Monday, January 21, 2019

updated again.  Working my way into the next section, on Hollis Frampton and 'structuralist' film

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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 and 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”, and the nobleman who wrote “that it was very beautiful but nobody could understand what it was all about.”  Performance artin the 16th century and the 20thdeveloped 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.  Performance art 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 Lockerand Zero Dark Thirty, got her start. And she’s in the book.
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. And this is where Mendelson, and Tom Wolfe, and critics of “post-modern” tenured radicalism in their various ways touch on a point, at least for this country. Few people noticed that the character/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, but it was inevitable. Fried was wrong only to argue against it. It was a focus on performer as body, as person, as individual. The performances were basic, sometimes violent, polymorphous, infantile, sometimes explicitly even dogmatically prosaic. It was a theater because it was the art out of the discovery of time: time is a person or thing moving from point A to point B. It’s 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. And this is when Duchamp returns to the scene: Duchamp the phobic celebrant of  the old 19thcentury literary forms, Duchamp to Warhol, narrative and anti-narrative. 
There could be no more poignant contrast to this confidence in the spells of art [in the perceptual "objectivity" of Egyptian hieroglyphs] 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.[i]

Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966. 120 fire bricks, Tate Britain 
Ernst 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. But that's a secondary point. The first one, here, is to say that in the the 1960s ‘Fine‘ art was beginning to face the competition.


By the time Danto coined his phrase the art world had shrunk in importance as much as it had grown in pretension. But more than pretension, like Lefebvre’s aristocracy and leftist intelligentsia it had grown in exclusivity. And it’s not at all just because pedants tried to define what serious art could or could not be. Fine art had become a conversation among a small group of people, talking, arguing,  completing each other’s sentences and one-upping each other, just as artists and intellectuals always have, but in this case pushing towards an inevitable dead end. Carl Andre’s “A brick is a brick is a brick”  is such a blunt statement of materialism, and the work itself such a final ‘reply’ in the conversation –Equivalent VIIIis a brilliant evocation of the relations of parts and wholes, of scale; it’s a thing to stare at and think with, as all successful art is–  that the only viable retort is to start the game anew: ”Well, this is a brick from the house my grandfather built”. 

But we’re still in the hybrid, cultural-halfworld of forms based on their relations to the past or to other forms than to the world and the present. Andre’s brilliance is the brilliance of the same small world of subjectivity in the shadow of positivism, that gave us Elliot and Kafka, Wittgenstein and Weininger, Duchamp, Borges, Robbe-Grillet et al.. Minimalism, Performance Art, Conceptualism, and Structural Film, are a coda to Modernism. In a sense, with the exception of certain strands of conceptualism, it’s back to the beginning: the hard-fought elision of the personal that succeeds, knowingly or not, only in amplifying it. When the personal in eliminated, as positivist critics would prefer, it fails altogether. 

[i]E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Princeton University Press, 1960 (1989)  p. 125

Updated, expanded SeptemberAll of this is going into the manuscript 

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