Saturday, December 07, 2002

What is 'formalism' in the arts? Whatever it is, it is ubiquitous as of when...1850? And the definitions its partisans apply don't cut it. I'd rather describe it as a natural, as opposed to chosen, technique spontaneously generated by a culture to keep the insincere from being the merely banal.

Frank Sinatra spoke about how the Dorseys taught him the importance of phrasing, and phrasing- the control of time- is Sinatra's genius. The beauty is cold structure; there is no love in his love songs.
Someone, probably Greil Marcus, talks about the formalism of a Rolling Stones performance. How did white middle-class kids from a England manage to rip-off working class American culture (black, white, urban and rural-Jagger copped fake white accents as well) and succeed, unlike everyone else, in making everything they stole their own? Certainly no other band was simultaneously both as derivative and as original as the Stones. The secret is not that they stole, but that they made thievery their subject. Jagger's redneck accent - listen to Beggars Banquet- is more than a copy or a parody because every song, by anyone, is always just a performance. But Stones songs are explicitly that and nothing else: they contain no real love, no real hate, no real hicks, no real black music, no real American music and no real politics (that's what Godard didn't understand about them.) Of course those things were all there: in their absence. As with Sinatra, the theatricality does not undermine the art, it is the art. The subtlety is the doubleness, the shadow of a sincerity that is not there, in an art that is somehow made out of its lack. This honesty is why Godard was interested in them in the first place.
T.J. Clark talks about Picasso's analytic cubism in a similar way, not as describing anything of the world, anything outside the painting itself -a vase or a woman- in any meaningful way, but as bodying forth meaning of a differet sort, as describing the anxiety of a situation, of the attempt and failure and repeated attempt to describe the world, and of making the absurdity profound by way of a kind of skillful but still frenetic -too frenetic, verging on desperate- presentation of the whole ridiculous mess.

Again, I'm fascinated by art and the definition of society and how various periods and forms come to terms with the imprecise- and unidealistic- nature of democracy and of democratic art: that an art about the maker can be seen by some, Picasso for example, and the Stones, or Sinatra, as the product of crisis, and by others, as the nature of things.

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