I'm talking about art and historiography, of course, the chocolate and peanut butter of the mind. I was delighted to learn yesterday, via the Art History Newsletter, that the University of Glasgow has begun to publish The Journal of Art Historiography. The first issue gets its Kunstgeschichte on with a focus on Viennese and German thought. Warburg! Riegl! Novotny! Just thinking about it makes me feel like . . . well, like I just ate a lot of chocolate and peanut butter and need to take a long nap. More seriously, it's all very fascinating, if a bit heavy going at times. The editors wisely put this interview (warning: pdf) with the late Michael Baxandall at the top, easing the reader in with a little lighter fare. It's an engaging read, with citations that would provide a good reading list for an intro art history seminar on their own. At times it's perhaps a bit too light or predictable (Baxandall liked Richard Wollheim, and admired Francis Haskell, though thought the latter went too far--more detail, please?), but one can't expect too much from a transcribed conversation, tantalizing though it may be. And while I'd prefer that the journal published its articles on pages of their own and not as pdfs, I'm happy to see that they're up at all, and so I'll stop nitpicking and just be thankful for the free ice cream. Or chocolate and peanut butter, as the case may be.
"As more and more people find themselves working at jobs that are in fact beneath their abilities, as leisure and sociability themselves take on the qualities of work, the posture of cynical detachment becomes the dominant style of everyday intercourse. Many forms of popular art appeal to this sense of knowingness and thereby reinforce it. They parody familiar roles and themes, inviting the audience to consider itself superior to its surroundings. Popular forms begin to parody themselves: Westerns take off on Westerns; soap operas like Fernwood, Soap, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman assure the viewer of his own sophistication by mocking the conventions of soap opera. Yet much popular art remains romantic and escapist, eschews this theater of the absurd, and promises escape from routine instead of ironic detachment. Advertising and popular romance dazzle their audiences with visions of rich experience and adventure. They promise not cynical detachment but a piece of the action, a part in the drama instead of cynical spectatorship. Emma Bovary, prototypical consumer of mass culture, still dreams; and her dreams, shared by millions, intensify dissatisfaction with jobs and social routine.
Unreflective accommodation to routine becomes progressively more difficult to achieve. While modern industry condemns people to jobs that insult their intelligence, the mass culture of romantic escape fills their heads with visions of experience beyond their means--beyond their emotional and imaginative capacity as well--and thus contributes to a further devaluation of routine. The disparity between romance and reality, the world of the beautiful people and the workaday world, gives rise to an ironic detachment that dulls pain but also cripples the will to change social conditions, to make even modest improvement in work and play, and to restore meaning and dignity to everyday life."
The pantheon of art is not a timeless present that presents itself to a pure aesthetic consciousness, but the act of a mind and spirit that has collected and gathered itself historically. Our experience of the aesthetic too is a mode of self-understanding. Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the unity and integrity of the other. Since we meet the artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it, and this means that we sublate (aufheben) the discontinuity and atomism of isolated experiences in the continuity of our own existence. For this reason, we must adopt a standpoint in relation to art and the beautiful that does not pretend to immediacy but corresponds to the historical nature of the human condition. The appeal to immediacy, to the instantaneous flash of genius, to the significance of "experiences" (Erlebnisse), cannot withstand the claim of human existence to continuity and unity of self-understanding. The binding quality of the experience (Erfahrung) of art must not be disintegrated by aesthetic consciousness.
This negative insight, positively expressed, is that art is knowledge and experiencing an artwork means sharing in that knowledge.
Two columns by Gary Schwartz made me want to post a little when I first read them, and since they're still in my mind, why not now? The most recent tackles what he calls "cultural asymmetry":
Half my teachers in high school and college were first- or second-generation immigrants from Europe. At New York University many of my fellow students were ex-GIs with tours of duty in Europe or Asia behind them. These were powerful experiences for millions of young Americans, leaving them with memories of foreign places and knowledge of foreign languages that they brought back not just to sophisticated New York but to its three-by-two-thousand-mile large hinterland. Few Europeans or Asians of their age had first-hand knowledge of America.
In the decades that followed, those savvy Americans established a Pax Americana and made use of their foreign street smarts to sell their films and music, goods, services and politics abroad. Compare that to the world of a mere fifty years later. From a Dwight D. Eisenhower to an American president who had never been out of the country before he was elected, congressmen who cannot travel abroad because their security cannot be guaranteed, a passportless populace. All the savvy now belongs to millions of young people abroad who have spent time in America.
As an émigré from America, Dr. Schwartz probably is more attuned to this dynamic than many of us back at home, and if there's a bit of simplification involved--it is a newspaper column--his story still rings true. I'm reminded of one of the points that Arnaldo Momgliano makes in Alien Wisdom: for all their intellectual achievements, the Greeks never bothered to learn the languages and ways of those peoples who didn't take the trouble to learn Greek and explain themselves within that language. In the end, the Romans, who did learn Greek, knew and understood the people whom they conquered, but the Greeks never really knew them.
A curator in an Amsterdam museum told me recently that the manager had
actually forbidden his curators to work on what he called
“collection-related” projects. The writing is on the wall.
While jaw-dropping, I don't doubt this troubling anecdote. I'm not entirely sure it represents the wave of the future, however, or at least, not exactly in the form (special exhibitions vs. permanent collections) offered. Loan exhibitions, especially ones involving multiple venues and works with high insurance values, are a rickety business themselves. The costs of insurance and shipping are skyrocketing, while the payoffs are often uncertain save for the most solid of prospects. Outside of the biggest institutions and certain sure things, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the coming years exhibit a certain retrenchment on the part of museums. Collections-related projects that can be made into exhibitions may come to be all they can afford. Which isn't an entirely happy thought either, but such is the world today.
Having disagreed in small measure with the column, let me say that I think Dr. Schwartz is spot-on when he writes that
People really do not always know what’s good for them. I have never
gotten over the shock of the complete disappearance of ocean liners on
the North Atlantic route, which for the price of a few nights in a
hotel offered a quality of experience that can never be matched by the
airplanes that replaced them.
I really, really wish it was still possible to travel to Europe on an ocean liner, and not only because flying scares the heck out of me. It just sounds like the best. And would it be too much to note that the English language edition of The Rembrandt Book will be out in October, and can be pre-ordered now? An excellent reading choice for the last months of the Rembrandt year, if I may say so. Amazon should update their info, however; Form Follows Dysfunction hasn't existed for some years.
Just a day after I finished last week's post on Aesthetics After Modernism, the copy I ordered of Peter Fuller's Modern Painters arrived. So I've been getting a full dose of the man's writings and enjoying it greatly. Do you feel that today's art criticism is thin, milquetoast stuff, afraid of offering judgments or crossing the conventional wisdom? You'll have no worries when you pick up a book by Fuller:
In 1989 I contributed to the colloquium, "The Church and the Visual Arts today: partnership or estrangement?", organised at Winchester Cathedral by Canon Keith Walker. I was appalled to see men of the church apparently nodding in agreement when a member of the staff of the Tate Gallery encouraged them to believe that Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol were among the greatest spiritual artists of our time. I had a vision of lurid stained glass windows with titles like Marilyn and Dick Seed rising about the altars of parish churchs and cathedrals throughout the land.
When my turn came to speak I tried to tell the assembled clerics about the ethical, aesthetic and spiritual bankruptcy of the institutions of contemporary art. I argued that it was up to the churches to rehabilitate the idea of the transcendent in art. It was not their task to condone the ubiquitous symptoms of anasthesia and spiritual bankruptcy which pass for art in the modern world. I don't think my words counted for much . . .
He sounds almost surprised at the reaction. Or even better, here he is, spoiling for a fight, taunting American writers for ignoring Patrick Heron's argument that American art of the '60s was influenced by earlier developments in British art: "Where, one wonders, is the considered response from an American critic or art historian? After all, chaps, you've had more than eleven years now." (Irving Sandler, whose Triumph of American Painting Fuller alludes to, did comment in a recent book on Heron's essay, yet seemed unable or unwilling to even grapple with it.) That Fuller managed to maintain a position designed to antagonize most of the art world, and yet not come off as merely out of touch but as a person articulating a very well-maintained, potentially viable aesthetic position, provides one measure of his achievement.
I have not read the entire collection, let alone all of his other books, so while I offer the following criticism, I must admit it may be unfair. The moral seriousness with which Fuller approached his subjects can only be admired. If, as the introduction tells us, he was given to quoting Ruskin's saying, "Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are", what did Fuller like, and what does that tell us about him? Again, I haven't considered all of the judgments the book offers, but two subjects that were of particular concern for him were, following Ruskin, Gothic architecture and British Romantic landscape painting. The former might be considered a more theoretical interest, though it did frame his understanding of what art and architecture should aim to accomplish, while the latter represented a living, ongoing concern.
What strikes me regarding these examples is the degree to which they imply the solitary individual or the unified collective, and downplay in comparison society understood not as a total unit but as a space of interaction. The Gothic cathedral may be the expression of a society, but it is so emphatically as a whole, gathered together before God. The empty landscape, haunted by the question of divine presence or absence, seldom provides a home for more than a few, isolated figures, even in those cases when the viewer does not lend the only human presence. By focusing on art that in different ways seeks to confront ultimate ends, with a degree of intensity and passion that makes other goals seem trivial, Fuller sometimes seems to turn his back on art that speaks of our life or emerges from our life in society. I don't mean social or political art, but art as a sociable affair: the values of wit, charm, and grace, the ways of civilized society, of humanity not looking to God
or Nature but to itself. No doubt this criticism is unfair to the extent that Fuller's understanding of the range of aesthetic experience was intended to cover all human emotions. But given where he chose to focus his attention, it feels accurate nonetheless.
As I have been reading Richard Wilbur lately, I have to say that this tendency on Fuller's part reminded me of the former's famous poem, "Still, Citizen Sparrow". Wilbur gently addresses the sparrow, "childheart," "you who dart in the orchard aisles", asking that he pardon the vulture who "Devours death, mocks mutability". The vulture is beautiful, too, and bears tasks that, while they horrify, provide an end and the promise of a future that the sparrow, who "would have died / Gladly with all you knew", cannot offer. Perhaps not, but we recognize that sparrow in ways that we cannot the vulture. Fuller, like the vulture, shouldered nature; at certain moments, one respects, more than shares, his commitment.
Of course, the man was nothing if not various in his opinions. It's a sad irony that only a few years after his death, British art, which he had done so much to promote and sought to spur, would at last become an international sensation--with work precisely of a kind he would detest.
(Note: I've been trying to write about Peter Fuller's Aesthetics After Modernism for a couple of weeks now. Generally when I take that long on a post, it means it's going to be very long and not very good. Since I haven't even gotten through half of what I intended to write, I'm putting up what I do have as part one, with, I hope, something better to follow.)
I mentioned in comments below that I was reading the late Peter Fuller's Aesthetics After Modernism, which was "widely acclaimed throughout Australia" when he gave it as a speech there in 1982, as the back cover tells me. When I picked it up, the question in my mind was what, if anything, an nearly 25 year old essay, written while postmodernism was in its ascendence, had anything to say to us now. Having now read it, I am left wondering how to describe an effort to lay out a theory of the history of modernism and the future of art, all done under the guidance of evolutionary biology, psychoanalytic theory, Herbert Marcuse, and John Ruskin--in 40 pages. Fuller, truly, was like no other.
Or perhaps not. Without jumping ahead of myself, I have to say that the concluding paragraphs of his small book reminded me quite strongly of a book I frequently return to, Erazim Kohák's The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature. As part of an rather hermetic series of posts (here's one and two), I put up a long quote from that work here, one that touches on some of what I recognized. The next paragraph of the passage from Kohák, which I did not post then, seems even more to the point now:
Sensing the life of the forest around me, I think only a person blinded and deafened, rendered insensitive by the glare and the blare of his own devices, could write off the primordial awareness of the human's integral place in the cosmos as mere poetic imagination or as "merely subjective." The opposite seems far closer to the truth. It is what we are accustomed treating as "objective reality"--the conception of nature as a system of dead matter propelled by blind force--that is in truth the product of a subject's purposeful and strenuous activity, a construct build up in the course of an extended, highly sophisticated abstraction. It is, undeniably, a highly useful construct for accomplishing a whole range of legitimate tasks. Still, it is a construct, not an experiential given. Humans must suspend lived experience to produce the "scientific world view" of physics. Our direct awareness of nature as the meaningful context of our lives, by contrast, presents itself spontaneously, without a subject's effort. If anything, it requires the very opposite: to suspend effort, to let be and listen, letting nature speak. In a real, though not a customary sense, it is what we mislabel "poetic imagination" that is, "objective," a spontaneous experiential given. It is our image of nature as dead and mechanical--and the image of the human as either a robot or a rebel--that is "subjective," a product of the subject's active imagination rather a given of live experience--and actually quite counterintuitive.
Perhaps it's only a shared Romantic impulse, but it's near this ground that the devout Eastern European phenomenologist meets the the more tortured British writer drawn to Ruskin like a moth to flame. I'm not sure when, but there will be more on this soon.
"If left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most certain and the only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death. It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law because it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life, which in its turn, as we saw, interrupted and interfered with the cycle of the biological life process. The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin. Yet just as, from the standpoint of nature, the rectilinear movement of man’s life-span between birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the common natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle. In the language of natural science, it is the 'infinite improbability which occurs regularly.' Action is in fact, the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth, whose insights into this faculty can be compared in their originality and unprecedentedness with Socrates’ insights into the possibilities of thought, must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.
The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, 'natural' ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow on human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human experience which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few word with which the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.'"
Simpleposie has a whole series of art history-minded questions up right now, including this one: "What would you consider to be the value of developing an historical imagination?" Having raised the idea, I suppose I should attempt an answer. First, I have to admit that my use of the phrase was more than a little glib in that all I know about Owen Barfield I learned from Howard Nemerov poems, and I've never read too deeply in Collingwood, either. So the particulars of their thinking don't necessarily concern me. What I suppose I meant was that studying the art of the past gives one a very direct apprehension that whoever made and first looked at these things was, while recognizable to us in all sorts of ways, going about things very differently than we do. What those differences are, what's within the implied scope of understanding of those past persons, what was possible or seemingly natural for them and what was not, what became possible at a different moment - these and a host of other questions come to mind. By seeing and appreciating the differentness of the past, and then to imaginatively attempt to mentally reconstruct it, is something bound up in all sorts of historical practice, but art history lays it out more plainly than most if only because it deals with what is seen.
What's the value of all this? In one sense, not much, if you're not planning to pursue further study in the field, or in a similar one. The usual bromides in favor of historical knowledge (doomed to repeat it, etc.) don't really apply. But developing one's historical sense and imagination does help when trying to understand, as one gets called upon to do, different people in the present. It fosters the qualities of judgement and tact, forbearance balanced by the ability to measure, not to mention an appreciation for the breadth and diversity of human experience, that are valuable in all sorts of ways. Not that it always works out, but nevertheless.
Too much earnestness! Time for some garage rock .mp3s, or if none are handy, Ravenna mosaics. Come on and ride on that fantastic journey. To summon up all of my imaginative power, let me say: cool.