Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I've gone back to work on the damned thing. It needed it, and not just because the references are becoming dated. Starting from the beginning. Adding things, not starting over.


On April 16th, 2009 The New York Times published a review by the critic Roberta Smith of  Picasso: Mosqueteros, at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. The review begins
In the main, Picasso only got better…
When I read those words I laughed. I thought the argument was absurd and still do, but I jumped on reflex. That’s not always a problem; there are limits to the human capacity for recall. Years after an argument we remember the result not the details. But that means that no matter how hard we fought our response now is based on received opinion, even if received from our younger selves, so it’s good occasionally to revisit the past in detail, especially in cases where our relation to the past is the thing under debate.

And for me this begins in childhood, in the 1960s, as the witness to arguments over literature and law, high culture and left-wing politics, not among the students but their teachers and advisors. I grew up between the old left and the new, in a milieu of politics and classical esthetic conservatism, of Henry James and political action, both legal and illegal. My parents risked arrest and the loss of their children to the state while being elitists of the first order. I understood how odd that was in the context of the world at large, but not -and this stays with me- in the context of the intellectual world. It took a long time for me to realize that I understood the contradictions more than my parents did, when all I remember for myself is knowing that contradictions were inevitable and that articulated contradiction is the goal of intellectual as opposed to mechanical life.

Propaganda was disdained in our house as art but not as politics; Eisenstein and Brecht made beautiful hybrids. When I first encountered contemporary intellectual arguments for artistic prescription I thought they were strange. And later reading “Art and Objecthood” Michael Fried’s description of what was then the new theatricality in art seemed to me as brilliant as his argument against it was absurd. I was surprised that someone would make such demands (defending in a effect a “prescriptive grammar”) as late as 1967. But the more I read the more examples I found. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, from 1975, struck me as similarly perverse. How was it possible to argue for the “destruction of pleasure” -pleasure currently defined and definable by male eyes- without risking the prospect of the pleasure of destruction? And isn’t such pleasure at the heart of capitalism? I was reading in the early 80s. I really had not been paying attention. And this was in art school, where I was told for first time that I couldn’t be a leftist because I worked with my hands. It was years before I saw the full comic absurdity of that claim, directed against any notion of “mastery” but so obviously throwing out the proletarian baby with the bourgeois bathwater. At the time my only reply was that none of us could be leftists because we were artists, and that the mastery thrown away was the mastery of craft, provisional by definition and thus open to debate, to be replaced by ideas that in the minds of those who held them were beyond question. At the center of all this conceptualized art and politics was a moralizing snobbery. Activism, until the AIDS crisis, was minimal, and later among the self-appointed vanguard was in defense of the vanguard itself, as seen more recently, with both vanguardism and AIDS crisis in decline, in The Trouble with Normal, and Against Equality. My parents’ politics by comparison were high bourgeois, almost aristocratic, founded in a mix of noblesse oblige and democratic responsibility, as shown in a decades long engagement with street level issues of law and policy, and which for a few years meant serious risk of arrest. They were far more radical in their beliefs than many who claimed to be, but they were never vanguardist.

You can mourn the death of what you love, or dream of a new object of that love, but you can’t replace the world with a fantasy without the ideal ending up as parody, as kitsch. I’d thought that was a truism, not something worth arguing. Intuitively I’d understood Eliot in his poetry to be writing desperation as art and as a sullen teenager loved Prufrock the same way I’d loved the drawings of George Grosz and the lyrics of Brecht: as decadence against decadence, a moralism acknowledging itself as a symptom of everything it claims to oppose. But when I made a comment to my mother about Eliot and his High Church bourgeois misery, her startled reply, that the poems were “about language,” threw me for a loop. She quoted Eliot on Henry James and I’d like to think she remembered the context and was just responding to what she assumed was a vulgar interest in biography, gossip, or “content” but I can’t be sure. As I said, we re-fight old arguments in shorthand, and sometimes miss the point.
James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.... In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought.... Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.
My parents didn’t give their children credit for much, including anything resembling an understanding of what Eliot called “the objective correlative” or the relation of communicative form to ideas or emotion, but I’m not sure still they themselves even when they were younger acted on anything more than a highly tuned sense of reflex.

I’ve never had a problem seeing Eliot’s work both as brilliantly complex craftsmanship and as a desperate defensive mechanism propelled by fears of political, social, and sexual failure: impotence of every sort. To separate one from the other -form from subject- would be like separating sadness from the blues, or militarism from marching bands. But that separation is something Modernism demanded, either in terms of “pure” form, or of subject matter reformulated as “ideas”, “content” and reducible to ideology.

We need now, finally, to separate Modernism from modernity. They are not synonyms. Modernism is an ideology and modernity merely a situation: it’s where we’re at. The dream and lie of Modernism was the fantasy and the nightmare of disenchantment, of the fiction of the scientist or revolutionary vanguard as instrument of reason alone.
Consider a discipline such as aesthetics. The fact that there are works of art is given for aesthetics. It seeks to find out under what conditions this fact exists, but it does not raise the question whether or not the realm of art is perhaps a realm of diabolical grandeur, a realm of this world, and therefore, in its core, hostile to God and, in its innermost and aristocratic spirit, hostile to the brotherhood of man. Hence, aesthetics does not ask whether there should be works of art.
The words of a moralist.

The field of Aesthetics as a product of the Enlightenment is the theory of art in the shadow of production, art as something to be taken or left, optional, superfluous or “parasitic”, as if Weber’s ideas were somehow less German than his hats. Why do military men wear uniforms? They’re the outward manifestation of an ethos. And the record shows that every ethos precedes its clear articulation in language or labor. By the time anything becomes known as an idea, it’s been around for awhile.

Modern art, the art of modernity and nothing more, is at its best (like that of any age) the most honest observation of its time. All the products of modern culture are modernist in this limited sense, but what we call art does so knowingly: aporias and contradictions are a given. Modernism celebrated the range of fantasies that modernity inspired: Marx was a Modern, Marxists were Modernists. But all the fantasies have aged badly, devolving from idealism into reaction and now farce.

Most of this is history, but we’re still in the process of coming to terms with it. Modernism is dead, its defenders aren’t. Roberta Smith’s Picasso is Picasso after Clement Greenberg. Like contemporary defenders of reason, revolution, and enlightenment, she’s not describing the works she’s defending a fantasy of what they’re supposed to mean.

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