Monday, December 27, 2010

More old/new. Still working. [PDF] [and here It's changed a lot in the years since] 
Yves Saint Laurent was three when he pointed out to his aunt that her shoes and dress didn’t match. His statement can be designated a truth in the terms of the system in which he had already, and precociously, educated himself. But systems are always changing and are always in the process of becoming. Society is always changing and representational systems ossify into formal systems that outlast their role as representation. Forms are still used even as they become brittle. And as I described in Manet and Picasso, and now with Duchamp, this is the crisis that defines modern art, which is no more or less than the art of a culture in crisis. Sometimes forms are taken up in new ways, as in Duchamp’s literary objects. Sergei Eisenstein’s favorite author was Dickens. With film the 19th century tradition moved onto a different track, so in art school we studied Vertov. Man with a Movie Camera was adopted as an example of the fine art—non-narrative—avant-garde, by which definition Eisenstein in inverse relation to his actual importance, was a maker of popular film.

Eliot’s poetry as is memorial, describing a desire to hold on to what one loves even after it’s dead. But he found a strange way to bring the dead to life. He used modern forms to describe an anti-modern philosophy and he ended up leaving behind one of the greatest descriptions that we have of the interior life of a modern conservative. If G.A. Cohen had the clarity of Eliot, he could have written a great novel about the dream and failure of communism in the west. And he would have been able to give communism a better defense than he did. What he lacked was an ability to articulate his own tragedy. He and his work will end in obscurity because both will be useless to history.

The abolitionist John Brown was a political vanguardist, avant-garde and outlier, and a more directly moral man than Lincoln. But the fact that Brown was right, simply and straightforwardly, in his absolute condemnation of slavery and slaveholders doesn’t make him a more important man. Lincoln’s moderation, his political and rhetorical expertise, even considered as partially corrupt, make him the more complex figure, precisely because Lincoln could communicate with those for whom Brown would have no patience. Lincoln was more representative of the complexities of the white, and majority, American imagination.

Brown’s politics was the fanaticism of the slaveholder’s brother, not the anger of the slave. Frederick Douglass thought the raid on Harper’s Ferry was much too dangerous. The genius of Lincoln stems from his relationships, belonging to the dominant party—moderate only in its own terms—of white America, and to the dominant language of American culture. That’s not a defense of Lincoln over Brown, or of corrupt moderation over radical action; both played their part. But any complex defense of either of them, including the possibility that Brown’s last raid was not foolhardy but a suicide mission, with the intent of driving the nation towards a final civil war, would have to be among other things, a defense of their self-awareness and of their political art. Both are important in the sense that Demoiselles d’Avignon is important: as useful to our understanding of history. But we return to them not to find answers but to ask questions that are still relevant to us, about emotions and moral responsibility, about our relations to each other.

My discussion to Harper’s Ferry and suicide missions is not the same as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s claim that the attacks on New York in 2001 were a work of art, let alone a great one. The attack was no more than spectacular stunt that killed thousands of people and led nowhere. It was in a very real way anti-political: a “fuck you”, “epater le bourgeois!” and it’s precisely the old avant-garde assumption that such violence is or ever could be an artistic gesture that allowed Stockhausen to say something so stupid. Taking Brown’s last acts seriously, as political strategy, the clear parallel is to Hamas, who are neither romantic idealists nor nihilists, but are committed as most experts agree to very specific and limited political goals. Hamas. like John Brown, and unlike al Qaeda are engaged.

The image of Palestinians in the western imagination is a perfect contemporary example of change in normative language. Over 30 years Palestinians have moved from absence to presence in our culture, while little about their own experience has changed at all. And any sociological analysis of that change in our perceptions would have to cover the entire political spectrum. Culture functions through relations of distance and proximity. Palestinian absence in the west was physical. But for Israel where they’ve always been physically present the most universal parallel is simple enough: the presence and absence of women. The original shock and continuing ambiguity of Manet’s Olympia has to do with the full presence of the central figure. She’s looking directly at us, without being very interested. The boredom itself was once shocking. But Manet made art out of the indifference of a naked whore the same way Duchamp made art out of a urinal, by moving something that was always in the world, from the background of our experience to the foreground. The change for Palestinians has been slow but simple moral logic has played no bigger a role from 1947 to 2010 than it did in 1860. The new Palestinian presence has allowed us to engage them and their experience for the first time. The Palestinian problem, modeled on the Jewish, Negro, or Woman, problems, has become the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But acknowledgement is no more than that. There is no way to work outside of time, to shorten the process of assimilation by imagining as philosophers do, an oxymoronic aperspectival view. All we can do is demonstrate the uselessness of arrogant presumption and the rhetoric of truth, and argue for replacing them, not with a fallacious truth of rhetoric, but the truth of process.

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