Thursday, May 06, 2021


New Brooklyn Intellectuals Accuse Old Upper West Siders of CAREERISM
Louis Menand’s big new book on art, literature, music, and thought from 1945 to 1965 instills the conviction that the 20th century is well and truly over. It seems like the right gift for the graduating college senior this year. Born in 2000, the proud degree-holder may not recognize the Jackson Pollock reproduced on the accompanying congratulations! card, or know the Allen Ginsberg lines misquoted in the commencement speech, but can look them up in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War and confirm that this past is truly past. 

An old friend's comment after being stuck in Park Slope for an afternoon 20 years ago. "We're so liberal we live in Brooklyn."


I do not like the critical language of approval and disapproval. I always felt there was a lot of moral righteousness among the critics of that period. I can’t think that way. I want to empathize (not sympathize) with the people I’m writing about, to get inside them. You do learn their limitations that way, and in that sense you are rendering a judgment, but your job is to, in the words of Howard Cosell, “Tell it like it is.” You want to help readers think without telling them what to think.

Howard Cosell fits John Roberts' model for Justice of the Supreme Court, or Jack Webb's cop. A historian looks for the origins of moral imperatives. It's not a book about the work; it's a book about the only thing the readers care about: careers. Everything about reinforcing the opinions of the present. It's the same with Roth. Kazin: "Art is good for you". Kazin again, and Lawrence: "The American has got to destroy..." The intellectual class of the US really is reliving the most provincial aspects of the post-war era. 

Greif's comments about Rauschenberg and Warhol are pathetic. Reading the interview with Menand I can't imagine the book's any better. 
update: I was right. I have a Warhol tag, but this is enough. Click through. 

There's plenty to criticize in Clark. He works too hard, pushes too much. He wants to defend Modernism rather than simply describe it; it becomes a complex description more than a description of a complex thing.  Still...

Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism

But I anticipate. For the time being, all that needs to be established is that Pollock's drip paintings, when they started, and maybe even as they continued, were alternately Alchemy and Sea Change - Alchemy always failing, Sea Change never. The pictures were dazzling ("almost too dazzling to be looked at indoors," wrote Clement Greenberg of one of them at the time). They were lordly and playful, like something a master had thrown off. Magic Mirrors. Shooting Stars. Enchantment was part of them. And this seems to me true of modernism in general. Of Sweeney Agonistes as much as of Harmonium, of Picasso as much as of Matisse. An art of high negativity - books about nothing, paintings done with consciousness deliberately on hold - is not necessarily anarchical, scabrous, or otherwise low. On the contrary, it has often come out of courtly surroundings. Dukes have gone in for it, on horseback, as part of their general "contempt for nature in all its particularity." Negation is stylish. For stylish, at certain moments, read fashionable.

Scent. So it proved in Pollock's case. On 1 March I951, Vogue magazine published four pages of photographs, black and white and color, by Cecil Beaton (figs. In and I78). In them Irene and Sophie showed off a range of the season's evening dresses in front of pictures by Pollock from a show just closed at Betty Parsons. Beaton had ideas about how the pictures and dresses matched. He reveled in the analogy between Lavender Mist's powdery transparency - or the transparency his lighting gave it - and that of the chiffon and fan. The fan struck a Whistlerian note. He tweaked Irene's black cocktail dress into a to and fro of diagonals which made it quite plausibly part of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm behind. And so on. The effects are not subtle, and did not need to be. Hedging his bets just a little, the Vogue subeditor informed readers that "the dazzling and curious paintings of Jackson Pollock, which are in the photographs on these four pages, almost always cause an intensity of feelings." 

Vogue in the 1940s and 1950s was not to be sniffed at. It sold copies and was on Pollock's side. The magazine had printed a full-color photo of Reflection ol the Big Dipper as early as April 1948, the first time a drip painting was reproduced in color (beating Life with Cathedral by a full six months). Financially speaking, early 1951 was not a very good moment for Pollock: he was waiting for his contract with Betty Parsons to expire, and broke with her once it did; nobody seems to have made much money out of the show the previous December - the one Beaton used - and in any case Pollock had a reputation for working the media when he had a chance (Mark Rothko to Barnett Newman in I946: "Pollock is a self contained and sustained advertising concern"). His tone when he mentioned the Vogue event to Alfonso Ossorio in February was matter of fact: "This issue of Vogue has three pages of my painting (with models of course) will send a copy." These things happen. They help a bit. "There is an enormous amount of interest and excitement for modern painting there [he means in the wider America] - it's too damn bad Betty doesn't know how to get at it."

Taken on their own, the Vogue photographs are slippery evidence. They are falsely conclusive, like the formal analogies Beaton went in for. I did not quote Rothko to Newman thinking the photographs just proved Rothko's point. Certainly they suggest some of the terms of Pollock's reception in his own time. But the fact that Vogue was a fashion magazine does not mean that paintings appearing in its pages were, or became, fashionable. Fashion is a fragile construction, which regularly feeds on its opposites. The opposites often stay much as they were. Beaton in 1951 occupied a particular (lordly) place in the culture industry. His photos were meant to produce a slight intake of breath. And in any case, there is always the option open to us of dismissing the Beaton episode altogether, at least as evidence about Pollock. I remember seeing the model in front of Autumn Rhythm for the first time in a lecture, and thinking it made a powerful point, but then afterwards having the comment reported back to me: "So the Pollocks got used as background in a fashion magazine. We all know that by now. So what?"

There is a phrase that sticks in my mind from a similar conversation about the work of Serge Guilbaut - about his book How New York Stole the Idea of Moden Art - to the effect that his account of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism amounted in the end to an exercise in "guilt by vague association." For is not any art of real complexity (this is the implication) fated to be used, recruited, and misread? What are we supposed to say, for example, about a photo of Mussolini's shocktroops running in formation through the Arch of Constantine? (This too I saw in a lecture, at much the same moment as the Beaton images, and the comparison struck home.) Are we to put the blame on the Arch, somehow? Pretend that the Fascists got Roman architecture right? (To which the reply might reasonably be, in fact: Are you saying they got it wrong? What, after all, was the Arch of Constantine for?)

"Dukes have gone in for it, on horseback" Clark's making a reference to a few pages earlier. It's here, and of course here

Warhol wasn’t the first American artist whose work got cleaned up to make it palatable, and he wasn’t the first to play both sides. As Rothko put it: “Pollock is a self contained and sustained advertising concern.” A salaryman’s alienation was everywhere in Rauschenberg’s greatest early combines; Monogram and Bed are so violently anarchic that they remain unrecoverable by any but the most sophisticated polite imagination. They come from the same world as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar named Desire, and are crueler than either. But Rauschenberg’s process quickly became aestheticized, while Rothko’s interests, like Pollock’s, were in the “Tragic and Timeless” and grandeur’s raison d’etre as Cecil Beaton understood, is reassurance. Pollock understood that too, better than Rothko. 

And as long as I'm at it,  from 2008. Klub Kids and Philosophers.

more from Menand

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