Beethoven [NYR, September 21], he raises a question about a quotation from one of my articles.  The context from which this quote is taken is readily available in my book Music Sounded Out (“Beethoven’s New Style,” page 71).  To sum it up: During the inversion of the fugue of opus 110, the constraints of polyphony are shaken off in a gradual process of foreshortening that is a feature of the movement’s return to life.  
…At the same time, the appearance of the augmented theme in its original, upward shape initiates a process of liquidation: when the basic key of A flat is reached, the texture has become virtually homophonic.  The goal of revival has been attained.  But Beethoven proceeds even further.  The lyrical hymn in A flat that carries the piece to its end becomes more and more euphoric until another, ultimate liberation is achieved: finally, after an exertion that surmounts two fortissimo diminished seventh chords, the “chains of music itself” are thrown off.  This last extreme effort amounts to a kind of musical self-immolation; it needs to be conveyed by the performance before silence takes over.  In my view, only an extreme metaphor could do it justice.

Rosen: I made no criticism of Alfred Brendel in my review.  I only wrote that I assumed he meant something specific by the grandiose expression “the chains of music itself”; I was reproaching William Kinderman (who occasionally writes program-notes for Brendel) with quoting from the work of other scholars out of context in a way that makes their phrases seem empty and pretentious.  There was, therefore, no reason to refer to Brendel’s book, although I am glad that it is readily available, since I was sure that the particular metaphor had some justification.  I agree that the lyric euphoria of the final page of opus 110 is extraordinary.  In his letter, however, Brendel has now added the additional metaphor of “musical self-immolation” which is less persuasive.  It is not so much its lack of clarity that is unfortunate (who is being immolated, Beethoven, the pianist, or the sonata itself?) but the Wagnerian resonance which can be applied to Beethoven only with a certain lack of tact.  Beethoven’s pretensions may be as great as Wagner’s, but they are less morbid and less coarse.[ii]

This is a conversation as I said from within a tradition, and an outsider is left to wonder what those last sentences with the words ‘tact,’ ‘morbid’ and ‘coarse’ even mean.  The definition of theology is the use of terms of objective knowledge in discussion based on subjectivity and sense.  But we live within our subjectivity and in this sense we live within theology. We can’t escape but we communicate, indeed the only way we do so, is by comparing terms.  

In fact Rosen’s letter made me laugh out loud and at the end I felt a shiver: the shiver I’ve felt watching great actors play with an audience.  Tact in Rosen’s sense is one’s proper relation to the question of the curtain in the Wizard of Oz; which one should maintain even knowing what’s behind it. And the shiver I felt is the shiver of recognition that the priest you’re arguing with is as much of an atheist or an ironist as you are, but that the fact of a godless world is nonetheless irrelevant. Rosen and Brendel are both arguing explicitly from within their culture because what they are each interested in, indeed preoccupied by, is not the truth value of that culture—or of culture as such—but its ability to foster a wide range of categories of event and experience. 

Imagine being asked to judge a poetry competition where the  entrants are asked to write on the same subject. Comparing the results you’re not comparing the poems’ relation to the objective truth of the idea, event, or object -their assigned subject- but the poets’ ability to build a complex and evocative description out of their perceptions and responses.  You’re not judging the ability to see a thing in absolute terms, but the ability of each poet to make you see what they see, which still must begin with the assumption that at a basic level you already do, since the object or theme has a common, public, form. From a simple commonality, a common denominator, a tea pot or spare tire, each participant is asked to develop a perspective which is then reformulated in language (returned) as a new and more complex common form.  The process is one of group mimesis,  collectively developed representation, through conversation and debate of individuals about the community and the world they share.  The external world -in an absolute sense- is secondary to the social, and to the method of description, the world as experienced and responded to in time. This is the foundation also of the rule of law. 

The vulgarity in Wagner and incipient in Beethoven—hence the need in Rosen’s terms for ‘tact’—is not the vulgarity of subject but of the composer’s assumptions about and attitude towards language.  Beethoven is in a line of gradation with Wagner, Gerome and Helmut Newton, in the sense that Wagner indulges a bombast that Beethoven at his best merely passionately describes.  Wagner’s music is written for Wagnerians in the same sense that Newton’s photographs are made for voyeurs, yet identification—as pseudo-community—is encouraged but not yet a requirement.  All communities are communities of selves and others.  Collective identity, as imaginary collective unity, is either a false—unrealizable—ideal, from fascism to The Singularity, or mere collective reflex: the community of tech geeks, fetishists and junkies. 

The experience of the sex act is social, formal, communicative, and if the world is seen as the social realm, world-creating.  The moment of orgasm as reflex is aformal, asocial (isolate), ecstatic and if the world is seen as social, world destructive.  Sex as performance is a form of communication; orgasm is artless.  The pretense of an ‘art’ of orgasm is vulgar.  The popular understanding of Pollock’s work is as an ‘act’ of ‘expression,’ as orgasm not structure.  Mondrian saw structure. The what and how of communication for Pollock’s work are complex; as complex in their way as the question of orgasm in Beethoven.  

What Rosen is debating with Brendel is the increasing presence of instrumentalism in form: the growing tendency to craft to reflex that reaches its apogee in the illustration and the false community of the fetish: of pure instrument.  Wagner is preaching to the choir (and Pollock is in there somewhere); Gerome is a soft-care pornographer playing to an audience, Newton and his audience are almost interchangeable, his form of communication identification with the masturbator, which is to say barely communication at all, one step away from the final shift, the final descent from interpersonal communication to masturbation in public.  

If communication is a circuit, reflex is a short.  The fantasy of the premature ejaculator is a state of eternal orgasm. It’s also the logic of the perfect economic man.  The mania for progress becomes no more than simply the desire to go faster.  If knowledge is measured in conclusions not in processes then the shortest distance between two points, the short circuit, is the obvious choice. Pornography and technical illustration is the model of art in a technocracy: immediate gratification. This is the crux of the struggle over the human imagination that begins in the 18th century, with the rise of idealist anti-humanism.  

In 2003, I asked Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale, if there were any discussion between legal scholars and musicologists and historians such as Richard Taruskin, known for criticizing theories of originalism in musical performance.  In the various overlapping intellectual interests that marked my childhood, the connection was taken as a given.  I still take too much for granted about what others take for granted, but Balkin was the right person to ask.  Here’s Taruskin, from his keynote address at the conference, “Law, Music and other Performing Arts” at U.T.  Austin in 2002

About ten years ago I received out of the blue an offprint of an article[iii] from the University Pennsylvania Law Review… by Professors Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas and Jack Balkin of Yale…. I read it with fascination and gratitude, the latter simply because the authors had so well understood the position I had taken in the debates about what was then known as authentic performance practice in music. My musical and musicological colleagues seemed unable to hear what I was really saying when I said that their ideas of historical performance practice, on which the claim of authenticity was based, derived from a selective reading of history in the service of a modern—or, more strongly, a Modernist—ideology. 
All works of art… are subject to social mediation.  It is, indeed, the price of living…. Ought it to require a musicologist and a pair of legal scholars to come up with such a truism?  Maybe not, but apparently it does.[iv]

If all communication is communication among individuals through mediating forms -of which language is the prime example- then beyond the most rudimentary functions we operate always on speculative induction and generalization, and we should be clear: we build most often on foundations of desire and hot air.  Only in language can you live on the 10th floor of a building that doesn’t reach the ground.  It amazes me that philosophers have built careers without having to respond to our model of the law as formalized adversarialism: mandated moral semi-consciousness. My ignorance is why I took for granted that more than one or two scholars of constitutional law would have read Taruskin. I assumed philosophers understand that we’ve chosen the rule of law because we understood the dangers of the rule of reason. 

Having grown up around lawyers and literature professors –readers of fiction– debates over rationalism and irrationalism left me almost speechless. I’d forgotten that Plato hated lawyers as much he hated poets, and that his ideal was Sparta. The rule of law is the rule of public language and the public description of the world. Under the rule of reason justice is ad hoc, devolving always into the rule of the reasonable as defined by the strong. 

Taruskin is a musicologist. Brendel and Rosen are performers who write criticism, and as soloists are advocates for the causes that they choose.  Jobbing lawyers, like orchestra players, don’t always have a choice.  From the NY Times obituary of John Mortimer, Barrister and novelist, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey

Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate.  I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying.  I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.”[v]

How in the context of modern social life does one make a statement or a proposition that acknowledges both the integrity of that statement—the speaker’s desire that it be ‘true’—and the possibility, most often the fact, that it doesn’t operate on that universal level?  How do we manage irony and belief, and the dual imperatives of integrity and sociability?  The passage above is the statement of a man who spent his life as a performer in the theater of law.  He understood the question, and his career was predicated on the response most of us take too much for granted to ever bother articulating.  Taruskin on the other hand, defending the “authenticity” of performing in and for the present,  defends censorship, even to the point of  arguing that we should stop listening to Prokofiev, regardless of the music itself, simply because he worked for Stalin.[vi] By his logic the greatest art of Europe, or any other culture beyond a few tribes of hunter gatherers, should be in deep storage. Concert halls should be silent. In his arguments with Rosen[vii] and Daniel Barenboim[viii], both get the better of him easily. Taruskin: “As one who regards Rosen’s literary output—all of it—as Cold War propaganda…”[ix]  Rosen replies[x], but it’s not worth the effort to go into details.  I’d argue with all of them that Schoenberg’s serialism was a desperate attempt to escape becoming a Hollywood competitor of Erich Korngold, famous for Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood –listening to Verklarte Nacht, I can’t help seeing Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland– and that Milton Babbitt’s music and  writing, “Who Cares if you Listen”[xi] aka “The Composer as Specialist”[xii] (a title too perfect by half) fit with every example of post war rationalism I’ve described: scholastic formalism, positivism, erudition as art, dead ends imagined as progress.  I’d argue that there are “bad” or “inappropriate” ways to play Bach, as there are “bad” or “inappropriate” ways to interpret the constitution. But those are arguments to be made and answered in debate, and censorship is refusing to argue and then demanding others do the same. No one mentioned above would disagree with Taruskin’s critique of originalism, just as none of them would agree with Babbitt’s diktats. Rosen was a friend and performer of his music, but he wasn’t a follower; Babbitt lost his argument from authority well before he died. Take away the positivistic moralism and the work is left to stand on its own, and the description and manifestation of a kind of desire, from a place and time. It will stand or fall as record or relic. In the end the terms are not Babbitt’s or Taruskin’s. History is the judge.  

Joseph Kerman on Babbitt the theorist.

His writing of the 1950s had developed into a strange amalgam. Conjoined with a fanatical scientism, a search for quasi-logical precision of reference which tortured his syntax into increasingly Jamesian spirals for very un-Jamesian ends, there was an undertone of distress, even rage, erupting into repeated assaults and innuendos directed against various predictable targets. This scarcely contained emotion issued obviously (and openly enough) from the same sense of modernist alienation as was expressed very differently by Schoenberg or, to take an even more extravagant case, Adorno. But while Adorno was telling anyone who would listen at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen that modern music was decisively cut off from decadent bourgeois culture, Babbitt at Princeton was pointing out that avant-garde music could find its niche after all – though only by retreating from one bastion of middle class culture, the concert hall, to another, the university. Like pure science, he argued, musical composition has a claim on the university as a protector of abstract thought. (The complicity of composition and theory, it will be seen, was crucial to this argument, the complicity of theory and mathematics extremely helpful.) Instead of lamenting the no-doubt irreparable breach between avant-garde music and the public, composers like mathematicians should turn their backs on the public and demand their rightful place in the academy. Otherwise ‘music will cease to evolve, and in that important sense, will cease to live'.[xiii]

“Jamesian spirals for very un-Jamesian ends.” Kerman restates my arguments, marking the same line from the subjective but impersonal to the ‘objective’, formality to formalism, elision to denial, from bourgeois culture to technocratic anti-culture. But he ignores that Babbitt’s and Adorno’s prescriptions are variations of the same institutionalism, with the same positivist, Weberian, contempt for art. If Babbitt’s art succeeds it succeeds in spite of this. The undertones in his essays,  "of distress, even rage, erupting into repeated assaults” is matched in his music. The parallel is not science or mathematics but the other art music of its time: free Jazz. Formal logic is a cover.

Expressionism in the atomic age is the product of technocracy and the bomb, the emotion escaping the denial of emotion; it's the melodrama behind positivism, from Vienna to Weimar to New York, the relation of Strangelove to von Neumann. This is what Brendel and Rosen, and Kerman, as exegetes, interpreters not pedants, who are neither positivists nor emotionalists, rationalists nor irrationalists, are describing and debating. If music is formal, how can a gesture that breaks with the form, function within it? Rosen says Brendel defends farting in Church; he misses the logic behind the change. If Beethoven puts an explosion at the end of the metrical line, then formal art has become mimetic. One of my teachers, Abe Ajay, an arch modernist, a friend of Ad Reinhardt who worked with him at The New Masses, used to complain that Beethoven ruined his music with images. "All those wonderful notes and then... Birds!!" Abe wasn’t joking, but I laughed. This is what Schoenberg and Babbitt rebelled against, not Beethoven but the only option for those following him into the 20th century: the vulgar romance of Korngold and the program music of Hollywood, music of the classical western tradition no longer independent, now subservient to another form, the art of images. 

[i] T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, Yale University Press, 1999
[ii] Letters, New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 18, Nov. 16 1995
[iii] Sanford Levinson and J. M. Balkin, “Law, Music, and Other Performing Arts”. 139 U. Pa. Law Rev. 1597 (1991) Available on the web: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/writings.htm#C
[iv] Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, California, 2008
[v] Helen T.  Verongos  “John Mortimer, Barrister and Writer Who Created Rumpole, Dies at 85”,
NY Times,  Jan 17, 2009
[vi]  Taruskin, “Prokofiev, Hail... and Farewell?”, New York Times, April 21 1991;  
Taruskin, On Russian Music, University of California Press, 2010, p. 10
[vii]  Rosen "From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra" (two parts), New York Review of Books, February 23, and March 9 2006. 
[viii]  Daniel Barenboim, “Music’s Dangers; An Infringement”, New York Times Dec 23, 2001  
https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/23/arts/l-music-s-dangers-an-infringement-765147.html
[ix]  Taruskin, “Afterword: Nicht blutbefleckt?” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 26, Issue 2 Spring 2009.
[x]  Rosen, “Music and the Cold War”, New York Review of Books, April 7, 2011
[xi]  Milton Babbitt, “Who cares if you listen?”, High Fidelity, Feb. 1958
[xii]  Anthony Tommasini, “Finding Still More Life in a 'Dead' Idiom”, The New York Times,  October 6, 1996
[xiii] Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology,  Harvard University Press, 1986  p. 101 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Labour blew it. They should have gone all in for Brexit.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019


Avant-Garde is Kitsch: An Essay on Modernism and Modernity in Politics and Culture
Academia.edu, or here

It's book length now. If I hadn't pissed off Sahlins it would've been published by years ago, but it would have been much shorter and not nearly as good. It's still not done but it's close.

I waste my life on this or something else.

It would be nice if someone at least gave me a response other than "It will never pass peer review", or that I should send to "X", who then says I should send it to "Y".

The sources of the image, because now I have to explain all my jokes.

A few changes. Now I'm taking a break.

If the intellectual model of fine art remains intellectual design (and the logic of original intent) the popular model is now theatrical design. There’s a relation: the children of conceptualists have returned to an art-making process the only way they could, as furniture makers.  There’s a similar culture of “crafting” in academia, of grad school knitting circles, economist coffee connoisseurs, philosopher illustrators and wood carvers. None of this amounts to much, or won’t until the preoccupations outpace the ideas.  The best example of this, going back to the beginnings of conceptualism, is Adrian Piper, who has had careers both as an artist and as an academic philosopher.  But her best, most tortured, work documents the sleep of reason, undermining all of her ideological pretensions.  Her work is the poetry of confused rage.  The new culture of crafting by comparison is another form of naïve decadence.  For academic crafters, knitting circles are the closest they’ll come to hammering out scenarios for The Wire.  But our more committed culture of geek enthusiasm is Fin-de-siècle Vienna restaged in ignorance, the overdetermined attachments of people desperate to escape their isolation while simultaneously seeing that isolation as a function of Truth. It connects to the art of the closet, without the humor or sadness. We now have a variety of geeks outside of science and tech, all with the moral philosophy of Asperger’s patients: so fixated on their manias that the only way out is the dream of the hive, the ultimate overdetermined community. Our culture is full of stories of dystopian worlds made by our idealism; contra the church, homosexuality is normal human behavor, and against all philosophers who followed Socrates, the distinction between dialogue and rhetoric is spurious. 

Paul Schrader tells a story.

I recently watched a demonstration by the guys from Rockstar Games who did the Western video game Red Dead Redemption. They said that all new technology is essentially run by techies. And then at some point, somebody comes in from another field and makes it universal. And they were hoping that we were getting to that point with video games. We’re not there yet. It’s still in the realm of the techies.[i]

Video games are dystopianism without the sense of loss. To take them beyond the realm of the techies would be to take them beyond the enthusiasts, the optimists, and to those who can introduce tragedy: out of the realm of games and into the realm of art. Schrader’s point of course is that if we’re not there yet, we will be. 

[i]  Paul Schrader, "Game Changers: The Birth of Narrative", Film Comment, July-August 2014

Monday, November 25, 2019

"The Temporary Alliance Between the Elite and the Mob"

"Real decadence is neither brittle nor indifferent: it's hard hopeless honesty. Hopeless dishonesty isn't enough."

The first time I heard the phrase immanent critique I knew it was just a way of turning decadence and emotional honesty into positivism. I was mocked for 20 years as a conservative by people who called themselves radicals whose sensibility was more or less fascist. And now it's almost forgotten and I'm still the only one who gets the joke.

Repeat from 2007. Klaus Nomi sings Purcell


What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath?
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

---
Repeat from 2004

Fintan O'Toole. Our Own Jacobean NYRB, October 7, 1999
Harold Pinter's imagination was shaped to a large extent by Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, and Kafka. But in a speech delivered in 1995 and published now in Various Voices, a collection of his essays, interviews, short stories, and poems, he recalls the schoolteacher with whom he went for long walks in the 1940s and 1950s:

Shakespeare dominated our lives at that time (I mean the lives of my friends and me) but the revelation which Joe Brearley brought with him was John Webster. On our walks, we would declare into the wind, at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by, nuggets of Webster....

He goes on to quote, as if from memory, lines from The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil like "What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut/ With diamonds?"; "There's a plumber laying pipes in my guts"; "My soul, like to a ship in a black storm/Is driven I know not whither"; "I have caught/ An everlasting cold. I have lost my voice/Most irrecoverably." And, of course, "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young." He adds, "That language made me dizzy." 
I've said this before without quoting the article. My God, how that reminds me of my childhood ecstasy, listening to the 1958 recording of Mahagonny. I felt as if I were being torn apart, and smiling. Second to this at least was my parents' recording of Der Jasager, the only opera that has ever made me cry, and which I've thought for years should be staged with the cast in the uniforms of the Hitler Jugend. I've always associated Brecht with just the sort of decadence, of formal rigor and conflict, that Pinter responded to and O'Toole describes.

I have caught/ An everlasting cold. I have lost my voice/Most irrecoverably.
I just laugh and laugh.
Perfect
----

I'd forgotten that the last time I posted this, I introduced a new tag.



And here

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Thinking. Solving problems elsewhere.

‘Innocent’ formalism, the play of the imagination, the timeless present of children, anarchic and pre-humanist.

The formalism of the untrained, in the world of experts. Le Douanier Rousseau

The formalism of elision, of speaking and hiding, originating in childhood experience but continuing in schooled, articulate, adulthood. James, Elliot, Borges

The formalism of autistic savants.

The art of the periods in-between, the aristocratic as opposed to bourgeois culture of time, of absolutism trying to come to terms with contingency in the forms of the baroque, the contradictory ideal theater.  Leibniz, Bernini, Borromini (sorry kids, the argument predates Deleuze)

The intellectual as counsel to the king, or theologian, becoming the intellectual as academic.

The intellectual as jester, the anarchist at court, and the anti-utilitarianism of aristocratic leisure, becoming the anti-academic intellectual as cosmopolitan observer, artist, critic, flaneur.

Some of the tensions are or seem to be specific to Christian Europe and the Socratic contempt for democracy. The evangelical idealism that separated truth from rhetoric –and linked object making and no other art with philosophy– sets Europe apart.

Interesting to see the last two thousand years in the west as largely "post-democratic",  rebelling against the model of Athens and the Roman republic.  Opposition to democracy precedes its re-invention. And liberal philosophers oppose democracy, since they have to be the authors of the state. The word most come before the act. But that's not how it happens.

And repeats: the two cultures of the two cultures. The UK divides pedants and ironists/ philosophers and novelists; French philosophers are both.  The UK legal system is adversarial; the French is inquisitorial: the ironic philosopher is the French intellectual model.
Anglosphere philosophers are pedants; Anglosphere lawyers are ironists.

Athens: a culture with a great official material and literary tradition.

The best way to come to terms with Athens is to refuse to see it as western.

"You can't understand the complexity of Athenian art, dynamic/naturalistic and hieratic, until you see it, and the best of it. Its closest parallels in Asia don't match it. Nothing in Europe matches in since."


Monday, October 14, 2019

All of this of course is going here (and here) at some point.
----
And updated again. also new tag for Gombrich
Updating from earlier in the year. More on performance.

Michael Fried was right to say that the focus on objects qua objects, as things which displace air or water, which change in our perceptions as we move around them brings us to the point of theater. 
…I want to make a claim that I cannot hope to prove or substantiate but that I believe nevertheless to be true: viz., that theatre and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting (or modernist painting and sculpture), but with art as such - and to the extent that the different arts can be described as modernist, with modernist sensibility as such. This claim can be broken down into three propositions or theses: 
1. The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre…. …
2. Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre. …
3. The concepts of quality and value-and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself-are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual artsWhat lies between the arts is theatre
The first paragraph of Mendelson’s review 
Christopher Butler’s survey of post-war literature, music and painting maintains a judicious critical distance from its subject. Readers who wish a more direct report from the front lines of the avant-garde should consult a new anthology, Collective Consciousness: Art Performances in the Seventies, edited by Jean Dupuy. This documents the work of almost two hundred avant-gardists from Europe and America who displayed their most advanced work at a gallery in New York and wrote explanatory statements for inclusion in the book. Despite the large number of participants, the level of inspiration and accomplishment is remarkably uniform. One artist, no better and no worse than the rest, supplied a colour film of a naked man scrabbling about in a forest. Another showed a videotape of himself bowing solemnly to the camera. A third tacked up a scrap of paper that read, ‘Look in the mirror as I fuck you up the ass, the pain on your face is my freedom, your tears are the drops of my manhood,’ and waited for angry women to tear it down. The established justification for this sort of thing is the thought it supposedly provokes in the audience. But the most thought-provoking sentence in the book was not written by any of the participating artists. It is the matter-of-fact statement printed in large type on the copyright page: ‘Publication of this book was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, a federal agency.’ 
Mendelson’s essay was published in 1981. The “NEA Four” case like the Mapplethorpe trial was in 1990.  The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen was banned by the BBC in 1977. If it were considered art not entertainment, people would have been debating why it was denied government funding, not after the fact as with Mapplethorpe, but for help making the album.
But “performance art” was more than shock.  Remember Panofsky’s description of the Florentine intermedio, “where the conclusion of Plato’s Republic appeared on the stage”. Performance art in the 16th century and the 20th developed for the same reasons: the need to reconcile idealism, eternal, deathless, with growing worldliness, economic and intellectual, and engagement with life as experienced, in time. It was a way for artists raised on idealism to come to terms with relativism, using what they knew to practice a formalist including intellectually formalist scholasticism in abstract forms of narrative. Fried was right to say that it was “the negation of art“, as he defined it. Theater is the death of art only for those who associate art with philosophy, and “truth”. Avant-garde performance was a conflicted hybrid, an abstract theater against theater, against fiction, against storytelling. And the names in Dupuy’s volume include groups and people active in New York theater until today, Mabou Mines, founded by Joanne Akalaitis, and David Warrilow, later known for work with Beckett, dancers and choreographers associated with the Judson Dance Theater, as well as Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta Clark, and Richard Serra. It’s the scene where Kathryn Bigelow, director of  The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, got her start. And she’s in the book. Acconci’s early performance work, and plenty of works that follow it, partake –I won’t say indulge– in a sort of monastic physical theater, in Acconci’s case implicitly if not explicitly Catholic.  It’s easy to see him as the eccentric monk, Fra Vito, living in a hut in Brooklyn under the Manhattan bridge, with his books and his ideas, supported by the generosity of lords. And that’s in fact pretty much how he lived.  He used to tell a story of coming back from Europe and trudging up the stairs to his loft, and realizing something felt wrong.  He left his bags at the door and took the subway to Manhattan and went to the Strand. He came back with bags full of books and then he unlocked the door to his home. He didn’t come off as pretentious; it was told as a true story with a sincere irony. And in the last decade of his life his was supported by a gallerist and patron who married well, the son in law of the financier and fugitive Marc Rich. 
In Belgrade in 1974 Marina Abramovic put on a performance that consisted of six hours of her own complete physical passivity. She’d put 72 items on a table, including a feather boa and a pair of scissors, olive oil, a bullet and a gun. At some point the gallerist had to wrestle the loaded gun away from someone and throw him out of the gallery, By the end she was mostly naked, and bleeding, and when she became herself again, after the six hours were up, everybody still there “ran away” she says, unable to face the return of a person out of what had been a body.[i]  Was the performance ‘art’?  Of course. When Abramovic and her partner Ulay stood naked facing each other on opposite sides of a narrow doorway forcing people passing through to turn sideways, it was comic art, watching people choose which one of them to face. But in the context of ‘art’ as opposed to theater, this becomes an ascetic art, a mortification of the flesh, ironically though it’s not referred to, often in the context of luxury boutiques. Chris Burden was shot, crucified, nailed to the roof of a car; he crawled through broken glass in his underwear with his hands tide behind his back.  He lay on a triangular platform near the ceiling in the corner of a gallery for the 22 days, the duration of the show, not coming down, not eating. He did to himself in fact what Mel Gibson has done, as far as we know, only in fiction. It’s got nothing to do with what now is called liberalism, and that’s the point. It’s not moralizing, and its not simply narcissism because it takes too much effort, to make and to watch. 
As I’ve said, for art, meaning ‘fine art’ the environment was as always aristocratic, anti-bourgeois, the leftist aspects tagged on. But again as happened before, the aristocratic art of intellectuals and free-thinkers is transformed into the art of academics, scholastics and pedants. And this is where Mendelson, and Tom Wolfe, and critics of “post-modern” tenured radicalism in their various ways touch on a point. Few people noticed that the creator of the project from which the recent satirical film The Square gets its name is referred to as an “artist and sociologist”. The Square won the Palme d’Or, showing just how much the art world has expanded that people get the jokes. The joke, cheap or not, is on academia as well.
The ‘performance theater of truth’ is the end of the line for Modernism, and it was inevitable. Fried was wrong only to argue against it. Performance art was a focus on performer as body, as person, as individual. The performances were basic, sometimes violent, polymorphous, infantile, sometimes explicitly even dogmatically prosaic, this last connected with Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Dance Theater, art made out of the discovery of time: time measured as a person or thing moving from point A to point B. It was in a sense children’s time, experience in the present, experience as phenomenology, not yet the fully narrative form that moves from beginning to end, with the knowledge that ‘end’ for us is death. This in Rainer’s pronouncements is near to the pseudoscientific art of events. Puritan simplicity in dance later became Puritan moralism. Rainer joined the faculty of the Whitney ISP in the early 70s at the same time she began moving away from choreography. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” became in Rainer’s words a “loadstone”.[ii] The greatest compliment you can give a Gordian knot is to pull it tighter, and Film About A Woman Who… from 1974, is a testament to stifled rage. But if you look at the film of Rainer dancing her most famous piece, the solo Trio A, from 1966,  filmed in 1978 you see a series of plain gestures performed, compellingly, by a woman who in spite of her own ideology is still a dancer, a craftsperson, a master of a form.  We’re back to the separation of art and intent –Trio A, is a beautiful description of simplicity but it is the opposite of artless– and we’re back again with an argumentfor an impersonal, technocratic, anti-humanist formalism, that can only be understood and sensed as through rich description as human desire. And this is also where Duchamp returns to the scene: Duchamp the phobic celebrant of the 19th century literary forms, narrative and anti-narrative; Duchamp, and Warhol, not Puritan but Catholic moral conservatives.  
Gombrich, from Art and Illusion
For the Egyptian, the newly  discovered eternity of art may well have held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer this evanescence. Perhaps it was not only as the maker of “substitute heads” and other dwellings for the “ka” that the Egyptian sculptor could lay claim to the famous appellation of “one who keeps alive.” His images weave a spell to enforce eternity. Not our idea of eternity, to be sure, which stretches backward and forward in an infinite extension, but rather the ancient conception of recurrent time that a later tradition embodied in the famous “hieroglyph” of the serpent biting its own tail. Clearly an “impressionist” art could never have served this outlook. Only the complete embodiment of the typical in its most lasting and changeless form could assure the magic Validity of these pictographs for the “watcher” who could here see both his past and his eternal future removed from the flux of time.
There could be no more poignant contrast to this confidence in the spells of art than a passage from Plato's older contemporary Euripides that also deals with tomb sculpture. When Alcestis is going to die, her grieving husband Admetus speaks of the work he will commission for his solace:

And represented by the skillful hands
Of craftsmen, on the bed thy body shall
Be laid; whereon I shall fall in embrace
And clasp my hands around it, call thy name,
And fancy in my arms my darling wife
To hold, holding her not; perhaps, I grant,
Illusory delight, yet my soul's burden
Thus shall I lighten...

What Ademtus seeks is not a spell, not even assurance, only a dream for those who are awake; in other words, precisely that state of mind to which Plato, the stern seeker after truth, objected.
Plato, we know, looked back with nostalgia at the immobile schemata of Egyptian art.[iii]

Gombrich published Art and Illusion in 1960, when no one in the “artworld” to use the phrase coined by Arthur Danto in 1964, was about to put on a play by Euripides.  Gombrich opposed ‘historicism’, but Panofsky was right, and Billy Wilder was right, and I'm sure both got the irony of Alcestis to which Gombrich seems to have been oblivious. Alcestis after all is dying to serve her husband’s vanity. 

I talked above about the Renaissance, Raphael and Michelangelo and physical form “simultaneously static and full of motion,” a complexity unmatched since Athens.  I described a Stendhal moment, as a moment of neurological overload, when an artwork “pulls you into a world of illusion… while showing its hand as fakery.” The Parthenon marbles are simultaneously both dynamic/naturalistic and hieratic, describing this world as it exists and as idealized; they can appear for a moment at least as something out of a deathless world. The seduction worked by craft makes you want to imagine a utopia, the land of eternal life, and then just as quickly shuts the door, because the craft, in the same moment shows itself as unmistakably a trick.  The stone is always stone; our minds are primed to do the work to create the waking dream. Drugs render the mind passive. Art makes the active mind render itself  drunk, and then snaps it back out of the dream. The greatest art does this with a sense of generosity, where the audience is reminded to laugh or smile at themselves.  The story of Alcestis as told by Euripides leaves us with the same question as Plato’s Euthyphro–“is all that is just pious?”– without ever asking the question itself.  The play builds irony on irony, and the only resolution, the formal resolution required of a plot, resolves nothing.  No character in the play is above mockery –even Alcestis–  except Death. Unlike Plato, there’s not a trace of pedantry. Euripides in the end is only a craftsman not a would-be king. But again the irony is beyond Gombrich, whose  positivism defined assumptionas the unsupportable opinions of others, and for whom everything I’ve written here, which he would call historicism would be anathema. 

But his description of the relation of Athenian to Egyptian art is apt. Gombrich’s discussion begins with Riegl, haptic and optic.
...Riegl’s main argument is that ancient art was always concerned with the rendering of individual objects rather than with the infinite world as such. Egyptian art shows this attitude in its extreme form, for here vision is only allowed a very subsidiary part; things are rendered as they appear to the sense of touch, the more “objective" sense which reports on the permanent shape of things irrespective of the shifting viewpoint. Here, too is the reason why Egyptians shunned the rendering of the third dimension, because recession and foreshortening would have introduced a subjective element. An advance toward the third dimension, which grants the eye its share in the perception of modeling, was made in Greece.

The subjective element: multiple viewpoints, perspectivism, objects and figures no longer as ideas or ‘truths’ but as things to be experienced. Experience by definition is incomplete.  Panofsky quotes Cassirer 

Perception does not know the concept of infinity; from the very outset it is confined within certain spatial limits imposed by our faculty of perception. And in connection with perceptual space we can no more speak of homogeneity than of infinity. The ultimate basis of the homogeneity of geometric space is that all its elements, the "points" which are joined in it, are mere determinations of position, possessing no independent content of their own outside of this relation, this position which they occupy in relation to each other. Their reality is exhausted in their reciprocal relation: it is a purely functional and not a substantial reality. Because fundamentally these points are devoid of all content, because they have become mere expressions of ideal relations, they can raise no question of a diversity in content. Their homogeneity signifies nothing other than this similarity of structure, grounded in their common logical function, their common ideal purpose and meaning. Hence homogeneous space is never given space, but space produced by construction; and indeed the geometrical concept of homogeneity can be expressed by the postulate that from every point in space it must be possible to draw similar figures in all directions and magnitudes.1 Nowhere in the space of immediate perception can this postulate be fulfilled. Here there is no strict homogeneity of position and direction; each place has its own mode and its own value. Visual space and tactile space are both anisotropic and unhomogeneous in contrast to the metric space of Euclidean geometry: "the main directions of organization -before-behind, above-below, right-left- are dissimilar in both physiological spaces." [Ernst Mach]

We’re returned to the fact of subjectivity. And we’re back to Broch. “It is an almost mystical process, the setting of ethical values: Arising from the irrational, transforming the irrational to the rational, yet nonetheless it is the irrational that radiates from within the resulting form.” The love of math is not a mathematical function; it’s a function of  the human. But we’re also back to talking about people celebrating an authoritarianism they’re not a part of, imagining complex realities as ideas.  Plato’s romance with Egypt tells us more about Plato than Egypt. 

And we’re talking also about official art. We have no idea about the doggerel of ancient Egypt, the trash talk and street comedy. But even the work we have is more varied than Plato, and Gombrich, make it to be. See the naturalism in this portrait of an official from 2500 BCE. Nonetheless, a thousand years forward, the art of Athens –in word and material– matches the complexity of both official and civic culture, recording both life lived and the desire for more. Humanist art and culture, and as always I’m using the original sense of  the word, are marked by self-awareness, a lie that calls itself a lie, a high art that includes the low, that both celebrates and mocks authority and art itself, the irony that Gombrich recognizes in Euripides’, “a dream for those who are awake” but also the irony he misses. 

By this logic there is a sense of progress in the arts, as there is in politics, if we take ironic self-awareness to be a value; not that is or could ever be a cure –the fantasy that that reason triumphs over unreason– but awareness of the ongoing game we play with ourselves and others, between desire and delusion, and the need (also a desire) for disinterested observation. But art is formal; it’s the game played using Eliot’s “objective correlatives’, tricks and tools to make us feel an emotion or a sense where we otherwise would not. Beyond that the greatest art is always the product of a time that mixes change and continuity, when formal systems and the social world they’re made to represent are briefly in sync, and before the forms become rote or stale from repetition. The greatest art is born of tension but not panic. The Renaissance was both the beginning of the end of monarchy and the beginning of the rise of the middle class, and the period of the height of two opposed forms: fresco and easel painting. Gombrich from his essay "Evolution in the Arts", on Titian’s Averoldi Polyptych

From the very year of this momentous competition in Rome, [between Raphael and Sebastino del Piombo, a protégé of Michelangelo], …which was muted by Raphael's death in 1520, another incident can be documented which illustrates even more sharply the emergence of the new function of the altar painting as a work of art in its own right. It involved the greatest of the Venetian masters, Titian, and one of his principal patrons, Duke Alfonso d‘Este of Ferrara. Titian had been commissioned to paint an altar painting for the High Altar of the Church of St Nazaro and St Celso in the North Italian city of Brescia. it is still in that church. Titian painted in the centre the risen Christ, and on the wings above, in half-length figures, the Annunciation, with the Angel on one side and the Virgin on the other. Below he painted the donor, the papal Legate Bishop Altobello Averoldo who is seen kneeling in prayer under the protection of the two saints to whom the Church is dedicated. One is St Celso, the soldier saint who points to the hope of salvation embodied in the risen Christ. On the wing opposite we see St Sebastian, a saint whose intercession was thought to be particularly powerful against the omnipresent perils of the plague.
Some nine years earlier Titian had also included St Sebastian in an altar painting specifically dedicated as a prayer against the plague. It shows St Mark, the patron saint of Venice, flanked by the two medical saints, Cosmas and Damian, holding  medicine boxes, St Roch who points to the wound which is his emblem, and St. Sebastian having suffered martyrdom tied to a tree as a target for the arrows of his torturers. It goes without saying that here the arrows sticking in the body of the young man is indeed an attribute, a pictographic sign as in Giotto’s picture of Stephen. Nor need I enlarge on the contrast between the way the martyrdom is visualized in the Brescia altar-piece.  The Change from symbolic rendering to dramatic evocation was not lost on the Venetians. In fact the master’s new version and new vision of the event caused an equally dramatic reaction. My final story starts with a letter of December 1520 from Venice to Ferrara addressed to Duke Alfonso by the duke’s agent, one Tebaldi.
 The agent had been to Titian’s studio where he had seen the St Sebastian on an easel. He tells his master that all visitors praised it as the best thing Titian had ever done. And to give the duke an idea, he appended a description which is worth quoting in full, for we don’t have many such opportunities of hearing what a sixteenth-century layman thought of a particular work of art:
The aforementioned figure is attached to a column with one arm up and the other down and the whole body twists, in such a way that one can see the whole scene before one‘s eye, for his is shown to suffer in all parts of his person from an arrow which has lodged in the middle of the body. I have no judgement in these matters because I am not a connoisseur of art, but looking at all the features and muscles of the figure It seems to me that it resembles most closely to a real body created by Nature, which only lacks the life.
Nor did Tebaldi hide from us or the duke what conclusions he drew from this display of mastery. He reports that he waited till the crowd had left and then told the painter to send this painting not to Brescia but to the duke, because, as he candidly and significantly put it, ‘that painting was thrown away if he gave it to the priest and to Brescia’. The original function, the purpose for which it was demanded and painted, to stand on an altar, was irrelevant in the eyes of the duke’s agent. The days of the collector had arrived. It was simply too good for a liturgical role and should be treasured simply as a work of art. 
The agent reinforced his plea with a strong economic argument. Titian had been promised 200 ducats for the whole altar, but the duke would pay 60 for the Sebastian alone.
Titian replied that to yield to this request would be an act of robbery, though there are indications that he was not altogether disinclined to commit this act. In the end it was the duke who got cold feet, for he found it diplomatically inadvisable to offend a powerful bishop and legate of the Pope. The painting was left to serve its original function.[iv]

Gombrich continues, saying less of interest, since he refers to art only as art,  and to a new narrative form without asking why this should occur or the differences in how they describe the world. And though Tibaldi’s request is a statement of change, the change itself is evident much earlier, in works where the religious imagery seems like secondary addition to experiments in perspective. The difference is less a transformation into what Gombrich calls “Art with a capital A” than a change from rationalist geometrical formalism, following the scholastics, to empiricism and phenomenology, the world not as idea but experience.   And Titian’s narrative is the far from the Florentine model of the Renaissance: it’s proto-Baroque. Nothing in Titian is like stone come to life; the effect is not like Raphael of a moment of balance between material and dream, but the documenting ofsubstance, insubstance –of flesh, in paint– and of the eye’s perception.   When Panofsky writes that Titian, “like Henry James’ Linda Pallant, ‘knew the value of intervals’”[v] he’s describing Titian’s focus on the space between objects and people, and implicitly between viewer and canvas.  The connecting line isn’t a formal cue, an arrow or the edge of a table or the stripes on a piece of fabric; space is crossed often only by a line of sight. As in the theater, actors’ success or failure isn’t measured in inches or millimeters to match the perfect ratio of  the sides of a triangle, but in faces and gestures directed at each other. And Titian makes sure the space isn’t so cluttered that things get in the way. The sense of time as the our eyes move observing others’ eyes, the fleeting sense of intimacy is beyond anything in Florence.  It’s an an art that doesn’t even try to give us an illusion of perfection, except perhaps as a ‘perfect’ description of its lack.

I’ll return to Titian later, and to Mannerism and the Baroque, in detail,  but my point now at the end of this digression is to make clear the distinction between pre-Humanist art, Egypt, pre-Columbian or European, and the anti-Humanism in the work of those who look back to it. On the left: a section of a relief, Egyptian (400-200 BC). Below: The exterior of a Late Mayan (670-750 AD) chocolate-drinking cup known as The Princeton Vase.  The stylized impersonality of these works is not Mannerist. It does not efface the personal; it’s not concerned with it, and that’s something else entirely. They’re examples of a purely public art, made nonetheless by individual craftsmen. This is why if enough works are available we name their anonymous makers: Greek vase painters- The Persephone Painter, Acheloos Painter, Amasis Painter; 1300 years later- The Master of Rimini, Master of the Magdalen, Master of the Codex of Saint George. Until recently artists from 13th to 15th century Europe were known collectively as “The Primitives”. Modern individualism produces fantasies of public form. Nietzsche’s superman is as skewed an idea as any fantasy of the noble savage. The same holds for the universalism of Pollock and Coltrane. Plato’s snobbery of course could not exist except as the product of a republican culture it’s rebelling against. “Primitives and “barbarians” are not “reactionary”, a word describing the rebellion of individualism against itself. Their cultures follow a normative not reactive ethos.  Egyptian art isn’t decadent; the designs aren’t over-determined, both words used to describe indulgence opposing or aping a strict order.  I inserted Gombrich’s description above because it fits so well with one of the most important artists of the transitional, formalist, anti-narrative, anti-humanist, hieratic art of the late 60s and early 70s.  I’d intended to segue from his comments to what appears below, but I realized I needed to make clear again the distinction between the rigorous formality of past cultures, as collectives, and the hypertrophied individualism of the modern era.

Robert Wilson is the creator of the greatest of the intermedios of the late 20th century. His theater is called a "theater of images", and it's part of a history of abstract non-representational art made in the context of representational: the formalism of Eliot going back through James, through the decadence of Huysmans and the aestheticism of Pater. As I’ve said, this isn’t modernism of an abstract ideal, but of repressed or elided desire and memory. 

The best writer on Wilson was Jill Johnston. The title of the article is Family Spectacles


[i]Emma Brockes, “Performance Artist Marina Abramović: I was Ready to Die”, The Guardian,  May 12 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/12/marina-abramovic-ready-to-die-serpentine-gallery-512-hours   https://vimeo.com/71952791
[ii]Robert Storr, “Narcissism and Pleasure: An Interview with Yvonne Rainer” The Paris Review, Nov 17 2017 https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/17/narcissism-pleasure-interview-yvonne-rainer/
[iii]E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Princeton University Press, 1960 (1989)  p. 125
[iv]  Gombrich, “Evolution in the Arts: The Altar Painting, its Ancestry and Progeny”, in Evolution and Its Influence: The Herbert Spencer Lectures 1986 , ed. Alan Grafen, Oxford, 1989
[v]Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic. NYU 1969. P. 171