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
[ii]Robert Storr, “Narcissism and Pleasure: An Interview with Yvonne Rainer” The Paris Review, Nov 17 2017
[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

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